Award-Winning Professors: How We Change Students’ Lives

Award-Winning Professors: How We Change Students’ Lives

Faculty members at the University of Virginia seek to inspire and challenge the next generation, no matter what the discipline. At the same time, most of their students come to class motivated to change the world for the better.

So how do professors help prepare students to find their paths forward?

UVA’s best teachers, recognized Wednesday at a dinner, strive to create “a positive environment for learning,” as kinesiology professor Arthur Weltman put it – classroom environments where students can connect with each other and feel comfortable enough to be wrong. Being accessible is key; professors keep their doors open to students, extending their influence beyond the classroom. They employ both “the art and science” of teaching, as neuroscientist Mary Kate Worden said.

Each year, deans, department chairs and colleagues take the opportunity to recognize excellent teachers through a set of awards, sponsored by the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost. Included in the nomination materials with testimonials from colleagues and students is each faculty member’s unique teaching statement. There, they detail some of their thoughts for nurturing the learning that will benefit students for the rest of their lives.

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Some of 2019’s top teachers have been on Grounds for five years; others, for decades. They also learn from each other and extend their mentoring to junior faculty. According to one nominator, Darden professor Elena Loutskina likes to “work with new faculty, inviting them to observe her teaching and sharing the tips she has learned over the years. She will observe new faculty and offer detailed feedback that a number have noted resulted in a great start to their career.”

Some younger faculty – like Shane Davis, an assistant professor of astronomy – credit the Course Design Institute, run by UVA’s Center for Teaching Excellence, with helping them develop more interactive teaching methods, even in large lecture courses.

“Our teaching award winners provide a snapshot of the wonderful work that our distinguished faculty do every day in the classroom,” said Archie Holmes, vice provost for academic affairs and professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Through their efforts, they create and support classroom and learning environments which engage all students and help them fully develop their talents, discover their passion, and engage in self-discovery so that they are prepared for leadership in their professional and personal lives.”

Thirteen faculty winners were honored at Wednesday’s event, which also included a new group of award-winners recognized for their public service activity.

The University also bestows awards upon a medical resident for teaching medical students, and graduate students who’ve excelled at their early experiences teaching undergraduates.

The list of faculty winners and some of their best advice follows.

Cavaliers’ Distinguished Teaching Professorship: Arthur Weltman, Professor of Kinesiology, Curry School of Education and Human Development

During his 34 years at UVA, Weltman has led the Curry School’s exercise physiology program; Curry School Dean Robert Pianta appointed him the founding chair of the new Department of Kinesiology in 2013. He has trained scientists in exercise intervention and influenced thousands of students. He has been recognized by the Seven Society and the Z Society for his passion and devotion to teaching at the University.

Arthur Weltman
Arthur Weltman (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

My classroom and mentoring philosophy is based on two tenets: challenge students to learn and achieve to the best of their abilities and provide a positive environment for learning. … I strive to provide a positive environment for learning by using a variety of teaching methods to impart knowledge, providing real-world examples relevant to material we are covering, and allowing students to experience the exercise physiology concepts firsthand. Students have commented that although the rigor and standards I set for courses I teach are high, they are appreciative of the fact that I find ways to get them to perform and learn at levels they didn’t anticipate being possible.

I am also committed to advising, as a considerable amount of learning occurs outside of the classroom. I currently advise about 75 undergraduate and graduate students. I helped to initiate both peer and alumni mentoring programs. … I continue to serve as a resource for students long after they graduate.

Alumni Association Distinguished Professor Award: Elena Loutskina, Associate Professor of Finance, Darden School of Business

A colleague once told me that in teaching students, he aims to “include, invite, and inspire.” This message shaped the foundations of my teaching approach. In teaching one of the “threatening” subject matters, finance, my biggest challenge is to push the most experienced students without disenfranchising the rest of the class. Everyone should feel valued and see clearly what they learn in class. The key is a nonthreatening class environment where everyone, experienced or not, feels empowered to share their ideas, brainstorm, make mistakes, laugh, and eventually learn.

Elena Loutskina (Photo by Tom Cogill)

I strive to generate meaningful dialogue among students in which they must teach each other. By explaining their thinking to a group of highly educated professionals, my students are pushed to think critically, to form concise arguments, to receive feedback on their ideas, and to incorporate constructive criticism into their thinking. It energizes class discussion and deepens the learning experience. Such dialogue allows students with different goals and backgrounds to find the conversation enriching and educational. It also teaches them humility as they learn to be wrong.

Alumni Board of Trustees Teaching Award: Shankar Nair, Assistant Professor of Islamic and South Asian Studies, College of Arts & Sciences

Nair’s faculty post is in the Department of Religious Studies, and he also has an appointment in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures.

Shankar Nair (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

[A high school teacher] handed me a suggested reading: the Buddhist tale of a beloved Tibetan yogi, “The Life of Milarepa.” The book changed my life, opening me up, for the first time, to seriously and existentially reflect upon grand questions of the human condition: suffering, contentment, remorse, redemption, virtue and vice. … My overall goal in the classroom is to furnish an environment for similar “transformative moments.”

I aim to train students in a two-part skill vital for global citizenship: a sympathetic-critical capacity. Through confronting unfamiliar Muslim or Hindu perspectives, students learn the art of identifying and temporarily “bracketing” their presuppositions, striving to view the world, as much as possible, “through another’s eyes.” Once this “sympathetic” understanding has been achieved, students may then step back and critically evaluate the material at hand – perhaps rejecting it, perhaps learning from it, but doing both from a position of deep knowledge rather than knee-jerk aversion. Students are free in my classroom to be believers or atheists, moral relativists or absolutists, but they should leave my course having more fully interrogated the positions they ultimately hold, and with a fuller capacity for coexisting and engaging those who see the world differently.

All-University Teaching Award: Shane Davis, Assistant Professor of Astronomy, College of Arts & Sciences

The Course Design Institute [offered by UVA’s Center for Teaching Excellence] motivated me to make class more interactive, lowering the emphasis on passive activities, like lectures, and encouraging greater participation inside and outside of class. I created a new introductory-level “Black Holes” course that, while still a work in progress, is both a popular and effective introduction to astronomy.

Shane Davis (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

My “Black Holes” course is also my biggest challenge, as I need to explain complex material (Einstein’s theories!) without a good introductory-level textbook. Despite having 130 students and only one teaching assistant, I designed the course to be as interactive as possible. Using short in-class discussion exercises and blogs, I encourage students to examine together scientific principles and methods. I also lead optional discussion sessions on the physics depicted in the film “Interstellar,” a tradition started with funding from my Mead “dream idea” award.

All-University Teaching Award: George Geis, Thomas F. Bergin Teaching Professor of Law, School of Law

I want students to be comfortable, and I try to leaven my classroom with humor. I seek to be as cheerful as possible, because I think the best learning happens when students are not petrified about the experience.

Yet I also believe strongly in a rigorous examination of the issues. That’s why we’re here. There are right and wrong answers in business law, and students need to know the difference.

George Geis (Photo courtesy University of Virginia School of Law)

I seek to bring both parts of my teaching philosophy together through extensive use of practical applications. In business law, application is the best way to hammer home most concepts and to see how legal rules work in the varying contexts of the real world. It can also be amazingly fun. I quiz students about whether a lease contract prohibiting a competing “sandwich shop” applies to Qdoba (Is a burrito a sandwich?). I hand out fact-rich newspaper stories about bribery allegations at Walmart, insider trading complaints against my former consulting bosses at McKinsey, and the latest Twitter musings of Elon Musk at Tesla. I then ask students to evaluate each situation and argue different sides of the case. Did this behavior really violate the law? I think that nothing illuminates the nuanced facets of law better than a rich discussion of open-ended problems.

All-University Teaching Award: Geoffrey Geise, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Science

I have introduced new classroom activities and practices to enhance student engagement during class and with the course content in general. Throughout the semester, I periodically spend a few minutes discussing the historical context and/or the people responsible for the concepts/principles/innovations that we cover. Students have told me that this helps to build a sense that they are working toward joining a professional community.

Geoffrey Geise (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

I have transitioned toward a classroom model of focused problem-solving – as opposed to lecturing on material for the entire class period. This approach emphasizes the importance of understanding core concepts by demonstrating how those core concepts are used to solve practical engineering problems.

As chemical engineering core courses are typically intense, I have found it is critical to connect the course material to applications that are of interest to the students. I have done this at the undergraduate level by incorporating discussion about current state-of-the-art applications of chemical engineering into class discussions and by assigning a “choose your own chemical engineering adventure” assignment, where students are encouraged to connect the course material to their own interests.

All-University Teaching Award: Kirsten Gelsdorf, Professor of Practice and Director of Global Humanitarian Policy, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy

When I finish designing a syllabus or a lecture, I ask myself, “In addition to knowledge and skills, what emotions may my students confront in this class; and will this combination of knowledge, skill and emotion provide an opportunity for them to discover their connectedness to each other and the world?”

Kirsten Gelsdorf (contributed photo)

Even in a lecture with 200 students, can each student feel engaged in such a way that they can confront divisive topics and not only think about how they form their opinions, but also the perspectives of others? One way I do this is to help students not only develop their writing, reading and speaking skills, but also explore the skill of listening. Students are asked to be aware of the different styles of listening they employ – autobiographical listening, surface listening, solution-oriented listening, deep listening, etc. They do exercises where they pair up to do radical listening and really dive into the opinions and beliefs of another student. They also have to think about how their listening state impacts their ability to absorb information and form conclusions.

Students also take part in small, in-class group debates on controversial unanswered policy questions. They often have to take positions that are not their own, or work with prompts such as: make an argument that includes empathy and justice and then make the same argument trying not to use any emotion, but relaying compelling data and evidence. This hopefully not only tests rigor, their knowledge of the issue and their ability to persuasively communicate a position, but also helps them further understand their beliefs and biases.

All-University Teaching Award: Andrew Mondschein, Assistant Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, School of Architecture

The classes I teach can primarily be recognized as skills-building: how to plan transportation systems, how to make transportation more equitable and sustainable, or how to analyze an urban planning issue. I love teaching students to do something they previously could not, in the process linking idealism to effective practice.

Andrew Mondschein (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

However, the study of methods and professional practice is more than simple training; it can be a conduit to contextualization and productive critique of the profession itself. I strive to help students rethink their assumptions and those of their chosen professions, hopefully giving them the motivation to become leaders as well as practitioners. To achieve this, I emphasize a combination of experiential learning, reflective exercises and thoughtful debate, even in my most “practical” classes.

Assignments frequently take on real-world planning problems, from walkable neighborhoods to automated vehicles, engaging practitioners in Charlottesville and beyond. (You can also find us, at times, holding class on the street, in a parking garage, or on the trolley.) While reflective readings and lectures provide context and critique, I encourage students, in their intellectual and human diversity, to rethink what transportation systems and practice can and should provide for society.

All-University Teaching Award: Jennifer Pease, Assistant Professor of Curriculum, Instruction and Special Education, Curry School of Education and Human Development

There is no such thing as a “perfect” lesson – content, contexts and students are constantly changing, requiring me to continually reflect, adapt, improve. After more than two decades in classrooms across a range of different settings, I have cultivated and refined a set of deep-seated principles that inform and guide my work with students.

Relationships serve as the foundation for positive and productive learning. … By nurturing a positive classroom community in which students regularly interact with one another and actively engage with the content, I foster a space that allows for collaboration and intellectual risk-taking.

Jennifer Pease (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Challenge and rigor, coupled with support and feedback, foster deep engagement and lead to meaningful growth. Students in my teacher education courses complete large-scale, authentic assessments that mirror the daily work of teaching. … Breaking the tasks down into manageable chunks and providing appropriate timely instruction allows students to cultivate the skills and knowledge needed to take their next steps.

Throughout my teaching, I aim to incorporate research-based practices that promote learning, and I seek to make these practices transparent and evident for my students so they can begin to think about how to translate them in their own future teaching.

All-University Teaching Award: Isaac Ariail Reed, Associate Professor of Sociology, College of Arts & Sciences

I view my teaching as a success if I can turn students from mere consumers of knowledge to active producers of knowledge themselves. I thus teach both reading the historical record, and arguing about the social and political theories scholars have constructed to understand that record, as active skills. Furthermore, to facilitate the link between scholarship and the world our undergraduate students will enter when they leave UVA, I ask the students in my advanced undergraduate seminars to bring to class texts (usually journalistic, published in the last two years) that relate events in the world to the issues addressed in the reading that week. Everyone in the seminar reads these texts, and after a brief introduction by the student who identified the text, we engage in extended discussion – and, if we are lucky, significant disagreement.

Isaac Ariail Reed (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Professors should learn enough about our students’ outlooks on the world, passions and plans such that, in some small way, we can become active agents working on behalf of their future selves. This will entail asking challenging, open-ended intellectual questions in class discussion, and engaging in arguments such that different perspectives emerge over the course of each class session. It means asking them repeatedly, indeed annoyingly often, to write about the reading they have done – perhaps in a way they were not expecting. And it means fostering an atmosphere of intellectual engagement in which the fierceness of argument and disagreement, on the one hand, and the civil care and recognition of each other as full persons, on the other, always go together.

All-University Teaching Award: Amrisha Vaish, Assistant Professor of Psychology, College of Arts & Sciences

Connections are key to learning and growth. Neuropsychology shows us that the brain learns by making connections between brain cells and between brain regions. Cognitive psychology shows us that deep conceptual learning happens when we connect new information with what we already know and with the real world. As a psychologist, I take these findings to heart. My educational philosophy is thus to make and encourage connections.

Amrisha Vaish (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

I guide students in connecting the small picture of the material to the big picture of ideas and enduring questions. For instance, when describing physical features of infants (big eyes, round face), I point out that adults find these features irresistibly cute. Students inevitably smile, thinking, “Yes, babies are cute!” I then ask them why natural selection resulted in cute babies. Now a palpable change occurs as students realize that babies’ cuteness serves a function: holding the attention and affection of caregivers! By connecting a small developmental principle to the big picture of human evolution, students come to appreciate child development as part of the larger system of our species.

But perhaps the best example is my recent seminar on “Morality & Honor.” As a 2017 Mead Honored Faculty, I designed this course to shed scientific light on UVA’s honor system. We read widely about moral psychology, and used those lenses to ask questions about our honor system, including why students may cheat or fail to report violators. Students identified questions they cared about, proposed studies to answer them, and are conducting those studies in my lab. I thus brought research to the classroom; used ideas from the classroom to inspire further research; and pushed students to think deeply about the honor system, education, and ethics. Such multi-faceted connections foster a love of scientific inquiry and its deep relevance to all of our lives.

All-University Teaching Award: Mary Kate Worden, Associate Professor of Medical Education and Neuroscience, School of Medicine

Teaching is both an art and a science.

The artistry of classroom teaching lies in recognizing how students are responding in real time to the instructor, and deciding how best to use class time to balance the needs and preferences of each student demographic. … Whatever teaching approach I use with a student, or group of students, I am daily hoping for a “light bulb” moment that brightens their faces(s), signifying that they suddenly do understand, do make the connection, do see the bigger picture.

Mary Kate Worden (Contributed photo)

The science of teaching requires teachers to embrace the idea that students learn best when they are active participants in constructing their own knowledge. … Over the years I have developed, or helped colleagues develop, many types of collaborative, “active learning” exercises that prompt students to analyze biomedical data, evaluate alternative possibilities and justify their reason to others. Whether these take the form of problem sets, lab dissections or team based learning exercises, I structure these sessions to help students build confidence and recognize any limitations to their knowledge and understanding of course material.

Excellence in Education Abroad Award: Esther Lorenz, Assistant Professor of Architecture, School of Architecture

In my teaching abroad, I strive to choreograph students’ experiences to intensify their process of discovery and learning through the structure and sequence of the travel itinerary and day-to-day program. In the abroad programs I teach, direct experience becomes instrumental as a basis for empirical urban and architectural research, which may involve an entire day of moving through Hong Kong’s topography and urban space on foot and public transport, attending prayers at a mosque in Yiwu and a service at a cathedral in Guangzhou, or walking the two-mile-long International Trade City along thousands of small shops and interacting with the vendors. The spaces, activities and relations are then represented, explored and analyzed through three-dimensional architectural drawing. In conjunction with literary and data research, these experiences form the basis for a deep, embodied understanding of the interplay between geography, society and culture, politics and economy, and the local and global, in the formation of built and lived environments.

Esther Lorenz (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

My design of the syllabus seeks to guide the synthesizing process for students. Curiosity is crucial in instigating this process, and my teaching strives to harness, cultivate and sustain students’ curiosity as a constructive approach to otherness and the unknown.

Graduate Teaching Awards

These winners were honored at an April 17 reception.

Distinguished Graduate Teaching Award for Arts and Humanities: Brett Evans, classics

Distinguished Graduate Teaching Award for Social Sciences: Jessica Kansky, psychology

Distinguished Graduate Teaching Award for STEM Fields: Zachary Carson, physics

Frank Finger Graduate Fellowship for Teaching: Dallas Tatman, religious studies

Class of 1985 Fellowship for Creative Teaching: Sophie Abramowitz, English

School of Medicine Resident Teaching Award: Dr. David Lobb

All-University Graduate Teaching Awards:

  • Robin Costello, Biology
  • Jaime Hartless, Sociology
  • Katie Knaus, Biomedical Engineering
  • Eva Latterner, English
  • James Phillips, Mathematics
  • Jennifer Simons, Politics
  • Andrew Taylor, Religious Studies
  • Bailey Troia, Sociology
  • Kapila Wijayaratne, Physics
  • Jingcai Ying, Politics 

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