Award-Winning Teachers Share Their Secrets: ‘Involve Me, and I Learn’

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“Involve me, and I learn.”

Those wise words from Benjamin Franklin are quoted by one of this year’s award-winning teachers at the University of Virginia. These 14 top teachers have developed a variety of ways to involve their students, emphasizing the importance of experiential learning – whether that happens in solving mathematical problems or encountering different cultures.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the usual celebratory All-University Teaching Awards dinner, so staff members in the provost’s office, which sponsors the faculty awards for teaching and for public service, devised another plan. Many of the award recipients found out, at the end of March and the first days of April, through the most common vehicle for conducting courses online: Vice Provost Louis Nelson surprised them by dropping into their class meetings on the Zoom platform.

“It became pretty obvious that interrupting the Zoom classes with some really positive news and having their students, even virtually, be an audience for the celebration of our faculty and their excellence would be an important initiative,” said Nelson, who had never done something like this before. “In the midst of an incredibly intense series of days, after making decisions around pivoting to online learning, the importance of engaging the humanity of the work that we do rose to the surface.”

Across the board, the experience was great, Nelson said. The students, with audio on mute, started jumping into the chat screens, sending little messages and using the digital reactions provided in the Zoom app – a thumbs up or hands clapping. The screens were “wonderfully alive with celebration. It was really a delight to see,” he said.

“The clear emotive power, sometimes the silence, or sometimes the very few words from the faculty member afterward, [showed] that we were touching the human need of affirmation in situations of real stress, tension, anxiety and crisis.

“It was really important for the students to see this,” Nelson added. “The students want [to know] the collective experience, the communal experience of the University is still in play. To have the University invade their class was a reminder that the University still exists. You could see that on the students’ faces.

“They also, of course, just love their professors.”

Here are the recipients of UVA’s top awards for faculty members and some of their ideas – presented in their own words – that show how dedicated they are to their students.

(Public service awards for faculty projects, initiated last year, will be covered in an upcoming UVA Today article.)

Cavaliers’ Distinguished Teaching Professorship Award

 • Farzaneh Milani, Professor of Iranian Studies in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures and Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality 

Farzaneh Milani came to UVA as an assistant professor in 1986, and over the years has chaired the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, directed the Middle East Studies Program and directed the program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality before it became its own department. Among the many courses she created are some that had never before been taught on Grounds, including “Non-Western Feminisms,” “Border Crossings: Islam, Women, and Literature in the Middle East and North Africa” and “From Cinderella to Barbie: Women and Beauty Cross-Culturally.”

A lover of literature, especially poetry (she has translated several volumes of poetry written by Iranian women from Persian into English), Milani continues to take that devotion into the classroom, where thousands of students have appreciated her brilliance and passion.

“On the wing of words, I crossed borders without a passport, traveled to faraway lands, met different people, and commuted between different countries. And when I began to teach, almost four decades ago, I made sharing that reverent love for literature the cornerstone of my teaching philosophy while creating in my classes a safe and borderless space – a community of fellow travelers who have free passage to unfamiliar territories. 

“Teaching is always a joint venture with my students, a collaborative effort, a shared experience. On the magic carpet of books, we go from one country to another, from one universe of definitions and conventions to another. We leave our comfort zones and go beyond familiar stereotypes. By visiting different countries, we learn that other cultures and languages, other faiths and rituals are no less complex, no less paradoxical, no less worthy subjects of inquiry than our own.”

Alumni Association Distinguished Professor Award

• Robert Tai, Associate Professor, Curry School of Education and Human Development

Since 2001, Tai has taught multiple sections of a required course, “Science in Elementary School,” in addition to research and graduate-student mentorship. He insists that his students learn science concepts through hands-on experience so they’ll be well-equipped to teach science. One activity that has become well-known is his annual NESTA (National Egganautics and Space Transportation Administration) egg launch outside Ruffner Hall. Students in groups of two or three build a rocket-like container for a raw egg and launch it from a 6-foot catapult. The goal is to design something so the egg will land safely without breaking.

“Based on a review of hundreds of existing science curricula, active learning approaches fall into seven categories: 1) collaborating; 2) competing; 3) discovering; 4) creating/making; 5) performing; 6) caretaking; and 7) teaching. The lessons in my course include various combinations of the seven active learning categories.

“Using a short diagnostic survey at the beginning of my course, I gauge my students’ preferences for activities from these seven different categories. … The aim of this survey is not to design lessons to avoid engaging students in activities they do not prefer, but rather to allow me to pay especially close attention to students who have indicated that they do not like to do a particular activity so that I may do more to engage and encourage them in those types of activities. Comparing pre- and post-course survey responses, I often see that many students have shifted in a positive direction regarding their learning activity preferences.”

Alumni Board of Trustees Teaching Award      

• Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner, Assistant Professor of Politics and Global Studies, Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics

Kruks-Wisner, in her fourth year of teaching at UVA, grounds political theory in real-world applications in courses such as “Citizens & States” and “Grassroots Politics,” among others.

“All of my classes, no matter the size, are discussion-intensive, and incorporate in-class activities, group projects and student-led research. I find this approach to be indispensable, since it draws students in as active learners (to paraphrase Ben Franklin: ‘Tell me, I forget; teach me, I remember; involve me, I learn.’).

 “In ‘Global Development Theory,’ for example, we hold two formal debates in which students are randomly assigned to a position (whether they agree with it or not) – an experience that helps many to later better articulate their own views. 

“I am informed by my training in comparative politics, which pushes me to look for patterns across settings worldwide; this global framing is reflected in all my syllabi. At the same time, I strive to ground my classes at home, using Virginia, Charlottesville and UVA’s Grounds as sites of, and for, investigation. My undergraduate class, ‘Grassroots Politics,’ for example, brings in speakers from the community, and requires students to attend local meetings (many have commented that attending a City Council meeting is a highlight of the semester).” 

Excellence in Education Abroad Award

• Ira Harris, Professor of Management, McIntire School of Commerce

Globalization of the McIntire curriculum has been one of the most important strategic initiatives for the school. For years, Harris, who joined the Commerce School faculty in 2003, led this charge in the school’s M.S. in Commerce program, designing and leading the “Global Immersion Experience” courses. He and his colleagues, who also teach in the global program, redesign these courses every year, as current events change and some countries rise in relevance in a particular year.

“My teaching philosophy is the same for all of my courses, and has been especially vital in guiding my work on curriculum development for the M.S. in Commerce program and monthlong travel courses (destinations including Austria, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, France, Hungary, Morocco, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and United Kingdom).

“My teaching philosophy is strongly influenced by my view of the university’s place in society – to teach students how to think and become productive citizens. … I strive to fortify their thinking and decision-making skills to equip them to interpret biases and interests in settings configured to sway thinking. Foremost, I stress the importance of context and power of recognizing non-obvious relationships/patterns. I prioritize experiential learning and problem-solving skills to help students to develop the fundamental skill of asking key questions.

“Our students, like all of society, are facing a world where the availability of information is vast, but increasingly difficult to find truth. This increased ‘noise’ bears heavily on my teaching approach. As I deliver new course material, I focus specifically on identifying root causes and clarity of the broader phenomenon. Whether the task is analysis of global economic development, formulation of robust business models or interplay between local culture and business practices, my central theme is highlighting the importance of drilling down to the relevant set of facts in order to inform our decision-making.”

All-University Teaching Awards

Paul Bourdon, Professor of Mathematics, College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Bourdon was hired in 2014 to transform the calculus program, using a more interactive approach, and he has more than succeeded, say his nominators and students. Besides those who major in math – and there are more than 230 majors – students in biology, social sciences and business must take calculus. As one student said, “He’s what you’d hope to get in all professors.”

“Mathematics is the science of patterns. … I want students in all my classes to experience the excitement of the search for and recognition of patterns, the challenge of describing patterns precisely, and the satisfaction derived from explaining why patterns are valid. Patterns are typically discovered and investigated in response to problems – those concerning the ‘real world’ (e.g., can quantum entanglement be used as a communications resource?) and those about mathematical objects themselves (e.g., are there infinitely many pairs of prime numbers differing by 2?).

“I try to make my advice general: summarize in your own words; self-quiz; reflect on which methods of studying work for you and which do not; asking a question is as important as answering a question; work with others on homework sets; errors are beautiful – we learn much more when we identify and correct errors than when we nod through a presentation of perfect work. I hope to assist my students in becoming expert learners as well as better problem-solvers.”

Gabriel Finder, Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and of Jewish Studies, College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

At UVA since 2008, Finder teaches Jewish studies, including courses about the Holocaust, and directed the Jewish studies program for 7½ years.

“To my mind, my courses have become even more relevant in the last decade because of the crisis in which democracy finds itself. Large numbers of people feel indifferent to others and lack the capacity to imagine and reimagine the lives of others. If I, given my interest in European Jewry and the Holocaust, can offer my students something distinctive, it is, I feel, to help them cultivate empathy for people who lived in the past and thus, by extrapolation, to help them cultivate empathy for people today who are different from themselves. Of course, I want to help my students comprehend the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust and of the other victims of Nazism and other tyrannical regimes. But equally important to me is to help them see how Jews have negotiated social interstices in an effort to feel welcome, even when others have gone to great lengths to stress that Jews belong somewhere else.

“If we want to help prepare young people to become leaders in a hopeful future, we must take advantage of our distinct opportunity in the classroom to foster their capacity for both critical thinking and empathy. This outlook informs my approach to teaching.”

Michael Gilbert, Professor and Martha Lubin Karsh & Bruce A. Karsh Bicentennial Professor of Law, School of Law

In addition to being a Law School professor, Gilbert is a member of the UVA Democracy Initiative’s Corruption Lab on Ethics, Accountability, and the Rule of Law (known as CLEAR).

He teaches election law, statutory interpretation, law and economics, and related courses. Despite these challenging topics, his courses are oversubscribed. One former student said, “The lessons from his classroom have made me a better lawyer. ... They have also made me a better citizen.”

“Instead of a grand theory of teaching, I have enthusiasm and a checklist.

“First, I try to be kind. As a student, I saw ‘The Paper Chase’ [a 1973 film about law school] model of law teaching – stern, formal, aloof – up close, and it rarely worked. I learned much more from professors with whom I felt comfortable. So, I strive to be open and collegial, to welcome every student into the fold, and to make myself approachable, both in class and outside of it. I teach a big course on charged topics (voting rights and campaign finance). When diverse students in the room have a peaceful discussion, it feels like a victory.

“Second, I strive to be respectful. … Third, I am rigorous. Yes, I want the students to be comfortable and relaxed. But I also want to sharpen their legal minds into razors. … Here’s one last commitment: I strive to be interesting. Law can seem so dry. But if you scratch a little, profound questions always lurk. The case about voter ID laws isn’t just about homelessness and drivers’ licenses (though that’s all important). It’s about every voting law, from Alabama to Afghanistan, that aims to secure elections but, paradoxically, might skew their results. I always appreciated and remembered best the material that connected to the wider world. I try to make those connections in my classroom.”

Carrie Heilman, Associate Professor of Marketing, McIntire School of Commerce

Heilman, who came to UVA in 2003, teaches a sequence of courses on promotion and branding, as well as integrated marketing campaigns, at the McIntire School. The business education website Poet & Quants named her one of the “Top 50 Undergraduate Professors” in 2018.

“On the first day classes, I tell my students that if their biggest concern is their grades, then they are probably in the wrong class. While I acknowledge that grades are important, and I do teach them the fundamentals of marketing, branding and advertising strategy, I believe some of the most important lessons students learn from my classes transcend grades. For example, I teach them that finding answers to the wrong questions is wasteful. Albert Einstein once said, ‘If I had 60 minutes to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes solving it.’ Therefore, I spend a lot of time teaching students the importance of identifying the right questions to answer before diving in to answer them. I also teach them that mediocre work is not acceptable; the importance of being over-prepared; that passion is as valuable as knowledge and skills; that ‘showing up,’ even when they may not want to, is critical to their own success and to the success of those around them; and – my favorite – that you only learn from your failures, so take risks and fail often.

“I am fortunate that the Promotions class, which revolves around the National Student Advertising Competition, involves solving a real problem for a new client each year. Because of this, I am able to ‘teach by example’ as I solve real problems alongside my students. But it has also made me realize that experiential learning is the most valuable kind of learning.”

Ashley Hurst, Assistant Professor, Department of Acute and Specialty Care, School of Nursing

Hurst is not your typical nursing professor. In addition to a law degree, she earned a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School and then a master’s in religious studies at UVA, concentrating in ethics. She now teaches nursing students about ethics in health care and a similar elective course that draws students from other schools and departments. She also serves as a clinical ethicist for the UVA Medical Center.

“I am an accidental professor and an anomaly: a former employment discrimination attorney with no formal health care background who teaches ethics-related classes at the School of Nursing. Despite this, I belong, and this is at the heart of my teaching philosophy. Difference does not preclude belonging; it is the basis for it. Much of contemporary society celebrates a stultifying sameness, which seeks to downplay difference and penalize divergence. My difference is welcomed at the School of Nursing, and this is what I teach in my classes – a sense of belonging that can not only withstand difference, but also embrace it and learn from it.

“I want my teaching to be grounded in their reality, not just theory. As we discuss my cases, they see what a non-clinician (me) sees in a clinical dilemma – what is often unseen or unvoiced in favor of clinical data. My different perspective combines with theirs to find a way forward when there seems no right answer. This is tool I want them to have in practice – to bring both their clinical knowledge and their attention to the unseen and unspoken to advance health care.”

Sara Maloni, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

In her fourth year in the mathematics department, Maloni already teaches a variety of topics, including an introduction to research that has led some students to pursue the Distinguished Majors Program in math or go on to graduate school. She founded UVA’s chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics and seeks to overturn stereotypes about mathematicians. Maloni also started a directed reading program that pairs graduate and undergraduate students in mentoring relationships.

“A fundamental point in my classes is to teach respect for each other, emphasizing how everyone gains from a more diverse and inclusive environment. I would like the students to see the community as a support and not as source of competition, to show them how they can learn from each other, as well as how much I can learn from them. I underline this message in [an assignment called] Homework #0, thanks to a few passages from Victor Hugo, Martin Luther King, and D.-L. Stewart [an educator specializing in multicultural competence]. … This engages them and connects us.

“In my classes I aim to generate enthusiasm and excitement first by example, and second, by explaining how mathematics is connected with other fields and the real world, and not as an isolated subject.

“I also want to communicate how mathematics is based on logical thinking and how, at its core, is the discovery of how things work, and not the memorization and application of given formulas, as too often mathematics is taught. I strongly believe in student-focused and problem-oriented learning, so I make the classes very interactive and ask students to take an active role by solving exercises in groups, and questioning everything they learn.”

Paul Martin, Associate Professor, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy

Martin came to UVA as a visiting professor in 2004 in the Department of Politics, then joined the Miller Center of Public Affairs, and became a member of the start-up team when the Batten School was created in 2008.

“I increasingly think of teaching through the metaphor of policy design. If I design the class well, students will find opportunities to learn, will want to engage the materials, and will leave the class with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Design depends on three elements: an appreciation of students’ intellectual, emotional, and cultural space; careful crafting of assignments, projects, and readings that aim to structure student attention; and daily teaching that models high standards combined with compassion.

“In the public policy world, we craft polices and institutions to shape incentives and behavior. … I spend considerable energy on designing projects that will push students to apply course material to new situations: my ‘Project First Gen+ @ UVA’ class conducted focus groups with other low-income and first-generation students at the University; my ‘From Inequality to Action’ class works to identify sources of inequality at the University and to advocate for policy action in response; ‘NGOs & The Policy Arena’ works with a local foundation to make $100,000 in grants each year to community nonprofits.

“… One of the privileges of teaching in the policy school is that I’m afforded the opportunity to learn side-by-side with my students, empowering them to lead. When we work on projects, we are exploring the world together, and it gives students a sense of ownership over the classes that motivates their work. … I savor the moment when I can tell students they now know more on an issue and must teach me.”

Upsorn Praphamontripong, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, School of Engineering and Applied Science

Praphamontripong dedicates herself each semester to creating innovative and engaging courses, her nominators said, pushing students in the Engineering School and the College of Arts & Sciences to challenge themselves and introducing new technologies at every opportunity. In her four years at UVA, she has developed or redesigned the curriculum for several new undergraduate courses, including an undergraduate course on software testing, a critical component of developing software.

“One of the most fulfilling aspects of working with college students is that I get to help and watch them be successful. I am able to help them develop lifelong learning and self-regulated learning skills. It is such a joy to observe their development and see their achievement. While students learn from me, I have also learned from them. I believe that teaching is a two-direction learning relationship. Students learn from instructors and, at the same time, instructors learn from students. No matter how much I have learned, there is always something new. I truly hope to pass on that passion to my students.

“To make class interactive and exciting, I minimize the use of slides and maximize hands-on activities. To make learning practical, I bridge the gap between theory and practice. In a ‘Software Testing’ course, students apply the concepts to test web applications such as Google.

“Students participated in a cross-course collaboration activity, which allows ‘Software Testing’ students and ‘Data Structures and Algorithms 1’ students to collaborate, imitating a real-world scenario where testers and developers interact. Testers are exposed to relatively complex software specifications; developers are exposed to the testing process, leading them to see how they can benefit from testing their software automatically. As ‘Software Testing’ is a new course, there are many unknowns in terms of pacing and how to objectively measure success. The only evidence comes from the students themselves.”

Lisa Speidel, Assistant Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality, College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

While pursuing a master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Foundations of Education in the Curry School of Education and Human Development, Speidel taught classes in self-defense for women, and after being a graduate teaching assistant in Bob Covert’s popular “Multicultural Education” course at the Curry School, she co-taught the course. She has also taught in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies’ Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program. Her courses include “Men and Masculinities,” “Gender-Based Violence” and “Human Sexualities.”

“My approach to teaching is reflective of my overall commitment to social justice and change through education. As I facilitate the learning process, I pay attention to classroom dynamics and try to create a supportive environment for all students, within which they feel safe taking risks and making mistakes. I emphasize respect in the classroom; both respect from and for the students …

“I do not see my role as a flawless expert delivering knowledge to novices, but as someone engaged in mutual, reciprocal learning and dialogue with students. Parker Palmer, the author of ‘The Courage to Teach,’ describes this vision as the ‘subject-centered classroom,’ instead of the ‘expert-centered classroom.’ Subject-centered classrooms allow for both teacher and students to be ‘knowers,’ and there is a symbiotic relationship between the content and the learning community. As the teacher, I am typically further along in the journey as a ‘knower,” and help facilitate learning of the subject, but students as ‘knowers’ run parallel to my facilitation and also contribute to the learning community.

“This approach of building layers of learning allows for depth in students’ processing and understanding of course material. It also gives them the tools to think of ways that they may enact social change, no matter how small or large of a role that may be.”

Diana Vaman, Professor of Physics, College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Vaman, who joined the physics department in 2007, consistently demonstrates a remarkable gift for presenting complex material in courses that are both approachable and rigorous, her nominators said. Women physicists still face challenges due to their underrepresentation, as well as explicit or implicit bias. But Vaman positively influences all students who take her classes, serving as an excellent role model for women students in particular.

“Doing research is like shining a light onto the unknown, shrinking those ‘Here will be dragons’ places on the map. Teaching someone is about giving them the tools to understand the ‘Physical Universe,’ equipping them to start their own quests into the unknown.

“A good teacher can change someone’s path. I know this, because I was not supposed to be a physicist. But I was fortunate enough to encounter at various moments in my life some fantastic physics teachers, who were able to share their knowledge and passion with their students. … My approach to teaching today is directly influenced by them.

“I believe that a good teacher must address the ‘how’ in ‘How did we get here? How do we move forward?’ We see in the distance because we stand on the shoulders of giants like Newton and Maxwell and Einstein, but we need to understand what we see, and how to use this understanding to push forward. So I try to show my students a version of my own struggle with understanding a particular topic, and what I found useful in overcoming whatever the challenges posed by it.”

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Anne E. Bromley

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