There’s Something That Makes These Graduate Instructors Special

Aerial View of the Rotunda and lawn from Cabell hall

(Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

University of Virginia students are hardly surprised when their classes are led by graduate student teachers. After all, most large public universities encourage graduate students to teach as part of their training.

But ask around: There’s something that makes graduate teachers at UVA special.

They are confident enough to invite their students to explore ideas and create knowledge along with them, and to challenge them at the same time.

To highlight and honor the University’s graduate students for their commitment to, and excellence in, undergraduate instruction, UVA’s Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost initiated the University-wide Graduate Teaching Awards in 1990. This year’s 15 winners, chosen at the end of the semester, who come from doctoral programs across Grounds, have achieved this special recognition for going beyond expectations, seamlessly marrying the pedagogical with the practical, focusing on interdisciplinary work and mentoring students.

Nominated by their departments and chosen by a diverse faculty committee, these graduate teachers, from biomedical engineering to psychology to English, emerged as this year’s best, bringing passion and caring to their disciplines while contributing to the University’s mission of ensuring that undergraduates become scholars and engaged citizens.

The department’s nomination materials included anonymous student comments in response to the graduate instructors’ classes. In them, students recognize the budding professors as some of the best teachers they’ve encountered at UVA.

The Class of 1985 Fellowship for Creative Teaching

Laura Dunphy, Biomedical Engineering

Now in her fourth year of teaching, Dunphy has achieved something unusual: She helps teach courses that cross not only three disciplines – biology, engineering and data science – but also two schools – the schools of Engineering and of Data Science, the latter being UVA’s newest school.

Her faculty mentor, biomedical engineering professor Jason Papin, called her “the quintessential contributor to our teaching mission. She has gone out of her way to contribute to the learning of undergraduate and graduate students as a graduate teacher, guest lecturer and research mentor.”

“Best graduate teacher I think I’ve ever had. She should be a professor.”

- student of Laura Dunphy

He further noted in his nomination that Dunphy “was the first-ever graduate teacher for both courses, ‘Systems Bioengineering, Modeling, and Experimentation’ and ‘Data Science,’ and worked hard to shape the expectations for future graduate teachers.” 

Applying her core teaching principles – safety, fun and learning – Dunphy said, “I always start the lecture by discussing cool models that I have built in the past: bacterial growth in space, apoptosis, etc. Throughout the class period, I bring key concepts about model-building back to simple biological systems. By the end of the lecture, students feel confident selecting their own modeling approaches to answer research questions.”

The Frank Finger Graduate Fellowship for Teaching

Victoria Mauer, Psychology

A widely experienced teacher in situations from undergraduate statistics labs to Universitywide lectures on child psychopathology, Mauer wrote in her personal teaching statement: “It is my goal as an educator to empower students to be critical consumers of culture. I design courses that develop students’ ability to question societal norms and become agents of culture change ... [and] challenge my students to actively engage with the world around them.”

Mauer’s self-designed “Community Psychology” practicum for first-year graduate students asked them first to examine their own privilege and identity, then moved them off-Grounds to listen to Charlottesville residents and collaborate on jointly developed projects. 

Mauer’s consummate dedication to meaningful engagement has taken her beyond her department to intensive professional development opportunities. At the Center for Teaching Excellence, she taught other graduate teachers “inclusive and contemplative pedagogical practices” to help engage their undergraduates in discussion of challenging topics.

“The challenging, thought-provoking questions were groundbreaking for me and my peers to think about how we go about our daily lives – the good, the bad, and what we can change.”

- student of Victoria Mauer

After serving as the Ph.D. intern for violence prevention in the Office of the Dean of Students, Mauer designed and team-taught an undergraduate course, “Making it Stick: Changing the Culture of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence.”

Students were profoundly affected, according to their evaluations. One praised the “multifaceted perspectives we were exposed to and engaged with; there was not one correct answer and having the opportunity to agree, disagree, and challenge what we know and do not know was very worthwhile for me.” Another called it “a class I feel that everyone at UVA should take, as the topic of gender-based violence is pertinent to our culture right now.”

Psychology professor Melvin Wilson noted that Mauer “creates opportunities for students to have difficult dialogues across difference in her efforts to advance understanding and social justice in the classroom.”

Distinguished Graduate Teaching Award in the Arts and Humanities

Samuel Lemley, English

Called a “detective,” an “enchanter” and “like an encyclopedia,” Sam Lemley shows his students both the wonder and the instruction in Renaissance and Enlightenment texts. Lemley uses literature to help students discover science, culture and the nature of knowledge. 

Since 2015, Lemley has taught numerous English department courses. He’s been a graduate teacher, including head graduate teacher, for the first half of the survey course required for all English majors. He created his own literature course, “Reading Renaissance Science,” and taught a first-year writing course on travel writing. 

“If I could have Sam as my graduate teacher for every English class I’ve taken at the University, I’d be so happy!” wrote one grateful student in a course evaluation.

“Feedback and constructive criticism on papers by Sam truly allowed me to improve as a writer.”

- student of Sam Lemley

“I involve my students in the serendipity and thrill of primary source research and encourage them to build tangible links with strange pasts, using objects, images, and digital archives,” Lemley explained in his teaching statement.

His English classes have taken first-year undergraduates and graduate students alike out of the classroom to examine physical texts in UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

“In a time when public life seems particularly strained and skepticism about knowledge is high, Lemley’s teaching brilliantly addresses students of all ages and kinds, from the classroom to the library to public lectures, websites, Instagram, Facebook, and national media,” wrote English professor Elizabeth Fowler in supporting his nomination. “I can’t think of another graduate student who has contributed so much to the educational mission at the heart of the University.”

Distinguished Graduate Teaching Award in the Social Sciences

Michelle Morgenstern, Anthropology

Morgenstern entered the Ph.D. program with two years of experience teaching in public and private school in Philadelphia. Now, she can add to her repertoire serving as a graduate teacher for a range of college courses: “Introduction to Anthropology,” “Language and Gender” and “Language and Society,” as well as leading the department’s teaching workshop for incoming graduate students.

In a course she developed, “Technology, Language, and Society,” Morgenstern carried out her teaching philosophy of making opportunities for the “student as critic and creator.”

“By far my favorite graduate teacher ever,” wrote one student in a course evaluation.

Professor Daniel Lefkowitz observed, “I had the impression of extraordinary student interest in, engagement with, and command of the subject material. The classroom was alive with activity and conversation – and yet it was also carefully structured,” he wrote in nominating her for the award.

Morgenstern’s course was so successful that two of her students arranged to continue studying internet discourse with her this spring. She also created a research assistant position in fall 2018 and hired a first-year student. They have worked together for two years and now intend to co-write a paper.

“[Morgenstern] created an atmosphere where I was able to feel comfortable bonding with my classmates, which led to much more open and frank discussions where everyone felt comfortable enough to participate.”

- student of Michelle Morgenstern

In Morgenstern’s nomination packet, students overwhelmingly commented that she took time get to know each person, and that she went far beyond expectations to advise them about their personal development, future research and graduate school.

Her department concurred, calling her “an inspiration for her fellow graduate students and for the faculty.”

Distinguished Graduate Teaching Award in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

Kristen Fread, Biomedical Engineering

Even as an undergraduate, Fread was a natural: She served as a teaching assistant for biochemistry courses and mentored several undergraduate researchers. After five years in her Ph.D. program, Fread has proven herself a consummate teacher.

Her success comes from her obvious love of science and its applications, her nominators wrote.

In her courses, “Biomedical Applications of Genetic Engineering” and “Stem Cell Engineering,” Fread aimed to provide “a bridge from lecture material to scientific applications in the current biotechnology field,” she wrote in her teaching statement. “It is relatively straightforward to tell a student what to do and train them how a mechanism works on paper, but I place an emphasis on the question ‘why.’ What does this technique allow us to do? How can we modify it to work for our specific scientific question?”

Biomedical engineering professor Brent French, who nominated her for the teaching award, wrote that Fread “positively impacted the future of countless undergraduate and graduate students through her contributions to the Science Policy Initiative in 2017-2018,” where she helped bring in external speakers and served on the initiative’s first executive board.

In the genetic engineering course she taught, Fread “seemed to have an unlimited capacity to nurture the undergrads,” French said.

“[Having Kristen Fread as the teacher] is the reason I did so well in this course.”

- student of Kristen Fread

Lab-based experiences are key for Fread: “I actively challenge my students to become independent scientists,” she wrote. And they have: Six of her mentees have presented at scientific conferences, and one co-wrote a publication with her.

One student evaluation described her as “the best graduate teacher I’ve ever had.” 

As her department noted, Fread “set new standards for excellence as a graduate teacher in our department and in our university.”

All-University Graduate Teaching Awards

• Jeffrey Carroll, Philosophy

Called by one student a “great guy – comedian, philosopher, big brother – the whole package,” Jeff Carroll created an atmosphere conducive to thoughtful discussion, even at 8 a.m. on Fridays.

Carroll – a veteran course instructor by the time he began his Ph.D. program – relies on two “principal pedagogical lessons” he learned from his father, also a teacher, the doctoral candidate wrote in a teaching statement: “First, foster an inclusive classroom environment. Second, although cliché, learning should be fun.”

Forming his core values from personal experience growing up in an under-resourced area, Carroll wrote that above all, he aims to “meet students where they are,” by removing perceived barriers so that students unfamiliar with college feel at home: he requires students to call him by his first name and never by title, for example.

“[He] made intimidating philosophical concepts approachable.”

- student of Jeff Carroll

The result is not only a collaborative classroom atmosphere but also a place for personal and intellectual growth. Observing his teaching in “Political Philosophy and Philosophical Problems in Law,” philosophy professor A. John Simmons noted, “Jeff’s classes are well-organized and always aimed at getting students to take away a few key points (rather than wandering through the material). His presentation is clear and careful, but delivered with a nice, dry wit that his students plainly enjoy.

“The clarity and order of Jeff’s classes very effectively model the principal virtues that we hope our students will develop: clear-headed, well-organized thinking, applied to a range of theoretical and practical problems.” 

• Brooke Dinsmore, Sociology

Dinsmore’s classes invited students to be “co-creators of knowledge,” wrote sociology professor Josipa Roksa. 

Dinsmore has taught “Gender and Society” and “Race and Ethnic Relations,” and served as a teaching assistant for courses covering a range of topics, including inequality, family, health and childhood.

“My goal is for each student to leave the class experienced in engaging reflectively with their own social positions and posing questions about the institutions they inhabit,” Dinsmore wrote in her teaching statement. “I strive for my students to engage with sociology not as passive consumers, but as potential researchers who can contribute to public and scholarly conversations on inequality.”

“Taking this class is one of the most memorably positive academic experiences I will take with me far past graduation.”

- student of Brooke Dinsmore

Dinsmore “is the true definition of a teacher; someone who is there to kindly instruct, but also listen; to be there as a person, not just as a figure of authority,”  one student wrote in a course evaluation.   

Another concluded that Dinsmore “was the best instructor I’ve had at UVA in my three years thus far. She she exceeded any biases/expectations I had. She was approachable, funny, clearly knowledgeable.”

• Alexandra “Alexi” Garrett, History

“I take to heart the phrase, ‘All history is local,’” wrote Garrett in her teaching statement. In her classes, she aimed to “shed new light upon modern-day race, class, and gender relations that some students have taken for granted for at least 18 years of their life. ... My goal as an instructor is to have students understand the historical roots of familiar aspects of their everyday lives.”

In teaching “America to 1865,” Garrett took students out of the classroom to historical sites in Charlottesville to help students make these connections.

Her department highlights Garrett’s innovative teaching, including her extraordinary work helping students become better writers.

“I learned so much about how to better my writing and craft an argument, which will be so valuable throughout college and beyond. ”

- student of Alexi Garrett

Garrett “passes out a 12-page guide at the beginning of the semester that clearly lays out her expectations,” but also guides students to translate their ideas into clear, evidence-based prose, associate professor Jeffrey Rossman wrote. “The quality and quantity of feedback Alexi offers on her students’ writing assignments is legendary.”

Not only did Garrett “go above and beyond to make sure students were prepared for every assignment,” she always created a safe environment for expressing critique and opinions, several students wrote in their course evaluations.

• Sarah Gustitus-Graham, Engineering Systems and Environment

From her first experience as a graduate teacher of “Introduction to Geotechnical Engineering Lab” in 2017, Gustitus-Graham has collaborated with course instructors to develop her teaching methods and course materials, becoming a graduate teacher whom faculty rely upon and students love. “She was a phenomenal instructor and made me excited to come to lab every week,” one student wrote in a course evaluation. 

In her role as teaching intern in spring 2019, Sarah co-taught the introductory “Environmental Engineering” lecture course with associate professor Teresa Culver. 

“I’ll say as a female engineering student, it meant a lot to me that everyone teaching this class was female. That made me feel like I belonged here. ”

- student of Sarah Gustitus-Graham

Gustitus-Graham built her curriculum, Culver wrote, “to foster creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills.” The students noticed that Gustitus-Graham and Culver worked well together: “Really enjoyed learning about the different aspects of environmental engineering [and] how Prof. Culver and Sarah switched off lecturing, too,” one wrote in the course evaluation.

From another student evaluation: “This was my favorite engineering class this semester; both of my instructors are lovely people, and our graduate teacher was really helpful.

“On the very first day of class, it was really startling to have an engineering class where I could look at my instructors and think, ‘Wow, that could be me someday.’”

Haruka Takayama Hasegawa, Economics

Takayama Hasegawa has taught for four years, working with undergraduates most recently in “Introduction to Econometrics” and “International Trade: Theory and Policy.” Her successes include her impact on students – one former student asked to be her research assistant and helped her with her research this term – and on other international graduate students as a panelist at teaching workshops. 

At UVA, the native of Japan teaches in her second language, always seeking to hone her communication with her students. When guest-teaching economics professor John McLaren’s seminar class session on her own research, Takayama Hasegawa, he noted, made a point of reading comments submitted by students on the texts ahead of time and bringing them up in her presentation, referring to students by name.

“She is funny and fun to be around, which easily translates into her discussion sections and office hours always being filled with students! 

- student of Haruka Hasegawa

Students in various classes remarked on her thoughtfulness and joy in teaching. Called “universally loved” and “the best graduate teacher I have ever had in the Economics Department,” Takayama Hasegawa is “incredibly knowledgeable, approachable and most importantly excited to help all students.”

• Sarasij Maitra, Mathematics

Some might say Maitra has had an unenviable task: teaching calculus to non-majors. His department explains that in these courses, graduate teachers have a “delicate task.” They must interest and challenge their students without leaving behind those who need more help.

Maitra has recognized this challenge, writing in his teaching statement: “Every class I teach and every verbal or digital interaction with my students enriches my own mathematical education. I will always aim to convey the very spirit that I appreciate about mathematics. To grow through errors is our responsibility – this communication is crucial; I try to create an inclusive and amicable learning environment driven by questioning and problem-solving.”

“[Maitra] is the endearing, amazing teacher I never knew I needed to reignite my love of math.”

- student of Sarasij Maitra

Students love Maitra for this approach: he’s passionate, informative and helpful, making the class fun. 

“I cannot heap enough praise onto Sarasij Maitra,” one student wrote in a course evaluation, “an amazing person, mentor, and teacher.”

• Jennifer McDaniels, Biology

An undergraduate mentor and researcher who studies how malaria evolves to become drug-resistant, Jennifer McDaniels as a graduate teacher “has had a huge positive impact on hundreds of UVA students,” her department nomination said. Across five semesters, she instructed lab sections of “Introduction to Biology” I and II, courses with more than 800 students.

McDaniels “stands out as one of the most dedicated and empathetic graduate teachers I’ve encountered, a student who is truly an ambassador for this large introductory course,” wrote assistant professor Jessamyn Manson in nominating her.  

“[McDaniels] stands out as one of the most dedicated and empathetic graduate teachers I’ve encountered.”

- Jessamyn Manson, assistant professor of biology

Associate professor Robert Cox added, “Words like ‘excellent,’ ‘thoughtful,’ ‘kind,’ ‘approachable,’ ‘friendly,’ ‘awesome,’ and ‘the best’ are repeated dozens of times in her evaluations.”

McDaniels credits her success to a guiding principle: “To foster an inclusive classroom community” while affirming each student’s “scientist identity.”

As a minority in STEM, “I proactively work to champion untapped voices and create a space for nondominant cultures to also thrive,” she wrote in her teaching statement.

For example, “After overhearing a group ignore a shy student, I bolstered her point by replying, ‘Anna, that is a great idea!’ In real time, I saw her posture change. She re-presented her idea with greater detail and more authority. I treat each student’s discovery as significant and relevant, prompting students to discover more.”

• Joseph Wei, English

As a graduate teacher for required literature courses or as instructor for his own seminar on Asian American poetry, Wei navigates classroom discussions by, in his words, taking “a myriad approach – much of it collaborative – [which] honors students’ sense of excitement, confusion, and identification, inviting meaningful, surprising encounters with poetry without imposing a single ‘correct’ interpretation,” and striving “to treat students as fellow knowledge producers.”

In response to this approach, one student wrote in a course evaluation, “We were encouraged to break the mold on traditional writing conventions.” 

“[Joe Wei] gave us the bandwidth to share creative ideas and build off one another without being afraid of being wrong. ”

- student of Joseph Wei

Students found discussions “fun and not too rigid. He’s very knowledgeable and wants to learn from us, too.”

Associate professor Mrinalini Chakravorty sees Wei as “well-attuned to his students’ sensibilities,” adding, “Across the board, Joe’s students enthusiastically praised his teaching: the course content, his approachability, and the overall usefulness of the class. Indeed, one student lamented that she was ‘sad to have this class end,’ while another urged Joe to continue to teach because ‘he has a gift.’ In short, it was clear from the playful respect they had for him that Joe is beloved of his students.” 

“Loved his kind energy,” one student wrote in a course evaluation.

• Rachel West, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese

“In today’s political climate, learning any foreign language – but especially Spanish – can no longer just be about learning verb conjugations and vocabulary words,” wrote Rachel West, a non-native Spanish speaker who has become her department’s most effective graduate teacher. 

Even when teaching 8 a.m. classes, she brings varied and participatory activities to her students. West gave carefully structured lessons that resulted in “a seamless weaving of grammar, skill development, and cultural learning,” one supporting colleague wrote.

“[Rachel West] created a judgment-free environment where everyone felt comfortable to speak and participate.”

- student of Rachel West

Students have “voted with their feet,” her department noted as one way of showing her success: several who took her class in 2018 returned for another in 2019. No doubt their excitement relates to West’s guiding principle for what a foreign language class should be about: “bridging together two groups of people that do not understand each other and creating new connections, bonds, and understandings that will last far longer than any grammatical explanation ever will.”

Students noted that West “creates an extremely respectful atmosphere for the class,” and “made everyone happy to learn.”

Sarah Winstein-Hibbs, English

An experienced mentor, collaborator and a graduate teacher for the English department’s literature survey courses, Winstein-Hibbs has used varied techniques to help each student grow as a writer and has “embraced the task of teaching composition ... as a vocation,” English professor Victor Luftig wrote in nominating her.

Students agreed: “Although I am not the biggest fan of writing, Sarah was able to make the course engaging and allowed for discussions between peers,” one said. Another remarked, “Sarah was a great professor and her class was taught outside of the box and exciting.”

“Every class I honestly learned something new! ”

- student of Sarah Winstein-Hibbs

“I encourage students to see the writing process as a lively conversation between authors and readers,” Winstein-Hibbs wrote in her teaching statement.

English professor Anna Brickhouse observed that in Winstein-Hibbs’ “Literatures of Liberation” course, “I was utterly impressed by how much the students were able to take from a single article, and how they made connections to prior readings and even to their own family stories – truly a testament to the intellectual space Winstein-Hibbs had created for them and the syllabus she had designed.”

Winstein-Hibbs  made an indelible impact on her students. “I learned so much about writing techniques and about the volumes of American literature which address ethnic, racial and cultural fragmentation, all of which have given me a better understanding of subjects I am tackling in international and domestic history and politics courses at UVA,” one student wrote in a course evaluation.

Another wrote, “Thank you for helping me challenge myself and learn along the way.”

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