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Alanna Gillis

Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching by Graduate Teaching Assistants

Alanna Gillis
Alanna Gillis (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Tanner Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching by Graduate Teaching Assistants: In 1990, the University expanded the purview of the Tanner Awards to recognize excellence in the teaching of undergraduates by graduate teaching assistants. Each of the five winners receives a one-time stipend of $5,000 and a framed citation.

Graduate Teaching Fellow since May 2017

Hometown: Hilton Head, South Carolina

Excerpt from award citation:

“Alanna Gillis is a leader among her peers — she often helps other graduate students and even faculty members develop course designs and plans that will let them bring their teaching to the next level.”

Who was the best teacher you ever had and why?

The best teacher I ever had was Kyle Longest, a sociology professor at Furman. He taught in a way that made me excited to go to class every day with interesting activities and real-world examples. He also clearly cared about me as a person and went out of his way to mentor me in post-college plans.

What is something you’ve learned from your students?

My students taught me that a willingness to be vulnerable is an asset, not a weakness. I used to be terrified of students figuring out that I’m not perfect and don’t know everything (no one is or does), but I discovered that when I admitted a mistake or told them when I was struggling with something personally, students respected me even more. After those conversations, students were also much more willing to talk to me about their own struggles and insecurities, enabling me to become a better instructor and mentor.

What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?

In addition to a dedicated instructor and researcher, I also am an athlete. I am part of the UNC Club Triathlon team, using swimming, biking and running as an opportunity to destress and channel my competitive spirit into something fun and good for my health.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2020? 

I think the best way to be a good professor is to care about your students as people. In this generation, most students are working jobs outside of class, they are struggling with their own or a friend’s mental health, and they are facing intense anxiety about graduate school or life after college. Treating students as full people will earn their respect, help them become more receptive to learning, and promote their well-rounded development.

What’s the most creative thing you’ve done to engage your students?

I created a role-playing activity where students take on the role of job seekers trying to get hired and a few play employers deciding who to hire. They compete for the scarce jobs and can only talk to people they already know or are introduced to via a mutual friend. It is a great lesson for teaching about the role of social networks in job market outcomes and it maps on perfectly to their own questions and insecurities about post-college jobs that we can discuss during the debrief after the activity.

25 employees received University Teaching Awards this year.