Sitterson, Mentor and William C. Friday Teaching Awards

One professor offered his class a taste of freeze-dried tarantula, while another shared that her mother was the best teacher she ever had.

Today, The Well shares the third in a series of stories introducing the winners of the 2021 University Teaching Awards. Join us each day this week as we celebrate teaching achievements by sharing personal stories about the winners.

Carlyle Sitterson Freshman Teaching Award

These awards were created in 1998 by the family of the late J. Carlyle Sitterson to recognize excellence in teaching first-year students by a tenured or tenure-track faculty member in the College of Arts & Sciences. Lyle Sitterson was a Kenan Professor of History and Chancellor of the University from 1966-72 and was a passionate advocate for inspired teaching of first-year students. The first award was given in 2000. Two winners will receive a one-time stipend of $5,000 and a framed citation.

Doria El Kerdany

teaching associate professor in Arabic, department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies in the College of Arts & Sciences

Doria El Kerdany, faculty member since 2009.

Excerpt from award citation: Doria El Kerdany creates a supportive and inclusive environment. To quote her students: “The cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds of each and every student were valued inside and outside of the classroom and help was always found when needed.” And “I can say Professor Doria has been one of the most supportive language professors I have encountered in my time at Carolina. She was willing to go out of her way to make sure I had a good foundation and understanding of Arabic.”

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

My best teacher is my mother. She never stops learning from whatever comes her way: people of good or hard life experiences. She is never shy to say: I am sorry I don’t know enough about this, so I will research and come back to you with an answer or opinion. My mother also is the best teacher I had, because she is so generous in giving away whatever she knows. She believes that when you give knowledge to others and teach them, you don’t lose or miss part of your knowledge, you GAIN, as the whole universe gains.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

A good professor has clear goals of what he wants his students to learn, focus on and allow a margin for students’ curiosity to lead them to even beyond the goals he initially set. A good professor uses all his knowledge, and even tricks, to keep his students interested. This is nearly the most important thing that leads to learning.

Tanya Shields

associate professor, department of women’s and gender studies in the College of Arts & Sciences; director of Carolina seminars

Tanya Shields, faculty member since 2007.

Excerpt from award citation: She has opened many students’ eyes to critical issues relating to women in their surrounding cultural environments. Students greatly admire and respect Professor Shields, who pushes them to critically view the world around them. Many students identified Dr. Shields as the best professor with whom they had studied at UNC.

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

Goodness, that is such an unfair question! I have been lucky to have many, many excellent teachers. I carry those teachers with me. Patricia Long, my middle school history/social studies teacher, was so amazing. She has passed away, but encouraged me to believe in my own intellect, which is an invaluable gift. I also had so many instructors in college that transformed the way I see the world. The first teacher, a grad student at the time, taught the first class on Caribbean literature that I ever took, Robert Carr. And so many others during college that just blew my mind — Carlos Schroeder, Joyce Ann Joyce, Virginia Bell; and, of course my core dissertation committee members, Merle Collins, Dorith Grant-Wisdom and A. Lynn Bolles, all of whom not only helped me to develop expertise in my subject matter but also were great mentors about life.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

Goodness gracious. This is another hard question. I think of teaching as reciprocal, which means that I learn from students too. And to me that includes listening to students, encouraging them and validating their starting points even when it is different from my own. And perhaps most challenging for them — holding them accountable to high expectations and standards. This year has been challenging given COVID (the constant screen time hurts my eyes), but I have found students are ready to engage, which energizes me too. I am grateful for their interest and energy.

Tell us a story about something creative you’ve done to engage your students.

In my Spitting in the Wind: “American” Women, Art and Activism class, I regularly ask students to translate poems. They translate one poem from English to English. So, they need to fully understand what the poem means and what it is trying to convey and then translate it. And they translate a second poem from the written word to a visual. Again, the point is about the process of translation. What do we understand? How do we convey our understandings to others? It can be challenging, but students always rise to the occasion. They might be a bit destabilized, and they were, but they delve into that instability. And given the times we live in being able to cope with instability without breaking is a requirement. I was impressed by student translations. Some were poetic and beautiful and even those that were not always captured something essential about the poems. It was interesting to hear them discuss their process as well. How many times they had to read the poem, how they connected experiences from their own lives to help them translate the poem and the places from the poem that they found untranslatable. All the aspects of the assignment help us consider words, meaning, context, audience and power.

Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement

This award, created in 1997, acknowledges a lifetime of contributions to a broad range of teaching and learning, particularly mentoring beyond the classroom. It rewards those who help students to develop and attain their full potential in important ways during and after their departure from campus. Dean Smith, long-time coach of the men’s basketball team, was the first winner of the award and exemplifies the qualities that this award honors. The winner receives a one-time stipend of $5,000 and a framed citation.

Sandra Martin

professor and associate chair for research, department of maternal and child health, Gillings School of Global Public Health

Sandra Martin, faculty member since 1990.

Excerpt from award citation: Dr. Martin is a supportive, warm and trustworthy mentor to all who have worked with her. Many of her nomination letters noted her strong listening skills, careful consideration of student perspectives, identification of outside resources and her critical feedback.

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

I’ve been fortunate to have many wonderful teachers, including those at Carolina, where I got my doctorate. But education does not always come from the person in front of the lectern. Each year, I learn a great deal from my Carolina students. I’m always re-thinking things in light of the experiences and thoughts that they share.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

There is not a one-size-fits-all formula that results in an excellent professor. In my experience, all successful professors really care about their students and are focused on helping their students to achieve their goals.

Tell us a story about something creative you’ve done to engage your students.

Engaging students in honest conversations, especially around sensitive topics, requires that students feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their perspectives, even when they think that others may disagree with them. During the first meeting of my gender-based violence course, the students and I design a class contract to create a safe space for our class, documenting how we would like to be treated and how we will treat others during the course. The contract often includes things such as listening respectfully to the opinions of others, even when you disagree with them, and expressing disagreement with others in a respectful and constructive way. This exercise helps to set the tone for the class and allows class members to engage in honest and enlightening conversation.

William C. Friday/Class of 1986 Award for
Excellence in Teaching

The award was created by members of the 1986 graduating class to recognize members of the faculty who have exemplified excellence in inspirational teaching and is named in honor of William C. Friday, who devoted a lifetime of service to the University as President of the University of North Carolina System.

Kurt Gray

associate professor, department of psychology and neuroscience in the College of Arts & Sciences

Kurt Gray, faculty member since 2012.

Excerpt from award citation: Students and faculty praised Gray for his commitment to teaching diverse voices, pushing students out of their comfort zones and treating everyone he works with as an equal. One student described Gray as a “true teacher,” because of the way “he easily navigated the tension between making class applicable to students’ lives, but also scholastically rigorous, reflecting an understanding that our lives extend beyond the classroom.”

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

There have been so many. My third grade math teacher, high school English teacher, Stratigraphy professor and Unconscious Cognition professor have all been amazing. Although they taught different subjects and at different levels, they all shared a commitment to helping the whole student beyond the bounds of class. They took time to encourage me to be ambitious and consider new opportunities and helped me grow to be ready for those opportunities.

What does it take to be a good professor in 2021?

One thing I always try to do is build a sense of social connection among my students. I’m always there as a resource, but it’s super important for them to have each other as a resource, whether to help each other study, to joke with about the class or to provide social support about their struggles. That’s really hard to do when everything is on Zoom, so to be a good professor in 2021, I think you need to work extra hard to build a cohesive class spirit, where people feel comfortable working together, “chatting” in the chat box and connecting outside of class.

Tell us a story about something creative you’ve done to engage your students.

In my small seminar on morality and markets, I wanted to illustrate just how much of our behavior is dictated by our emotional reactions. So, I ordered an edible freeze-dried tarantula. It came in a can and was perfectly preserved — you could see all its little leg hairs. The class didn’t know that I had ordered it, and I asked them how many people would ever consider eating a little bit of spider if they were cheered on by their classmates. Many put up their hand. So, I brought out the tarantula and said that their chance had arrived. We all laughed as we sat around seeing who could overcome their visceral reactions to eating a spider. Many people changed their mind and refused, but a couple people ate some hairy legs.