Academics

Johnston, Chapman Family Awards

One professor started his Zoom lectures with funny photo backdrops and the line “Broadcasting today from in front of a [insert photo quip],” while another teleported into the famous PBS artist studio of Bob Ross, complete with wig.

Today, The Well shares the fourth 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.

Johnston Teaching Excellence Awards

Created in 1991, these awards recognize excellence in undergraduate teaching. Winners are nominated by Johnston Scholars and selected by a special committee of scholars in the James M. Johnston Scholarship Program. Two winners will receive $5,000 and a framed citation.

Maya Berry

assistant professor, department of African, African American and diaspora studies in the College of Arts & Sciences

Maya Berry

Maya Berry, faculty member since 2017.

Excerpt from award citation: A student wrote: “Class activities were designed to draw on both knowledge obtained from course readings as well as personal thoughts on the topics at hand, and she encouraged us to use artwork and music to inspire our educational pursuits in her course. She did not tell students that we were wrong — she regarded every opinion and thought as valid.”

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

I’ve been fortunate to have so many great teachers in my life, which is what ultimately led me to this profession. A common characteristic they all shared was the ability to create an environment that motivated me to challenge my preconceived conceptions and limitations and discover my own potential. They were both demanding of the utmost rigor and simultaneously created a space for vulnerability and self-reflection (it’s such a delicate balance!), so that by the end of our time together I had learned as much about myself as I did about the course material.

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

Active listening, compassion and creative thinking. When we shifted to remote learning on Zoom in the spring of 2020, I relied on my self-administered mid-semester student evaluations to inform my strategic lesson planning for the remainder of the semester. With that data generated by the students themselves, I was able to customize a remote learning plan that was best suited to the specific dynamic of each class while still honoring the course’s learning objectives.

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

Art is a powerful teaching tool. One of the pillars of my teaching philosophy revolves around the core belief that the arts have a unique ability to make vivid and tangible otherwise abstract concepts, histories and theories. One year, I weaved in a special collaboration with Duke Forum for Scholars and Publics, Carolina Performing Arts and the Ackland Museum into my Afro-Cuban Dance: History, Theory & Practice (AAAD261) class. During that year’s collaboration, students engaged with guest artist-scholars from the University of the West Indies and right here at Carolina Performing Arts and participated in a series of visits to the Ackland Art Museum. These encounters, in conjunction with the course content, built up students’ capacity to choreograph their own site-specific performance inspired by an exhibit on display at the Power Plant Gallery in downtown Durham. The students performed their original creations at the closing celebration of the exhibit for the public. They later adapted the performance for the Ackland’s Student Showcase and engaged in a Q&A for that public audience as part of their final grade.

Hans Christianson

associate professor, department of mathematics in the College of Arts & Sciences

Hans Christianson, faculty member since 2010.

Excerpt from award citation: Dr. Christianson’s classroom is also a collaborative space, where students work with him to consider, reconsider and parse through strategies to approach and solve a problem. Dr. Christianson’s students also see that he is committed to meeting them where they are to ensure they get as much out of his class as possible.

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

As an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, I had two great professors who influenced me a lot. Dennis Hejhal and Victor Reiner both taught me that education does not end outside the classroom, and an “A student” goes to office hours at least four times a semester. I tell this to all my students. They both also taught me that original research in mathematics is attainable as an undergraduate and can be one of the most influential parts of education.

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

Teaching in 2021 is so intertwined with the pandemic that it is difficult to separate what parts of the job constitute teaching and what parts constitute student support. It is always important to respect and listen to the students and even more so with remote instruction. Taking time to listen to the concerns and struggles of students helps make sure they know there is a human being on the other end of the line whose top priorities are the health and safety of the students, as well as their academic success, and informs the instructor about the pace and content of lectures. With so many unknowns with remote teaching, being flexible and patient with students (and colleagues!) is essential.

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

Teaching evolves constantly, and remote instruction presented us all with new obstacles. I like to interact with my students a lot during lectures. One thing I tried (that failed) last semester was to get a laugh track going that I could play whenever I tell a joke. One thing I tried (that succeeded) was to frequently change my Zoom background with photos I have taken in the last few years. I started my lectures with “Broadcasting today from in front of [insert photo quip].” My favorite was a giant apple pie at Thanksgiving. At the end of the semester, a student posted on our Piazza forum: “Full Collection: ‘Today we are broadcasting from … ’” with a list of my quotes — they had been keeping track all semester! Knowing I was reaching my students, if only for a laugh, during the most difficult semester any of us have had was one of the high points in my career.

Chapman Family Teaching Awards

Created in 1993 with a gift during the Bicentennial Campaign from Max Carrol Chapman Jr. ’66 on behalf of the Chapman family, these awards honor distinguished teaching of undergraduate students. The award carries a stipend of $30,000 to be used over the period of five years.

Todd Austell

teaching professor, associate director of undergraduate studies, STEM academic adviser, department of chemistry in the College of Arts & Sciences

Todd Austell, faculty member since 1998.

Excerpt from award citation: From a student: “Professor Austell provided so much support, encouragement and tools for students to succeed that I not only understood concepts but enjoyed and thrived in my learning. I consistently felt challenged, driven and excited to plunge myself deeper into the subject.”

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

My high school chemistry teacher, Dick Hamrick, who was the most dynamic, motivating and caring teacher I’ve ever encountered. He massively influenced many to pursue careers in science and medicine.

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

Patience, persistence and true understanding of how to love and care for students during one the most challenging times of all our lives.

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

I realized a long time ago my role at Carolina and in life is far more than just teaching students. I’m blessed to be where I am on this campus and in my life. With great blessings come great responsibilities. I’m called to love my students in a Christ-like way every minute of every day, and that’s what I (most often imperfectly) try to do. I believe in letting my students know early on that I am more than just their instructor for the semester, that I do love them and feel blessed to get to be in my role with them. Lastly, I desire to be in their corner far beyond the time they are my class. I AM FOR THEM … and try to make that clear every day in my communications.

Glenn Hinson

associate professor, departments of anthropology and American studies in the College of Arts & Sciences

Glenn Hinson, faculty member since 1989.

Excerpt from award citation: Professor Hinson’s community-engaged project has impacted students profoundly. One student nominator described the experience as “truly transformative” and elaborated further to say, “He taught me that reckoning and reconciliation are only possible if we conjure the most vulnerable aspects of our own lives and experiences. Research does not have to be cold and impersonal. It can be deeply human.”

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

Hands down, it was the folklore professor Kenny Goldstein, who taught in the graduate department of folklore and folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. Kenny was an activist and engaged scholar, someone who encouraged students to step beyond the limits of the academy and to engage broad publics in their scholarship, working with communities as equal partners in the pursuit of shared intellectual/programmatic/political ends. For Kenny — who came to the academy from a background as an activist — scholarship was all about contribution. He wasn’t interested in how many articles you had published or how many books you had written; he wanted to know how you had changed the world, and how the change had bettered the lives of the disempowered, of those who had been strategically and systematically oppressed.

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

Awareness, engagement and a willingness to listen to — and, when needed, be guided by — the wisdom of our students.

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

Before the pandemic, in the “By Persons Unknown: Race and Reckoning in North Carolina” first-year seminar (first taught in Spring 2020), students investigated the heretofore untold story of the Norlina 18, a group of Black men in Warren County who were arrested in January 1921 after defending their community from an advancing white mob. Within 24 hours of their arrest, two of these men were lynched; the others were imprisoned in the state penitentiary for periods ranging from four months to eight years. Our job was to learn who these men were, what impact these murders and imprisonments had on their families and what happened to them and their descendants. To be able to tell their stories, we had to do more than comb through archival records; we needed to visit the site of the gunfight that led to their arrest, to view the communities in which they lived, to step into the fields where they labored, to visit the jail where they were imprisoned, to stand in the courtroom where they were tried. So we did, traveling by bus for a long day in Warren County, moving from site to site. At each stop, Black community members guided our way, offering trenchant stories about oppression and resilience and inviting our reflections. The wisdom of these community guides — coupled with the experience of actually stepping into the spaces of the stories we were investigating — brought the archival research alive, inspiring all of us to recognize our responsibility as chroniclers of untold stories and as contributors to community efforts to recover erased histories.

Kris Jordan

teaching assistant professor, department of computer science in the College of Arts & Sciences

Kris Jordan, faculty member since 2015.

Excerpt from award citation: He is engaging to each of his students, creating a comfortable in-class atmosphere, and he has an incredible awareness of the different backgrounds that his students have come from. This awareness has allowed Professor Jordan to help students who may not have the necessary background in math or technology, and he has propelled students to continue in the computer science field who otherwise would have chosen different courses of study.

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

I studied computer science as an undergraduate at Carolina, and the best teachers I ever had are faculty members here. Many were fantastic but three were instrumental in supporting me in independent studies and research: Prasun Dewan, Gary Bishop and Diane Pozefsky. When I returned to Chapel Hill nearly a decade later, these three were once again great role models and mentors in becoming an educator. Each treated me as a respected colleague, both as an undergraduate student and as junior faculty, which is a cultural tradition in Carolina’s Department of Computer Science that I work to carry forward.

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

To be a good teacher in 2021 requires creativity and flexibility. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our “classrooms” changed, our modes of instruction and content delivery changed and our means for assessment changed. Success requires adapting to those changes and looking for opportunities to take on new challenges previously unthinkable. Around 50 of my students this past year participated in Carolina Away and completed my courses from China, India, Japan, Turkey and other international locations. Adapting my courses to equitably serve students participating in time zones 12 hours offset from Eastern Standard Time has led to my teaching team improving its practices by becoming more flexible without losing its high structure design. Many of the innovations required to make the most of teaching in 2021 will improve what University teaching and learning looks like after the pandemic.

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

I teach Computer Science 110, a course that introduces students to the fundamentals of programming and data science at Carolina. One of the most notoriously challenging topics taught is recursion. A classic example of recursion is the definition of a factorial function, but factorial is so dull that someone made its symbol an exclamation point to try and keep students awake for it!

I find recursive art to be a more engaging, visually exciting and intellectually stimulating means to introduce students to recursive thinking. A favorite lecture activity of mine is tasking students with writing code to procedurally generate trees with computer graphics. When we reach that segment of lecture, I put on my Bob Ross wig and we “paint” some happy, little trees together using recursion as our brush. This year, teaching in front of a green screen instead of a lecture hall, I was able to “teleport” to the iconic PBS show’s set to host “The Joy of Programming” for the first time. Learning how to code is often frustrating and error-prone, so I hope to impart the wisdom and energy of the late Bob Ross in my course: “We don’t make mistakes [in programming]; we have happy accidents.”

Lisa Woodley

clinical associate professor, School of Nursing

Lisa Woodley, faculty member since 2003.

Excerpt from award citation: Students in her class do not passively receive information but are actively and affectively engaged through a range of teaching tools including humorous YouTube videos, emotional patient narratives and personal stories of success and failure from Professor Woodley’s own nursing career.

Who was the best teacher you had and why?

I have had many exemplary teachers over my lifetime, but the one who rises to the top is my dad. Don Woodley is a retired high school Latin teacher living in Southern Ontario, Canada. He taught me that the key to effective teaching centers on relationships built with students. From a young age, I watched how he cared for and about his students as individuals. This in turn fueled their enthusiasm and excitement for the subject he taught. His unwavering work ethic, attention to detail and creativity were ever-present, and his passion and love for his career was obvious to everyone around him. He never hesitated to go the extra mile for his students and regularly served as a mentor for those struggling with life crises. He taught me how to make a difference in students’ lives far beyond the classroom and what it means to be a true teacher.

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

Good professors serve as role models and guides in our disciplines. Our words and actions matter. Especially now as we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and national strife, our students must feel like their learning spaces are safe and welcoming. Good professors are passionate about what they teach and are student-centered, seeking to engage, inspire and challenge their learners and genuinely care about how they best learn. They offer clear explanations and cutting-edge information, help students connect concepts and push students to new heights, while remaining humble and approachable. In my experience, the magic happens when these conditions are present.

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

In week one of my undergraduate pediatric nursing class, I introduce the story of “Stone Soup.” This centuries-old story tells of a stranger who comes to a remote village with only a large cooking pot, seeking to make soup.

Within the class, we discuss how the story of Stone Soup relates to student engagement and learning. I point out that faculty-based lectures are akin to single-ingredient soups, unlike the rich depth of flavors that arise when students and faculty from a variety of backgrounds share experiences and ideas. Next, using the Poll Everywhere online platform, all class members (including faculty) anonymously indicate on a global map their family’s country of origin, providing an immediate visual cue about the collective geographical diversity in the classroom. We also discuss how collectively we represent other aspects of diversity, such as religion, class and sexual identity. These activities provide a platform upon which discussions of culturally responsive pediatric nursing care are subsequently based in the course.