Ten faculty to receive Distinguished Teaching Awards

April 10, 2010

By Ellen Page and Liz Beyler

Each year, the Committee on Distinguished Teaching Awards honors faculty for teaching excellence. They will receive their awards at a ceremony on Wednesday, April 21 at 3:30 p.m. at the Pyle Center.

This year’s award recipients are:

Emily Auerbach, professor of liberal studies and the arts and English, Van Hise Outreach Award

Since beginning her teaching career at UW-Madison in 1983, Auerbach has taught numerous undergraduate and independent study courses, continuing education classes and workshops. She has lectured at retirement centers, public libraries, service organizations, churches, schools, community groups and correctional institutions.

Auerbach has also taught via the airwaves, co-hosting Wisconsin Public Radio’s “University of the Air” for 15 years.

“To read her curriculum vitae is an exercise in humility,” wrote Thomas Schaub, chair of the English department, in support of her nomination. “Can there be anyone on this campus or in the UW System who embodies more powerfully and energetically the Wisconsin Idea?”

Auerbach founded the UW-Madison Odyssey Project, now in its seventh year. It provides six free credits to help those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford college and put them back on track for college coursework. 

“It took her three years to raise the money and to get the institutional support needed to launch it,” said Schaub.

Auerbach said of the Odyssey Project: “We have students who were homeless, incarcerated, or on drugs who now have degrees or are nearing degrees. Their children are doing better in school and thinking of college. They read more, vote more and speak out more.”

James Campbell, chair of the Department of Liberal Studies and the Arts, describes Auerbach as an imaginative innovator, a highly productive scholar, an exceptional teacher and an outstanding example of the Wisconsin Idea.

In 2001 Auerbach directed “Jane Austen in the 21st Century: A Humanities Festival,” a 40-event festival for the university’s Center for the Humanities. It featured talks at churches, hospitals, bookstores, libraries and other venues, and some 4,000 people attended.

Kegan Carter, one of Auerbach’s first Odyssey students, says Auerbach embodies the definition of grace. Carter said Auerbach extends any resources she has to help her students not only deal with educational hardships, but life-altering circumstances as well.

“She is able to see the unlimited potential in those who cannot see it for themselves. She proves to students that she is willing to invest in their success and that she believes in them,” says Carter. “Her encouragement is invaluable, because it stimulates the drive and determination necessary for her students to move along the path to educational advancement.”

Auerbach says: “I love literature because it expands my sense of humanity. I love teaching literature because a powerful poem, play, story, novel, or essay can change lives, and because no two students respond to a literary text in the same way. I come away enriched and enlightened.”

Auerbach says outreach teaching gives her tremendous satisfaction because the students she works with are so diverse.

“I learn something new every day and I am so glad that the UW makes a commitment to the Wisconsin Idea of viewing the borders of the classroom as the borders of the state,” she says.


Richard Avramenko, assistant professor of political science and integrated liberal studies, William H. Kiekhofer Award

“I try to punctuate the cerebral lecture with gut-level lessons,” says Avramenko about his teaching style. “I reference movies they’re likely familiar with to illustrate difficult ideas. Sometimes I chastise them for not knowing classic movies they ought to know … There is no better teaching tool for Plato’s ‘Republic’ than ‘The Matrix.’”

This comment illustrates Avramenko’s current approach to teaching: something he’s calling “smells and bells pedagogy.” He’s developing his theory by teaching students not only via traditional methods of lecture and PowerPoint, but also by playing music, displaying art, burning incense and showing films that will stimulate students’ senses and gradually contribute to their better understanding of the subject matter.

“I aim to create a theoretical mood in the classroom,” Avramenko says. “My hope is to inculcate a habit of mind that makes asking questions of justice and all those other ‘ought’ questions a natural part of our everyday lives, which is proximity and, for the most part, informed by sounds, sights and smells.”

With primary research interests in ancient and continental political thought, Avramenko also anchors the department’s political theory program, according to nominator John Coleman, chair of the Department of Political Science. “He played the lead role in changing the structure of the political theory Ph.D. preliminary examinations to make them more consistent with the approach in other subfields in the department,” writes Coleman. Avramenko also has three books in various stages of completion and ran the political theory colloquium for the past two academic years.

In addition to his undergraduate teaching, Avramenko also focuses on his graduate teaching, playing a central role as a mentor.

“I make efforts to make sure that when they get their own academic jobs that they have some teaching skills of their own,” says Avramenko. He requires his teaching assistants to give at least one lecture per semester, videotaping the lectures and watching them with the graduate students to discuss teaching techniques and look for areas of improvement.

“Going ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ doesn’t begin to describe Avramenko’s role in mentoring graduate students’ teaching,” writes Coleman. “Professor Richard Avramenko is a pedagogical master.”’

Kathleen Sell, distinguished lecturer in the Integrated Liberal Studies Program, has sat in on one of Avramenko’s classes.

“I enjoyed his lecture about Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’ as much as his students did, and felt for a moment as if I were back with my own major professor, someone I’ve lauded for decades for his coherent and compelling presentation of material,” she writes. “He can relate to our students with intriguing examples from contemporary culture in a way that doesn’t come across as simply clever but actually facilitates learning.”

Avramenko earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Calgary, his master’s degree in political science from Carleton University and his Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University.


Donald Davis, associate professor of Languages and Cultures of Asia, Class of 1955 Distinguished Teaching Award

Davis says teaching is less about communicating information and more about inspiring students to learn, discover and create for themselves.

“The most satisfying thing is to wait, watch and witness as they slowly realize that in the end I teach them nothing and they teach themselves everything,” he says.

Davis joined the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia (LCA) in 2004 as a specialist in South Asian religions with a focus on Hinduism. He has expertise in other South Asian religions and he is a specialist in Sanskrit literature and language.

He has taught courses in Hinduism, Hindu Law, Law and Religion, and Jainism. In addition, he has supervised several undergraduate theses in both LCA and Religious Studies, as well as teaching the inaugural Capstone Seminar in Asian Humanities for his department in fall 2009.
This spring he is teaching Comparative Religious Law, a graduate seminar on Hindu intellectual traditions and LCA 100: Introduction to Cultures of Asia.

Robert Bickner, chair of Davis’ department, describes him as an impressive teacher who continually innovates and inspires in the classroom.

“He is also responsible for the development of a new undergraduate curriculum and a new major in LCA,” said Bickner in nominating Davis for his award. “He has been an indispensable colleague at the prestigious South Asia Summer Language Institute.”

Colleagues and students of Davis describe him as perceptive, thoughtful and intellectually rigorous with a vibrant classroom presence.

“Dr. Davis’ overall performance as a teacher can only be described as extraordinary,” notes Bickner. “He is at once helpful and challenging, knowledgeable and stimulating, and he brings the same qualities to his role as student advisor and mentor.”

Davis recently became one of the faculty advisors for an interdisciplinary Religions of Asia group of students who meet regularly to discuss current research and theory in that field.

Bickner said Davis has helped to nurture a sense of intellectual community and a shared academic spirit among graduate students.

“He is by nature a community builder who makes a sincere effort to build bridges and connect people,” said Bickner.
One of Davis’ students says he encourages his students to teach and learn alongside their peers, ensuring that they are exposed to diverse viewpoints.

“His use of cross-cultural and cross-discipline materials to enhance his classes forces his students to hear unfamiliar perspectives. There was rarely a class of his that I did not leave thinking in a new and different way than when I entered the classroom,” the student says.

Says Davis: “The thing I enjoy most about teaching is the thrill of learning myself, both through the students' engagement with the material and with me, and through the challenge of trying to present the complexities of human life in manageable, but inspiring, units of time and thought.”


Wei Dong, professor of design studies, School of Human Ecology, Chancellor’s Award

Since joining the Department of Design Studies and the interior design program in 1993, Dong has been “a significant force,” write nominators Diane Sheehan, chair of the design studies department, and Suzanne Scott, faculty associate.

In addition to his work in design visualization and communication and integration of digital media to the design process, Dong’s dedication to developing global awareness among the department is clear: “He has worked to set guidelines and open doors for collaborations between the University of Wisconsin and universities in Asia through participation in the chancellor’s Asian Partnership Initiative, the cluster hire initiative for visual culture and membership on the UW committee established to create guidelines for achieving global competency for UW students,” Scott and Sheehan write.

Dong’s teaching has been innovative from the start, according to his nominators. “He was the first educator within [the Interior Design Educators Council] to introduce and execute what he called ‘the virtual design studio’ linking design students at UW-Madison, UW-Stevens Point and the University of Australia in Sydney in a collaborative design experience.”

His teaching focus isn’t traditionally based: “He is a teacher of ways to think and see in new ways that integrate the theory and technology of visual analysis and communication with perspectives of design,” write Sheehan and Scott. “His approach is innovative and offers students a broader understanding of design and a perspective on design problem-solving, suited to the global marketplace they will face upon graduation.”

Student Erin Hamilton agrees. “To see a professor who not only accomplishes so much in his teaching with his students, but also invests himself so fully in other research projects, cultural and social issues, is awe-inspiring,” she writes. “Wei’s unique perspective of design education as a global issue impacts the high quality of his teaching and the significant contributions he has made to the design profession.”

Dong teaches one of the university’s most successful study-abroad courses, Chinese Culture, Arts, Design and Feng Shui, with more than 60 percent of current interior design majors taking the course in the last two summers. The course also is the first for the School of Human Ecology and was developed entirely by Dong.

Dong is a member of the UW-Madison Teaching Academy, has given many juried presentations at Interior Design Educators Council international conferences, in addition to presentations and workshops at universities across the U.S., Asia and the Middle East. Dong is committed to sustainability, particularly to China, its culture and preserving its traditional architecture and the feng shui philosophy behind it. This dedication led to his work as a consultant to William McDonough, a world-renowned architect and sustainability expert.

Additionally, Dong recently was a member of a UW-Madison delegation that recently traveled to China with Chancellor Biddy Martin.

Dong earned his bachelor’s degree in arts and interior design from TsingHua University in Beijing and his master of fine arts degree in interior environment from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Judith Leavitt, Ruth Bleier WARF Professor of medical history, history of science and women’s studies and UW Foundation Chair Rupple-Bascom Professor, Chancellor’s Award


Leavitt enjoyed the student interaction she got from teaching high school students so much that she decided to pursue further education that would allow her to teach college students.

“At UW, I taught smaller classes and had the opportunity to get back to engaging students in active learning,” Leavitt says. “The classroom is the place where discussion happens — students can expect to be not just challenged, but furthered, and I can see how they are beginning to examine ideas and find that there’s not only one way of thinking.”

Having taught at UW-Madison since 1975, Leavitt plans to retire in August. She has developed numerous courses over the years, on subjects that instructed students about the experience of patients, the experience of illness and the experience of women, writes nominator Susan Lederer, chair of the Department of Medical History and Bioethics.

Leavitt is currently teaching a gender and women’s studies course in childbirth in the U.S., examining childbirth experiences, how birth has changed and why, and what women’s birth experiences have been. “Students see this as something they will probably experience in their own lives, and it makes them think about the kinds of births they might want to plan,” says Leavitt.

Leavitt has been heavily involved in the School of Medicine and Public Health throughout her career, chairing the school’s admissions committee and the medical history and bioethics department, serving as associate dean for faculty and chairing the search committee for the current dean of the school.

At the university level, she helped develop the Women’s Studies Program and has served on many committees, including the Committee on Day Care, the University Committee and the committee examining the conduct of the athletics department.

“I still recall my wonderment, 33 years ago, sitting in her class, Public Health in America, realizing that it might be possible to be a professor and still retain a sense of humor, compassion, enthusiasm and scholarly rigor all at the same time,” writes Lederer. “This is what Judy provides in her teaching: a commitment to evidence, an investment in clarity of expression and argument, a sense of the human dimensions of historical events and actors, and an opportunity to rethink our present and future in light of what we have learned about our histories.”

Andrew Ruis, a graduate student of Leavitt’s, says she has been a “source of unflagging support of both my work as a historian and me as a person.”

“What makes Judy a truly exceptional teacher, however, is the amount of effort she expends on teaching outside of the classroom,” he adds. “Not only is she willing to meet with students outside of class, she takes an interest in their lives, not just their academics.”

Leavitt earned her bachelor’s degree in social science from Antioch College and her master’s degree and Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago.

Mahesh Mahanthappa, assistant professor of chemistry, Emil H. Steiger Award

In four years at UW-Madison, Mahanthappa “has rapidly distinguished himself as the outstanding young teacher in our department,” writes nominator Robert Hamers, chair of the Department of Chemistry. In the fall of 2007, Mahanthappa received the highest evaluation score of any faculty or staff member in any undergraduate course, and he has continued that excellence since.

“Professor Mahanthappa’s ability to communicate is the first step in his magic as a teacher, because in captivating a room of 250 freshmen by talking about chemistry, he sets the stage to teach meaningfully and to inspire students in a way rarely accomplished,” writes student Lauren Buckley. “All professors know the material they teach and most find it fascinating, but Professor Mahanthappa’s ability to share both his knowledge and excitement is a defining factor of his effectiveness as a teacher. He showed you that if you knew the concepts and were immersed in the language of chemistry, you would eventually learn it like you do any foreign language.”

Mahanthappa’s teaching has even inspired students to pursue careers in chemistry. “From the first day [of Chemistry 109] when Professor Mahanthappa blew up a hydrogen balloon and asked us to describe what happened, I was captivated by the complexity of the chemical universe,” writes junior Steven Banik. “I was expecting to major in anthropology and chose to take Chemistry 109 purely on a whim at my student orientation. Professor Mahanthappa’s teaching style and passion for the material convinced me to pursue a career in chemistry.”

Mahanthappa is heavily involved in the department’s graduate education program, with efforts in graduate student recruiting and work on a two-day symposium preparing students for chemistry careers post-graduation.

Mahanthappa received a 3M Nontenured Faculty Award in 2008 and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2009 for his research in polymer chemistry, an area that bridges organic, inorganic and physical chemistry, with connections to chemical engineering and materials science.

 “It often seems that no matter what you’re interested in, Mahesh can speak intelligently about what’s known, what’s not known and what are the really interesting challenges ahead,” writes Hamers. “His mastery of the literature is already legendary in our department, and it is not unusual for senior faculty to go to him when they have questions.”
Mahanthappa also received the chemistry department’s James W. Taylor Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2009.

“When our department decided to make the award to Mahesh, I took the opportunity to surprise everyone by making the announcement in front of his Chem 109 class,” writes Hamers. “The response from his students was so loud and enthusiastic that I was simply awed that a class of students this size (and the class was filled to capacity — also a good sign!)  would provide that kind of positive feedback.”

Mahanthappa earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics from the University of Colorado-Boulder and his Ph.D. in chemistry from Stanford.

Kirin Narayan, professor of anthropology, Chancellor’s Award

Narayan “became a teacher known for beguiling stories, for probing and gently challenging pedagogy, for addressing the student as a whole-souled person,” write nominators Neil Whitehead, chair of the Department of Anthropology, and Frank Salomon, head of the cultural anthropology section. “She came to demand that by study, one become intellectually poised and clear-minded, rather than just better informed.”

Whitehead and Salomon write that Narayan has “pioneered a new kind of anthropology teaching” at UW-Madison, with a goal of teaching literarily informed writing as a way to ethnography, encouraging students to develop writing styles that are faithful their cultural experiences.

“The forge of this effort has been, above all, Kirin Narayan’s much-demanded, always overenrolled course on Ethnographic Writing,” write Whitehead and Salomon. “It’s emphases are, first, to have students break the ice of disciplinary formality to get experience into lively prose, and then, through intensive editing and rewriting, to reinforce it with rigorous scholarship. Supportive mutual critique builds students’ abilities.”

Though courses on ethnographic writing traditionally focus on the reading of classic texts, Narayan uses writing exercises with readings to help students develop their writing skills in addition to a better understanding of ethnography. Two of her students have received the Iwanter Prize, awarded by the Center for the Humanities for a senior thesis that “demonstrates outstanding humanities-based scholarship of a broad and interdisciplinary nature.”

Students both former and current praise Narayan’s teaching. “Professor Narayan brought such a vibrant intellectual energy to the classroom that students left feeling both invigorated and frustrated. Invigorated in the sense that we, as a class, had succeeded in the difficult task of critically thinking about, engaging and debating course material, and frustrated in the knowledge that each class was just the beginning of even deeper, more difficult explorations that each of us would have to undertake as part of our own intellectual curiosities and individual class projects,” writes former student Jim Hoesterey. “Evoking that sort of feeling and motivation in students does not come easily and, I believe, is precisely what sets Professor Narayan apart from other excellent educators.”

An undergraduate wrote that “her teaching … help[ed] me to realize how interesting and rich my own culture is, that I have never known about before.”

Another student of Narayan’s, Markel Molkentin, says that Narayan has an important personal touch.

“I am impressed with Professor Narayan’s willingness to write about personal life experiences, such as her novel, “My Family and Other Saints. This book inspired me to see that professors are real people with similar life challenges, hopes, disappointments and challenges,” Molkentin wrote.

Narayan has been a professor at UW-Madison since 1999, presenting the Distinguished Humanities Lecture in 2008 and receiving multiple honors and awards, including the 2009 Kellett Mid-Career Award and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2006.
She received her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Sarah Lawrence College and her master’s degree and Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California-Berkeley.

James Ntambi, professor of biochemistry and nutritional sciences, Chancellor’s Award

For 16 of his 17 years at UW-Madison, James Ntambi has taught the metabolism section of Biochemistry 501: Introduction to Biochemistry. It serves about 800 students each year and is one of the most demanding courses in biochemistry, according to department chair Elizabeth Craig.
Ntambi’s students have described him as amazing, approachable, engaging, energetic, and entertaining.

“James is a talented teacher and a highly accomplished lecturer both inside and outside the classroom,” Craig notes in her nomination of Ntambi.

“His dedication to teaching has taken him from undergraduate biochemistry classrooms to the development and teaching of a hands-on experience course in international health and nutrition to UW-Madison undergraduates.”

Craig said Ntambi embodies the philosophy that an educational experience at the UW is multi-faceted and involves efforts outside the classroom as well as within it.

“His contribution to international education is a significant service to our department, the university and the international community,” wrote Craig.

Ntambi is a co-founder of Uganda Study Abroad, an extraordinary course known as International Ag 375: International Health and Nutrition. It was the first UW study abroad program to focus on public health issues and to introduce undergraduates to the realities of village life in developing countries.

The students who take the course apply the biochemistry they learn in the classroom to real world problems. They take a three-week trip to Uganda, where they work in villages and see nutritional, environmental and public health problems first-hand.

More than 120 students and 20 UW-Madison and Makerere University faculty members have participated in the program to date.
One student wrote that the Uganda trip has inspired many of the UW students who have participated in it.

“The inspiration subsequently led to the formation of a student organization called the Village Health Project (VHP) to which James has been serving as an advisor since its founding.”

Kenneth Shapiro, chair of the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, and John Ferrick, director of international programs in CALS, worked closely with Ntambi on the Uganda nutrition and public health program and say it is an excellent example of the remarkable impact Ntambi has had on the UW undergraduate educational experience.

“It provided a model for the university’s short term programs, which are now the new frontier in study abroad.  Secondly, it led the Center for Global Health to ask for James’ help in establishing a similar program for graduate students in health professions,” says Shapiro.

Ntambi says that what he enjoys most about teaching is having the ability to teach his students material that can be transferred from the classroom and applied to real world health problems and hands-on experiences. “I endeavor to provide them with opportunities to learn more about themselves and the environment in which they live,” he says, “and I am proud that the students I have taught and mentored are already having a positive impact on science education, research and advancement of human health in the U.S. and abroad.”

Antonia Schleicher, professor of African languages and literature, Chancellor’s Award

Schleicher came to UW-Madison nearly 20 years ago and she has played a very active role in revolutionizing the teaching of less commonly taught languages – African languages in particular.

Dustin Cowell, chair of the Department of African Languages and Literature, noted that, in that field, she is one of the major voices in North America today.

Schleicher established the National African Language Resource Center (NALRC) here at UW-Madison in 1999  -- the only such research center in the U.S. -- and she has worked to expand it through successive federal grants. She has won grants of nearly $5 million for developing innovative resources and programs for the effective teaching and learning of African languages.

Schleicher has been director of the NALRC since 1999. She also directs the African Languages Flagship Center at UW-Madison.
In 2008 she received an Exceptional Service Award from the university’s First Year Interest Group (FIG) program for teaching freshman for four consecutive years.

She has also established the Flagship Program in Yoruba, the only program of its kind in the U.S.

“With this program, our university stands at the undisputed forefront of training students at the undergraduate and graduate levels in this important West African language,” said Cowell in his nomination of Schleicher. One of Schleicher’s former FIG students wrote about her freshman class on Yoruba life and culture.

“She tries to involve all five of our senses in her technique. She brings in videos that both she and her colleagues created, artwork, music, and even food to stimulate and educate her students,” said the student.
Schleicher is also said to be a nurturing mentor for many graduate students in linguistics and language pedagogy. A graduate student noted that Schleicher is always available to her students and is unfailingly pleasant and patient.

“Antonia encourages her students to take their learning far beyond the classroom, far beyond the boundaries of the campus,” said Greg Smith, assistant director of the First-Year Interest Groups. “Through her encouragement and assistance, a number of her FIG students have participated in study abroad and internship experiences in Africa – something they never anticipated when they first set foot on this campus.”

Schleicher says that for her teaching is both exhilarating and enlightening.

“I truly enjoy the transformational power of good teaching,” she says. “Good teaching should transform both the teacher and the learners. As we are discussing issues raised by my students, I become a learner and my students are now co-learners with me.  For me, that is simply empowering.”

“I teach a language that most Americans have never heard of,” says Schleicher, “and it gives me an amazing level of satisfaction when, by the middle of the semester, some of the students who have never heard of Yoruba before are now telling me that they that they want to major in African languages and literature or get a certificate in African Studies. “These students’ lives are never going to be the same, and neither will mine, for encountering them in my classes.”

Tracy Schroepfer, assistant professor, School of Social Work, Chancellor’s Award

Schroepfer began teaching in the School of Social Work in 2003. She is affiliated with the Institute on Aging, the Center for Patient Partnerships, the Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the Department of Population Health Sciences. She is also director of the university’s Part-Time Master of Social Work program.

Schroepfer specializes in the fields of aging, end-of-life and palliative care and she has put significant effort into recruiting and retaining of students of color and first-generation students. Her own background has influenced her passion for teaching.

“I am a first-generation college student from a working class background,” she says. “I found myself at age 24 living in a trailer, raising a child on my own, very poor with only a high school education. I had no idea how to register for college.”
Schroepfer says she was fortunate to have teachers who mentored her, believed in her, and encouraged her.

Her community-based participatory research with medically underserved communities across Wisconsin focuses on access to cancer care, and her second area of research on determining the psycho-social  needs of terminally ill elders.

“Tracy’s scholarship combined with her commitment to engaging communities of color in research is transforming the quality of end-of-life care across the state,” said Jan Greenberg, director of the School of Social Work in his department’s nomination of Schroepfer.
Greenberg said Schroepfer sets high expectations for students and couples them with ample encouragement.

“Her door is always open,” said one of her students. “She is also very passionate about her work and her area of specialization. It is inspiring.”

Schroepfer speaks to health care providers and consumers across the state, and her relationships with state and county agencies and many of the American Indian nations in Wisconsin are said to be exceptional.

“Tracy has distinguished herself within the school and the broader university community as a leader and role model for working with others in culturally competent ways,” says Greenberg.

Schroepfer believes in student empowerment and leadership. In partnership with Carmen Hotvedt, University Health Services violence prevention specialist, she developed and continues to teach two peer education service learning courses with undergraduates throughout the university.  

Promoting Awareness and Victim Empowerment (PAVE) is a course that seeks to engage students on issues of sexual violence and other forms of gender violence.  Greek Men for Violence Prevention (GMVP) was created for students in fraternities to provide a forum for these men to learn strategies for combating sexism in their own lives.

Schroepfer says she gains great personal and professional satisfaction from working hard to be an effective teacher.

“I believe that in order for students to truly listen and learn, they must first know that the material is relevant to their personal and professional lives. If I do my job well, I bring the outside world into the classroom so that students can see exactly how the content is relevant to their personal and professional lives,” she says.