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What Makes an Excellent Professor?

The recipients of the 2020-2021 President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award reflect on their teaching — and what they have learned from their students.

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President's Associates Teaching Excellence Award recipients

As a leading university, The University of Texas at Austin attracts outstanding students who come here to study with our exceptional faculty. Known for breakthrough research and educational innovation, UT Austin is a place for discovery and exploration.

The 2020-2021 recipients of the President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award strive not only to instruct and provide information for the semester but also to inspire their students for a lifetime. As William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

A year of adjusting to the pandemic and to online learning has been accompanied by many challenges, including social isolation, additional family responsibilities and the deaths of relatives and friends. But these seven professors have adapted. By actively engaging with their classrooms and sometimes greatly changing their approaches, they have expanded the possibilities of teaching. Here are their reflections on the future of education.

Paul Bonin-Rodriguez
Associate Professor, Department of Theatre and Dance

UGS 303: The Power of Story; UGS 303: Art, (Your) Money, and the Nation; TD 375H: Honors Seminar; TD 391: Proseminar in Performance as Public Practice

Going into the pandemic, I knew that I would be engaging students on a more personal level, given the likelihood of illness and mortality from COVID-19. I did not know then that my partner would develop cancer and ultimately pass away in my penultimate week of teaching. Because we were on Zoom, and I did not have a leave, I kept teaching. I was honest with students about the situation. I structured the class to make more of student presentations and questions, so that the responsibility for learning was shared. I’ve become a much more understanding teacher, empowering students to share the podium with me.

I’ve become a much more understanding teacher, empowering students to share the podium with me.

Paul Bonin-Rodriguez

Sarah Brayne
Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology

SOC 302: Introduction to the Study of Society; SOC 396N: Crime, Punishment, and Inequality: A Sociological Perspective

When I started teaching, I focused a lot on my teaching itself — how I lectured, what readings I assigned and how I structured assignments and discussions. However, as my teaching evolved, I’ve come to focus much less on how I’m teaching and much more on whether, how and what my students are learning. A class is only as good as what students get out of it. Taking a student-focused learning approach has helped me to accommodate different learning styles and increase student engagement.

Taking a student-focused learning approach has helped me to accommodate different learning styles and increase student engagement.

Sarah Brayne

Jennifer Graber
Professor, Department of Religious Studies

RS 316C: History of Religion in the United States; RS 392T: Race and Religion in the Americas

I taught asynchronously for the first time this year. Keeping students engaged is a big challenge. I held an optional weekly coffee hour for students to chat casually about class material, which helped students who like to ask questions in face-to-face classes. I also established discussion threads for every class session, which helped quieter students find a format for asking questions, and asked students to respond to each other. I think this helped not only with engagement but also the loneliness students experienced during the pandemic.

I held an optional weekly coffee hour for students to chat casually about class material, which helped students who like to ask questions in face-to-face classes.

Jennifer Graber

Laura Lashinger
Associate Professor of Instruction, Department of Nutritional Sciences

NTR 312: Introduction to Nutritional Sciences; NTR 312H: Introduction to Nutritional Sciences for Honors; NTR 342: Advanced Nutritional Sciences; NTR 338W: Issues in Nutrition and Health; NTR 390: Advances in Nutritional Sciences I: Macronutrients

I have learned so much about science education during my time teaching here at UT. I have had so many wonderful opportunities to grow and strengthen my teaching skills through workshops, consults, evaluations and colleague interactions. Because of these experiences, I have moved away from a reliance on traditional lecturing and expanded discussion-based engagement with students in the classroom. I have developed learning strategies to engage the students both in and out of class to help with accessibility and approachability of very difficult content and concepts.

… I have moved away from a reliance on traditional lecturing and expanded discussion-based engagement with students in the classroom.

Laura Lashinger

Adam Rabinowitz
Associate Professor, Department of Classics

UGS 302: Tales of the Trojan War: From Bronze Age to Silver Screen

I see the future of teaching looking much like the past of teaching, but more conscious of the individual needs and perspectives of diverse students, and enhanced by digital platforms. New communication technologies — writing, then the printing press, then radio, then television, now the internet — help make the process richer, but essentially, learning is a dialogue between student and teacher and between students, and I don’t think that will change. I hope we’ll find ways to make that dialogue more joyful and fulfilling as we move forward.

… essentially, learning is a dialogue between student and teacher and between students, and I don’t think that will change.

Adam Rabinowitz

Sally Ragsdale
Associate Professor of Instruction, Department of Statistics and Data Sciences

SDS 328M: Biostatistics

Even when teaching the same classes year after year, I always find something each semester that I need to improve. Whether it’s a major course redesign like I’ve done a few times for Biostatistics or simply adding a more engaging activity to an especially dull lecture, one of my favorite things about teaching is the ongoing challenge of making my courses better.

… one of my favorite things about teaching is the ongoing challenge of making my courses better.

Sally Ragsdale

Kathryn Tackett
Associate Professor of Practice, Department of Special Education

ALD 322: Individual Differences; UGS 302: Autism and Neurodiversity; SED 303: Autism Spectrum Disorder: Truths and Consequences; SED 378T: Advanced Reading Methods; SED 332: Field Experiences in Special Education

I miss the small, spontaneous moments where I get to laugh with students; those moments go a long way toward building the type of communities I want in all my courses. Zoom just doesn’t allow those moments in the same way that the face-to-face classroom allows. I had to create times for these moments to happen over Zoom; I built in times for students to chat with (and laugh with) each other. I don’t know that prior to the pandemic I would have identified these moments as integral to my teaching, but I am looking forward to cultivating these moments when we are back together on the Forty Acres.

I miss the small, spontaneous moments where I get to laugh with students; those moments go a long way toward building the type of communities I want in all my courses.

Kathryn Tackett