College of LAS announces teaching and advising awards

Thirteen individuals will be honored at ceremony in April
Lincoln Hall
Professors, graduate students, and staff from across LAS are being honored for teaching and advising excellence.

Thirteen individuals from units across the College of LAS are receiving teaching and advising awards for excellence in educating and mentoring students at Illinois. They will be honored at a ceremony in April.

Professors Brian Allan, Manisha Basu, William Brieher, Philipp Hieronymi, and Sandra Ruiz have been selected by an awards committee to receive the LAS Dean’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. This honor grants the recipients $1,000 to support their teaching and research, while a one-time increment of $2,000 will be added to the annual salary base of each recipient.

Eric Denby, Katherine Norcross, Matthew Pitchford, Simone Sisneros-Thiry, Kristopher Weeks, and John Westbrook have been selected by an awards committee to receive the LAS Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching for Graduate Teaching Assistants. Recipients receive a $2,000 award.

David Todd Spinner is the winner of the LAS Academic Advising Award, granting him a $2,000 award. Karle Flanagan is the recipient of this year’s LAS Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching by Instructional Staff. This award provides Flanagan with $1,000 to use in support of teaching and research, and a one-time increment of $1,000 will be added to her annual salary base.

All winners will receive a commemorative plaque in honor of their awards.

“The individuals being honored have been at the forefront of some of our best efforts in teaching and advising,” said Feng Sheng Hu, Harry E. Preble Dean of the College of LAS. “We are enormously proud and grateful for the work of this year’s awardees.”

Summaries of the winners follow:

Brian Allan is a professor in the Department of Entomology. Allan has been at the University for eight years, and, according to one nominator, was born to teach. Allan’s mother, Susan Allan, was a nationally known educator whose insights have been embraced in Allan’s teaching. Allan has made the List of Teachers Rated Excellent by their students 17 times, earning a perfect 5.0 score in 11 semesters. Colleagues note his effectiveness and popularity, while students rave about his commitment to help students learn in a fun, memorable, and hands-on way.

Manisha Basu is a professor in the Department of English, where she has served since Fall 2008. Since joining the department, colleagues have seen Basu become an exemplary teacher. Basu consistently receives high student review scores, with many students praising her teaching style. Basu teaches ENGL 301: Critical Approaches to Literature and Texts, a course required for all English majors—and one known for its difficulty. However, Basu’s selection of texts and course structure is well-received by students who commend her for turning the class into an enjoyable learning experience.

William Brieher is a professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology. Colleagues commend Brieher for his innovative approach to encouraging critical thinking in students and showing them how to think like a scientist. Brieher brings research to the forefront of his teaching, often presenting two papers on the same subject—each of which come to different conclusions—and challenges students to explain opposing results. Brieher is also known for making tremendous efforts to make students feel comfortable in his classes.  

Philipp Hieronymi is a professor in the Department of Mathematics and the director of the Illinois Geometry Lab. Colleagues praise Hieronymi for his emphasis on active learning and creating a welcoming environment for all students. Students note that Hieronymi’s lectures make challenging topics seem easy, with lessons making a lasting impact on their college career. Hieronymi has also been instrumental in curriculum development, including designing lectures, assignments, exams, and instructional aids. Colleagues assert that Hieronymi is a key contributor to making the undergraduate experience at Illinois the best that it can be.

Sandra Ruiz is a professor in the Department of Latina/Latino Studies and the Department of English, serving in this role since 2013. She also received the Latina/Latino Teaching Award in 2018. Ruiz is a performance studies specialist and English Scholar, making her one of the primary instructors of LLS 385: Theory and Methods in LLS, one of the core required courses for the Latina/Latino studies major. Colleagues say that she not only expects students to learn the course material, but to embrace their learning actively, collaboratively, creatively, and critically. Students commend Ruiz her for dedication, passion, and encouragement to bring ideas to life.

Eric Denby is a graduate student and teaching assistant in the Department of History, where he has spent the last four years. Leading classes such as U.S. History to 1877 and Reacting to the Past, Riots, Revolutions, and Revolts have garnered him high evaluation scores, as well as glowing feedback from students. Students assert that Denby understands them on an individual level while he constructs lessons that allow them to explore course material in original and fascinating ways.

Katherine Norcross is a graduate student and teaching assistant in the Department of English. Norcross has taught a wide range of courses, from an advanced-level course on the history of the English language to a freshman composition course. Students assert that Norcross infuses energy and passion to course material, encouraging them to step outside of their comfort zone. Additionally, colleagues find that Norcross’ contributions to undergraduate education go beyond her work in the classroom, as she serves as a member of a medieval studies advisory committee and works hard to make her teaching lasting and relevant..

Matthew Pitchford is a graduate student and teaching assistant in the Department of Communication, where he joined as a master’s student in 2012. Pitchford has successfully taught a variety of courses, worked with students, served in mentoring and administrative roles, and made important contributions to the undergraduate curriculum. The department awarded Pitchford with a 2018 Marie Hochmuth Nichols Award for his involvement, which recognizes outstanding teaching among veteran teaching assistants. According to colleagues, Pitchford exemplifies the excellence, creativity, and student-centered teaching.

Simone Sisneros-Thiry is a graduate student and teaching assistant in the Department of Mathematics, and has taught calculus and calculus preparation courses to students both on campus and incarcerated at the Danville Correctional Center through the Education Justice Program. Colleagues note that Sisneros-Thiry has had a profound impact on her own students, while also contributing training other teaching assistants. According to colleagues, Sisneros-Thiry is a talented, experienced, and dedicated instructor whose impact on students is lasting and immeasurable.

Kristopher Weeks is a graduate student and teaching assistant for the Department of Communication who joined the department in 2014. Weeks has taught five different courses, served as a research and teaching mentor to undergraduates, and made valuable contributions to course development. The department honored Weeks with a 2018 Marie Hochmuth Nichols Award, which recognizes outstanding teaching among veteran teaching assistants. According to colleagues, Weeks stands out for his excellence and commitment to students both inside and outside of the classroom.

John Westbrook is a graduate student and teaching assistant for the Department of Psychology where he studies in the Clinical Community Psychology Program. Westbrook has taught PSYC 238: Psychopathology and Problems in Living, every semester since Fall 2015. Westbrook has become known for his strong interest and competence in teaching. Westbrook’s supervisor notes that he brings thoughtfulness, consciousness, and caring to his classroom endeavors, which has garnered him recognition on the university’s List of Excellent Teachers for each section he has taught.

David Todd Spinner is an academic adviser in the School of Chemical Sciences. Spinner has served Chemical Sciences as an adviser since 2010, and is the most senior adviser in the school both in terms of longevity and responsibility. Spinner has implemented several services and programs, including a program that tracks students who are struggling in major core classes and a redesign of major course sheets so students could more accurately track their course progression. Colleagues note that Spinner is committed to being available to his students, and students know him for his friendly and engaging demeanor, along with a complete knowledge of how he can assist their studies.

Karle Flanagan is an instructor in the Department of Statistics, where she began teaching Spring 2014. Flanagan is noted for her ease and skill in lecturing large audiences, such as introductory courses in Lincoln Hall Theater which draw hundreds of students. All told, Flanagan has taught around 10,000 students in the past five years, and consistently receives positive student feedback from statistics majors and non-majors alike. Additionally, Flanagan is known for successfully leading and impacting her large group of teaching assistants each semester, who oftentimes are non-majors who sign up as teaching assistants simply because they enjoyed the course and Flanagan’s teaching.

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Samantha Jones Toal