Skip to main content

Seven faculty honored with 2017 University Teaching Awards

Awards celebrate excellence, innovation and influence in undergraduate teaching

EVANSTON - Seven faculty members will be honored with 2017 University Teaching Awards for outstanding performance and dedication to undergraduate education at Northwestern University.

Jeremy Birnholtz, Vasili Byros and Michael Jewett will each receive a Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence award. 

Nick Davis will receive The Alumnae of Northwestern Teaching Professor award.

Francesca Tataranni and Tracy Vaughn-Manley will receive the Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished University Professor of Instruction award.

Erin Waxenbaum will receive the Charles Deering McCormick University Distinguished Lecturer award.

Many of these professors have designed new courses and curriculum to ensure each student has the tools to succeed in life outside the classroom. 

A student described one professor’s unique approach as “one of the coolest teaching techniques I’ve ever seen.” Another stated that the professor demonstrates “a profound investment in students’ personal growth and education.” Yet another commended a professor for her ability to make the course material feel as “urgent, provocative and engaging as breaking news.”

Above all, students said, these professors have instilled in them a life-long love of learning.

The recipients will receive their awards at an installation ceremony at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 18, in the Guild Lounge in Scott Hall on the Evanston campus. All members of the Northwestern community are invited to attend the ceremony and reception.

Recipients of the University Teaching Awards will receive $7,000 as a salary supplement and $3,000 for professional development each year of the three-year term. An additional $3,000 award will be given to the recipients' home departments to support activities that enhance undergraduate education.

The process for selecting these award recipients begins with nominations from the deans of the schools or colleges in which the recipients have principal appointments. The selection committee -- chaired by Provost Daniel Linzer and including senior faculty members, University administrators and a student representative -- then selects the awardees.


Recipients of the 2017 Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence Awards:

Jeremy Birnholtz

Jeremy Birnholtz is an associate professor in the department of communication studies in the School of Communication and, by courtesy, in the department of electrical engineering and computer science in the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. His commitment to improving the undergraduate experience is demonstrated through the vast number of ways he engages student learning.

Birnholtz volunteered to serve as associate chair of his department, which credits him with reshaping an important part of the curriculum by developing several popular new courses into a new digital media module and helping faculty develop modules in other subfields.

Birnholtz describes his teaching philosophy as “continually experimenting with novel ways to get students actively involved in the learning process." He focuses on interactive and applied learning and created what he calls “undiscussion sections” as part of a “menu-based assignment structure” in which students self-direct their learning.

“Professor Birnholtz,” a student wrote, “is an effective teacher because he gives his students the tools they need to build their own interpretations about the evolving digital media field,” including creating a non-credit supplemental curriculum to prepare students to study computer programming.

Birnholtz also incorporates word cloud visualizations and student tweets based on class readings into lecture slides. A student explained, “He selects compelling readings, asks engaging questions and integrates social media and technology into assignments, rendering an exciting academic environment.”

As director of the NU Social Media Lab, Birnholtz has mentored 29 students in research supported by more than $100,000 in National Science Foundation Research funding for undergraduate stipends.

Students describe Birnholtz as a teacher with a “clear commitment to student learning above everything else” and as an educator who “has gone above and beyond in his commitment to improving the undergraduate experience.”

Birnholtz received his Ph.D. and M.S. from the University of Michigan and his B.S. from Northwestern.


Vasili Byros 

Vasili ByrosVasili Byros is an associate professor in music theory and cognition, department chair of music studies and coordinator of the advanced undergraduate music theory curriculum in the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music.

Byros teaches a sophomore honors sequence designed to engage undergraduates in a new curriculum built fundamentally around the principle of learning by doing. His reimagining of the year-long course resulted in an innovative, hands-on sequence that combines creative and analytical perspectives. Students critically examine the musical language of 18th-century composers and then imitate and recreate the styles through original compositions. For students this resulted, as one noted, in “writing things I did not know I was capable of.” Another wrote, “Professor Byros intentionally pushes the musical and philosophical implications to the absolute limits in the most intellectually challenging way.”

Byros describes teaching as “continually creating and sharing knowledge,” and he links this to the Humboldtian idea of higher-level education, which highlights the fluidity and ever-evolving nature of knowledge. Student comments reflect this perspective, with one writing, “He preached autodidacticism – the art of teaching oneself,” and another noting that “Byros emphasized that learning is not something that stops. To teach oneself to identify gaps in knowledge and then seek to fill these gaps is a skill that was central to his course.”

While students highly value Byros’s ingenuity as a musician, scholar and teacher and his “encyclopedic knowledge of the course content,” they say it is his approachability that makes him an inspiring mentor outside the classroom. “He gives attention to each of us as scholars and as individuals,” a student wrote. Another student expressed that everyone in Byros’s class had personal and inspirational individual meetings with him. Students’ high regard is reflected in twice naming him to the Faculty Honor Roll.

Byros received his Ph.D. in music theory from Yale University and an M.A. in music theory and music history and a B.A. in music from Queens’s College, CUNY.


Michael Jewett

Michael JewettMichael Jewett, an associate professor in the department of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and co-director of the Center for Synthetic Biology, has dedicated himself to high-quality education in the chemical and biological engineering sciences.

Jewett’s passion for advancing his discipline through excellent teaching led him to participate in the Junior Teaching Fellow Program at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. Jewett developed two new courses for McCormick, one of which broke ground as one of the first undergraduate synthetic biology courses in the country. Jewett also co-founded and co-led Northwestern's team in the international Genetically Engineered Machine competition.

Jewett has mentored more than 30 undergraduates in his lab. Many of them have gone on to graduate school. Students describe Jewett’s enthusiasm and talent for teaching undergraduates as unmatched at the University, saying course evaluation scales “don’t go high enough to describe his energy level.”

Described by students as “a fantastic teacher,” “very knowledgeable” and “always willing to answer questions,” Jewett is characterized as “not only engaging each student but truly wanting the whole class to succeed.” Student comments consistently highlight that he actively sought feedback on comprehension of material and new topics. One student pointed to Jewett’s teaching innovation, “Muddiest Points,” in which he collects and answers questions from students on concepts that require further explanation; the student described it as “one of the coolest teaching techniques I've ever seen.”

In recognition of his teaching, Jewett received the Cole-Higgins Award for Excellence in Teaching and has twice been named to the Faculty Honor Roll. Jewett’s advocacy of the sciences extends to programs he initiated with Chicago Public School high school teachers with the Office of STEM Education Partnerships in preparing the next generation of undergraduates.

Jewett received his Ph.D. and M.S. from Stanford University and his B.S. from the University of California, Los Angeles. 


Recipient of the 2017 The Alumnae of Northwestern Teaching Professor Award:

Nick Davis

Nick DavisNick Davis is an associate professor who holds dual appointments in English and in gender and sexuality studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. His undergraduate teaching ranges across the spectrum, from first-year seminars to large introductory lectures to research-intensive upper division courses to one-on-one advising, most recently on a senior thesis that took top honors.

Davis teaches an interdisciplinary, introductory course on film and literature that requires students to delve deeply into multiple approaches to content, analysis and writing styles. The English department considers it one of the most rigorous courses in the curriculum, even as it draws record enrollment.

Davis conceives of teaching as “an active laboratory where successful experiments stoke desires to ask new questions.” That approach is reflected in his role as a junior fellow at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. Davis has received numerous teaching awards, including the Distinguished Teaching Award from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the Distinguished Teaching Excellence Award from the School of Professional Studies and three appointments to the Faculty Honor Roll.

Davis’s talent for blending teaching and mentorship prompted his invitation to be a Posse Scholar Mentor for 10 first-year students. Students describe Davis's teaching as “life changing,” noting that he maintains high expectations and cares about each student’s progress. One student wrote, “I learned a lot about the history of film and the way film connects to culture in the world.” Another stated that Davis displays “a profound investment in students’ personal growth and education.”

Colleagues describe Davis as “both a teacher and a mentor who provides a personalized, rigorous, capacious and joyful educational experience that enables Northwestern’s undergraduates from all backgrounds, with all levels of preparation, to thrive.”

Davis received his Ph.D. in English and American literature with a concentration in film and video studies from Cornell University, where he also earned his M.A.; he received his A.B. from Harvard University. 


Recipients of the 2017 Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished University Professor of Instruction Awards:

Francesca Tataranni 

Francesca TataranniFrancesca Tataranni is a professor of instruction in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, where she teaches Latin language and literature, Roman history and receptions of classical antiquity in contemporary theater, literature and architecture. In her teaching, Tataranni brings passion for teaching classics, a commitment to rigor and creativity to the classroom.

From her introductory level to advanced seminar courses, Tataranni takes care in the development and execution of every course component. She designed the Latin curriculum currently used by the department, has won numerous grants to develop new methods and new courses, is a recipient of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences Alumni Teaching Award and has been elected to the ASG Faculty Honor Roll eight times. In the classroom, Tataranni utilizes emerging technology to aid in students’ learning, including her seminar “Ancient Rome in Chicago,” in which students research points of interest around Chicago and ultimately create a shared digital map featuring a virtual walking tour of the sites, complete with added student commentary in the form of video essays.

Tataranni aims to prepare her students for lives characterized by intellectual curiosity, a commitment to social justice and equity and a love of life-long learning. Students share that one of Tataranni’s strengths is her dedication to giving them the tools to do their own research and explore their own passions. Students describe feeling respected as intellectuals in her class, and Tataranni’s student research advisee notes, “She makes a large university easily navigable.” Ultimately, Francesca is committed to her students’ holistic success, which does not go unnoticed. As one former student recalled, “Professor Tataranni is an astoundingly good professor, deeply invested in making sure her students comprehend the material. She is extremely skilled in ensuring they do so, and it showed.” 

Tataranni received her Ph.D. in ancient history and a Laurea (equivalent to a B.A. in classics and M.A. in Roman history) from the University of Pisa.


Tracy L Vaughn-Manley 

Tracy Vaughn ManleyTracy L. Vaughn-Manley is an associate professor of liberal arts in residence at Northwestern University-Qatar and an associate professor of instruction in the department of African American studies and, by courtesy, the department of English at Northwestern’s Evanston campus.

Vaughn-Manley said her teaching philosophy is to “create and maintain an environment that is physically, emotionally, intellectually and culturally safe and conducive to the free-exchange of thoughts and ideas.” It’s an exacting challenge anywhere but particularly in Qatar, with students from 31 countries representing many ethnicities and creeds.

Vaughn-Manley said she finds tremendous joy and responsibility in teaching students “the power and beauty of literature to be a prism through which many facets of the human condition can be reflected.”

Vaughn-Manley’s dean describes her as “an excellent teacher with the capacity to confront people from different cultures with concepts and ideas about diversity, tolerance and artistic expression.”

Student comments testify to Vaughn-Manley’s success in “learning the importance of understanding different perspectives through others’ lives.” One student described Vaughn-Manley as “a source of inspiration,” and another student wrote simply, “I became more tolerant.” Students characterize Vaughn-Manley as “interactive,” “dynamic” and with a passionate love of literature that makes it feel “urgent, provocative and as engaging as breaking news.”

Students point to the “kindness and thoughtfulness with which she responds to every student’s contribution, no matter how small,” saying it promotes their becoming more effective writers and communicators. They describe Vaughn-Manley as a role model and cheerleader for the young women she teaches, with one current Ph.D. candidate writing, “I credit my academic success to Professor Vaughn.” A student summarized, “Teaching is Professor Vaughn’s calling, and she answers it earnestly every day at NU-Q.”

Vaughn-Manley received her Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Massachusetts and her B.A. from California State University, San Bernardino. 


Recipient of the 2017 Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Lecturer Award:

Erin Waxenbaum

Erin WaxenbaumErin Waxenbaum is a senior lecturer in the department of anthropology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “Her knowledge of anthropology” a student stated, “is only outmatched by her enthusiasm to teach the subject. 

Described by students as magnetic, one student wrote, “she was able to captivate a room of anthropology majors and non-majors alike,” while another noted, “I would recommend her course for anyone of any background.” Waxenbaum’s ability, as described by a student, to “effectively translate complex subjects into something everyone can understand” has been recognized through election to the Faculty Honor Roll three times and an Access Ability award.

Waxenbaum says education should be “collaborative, inclusive and integrative.” She has translated this ideology, with the support of two Hewlett Fund for Curricular Innovation Awards, into an experiential teaching pedagogy.

In addition to introducing five new classes, Waxenbaum revised an introductory course, which subsequently drew new levels of enrollment. Her department credits her as a key driver in doubling the number of anthropology majors, writing that she “sets a model for the incorporation of hands-on learning into a large lecture class.”

Waxenbaum serves undergraduates as a first-year advisor as well as a supervisor to seniors on their capstone theses. She has played an instrumental role in seniors receiving Undergraduate Research Grants.  Waxenbaum also has helped students engage the Chicago community through her positions as research associate at the Field Museum and forensic anthropologist for the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. Her relationship with students often continues beyond graduation as a collaborator on research projects and papers. In recognition of her outstanding mentorship of undergraduates, her department recently created the position of undergraduate advisor specifically for Waxenbaum. 

Waxenbaum earned her Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Florida and both her M.A. and B.A. in anthropology from Brandeis University. 


View past University Teaching Awards recipients on the Office of the Provost website.