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Five honored with University Teaching Awards

Annual award recognizes faculty who demonstrate excellence in undergraduate teaching
university teaching awards
This year’s recipients of University Teaching Awards are (from upper left): Masi Asare, Barbara Butts, Mei-Ling Hopgood, Ilya Mikhelson and Cynthia Nazarian. Honorees were selected by a committee chaired by the provost and made up of senior faculty members, University administrators and a student representative.

Five Northwestern faculty members — Masi Asare, Barbara Butts, Mei-Ling Hopgood, Ilya Mikhelson and Cynthia Nazarian — are being honored with 2024 University Teaching Awards. The annual recognition is given to professors who demonstrate excellence and innovation in undergraduate teaching.

“These amazing individuals remind us of the huge impact faculty can make on our students’ lives — not only while they are at Northwestern, but long after they've graduated,” Provost Kathleen Hagerty said. “I am so proud of each of them and grateful for their talent and dedication to the success of our students.”

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These amazing individuals remind us of the huge impact faculty can make on our students’ lives...”

Provost Kathleen Hagerty

The recipients were nominated by the deans of the schools or colleges in which they have principal appointments. Honorees were selected by a committee chaired by the provost and made up of senior faculty members, University administrators and a student representative.

“I’m delighted we are honoring these five faculty members who show such tremendous passion and commitment for teaching,” said Miriam Sherin, associate provost for undergraduate education. “Their use of innovative and inclusive practices highlights the best of undergraduate teaching at Northwestern.”

The award includes a salary stipend for the next three years as well as funds for professional development. The term begins at the start of the 2024-2025 academic year.

The awards ceremony is scheduled for Wednesday, May 22, in Guild Lounge on the Evanston campus. The event will be livestreamed.

Masi Asare

Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence 

Masi Asare is a songwriter, dramatist, vocalist and performance scholar. As an instructor of theater and an artist, she champions the idea that today’s musical theater artists “are part of musical theater history and what it does in the world.” Her department chair added, “In creating musical worlds, her ears and eyes are attentive to the moment we are in and the complex histories of race, gender and politics that shape the realities of our world.” 

Asare’s emphasis on unpacking the history of the art forms she teaches ensures that her students make thoughtful choices about their own work. One student shared that Asare “has such an understanding of the medium of musical theater, synthesizing the many forms it has taken and pushing forward ideas about places it can go.”

Empowering and challenging her students is a priority for Asare, both intellectually and technically. Praising Asare’s anatomical understanding of the voice, one student shared, “She brought sounds out of students none of us had ever created.” Of Asare’s academic rigor, a student said, “She has every intention to challenge the preconceived notions of everyone in the classroom, including herself.”  

Asare’s versatility as an instructor is also admired by her peers and her chair, who described her as “a highly skilled and multidimensional teacher in both undergraduate and graduate programs. She is as comfortable teaching theory as she is teaching practice, music theater history as much as lyric writing and vocal technique.”

Asare is an assistant professor in the department of theatre in the School of Communication.

Barbara Butts 

Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Professor of Instruction

Having served as the production manager and managing director of the Wirtz Center for Performing Arts for 13 years, as well as stage manager for many high-profile professional theaters, Barbara Butts has been described by colleagues as a “legend in her own field.” And she draws upon this experience consistently to benefit her students. 

Butts, who created the theatre department’s Arts Management & Leadership Program, believes that “coursework combined with mentored creative experiences equip students with the skills to become leaders and innovators.” As such, she often has students “role play with professionals to practice interpersonal skills, sing to understand timing and collectively problem-solve scenarios that require deep thinking and action.” Using this real-world-centered approach in the classroom, said Butts’ department chair, “provides a direct bridge to the industry for her students, who are among the most sought-after managers in the field.” 

Students, too, commended Butts for helping them plan for their post-collegiate career. One student shared, “In addition to running a module that ends with a resume package that she sends to all her Chicago connections, she has brought countless professionals into our classes. Thanks to Professor Butts, I have spoken to a circus stage manager, HR specialists, theater activists, actors, a Broadway assistant director and many more than I can name.”

Beyond her professional insights, Butts is valued as an advocate for her students in all aspects of their lives. One student put it this way: “With grace, Barbara provides advice and comfort as best she can. But most important, she always begins with: How can I help?”

Butts is an associate professor of instruction in theatre management in the School of Communication.  

Mei-Ling Hopgood 

Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Clinical Professor 

Since joining Northwestern in 2012, journalist and author Mei-Ling Hopgood has brought her “passion for global and multicultural journalism and storytelling” to Medill students. In her work inside and outside the classroom, she puts “diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging first.” Having led co-curricular trips to places as varied as Shanghai and Buenos Aires, she views teaching the craft of storytelling as an “opportunity to help students understand and change themselves, each other and the world.”

Hopgood’s dean has called her the “beating heart of diversity and inclusion at Medill.” As the inaugural director of Medill’s global programs, her dean added, “She designed workshops and seminars that helped equip both faculty and students to do reporting that was more intentional, respectful and attuned to the inherent resiliency in the people and places where they were dispatched.”

Her students praised Hopgood for keeping them to exceptionally high journalistic standards. As one student put it, “Professor Hopgood consistently pushed me to write more professional, polished articles than I’d thought I was capable of.” She is also known for helping students identify their goals and helping them achieve them. “I was still struggling to find my community and connect with my Latino roots, especially in the journalism program,” one student shared. “It is because of Professor Hopgood that I feel confident using my Spanish language skills in the field I am so passionate about.” 

Hopgood’s work extends far beyond the classroom. As one of her students noted, “Hopgood is one of the voices in Medill actively pushing the school forward to meet the needs of the industry and the moment.”

Hopgood is the William F. Thomas Professor of Journalism in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Ilya Mikhelson 

Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Professor of Instruction

Ilya Mikhelson uses two words to summarize his teaching objectives and philosophy: “empowerment” and “accessibility.” From his earliest days of teaching, he has sought ways to ensure his students walk away from his courses “less afraid to tackle whatever obstacles lie before them, and for everyone in the class to have equal access to these teachings.” As such, he has continuously evolved his approaches to presenting material. This started with handwriting his notes during class alongside his students to ensure no one would be left behind and evolved into posting all of his lectures on YouTube to make them accessible at any time. In aggregate, his instructional videos have more than 3 million views. 

Mikhelson’s innovative approaches put his students on the right path from their first days at Northwestern. According to his department chair, the course that accounts for Mikhelson’s broadest educational impact is Gen. Eng. 205-1: Engineering Analysis I, which is required for all students in the McCormick School of Engineering and is typically taken in fall of their first year. As the lead instructor of this course in recent years, his chair says Mikhelson “directly impacts the education of every McCormick undergraduate student, at the very beginning of their studies.” 

Echoing the many students who praise Mikhelson for going out of his way to make complex subject matter palatable, one graduate called Mikhelson "an amazing professor who always makes learning accessible and fun, constantly encourages students to delve deeper and challenge themselves, and truly cares about the success of his students.”

Mikhelson is an associate professor of instruction in electrical and computer engineering at McCormick.

Cynthia Nazarian  

Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence 

As a specialist of Renaissance literature, Cynthia Nazarian regularly teaches the period between 1500 and 1630 CE, primarily in French. While she recognizes this era is “remote in time and language, and often foreign in mores” for her students, she “does not feel that the best way to assuage their anxieties is simply to downplay the difficulty of the material.” Instead, she encourages them to “push through that unfamiliarity with heavy doses of encouragement and enthusiasm.” Throughout the term, she signposts the progress students have made so they can “derive a sense of personal accomplishment from their effort.”

The key to Nazarian’s success as teacher is that she “makes the material come alive,” one student wrote. Her department chair shared that she does this through “an irresistible combination of enthusiasm, innovative exercises and assignments, and the thoughtful incorporation of objects, media and experiences.” Nazarian’s chair also praises her ability to engage undergraduates from diverse majors and personal backgrounds, using literary texts as “a point of departure for learners to explore material culture, the history of medicine, philosophical questions about religious tolerance and a host of other topics.”

While the texts she teaches are often more than 500 years old, Nazarian manages to connect the material to modern life for her students, including situations they confront long after they leave her classroom. As one graduate noted, “Even years after our graduation, I find myself regularly reflecting on several of the lessons and insights I drew from her class to motivate my own thought processes.”

Nazarian is an associate professor in the department of French and Italian in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.