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UC Berkeley Press Release

Distinguished Teaching Award 2008 winners

– Four professors in the arts and humanities, social sciences and environmental design are recipients of this year's Distinguished Teaching Award at the University of California, Berkeley.

The 2008 honors will be formally presented in ceremonies at 5 p.m., Wednesday, April 23, in the Zellerbach Playhouse on campus. Recipients will include Nezar AlSayyad, a professor of architecture and of city and regional planning; Karl Ashoka Britto, an associate professor of the departments of French and comparative literature; Stefano DellaVigna, an assistant professor of economics; and Kaja Silverman, the Class of 1940 Professor of Rhetoric and Film Studies.

The award is bestowed annually by the UC Berkeley division of the Academic Senate's Committee on Teaching, which is comprised of faculty members and students. It was instituted in 1959 and is considered one of the highest honors for a professor or lecturer. Only 227 professors have received the award to date.

As part of the screening process, committee members read at least two years' worth of the candidates' student evaluations, which can number into the thousands, evaluate their teaching philosophy and course materials, and observe them as they teach.

In addition to naming the recipients of this year's Distinguished Teaching Award, the committee has chosen the Biology Scholars Program and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology Undergraduate Apprenticeship Program to receive the campus's 2008 Educational Initiatives Award. The 16-year-old Biology Scholars Program seeks to diversify the sciences by supporting and mentoring students from economic, gender, ethnic and cultural groups historically underrepresented in the biological sciences. Last year alone, 76 percent of program's graduates were accepted into medical school - the national average is 50 percent, and at UC Berkeley, 55 percent - and 100 percent were admitted to Ph.D. programs.

The museum's apprenticeship program, begun in 2006, is one of the Biology Scholars Program's partners, offering internships to undergraduates that expose them to specimen preparation, museum curation, field work and, ultimately, research in vertebrate evolutionary biology.

"BSP provides a compelling example of how a comprehensive and integrative support program can make a great difference in the success of students," said W. Geoffrey Owen, dean of biological sciences. "The knowledge gained during its development is a valuable resource for others on campus."

Nezar AlSayyad
Departments of Architecture and City and Regional Planning, and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies

Architect, planner and urban historian Nezar AlSayyad has been teaching full time for the past two decades, and he wouldn't have it any other way, despite a staggering list of other academic and professional responsibilities.

Receiving the Distinguished Teaching Award is an honor, he said, but nothing matches his satisfaction when one of his students finishes a published paper, dissertation or academic program. "The privilege of teaching itself is my greatest reward," he said.

AlSayyad, who earned his Ph.D. in architecture at UC Berkeley in 1988, has been teaching here since 1985.

"My teaching has always been inspired by my belief that the study of other cultures is a necessary exercise that is fundamental for understanding the self," AlSayyad wrote to the Committee on Teaching.

In terms of pedagogical style, AlSayyad said he uses various strategies and motivational techniques for his large undergraduate lecture classes, graduate seminars and professional design and planning studios. For example, in an undergraduate course on housing, AlSayyad used a computer simulation game in place of a mid-term exam. In another class, he had students boil a feature-length film down to a three-minute clip that summarized their individual spatial propositions about cities and buildings.

"I challenge my students and encourage them to challenge me in return," AlSayyad said, adding that he also tries to enhance students' sense of discipline so they meet the strict standards of their fields of study. He said that he also enjoys sharing his own research and experience as a practicing architect and planner, and explaining its relevance to students.

Mark Gillem, a former student of AlSayyad's who now is an assistant professor of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, wrote to the committee that AlSayyad "has shown me how research, creative practice, teaching and service can be integrated in a way that captivates students, expands the field, and engages the broader public."

AlSayyad is considered by many to be a consummate "public intellectual." The native of Cairo, Egypt, is the associate dean for international programs in the College of Environmental Design, chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, director of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments, and editor of the association journal Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review.

He has written and edited several books on housing, urban design and urban history. His latest book is "Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real."

Karl Ashoka Britto
Departments of French and comparative literature

Growing up in the Middle East, Karl Britto said he studied Arabic at an early age and began to learn French when he was about 12. He has also studied Spanish, Welsh, Latin and Portuguese and recently took a course in Hindi. Today, Britto is a leader in the field of Francophone literary studies, or literature in French written outside of France.

He teaches a wide range of classes, such as " Gender, Culture, and Identity in Francophone Literature," "Murder in Literature," and "Reading and Writing Skills in French," and acknowledges that beginning French classes can be the source of many students' academic nightmares.

"French, in general, is not a particularly forgiving language," he said. "It's very rules-based and very particular. French has a reputation of holding a very high standard for its speakers."

He said he tries to foster a sense of security in the classroom that enables students to take risks and even to fail in productive ways.

To help students in one class understand French colonialism, Britto incorporates poetry, plays and other literature along with what he described as banal but persuasive and pervasive advertisements depicting French colonial subjects who were made part of the 1931 Colonial Exposition in Paris.

He was teaching a course in fall 2005 called "French Civilization from Margin to Center" when riots broke out in low-income housing projects throughout France that were populated largely by communities of immigrant origin. "The contemporary political relevance of issues we were considering in relation to literature became unexpectedly clear," Britto said.

Britto said he loves the energy that students bring to his classes and their wide-ranging interests that span from the development of literature as an object of study in colonial Egypt to narratives of genocide in Rwanda.

"He was without a doubt the most gifted, insightful, sensitive teacher I have ever had during my entire time at Berkeley," said former Britto student Toral Gajarawala, now an assistant professor of English at New York University. "There were always lines outside his (office) door."

The Committee on Teaching praised Britto's mentorship of graduate students and his long-term commitment to their progress.

Outside of the classroom, Britto loves to cook elaborate recipes that take days to complete, knit, ride his bike, watch foreign films and read. "I'm a narrative junkie," Britto admitted. "I could spend the rest of my life in Moe's (the Durant Avenue bookstore near campus)." He also confesses a fascination with self-taught language courses, often packaged in pocket-sized books with titles such as "Hindi Made Easy" and "Teach Yourself Sanskrit." He said he loves the hope the books embody.

Stefano DellaVigna
Department of Economics

There are ample signs of Stefano DellaVigna's passion for teaching.

The son of a computer science professor and high school teacher won a 2004 UC Berkeley Distinguished Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award as well as a 2000 Harvard University Graduate Instruction Committee Award for Excellence in Teaching of a Graduate Course. This year, he adds to his list the UC Berkeley's Distinguished Teaching Award.

"I owe a big thanks to the students themselves and to the university - the way it reaches out to people from all walks of life," said DellaVigna, a behavioral economist.

He sings the praises of his students, including the son of poor immigrants who graduated from a Southern California community college before transferring to UC Berkeley. The student was quiet and hardworking, did very well academically and is now working on his Ph.D. in economics at Harvard, said DellaVigna.

"His story could only be true at Berkeley," he said, noting the UC system's community college transfer process and UC Berkeley's support for a diverse student population. "These (underrepresented) students are gifts, they are just waiting to be recognized and supported by us. Knowing that helps us (faculty members), too, because we know that what we do matters, and we should to the best we can."

He recalled another student who engaged him in a discussion about the perception that economics is all about helping the rich get richer. DellaVigna, who is a leader in the evolving new field of psychology and economics, countered that economics is much more than that and can further understanding of the role of the minimum wage in the economy, how democracy and dictatorships deal with the media, and how movie violence impacts crime, altruism or helping people on welfare.

Economics Department Chair Ben Hermalin calls DellaVigna "a force in the classroom." He and others commend DellaVigna for involving undergraduate and graduate students in his research projects and encouraging colleagues to do the same.

"There's always this pull, the idea that the 'real' reward comes from research," DellaVigna concedes. "I've always thought that teaching is great, because it pushes us to completely understand the material."

Saurabh Bhargava, a recent UC Berkeley Ph.D. graduate in economics, called DellaVigna a "world-class mentor, advisor and teacher." Bhargava said he never encountered a professor "as generous with their time, energy, advice and advocacy, and as dutifully engaged in his students' lives."

DellaVigna's fondness for UC Berkeley goes back to a summer when, as high school junior from Italy, he took two economics courses here. Little did he know then that he would join the UC Berkeley faculty in 2002.

Kaja Silverman
Rhetoric and Film Studies

Kaja Silverman learned of winning a Distinguished Teaching Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship in the same 24 hours.

Looking back, it's clear that her life in teaching and research began very early on. A voracious reader as a child, Silverman said, she would borrow close to a dozen volumes of fiction from the public library every week, read each one and return for more. She was a precocious 12 or 13 when she began to envision herself as "an intellectual" and probably a professor.

Silverman started her teaching career with a Ph.D. in English renaissance literature from Brown University, but is now a professor of rhetoric and film studies, after gotten increasingly interested in critical theory, feminist studies, film, photography and other forms of art.

Today, she is one of the world's foremost psychoanalytic experts, a leading American film theorist, art historian and co-founder of UC Berkeley's Film Studies Program. Silverman teaches classes ranging from basic rhetoric to seminars on "National Identity and Cinematic Representation."

With her undergraduate students already in love with books, movies, music and art, she said she tries to help them move from thinking of course material as data to be memorized to being passionate about thinking itself.

"When this flame first begins to flicker, a student's feelings about a book or a movie generally exceed her capacity to analyze it, but that soon changes, because to be intellectually passionate about something is not just to love it, but also the thoughts it inspires, and the mental faculties it awakens," Silverman wrote in a statement for the Committee on Teaching.

To help make this happen, Silverman said she assigns texts that excite her and then shows students why. She also engages students in group discussions about passages, images and video clips to help them connect the material to their own lives and the world. Silverman also encourages students to speak up when they don't understand assignments, and praises them when they do raise questions. She also suggests that they try different approaches to reading or lecture materials.

While graduate students already grasp the "romance of learning," Silverman said, many are still quite circumscribed in their knowledge and need to learn to think in a more disciplined way.

"I have never seen a classroom shine as much as when Kaja Silverman is teaching," wrote Kyle Perry, a UC Berkeley undergraduate studying rhetoric and development studies. "We students observe in awe as she lectures with endless verve. Our minds are set on fire..."

UC Berkeley students display an incredible openness and eagerness to learn, Silverman said.

"The students have a high degree of intellectual seriousness, political seriousness and social relaxation," she said. "That's just about as good as it gets."