Six faculty members are honored for undergraduate teaching excellence

May 4, 2017

The six winners of the university’s top prizes recognizing undergraduate teaching excellence — Jacqueline Goldsby, Andrew Johnston, Gilbert Joseph, Nikhil Padmanabhan, Frances Rosenbluth, and Angela Lee-Smith — were honored at a ceremony on May 1.

At the event, the teachers were praised, variously, for encouraging their students to be “boldly creative,” providing “an intellectual environment in which [they] can truly flourish,” guiding them on their academic and personal paths, “challenging and encouraging” them, bringing “radiant energy” to their classroom, being ‘tirelessly available’ to them, motivating them to think and analyze, and caring for them individually, among other talents and qualities. 

Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway presented the annual awards in the Presidents’ Room of Woolsey Hall. He noted that the faculty members were chosen for the awards based on student recommendations, adding, “To be picked by a student — you can’t do better than that.” Students who attended the ceremony clapped and cheered as their teachers were announced, and at least one (Lee-Smith) was presented a bouquet of flowers in thanks for her commitment to teaching. (Padmanabhan was traveling and unable to attend the ceremony.)

The following are the awards and citations for each faculty member. In addition, YaleNews asked the award-winners to share their thoughts on the question: “If your students learn just one thing from you, what do you hope it to be?” Their answers also appear below. 

Jacqueline Goldsby

The Sidonie Miskimin Clauss ’75 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities

“Jacqueline Goldsby, professor of English, of African American Studies and of American Studies, your students praise you for challenging and encouraging them, and for your ‘less conventional’ approaches to reading literature. Whether you are bringing your students to ‘the Beinecke to understand the Harlem Renaissance archives’ or ‘to [a] Brooklyn museum’ to view a ‘Mickalene Thomas exhibition to learn about Black women’s art,’ you ‘challenge [them] to broaden [their] thinking and engage with the text in ways [they] would have not otherwise considered.’ One student described your approach as ‘live analysis…. [W]e used our own experience as actors, theatergoers, artists, dancers, readers, and writers to approach the texts so that what may have been a completely new body of work (as it was to me) was accessible and relatable.’ Your students thank you for encouraging them ‘to be boldly creative, take risks, and be proud of their own scholarship.’ For your boundless enthusiasm and devotion to teaching, Yale College proudly awards the Sidonie Miskimin Clauss ‘75 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities to you, Jacqueline Goldsby.”

What she hopes her students learn: “I love to introduce undergraduates to archival and primary source research in literary studies because they typically don’t experience (or expect) those two domains to be analytically related. But they are, of course. 

“For instance, Whitman’s experiments in free verse become palpable when you hold the 1855 first edition of ‘Leaves of Grass’ in your hands. Whitman needed an oversized book to contain the gorgeous sprawl of his poems. That fact never ceases to amaze me. Julie Otsuka’s uses of irony in ‘When the Emperor was Divine’ take on deeper meanings when we read letters from Japanese-American families incarcerated in the internment camps. Tracking how James Baldwin revised his first novel from a pulp murder fiction into a migration bildungsroman that edits ‘out’ the protagonist’s gay identity begs so many essay questions — where would one begin?

“The one thing I want my students to learn, then, is this: reading American literature in its historical, social, political, and cultural contexts enriches how those works of art speak to us in and across time. At Yale, we are so fortunate those resources are at our fingertips! So, I require my students to go to the Beinecke Library; to explore and use digital databases; to travel to New York to see art exhibits. I want them to encounter American literature in its rightful place — the world — and experience its wonders and relevance for themselves.”


Andrew Johnston

The Sarai Ribicoff ’75 Award for the Encouragement of Teaching at Yale College

“Andrew Johnston, assistant professor of classics and of history, your students know you as an educator with ‘unflagging dedication and commitment to every aspect of [their] success.’ Again and again, they hail your devotion and dedication to teaching, calling you ‘remarkably and tirelessly available’ to them, and saying that with ‘sincere interest and care, [you] develop their talents and guide their academic paths.’ Also praising you as a ‘gifted public speaker,’ one student described the effect of your class on the Roman Republic by calling it ‘the most deftly structured, intellectually engaging, and clearly taught lecture course — perhaps course of any kind — that I have taken at Yale.’ For bestowing your many gifts as a teacher on your students, Yale College is honored to bestow the Sarai Ribicoff ‘75 Award for the Encouragement of Teaching on you, Andrew Johnston.”

What he hopes his students learn: “I would hope for students to come to an understanding of how wonderfully strange the Romans really are.

“It is a truism that the past is a foreign country, but I feel that this perspective is often lost when we confront the ancient Romans, whom we, in the modern West, tend to want to be like ‘us’, largely in order to help us to understand ourselves more clearly. We have valorized the Romans as a kind of universal standard of culture, and as part of the ‘Classics’, we feel that we know the Romans before we have ever been properly introduced to them. But when we approach the Romans as strangers, we are better able to learn to ask the right kinds of historical questions to discern and analyze the fascinatingly distinctive features of their culture and society — from the wax masks of their ancestors that lived in the cupboards of their houses to their deep-seated fears of kings and the sea and flax to their annual celebration of a ‘mildew festival’, among a thousand others.

“At the same time, a recognition of this strangeness allows us — indeed, makes it incumbent upon us — to think critically about why we as moderns keep revisiting the Romans and constructing continuities with them, and to reflect upon the various ends to which (re)visions and (re)interpretations of Rome have been and continue to be put.”


Gilbert Joseph

The Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize

“Gilbert Joseph, the Farnam Professor of History and International Studies, you have since 1993 made ‘history thrilling and powerful’ for Yale undergraduates by ‘cultivating an understanding of its gravity.’ Students describe you as ‘brilliant, thoughtful, attentive, charismatic, and humane,’ with a ‘commitment to undergraduate education’ ‘apparent on a daily basis, both inside and outside of the classroom.’ ‘[Your] impeccably well-prepared lectures integrate every kind of historical artifact imaginable into the fabric of the course: movies, slides, musical excerpts, political cartoons, novels, and guest speakers.’ One student praises you for ‘making history alive and present to us, illustrating how a better understanding of revolution and counter-revolution in Latin America could help us see contemporary problems of state and society more clearly.’ For your ‘exceptional ability to create an intellectual environment in which [your] students can truly flourish,’ and your ‘knack for pushing [your] students to fulfill their intellectual and personal potential,’ Yale College is proud to award the 2017 Harwood F. Byrnes / Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize to you, Gilbert Joseph.”

What he hopes his students learn: “In my teaching on modern Mexico, U.S.-Latin American relations, and social movements in Latin America, I strive to give students an appreciation for the interrelatedness, complexity, and ‘messiness’ of historical processes.

“Let me cite an important example from my teaching on Mexico. Unfortunately, so much that we read and hear about Mexico these days comes to us in the heat of the moment — in polemical, often xenophobic sound bites that are served up in a climate of fear about Mexico and much of the global south. These sound bites and images emanate from the mainstream press, Congress, Hollywood, partisan cable TV news, the Twitter-sphere, even the White House. Typically, they single out the criminal behavior of ‘illegal aliens,’ or the epidemic of drugs, or border violence and homeland insecurity. Often they belittingly refer to Mexico as a ‘failed state,’ or focus on the loss of American jobs due to NAFTA, and the need to build a ‘Great Wall.’ A few years ago, Mexico was momentarily deemed to be the ‘epicenter’ of a ‘deadly’ swine flu epidemic. Of course, many of these (the hyped-up swine flu rumors aside) remain very real and worrisome issues. But what I strive to have my students grasp throughout my courses, whatever their political persuasions may be, is that such images and sound bites, although they emerge and get roiled up in the unceasing round of partisan politics and the daily news cycle, have to be assessed critically and in a meaningful historical context.

In the case of Mexico and its centuries-long relationship with the United States, that historical context has too often (though not always) been one of informal empire and intervention, which has produced starkly unequal yet interdependent relations between the two nations. Similarly, it has produced tremendous structural inequality and social and cultural differences that have always divided Mexicans themselves. Such histories have powerful long-term consequences that shape attitudes and sediment memories and prejudices that linger on both sides of the border and enter into the 24/7 news cycle. My assumption is that if I can teach my students to appreciate these historical legacies, it will make them better citizens of their countries and of the global community.”


Nikhil Padmanabhan

The Dylan Hixon ’88 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Natural Sciences and Mathematics

“Nikhil Padmanabhan, associate professor of physics and of astronomy, to your students you are ‘an extraordinarily dynamic, engaging lecturer,’ a “fantastic orator,’ whose lectures are ‘lively with demonstrations and crystal clear explanations.’ Your students describe your dedication to teaching as ‘phenomenal’ and ‘legendary.’ One student says of you, ‘He is the most animated and energetic science professor I have ever had, and every lecture was filled with dialogue between him and the class, frenzied yet remarkably legible writing on the chalkboard, and his booming voice resounding in every corner of the large SPL [Sloane Physics Laboratory] lecture hall.’ At the end of the day, you convince your students ‘not only that physics [is] fun,’ but ‘also profoundly meaningful and interesting, an awe-inspiring interpretation of reality.’ For your ‘radiant energy,’ both inside and outside the classroom, Yale College is honored to bestow the Dylan Hixon ‘88 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Natural Sciences and Mathematics on you, Nikhil Padmanabhan.”

What he hopes his students learn: “One of the most beautiful aspects of physics is that physical laws and principles often can be very simply stated, but these simple ideas get woven into intricate patterns as one puts together real-world systems. This idea that complex systems can often be understood by simple principles is an extremely powerful way to think about the world. I hope this way of thinking is something that stays with my students, long after they’ve forgotten about cats jumping out from moving trains, or planets orbiting distant stars, or whatever else we happened to cover in class!

“And I hope I managed to convey the fun that one can have doing physics!”


Frances Rosenbluth

The Lex Hixon ’63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences 

“Frances Rosenbluth, the Damon Wells Professor of Political Science, your students call you ‘an exemplary discussion leader and lecturer’ who ‘balances scholarly and popular opinion, and stimulates classroom discussions.’ They describe your seminars as ‘full of intense intellectual engagement,’ made possible by your ‘superior teaching ability, vast knowledge, and careful consideration’ of your students’ needs. Guided by your intelligence, scholarly depth, and humor, your students say they are ‘motivated to respond, think, analyze, discuss, and propose,’ in a classroom that they describe as ‘provocative,’ ‘thoughtful,’ and ‘engaging.’ For showing such care and thought in leading your students, and in recognition of your ‘patience, humor, empathy, and a […] willingness to help, lead, and advise’ them, Yale College is proud to award the Lex Hixon ‘63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences to you, Frances Rosenbluth.”

What she hopes her students learn: “There is nothing more rewarding than teaching students who are eager to understand how the world works in order to make it a better place. That is the Yale student. They are soaking up new facts and new causal arguments, but it is even more exciting when they develop the ability to evaluate competing arguments and decide for themselves. They are in the process of forming capacity for critical thinking that will serve them well for life.”


Angela Lee-Smith

The Richard H. Brodhead ’68 Teaching Prize for Excellence by a Non-Ladder Faculty Member

“Angela Lee-Smith, senior lector in East Asian languages and literatures, your students praise how you ‘seek not only to teach [them] the fundamentals of the Korean language but also to immerse [them] in Korean culture.’ They also appreciate how you invest in your students, taking an individualized approach to teaching, and how you create a ‘warm and welcoming environment where they can learn.’ Beyond your extraordinary work in the classroom, you deepen your students’ ‘interest in and respect for Korean culture,’ bringing your subject to life by encouraging your students to ‘watch films, listen to music, and eat Korean food.’ As one student writes, you are a ‘consummate educator,’ ‘truly committed to enriching the academic experience of [your] students.’ For your commitment and demonstrated excellence as an educator, Yale College is honored to award the Richard H. Brodhead ‘68 Prize for Teaching Excellence to you, Angela Lee-Smith.”

What she hopes her students learn:

“Games are for fun, not for winning.
Learning is for fun, not for winning.
Life is for fun, not for winning.
When you genuinely enjoy (your life), you will have become a true winner.”

Susan Gonzalez, YaleNews