This year marks the fourth time the Alcalde has asked alumni to tell us about their favorite UT professors for a teaching award we call the Texas 10.
Honorifics like “unforgettable,” “inspiring,” and “life-changing” popped up again and again in your nominations. As we went about the difficult task of winnowing down more than 200 faculty members to a group of 10, we marveled at how different UT professors are. Scientists and musicians, historians and architects, they come from all walks of life. But one thing unites them: They really, really love their jobs. As we spoke with these master teachers, their zeal was so contagious that we left the interviews feeling unusually excited about computer science, or opera singing, or American history. That infectious enthusiasm isn’t the only ingredient in the making of a great teacher, but it’s one of the keys. Here’s hoping that their stories remind us all to go about our work with gusto.
Associate Professor, History
1991 Jean Holloway Award Winner for Excellence in Teaching
Years at UT: 40
Favorite spots on campus: “The lap pool behind Gregory Gym and the track at Clark Field. I like to work swimming and running into my day.”
High school curriculums too often reduce history to a stale succession of facts and dates. As a result, many of George Forgie’s students arrive to his American history classes expecting to memorize (and then promptly forget) more of the same thin gruel. Forgie knows that—and he delights in feeding them a feast instead.
“Students might think they’re not interested in history,” he says, “but if you listen to them talking, it’s often about the past. Even if it’s just ‘What did you do last night?’ they’re naturally interested in what other people have done, and that’s a starting point.”
So when Forgie lectures on Thomas Jefferson, he doesn’t talk about the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions or the First Barbary War—at least not at first. He hooks his students’ attention by focusing on Jefferson as a dramatic character, a real person with human fears, desires, talents, and faults. “I try to get them to identify with historical figures and to look out upon the world as though those events were still unfolding,” he says.
By all accounts, he’s tremendously good at it. Many alumni who nominated him for the Texas 10 noted that they still remember the details of lectures he gave 10, 20, or 30 years ago. “He made history come alive to such a degree that I really thought the Confederacy might win the Civil War!” recalls Carrie Wehmeyer, BA ’93. Forgie has racked up dozens of teaching awards over four decades on campus.
With all that praise, you’d think Forgie might be resting on his laurels. But as is the hallmark of any standout teacher, he’s constantly honing his technique. “My teaching is always evolving,” he says, “and I’m not there yet.” —Rose Cahalan
Professor, History; Senior
Associate Vice President, Division of Diversity and Community Engagement
2015 Jean Holloway Award Winner for Excellence in Teaching
Years at UT: 8
Dream student: “A kid with a 2.1 GPA, just floating by at UT and thinking about dropping out. That student coming into my class, getting motivated, and taking
off is my dream student.”
Leonard Moore serves two roles at UT. As a professor of history, he teaches large classes like Race in the Age of Obama and History of the Black Power Era. When he’s not weaving the topics of race, sports, and hip-hop into a lecture, he’s at his other job as senior associate vice president at the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. There, he gets to interact with even more students, something he thrives on.
“If I had my choice, we wouldn’t have walls anywhere up here,” Moore says about the fourth floor of the Student Services Building. “It would be all open.”
Openness is Moore’s teaching philosophy. He teaches 1,100 students in his two fall classes—1,100 mentors, he calls them—and Moore uses them as sounding boards both for the class and for the DDCE.
“If I’m launching an initiative, guess who I’ll ask? I’ll go ask the 19-year-olds,” Moore says. “The feedback they give me makes me a better administrator.”
The biggest misconception about his class is that “it’s all about black stuff,” Moore says. “What I tell white students is that you will learn more about yourself in my black power class than you will in any other class,” Moore says. “All the white Greeks take the course now.”
While Moore absolutely values the research side of academia, his first love is educating in the classroom. For that reason, he says he believes in bringing his “a-game” in every single lecture.
“I got in this first and foremost to motivate undergrads to do something dynamic with their lives,” Moore says. “Students have paid a lot of money to be here. They should never be bored.” –Chris O’Connell
Lecturer, Textiles and Apparel
Years at UT: 7
Favorite Spot on Campus: Gearing Building. “Peaceful and at the same time lively!”
Renaissance woman: “I can drive fast sports cars, fly small airplanes, and handle sailboats.” She’d also like to play drums in an all-female band one day.
While Ockhee Bego, BS ’04, Life Member, was waiting for her plane in the Chicago airport, she heard someone shouting her name down the hall. “Everyone was looking,” she says, “and here comes my old student.” After graduating from UT, the young woman was working as the assistant to world-famous fashion designer Betsey Johnson. “She told me that because of me, she’s who she is,” Bego recalls. It’s because of moments like this that Bego calls teaching her “purpose in life.”
Surprisingly, Bego discovered teaching by accident. After her own successful career in the fashion industry, she decided to pursue her undergraduate degree from UT only 10 years ago. “My junior year, they needed a TA for one of the classrooms, so they asked me if I could fill in.” she says, “That’s how I started teaching, and I’ve fallen in love.”
As it turns out, her professional experience has become an integral part of Bego’s teaching philosophy. “I believe that apparel design, like foreign language, is best learned by immersion,” Bego says. She strives to introduce her students to the practicalities of the fashion industry—from drawing patterns to sewing garments—while they’re still in the classroom. But when it comes to design itself, Bego encourages her students to think outside of the box. “Instead of telling them what to do, I want them to develop their own styles and their own ideas, and I will guide them,” she says. “After all, this is a creative process.”
But Bego’s greatest mission is to cultivate a passion for learning and fashion in her students. “They come in here really wanting to design garments, but they’ve never even seen a sewing machine. At the end of four years, they create beautiful, wonderful garments,” she says. “They accomplish what they love to do, and I think that is my greatest joy.” —Jane Robbins Mize
Director, Center for Big Data Analytics
Years at UT: 15.5
Ideal Student: “One who is not afraid of diving into new topics and constantly improves.”
Childhood dream: “What does every little boy dream of? Playing sports, of course!” (His preferred game was once cricket, but he’s taken up tennis since becoming a professor.)
Inderjit Dhillon didn’t always want to be a professor. That might be what makes him such a good one. Trained in computer science at Mumbai’s prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, he just knew he liked to learn. Soon, he was working at AT&T Bell Labs, one of the last great vestiges of corporate research, where the names he recognized from the front of his textbooks were standing in front of him in the cafeteria line.
Being around people at the pinnacle of their field inspired him to learn more. “That’s actually a big part of shaping what I ended up becoming,” he muses. Within a year he’d decided to pursue a PhD at Berkeley, the path that ultimately led him back into the lecture hall.
At UT, he works to teach not only the science but also the art of computers, to give students a big-picture view of the field that will outlast ever-changing programming languages and hardware. The ability to move between a kind of mathematical intuition—a sense of the program and how it works—and the formal math that makes it work is “a good place to start,” he says.
For some, the amount of math involved in computer science is a stumbling block. Dhillon tries to demystify math by putting it in a larger context and explaining its practical applications, like how a search engine uses linear algebra, to eventually build intuition.
“I think by doing that, I’m actually able to instill in them confidence,” he says. “So that they can go ahead and learn new things for themselves.” He wants each student to build a toolkit that will help them grow once they step out of the classroom, just like he did. Those students are just lucky that his path led him back to the classroom. —Andrew Roush
Senior Lecturer, Information, Risk and Operations Management
Years at UT: 7
Memorable moment: “Once, while giving an exam, the lights went out. Thankfully, there was still an overhead projector in the room, so I turned it on and my students huddled around it.”
Vintage flair: Gray collects antique knitting and sewing patterns.
When Katie Gray, BBA ’03, Life Member, returned to the Forty Acres to teach programming, she immediately went to her past professors for advice. Gray says the first thing her mentors taught her was to remember that everyone in the school is a person first and a student second. That mantra quickly became her teaching philosophy.
“I know in five years they might not remember my class, so it’s more important that I teach my students to be successful people and business professionals than for them to simply get a good grade,” she says.
Gray’s programming class introduces students to the technology behind most business operations. She compares being a business student to being a race car driver. “The mechanic is the one who will fix the car, but the driver still needs to understand it and know what’s wrong,” she says. The students might not become tech experts, but they will be able to understand a business’ programming or processing needs.
“It’s more important that I teach my students to be successful people than for them to simply get a good grade.”
When Gray graduated college, she considered becoming an academic or career advisor. So she was ready to jump right in when she got the opportunity to combine her love of programming with her passion for seeing students succeed. She says the most rewarding moments are when graduating students cite her class as the reason they chose their career path. “Most business students aren’t here for programming, and it scares them,” she says. “But then there’s a moment when it makes sense and a student says, ‘This is what I want to do.’” —Anna Daugherty
Lori Holleran Steiker
Associate Professor, Social Work
Years at UT: 15
Favorite Quote About Learning: “There is, in fact, no teaching without learning.” —Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom
Favorite Spot on Campus: “My colorful office, filled with tchotchkes given to me by my color-blind husband (a fellow UT professor!).”
Surprising or Fun Fact About You: “I have performed music my whole life. I even had my own TV show, Lori, as a teenager (albeit on the local access channel).”
Besides being a University Distinguished Teaching Professor, Lori Holleran Steiker’s CV lists at least nine other awards earned in her time at UT, most of them teaching awards. So you would be forgiven for thinking the social work professor possesses a single-minded obsession with teaching. What she’s really obsessed with, however, is building communities.
“I see them as partners in learning, as opposed to recipients of my wisdom.”
“Social work is all about relationships,” Holleran Steiker says. Describing the field, both in the academic sense and in practice, she talks about understanding people and how they relate to one another, whether they are students in recovery or students learning about recovery. For many, life experiences overlap, push, and pull at their social work education. She gets people to open up. She leans in, laughs reflexively, and doesn’t shy away from speaking frankly.
For Holleran Steiker, it’s all personal. “I don’t study substance abuse by accident,” she says. Teaching students about navigating the maze of programs, laws, norms, and methods involved in social work is just one part of it. She also has to hone in on each student’s experience. “I see them as partners in learning,” she asserts, “as opposed to recipients of my wisdom.” Building that relationship is, as she says, the crux of her teaching outlook.
It takes a lot of energy to work so closely with students, but it’s energy Holleran Steiker has in abundance. A student in one of her early morning classes once described her as “nauseatingly enthusiastic.” But, she says, it’s that energy that helps her connect with her students. The enthusiasm that fills even the most mundane interactions with Holleran Steiker are her key to connecting with people.
“I tell them about every mistake I’ve ever made in the field,” she says, referring to her dozen years as a social worker. There’s research, she points out, showing how successful social workers are genuine. The key is making their client comfortable and creating a safe space for them. It’s a practice that Holleran Steiker applies to the classroom, too. —A.R.
Years at UT: 40
Pet peeve: “I hate it when somebody sleeps in my class. I will absolutely embarrass the hell out of them.”
Lawrence Speck has been teaching architecture for so long, and to so many students who are now renowned architects, that one could reasonably assume his favorite lecture would be delivered to an advanced studio class.
Not even close. The one that gives him the most joy? It’s the second lecture of each semester, delivered to his Architecture and Society class, attended by 300-plus undergrads, many of whom are there merely to fulfill a visual and performing arts elective. He asks a simple question: “What difference does architecture make to you?” He sees faces light up almost immediately as he explains why their houses may be making them depressed, or why an airport is designed the way it is.
“I swear I turn 80 percent of them around,” Speck says. “It’s something they’ve never thought about but then it’s …” Speck claps loudly for punctuation. “It’s a real discovery in that lecture … What about my home? What about my high school? How did these things really impact who I am? I love people having that realization.”
Entering his fourth decade on the Forty Acres, Speck has also navigated treacherous waters.
He was at the center of a well-publicized dustup in 1998 when, as dean of the School of Architecture, he was involved in selecting an architect for the new Blanton Museum of Art. When the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron lost the commission after months of multiple scrapped designs, Speck resigned as dean. “It became very painful,” Speck says, “the divisiveness, the rancor. There were six months where I thought I had ‘Blanton’ tattooed across my forehead because that’s all anyone could ever talk about with me.”
Still, despite speaking his mind about what he felt was a mistreatment of Herzog & de Meuron, UT had his back. “The amazing thing about this university is through all of that, how come they have been so good to me?” Speck says. “The point was, I can’t be silent and pretend everything is fine. That’s not how you treat an institution you love and care about. I’m not even an alumnus, but hey … this is my university.” –C.O.
Associate Professor, Sociology
Years at UT: 13
Surprising fact: “I was arrested my first term in college for a sit-in at Stanford.”
Every year in her social psychology class, Mary Rose lectures on the Milgram experiment. This classic 1961 study began with subjects being told to press a lever administering a minor electric shock to another person. Over time, they were ordered to deliver more and more severe shocks. Even while listening to screams of agony, 65 percent of participants kept going all the way to a near-deadly 450 volts. This disturbing result became a landmark of social psychology, showing that most of us will go to almost any lengths to obey authority.
At this point, Rose’s students squirm in their seats. They protest that they would never be so cruel, although the statistics say otherwise. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but that’s exactly what Rose wants her class to confront.
“I so want students to be sensitive to how challenging it is to be free,” she says, “and to try to live with integrity. I want them to know that so that they aren’t surprised when they, too, face hard choices. At the same time, I want them to have empathy for people who don’t always do what we would like.”
Rose studies how people perceive the justice system, and her research has been cited in Supreme Court cases. She also encourages her students to see jury duty as a critical part of the democratic process. “I get preachy when I talk about jury duty,” she laughs. “It’s the one thing your country asks of you!”
More than anything, Rose says she wants students to leave her class with a nuanced view of human nature. “I think so many of us wish for one right answer, a bubble to fill in,” she says. “But life doesn’t work like that. If we can appreciate complexity, we’re equipped to take on the world.” —R.C.
Years at UT: 4
Book that changed his life: Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer. “I’m good at what I do because I used to be a drummer and I know how to pace.”
Chris Roldan believes that verisimilitude is the key in his Advanced Editing class. He keeps his students on their toes by purposefully giving them bad notes.
“I make it pretty difficult for them,” says Roldan, BS ’02. “and they respond to that. That’s how it is in the real world of movies and TV, where you either do a good job or you’re fired. I’d rather have you fail in my class than be fired in real life.”
Roldan has worked as an editor on Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. He sets high expectations and that results in his students getting jobs. In fact, before Roldan taught this class, he took it at UT, and was encouraged to teach by his advanced editing professor, Don Howard. “I was really inspired by him,” Roldan says.
This year, Roldan began quizzing his students on the number of films they’d seen on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list. The results appalled him. So he posted them on Facebook for his industry colleagues to critique, and then he read the results to the class. He says his students were so embarrassed that now they’re all “tearing through the list,” for which Roldan keeps a Google Doc so he can view their progress.
“I tell them, if you were learning to play saxophone and you wanted to go to Juilliard, and you hadn’t heard John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, they would laugh you out the door. It’s like if you’re a writer and you haven’t read Hamlet. Our Hamlet and our A Love Supreme is the AFI 100. And if you don’t want to learn that, you don’t want to be a film student.” –C.O.
Associate Professor, Music
Years at UT: 17
Big voice: Small is a baritone whose opera career has taken him to stages all over the U.S., Europe, Mexico, and China
After class: “I grew up on rock ‘n’ roll and quite often drive away from a wonderful day of teaching classical singing listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ or the like. Relatively loudly.”
David Small was once teaching a voice class when a student in her 50s sang an aria from The Marriage of Figaro. She sounded terrible. The piece she had selected was ill-suited for her voice, her Italian was bad, and Small could tell she didn’t have a strong vocal gift. “What in the world am I going to say? What can I possibly do to help her?” he remembers thinking. Then she finished singing and told him proudly, “For 40 years I’ve been told to keep my mouth shut. And I’m not doing that anymore.”
The experience completely changed the way he thinks about teaching, Small says. It made him realize that he can never truly know his students’ motivations. “Their reasons, maybe unknown even to themselves, are far more important than any I could imagine or assume,” he says. And he and the student worked together on the aria for twice as much time as they were allotted.
In this way, Small focuses on meeting his students where they are. A few will go on to become elite performers, while others will work as teachers or accountants by day and sing in their community theaters by night. Some may even decide opera isn’t for them. But to Small, all those outcomes are equally valid, and he delights in helping students find their ways. “There’s a Joseph Campbell quote I love: ‘The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are,’” he says. “I want my students to remember that.” —R.C.
Photos by Tania Quintanilla. Hair: Robert Lindsey Grimes. Makeup: Kelsey James
Cary Michael Cox:
Can't wait to see this staff and team in action!
Cary Michael Cox...
Great article, if your looking to get more people involved with supporting RGV s...
Even in the 1950s and 1960s students came to UT from the Valley. One of them was...
Always great to hear that students are succeeding at UT Austin....
Cary Michael Cox:
What a great story and a wonderful tribute to his mother.
Habitat For Humanit...