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A great professor can profoundly shape your college experience—they enlighten, inspire, motivate, and challenge. It’s often in hindsight we realize which teachers had the biggest impact on our lives, so we asked alumni to nominate their favorite professors on the Forty Acres. As we narrowed down the list to just 10 faculty members, descriptors like “passionate” and “exceptional” leapt out. Whether they’ve been at the University of Texas for three years or three decades, their zeal for knowledge and devotion to their students made an enduring impression.

Photos by Matt Wright-Steel

Meet the professors.

1 Eric Tang

Assistant Professor, African and African Diaspora Studies
Years at UT: 7

Eric Tang’s favorite lecture topic begins with the phrase “racism is not about ignorance.” He tires of hearing the often-held notion that racist people simply don’t know any better. To him, racism is about knowledge, exploitation for personal gain, and the sting that comes with any form of discrimination.  

“For someone else to do that to you requires an awareness,” he says. “That always strikes a chord with students.” 

Tang has spent his life studying and engaging in social justice. Growing up in New York in the ’80s and ’90s, he watched communities pitted against one another, dealing with racial inequality, police brutality, and racial violence. He remembers the 1992 Los Angeles riots incited after the Rodney King case, in which four officers were acquitted of using excessive force toward the African-American taxi driver. “The events really shaped my thinking as a high school and college student,” Tang says.  

While attending New York University, he took part in political protests and worked alongside other students to establish race and ethnic studies, eventually creating the school’s first Asian-American studies program. He says becoming a professor grew directly out of his activist work, never wanting to live a life just accepting easy answers.   

“As a community organizer, you sit with difficult issues that don’t have easy solutions and you work with allies to figure them out,” he says. “As a professor, you’re doing the same thing.” 

Tang says he’s proud to work in one of the nation’s largest black studies departments, deeming it his most rewarding experience. He says the best moments are when he gets a call or email from a former student who is now a civil rights attorney, or a teacher in a difficult environment, or a filmmaker who made a documentary about racial inequality.   

“That is profound because you just go in and do your work as a professor,” he says. “You don’t realize how showing up that one day might just make the difference down the road.”—Danielle Lopez

Dream student: “A first-generation college student who doesn’t believe they have anything to contribute, but then realizes that their experience explains so much about the way the world really works and uses that to build their confidence and assert their voice.” 

Life-changing book: Drown by Junot Diaz. He really captured the dialogue, the sentiment, and the nuance of working-class immigrant life in New Jersey. I didn’t think literature could really take you that far.” 

“As a community organizer, you sit with difficult issues that don't have easy solutions and you work with allies to figure them out. As a professor, you're doing the same thing.”
Jacqueline Woolley

2 Jacqueline Woolley

Professor and Chair, Psychology
Years at UT: 26

Woolley’s bohemian past as a professional clog-dancer and fiddler opened her eyes to how creativity can improve the lives of others. Once while performing at a nursing home, she saw a man who hadn’t walked in years get up and start dancing. Experiences like that made her want to affect positive change. 

 Woolley now studies childhood imagination and its impact on child development. Raising her own children, and seeing firsthand how highly intelligent children believe in Santa Claus, furthered her interest in studying children’s belief in the fantastical. “A lot of students come into my class thinking … that children kind of live in a fantasy world, whereas adults are very rational,” Woolley says. By the end of each semester, she says, students often realize that adults aren’t always rational, either.

For her, the most fulfilling part of her career is to see students grow. “Last year I had a student who failed the first paper in my class, was obviously upset, and came to talk to me about it,” Woolley says. “We worked on her writing all semester, and it got better and better. By her final paper, she got an A.” 

Woolley loves seeing students develop a love of research and then decide to pursue grad school. “That’s really exciting for me,” she says, “to see a student figure out what they’re really interested in and get really excited, and then make a commitment to their future.” —Clara Wang

Favorite book: “One of the most Earth-shattering books I’ve ever read was Beloved by Toni Morrison.” 

Favorite quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” —Albert Einstein

3 Jerome Bump

Professor, English
Years at UT: 45

When the weather cooperates, Jerome Bump can often be found teaching his freshman writing seminar on the lawn alongside the shady banks of Waller Creek. Being outside lifts both his and his students’ moods, he says—and it relates to the coursework.

Titled Animal Humanities, the  literature class is focused on the relationships between people, animals, and the natural world. “We’ve been visited by birds, a snake, even a hawk,” Bump says. “The students’ favorite is the squirrels. They’re so inquisitive, they become like members of the class.”

Bump is a big believer in experiential learning. He cites research showing that students retain only 20 percent of a traditional classroom lecture, versus 80 percent when they’re doing something hands-on. So he sends his students to animal adoption centers run by Austin Pets Alive! and assigns them to write creative descriptions of the homeless cats and dogs they meet. The eye-catching biographies are posted online, and they work: In the past five years, the project has helped more than 400 pets find homes. Bump says the benefit to students may be even greater. “I ask them to write each animal’s backstory, to imagine what it feels like to be scared and alone and in a cage,” he explains. “It connects with what we’re studying about compassion, ethics, and emotional literacy.” 

At 72, Bump says he’ll never retire. “I’m like a vampire,” he laughs. “It keeps me alive, being around my students.”—Rose Cahalan

Menagerie: “My wife and I recently downsized, but over the years we’ve had five horses, five donkeys, two longhorns, two steers, several pot-bellied pigs, one giant hog, and many cats and dogs.” 

Called to teach: “Ever since I got a briefcase in grade school, I’ve been known as ‘The Professor,’ and it’s all I ever wanted to be.”

Jerome Bump
“Through learning and discussing difficult topics, we get a better and deeper sense of who we are—the good, bad, ugly, and beautiful.”

4 Ben Carrington

Associate Professor, Sociology
Years at UT: 12

Ben Carrington never expected life to take him to Texas. Growing up in London, the sociologist liked to imagine himself as a professional soccer player—and he got pretty close. In college he decided to forgo the fame and glamour associated with playing pro sports to study them.  

When he got the opportunity to teach at UT, he arrived with a stereotypical understanding of what Texas would be like, involving cowboys and tumbleweeds. “Then Austin was green and lush … people were very friendly and welcoming,” Carrington says. “It won me over.” He now uses what he’s learned in his teaching, exploring how we dismiss preconceptions and engage with one another.

His classes explore a mix of studies relating to sports, popular culture, and politics, but his favorite lecture topic is Race and America. “You can’t understand America without understanding race,” Carrington says. “UT says, ‘What Starts Here Changes the World.’ Most of the conversations regarding race in the U.S. have an impact around the world.” These conversations are also deeply tied to the election cycle, he says, and other current events that provide unlimited teaching material. “Through learning and discussing difficult topics, we get a better and deeper sense of who we are—the good, bad, ugly, and beautiful.” —Alex Vickery

Favorite spot on campus: “James Turrell's ‘Skyspace’ installation.” 

Fast feet: “I played football (soccer) to a high level in England, and was a semi-professional player for a decade. I still play competitive soccer in the Austin men’s league, just much slower than before.” 

5 Laura Lashinger

Lecturer and Research Scientist, Nutritional Sciences
Years at UT: 6

As a nurse, Laura Lashinger’s favorite part of her job was relaying medical information to patients. She also wanted to know more about the root cause of a disease, and she didn’t want to wait for other scientists to figure it out. A few years into nursing, she had an epiphany: She would go to grad school to study nutrition and cancer so she could find the answers out herself, and then teach them. 

Her passion for knowledge translated well into both the laboratory and the lecture hall, and her office is open to students outside of classroom hours. She often spends time with students asking poignant questions about their lives. “I open my door not only to classroom advice, but life advice,” Lashinger says. 

Known for her eclectic energy, Lashinger believes in treating students as equals. “Because I’ve spent a large part of my life being misdirected and lost, I can appreciate what it’s like to be 18 or 20 years old,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of people write me or tell me that for the first time, they’ve actually understood metabolism or biochemistry. Or [they say], ‘You’ve helped me realize how much I love science.’”

For Lashinger, relating to her students is what makes teaching so rewarding. “I made a profession out of being a student,” she says. “I still feel like I’m 20.” In college she was unsure about her major, or of the path she was going to take. “I get [students’] uncertainty, frustration, and neuroses,” she says, “and hope that my example can provide encouragement that, at some point, we all figure it out.”  —C.W.

Favorite spot on campus: “The Turtle Pond.”

Dream student: “Students that are driven by the information and not the exam questions.”

“I get students' uncertainty, frustration, and neuroses. I hope that my example can provide encouragement that, at some point, we all figure it out.”
HW Brands

6 H.W. Brands

Professor, History
Years at UT: 17

H.W. Brands wasn’t supposed to be a historian. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, he started working in his parents’ cutlery business at age 10, packing orders of knives and scissors. He returned to the family business after college and traveled the West for a year as a cutlery salesman. “I was a terrible salesman,” he admits. “Selling ideas is much more fun.” Brands taught math at his former high school and picked up two master’s degrees before heading to Austin for his doctorate in history, which he earned in 1985. 

Today, Brands is that rare scholar who is equally versed in both academia and pop culture, having published 25 books and written scores of articles for both scholarly journals and the general public. After mastering longform—two of his books were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize—Brands tried his hand at a very different kind of writing: Twitter. For the past five years, he has tweeted one haiku per day in an attempt to cover all of American history chronologically, from 15,000 B.C. to the present. At presstime, he was making his way through the Vietnam War. 

His favorite place to be, Brands says, is in the classroom. Forget about the memorization-based history class you dreaded in high school—Brands’ class is about stories and personalities more than facts and dates. He sometimes calls students up to re-enact the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, for example—making sure his volunteers stand 10 paces apart before firing, as dueling etiquette dictated. “Sometimes they get really into it,” he says, “complete with dramatic staggering.” 

Brands says his students surprise him daily. “As you get older, and as you study history and the trail of human folly, it’s easy to feel cynical,” he says. “But then I get around my 20-year-olds, and suddenly the world is brand-new.” —R.C.

Historical figure he'd like to meet: “Benjamin Franklin. I wrote a book about him, and I’d like to know if the impression I had was right.”

Dream student: “The one who hasn’t realized until now that ideas are powerful.”  

7 Mukul Sharma

Professor, Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering
Years at UT: 31

First and foremost, Mukul Sharma is a problem-solver. Whether he’s working on developing hydraulic fracturing methods or improving oil recovery, the petroleum engineering professor is on a perpetual search for answers. “Engineering is a perfect fit for anybody who really enjoys problem-solving,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about.” 

With a deep interest in history growing up, Sharma first considered majoring in liberal arts. But over time he was drawn to engineers’ quests for solutions and decided to study chemical engineering. while attending college in Kanpur, India. From there, he moved to the U.S. to complete graduate school before taking a position with UT nearly 30 years ago. 

At the time, Sharma was receiving job offers from oil and gas companies like Chevron and Mobil, but the industry leaders didn’t appeal to him. Instead he chose academia, giving him the freedom to do research on his own terms.  

“If I went to work for a company, then in all likelihood I’d work on problems that other people thought were important,” he says. “But I really wanted to develop my own ideas.” 

Since then, he has received millions of dollars in research funding, successfully filed 12 patents, been published more than 300 times, and now supervises a research group of 34 students and staff. One of the most common questions students ask him is how petroleum engineers differ from other engineers. He always tells them it’s the degree to which they deal with uncertainty. To him, petroleum engineering isn’t deterministic—it’s based on human intuition.

“Ultimately, that’s what’s going to lead them to be better engineers,” he says. —D.L.

Game, set, match: “I think most students would be surprised to learn I'm a pretty good tennis player.”

Memorable moment: “I had my son as a student once. At the end of the semester, I received maybe five course reviews addressed to 'Dad', yet none were from him.”

Mukul Sharma
“Part of being a teacher is trying to stoke curiosity about the world.”

8 Tracy Dahlby

Professor, Journalism
Years at UT: 10

Tracy Dahlby likes to catch students early. In his Fundamentals in Journalism class, he enjoys the positive energy of freshmen experiencing college life for the first time. In that class, as well as his various seminar courses, he imparts wisdom from a 40-year journalism career, including stints at The Washington Post and Newsweek

After spending more than a decade as a correspondent in Asia, Dahlby began taking students to China for a summer reporting course. He says it forced them to get out of their comfort zones and build confidence. “They see the stories [around them] and a lightbulb goes on.” Dahlby adds that seeing students apply classroom skills in a real, active environment has been rewarding. “The world opens itself up to you when you start asking questions.”

Curiosity is key for Dahlby, who believes that the role of journalism school in an ever-changing media landscape is equal parts skillset and way of life. “Part of being a teacher is trying to stoke curiosity about the world,” he says. “One of the first things a teacher does is to give students a license to find out what they’re really curious about and then give them the skills to pursue that curiosity. Journalism is a great tool to do that.”—A.V.

First career goal: “In the 1950s, I wanted to be a nuclear physicist. During the Cold War we were all trying to do something important and scientific. Then I did algebra in high school and realized that was off the table.” 

Teaching tip: “Students want more than what’s in the textbook. Give them a little bit of yourself along with the lesson.”

9 Diane Ginsburg

Assistant Dean and Clinical Professor, Pharmacy
Years at UT: 27

A jar of glittering pixie dust sits on the desk in Diane Ginsburg’s office. On its side is a label that reads, “Sprinkle every two hours as needed for frowns.”

The clinical professor, PhD ’14, received the gift a few years back from a student who was inspired by one of her infamous classroom mantras. “I always tell them I’m all about using my powers for good, sprinkling my pixie dust,” she says. “They call me Dr. Fairy Godmother.” 

From day one, the Pennsylvania native tells her pharmacy students it’s of the utmost importance that they be kind to their future patients, taking the time to get to know each individual. In an unfaltering effort to honor her late mother’s words of wisdom, she reminds them that every patient is somebody’s parent, sibling, spouse, or child. “I drum this in their heads,” she says, “and also about the gift we have—this knowledge and privilege—to help others.”

Ginsburg often shares with her classes a memory from 19 years ago. Her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had to be rushed to the hospital, where they spent seemingly endless days. Fortunately, her former student happened to be on call. He made sure to get Ginsburg’s mother everything she needed to alleviate her pain. When Ginsburg asked why he was being so nice, he said, “All I’m doing is what you taught us that very first day. Your mom is my ‘every patient.’”

She says his response sent a bolt of lightning through her. In that moment, she thought to herself that it would never matter what happened to her professionally because she got through to at least one student.

“One who made a difference to my ‘every patient,’” she says. —D.L.

Pet peeve: Students who are on Facebook or asleep in her class. “But that doesn’t really happen, because if it does, I’ll just come over and sit down next to them.”

Fun fact: "I was in a rock band in college."

“I always tell them I’m all about using my powers for good, sprinkling my pixie dust. They call me Dr. Fairy Godmother.”
Katie Tackett

10 Katie Tackett

Clinical Assistant Professor, Special Education
Years at UT: 3

The day Aneisha, Leviticus, and Kayla walked into her classroom, Katie Tackett found her calling. She had just started teaching first grade in Mississippi and knew that three students with disabilities, two with Down Syndrome and one who was nonverbal, would be joining her class for a few hours each day. What she didn’t know at the time was that the rest of their day consisted of watching the same two movies over and over again, while a special education assistant supervised from a desk. What she found when she read their files was heartbreaking. “For all three, the educational goals were just to write their name and cut a circle out of paper,” she says.

Tackett took the matter into her own hands. “By Christmas, they were in my room all day,” she says. With a teacher who was determined to keep them from falling through the cracks, the kids excelled—Aneisha finished the school year reading at grade level. Tackett says the experience made her a better teacher to all of her students. “I learned how to make things clear and explicit,” she says, “how to teach things in three steps or less, and about the power of positive reinforcement.”

Now Tackett is preparing the next generation of special education teachers. She says the personality traits that help you thrive in the field are not the ones you might expect. “There is an archetype in our society that we have to be like Snow White, with the patience of a saint. Most of us are not saints,” she laughs. “It’s more that we are stubborn. Strategy A didn’t work, so we’ll try strategy B … and on and on. It’s a willingness to say, ‘OK, I’m going to figure out what works for this kid.’”–Dorothy Guerrero

Favorite quote: “We can do hard things.” —Glennon Doyle Melton

Favorite Lecture Topic: Autism Spectrum Disorder