UC Berkeley News


Setting minds ablaze since 1959
For half a century, the campus has honored its top teachers with the Distinguished Teaching Award. Four new recipients carry on the tradition

| 16 April 2008

This year’s Distinguished Teaching honorees: (standing) Karl Ashoka Britto, Stefano DellaVigna, Nezar AlSayyad, and (seated) Kaja Silverman. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Only 227 Berkeley professors have received the Distinguished Teaching Award since the honor was instituted in 1959. The award, bestowed by the Committee on Teaching of the campus Academic Senate, is given only after committee members read at least two years’ worth of student evaluations, evaluate each candidate’s teaching philosophy and course materials, and observe them as they teach.

The cumulative number of honorees increases by four this year, with the announcement that Nezar AlSayyad, a professor of architecture and 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, will receive this year’s awards at a ceremony next Wednesday, April 23, at 5 p.m. in Zellerbach Playhouse.

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

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

Receiving the Distinguished Teaching Award is an honor, he says, 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 says.

AlSayyad, who earned his Ph.D. in architecture at 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,” he wrote to the Committee on Teaching.

AlSayyad says 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 he used a computer simulation game in place of a midterm 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 says, adding that he also tries to enhance students’ sense of discipline so they meet the strict standards of their fields of study. He also enjoys sharing his own research and experience as a practicing architect and planner, and explaining its relevance to students.

AlSayyad is considered a consummate public intellectual by many. The native of Cairo, Egypt, is 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.

Mark Gillem, a former AlSayyad student 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.”

Karl Ashoka Britto
Departments of French and Comparative Literature

Growing up in the Middle East, Karl Britto says, 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, specializing in literature in French written outside of France.

Though he’s multilingual himself, Britto acknowledges that beginning French classes can be the source of academic nightmares. “French in general is not a particularly forgiving language,” he says. “It’s very rules-based and particular, with a reputation of holding its speakers to a very high standard.”

Britto, who teaches such courses as Gender, Culture, and Identity in Francophone Literature, Murder in Literature, and Reading and Writing Skills in French, tries to foster a sense of security in the classroom that enables students to take risks, and even to fail in productive ways. He says he loves the energy that students bring to his classes as well as their wide-ranging interests, from the development of literature as an object of study in colonial Egypt to narratives of genocide in Rwanda and republican fictions in Latin America.

Outside 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,” he admits. “I could spend the rest of my life in Moe’s.” He also confesses a fascination with self-taught language courses, often packaged in pocket-size books with titles such as Hindi Made Easy and Teach Yourself Sanskrit, saying he loves the hope the books embody.

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

“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.”

Stefano DellaVigna
Department of Economics

The son of a computer-science professor and a high-school teacher has been previously honored for his pedagogy, having won a 2004 UC Berkeley Distinguished Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award as well as a 2000 Harvard University GIC Award for Excellence in Teaching of a Graduate Course. This year he adds the Distinguished Teaching Award to that tally.

“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,” says DellaVigna, a behavioral economist who traces his fondness for Berkeley to a summer when, as a high-school junior from Italy, he took two economics courses here.

He sings the praises of his students, among them a first-generation transfer student from Southern California who was quiet and hardworking, did very well academically, and is now working on his Ph.D. in economics at Harvard. “His story could only be true at Berkeley,” says DellaVigna, noting the UC system’s community-college-transfer process and Berkeley’s support for a diverse student population. “These [underrepresented] students are gifts 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 do the best we can.”

Economics chair Ben Hermalin calls DellaVigna “a force in the classroom” and commends him 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 Ph.D. graduate in economics, called DellaVigna a “world-class mentor, adviser, and teacher.” He added that he never encountered a professor at Berkeley “as generous with his time, energy, advice, and advocacy, and as dutifully engaged in his students’ lives.”

Kaja Silverman
Department of Rhetoric and Film Studies Program

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

Looking back, it’s easy to sense where it all started. A voracious reader as a child, 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 precocious at 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 becoming 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 and art historian, and co-founder of 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 says, 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,” Silverman wrote in a statement for the Committee on Teaching. “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.”

To help make this happen, Silverman assigns texts that excite her and then shows students why. She also engages students in 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 so. She also suggests that they try different approaches to reading or lecture materials.

While graduate students already grasp the “romance of learning,” Silverman says, many are quite circumscribed in their knowledge and still need to learn to think in a more disciplined way. Fortunately, she notes, Berkeley students display an incredible openness and eagerness to learn: “The students have a high degree of intellectual seriousness, political seriousness, and social relaxation. That’s just about as good as it gets.”

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

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