Six faculty members honored for their commitment to teaching

Yale College Dean Pericles Lewis recognized six recipients of the college’s annual teaching prizes during a reception on April 29.
Yale College Dean Pericles Lewis with prizewinners Carlos Eire, John Lafferty, Adriane Steinacker, David Blight, and Margherita

Left to right, Yale College Dean Pericles Lewis with prizewinners Carlos Eire, John Lafferty, Adriane Steinacker, David Blight, and Margherita Tortora. Not pictured: Sarah Demers. (Photo by John Dempsey)

Six members of the Yale faculty were named recipients of Yale College’s teaching prizes, which recognize exceptional undergraduate teaching.

The prizewinning teachers, all from Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, are David Blight, Sterling Professor of History and African American Studies; Sarah Demers, professor of physics; John Lafferty, the John C. Malone Professor of Statistics & Data Science; Adriane Steinacker, senior lecturer in Physics; Margherita Tortora, senior lector II in Spanish; and Carlos Eire, the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies. 

They were recognized by Yale College Dean Pericles Lewis during a reception at the Humanities Quadrangle on April 29.

Among this year’s recipients are distinguished researchers and educators, some of who are the winners of previous teaching prizes: Demers was awarded the 2013-2014 Provost’s Teaching Prize, and Steinacker was awarded the Poorvu Family Fund for Academic Innovation Award in 2019.

Lewis praised all the recipients for their commitment to teaching undergraduates and to undergraduate education. He closed the formal presentation with a toast, quoting Chaucer’s words about the clerk of Oxenford: “gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”

The citations for the prizewinners follow:

David Blight, the Sidonie Miskimin Clauss Prize
Awarded for teaching excellence in the humanities

David Blight
David Blight (Photo by John Dempsey)

David Blight, Sterling Professor of History and African American Studies, your students call your courses ‘legendary,’ they find your telling of history to be ‘illuminating’ and ‘gripping’ and they find your excitement for your subject matter ‘infectious.’ Your students have shared that with everything you bring to your teaching — primary sources, maps, personal diaries, public newspaper clippings and the thorough weaving of these sources in your lectures — they are surprised when you are eager to hear their [students’] perspectives and invite them to challenge your sources and ideas.

One student shared: ‘I would’ve sat in my seat in Civil War and Reconstruction for as long as he wanted to speak to us. His eloquence in articulating this time period in history not only demonstrated why it speaks to him, but why it should speak to us…He had me at: ‘we are the only species who can write our own past.’

Another said: ‘With his unmatched enthusiasm, Professor Blight is theatrical at the lectern, yelling, whispering, and even, yes, singing, when he sees fit. And with this, the war becomes funny, moving, and much, much sadder than any text could make it.’

You are known for your scholarship and your courses examining the Civil War and African-American History. Students have raved about your lectures and the way you are able to bring history to life, making it fun, particularly to those who are new to the discipline. In large lectures, you have dazzled large cohorts of undergraduates with your ‘storytelling abilities, critical insights, and dry sense of humor’ while simultaneously exhibiting ‘kindness, grace and dedication.’

Characteristics that make you particularly fitting for this prize are also those that are seen in smaller settings — the time that you carve out for individual students, mentoring their theses one-on-one, guiding them in a Directed Reading course, giving your time when your time is limited.

One student spoke to your ‘personal leadership and constant encouragement’ particularly well, sharing: ‘My interactions with him… constitute the single most formative experience I have had at Yale. When the Yale Admissions crew talks to prospective students about the incredible opportunities at Yale, this is what they mean. Blight goes above and beyond for his students in addition to teaching knock-out lectures. He could so easily retreat to his office, but he makes a point of interacting with undergrads and encouraging them to follow their academic pursuits.’

For your dedication to your students and their intellectual and personal growth, Yale College proudly awards the Sidonie Miskimin Clauss ’75 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities to you, Professor David Blight.”

Sarah Demers, the Dylan Hixon ’88 Prize
Awarded for teaching excellence in the natural sciences

Sarah Demers
Sarah Demers (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Sarah Demers, Professor of Physics, you are recognized as a leading researcher in your field, and you also have the unique ability and a solid reputation of dazzling students with your teaching. You have taught hundreds of students taking Physics for the Life Sciences as a pre-requisite for majors in the Biological Sciences and/or medical school — making the material enjoyable with your infectious enthusiasm.  Your innovative pedagogy and collaboration resulted in an interdisciplinary course examining ‘The Physics of Dance.’ Though the students in these courses are unlikely to become Physicists, with some saying, ‘I’m taking physics because I have to, not because I want to,’ you have helped many of them enjoy your courses, some of them to the point where they ‘fall in love with physics’ as a result of your teaching.

One student shared that ‘she fosters an environment that facilitates superlative learning…she exuded a positive energy that made learning topics in an arduous class, such as physics, an enjoyable experience — a rarity in modern education… she was able to bring lively anecdotes, stories, and interactions into her teachings… As the course progressed and the topics started to get more abstract, it was evident that she took the time to slow down and reiterate key points to make sure people were understanding them… Her emphasis on the importance of collaboration helped pushed me out of my comfort zone to work with other people on the problem sets. Working with others not only helped me get through the problems but also showed me that I wasn’t the only one struggling through these challenging problems. Knowing I wasn’t the only one struggling helped elevate how I felt about myself and aided in my personal growth.’

You have been able to build an inclusive environment in a large lecture course, seeking and incorporating feedback in real-time as your courses progress and fostering a collaborative environment among your students. One student said it well: ‘Her love for the subject is inspiring and contagious, and it manifests in the way she takes such good care of her class and students.’ Another shared: ‘She stayed late, went in early, took her class to the next level, and we are all the better for it. While taking a midterm, I vividly remembered her re-explaining a concept to me during class, and that made all the difference in the way I answered the question (and got it correct!).’

You bring that same enthusiasm and individual guidance to your role as Director of Undergraduate Studies, advising students in the major, facilitating student/mentor research relationships and ensuring that students ultimately cross the finish line.

For your inclusivity, patience and engaging classroom presence which instills passion in your students, Yale College is delighted to bestow the Dylan Hixon ‘88 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Natural Sciences on you, Professor Sarah Demers.”

John Lafferty, the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize
Awarded for teaching excellence in the social sciences

John Lafferty
John Lafferty (Photo by John Dempsey)

John Lafferty, John C. Malone Professor of Statistics & Data Science, your students find your lectures engaging, they find your teaching to be phenomenal, and they find your approachability and genuine interest in helping them with their own pursuits to be truly amazing.

Machine learning is a field that is constantly evolving, and your students notice and appreciate the tweaks you make to incorporate recent advancements. They feel prepared to enter the field with a solid foundation because of your ability to make difficult concepts, ‘like PCA or autoencoders’ digestible, while simultaneously bringing a statistical lens to their learning.

One student shared: ‘Despite being a research powerhouse, Professor Lafferty is so incredibly passionate about teaching and brought awesome energy to the classroom, which made me excited to be in class, even though it was at 9:00. The material he covered in class was inherently difficult, but he was acutely aware of that and did his best to work slowly and methodically through the tough concepts, never once relying on the typical STEM- “but this is so easy, you learned this in elementary school”-rhetoric…Instead, he was overwhelmingly supportive and helpful…’

Your students also speak highly of your pedagogical approaches when teaching machine learning, providing practical data sets, real-world examples and applications without losing the theoretical foundation — and somehow you also weave in a social/ethical lens. As one student put it, ‘Professor Lafferty manages to break down complex subjects into smaller parts, from neural networks to transformers behind ChatGPT,’ while another said, ‘He always kept the topics approachable and simplified complex concepts while still showing us the depths the concepts could reach.’

Students leave your courses inspired by the field and that often has to do with the passion you bring to your teaching. ‘A teacher has really excelled when they not only teach their students, but increase the students’ love and interest in their topic. Professor Lafferty certainly did so. I was already interested in machine learning, but now I leave the class knowing that machine learning is exactly the discipline to which I want to devote my life.’

What also sets you apart is your approachability and humility. As one student put it, ‘I’m amazed that someone can be so knowledgeable and accomplished, yet never intimidating or condescending. He really cares about teaching…In office hours, he was supportive, helpful, and easy to talk to. He seemed to genuinely care about each student and making sure that they were learning and succeeding.’

For your innovative, yet accessible teaching both in and out of the classroom, Yale College is proud to award the Lex Hixon ‘63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences to you, Professor John Lafferty.”

Adriane Steinacker, the Richard Brodhead ’68 Prize
Awarded for teaching excellence by instructional faculty

Adriane Steinacker
Adriane Steinacker (Photo by John Dempsey)

Adriane Steinacker, Senior Lecturer in Physics, your students are in awe of your ability to make a large lecture feel like home, a family. Over your years, sometimes teaching two large lectures of introductory Physics, students are astonished that you not only remember their names, but that you get to know them as students and as human beings. Your enthusiasm and love for Physics inspires your students, and motivates them to work hard, for themselves, but also as a way of thanking you for your efforts.

Your students repeatedly share their love for your in-class demonstrations, your wealth of online resources, sketches and notes, and your elaborate homework/practice problems — where you are constantly innovating, over the years, but also within a given term. This has ‘illuminated the beauty of the physical world’ for your students. One student shared, ‘This inspired me to appreciate physics in a way that I hadn’t before — I became able to view the world around me with a curious sense of wonder as I thought about all of the physics around me, from the Doppler effect illustrated by a passing ambulance to a car’s momentum.’ And another said, ‘She truly finds physics *beautiful,* and uses demonstrations and real life examples to relate the material to her students and help us see the logic and simplicity (and even beauty) in physics too.’

Of course, it is not just your classroom teaching that warrants praise. Over years of teaching, with the number of students you teach ever-expanding, your office hours are legendary. An overflow area needed because of your packed office, students feel encouraged in these spaces and appreciate the individualized attention they get, where ‘mistakes are welcomed as opportunities to learn.’ In your classroom and in your office, you have fostered a sense of belonging that comes up again and again, making students feel ‘capable of more than they think.’ As one student shared: ‘Professor Steinacker was never once condescending or judgmental, even when re-explaining basic rules of algebra or geometry that I had forgotten. Professor Steinacker did not for a single moment make me feel like I belonged any less in her class. She absolutely believed in me and my ability to learn. Another shared, ‘No form of help is beneath her.’

You have a way of immersing students in a difficult subject, helping them understand difficult concepts, without eroding the rigor of what they’re learning. One student called you ‘The bright point in this dark, swirling sea of derivatives and vectors’ and another shared, ‘Above all, she is always smiling and reminding us of the life’s joys, from quotidian to profound — the midday sun, the satisfaction of setting up a physics experiment and seeing it unravel, the sight of Jupiter’s moons.’

Yale College is thus honored to award the Richard H. Brodhead ’68 Prize for Teaching Excellence to you, Adriane Steinacker.”

Margherita Tortora, the Richard H. Brodhead ’68 Prize
Awarded for teaching excellence by instructional faculty

Margherita Tortora
Margherita Tortora (Photo by John Dempsey)

Margherita Tortora, Senior Lector II in Spanish, throughout your thirty-plus years teaching at Yale, your students find that your classroom is ‘not solely a classroom, but a place of worldmaking and rich intellectual imagination.’

You bring yourself fully to your courses, immersing your students in Spanish language in ways that are innovative and inspiring. As one student shared: ‘Professor Tortora attunes herself consistently to the communities around her and weaves them together into incredibly generative pedagogical frameworks, often exemplifying the principles of place-based education.’

Your students often take multiple courses with you both on campus during the academic year and during your study abroad program in Ecuador — these learning opportunities shape their Yale education and their sense of belonging in Yale College as a whole. You forge relationships with your students, but also foster new relationships for them, facilitating mentoring relationships that are personalized to a given student’s interest. They are dazzled by your network and the way you bring them into the fold.  As one student said, ‘I witnessed first-hand how genuinely involved she is with local communities and the fact that incorporating experiential learning in her classes is a labor of love for her’ and another shared, ‘With every connection, lesson, guest speaker, and incredible experience it became more clear that we were all experiencing a once in a life time journey of learning that completely rested on the community the professor had built over the years of traveling, teaching, and running her program.’

Your teaching methods are also innovative and transformative outside of the classroom. Your assessments, including long oral presentations, push and challenge your students in their language learning and your constructive and timely feedback on written assessments is impactful, resulting in ‘a rare blend of scholarly rigor and compassionate mentorship.’ The annual Latino & Iberian Film Festival at Yale (LIFFY) that you helped found benefits your students, in addition to our local Yale and New Haven communities. As one student shared, ‘Certainly for students in her class these are not just film screenings, they are unique opportunities to use their language and critical thinking skills, to ask pressing questions, to be challenged, and to get involved with certain aspects of the festival. These are the kind of exceptionally enriching experiential learning opportunities…The impact of these learning moments is quite deep and often immeasurable, and in many ways, these are exactly the type of learning experiences that continue to make a Yale education truly extraordinary’ and another said, ‘…she encourages us, she uplifts us. And now it is time to return the favor and show her how grateful we are for her admirable teaching.’

Yale College is thus honored to award the Richard H. Brodhead ‘68 Prize for Teaching Excellence to you, Margherita Tortora.”

Carlos Eire, the Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize
Awarded to any faculty member who over a long period of service has inspired a great number of students and consistently fostered the learning process both inside and outside the classroom

Carlos Eire
Carlos Eire (Photo by John Dempsey)

Since joining Yale’s faculty in 1996 (after receiving your Ph.D. from Yale in 1979), Carlos Eire, T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies, you have steadily been recognized by your students for your dynamic and passionate teaching style over your many years.  Students are captivated to your lectures, they admire your ability to provide both structure and flexibility in your seminars, and they appreciate the individualized and compassionate attention you give them in your office hours.

Your students share their feelings about your teaching and courses eloquently. One student shared: ‘Professor Eire blends scholarship, humor, factual information, and lively anecdotes into lectures that are interesting and educational… (he) has a gift for invigorating esoteric church history and Reformation theology,’ and another said, ‘this class proved to me that it is possible to have a class of many divergent opinions that functions progressively… The workload was considerably hefty for this course, but all the readings were so relevant and interesting that it was impossible to complain about it… His manner was that of a mentor– he was always ready to share his personal stories, but only so far as they would benefit us as students… His own opinions about religion remain a mystery to me; he acted purely as purveyor and interpreter of historical evidence.’

Students have called you their ‘best professor’ at Yale and have ‘never looked forward to class more than’ yours — they love learning from you. One student shared, ‘An example of his dynamic teaching style is when he was trying to explain how the Swiss reformation were burning and destroying idols. “They shouted defend yourselves,” he explained, “And when the idols didn’t do anything, they took it as a sign that they were not divine and burnt them.” To demonstrate the ridiculousness of this practice, he grabbed a dollar bill and shouted, “DEFEND YOURSELF,”’ Another shared, ‘It takes a special sort of teacher to interest an entire class in a 4th century ascetic monk.’ Your students praise your genuineness and humility that you bring to your classroom, without losing the rigor and depth of the material they are learning.

For your dedication to your students throughout your many years in our History department, Yale College is proud to award the 2018 Harwood F. Byrnes / Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize to you, Professor Carlos Eire.”


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