Awards, People, Campus news

Five UC Berkeley instructors chosen for 2023 Distinguished Teaching Award

By Gretchen Kell

The faces of the five recipients of the UC Berkeley 2023 Distinguished Teaching Award are in circles in this composite image.
The five recipients of UC Berkeley’s 2023 Distinguished Teaching Award. (UC Berkeley photos by Keegan Houser)
The faces of the five recipients of the UC Berkeley 2023 Distinguished Teaching Award are in circles in this composite image.

The five recipients of UC Berkeley’s 2023 Distinguished Teaching Award. (UC Berkeley photos by Keegan Houser)

Magical. Inclusive. Riveting. Welcoming. Brilliant. Supportive. Rigorous. Joyful. Enthusiastic.

These adjectives and more were used to recommend five UC Berkeley instructors who are this year’s recipients of the Distinguished Teaching Award , the campus’s most prestigious honor for teaching. The award, first given in 1957, recognizes teaching that incites intellectual curiosity, engages students in learning and has a lifelong impact.

This year, the Academic Senate’s Committee on Teaching has named Laleh Behbehanian , a lecturer in the Department of Sociology; Abigail De Kosnik , an associate professor in the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies; Daniel Hoffmann , a lecturer in the Department of French; Joshua Hug , an associate teaching professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences (EECS); and Elisa Tamarkin , a professor in the Department of English.

They will be honored at a public ceremony at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, April 26, in the Bechtel Engineering Center’s Sibley Auditorium. A reception will follow.

Andrea Roth, chair of the Committee on Teaching , said that she and the rest of the committee had attended lectures given by Behbehanian, De Kosnik, Hoffmann, Hug and Tamarkin. “That is definitely the best part — learning from their lectures and getting the chance to congratulate them after seeing them in action,” she said.

Typically, said Roth, there are four or five award recipients each year.  Anyone can nominate an instructor for the award, but an individual’s department formally submits each nomination. Roth, a Berkeley Law professor, was one of four recipients of the award in 2019.

“I hope that one message from this award,” she said, “is that teaching can and should be generative of, and harmonious with, excellent research, and vice versa.”

Laleh Behbehanian

Laleh Behbehanian, a lecturer in the sociology department and a winner of the 2023 Distinguished Teaching Award, smiles wide at the camera with her dark curly hair flowing behind her.

Laleh Behbehanian, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology, says her teaching objective “is always for students to develop a range of skills: critical and analytical thinking; reading and engaging with scholarship; applying sociological perspectives to real-world situations; and articulating ideas. In the process, they develop confidence in their own intellectual capacity and potential.” (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

In its report on the five awardees, the committee said that Laleh Behbehanian “creates an engaging class environment where all students are able to actively participate and think critically about difficult material.” Cybelle Fox, chair of sociology, said in recommending Behbehanian for the award that she is “a phenomenal teacher, a devoted mentor, and an instructor who makes critical interventions in the lives of students, especially first-generation students of color.”

Sociology Professor Michael Burawoy told the committee, “I can safely say I have never known a more brilliant, articulate, engaging, serious, and devoted teacher in my 45 years at Berkeley” and added that “… there is something magical about the way she engages her audience, never speaking down to students, always advancing sociological ideas through evocative examples, and treating students as though they are her equals.”

A student quoted in the report said the course she took with Behbehanian was “the most transformative, difficult and rewarding experience of my entire undergraduate life.” Another said, “I vividly remember sitting in her social movements class and being struck with the feeling of this is what I came to college for !”

Abigail De Kosnik

Abigail De Kosnik, an associate professor of theater, dance, and performance studies and a 2023 Distinguished Teaching Award winner, smiles at the camera. She had shoulder-length gray hair and colorful eyeglasses.

“I believe that people learn most by doing and speaking, not listening to someone else. When students speak and enact their own ideas about the concepts and texts I put in front of them, then they are the experts — and I’ve done my job as their teacher,” says Abigail De Kosnik, associate professor of theater, dance, and performance studies.” (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

Abigail De Kosnik was described to the committee as “generous, thorough, and challenging — invitingly so — as a teacher” by her colleague Mel Chen, associate professor of gender and women’s studies. Chen added that students speak of De Kosnik “not with the expected hierarchical reverence, but rather a beautiful sense of gratitude and collegiality, which was clearly a response to the mode of address she had cultivated with them.” The committee added that De Kosnik builds an inclusive environment in the classroom where she acknowledges and challenges biases and hierarchies.

A former student was quoted, saying, “Overall, Gail has impacted my life in countless positive ways. Gail commands respect through kindness and competence while — and I think this is so important — actively dismantling the white supremacist and patriarchal standards so prevalent in the academy.” The committee added that she is a “riveting lecturer.”

Daniel Hoffmann

Daniel Hoffmann, a lecturer in the French department, sits with his students, talking with them in class. He is wearing eyeglasses and has on a suit jacket.

Daniel Hoffmann, a lecturer in the French department, says he strives “to help my students see that for as much as learning is about looking and finding, it’s also about getting lost. I want students to see the vicissitudes of learning — both the excitement and the confusion, the triumphs and the missteps — as essential and enriching facets of the experience. I want them to find pleasure in navigating uncertainties, and to feel exhilarated by the challenge.” (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

In the French department, Daniel Hoffmann is “an engaging, exciting and rigorous teacher,” Richard Kern, the department chair, told the committee. He added that Hoffman prompts students “to advance to more complex levels of coursework involving expanded critical and creative skills.” The committee noted that the most common word used to describe Hoffman’s teaching is “joyful,” and that his students are energized to speak and practice French.

The committee noted that there is “not a wasted moment in class, and yet, it doesn’t feel hurried.” One of Hoffman’s colleagues shared that Hoffman is always in firm control of the class and has “mastery of rhythm and timing” and presents “serious content, both in terms of grammar forms and … conceptualizations of time, possibility, and mode.”

Hoffmann contributes to his department as academic program coordinator for the First-Year Language Program and is faculty director of the Summer Sessions Paris Berkeley Study Abroad Program, where the committee stated that he introduces students to the parts of Paris where there is “a plurality (not a monolith) of religious, cultural, and linguistic identities.”

Joshua Hug

John Hug, an associate teaching professor in EECS, smiles wide at the camera. He's wearing eyeglasses, a beard and a shirt and tie.

An EECS associate teaching professor, John Hug says that although he presents highly technical subjects, it is “never enough to teach technical concepts.” Part of his teaching philosophy, he says, is “devoted to building solid ethical foundations for students,” supporting them as they “embark on intense internal journeys” that can be “transformative” and “emotional.” (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

Joshua Hug is “absolutely a star” in the EECS department, Claire Tomlin, the department chair, told the committee. Hug is “a true course artist and a master of large-scale instruction,” she added, whose “unique mixture of passion, creativity, care, and talent provide a foundation for truly outstanding teaching.” He teaches the challenging CS 61B, the lower-division data structures course required for EECS, computer science and data science majors that has an enrollment of more than 1,000 students.

Given this challenging teaching scenario, the committee commended Hug for the extraordinary work he’s done to make this class engaging for students who are participating in-person, via Zoom, or watching it later as a recording. Hug is an “incredibly skilled lecturer” who also answers questions, presents live demonstrations and encourages discussion, the committee said. It noted, too, that he substantially updated CS 61B, making it more applicable to real-world problems.

One former student told the committee that Hug “places a strong emphasis on creating an inclusive and supportive classroom environment for all students,” consistently sending the message “that anyone can succeed in the course given the right resources,” which he strives to make available.

Elisa Tamarkin

English Professor Elisa Tamarkin smiles at the camera wearing a hooded jacket. She is an awardee of the 2023 Distinguished Teaching Award.

English Professor Elisa Tamarkin says her goal is “to keep my students’ attention … as a matter of urgency and necessity. It takes work to keep the classroom interesting, but this is just the same as making learning possible, since it is difficult for anyone to keep anything that does not interest them in mind. Whatever interest attaches me to my subject — whatever gives those old, remote, obscure, recalcitrant words we may never have cared about new possibilities for mental life — should be shown here and now, so that students feel their importance and want their full benefit.” (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

Elisa Tamarkin , professor of English, was described as “a teacher who inspires without intimidating; who sets high standards but provides the kind of guidance and feedback that makes it possible for students to achieve those standards; who is brilliant and accessible, deeply knowledgeable and unfailingly kind” by her English department faculty colleagues Amanda Jo Goldstein and Poulomi Saha.

The committee remarked that, with an engaging approach to lectures, Tamarkin truly “teaches in the moment” and is “fully engaged” with her students. A former student said that after each lecture, “I walked away astonished with how powerful literature can be. She has a unique capability to breathe significance into the most mundane of sentences. With her classes, everything I was reading and learning felt especially relevant and important—even if it was as obscure as a text written from a Quaker during the 17th century.”

Tamarkin’s commitment to creating an inclusive environment where students have space to struggle — with support — was mentioned frequently to the committee. “Professor Tamarkin is, of course, brilliant,” said a former student, “but what has most deeply struck me all semester long about her pedagogy is the way it operates from a place of profound enthusiasm and pure regard for the dignity and preciousness of the texts we study, as well as the dignity of her students’ thinking. I struggled in this class intensely, but Professor Tamarkin’s elucidations of the material could always be counted on to be a guiding light to me.”