Teachers honored for ‘blowing minds,’ ‘infectious joy’ and more

05/06/2020
Departments: Computer Science

The five faculty members who have been awarded this year’s Yale College Undergraduate Teaching Prizes won’t be celebrated in person, but the high praise their students heaped on them demonstrates the indelible mark they make in the classroom.

The teachers and their prizes are:

  • Shelly Kagan, the Clark Professor of Philosophy — the Sidonie Miskimin Clauss Prize for teaching excellence in the humanities;
  • Brian Scassellati, the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of Computer Science and professor of mechanical engineering and materials science — the Dylan Hixon ’88 Prize for teaching excellence in the natural sciences;
  • Claudia Valeggia, professor of anthropology — the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize for teaching excellence in the social sciences;
  • Camille Thomasson, lecturer in film and media studies — the Richard H. Brodhead ’68 Prize for teaching excellence by a non-ladder faculty member; and
  • Dana Angluin, professor of computer science — the Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize, given to a faculty member who over a long period of service has inspired a great number of students and consistently fostered learning both inside and outside the classroom.

Yale College Dean Marvin Chun notified the teachers of their awards and shared his citations for each.

The teachers were nominated by their students for the prizes, which are Yale College’s top faculty honors. One student described the “MIND BLOWN moments” that were a weekly occurrence in Angluin’s class, while another student described how Thomasson made comments in class that are “too true, beautiful, and precise not to commit to memory.” Noting the care Kagan takes in providing feedback, one of his students shared how a 2,000-word paper received 2,500 words back in comments from the philosopher. A student in one of Scassellati’s engineering classes said he “epitomizes the 1-on-1 mentoring and student-faculty relationships that make Yale … so incredible.” Valeggia’s students praised her for caring about them both inside and outside the classroom, commending her for being an energetic and influential teacher as well as “a wonderful human being.”

The full award citations follow.

Shelly Kagan
The Sidonie Miskimin Clauss Prize

Shelly Kagan, the Clark Professor of Philosophy, your students have praised you over the years for your ability to facilitate unfiltered discussion effortlessly. You are known for your grading policies, which have “gained some degree of infamy,” but your honest and thorough feedback make it clear to your students that your standards are high but within reach.

One of your students says, “Philosophy especially is a discipline where an engaging and insightful professor can make or break a class. Prof. Kagan excels at making complex ideas understandable without dumbing them down, distilling students’ comments down to their most useful bits, and striking a proper balance between lecturing and moderating conversation.”

Your accessibility and willingness to provide feedback is remarkable. One student says, “My first paper was 2,000 words long — and Shelly wrote me back 2,500 words of comments, addressing each of the points I had made and suggesting objections! He holds students to high standards in their work, just as he holds himself to high standards in his teaching.”

When it comes to the grade at the end, one student says, “I feel proud of my B in Shelly’s class because I know exactly what it means and how hard I worked to earn it.”

For your endless enthusiasm and devotion to teaching, Yale College proudly awards the Sidonie Miskimin Clauss ‘75 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities to you, Shelly Kagan.

Brian Scassellati
The Dylan Hixon ’88 Prize

Brian Scassellati, the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of Computer Science and professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, your students praise your ability to break down complex topics and help them solve problems, while having the patience to guide them through their learning. 

One student says, “He takes very, very complex and dense topics and finds a beautiful, lucid way to showcase them to the world, irrespective of skill level.”

You have an uncanny ability to bring your vast knowledge of the field of AI to your classroom in a way that is exciting and accessible to undergraduates. One student says, “He uses his deep knowledge of his complex field of study to convey understanding to students in a succinct and informative way. He simplifies the content only as much as is necessary to give his students the intuition, the ‘why,’ behind powerful ideas and their motivation. From there he proceeds with further detail only once the intuition is established. This is, I think, the whole point of having instructors with such experience and insight. To have them use their understanding to present the material to students in a much more approachable and meaningful way than if the student otherwise had to scour a database full of a million research papers.”

Your students marvel at your ability to make time for them outside of class, discussing the “ethics and future of AI” and “responding thoughtfully to student queries and concerns both in person and via email.”  One student says, “Scaz … epitomizes the 1-on-1 mentoring and student-faculty relationships that make Yale, especially engineering at Yale, so incredible.”

For your ability to excel as both an “incredible teacher” and “compassionate adviser,” Yale College is delighted to bestow the Dylan Hixon ‘88 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Natural Sciences and Mathematics on you, Brian Scasselatti.

Claudia Valeggia The Lex Hixon ’63 Prize

Claudia Valeggia, professor of anthropology, your students praise your ability to get them to focus on learning rather than grades. You use meditation and mindfulness techniques to ease the minds of your students while maintaining rigorous standards, providing regular and critical feedback to your students.

One of your students says, “Not only is she great at explaining complex hypotheses on the evolution of caretaking practices in early hominids, but she is a wonderful human being. Professor Valeggia truly cares for her students, academically and emotionally. She of course wants us to succeed in her class and learn the material, but equally important to her is how happy and mindful we are outside her class.”

Another student says, “From day one, Professor Valeggia made it clear she cared both about the personal and academic lives of students in her course. She always met with students outside of class — to review course material, provide career guidance, and even just listen to student concerns.”

Your students see you as a role model and are inspired to pursue graduate work after taking your courses and having you as a mentor. Even after taking one course with you, students are positively influenced by you. They see you as someone who is knowledgeable, with a thirst to continue learning. Your energy and compassion help to create a classroom environment where students feel at ease discussing challenging and delicate topics.

Yale College is proud to award the Lex Hixon ‘63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences to you, Claudia Valeggia. 

Camille Thomasson
The Richard H. Brodhead ’68 Prize

Camille Thomasson, lecturer in film and media studies, your students repeatedly emphasize your dedication, thoughtfulness, constructive critique and compassion. Your “skill in instruction” and “infectious joy” inspire your students.

One of your students says, “I took notes because Camille just says things sometimes that are too true, beautiful, and precise not to commit to memory.”

Another says, “She plans. Each lesson is impeccably charted out, minute by minute. There’s always enough time to finish all that she’s strived to fit into the course. Nothing is rushed. Hours before class begins, Camille is already in the room, painstakingly arranging seats, tables, and materials to her exact specifications. Nothing is out of place. Her dedication cultivates a sense of respect and admiration in her students that I have never before heard about, let alone seen for myself.”

Your students state clearly that you dedicate many hours to them outside of the classroom, meeting with them one-on-one, discussing their writing, but also getting to know each of them and understanding their passions. One student says, “Camille asked piercing questions about both my screenwriting process and my own visions as a creative writer. She challenged my preconceptions and pushed me to be bold in execution and in style. She encouraged me to follow my own vision. As a student who has taken many writing classes at Yale, I was ecstatic to have an instructor who did not impose her own conceptions of writing “well” onto me. Camille let me possess creative freedom while guiding me throughout the screenwriting process.”

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

Dana Angluin
The Harwood F. Byrnes / Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize

Since joining Yale’s faculty in 1979, Dana Angluin, professor of computer science, you have taught hundreds of students who are thankful for your creativity, approachability, patience, and humility. 

Your ability to break down complex topics in all of the courses you teach is appreciated by your students, who feel that learning from you provides strong foundations for future coursework. The effort you make to know every student’s name, even in 150+ lecture courses, is a testament to how much you care about each student, and your students remember this years later.

The clarity that you provide and your creative ways of helping students learn from their mistakes is essential to student learning. One student says, “Every week, I would have a 'Mind BLOWN' moment over something that Professor Angluin would teach, and it made me genuinely enjoy classes. If I ever got a question wrong, then Professor Angluin wouldn’t point it out right away — she would see how my brain worked in figuring out the question, and once I hit the dead end where I realized I was wrong, she would work backwards to help me figure out where I went wrong, which was incredibly helpful.”

Outside of the classroom, you advise students and support their academic pursuits, even if they are outside of the field of computer science. A student considering linguistics as a major said that during a meeting with you during your office hours, “she immediately invited me to a weekly linguistics discussion group that she attends, and she even gave me her own personal copy of that week’s reading so that I could catch up in time.”

It is no surprise that you received the Dylan Hixon Prize previously. Since then, your continued support for your students shows in the nominations that students continue to submit on your behalf.  For your dedication to your students throughout your many years in the computer science department, Yale College is proud to award the 2018 Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize to you, Dana Angluin.