Meet the 2019 Texas Ten

By Alcalde Staff | Photographs by Matt Wright-Steel

The Alcalde
Apr 30, 2019 · 17 min read

It’s no surprise that Texas’ flagship university attracts some of the world’s leading scholars.

From the museum director-slash-famous powerlifter to the biochemist who creates new courses “for fun” to the former Supreme Court clerk who has educated Texas Law students for almost half a century, this year’s Texas Ten class is another shining example of UT’s unparalleled level of talent. We are pleased to announce our newest crop, nominated by alumni and photographed on the Forty Acres, in their homes away from home: their offices.

Marina Alexandrova

Senior Lecturer, Slavic and Eurasian Studies | Years at UT: 9

In the same way that Marina Alexandrova uses the history of 18th and 19th century czars to explain Putin’s Russia, she also synthesizes the old school and the new in her teaching philosophy.

In her Intensive Russian course, students attend class daily, to finish what would be two years of learning the Russian language in just one year. Every night, they have two to three hours of homework. Every day, before verb conjugation or grammar or dialects, Alexandrova leads the class in mindfulness exercises. Sometimes they will share what is working well in class. Sometimes they will talk about what they’ve had for breakfast. Sometimes they will just breathe together.

“It’s a conscious effort to make sure students are well taken care of emotionally, intellectually, and academically,” she says. “When they are relaxed and being their most true selves, they can create better and contribute better.”

Don’t be mistaken: Alexandrova isn’t singing “Kumbayah” in any of her classes. Her students study the canon, like Turgenev, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky, and read writings by lesser-known anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin and even Ukranian revolutionary and assassin Sergey Stepnyak-Kravchinsky. “The work is really eye-opening for students,” Alexandrova says. “Those ideas are revolutionary even in today’s world. We can use those texts as a springboard to discuss present-day Russia, and present-day America.”

It leads to discussions — and sometimes arguments, which she encourages, if they are respectful — about the “goodness” of humanity, and the meaning of life.

“Russians always love to talk about the meaning of life,” Alexandrova laughs.

Outside the classroom, Alexandrova works with several local theater companies as a cultural expert. Her most important work, though, is teaching.

“I love all kinds of students — when they’re open-minded, when they’re closed-minded, when they come with preconceived notions of what Russia is,” she says. “They become citizens of the world when they study different cultures. It can prepare my students to go to Russia or Russian-speaking regions, work at a think-tank, or in American embassies. They email me later and it’s so gratifying. They can function in Russia and understand the culture. Making Russians and Americans understand each other is much needed.” — Chris O’Connell

Hina Azam

Associate Professor, Islamic Studies | Years at UT: 12

Step into Hina Azam’s classroom and you’ll notice something a little out of place for 2019: an overhead projector. “I have a very old-fashioned technique,” she says. As she lectures, Azam writes out her talking points by hand in a notebook which projects to her students. There are no PowerPoint slides, no fancy bells or whistles.

“The way that I do it slows everything down, and doesn’t force any multitasking,” she says.“When I’m speaking, I’m only speaking, and they’re only listening. Then, when I’m writing, they’re writing.” She believes in what she describes as the five senses of learning: “You listen; you read; you speak; you touch, you write; and then, you imagine all of those things.”

In 2016, Azam, who holds a PhD in Religious Studies from Duke, won the James Henry Breasted prize from the American Historical Association for her book Sexual Violation in Islamic Law: Substance, Evidence, and Procedure. Reviewers have called it “groundbreaking” and “required reading for anyone interested in the history of gender and Islamic law” — meaning UT students in classes such as Azam’s graduate-level Islamic Feminism course are lucky enough to be taught a pinnacle text by the author herself.

But Azam hopes that all of her students — even those undergraduates who may just be taking her course to fulfill a requirement — still walk away armed with knowledge they can carry forward. In the past several years, Azam has made a point to more actively address Islamophobia, particularly in her survey-level Introduction to Islam course. “At some level, we have to realize we are also creating citizens. We are helping to form moral agents,” she says.

On the first day of class, she likes to ask questions like, “What do you think of when you think of Islam?” Occasionally, she’ll assign homework asking students to analyze an inaccurate infographic that’s been circulating in the media. “There should always be efforts to provide multiple sides of the story, and provide students with critical tools so that they can sift through what is false or fake and what is objective or factual,” Azam says. “By the time we get to the end of the semester, I don’t need to explain anything to them. It’s so great! It’s empowering for them, too, because nobody is telling them what to think.” — Sofia Sokolove

Adrianne Rosales

Assistant Professor, Chemical Engineering | Years at UT: 2

Adrianne Rosales does office hours a little differently. At the beginning of each semester, she blocks off multiple 15-minute slots in her schedule, and encourages each of her students to come by for a chat. It helps her learn the names of the nearly 70 or 80 students in each of her classes, and makes her students feel more comfortable dropping by again once the course gets going. “We have a rapport right away for constant feedback and exchange of ideas,” she says.

And feedback is exactly what she’s looking for. As a new professor, Rosales likes to make sure she’s being effective. “I wasn’t going to know that was happening unless I asked the people I was directly teaching,” she says. Once they do open up to Rosales, who graduated from UT in 2007 with a chemical engineering degree, she finds common ground easily. “It wasn’t that long ago that I was literally in the same classrooms as they are now,” she says, a fact she likes to remind them of every once in awhile: “Just in a teasing way!”

Mostly, Rosales wants her students to know how excited she is to be back in the classroom, albeit standing on the opposite side of the lectern. When she invites her students, who are mostly juniors and seniors, in for their one-on-one meetings, she asks about their plans for post-graduation. “I feed off their enthusiasm a lot,” she says. “And hopefully that spills over to my students.”

One comment Rosales hears again and again from her students? Thank you for being a female engineering professor.

As a woman working in a male-dominated field, she’s glad for the opportunity to give her students a different example of success to look at. When Rosales was in graduate school at UC Berkeley, she found herself gravitating toward female professors — both her PhD and post-doc advisors were women. “When I was considering a bunch of different mentorship styles,” she says, “they were the ones that most spoke to me. It all goes back to the importance of finding mentors and having people you can relate to. Trying to turn that around to my own students is important.” — S.S.

Toyin Falola

Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities; University Distinguished Teaching Professor, History | Years at UT: 28

Toyin Falola is a jokester. He’s the pal who takes you out for a bite of pizza, or the one who suggests you have class outside. He’s even the best man at your wedding (true story: A former student recently enlisted him). He’s a Nigerian transplant who dresses in traditional African clothing nearly every day and is like an open book, eager to tell stories about his past.

But like every professor, he’s always teaching a lesson, often using his real-life experiences for students to draw on. When lecturing about the history of Africa, he divides its past into two parts: pre-colonial and post-colonial.
A prolific writer, with more than 100 book credits, he sometimes offers a course on memoir and its power to tell the histories of other cultures. His favorite course to teach is The United States and Africa, where students compare the two regions and track their relationship throughout history.

Long before he became an African history professor at The University of Texas in 1991, Falola was a high school dropout who joined his grandfather in the peasant rebellion in Africa following British leave in 1960. After his father died in the uprisings, Falola felt driven to return to school and learn more about his country. He earned a degree from the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in Nigeria, and has been teaching since 1977. “As that incident refused to leave me,” he says, “I became more and more drawn to history.”

Falola tries to be accessible to his students at almost all times. Even on the weekends, he’ll meet them at coffee shops to talk about their careers, school, or whatever problem life might have dealt them. He’s helped prevent numerous kids from dropping out of school and is proud when students continue to update him on their lives once they’ve graduated. “When you see the product of your work, it makes you so happy,” he says. “Being a teacher gives me tremendous energy. I don’t see myself as a vendor. I would do this for free.” — Danielle Lopez

Jan Todd

Professor, Kinesiology and Health Education; Professor, Women’s and Gender Studies; Roy J. McLean Centennial Fellowship in Sports History; Co-Founder, Director, the H. Lutcher Stark Center | Years at UT: 34

The first thing a student of Jan Todd might learn about her probably has nothing to do with her life as a scholar or a museum director. With just a simple internet search, they can easily find a clip of their professor on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson setting a world deadlift record. Before Todd came to UT in 1985, she had another career: the strongest woman in the world.

But when her husband, the late Terry Todd, joined the UT faculty in 1983, she was looking for what was next. An opening in the kinesiology department for a weight training teacher gave her a chance to move on from powerlifting and combine her love of sport with her passion for research.

“When I started teaching, the question that lay underneath was, why?” she says. “Why is it so strange for women to lift weights? Why do we struggle so much with this intellectually?”

Since then, Todd has held almost every title in the UT academic sphere: She started as a research assistant and entered tenure track after finishing her PhD in 1995. Now she teaches courses like The History of Physical Culture and The History of Women and Sport, and runs the PhD program in Physical Culture and Sport Studies.

“I love my graduate seminars — when my doctoral students know what I know, that’s really productive,” Todd says.

Along with Terry, she also co-founded UT’s H. Lutcher Stark Center, the world’s largest archive dedicated to physical culture. Most professors don’t have a combination research center, archive, and museum where they can take students. “When you’re trying to teach history to people, it’s really hard,” Todd says. “The Stark Center is the most incredible show-and-tell-program.”

Todd keeps alive the tradition she and her husband started by producing films for Rogue Fitness, running the Arnold Strongman Classic, and, until May, being president of North American Society for Sport History (NASSH). Twenty-five percent of the papers submitted to NASSH this year will deal with physical culture, a field she is proud to have helped legitimize, and which she continues to foster on the Forty Acres. — C.O.

“A lot of those are my students out there,” she says, “doing good stuff.” — C.C.

Lucas Powe

Professor, Government; Anne Green Regents Chair in Law | Years at UT: 48

It was 1971 when Lucas Powe first arrived on campus. The then-28-year-old Seattle native came to Austin as a way to escape the East Coast “preppies” with whom he’d attended Yale Law, figuring he’d move on to the next adventure within a few years. (Although vowing to “never be east of the Mississippi River again.”)

Forty-eight years later, Powe still calls the Forty Acres home.

Campus has grown in nearly every way since Powe’s arrival. “The thing I notice most is the change in diversity,” he says. “It was virtually all white students when I arrived. And there were just a handful of women, but now they probably make up 45 percent of my classes.”

Despite spending much of his life in Texas, Powe remains an avid Seattle Seahawks fan, and loves to teach sports law. He also teaches courses on constitutional law, focusing on the Supreme Court, a topic that became his expertise following his clerkship for Justice William O. Douglas before joining UT faculty.

“The great issues of our time play out at the Supreme Court,” he says. “They play out not entirely as legal issues but it’s the combination of where law and politics merge that interests me.”

As congenial as Powe is, he’s got a buttoned-up, no-time-for-play approach to teaching. Training students for a career in law, where tradition still reigns, he thinks his relationships with students should be formal. For him, teaching isn’t about telling his students what to believe — it’s simply his duty to show up and give them all the facts. And he doesn’t often work one-on-one with his students, preferring larger classes than smaller, and there is no first-name basis. “I approach it as a professional relationship,” he says. “They’re going to be professionals, so this is preparing them.”

Outside of the classroom, Powe likes to roll up his sleeves and travel, vacationing with his wife in Maui or the Caribbean. His students might be surprised to learn that their academically minded professor was once a competitive tennis player who held a national ranking. Though he racks his brain trying to recall what he wanted to be when he was younger — surely, he must have aspired to be an astronaut or a spy — he says he only remembers ever wanting to teach law.

“It’s hard for me to imagine what else I’d be good at,” he says, a smile creeping on his face. “See, my father was good at everything. But not especially great at anything. I turned out to be very good at one thing.” — D.L.

David Hoffman

Associate Professor, Molecular Biosciences | Years at UT: 26

David Hoffman didn’t do a whole lot of teaching for his first 15 years at UT. In between marathon sessions in his research lab, he would teach a class or two a year. About seven years ago, though, he started to get bored. So he shut down the lab and threw himself into the classroom.

“It’s fun to do and socially valuable,” he thought. “I have a bit of an aptitude for explaining things.”

But the man who fell in love with science in middle school, continued his education so he could “keep doing science things,” and loves solving puzzles, wasn’t going to take the easy road.

“Just for fun, instead of teaching a course I already knew, I thought I’d go through the whole [biochemistry] curriculum,” Hoffman says. “Then I get to learn them all, which I thought would be fun in a weird sort of way.”

He also created new courses, and taught classes he knew little about, the hardest of which he says are the upper-level biochemistry metabolism courses. “The first time it’s a bit of work,” he says. “The second time through everyone thinks you’re really smart, but you just learned it ahead of time.”

Hoffman is generally traditional in his teaching methods — no flipped classes or clickers for his students — but he does have two specific teaching philosophies. The first revolves around attention span.

“The first two-thirds of class it’s something I want to cover — proteins, enzymes — then the last third of the class I try to tell interesting stories,” he says. “After learning about lipids, we will talk about how to buy peanut butter. I have an attention span of about 35 minutes, so the last third isn’t too intense, but reinforces the first part of the class.”

His second teaching philosophy revolves around coffee. If you’ve ever seen Hoffman quickly pacing around the Norman Hackerman Building, it’s likely he’s hyped up on caffeine. “It’s so I have a lot of enthusiasm,” he says. “I think it’s contagious. If I appear to be excited about the material, people tend to be excited too, and everybody learns more.”

Hoffman says that well over half of his students in biochemistry classes are pre-health care professionals of some sort: doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and the like.

“A favorite thing is getting emails from people who got into medical school or pharmacy school,” he says. “They are on a mission, and what I’m largely doing is getting them ready for whatever is next.” — C.O.

Linda Henderson

Professor, Art History; David Bruton, Jr. Centennial Professor in Art History; Distinguished Teaching Professor | Years at UT: 41

Linda Henderson likes to call herself a missionary of modern art, working to help each student who walks into her classroom understand all the ways contemporary art intersects with science, math, and technology. Her courses focus on 20th-century European and American modern art, a field deeply influenced by things like the invention of the X-ray machine, Einstein’s theories of relativity, and the popularization of the idea of the fourth dimension. “I really love being able to show this world to students,” she says, “to be on the front lines and opening people’s eyes to the worlds of art.”

It’s not surprising that the daughter of a math teacher and an engineer gravitates toward the intersection of art and science. In fact, she assumed she would follow in her parents’ footsteps — until she took an art history course at Dickinson College, a private liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. “I just fell in love with it,” she says. That passion is critical to being a professor. “Students [need to] feel that you are open to them, and interested in them,” Henderson says. “It’s also really important for students to see and feel your enthusiasm for a subject. With this field of study, that’s been easy.”

When Henderson first began teaching at UT in 1978, the current art building had just been built where the baseball field once stood, and the university’s art history department was in its fledgling years. She remembers that time fondly, recalling how she had moved to a then-sleepy Austin with her husband and 8-month-old son from Houston, where she spent four years post-college as an associate curator at the Museum of Fine Art, Houston.

Forty-one years later, Henderson is in her first year of a three-year-long “phased retirement.” With two books in the works, she says she wants to focus on her writing. When she lists off what’s been memorable about her time at UT, she thinks of the faculty who have inspired her the last four decades; how her students gave her words of encouragement when, in 2003, she was diagnosed with cancer — which she has been free of for the last 16 years — and all the students who left her classroom able to see the world just a little bit differently.

“I never imagined living in Texas,” she says. “But the university has been wonderful. To have come in as part of a group of young faculty and create a program which is now among the top art history programs in the nation — it’s special.” — D.L.

H.W. Perry Jr.

University Distinguished Teaching Professor; Associate Professor, Government; Associate Professor, Law | Years at UT: 25

“This is going to sound corny,” H.W. Perry says, “but one of the things I try to do most is help my students learn to be critical thinkers.”

After eight years as a professor at Harvard, in 1994 Perry (and his wife, Minette Drumwright, also a professor at UT) came to the Forty Acres, where he splits his time between the Law School and Department of Government, specializing in civil liberties, Constitutional law, and the intersection of law and politics.

One of his favorite ways to challenge his law students is to divide the classroom in two and have them each take a side of an iconic Supreme Court decision. “Then I make them argue the position they really don’t agree with,” he says with a smile. Perry likes to cold-call, too, choosing students at random to “grill” about the subject at hand. It may seem like tough love, but he hears again and again from former students that it helped them build confidence.

“The thing I’m most proud of,” Perry says, “is they realize they can do things they didn’t think they could do.”

Perry also wants his students to think beyond the immediate outcome. Sometimes he’ll read them that famous quote from German pastor Martin Niemöller: First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

“What they need to deeply understand is that the rule of law has to be something different from just power,” Perry says. “The law that can be used for good purposes can also be used for bad purposes. You’re going to be on one side or the other, and you should think about what the constitution should mean, or the First Amendment should mean, or executive power, or liberty. You better think really hard about that.” — S.S.

Michele Deitch

Senior Lecturer, LBJ School; Senior Lecturer, Law | Years at UT:15

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience” is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing Michele Deitch has ever read. (And as an attorney, former federal court-appointed monitor of the Texas prison system, and professor for over 15 years, it’s safe to say she has read a lot.) In the essay, Emerson says the joy of the experience is trying to get there. “That has a lot of resonance in everything that we do,” Deitch explains. “I’m not going to solve the problems in our criminal justice system. Neither are my students. But we can play our part in trying to make it better.”

For Deitch and her students, trying to make it better often means research projects like the one they took on in 2012, when the independent ombudsman for the juvenile justice agency asked her to analyze youth violence in Texas’ juvenile justice facilities. With a team of students, Deitch started analyzing the levels of violence and discovered a large number of kids were spending long periods of time in solitary confinement. When they presented their results to the director, he told them it was priceless information. “There was a need for this work to be done,” Deitch says. “If you present in a way that’s thoughtful, sensible, and targeted for your specific audience, you can really have an impact.”

But Deitch is also well aware there are no easy answers to the problems in the criminal justice system. In her classrooms, she strives to teach her students about complexity.

“I don’t give them answers,” she explains. “I teach by asking a lot of questions and I try to get them to think.”

And that dialogue goes both ways. “I don’t always feel like I’m the one teaching them,” Deitch says. “They’re teaching me a lot of things. I like creating an opportunity for us all to work together. They are really going to be the next leaders.” — S.S.

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