The Texas Ten
Photos by Matt Wright-Steel
From lengthy, heartwarming diatribes about life-changing lectures to all-caps declarations of a professor’s awesomeness, each year, the Texas 10 nominations elicit a feeling of pride for Longhorns. And why not? Alumni finally have the chance to give their favorite professor an A+. It’s recognition for those who have made a lasting impact on our lives. From the more than 75 nominated educators, past and present, across disciplines, we’ve culled the list down to the 10 most deserving professors of 2017.
Lecturer, Chemistry; Director of Demonstrations and Outreach
Years at UT: 3
Stay Hydrated: “At the end of every lecture I say, ‘Drink water!’ It’s a silly thing that stuck, but now my students say it back to me.”
Favorite Quote: It’s one adapted from Martin Luther King Jr.: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, never ever give up.”
The only thing Kate Biberdorf, PhD ’14, loves more than chemistry is blowing things up. She considers herself a performance artist and “science translator” for the 1,000 chemistry students she teaches each semester. She knows a demonstration is going well when students pull out their cell phones and start to Snapchat.
“Burning my hair off for my beautiful students is worth it, but also it’s for me,” Biberdorf says. “I love watching the audience the second I blow something up. My favorite part is when I can do a demonstration, look out into the crowd and see smiles, laughter, or the moment where jaws drop.”
Each day Biberdorf, a lecturer in the chemistry department, works to fight the stigmas her students face. She most commonly battles the theory that a student’s brain is hardwired for either math and science or reading and writing. Biberdorf says it’s OK to not always know the right answer — and the same rule goes for her.
“If you’re not learning from your students then you’ve given up,” she says. “I used to be scared to say ‘I don’t know that.’ Now it’s, ‘Let’s figure this out together.’ I make mistakes all the time, but that makes you human and students respond to that.”
Biberdorf says she never wants to stop teaching UT students chemistry. But if she has things her way, 10 years from now she’ll have a side gig concocting liquid nitrogen clouds in front of thousands of people in Las Vegas. “I want it to be like a Celine Dion show.” Biberdorf says. “I know it’s never going to happen, but if it did, it would mean so much in our culture has shifted. And of course I would be wearing designer shoes and a lab coat.”
Biberdorf knows most of her students will never be chemists, but that doesn’t discourage her. If her students leave with anything, she wants them to strive to be better people.
“Come back in 10-plus years and rub it in my face how much better you are than me,” Biberdorf says. “That’s the best thing you can possibly do — it’s the biggest compliment. ” — Kat Sampson
Antonella Del Fattore-Olson
Distinguished Senior Lecturer, Italian Studies
Years at UT: 32
Bella Roma: “Being from Rome, I love everything about it,” Fattore-Olson says. “The smell, the color, the people. I love that you can be in Rome and take a car and drive 20 minutes and be surrounded by beautiful countryside and the sea.”
Bookworm: Fattore-Olson is an ardent reader. “I devour books more than read them,” she says.
Antonella Del Fattore-Olson knew she had chosen the right profession on her first day at UT, 32 years ago. The class was Beginning Italian, so the students knew nothing of the language, and having recently moved to Austin from Italy, Fattore-Olson’s English wasn’t great. But after the class came to a close, she felt at home.
“I loved the emotion that I felt in those 50 minutes, the way the students were looking at me and the way we were exchanging comments,” Fattore-Olson says. “I still feel the same type of excitement the very first day of each semester.”
Fattore-Olson is big on community. She encourages students to meet with her outside of class and keep in touch after the semester ends. She hosts a weekly meeting, or tavola, at the Cactus Cafe where students gather to practice Italian. Every summer, she takes students to her hometown for the six-week Rome Study program. She says it’s impossible to teach language without teaching culture.
“I want them to know the reality about Italy,” Fattore-Olson says. “We need to be courageous enough to show everything — the beauty and the less beautiful part — so the students understand what is real.”
After the first Rome Study program in 1996, the students gave Fattore-Olson an old print of the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, the fountain where the students would meet for class. The students signed their names around it. One inscription read: “You have taken a group of kids and made them citizens of the world.” — Marisa Charpentier
Associate Professor, Musicology
Years at UT: 7
Sneakerhead: Every Friday, Carson thrills the crowd with a pair of kicks. “I like to collect classic-style shoes that are related to hip hop culture,” Carson says, noting that if he forgets to don a flashy pair, his students notice. “It has become … a thing.”
All That Jazz: Due to his budding love of jazz as a child, Carson’s grandmother went to a record store to buy him two albums. The clerk’s first recommendation: Kenny G. Luckily the other CD was by Wynton Marsalis, which helped propel his love for the trumpet.
Charles Carson’s musical career began with the promise of a ride on the Texas Cyclone roller coaster.
“My friend told me that the school band went to Six Flags,” Carson says. “I asked, ‘How do I join the band?’”
His love of performance (he was, and still is, a trumpet player) and affinity for varied styles of music (opera, jazz, hip-hop) began at age 11 and blossomed from there. When tasked with writing a form letter in middle school, he chose to send one to Juilliard. After high school graduation, he headed to conservatory at Boston University. About a year in, however, he lost his “trumpet edge,” he says, and shifted focus from performance to music education, transferring to the University of Houston. By the time he reached grad school at the University of Pennsylvania, Carson was interested in researching and sharing his passion for music in the classroom.
“I work sort of in the cracks between musicology and ethnomusicology,” he says. “I do historical work and then I do a lot with contemporary music and culture.”
His immensely popular Music of African Americans class serves just that purpose. Whichever style of music Carson is focusing on that semester, he connects the past to the present, and non-music majors to the study of musicology, a daunting task in his opinion.
“They feel silenced a lot of times when they come into a music classroom,” Carson says. “When they say, ‘I don’t know a lot about music but I know every Beyonce lyric,’ I say, ‘You know a lot about music!’ I find it’s not about having to build connections, but to let them strip it away and own it.”
Carson describes a favorite reoccuring teaching moment, one that happened earlier in the day. He played the influential early hip hop track “La Di Da Di” for his students, carefully watching their reaction. Near the end of the song, Slick Rick sings a hook that the Notorious B.I.G. later interpolated for his 1997 smash hit “Hypnotize.”
“I always turn and look at that moment when their faces go …” Carson’s eyes widen as he imitates his shocked students. “The first time I heard ‘La Di Da Di,’ is over. I will never get that first time back. Except, I get a little bit of it every time I play it in class for someone who has never heard it. Whether it’s ‘La Di Da Di’ or Beethoven’s 9th … that’s why I teach.” — Chris O’Connell
Associate Professor, American Studies and African and African Diaspora Studies; Associate Chair of American Studies
Years at UT: 15
Past Is Prologue: “The way we engage history is always rooted in the politics of the moment,” Thompson says.
Dream Student: “Someone who is growing into self-consciousness about what they think,” she says. “And what they believe. And they bring that self-consciousness to the material that I’m teaching.”
Shirley Thompson came to teaching through research. “I’m the kind of person who is a natural researcher,” says the soft-spoken professor. “I had to work on teaching.” Thompson, who describes herself as an introvert, says it was through her students’ questions that she fell in love with standing at the front of the classroom.
“What really drew me into it,” she says, her face lighting up, “was listening to students engage with the material and come to me with a question I’d never thought of before, or a new perspective.”
Now, in addition to her own research interests — currently, she is working on a book titled No More Auction Block for Me: African Americans and the Problem of Property — Thompson brings her natural inquisitiveness to the classroom, where she tries to find fresh ways to talk about historical events that will make them resonate with her students.
One way of doing that is to look at the past from an unconventional angle, an approach she likes to take with her course Atlantic Slavery: History and Memory. The class, which Thompson says she “kind of love-slash-hates” to teach because of the difficult subject matter, follows the trajectory of the Atlantic slave trade from the interior of Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean. Instead of looking at it through the lens of American history, though, the class explores what it would mean to talk about history from a sort of middle space in the Atlantic Ocean. “It takes what students think of as like bounded national history,” explains Thompson, “and just destabilizes it right up front.”
A lot of students come to a history classroom with one of two mindsets, Thompson says. They either see history as untouchable, “because those people are in the past and they are not quite like us,” she says, or they see it as too terrible to even think about.
“I tend to teach the horrible stuff,” Thompson says, matter-of-factly. “I don’t want students to think that it’s less horrible than it is, but I want to build their relationships to the past so they can make sense of their present moment — and imagine a better future.” — Sofia Sokolove
Joe C. Thompson Centennial Professor Emeritus, Distinguished University Teaching Professor Emeritus
Years at UT: 42
Extracurricular: Murphy has been playing table tennis against Tom Borders, founder of Borders bookstores, for years. “He has a table with a wooden net, and sometimes the ball will strike the wood and will bounce in a crazy way, but we play it,” he says. “We have a lot of fun.”
Motto: “Keep it simple.”
John Murphy’s key ingredient to teaching was enthusiasm. Before class, he’d turn up some music. During advertising courses, he pulled popular culture references into discussion.
“I would have students say, ‘Your class was great. It was so early at 9:30 a.m., but I never missed a class,’” Murphy, PhD ’74, Life Member, says. “That was like a badge of honor.”
Since he started teaching at UT in 1974, Murphy says he’s taught more than 27,000 students. His intro to advertising course has about 400 students each class. He says the most rewarding part of teaching is being able to turn on a lightbulb in students’ minds. He’s taught a number of students who haven’t quite found their perfect career path — until they meet him.
“The knock on advertising is that it makes people buy things they don’t want or need,” Murphy says. “But there are lots of examples of doing really positive things with the communication skills that advertising people have.”
In the spring of 2014, Murphy began having health problems. He had a series of seizures and was diagnosed with bladder cancer. After taking a leave of absence, he decided to retire from teaching but still stays involved with students. As the director of special programs in the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations, he spearheads special events like advertising competitions and the Vance and Betty Lee Stickell Student Internship Program, which matches students from universities across the country with 10-week internships.
“I want to be involved,” Murphy says. “UT has been really good to me, and I’ve worked hard. I do my best every day.” — M.C.
Juliet E.K. Walker
Years at UT: 16
Breaking (With) the Law: Walker attended law school at Loyola University before switching to a PhD program at the University of Chicago. “I discovered very quickly that the only thing I liked about the law would be writing Supreme Court decisions,” Walker laughs. “I thought, Yeah Juliet, you might see yourself up there in 20, 30 years. That wasn’t going to happen.”
As a precocious child on the South side of Chicago, Juliet Walker used to trek down to the family basement and dig through her mother’s trunk of family papers. Years earlier, the trunk had fortuitously avoided a fire that burned down her mother’s house. It’s a good thing, too, because among those papers, Walker found information that would help shape her career as an academic.
It turns out that Walker’s great-great grandfather was Frank McWorter, otherwise known as Free Frank, a former slave who bought his own freedom (and eventually the freedom of 16 other family members) as one of the first black entrepreneurs in America. It got her wheels spinning. Why hadn’t anyone written about black businessmen and women?
After receiving her PhD in American History from the University of Chicago, she began teaching in local universities. Since she only remembered a few things, in her estimation, from undergrad, she was hellbent on leaving an impression on her students.
“I wanted the students to do well but I wanted them to have something positive to remember,” Walker says. “I have always had a commitment to help anyone in any way that I could.”
Walker is one of the first academics to tackle the previously uncharted territory of black business, developing what became a controversial course on Oprah Winfrey at the University of Illinois before bringing it to UT.
“She had become part of mainstream America,” Walker says. “I had been teaching aspects of black history but I said that we needed a class on a black entrepreneur, to say, ‘Yes, this person is a part of history.’” Walker is currently writing a book about Winfrey, and has a framed picture of the two women on the set of Winfrey’s show from 2001.
Walker remembers that when she dug into research on Free Frank for her graduate dissertation, her cousin caught wind of her project and objected, suggesting she write about Nat Turner instead.
“People had not written about black businesspeople; it was an aspect of history where blacks were not included,” Walker says. “It’s so important because if we look at the state of black business today, we’re expanding, but in terms of receipts, we are at the bottom.” According to Walker, black-owned businesses account for less than 1 percent of American business receipts.
“People say, ‘What do you expect? You don’t have a history of black business,’” Walker says. “And yet here I am.” — C.O.
Associate Professor, Chevron Centennial Teaching Fellow, Petroleum Engineering
Years at UT: 12
Best Advice: “A little bit of adversity is a good thing.”
Masa Prodanovic has always had a thing for numbers. Around the age of three, Prodanovic, who grew up in Croatia, would spend her mornings counting how many eggs her family’s chickens had laid. When her father, a professor himself, realized what she was doing, he made it an assignment. “Every day or evening I was supposed to go and check how many eggs we had and I was supposed to go and report to him,” she laughs.
All that counting paid off — Prodanovic graduated with a bachelor’s of science in applied mathematics from the University of Zagreb in Croatia before moving to the United States to get a PhD in computational applied mathematics from Stony Brook University.
Having moved straight from Croatia to Long Island, Prodanovic still remembers the moment she walked into her advisor’s office to tell him she was offered a post-doctorate position at UT. “I just had this face,” she says, “like … what is Texas? He just broke into this big smile, turned to me and said, ‘You will be just fine.’”
Turns out, he was right. Since moving to Austin, Prodanovic has been published widely and won numerous awards for her research.
Prodanovic likes to remind her novice programming students that even after all her years of experience, she still makes mistakes. And she encourages them to try and get to positions in fields where they would be a little bit uncomfortable. That level of discomfort, she says, is what pushes you forward. “I kind of shell out advice whether it’s invited or not,” she jokes.
Last May, Prodanovic had the opportunity to take students back to the place where her love of numbers began, leading a program at the University of Zagreb. Hosted by the petroleum engineering program at Prodanovic’s alma mater, 13 UT students and six students from Croatia learned about international oil and gas operations — plus computer programming — while traveling together through beautiful geological sites across Croatia. “It was a blast,” she says. “A blast for me and the students as well.” — S.S.
Associate Professor, Public Affairs; Executive Director and William Powers, Jr. Chair, Clements Center for National Security
Years at UT: 6.5
Book That Changed His Life: The Irony of American History, by Reinhold Niebuhr. “He reflects, during the Cold War, how do we appreciate the greatness of America and come to terms with its frailty and failings?” Inboden says. “If I’m here 30 years from now, I’ll still be assigning it.”
Tropical Sportsman: Other than South Texas, Inboden’s favorite place to hunt and fish is on the remote Hawaiian island of Molokai, where his wife’s family runs a goat farm.
Hanging in William Inboden’s office is a nondescript-looking photo. Until you squint your eyes and identify its subjects. Taken in August 2007, the photo features Inboden, Condoleeza Rice, Dick Cheney, Bob Gates, then-President George W. Bush, and a dozen other national security staffers, sitting around a large, wooden table at an annual offsite meeting at Camp David. They had just revealed, Inboden says, that all but two had history books on their nightstands.
He doesn’t keep it on his wall because it’s a particularly striking image. It’s there because of what it symbolizes: the synthesis of history and policy. That intersection is where Inboden lives.
“I thought, if I was ever a professor I would love to have my intellectual theme be the lessons of history on current policy challenges,” Inboden says. “That’s why I keep my photo there, to remind me of what we do here.”
After graduating from Stanford, Inboden felt the push and pull of D.C., alternately working on Capitol Hill during the Clinton administration and the state department and White House under Bush, and earning his PhD in history from Yale. Ultimately, university life won, and in 2010, he joined the faculty at the LBJ School. In 2013, he got the opportunity to fuse his career as a historian with his affinity for public policy, founding the Clements Center for National Security, a nonpartisan research and policy center.
“We wanted to have something that would honor the legacy of a great Texan like Bill Clements,” Inboden says, “but we didn’t want to build a museum. We wanted to build something that was living, dynamic, and also forward-looking.”
Just as Beltway leaders use historical texts to help shape policy, Inboden trains future policy-makers using the lessons of history. The most eager of his students, are, he says, “skeptical of dogmas and willing to question their own assumptions. They’re motivated and passionate to make a difference beyond themselves.” — C.O.
Assistant Professor, Department of Special Education, College of Education
Years at UT: 4
O Canada: Toste’s favorite children’s book author is fellow Canadian Robert Munsch because of his wacky tales of growing up in the Great White North.“He has a book about a kid putting on a snowsuit outside and then having to pee,” she says, laughing, “which is a real thing.”
Growing up, Jessica toste was a self-proclaimed “word nerd,” completely infatuated with words of all forms. “I’ve always been in love with them,” Toste says. “That’s probably what drove my interest in teaching.” As an assistant professor in the College of Education, Toste teaches future special education teachers reading methods for students with learning disabilities.
The Canadian-born professor says teaching 20-year-olds isn’t so different from teaching kids — they both need autonomy and clear instruction. “I joke a lot that when I teach anything to anyone, even if I’m telling a friend where to go, I use the premise of special education instruction: We model, use guided practice, then let you practice independently.”
Toste adds that great teaching doesn’t stop at clear instruction. What moves a teacher from good to great is threefold: they must be engaged, think critically about their work, and remain compassionate toward their students.
“No matter what classroom you’re in, your students are going to be diverse and have very different experiences than you,” Toste says. “It’s important to understand those experiences and how that will impact the way you teach them.”
Teaching should be fun, which Toste says sometimes means her telling jokes that might not be funny to anyone but herself. Other times it means teaching her favorite phonics term: diphthong. She says it’s “kind of her ‘thing.’” A small needlepoint canvas with the word sits on her shelf, a gift from her students.
There was a time when Toste wasn’t sure whether she wanted to continue to teach younger kids or college students, then one of her professors and mentors posed the question: “What is your ultimate goal? Do you think you’ll have a greater impact teaching one class every year or 50 teachers a year who will then go out and teach 50 classrooms?” After that conversation, she decided to complete a master’s and PhD in educational psychology from McGill University.
“One thing that I want my students to leave with is knowing that teaching reading can be fun,” Toste says. “And it should be.” — K.S.
Lecturer, Information, Risk, and Operations Management
Years at UT: 6
In It to Win It: “The consultant in me is always trained to say, ‘Why do I do it this way?’” Tuttle says. “If you don’t have an answer, there’s potential for improvement.”
Bieber Fever: On the last day of classes last spring, Tuttle played guitar to his students and sang a parody of Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” retitled “Learn Excel.”
Clint Tuttle, BBA ’03, Life Member, likes to think in analogies. So it’s fitting, then, that one served as the catalyst for his teaching career. After graduating from the McCombs Business School, Tuttle was working for Accenture in Boston and as a part-time volunteer for various women’s shelters, teaching the basics of Outlook and Gmail to women hoping to build their work skills.
“We were trying to explain to these women what a folder is in your email,” Tuttle says, “and they were very confused by it.” He drew a picture on a whiteboard of a house with a mailbox and a filing cabinet. He remembers somebody telling him he did a good job and thinking, Yeah, that was pretty cool. Less than three years later, Tuttle had left his job in the corporate world for a teaching position at his alma mater.
Now, Tuttle likes to use the example of his own career shift as a way of easing students’ anxieties about not having it all figured out. Especially in his freshman and sophomore intro-level classes, he often notices a fear of failure — students thinking that every misstep or mistake will somehow determine their overall happiness and success in life.
One day in class, Tuttle tried to lighten the mood. “Hey guys,” he remembers saying. “The first exam just happened. The average was a 70 and only 5 percent of you got an A, but let me tell you, it’s gonna be OK. You’re gonna be OK.’” It was something he ended up saying to students a lot in passing, but he didn’t think much of it. That is until they started coming back to him as seniors, telling him that the most important thing they learned from his class was that they were going to be OK.
“I started building that into my classes,” Tuttle says. “Trying to teach them about how they can’t control every little aspect of their life. We see this constantly in business, and it still applies to our personal life. It’s OK to make a mistake as long as you learn from it.” — S.S.