Three UGA faculty members received a Richard B. Russell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2021. Russell Awards recognize outstanding teaching by faculty early in their academic careers. The Richard B. Russell Foundation in Atlanta supports the program, and award recipients receive $10,000.
Department of Anthropology
Franklin College of Arts and Sciences
Jennifer Birch has a passion for building communities—whether that is studying communities built hundreds of years ago or building a community among her students.
“My commitment as an educator focuses on engaging students’ intellectual curiosity; supporting student needs and well-being, especially with regard to advising and professional development; creating a welcoming and inclusive community for students; program-level curriculum development; and a personal commitment to building a campus network aimed at developing pedagogical skills related to teaching, learning and student support,” she said.
In her time at UGA, Birch has taught 2,035 students in 14 distinct courses, including 10 new courses and six substantially redesigned courses, ranging from large sections of Introduction to Anthropology to small senior undergraduate and graduate seminars. She also regularly advises graduate students.
“Dr. Birch is an enthusiastic, well prepared, highly knowledgeable professor. She is always willing and ready to answer questions to ensure you understand the materials and her expectations. These characteristics led me to take five courses with her over the last two years. I am grateful I had the opportunity to learn under her tutelage,” one former student wrote.
A colleague pointed to her Archaeology of Warfare and Archaeology and Society courses as examples of her unique approach to undergraduate teaching. She engages these classes as learning communities in the process of walking students through the unique historical circumstances of anthropological issues.
Birch said one of her proudest achievements was leading an effort to develop a program-level curriculum map for anthropology. This resource serves as a guide for curriculum planning, developing new courses, and for conducting annual program reviews for the Office of Curriculum Systems.
“I see my duty as an instructor to engage their minds and expose them to ideas from which their own passions may grow,” she said.
Birch was a finalist for the Graduate School’s Outstanding Mentor Award in 2018 and 2020, in addition to receiving a UGA-Liverpool Faculty Exchange Grant and an Online Learning Fellowship from UGA’s Office of Online Learning. She also serves on various committees in her department.
“Jennifer Birch is dedicated to preparing students for success after graduation by building confidence in their abilities through data-driven research that equips students with the tools they need to succeed in developing a career path,” one colleague wrote. “Her pedagogical approach is centered around active learning and instruction supported by the outcomes of discipline-based education research in archaeology. She guides students toward developing expertise in disciplinary concepts through inquiry-based thinking by giving them an active role in their learning experiences.”
Department of Journalism
Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication
Jonathan Peters loves teaching, and his courses cover a variety of topics, from communication law to reporting to feature writing.
“It’s challenging and richly rewarding, and every day I play the roles of educator, comedian, mentor, guide and counselor. I get to build meaningful relationships with students and be part of their growth as professionals and human beings,” he said.
That variety extends to how his classes are taught. As a UGA Online Learning Fellow in the 2017-2018 academic year, Peters developed the plan for Grady College’s core law course to be taught online for the first time. And all of his classes, no matter the format, include a dynamic combination of lectures, discussions, podcasts, role-playing exercises, reading and legal hypotheticals.
“I’m very intentional, too, about the classroom atmosphere I try to create—one that is open, civil, welcoming, informal, mutually respectful and filled with humor. I try to reinforce that atmosphere in all of my contacts with students—in lectures, hallway conversations, office meetings, emails, even exams,” he said.
It’s something his co-workers have noticed, as well.
“Dr. Peters earns students’ attention and trust through a combination of approachability, dedication and mutual respect. While his deep knowledge of the issues is always evident, he is a relaxed teacher who frequently finds ways to connect with students through casual exchanges such as good-natured sports rivalries or self-deprecating humor. He also finds creative ways to present the course material,” one colleague wrote.
In addition to teaching, Peters supervises undergraduates in their completion of research projects, some presented at the CURO Symposium, and collaborates with undergraduates on his own research, “out of a strong belief that they can develop a deeper understanding of their field through that work,” he said. He also serves as a coach for the Student Veterans Resource Center.
Peters is part of three committees at Grady College, and he’s the co-author of a leading media law textbook. He’s also a volunteer lawyer for the Student Press Law Center. In 2019, he was named the Department of Journalism’s Teacher of the Year.
“Good teachers impact their own students in positive and long-lasting ways; excellent teachers help grow knowledge beyond the bounds of their own classrooms. Professor Peters is one of those,” another colleague wrote.
Departments of Theatre & Film Studies and Romance Languages
Franklin College of Arts and Sciences
For Emily Sahakian, education extends far beyond the walls of a classroom.
With dual appointments as associate professor of theatre and associate professor of French, she takes her students from the stage to the islands of the French Caribbean. On that journey, her students are encouraged to step outside of their comfort zones and to integrate new ideas into their world views.
“I believe that meaningful learning occurs when we see ourselves as part of a community. When we grapple with key questions as a group, students better remember course content, take note of intellectual and research processes, and learn the value of multiple perspectives. Students gain the confidence and skills needed to articulate and refine their own contributions, and they learn to appreciate what their classmates and community partners bring to the table,” Sahakian said.
An example of this is the split-level community-based theatre course Sahakian developed from the ground up. One student wrote that the course “enabled us to interact meaningfully with the course texts, our classmates, the professor and the community beyond the university.”
Sahakian is able to share her passion for both theatre and French in her Topics in French Literature and Culture course, which offers students studying both areas an opportunity to explore the other and how they come together.
“I deeply appreciate the interdisciplinary work that Dr. Sahakian brings to and encourages at UGA. Her passion for knowledge and commitment to her students encourages critical thinking not only about language, theater and works of literature, but also more broadly about the relations between academia, UGA and the world at large,” one former student wrote.
Additionally, Sahakian regularly supervises directed readings and teaching apprenticeships for undergraduate and graduate students. She has supervised multiple Honors research projects, CURO papers and undergraduate student performances and has served as the faculty advisor for two student organizations. She also serves as the undergraduate coordinator for the theatre department, the coordinator of their Double Dawgs degree and as the faculty liaison for the partnership between UGA and the University of the Antilles.
Sahakian has been named a Teaching Academy Fellow, Service-Learning Fellow and a Sarah H. Moss Fellow. She also won the Service-Learning Teaching Excellence Award.
“Dr. Sahakian is a profoundly talented, dedicated and innovative teacher who has made tremendous contributions to undergraduate education at UGA, in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, the Department of Romance Languages and beyond,” one colleague wrote.