Campus News

Three faculty members receive 2021 Russell Awards

Three University of Georgia faculty members have been named recipients of the Richard B. Russell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, which recognize outstanding instruction by faculty members early in their academic careers.

The Russell Foundation established the Russell Awards during the 1991-1992 academic year. The awards include a $10,000 cash award.

“Recipients of the Russell Awards exemplify the commitment to innovative and engaging instruction that makes the University of Georgia one of America’s leading public universities,” said S. Jack Hu, the university’s senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. “I congratulate this year’s honorees and appreciate their dedication to our students.”

The 2021 Russell Award recipients are:

  • Jennifer Birch, associate professor of anthropology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences;
  • Jonathan Peters, associate professor of journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication with a courtesy appointment in the School of Law; and
  • Emily Sahakian, associate professor of theatre and film studies, and of Romance languages in the Franklin College.
Photo of Jennifer Birch

Jennifer Birch is an associate professor of anthropology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

Jennifer Birch

Birch has transformed how archaeology is taught at UGA, making the archaeology field school a learning experience that engages students throughout the entire process of research, from design to testing, skill development, writing, and culminating with professional presentations.

Birch’s pedagogical style focuses on creating learning communities that develop trust as a basis for critical thinking, empowering students to take control their learning outcomes. Her teaching approach walks students through historical circumstances of core anthropological issues, giving them a unique perspective and understanding of the field at large. Birch also has redesigned the anthropology capstone course to focus on professional development and preparing students to succeed in both academic and applied postgraduate career trajectories.

Birch serves as undergraduate coordinator in the department of anthropology, as well as faculty liaison for the Student Association for Anthropological and Archaeological Sciences and the Anthropology Mentoring Program. She also has improved the student experience in her department by developing content for web-based advising resources, along with creating a program-level curriculum map for all anthropology students. Birch is the recipient of the UGA-Liverpool Faculty Exchange Grant and the Online Learning Fellowship, through which she created and implemented active learning exercises in an online environment through discussion forums, debates and data analyses.

Photo of Jonathan Peters

Jonathan Peters is an associate professor of journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication with a courtesy appointment in the School of Law. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

Jonathan Peters

Peters is an internationally recognized expert in mass communication law who encourages, guides and challenges his students to think critically and creatively about legal problems and their solutions. He uses humor and innovative assessments to bring to life all manner of difficult concepts. In addition to communication law, Peters has taught both feature writing and travel writing, the latter in Prague, and he has co-taught a First-Year Odyssey Seminar exploring free expression on university campuses.

His impact and influence go well beyond the classroom. Peters is a co-author of “The Law of Public Communication,” a widely adopted textbook, and he is a frequent commentator on First Amendment issues for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, NPR, CNN, NBC News and CBS News. Student journalists, at UGA and beyond, regularly seek his assistance for public-record requests and for reviews of story drafts.

Grady College recognized Peters in 2019 as its Journalism Teacher of the Year, and in 2017 he was selected as an Online Learning Fellow, allowing him to adapt his communication law course to be taught online for the first time. Outside the university, he recently served as the elected teaching chair of the Law and Policy Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Photo of Emily Sahakian

Emily Sahakian is an associate professor of theatre and film studies and of Romance languages in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

Emily Sahakian

Sahakian is a multifaceted instructor of both theatre and French-language literature and culture, often teaching courses that bridge both areas. She incorporates innovative experiential strategies, like staged readings and translation workshops, in her classes to encourage a more open and active learning environment. Sahakian is invested in her students’ development as effective communicators of the French language, as well as French-language culture. She created new service-based learning options through courses in community-based theatre. These activities with community partners allow space for creativity and help students actively and broadly apply their skills and deepen comprehension.

Sahakian is a recipient of the Service-Learning Teaching Excellence Award, the Sarah H. Moss Fellowship, the Teaching Academy Fellowship, the Service-Learning Fellowship and the Global Georgia Program Grant. She co-taught a split-level class in which students from UGA and Spelman College worked together to produce a script, from the archives of Georgia’s carceral histories and in dialogue with incarcerated collaborators, eventually titled “By Our Hands,” that was performed as part of the university’s 2019 Spotlight on the Arts festival, and subsequently at Spelman. Sahakian also serves as undergraduate coordinator in the department of theatre, as well as the coordinator for the dual degree programs between theatre and nonprofit management and leadership. She updated the undergraduate theatre curriculum in 2019 in order to give students more flexibility to pursue their own interests and goals.

Nominations for the Russell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching are submitted by deans and considered by a committee of senior faculty members and undergraduate students. Tenure-track faculty members who have worked at UGA for at least three years and no more than 10 years are eligible for the award.

To learn more about the Russell Awards and for a list of past winners, see