College of Liberal Arts

The 2019 Texas Ten

Fri, May 3, 2019
Marina Alexandrova. Photo by Matt Wright-Steel
Marina Alexandrova. Photo by Matt Wright-Steel

Ten talented University of Texas at Austin professors have been selected by the Alcalde to be a part of the annual Texas Ten awards.

Each year, alumni nominate the professors they felt were the most inspiring to them. From these nominations, Alcalde magazine chooses the top ten professors they believe left the biggest impact with their students and honors them with the title of the Texas Ten.

Six of this year’s chosen faculty belong to the College of Liberal Arts, representing five different departments.

Below is more information about these professors, originally written by The Alcalde.

Marina Alexandrova

Senior Lecturer, Slavic and Eurasian Studies

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.” — Written by  Chris O’Connell

 

Hina Azam

Associate Professor, Islamic Studies

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.” — Written by Sofia Sokolove

 

Toyin Falola

Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities; University Distinguished Teaching Professor, History

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.” —Written by  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

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. — Written by C.O.

 

Lucas Powe

Professor, Government; Anne Green Regents Chair in Law

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.” — Written by D.L.

 

H.W. Perry Jr.

University Distinguished Teaching Professor; Associate Professor, Government; Associate Professor, Law

“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.” — Written by S.S.

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