Allison Butler, senior lecturer of communication, and Nathan Chan, assistant professor of resource economics have been awarded this year’s UMass Amherst College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS) Outstanding Teaching Award. This award celebrates exceptional teaching, mentoring curriculum development efforts and teachers’ impact on students.
“Educators like Dr. Butler and Dr. Chan exemplify the best of teaching that SBS and UMass Amherst have to offer” said John Hird, dean of SBS. “It is fitting that their commitment to teaching excellence has been recognized with this award.”
Allison Butler joined the UMass Amherst department of communication in 2011 as a lecturer and has since been promoted to senior lecturer. She teaches multiple courses, some related to her field of media literacy and one seminar associated with the department’s peer advising program. Butler is also the creator and director of the department’s Media Literacy Certificate program, one of the only such programs in the US, that has contributed to making the UMass Communication department a national leader in media literacy education.
“She is obviously very passionate about Media Literacy and it is always fun to learn from someone who cares so much about the content,” said one student who took a class with Butler. Several students expressed appreciation for her passionate and engaging style of teaching. “She always engages students through her lectures and allows for lively and productive conversations. I have learned so much,” said another student.
A hallmark of Butler’s teaching style is a focus on “hands-on,” experiential learning. In her media literacy classes, students engage in service learning, taking what they learn in the classroom out into the world. Butler has facilitated high-impact opportunities by creating partnerships and opportunities for her students to engage in service learning at local schools and organizations, including the Williston Northampton School and Amherst Cinema.
“It used to be easy to think of teaching and learning as something that happened within the walls of a singular classroom,” said Butler. “This pandemic has taught me how truly collaborative teaching can be; this work extends well beyond the individual teacher, student, and classroom. Teaching and learning are not static practices and this past year has brought that into sharp relief.”
In addition to her faculty role, Butler serves as chief undergraduate program director of the communication department. This role includes managing the advising and undergraduate programs and supervising a professional and peer advising staff. “Few faculty or staff have the 360-degree view of the undergraduate experience that Allison has by simultaneously engaging in teaching, advising, and administration,” commented one staff member. “Allison uses this wide view to consistently create and advocate for excellent educational experiences for students.”
“I want to thank my communication, SBS and university colleagues for their support in this very difficult year,” said Butler upon receiving the award. “I am so honored to be a part of UMass, exponentially so these days. So many people have made monumental adjustments and receiving this honor in this time means so much. I can't wait to get back to face-to-face teaching and face-to-face engagements with our great faculty, staff, and students.”
Nathan Chan, assistant professor in the resource economics department, has been at UMass Amherst since 2017, prior to which he taught at Colby College. Chan currently teaches three courses: a first-year general education course titled “Consumer in our Society” and two other courses on environmental economics.
In illustrating Chan’s innovative approach and commitment to teaching and students, his colleagues use the example of the “Consumer in our Society” course.
“Instead of using a textbook, they [Chan and his co-instructor Jamie Mullins] opted to utilize a variety of materials including podcasts, short readings and videos to discuss various topics with an economic lens, and in a way that would pique students’ interest,” explained one faculty member. “The demanding preparation has been worth it – students are excited about the class and have learned a great deal.”
In addition to teaching, Chan is deeply involved in mentoring scholars, and chairs the department’s Graduate Program Committee. He is also involved in a young scholar’s mentoring program for the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (AERE). “My own path through college was a meandering one. I only came to know and love economics after graduating, but I’m so fortunate to have found my passion in the end,” said Chan. “I know many students are traveling similar paths in their own lives—I hope I can play some small part in helping them find what inspires them.”
“Despite the asymmetry in expertise between us, he was never dismissive of my thoughts and ideas, and treated me as an equal,” says one former mentee who spoke of the impact of Chan’s guidance during his graduate studies. “Nathan was happy to contribute ideas and solutions as well as allow me to provide mine, driving the project forward while pushing me to grow. In this way he was outstanding both as a colleague and as a mentor.”
Chan is also a member of the department’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee and chaired a similar committee during his tenure at Colby College where he also served as a faculty mentor for the Men of Color Alliance and the Asian Student Association. “I know he takes this very seriously and strives to provide a voice for those who historically have not been heard in our profession,” said one colleague in appreciation of Chan’s “incredible level of commitment” to DEI issues.
“I’m humbled to receive this honor, and I’m honestly at a loss for words,” said Chan upon receiving the award. “The main thing I want to convey is my gratitude to my students. They’ve been so wonderful to me in my four years here at UMass Amherst, and I’m inspired daily by their enthusiasm, curiosity, and kindness. They make teaching a joy.”
Normally, Butler and Chan would be recognized for their achievements at the Faculty Honors Dinner and at the 2021 SBS Senior Celebration but these events will not take place in-person due to COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, they will be recognized at next year’s SBS Senior Celebration ceremony. Butler and Chan will also receive a commemorative plaque, and an award of $1,000 as a recognition of their achievements.