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When Sandra Levitsky, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, walked into a meeting last Thursday, she he hadn’t even had her morning caffeine yet. She wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary to happen, and she definitely wasn’t expecting to be presented with this year’s Golden Apple Award.
“It was a surprise,” Levitsky said. “I, unfortunately, had not had my first hit of caffeine so I was trying to process why all of these people were walking into my meeting from all different parts of my professional life. It’s one thing to sort of hear the news in the abstract and it’s another to actually look in the faces of your students. That makes it all the more special … This is the award that nobody expects! It feels impossible.”
Winning the Golden Apple Award shows Levitsky not only has a love for teaching, but a talent for it, too. The honor is the University’s only student-selected faculty award, and for the past 28 years, professors and lecturers have been nominated by their students for the prestigious award. This year, Levitsky was chosen out of a pool of almost 700 nominees.
While in college herself, Levitsky didn’t want to go into teaching. She comes from a family of teachers, and said she “fought the teaching gene” by going to law school. But much to her chagrin, she found herself drawn towards the discipline anyway.
“About halfway through law school, I had won a best brief competition, and the dean asked me if I would teach the first year legal writing class,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a really boring class but it was my first opportunity to sort of stand up in front of a class and teach material and I found it to be exhilarating. I found that this is a value my family has had for a long time, and no matter how much I ignored it, I had it too.”
LSA sophomore Ellie Benson, marketing chair for the Golden Apple Award selection committee, said the group chooses a winner based on both quality and quantity of nominations. This year, Levitsky’s nominations were clear stand-outs, and Benson said students’ enthusiasm for Levitsky came across as clearly as Levitsky’s enthusiasm for her students and her subject.
“A lot of times we see stuff about how passionate people are about these professors and how this is much more than a class to them,” she said. “But one of the things I thought was really interesting (about Levitsky’s nominations) was how they thought her lectures were like a TED talk and how fun they were, and how she’s really good at connecting class topics to things that are going on right now.”
Though the award is student-selected, Levitsky’s colleagues also hold her in high regard. Sociology Department Chair Karin Martin, a sociology professor, said in a University press release Levitsky has worked hard to make her classes as inclusive as possible for students, especially those who are first-generation college students.
“She's a really passionate teacher,” Martin said. “She has a lot of respect for students and thinks students deserve the best education that this university can give them. And I think she really cares about students as people — individuals with goals and aspirations of their own as well as whatever it is she wants to teach them.”
Indeed, LSA junior Kia Schwert, a first-generation college student, sees Levitsky as a major source of inspiration.
“I just want to say having you as a professor at my first semester here at the University as a first-generation college student, and you making yourself apparent that you can be a resource here and help make a place like this accessible to me has inspired me and keeps me going,” Schwert told Levitsky at the initial award presentation.
The award is presented through the University’s Hillel, and was inspired by teacher Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanos, who taught that everyone should “get your life in order one day before you die.” In the spirit of Rabbi ben Hyrkanos, each winner of the Golden Apple gets the opportunity to give their Last Lecture — the lecture they would want to give if it were the last of their career.
Levitsky hasn’t yet decided on a theme for her talk. She joked that she’s been glad in the past to not win the award because of the stress coming up with the perfect Last Lecture would entail.
“When I first heard about this award when I came to the University as a postdoc 10 years ago and I heard about the last lecture part, I thought ‘Oh thank god I’ll never win that award, that seems impossible!’ and now the universe has come around to haunt me!’” Levitsky said. “So I don’t know what (my topic) will be … But usually, the process of inspiration is a solitary one so I’m sure it’ll come.”
Nonetheless, Levitsky said she feels incredibly honored to have won the award, and is excited for inspiration to strike. Her Last Lecture and official Golden Apple Award ceremony will be open to all on April 9 at Rackham Auditorium.