This year, Lorenzo García-Amaya, assistant Spanish professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literature, received two distinctions: He is the winner of this year’s Golden Apple award — the highest student-selected award for faculty who show a strong commitment to teaching — and is the first professor to be notified of his achievement through a surprise Zoom call. 

García-Amaya is also the first Romance Languages and Literature professor to win the Golden Apple award. He teaches Spanish linguistics and co-founded the Speech Production Lab — an interdisciplinary group that studies second language acquisition and variations in speech patterns among different Spanish speakers.

The winning professor usually receives a surprise visit in one of their classes from colleagues and members of the Golden Apple committee to announce the award. Instead of forgoing the surprise entirely, committee members and colleagues decided to surprise him over Zoom in light of the switch to remote classes prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Education junior Emmie McCann, who is part of the Golden Apple committee, said the Zoom call was not as exciting as the typical visit, but still rewarding. 

“I mean, it’s not the same as in class because usually in class we have other people from his department or like students that want to speak and are, you know, so passionate and they can say comments of why he’s such a great person,” McCann said. “It wasn’t as emotional and thoughtful as we usually like it to be and so that was kind of a bummer… He was still very surprised because he had no idea this was going on either, so that was still good.”

The award is decided by a committee of students. This year the committee received over 1,000 nominations.

Nicholas Henriksen, associate professor of Spanish Linguistics and co-founder of SPL, added colleagues and members of the Golden Apple committee to the Zoom call and had them pretend to be there to discuss the SPL. Mid-way through the meeting, they announced the surprise, according to Spanish Professor Juli Highfill. 

“Professor García and Professor Henriksen were in a meeting with their student researchers and several of us, his colleagues, then started joining the meeting and I noticed Professor García was kind of raising his eyebrows — why are his colleagues suddenly joining the meeting?” Highfill said. “But he continued professionally to conduct the meeting and then the students who were bringing news of the award chimed in and presented the award … It was very moving although it had to be virtual.”

Highfill addressed the lack of RLL winners, noting it might be the result of the discussion-based nature and small size of RLL classes. 

“I have the general impression that the professors who receive those awards teach much larger classes and they tend to be very dynamic lecturers and the nature of teaching foreign languages and cultures and literature is small classes so that students can participate actively and improve their language skills,” Highfill said. “Professors in romance languages, we don’t have contact time with large numbers of students. We have classes that are capped at 18.”

LSA junior Imran Rashid, a student researcher at the SPL who nominated García-Amaya for the award, said it was gratifying to be part of the surprise Zoom call.

“It was cool for me because I was in on the secret,” Rashid said. “I knew what was gonna happen and kind of I was really excited for him because I was one of the students that actually nominated him…and so it was really cool to see him actually not only win the award but me get to see his reaction to winning the award in real-time.” 

Rashid said he appreciates García-Amaya’s approachability and passion for the subjects he teaches.

“I just found him to be, first of all, super friendly, super easy to talk to, not intimidating at all and the way he teaches is very, very engaging,” Rashid said. “I found he’s one of those teachers that might make you second guess what you want to do with your life in a good way. And so I haven’t changed my major totally, but I’ve started dedicating myself to do research in linguistics because of his teaching and how he interested me in that topic.”

Another aspect of García-Amaya’s teaching, according to students, is how he creates a welcoming and non-hierarchical atmosphere where undergraduates can have a voice. LSA junior Aditi Priyadershi joined the SPL through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program her freshman year and said García-Amaya urged undergraduates, graduate students and doctoral students to collaborate with one another.

“Usually in a research structure there’s supposed to be hierarchies in terms of experience,” Priyadershi said. “However, in our lab, we have undergraduates as well as graduate students, doctoral students. It’s kind of a very nice collaboration and I know that Lorenzo has really pushed for that collaboration and I think that’s a really unique aspect of our lab that I really appreciate.”

García-Amaya, who is a native of Spain and completed his undergraduate education at the University of Seville, said he works to create a collaborative learning environment. In an interview with The Daily, he said this pedagogy is a result of his experiences with the European model of education, where he feels there is more of a gulf between students and their professors.

“In Europe in general, the system is a little more elitized than it is here and by elitized I mean that the professor is seen as the only source of information in the classroom,” García-Amaya said. “They’re incredibly brilliant people and I had very good professors, but when I moved to the States was when I realized that I had a voice and my opinion was valid and actually I would remember better the information when I was able to talk about it in class. So that made me think about the fact that already teaching was more holistic than it was in Europe, but also I thought that we could take it a step farther.”

In an email to The Daily, García-Amaya wrote fostering a collaborative environment was important when it came to creating the SPL.

“I studied in Spain, UK, Belgium and the US before coming here, and although the labs where I worked were very research-oriented, they were not learning communities,” García-Amaya wrote. “I thought that that model could and should be changed. I believe that a lab can be an opportunity for their members (mainly undergraduate/graduate students in our case) to work more closely with faculty but also to learn how to collaborate.” 

Besides the welcoming nature of Garcia-Amaya’s teaching, Highfill also said the SPL provides students with research experience that is impressive to employers and graduate schools.

“(Students) find the background and the skills and knowledge that they gained in the speech lab to be incredibly helpful in their work and in getting admitted to prestigious graduate programs and medical schools,” Highfill said. “They said that in interviews, for example, for graduate programs and med schools, their interviewers are incredibly impressed with the kind of work they’ve done and the kind of autonomy they’ve had in conducting that research.”

As part of receiving the award, every Golden Apple winner is invited to give a “last lecture,” which is usually done at the end of the school year in April. Because of the switch to remote classes, García-Amaya will deliver his last lecture on Oct. 5 at Rackham Auditorium. García Amaya plans to talk about the importance of language learning and research on language acquisition as we live in an increasingly globalized world.

Contributor Carter Howe can be reached at tcbhowe@umich.edu.

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