Destin, Cohen Receive Teaching Excellence Awards

Destin, Cohen Receive Teaching Excellence Awards

Mesmin_dannyMesmin Destin (l), and Danny M. Cohen

School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) professor Mesmin Destin and professor of instruction Danny M. Cohen (PhD11) were among five educators honored with 2019 University Teaching Awards for their energy and commitment to undergraduate education at Northwestern University.

Destin, along with Kevin Boyle of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Mitra J. Hartmann of McCormick School of Engineering, received a Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence Award.

Cohen and Sara Owsley Sood of McCormick were recognized with the Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Professor of Instruction Award.

Nominated by SESP Dean David Figlio, both Destin and Cohen credited inspirational mentors – including faculty, colleagues, friends, and family -- for steering them down the teaching path.

“They are setting the standard by which our very best teachers should be judged,” said Provost Jonathan Holloway, who applauded their passion and commitment to honing their craft.

Destin, a social psychologist, co-created the SESP Leadership Institute (SLI), a community that embraces the perspectives and strengths that students from particularly marginalized groups bring to campus.

“SLI is the most challenging and most rewarding aspect of my work,” Destin said. “I am proud of the space we have created and hope that we can do so much more to fundamentally transform Northwestern into a more equitable place, where students from all backgrounds can feel secure and poised to thrive.”

Cohen was 14 years old when a teacher changed his life by “calling out prejudice; he said out loud what was so difficult to say,” Cohen said. The teacher died from an AIDS-related illness a few years later which the school did not acknowledge, but Cohen said his memory “is at the heart of what I teach and how I teach.

“I believe that only when we unsilence injustice can we begin to change our world,” Cohen said. “As teachers, by standing up against what’s wrong, even when we’re told to stay silent, we are helping our students to stand up, too.”

Previous SESP winners of The Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence Award include David Rapp (2015) and Dan McAdams (1995).

Mesmin Destin

An associate professor of human development and social policy and of psychology, and a fellow of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, Destin studies how environments shape a student’s identity and the impact this has on a student’s motivation, behavior, and future direction.

destinHis work, which was recently recognized by the American Psychological Association with an early career award, suggests that college students who are the first in their family to attend can suffer academically and psychologically on campus, surrounded by “continuing-generation” peers and faculty who often don’t understand their situation.

Incorporating psychological factors, such as encouraging positive interactions with faculty, for example, can help low-income students, especially women, effectively pursue their goals, Destin’s research suggests.

Destin, who earned his bachelor’s degree in social psychology at Northwestern, returned to join the faculty in 2010. He said he was profoundly influenced by his undergraduate experience, which included working with psychology professor Galen Bodenhausen on his senior honors thesis and in Bodenhausen’s Social Cognition lab. 

“It was a lightbulb moment for me when I realized that this kind, humble instructor [Bodenhausen] was the same person whose fascinating studies were mentioned in some of my textbooks,” he said. “I saw a style of teaching where someone was able to convey their genuine passion for a topic in a way that felt true to their introverted and introspective disposition.”

For Bodenhausen, Destin was the student who stood out for his especially deep engagement. "I was eager to have him as a member of my lab group and an honors student,” Bodenhausen said. “That he has gone on to become a multiple-award-winning teacher and researcher, and a greatly valued colleague, is proof of those special qualities that were already in evidence during his undergraduate years. “

Though the tenure track notoriously emphasizes research, Destin has always felt a deep connection between scholarship and teaching.

“In my lab, we spend a lot of time studying the different factors that help support students’ motivation, especially for those who face barriers associated with limited financial and economic resources,” he said. “So, it has never been a huge stretch to connect my research to both how I approach teaching and even to the topics that I choose to teach in psychology and education courses.”

Destin, who thanked Figlio for “encouraging us to engage in teaching in ways we find most inspiring,” received his doctorate from the University of Michigan. He is jointly appointed in SESP and the department of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Danny M. Cohen

Cohen (PhD11) is the founder of Unsilence, a nonprofit based on his research that uses the hidden stories of human rights abuses and the sharing of experiences to confront and ultimately repair some of our most vexing social problems.

Unsilence started in 2014 with a handful of participants. Today, some 11,000 students, educators, and ordinary citizens have participated in the initiative, ranging from Chicago Public Schools to Yad Vashem in Israel.

As an instructor, his popular Designing for Social Change course asks students to design possible interventions to solve social injustices and human rights issues. His classes draw on different media, including empirical research, documentary films, comedy writing, popular music, serious games, and atrocity survivor testimonies.

danny cohen“I try to help my students ask questions about the extremes of humanity and our capacity to fear difference and our habit of creating and then marginalizing ‘the other,’” he said. “We examine histories of genocide, and we uncover systems of racism and xenophobia that lead to poverty and mass incarceration and violence."

Cohen then helps students learn how to ask questions about resilience and responsibility and healing. “I support them to design solutions for real lasting change,” he said. “At the heart of my teaching, I ask: What are the hidden injustices that surround us, and why do we find it so hard to talk about them?”

Cohen earned his doctorate in learning sciences at Northwestern and is a governor-appointed member of the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission. He was a faculty fellow of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, and he sits on the editorial advisory board of the journal The Holocaust in History and Memory.

He also writes young adult human rights fiction, including the historical novel Train and the short stories The 19th Window and Dead Ends.

Cohen credited mentors Phyllis Lassner, Professor Emerita in The Crown Center for Jewish and Israel Studies, Gender Studies, and Writing Program at Northwestern University; Brian Reiser, professor of learning sciences in SESP; and several childhood teachers for shaping his teaching.

Lassner first met Cohen when he asked her to direct the Holocaust sections of his dissertation. In the years, since, “one of the greatest joys of my teaching and research has been our collaborative presentations and writing, all of which began with his extraordinary creative and critical talents,” she said.

Beginning with his work training docents at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center and throughout his innovative teaching of the Holocaust at Northwestern University, “Danny M. Cohen has continued to make path-breaking contributions to Holocaust education,” Lassner said.

“His integration of human rights into his Holocaust courses and his creation of the Unsilence Project have taught us all the power of empathy to shape our responsibility to the rights and well-being of others.”

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 5/20/19