History Professor, Lisa Balabanlilar, Wins Rice's Top Teaching Award!

History Professor, Lisa Balabanlilar, Wins Rice's Top Teaching Award:

The George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching


Lisa Balabanlilar doesn’t mince words when it comes to describing where she thinks deep learning takes place. “Take a (expletive) nap, sit in a hammock, read some Sufi poetry,” she said over a cup of midmorning tea in her bright Humanities Building office in early April.

Lisa Balabanlilar, standing at center, teaches topics that range from the history of India and a world comparative history of imperial pleasure gardens to the rise of Mongol power in Central Asia and a comparative cultural history of the major Islamic empires of the 16th and 17th centuries.

“I am an advocate of slow learning in that I think you need time to cogitate,” Balabanlilar said. “And if you are just packing your brain with ideas and concepts and data all the time, you’re rushing from class to class, you’ve got three majors, you’re not going to be the same kind of person, intellect, scholar, human being that you could be if you were to kind of slow down, think about what it all means, make those connections — or not. Again, take a nap. Stop. Get off the wheel.”

Just minutes earlier, she had labored over and eventually laughed about a computer file with notes for that day’s class that would no longer open. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll run with it.” Life and learning are not about sweating the small stuff.

Rice alumni couldn’t agree more. Based on their votes, Balabanlilar will receive Rice’s highest teaching award, the George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching, at the university’s annual teaching awards ceremony April 26 from 3 to 5 p.m. in Herring Hall’s Room 100.

This isn’t the first teaching honor for Balabanlilar, associate professor of history and director of undergraduate studies in the History Department. She won a George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching in 2014 and a Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize in 2010. The Brown Awards and the Brown Prize are given based upon surveys of Rice alumni who graduated two, three and five years ago.

The topics Balabanlilar teaches range from the history of India and a world comparative history of imperial pleasure gardens to the rise of Mongol power in Central Asia and a comparative cultural history of the major Islamic empires of the 16th and 17th centuries. The Brown Prize adds another chapter to her already-interesting and inspiring professional history.

Balabanlilar came to Rice in 2007, fresh from receiving her doctorate as a “nontraditional” older student at Ohio State University. She had gone back to school at age 38 to finish her bachelor’s degree at Portland State University, all while raising her young daughter and working two part-time jobs. She accomplished all of this after more than a decade of traveling the world and working as a waitress and cook, including living for five years in Turkey, where she met her husband and owned a restaurant.

“By the time I finished a bachelor’s degree, my professors had begun to say, ‘You need to go to graduate school,’ which was not something I had imagined,” Balabanlilar recalled. “I didn’t know if I was smart. Who was there to tell me as a waitress? At the moment now, I look back and think I must’ve been so intellectually starved slinging hash in very classy dinner houses and feeling crabby and then rushing home to my baby.”

At Ohio State, Balabanlilar eventually found her research niche studying the Turco-Mongol Empire on the Indian subcontinent. “I feel so fortunate … that (I) had the epiphany,” she said. “The path opened. I switched majors; I switched languages. I had to suddenly start doing Persian. I had been working in Ottoman all these years. At that point, it was full steam ahead. I finished my Ph.D. when I was 49.”

Balabanlilar thinks her life story may resonate with her students. “It’s either at worst maybe a redemption story that the kids like, or it is a hopeful narrative that assures them that everything is not based on the decisions you make when you’re 20, that you can reinvent yourself at any time, that you can chose multiple paths.”

When discussing her view of teaching and research, she stressed the importance of rigor.

“There is this discourse in the field … of education that you’re either a researcher or a teacher,” said Balabanlilar, who is currently working on a biography of the 17th-century Mughal Emperor Jahangir and developing a textbook for the comparative study of imperial pleasure gardens. “There is this kind of dichotomy that’s been imagined. When I was in graduate school, those people who were struggling with their dissertations would say, ‘Well, that’s because I’m a teacher.’ It was perceived as an either-or thing. I argue pretty vehemently that you can’t be one without the other at the university level. My research has everything to do with my teaching. If I wasn’t a serious scholar, I would not be a great teacher, whatever kind of great teacher I may be imagined to be by my students.”

For Balabanlilar, the lives and times of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Marco Polo and Tamerlane, the Turco-Mongol conqueror, take center stage in her teaching, which is informed by close reading of original sources.

“It’s (about) my deep engagement with the societies that I teach about on a level that’s very rich,” she said. “I’m reading all of their documents. I’m hearing their voices in my head. It’s very dangerous for a historian to pretend that they actually understand anything, but I do feel a sense of a human connection. And that comes into the classroom with me. I bring all of them with me, all of my boys.”

She is a promoter of intellectualism and scholarship in the classroom. “I talk about being scholars and I talk about being intellectuals because I think the students need to recognize that these are components of a great life, that you can’t be a fully realized person, at least on the level that they operate, without engaging as a scholar and as an intellectual. Not just in school, but in life,” she said.

“Lisa is a phenomenal teacher and an outstanding colleague,” said Richard Smith, the George and Nancy Rupp Professor of Humanities and professor of history, whom Balabanlilar calls a mentor. “Perhaps her greatest gift in the classroom is her ability to establish an extraordinarily productive rapport with students, challenging and encouraging them, as circumstances dictate. But her lectures are also remarkable — lively, colorful and compelling, yet also insightful, thought-provoking and extremely well-organized. I have learned an enormous amount from Lisa — not only in the course of co-teaching Asia 211 with her for several years, but also in our planning sessions and our many delightful conversations about teaching. She is a treasure.”

Connecting with the university’s alumni and friends is another priority and pleasure for Balabanlilar, who served as head resident fellow at McMurtry College from 2009 to 2014. In recent years she has led Rice Alumni Traveling Owls trips to Turkey, India, Morocco and Southeast Asia. This summer she is leading an already wait-listed “Treasures of the Silk Road” journey through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which is the “heartland” of her research, she said. The trips have “become one of the greatest features in my fabulous Rice life,” Balabanlilar said. “What’s fun about these trips is that we’re going to difficult places where some folks may not want to travel alone. But we go in a safe and happy group to these exotic and fabulous locations.”

She’ll be back in time to teach more scholars and intellectuals this fall.

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