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2016 Faculty Appreciation TN Today V0.1_150Our new Experience Learning initiative recognizes that learning is enhanced—and more enjoyable—when lessons are used to experiment, solve problems, and innovate. It challenges faculty to look for new and creative ways to work with students. As part of Faculty Appreciation Week 2016, here is a look at four College of Arts and Sciences faculty members who “go the extra mile” in their teaching, research and outreach.

Michelle Commander

commander_b&wMichelle Commander knows that some of the best classroom lessons are often inspired by news headlines.

In spring 2012, when the Trayvon Martin–George Zimmerman case was generating widespread media coverage and polarizing the country, Commander decided to use the situation as a teachable moment.

The assistant professor of English and Africana studies, who teaches courses and conducts research on twentieth- and twenty-first-century African American literature, encouraged her students to discuss their feelings about the racially charged case.

The experience drove home to her students the importance of listening closely and exercising critical thinking skills—not only in class but also as they negotiate life in the United States and the world.

“By serving as a facilitator who often incorporates historical analyses and literary references in addition to rigorous theoretical readings, I encourage my students to speak from their experiences and to discuss respectfully their beliefs with one another,” said Commander. “I strive to show my students how the concepts, literary and historical readings, and tough theories that we discuss in class apply in the real world. I also encourage them to be open to critical thinking about society in ways that may not be familiar to them or, perhaps, defy the belief system with which they were raised.”

Commander sees her classroom as an incubator, provide a nurturing environment to encourage positive social change among her students.

Early in her career, Commander taught high school English. She later earned her doctorate in American studies and ethnicity from the University of Southern California.

In 2012–2013, Commander was a Fulbright lecturer and researcher in Ghana. She taught at the University of Ghana and completed research for her forthcoming book, Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic.

Last year, Commander received the Diversity Leadership Award from the College of Arts and Sciences. A member the college’s Diversity Committee, she has organized an Africana studies film series and co-organized a discussion forum about the events in Ferguson, Missouri. In addition, Commander recently gave a public lecture at the East Tennessee History Center about the legacies of slavery for an event sponsored by Knox County Library and the East Tennessee Historical Society.

Commander has served on the board of Friends of Literacy since 2014. Friends of Literacy offers free literacy and adult education programs for Knox County residents.

“One of the most striking things about Dr. Commander’s written teaching evaluations is how eager her students are for the knowledge that she imparts. Her classes in African American literature reveal a world to which many of her students have never been exposed, and they are profoundly grateful for the insights that she provides,” said Allen Dunn, head of the Department of English. “As one student said of the course that she took, ‘It made me think more about all the problems in our society. It also made me look deeper into things and learn the reasons behind everything.’”

On March 13, Commander is scheduled to give a lecture for Clarence Brown Theatre’s Sunday Symposium series immediately following the 2:00 p.m. performance of A Lesson before Dying.

Kristina Gordon

KGordonInfidelity. Betrayal. Revenge. Forgiveness.

As an expert in relationship management, these are subjects Kristina Coop Gordon often deals with as she counsels couples who seek her help.

They are also subjects she prepares her students to deal with as future therapists as a professor in UT’s Department of Psychology.

At the same time, she tries to help her students become well-rounded people and enjoy healthy relationships.

“Figuring out how to fit all of the different pieces of yourself together is an important skill for students to learn,” said Gordon. “I’m very open with my students and want to ensure that they are balancing all of the important things in life.”

Her students recently helped her complete a pilot program in the Knoxville community called Relationship Rx. The program worked with local agencies and UT to provide relationship counseling to couples in the community. Students are now helping with the data and evaluation from this program that will be used to design a new community initiative, the Knoxville Marriage Initiative.

Gordon recently finished a term as president of the Society for Couple and Family Psychology, a division of the American Psychological Association.

“Dr. Gordon’s research addresses real-world problems and issues, and she is passionate about translating her research in applied ways to make a difference in the lives of real people in our community,” said Deborah Welsh, head of the Department of Psychology. “Her contributions have clearly had an important impact in improving the lives, marriages, and health of the citizens in our community as well as greatly benefiting many students who have had the opportunity to work with her.”

Gordon came to UT in 1999 after completing her master’s degree and doctorate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and doing a clinical psychology internship at Brown University in Rhode Island.

In her spare time, she enjoys reading, hiking, paddleboarding, and spending time with her husband and daughters.

Greg Tardy

shapeimage_1Greg Tardy has found sweet harmony between his work as an assistant professor of jazz saxophone and his own booming music career.

The experience that he’s gained traveling the world as a touring musician allows him to share his knowledge and help prepare his students in pursuing musical careers.

“I know how challenging it can be to have a performing career, so I stress to my students the importance of being very musically diverse,” said Tardy. “I am always trying to interject real-world experiences into the theoretical topics we cover, but I also always stress the importance of the educational aspects of performance.

“In college, I made the mistake of letting my performing interfere with my schoolwork, so some concepts I had to learn while in the midst of performing in professional settings. Because of this, I stress to my students the importance of prioritizing their schoolwork along with their practicing.”

Tardy attended several colleges before he became a full-time musician. He studied at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin, for two years, then studied another two years at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. After growing interested in jazz, he studied a semester at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, and spent another semester at the University of New Orleans under the great pianist Ellis Marsalis.

“I have gained a large part of my jazz education apprenticing in the bands of jazz greats,” he said.

At UT, Tardy provides weekly lessons to jazz saxophone majors. He also teaches a beginning improvisation course, a jazz composition course, and small-group ensembles, and contributes to a music methods course jointly taught by all jazz faculty.

Born into a musical family, Tardy began his musical career studying classical clarinet. Over time, he took up playing the saxophone to diversify his professional portfolio.

He recorded his first of fourteen solo CDs, Crazy Love, in 1992. The following year, he began touring internationally with legendary drummer Elvin Jones in the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, a partnership that lasted for several years.

Tardy has lived in some of the nation’s jazz meccas—New Orleans, Saint Louis, and New York City—has performed and recorded with many prominent musicians including Wynton Marsalis, Bill Frisell, Eddie Palmieri, the Neville Brothers, Allen Toussaint, Andrew Hill, Tom Harrell, Dave Douglas, Steve Coleman, Betty Carter, Rashied Ali, Dewey Redman, Ravi Coltrane, and many more.

“Greg is practicing what he preaches, so to speak,” said Jeff Pappas, director of the School of Music. “He is performing all over the world with today’s leading jazz artists and at major jazz festivals.  As someone who is active in his field, he can talk and relate real-world experiences to his students and is the perfect model for someone who wants to follow his lead.

“Dedication and discipline are so necessary in the arts, and Greg embodies these and other important characteristics that make him such a wonderful teacher and musician.”

Tardy continues to perform internationally in addition to his teaching duties at UT.

Ben Xue

ben xue“Science is not only what you see on papers and do in the lab, but also what you can use when faced with everyday problems,” said Ziling (Ben) Xue, a professor of chemistry.

Xue, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science whose areas of expertise are analytical chemistry and inorganic chemistry, puts that philosophy into practice by incorporating many elements of experiential learning into his courses and labs.

“I am a firm believer that putting students in real-life situations and engaging them to solve critical problems can enhance their learning experiences and lead to value-added educational outcomes,” he said.

When the Kingston Fossil Plant had a catastrophic coal fly ash slurry spill more than seven years ago, millions of pounds of coal ash overtook residences and businesses in the area. Xue and a team of students took samples from the Emory River in order to analyze the heavy metal content in the water.

Xue and his graduate students also volunteer with the UT Math and Science Center where they mentor high school students who are on their way to becoming first-generation college students.

In 2013, the Xue Group developed a quick and easy-to-use sensor that can detect trace amounts of biodiesel contamination in diesel fuel. The project was then funded by the UT Research Foundation to help commercialize the technology.

“Dr. Xue is committed to helping us reach our full potential as scientists,” said Shelby Stavretis, a doctoral candidate who works in Xue’s laboratory. “He is always willing to put in extra time and effort to ensure we are successful.”

Xue came to UT in 1992 after receiving his bachelor’s degree from Nanjing University College of Pharmacy, completing his doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles, and doing postdoctoral research at Indiana University. He serves as the College of Arts and Sciences representative on a university-wide committee, the China Scholars Program, which seeks to recruit graduate students from China to UT.

His service also extends beyond the UT campus.

In December, Xue completed his term as membership chair in the Inorganic Chemistry Division of the American Chemical Society, where he sought to recruit undergraduate and graduate students as members of the organization. He is also an associate editor of Science China Chemistry, a renowned comprehensive chemistry journal in China.

During the holidays, Xue volunteers with the Empty Stocking Fund to provide food and holiday gifts to those in need.


 Amy Blakely (865-974-5034,