Lorenzo García-Amaya was in the middle of the Speech Production Lab’s first virtual meeting March 19 when Kyle Riebock and Emily McCann appeared on his screen.
García-Amaya, assistant professor of Spanish linguistics in LSA and co-director of the lab, thought the University of Michigan students were new hires as research assistants. So he sent a BlueJeans chat to SPL co-director Nicholas Henriksen asking what project they would work on.
Turns out Riebock and McCann were from the Golden Apple Award committee and joined the BlueJeans meeting to inform García-Amaya he was the 30th recipient of the award.
“It was really amazing and a surprise that I will never forget,” García-Amaya said. “I love my job at U-M because teaching is at the center of all the work that I do, so I am truly honored to receive this award from the students who bring so much joy to my professional life.”
The honor is the university’s only student-selected faculty award, and more than 1,000 students submitted nominations this year, said McCann, co-president of the committee. Typically, the committee surprises the award winner in person, but in these times of social distancing the BlueJeans lab meeting sufficed.
“You were the one with the most votes and the most endearing comments,” McCann told García-Amaya during the BlueJeans meeting. “Your students had such wonderful things to say about you.”
García-Amaya joined the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures in 2012 and three years later co-founded the SPL with Henriksen. The lab is a learning community that affords undergraduate students the opportunity to collaborate on authentic research projects related to Spanish linguistics.
The SPL, which also collaborates with faculty in linguistics, psychology and the Institute for Social Research, meets each Thursday evening with 35-40 in attendance. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the group moved the meetings to BlueJeans for March 19 and beyond.
“The Golden Apple Award is an incredible honor, and this recognition means a lot to me,” García-Amaya said. “I am very thankful to all my students — thanks to them, I can complete the work that I truly enjoy doing every day of the academic year. I am also very humbled by this award because there are so many incredible instructors who work at U-M and who give their best every time they enter a classroom.”
Besides mentoring in the lab, on independent studies and through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, García-Amaya teaches mostly undergraduate courses in Spanish linguistics, with an emphasis in second-language acquisition research and teaching.
“Before students take courses with me, they have already taken fantastic courses that have helped them develop specific skills to understand the complex linguistic structure that underlies language communication,” he said. “So, my work is dependent on the work of other instructors, and I have to thank my colleagues for the incredible work that they do.
During the BlueJeans announcement, Marlyse Baptista, the Uriel Weinreich Collegiate Professor of Linguistics, and professor of Afroamerican and African studies, and linguistics in LSA, dropped in to offer her congratulations.
“I cannot think of anybody more deserving,” she said. “I just hope you get to celebrate in spite of the circumstances.”
With the honor, García-Amaya will be the featured speaker at an event scheduled for Oct. 5, when he will give a “last lecture,” the one he would give if it were to be his final lecture. The award is inspired by teacher Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanos, who taught others to “get your life in order one day before you die.”
García-Amaya said he plans to focus his speech on the value of language learning and of research on language acquisition.
Until then, he’s overwhelmed by the surprise and the award.
“U-M is undoubtedly a great place to teach. Our students are phenomenal, and we are also so fortunate to collaborate with colleagues in the many teaching and learning-resource centers across campus, such as the Language Resource Center and in the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching,” he said.
“I could not work the way I do without the incredible, collective support that I receive from my colleagues and students.”