In the minds of her students and colleagues, Liann Tsoukas’ kindness is what sets her apart. Marcus Rediker, a distinguished professor of Atlantic History and Tsoukas’ colleague, even called her the “most hugged professor” at graduation events.
Tsoukas is in her 22nd year as a teaching professor and works closely with students on a daily basis. She started her career teaching history at Washington University in St. Louis, but has found her home at Pitt. Tsoukas says she finds Pitt students “open-minded, willing to let things happen and really appreciative of effort put in on their behalf.”
The effort she puts in has not gone unnoticed by Tsoukas’ students and colleagues. She received the Pitt's School of Arts and Sciences Student Choice Award in 2004 and later the prestigious Bellet Award in 2013. Since then, Tsoukas has continued to take on new challenges at the University, including contributing to designing the new sports studies certificate and most recently writing an upcoming book with colleague Robb Ruck on Mal Goode, a Pitt grad who became the first Black television correspondent on national news in the 1960s.
Tsoukas is not just a friend and mentor to past teaching assistant Cordelia Brazile, a seventh-year history doctoral candidate, but she also served as a reference when Brazile adopted her dog Teddy. When Tsoukas’ daughters overheard her phone call with the animal rescue, they thought she was serving as a reference for an actual child for how warmly Tsoukas spoke of Brazile. Now, Tsoukas and Teddy are best of friends and see each other often.
“Even popular with animals — that’s Liann Tsoukas,” Brazile said. “She’ll do anything for anyone. She’ll be there for you in a heartbeat, and that’s what makes her so special.”
What makes Tsoukas the “heart and soul of our department,” as Rediker called her, is the effort she puts into designing and teaching exceptional courses for students. Tsoukas has taught some classes nearly every year in her 22 years at Pitt, but she makes sure no two semesters of the same course are unchanged.
Tsoukas said she designs all her content with her students and their experiences in mind, approaching the teaching process with humility.
“I cannot reach them or give them frameworks for understanding that matter to them unless I understand them, what they see, what they hear, what they feel, what their challenges are, what engages them and interests them. So I'm on a constant mission to do that,” Tsoukas said.
Teaching history specifically, Tsoukas said, demands emphasizing “the human experience” and connecting historical events, particularly those from “buried voices,” to present-day student life.
“The most important thing to me is it's a human narrative. And one thing we can relate to is other humans, and there are a lot of experiences that are not part of the traditional record — joys, tragedies, satisfaction, pain, love, everything that we relate to,” Tsoukas said.
Human stories inform Tsoukas’ specialty in African American history. She wrote her 1998 dissertation on the cooperation between Black and white activists in the 1930s fighting to end the lynching crisis of Black Americans, which she called a “breakthrough” moment in activist history.
“Learning a lot more about the Black American historical narrative shaped my viewpoint of our country and what it is, and what citizenship means at certain times and places,” Tsoukas said.
This sensitivity translates to what Tsoukas’ students take from her classes. George Begler, a senior history and political science double major, has taken multiple classes with Tsoukas, including his history capstone, and learned more from Tsoukas than just history.
“She’s really able to emphasize civic duty, and voting, and why it’s so important for us to be good citizens and learn about the world around us,” Begler said.
Before becoming a teacher, Tsoukas earned her bachelor’s in American Studies at Amherst College, a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts. She recalls loving the small classes and the interdisciplinary liberal arts mentality — a philosophy she consciously brings to Pitt, a large STEM school, by emphasizing “that liberal arts ethic…which is close attention to students,” Tsoukas said.
Tsoukas’ liberal arts perspective also informs her philosophy of producing well-rounded students who are not just intellectually educated in history, but also prepared for life after college. As a mother of three and a person with many roles around Pitt, Tsoukas models for her students that they can live “satisfying and full lives,” Tsoukas said.
On campus, Tsoukas’ life is already quite full. Brazile said since she first met Tsoukas in 2017, the professor has taken on more and more responsibilities. She advises history majors and recently became an assistant dean for the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, allowing her to assist students outside of the history department. She also played an integral role in helping colleagues and students adapt to online learning during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brazile recalls Tsoukas guided TAs and instructors, “making sure we were checking in on kids” out of concern for their mental health.
As an assistant dean, Tsoukas is keenly aware of the long-needed changes taking place in academia. She thinks the academic world is “expanding definitions of what it is and should be.”
“I think we're all trying to move the university forward, move education forward, make its mission broader and more enveloping,” Tsoukas said.
Though there is still progress to be made, she said, much has changed since she entered academia.
“I think that students walk into classrooms and don't assume a gender with a professor or an instructor, or a chancellor or a provost,” Tsoukas said. “The way their generation sees things is refreshingly wonderful. I think there are still problems, but at least we now have tools and vocabulary for understanding them.”
Tsoukas’ sensitivity and enthusiasm for teaching serve as inspiration to her students. The quality of her teaching helps students see a future in the profession — what Rediker called “the gift of the committed teacher.”
“Inspiration is maybe the greatest gift a professor can give to the student — to want to know, and to want to become a self-educating person,” Rediker said. “People want to become teachers after they see an excellent example of teaching.”
Brazile also said when she thinks about how she wants to teach her classes, Tsoukas is “exactly who I think of.”
Tsoukas knows that teaching doesn’t always produce immediate results — and she’s just fine with that.
“We have to build connections in the short term to be successful in the class. But then you hope that…in the long term, it's felt in other arenas of their lives, and that's being super cheesy, but I actually believe it,” Tsoukas said. “I think I can approach my teaching and students the way I do because I really do believe in it.”