Ross M Lence Award for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities
Dr. Jeffrey Church, a respected specialist on the history of political thought, is described by nominator Sue Collins as the “model of a scholar educator,” who “changes lives—moving engineers to study theology, pre-law students to head for graduate school in political theory, and political theory students to use their knowledge to inform public policy.”
Dr. Church explains that teaching political theory can be very easy because it engages the kind of deep and fundamental questions that generates student excitement—
- “What is the basis of government?
- What is justice?
- Where do rights come from?”
But theory is also difficult to teach because answering those questions requires students to read dense and challenging classics like Plato, Aristotle, and Hobbes. So, Dr. Church enlists political theory’s advantage to overcome its disadvantage. He starts by encouraging students to express their opinions, then demonstrates that to truly defend those opinions students must read and comprehend the classic historical texts.
Dr. Church devises highly creative assignments. For a class on democratic theory, he had one group design an imaginary democracy, another group generate policy proposals to address that democracy’s problems, and then held a political “summit” where citizens discussed policy recommendations.
Dr. Church also asks students to contrast present-day and ancient texts, for example President George W. Bush’s call for expansion of freedom in the world in his second inaugural address and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, which led them to discover parallels between American and Athenian democratic foreign policy.
One former student wrote “I credit him for teaching the best class of my college career; I credit him for giving me the benefit of one of the most meaningful conversations of my life.” Another student explained Church’s love of political theory “just rubbed off on me… because of him, we simply cared more than we usually would about the important arguments.”
As one student explains, Church does not want his students merely to remember “a few facts from his class; he wants them to be better participants in their political community.” Asked about the strengths of the class, one student responded “Everything!” Asked “How could the instructor improve the class? “It’s perfect!” “He is amazing!” “He is awesome. Keep him here at any cost.”
Congratulations, Dr. Jeffrey Church.