Steve Volk Wins Professor of the Year Award
History Professor Steve Volk, Oberlin College, who teaches Latin American studies and museum studies, has been selected as the 2011 Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges U.S. Professor of the Year, a national program that honors the most outstanding undergraduate instructors.
Photo Credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones
After 30 years of teaching in higher education, History Professor Steve Volk would like to think he’s a pretty good educator.
“There’s something about the thrill of seeing the light bulb turn on,” says Volk, who teaches Latin American history and museum studies and chairs the Latin American Studies committee. Volk is so committed to the craft of teaching that he founded and directs Oberlin’s Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence, which provides resources to help faculty members continually revitalize their teaching to enhance student learning.
Students, peers, and leaders in higher education all agree that Volk has something special: He was selected as the 2011 Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges U.S. Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The program honors the most outstanding undergraduate instructors in the country, recognizing those who excel in teaching and positively influence the lives and careers of students. Created in 1981, the U.S. Professors of the Year awards program is the only national initiative specifically designed to recognize excellence in undergraduate teaching and mentoring.
Mary Taylor Huber, a consulting scholar with the Carnegie Foundation who organizes the final panel of judges, says that finalists who reach the panel have varied strengths. “The whole field of teaching and learning in higher education has become so rich pedagogically over the last twenty years, and you can see that reflected in the nominations for U.S. Professors of the Year,” Huber says.
Candidates are nominated by their own institution and judged by panels composed of deans and professors, education writers, and government, foundation and association representatives. Finalists are selected for extraordinary dedication to undergraduate teaching, which is demonstrated by excellence in the following areas: impact on and involvement with undergraduate students; scholarly approach to teaching and learning; contribution to undergraduate education in the institution, community and profession; and support from colleagues and former undergraduate students.
“It’s a privilege to teach at Oberlin, where student culture is centered on learning,” says Volk, who began teaching here 26 years ago. His courses include a two-semester survey of Latin American history, as well as more specialized courses on Latin America and U.S. relations with Latin America. He also offers a course on “Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge,” which he has taught both at Oberlin and as a part of the Oberlin-in-London program.
The Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence is now in its fourth year and has an office and meeting space in Mudd Library. About 15 years ago, Volk began organizing brown bag sessions for faculty to share their ideas on teaching methods. Some years later, Volk formed a committee on teaching, which led to the formal center. Among other activities, such as organizing workshops and monthly informal faculty discussions, each week, Volk distributes an article written by him or another source that deals with current topics in higher education and pedagogy. “I want to help people think about and develop their own teaching skills.”
Volk says there are three basic tenets that shape his philosophy on teaching. First, he believes that in the classroom, the person who does the work is the person who is doing the learning. Second, teaching and learning both require patience. And third, “teach every young person as if they’re your own child” — an idea that formed when his own kids went to college.
“I can give you all the information, but you may not have learned anything,” says Volk. “My emphasis has shifted from teaching to learning. A teacher should create the environment that supports student learning.”
In that vein, Volk says it’s important to understand that students are confronting the unknown when they’re learning new material. He doesn’t expect students to understand all of the information at once. “Faculty members already understand the material much better than students do. It’s essential that we have patience with our students and figure out an environment in which they ‘get it,’” Volk says.
Generation after generation, Volk sees the same passion and enthusiasm in Oberlin students. “Oberlin students love learning and want to be here,” he says. “Year after year, our students want to use their intellect to some greater purpose, for the sake of changing the world for the better. I figure it has to do with what we provide: The combination of the college, conservatory, and museum attracts creative, motivated students. Helping them think about ways to achieve their dreams has given me the greatest joy.”