A Michigan State University faculty member noted for his scholarship, engagement and classroom innovation received the university’s highest teaching honor recently in a surprise classroom visit from university leaders and colleagues.
To enthusiastic applause, MSU President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D., presented the 2022 President’s Distinguished Teaching Award to John Waller, associate professor of the history of medicine. Stanley was joined by Associate Provost Mark Largent, College of Social Science Dean Mary Finn, Associate Dean Walter Hawthorne and others.
“Supporting the success of our students is MSU’s most critical mission, and that’s reflected brilliantly every day by our world-class faculty in their classrooms and beyond,” Stanley said. “I’m proud to convey the university’s esteem for such an exemplary scholar and teacher as Dr. Waller with this award. And it’s so appropriate to announce it this way, in front of his students.”
The annual award recognizes faculty who demonstrate, among other qualities, energy and enthusiasm for engaging students and empower students to enact change, extend learning outside the classroom and influence others to enhance their teaching by sharing their knowledge.
“I’m very touched and honored and slightly embarrassed,” quipped Waller to laughs from his students and visitors, jokingly steadying himself on a nearby chair. Calling the honor a group effort, Waller highlighted the contributions of Jenn Arbogast, the academic specialist he said has been “absolutely instrumental” in building his signature program, the Social Science Scholars Program, since its founding in 2013.
Waller has built an impressive career of teaching, scholarship and publishing. Specializing in the history of medicine, he has published seven books that explore the nature of scientific discovery, the lives of child factory workers in the 19th century, the history of American medicine and the mass psychogenic illness expressed by compulsive dancing in the 16th century, among other topics. Waller holds a bachelor’s degree in modern history, a master’s in human biology, another master’s in the history of science and medicine, and a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science.
Hawthorne, who oversees Waller’s work in the Social Science Scholars Program, in his nomination letter cited Waller’s energy and enthusiasm, skill in translating complex ideas, impressive evaluations and honors, interdisciplinarity and commitment to diversity, among other traits.
“Waller views courses in the ‘traditional’ classroom as a step toward empowering students to shape their own lives and impact the lives of others,” Hawthorne said. “Through lectures and in seminars, he gets students excited about grappling with big ideas and ways to address the world’s grand challenges.”
The Social Science Scholars Program recruits about 20 promising high school students to take one interdisciplinary seminar per semester over two years as a group, participate in an education abroad program and engage in an internship.
“The Social Science Scholars Program, and his leadership within it, is one of the signature features of our college,” Finn said. “Every year, we’re excited to see what is going to come out of the program. Dr. Waller epitomizes what a teacher-scholar can be.”
The program is a distillation of Waller’s approach to teaching: participative, intellectually humble and relentlessly curious. Beyond being available in the classroom, Waller is known for consulting from home with students about essays, grants and research, often late into the evening. Waller has been particularly successful in encouraging his students to strive for and win prestigious national and international awards.
By tradition and the stipulations of the award, the president confers the President’s Distinguished Teaching Award in unannounced classroom visits. Joining Stanley’s group was retired longtime economics professor Carl Liedholm, who created the endowed award with his wife, Margaret. Liedholm said it is crucial that the president “get down on the factory floor” and present the award himself — which Stanley clearly relished.
“I really appreciate the chance to see all of you,” Stanley told Waller’s class. “It really validates the choice to be here in person with you when I see your excitement and enthusiasm about John’s getting this award.”