Department of History
Social Science Scholars Program
College of Social Science
John Waller is an exceptionally qualified nominee for the President’s Distinguished Teaching Award. In his 15 years at Michigan State University, he has demonstrated incredible energy and enthusiasm for engaging students in learning in the traditional classroom — and beyond — in a range of courses and through innovative and highly successful approaches to undergraduate education.
Waller views courses in the traditional classroom as a step toward empowering students to shape their lives and influence the lives of others. Through his lectures and in seminars, students become excited about grappling with big ideas and ways to address the world’s grand challenges. A scholar in the history of medicine, Waller delivers nuanced interpretations of watershed scientific discoveries, making science understandable to humanists and history understandable to scientists. The breadth of knowledge behind his scholarship and ease at relating complex ideas in an accessible manner help make him the remarkable teacher that he is. Students find his courses both challenging and inspiring, and complete them excited about the topics they have explored and with a desire to learn more.
In 2013, Waller founded the Social Science Scholars Program. In this program, he recruits approximately 20 promising high school students each year to take, as a group, oneinterdisciplinary seminar per semester over two years. Theme based, three of the seminars focus on developing students’ critical thinking skills and introducing them to social science approaches to grand challenges. The first semester’s seminar explores the topic from an historical perspective, the second from current perspectives, and the third makes future predictions. The fourth and final semester focuses on research.
Before the first seminar even begins, Waller works closely with each of the students on their selection of a topic and research plan for the two-year seminar. To ensure his students receive guidance appropriate to their research areas, Waller also helps them seek mentoring from faculty across the university. He then organizes a student editorial board that invites students to submit their papers, peer reviews them, suggests rewrites, and publishes them in the Social Science Scholars Research Journal. Waller’s close involvement in guiding student research has resulted in final papers that are often published in professional academic journals.
Additionally, Waller has supervised more than 20 students under the Provost’s Undergraduate Research Initiative, which has resulted in remarkable student achievements, from outstanding University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum presentations to potential publication by MSU Press of a student-led volume on how U.S. history textbooks represent minority populations.
Waller further cultivates his students’ excitement about learning during study abroad programs. In the five that he has led, he has shown students the global dimensions of what they have learned. During side trips in London, Oxford, and the remote Lake District, Waller arranges various people — from leading human rights advocates and highly regarded novelists to international authorities on climate policy — to engage with the students. When they return to MSU, his students have not only gained a rich and varied understanding of numerous topics but have also seen another country’s beauty and experienced its cultural highlights.
Waller works actively to place students in the Scholars Program in interesting and challenging internships, often with alumni, community partners, and friends of the program. This includes Good Counsel in New York, where freshmen and sophomore Scholars have had rich internship experiences in the field of immigration law; the Natural Resource Defense Council, where Scholars of color are recruited every year for demanding environmentally focused internships; and the Pediatric Public Health Initiative in Flint, where Scholars have the honor of working under Mona Hanna-Attisha, who has been recognized and honored for her role inuncovering the Flint water crisis and leading recovery efforts.
Waller nominates and works with students who are competitive for such prestigious national and international awards as the Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchell, and Knight-Hennessy. In 2021, Waller’s mentees received three of the seven national and international awards won by MSU students.
For his unparalleled contributions to empowering MSU students to apply critical thinking to life’s greatest challenges and his unwavering commitment to advancing student success through prestigious international awards for further study, John Waller is richly deserving of the President’s Distinguished Teaching Award.