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Two W&L Professors Win State's Highest Teaching Honor

Two Washington and Lee University faculty members — James R. Kahn, the John F. Hendon Professor of Economics, and Lesley M. Wheeler, the Henry S. Fox Jr. Professor of English — have won Outstanding Faculty Awards from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) for 2012.

The award recognizes superior accomplishments in teaching, research and public service and is the highest honor for faculty at Virginia’s public and private colleges and universities.

Kahn and Wheeler will receive their awards at a luncheon in Richmond on Feb. 16, when they also will join the other 10 recipients for an honorary introduction on the floor of the General Assembly.

Including this year’s winners, seven Washington and Lee faculty members have been honored by SCHEV in the past four years.

This is 26th year for the statewide awards program, and the 12 recipients were selected from a pool of 125 applications based on accomplishments that strongly reflect the missions of their respective institutions.

“This is well-deserved recognition for Jim and Lesley, who have distinguished themselves in their fields and as superb teachers,” said Washington and Lee Acting Provost Robert Strong. “We appreciate that SCHEV has once again chosen to honor our faculty with these important awards.”

James R. Kahn, who received a B.A. in economics from Washington and Lee in 1975, returned to his alma mater in 2000 to lead the University’s interdisciplinary Environmental Studies Program. He received both an M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from the University of Maryland. Kahn taught at the State University of New York-Binghamton (1980–91) and the University of Tennessee (1991–2000). He also held a joint appointment with Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Kahn is internationally known as an environmental economist, innovative teacher and leader in both interdisciplinary research and integrative curricular development. Throughout his career, he has pioneered research that integrates economic and ecological concepts. He is the author of numerous publications, including The Economic Approach to Environmental and Natural Resources, which has been released in three editions.

For the past 20 years, he has focused his work on the Amazon, establishing an exchange program with the Federal University of Amazonas, in Brazil, where he has been a collaborating professor since 1992. His research has influenced public policy related to environmental issues in the state of Amazonas and has resulted in intense, transformational experiences for numerous W&L students who have traveled there for study and research.

W&L senior Emily Ackerman called her semester abroad “one of the most enriching and memorable experiences” of her college career. “Never have I had a more enthusiastic and approachable professor with such infectious passion for sharing knowledge,” she wrote in support of his SCHEV nomination. “It is apparent that Professor Kahn finds true joy in watching his students grow, both intellectually and culturally.”

Kahn has also developed the Chesapeake Bay Program through funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It focuses on place-based teaching, which integrates students into the local study of watersheds, land use and Chesapeake Bay.

As Larry Peppers, dean of the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics, wrote in support of Kahn’s nomination: “Just as the program in Brazil has brought tremendous educational benefits to his students and economic benefits to the inhabitants of the rain forest in Brazil, so the Chesapeake program will benefit all of the citizens of Virginia and surrounding states who derive so much from this great environmental asset. . . . Kahn’s model of integrating education, research and service is truly global in scope and represents a powerful educational model.”

Kahn’s work has received high praise from many others in his field, including Daniel Simberloff, the Nancy Gore Hunger Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Tennessee, who wrote that “few universities have such a dynamic, innovative professor working on so important a range of environmental problems.”

Kahn describes his educational philosophy “as pursuing an interdisciplinary understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, providing transformation experiences for students, helping students make the transition to independent researchers and developing both a global- and place-based learning focus.”

Lesley M. Wheeler is a prize-winning poet and an internationally acclaimed scholar of 20th- and 21st-century poetry. She joined Washington and Lee’s faculty in 1994. She received her B.A. in English from Rutgers University and her Ph.D. in English from Princeton. She teaches poetry and creative writing.

Wheeler has written four books of poetry, including Heterotopia (2010), winner of the 2010 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and a finalist for the 2011 Library of Virginia Poetry Award, and Heathen (2009). Her scholarly books include Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present (2008). She is the author of more than 15 essays and book chapters and has published over 65 poems in journals, with five forthcoming.

Wheeler has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright Foundation and The Virginia Commission for the Arts, among other grantors. She is currently at work on a poetry book, Signal to Noise, and a scholarly book, Poetry, Conversation, Community in the Twenty-First Century, a study of the networks sustaining contemporary poetry.

Wheeler has had a significant impact on Washington and Lee’s curriculum, having helped establish and then co-direct the interdisciplinary Women’s and Gender Studies Program in 2000. She has also developed uncommon classroom experiences to help her students engage with the subject matter. The Haiku Death Match, for example, is a student performance for her course in American Poetry, 1950–Present. She has also led the Glasgow Endowment for Visiting Writers and has significantly diversified poetry programming.

In her nomination letter for Wheeler, Suzanne Keen, the Thomas Broadus Professor of English and herself a former SCHEV winner, wrote: “Steadily productive, devoted to her teaching, experimental and creative, Lesley exemplifies the Washington and Lee ideal of connecting academic life with service to all her communities, including an international network of poets.”

Current and former students heap praise on Wheeler’s classes. “I can safely say that I have never been more moved by subject matter than when I was studying poetry — and its relationship to a surrounding culture, era or community — under Professor Wheeler,” wrote Adam Lewis, a 2010 graduate. Added Adam Hockensmith, of the Class of 2008, “Wheeler is, without a doubt, one of the brightest stars on any faculty in the country, and a true inspiration to the creatively minded.”

Helen Emmitt, NEH Professor of English at Centre College, supported Wheeler’s nomination by writing: “She has a keen sense of literary history and a wonderful way of finding issues that somehow been there all along without being noticed by other scholars.”

In describing her own work for the SCHEV nomination, Wheeler wrote that her “primary commitment as a teacher, scholar, artist, and citizen is to promote poetry as a vital mode of human experience.”

SCHEV established the Outstanding Faculty Awards in 1986 to recognize excellence in teaching, research and service among the faculties of Virginia’s public and private colleges and universities. A special committee of education, business and civic leaders and SCHEV choose the recipients based upon nominees’ contributions to their students, academic disciplines, institutions and communities.

Previous Washington and Lee winners:

Rebecca Benefiel (Classics) 2011
Domnica Radulescu (Romance Languages) 2011
Ellen Mayock (Spanish) 2010
Mark Carey (History) 2009
Erich Uffelman (Chemistry) 2009
Suzanne Keen (English) 2008
William F. Connelly Jr. (Politics) 2007
Harlan Beckley (Religion) 2002
Pamela Simpson (Art History) 1995
Margaret Brouwer (Music) 1994
Andrew McThenia (Law) 1994
Edgar Spencer (Geology) 1990
Sidney Coulling (English) 1989
Brian Murchison (Law) 1988
Philip Cline (Economics) 1987
Leonard Jarrard (Psychology) 1987

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Jeffery G. Hanna
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