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Jeremy Pope honored with the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award

  • In a class by himself
    In a class by himself  "I have never seen anything like it," said Cindy Hahamovitch, Class of ’38 Professor and history chair, of Pope's teaching evaluations. His effectiveness as a professor will be rewarded with the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award at Charter Day.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Among History Professor Jeremy Pope’s shelves, crowded with books on ancient Africa, sits a box that goes a long way toward demonstrating why he is being awarded the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award.

Pope will be presented the award at W&M’s Charter Day ceremony at 4 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 5 in William & Mary Hall. The award is given annually to a younger faculty member who has demonstrated – through concern as a teacher, character and influence – the inspiration and stimulation of learning to the betterment of the individual and society.

In the box rests a number of ceramic pieces that, when fit together, replicate an important Egyptian artifact. Pope, an expert in African history predating the trans-Atlantic slave trade, knows the researcher who, in real life, found the authentic artifact broken and uncategorized at University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and, piecing it together, realized its significance.

Pope wanted to recreate the experience for students, so he commissioned W&M student Lorraine Archibald ’13 to fabricate the broken pieces from clay. (How she did it is as creative as Pope’s idea; she built a replica of the whole artifact and laced it with strings so it broke cleanly after it was fired).

In class, Pope pulls out the box, which is labeled like the real one in Chicago, sets it on a long piece of butcher paper in the middle of a wide table and tells students to figure it out. They cautiously open the box and begin to gently reconstruct the object from the clay shards. Pope provides a packet of background material that helps identify the artifact by place, time, use and significance.

“Whenever I teach a course, I try to imagine being an undergraduate student in that course,” said Pope, some of whose courses are cross-listed with Africana studies and American studies. “That’s a difficult thing for a researcher who spends every day in this material, but I think it’s one of the main skills of teaching.”

Cindy Hahamovitch, Class of ’38 Professor and history chair, reviewed at random Pope’s teaching evaluations from six classes. “He received median scores of five in every category,” she wrote in her letter of support for his award. “I have never seen anything like it in my 23 years at the College.”

The fabricated artifact is just one example of the types of puzzlers Pope presents his students. In another instance, he asked students to date tombs in an ancient Nubian cemetery by using information available to the initial researchers, like elevation, tomb style and artifacts associated with each burial.

“Using the data at hand and prior knowledge from the course, we were able to chronologically order the tombs and provide a convincing argument for our hypotheses,” said Sophia Farrulla ’13, in her letter of recommendation, adding that the exercise resulted “in the best discussions I have experienced in any class … Professor Pope pushed us to become better students – better thinkers.”

Pope also has an eye on dramatic effect, withholding information from students and opting for the big reveal. In lectures, he’ll introduce a twist, eliciting gasps from students – or, one time, a student who cursed aloud. “That’s genuine surprise, right? When you accidentally curse out of shock,” Pope said.

Because students are often completely unfamiliar with African history, he said they’re quickly intrigued with the material as he presents it. Pope himself was once similarly intrigued. Native to Poquoson, as a teenager he would catch radio broadcasts out of Hampton University referencing a rich African history that wasn’t taught in his high school. He knew, going to college, he wanted to learn more.

But most of his students don’t walk into W&M knowing they want to study ancient Africa. Stephen Bennett ’14, who also wrote a letter of recommendation for Pope’s award, said he had no particular interest in Africa when he enrolled in “African History to 1800” his first semester. He was so impressed with the first class session, he immediately signed on to Pope’s freshman seminar, “Nubia in American Thought.” As Pope created new classes, Bennett enrolled in each, going on to take Africa-related courses in other disciplines and spending a summer in the archaeological field school.

“[Pope] would connect the history dating back thousands of years to its modern implications and how history reverberates into the modern era,” Bennett wrote. “Every day I walked out with my mind blown …”

But if Pope’s had a singular victory with a student, he said it would be the career trajectory of Farrulla, who developed an interest in Nubia in another course and set her heart on a doctoral degree in Nubian archaeology at the end of her sophomore year. Hearing that Pope was an expert on the region, she approached him for a list of recommended readings. Instead, they planned the next two years of her studies to better her chances of acceptance to graduate school.

Pope said there are few doctoral programs in the field and those are highly competitive, some only accepting one or two students a year. Graduate students are cultivated from the undergraduate ranks in a pipeline, taking specialized courses not offered at W&M – multiple years of Egyptian language and art, for example.

Farrulla took six classes with Pope in her final year-and-a-half, developed an honors thesis and spent the summer at a local archaeological site.

“It was a very tenuous plan,” he said. “I wasn’t that confident it would work. She wasn’t that confident it would work. But she assured me this was really something she wanted to do.”

Today, she is a doctoral student at University of California, Santa Barbara, and she has already excavated as an archaeologist in the Nubian region of Sudan. She said she’s aspiring to become “as effective and inspirational a mentor … as [Pope] was to me.”

Because Pope’s area of expertise is obscure, even among historians, he said his first reaction to winning the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award was “to be proud of the material I study, in the way you’re proud of one of your parents if their accomplishments are acknowledged. The material I study is much more interesting and much less arcane than a lot of people think.

“It’s hard for me to think of another subject that is as much marginalized in the United States, at least another historical subject. It’s especially relevant because it has been important to people of African descent in this country. It’s rarely been valued by people in positions of power, but it’s been important to a lot of people in their identity formation in this country.”

Outside the classroom Pope remains active as a scholar and in service to the campus community. He joined W&M in 2010, fresh from earning a doctorate in Egyptology at Johns Hopkins University, where he also completed comprehensive exams for a separate doctorate in African history. He has published eight articles and in 2014 published the book The Double Kingdom under Taharqo: Studies in the History of Kush and Egypt, c. 690-664 BC.

Hahamovitch lauded his “inordinate amount of service” at W&M. He has been secretary to the Arts & Sciences Faculty, a member of the Committee for Honors and Interdisciplinary Studies, the Honorary Degrees Advisory Committee and the Arts & Sciences Graduate Awards Committee.

Within the history department, he is faculty advisor to the history honors society and the undergraduate journal The James Blair Historical Review and has served on a number of department committees. He is currently an advisor to 22 history majors. “This is not a usual service load for a junior faculty member,” Hahamovitch said.