The Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges (VFIC) has bestowed its prestigious H. Hiter Harris, Jr. Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching to Gordon Blaine Steffey, Randolph’s newly named Barbara Boyle Lemon ’57 & William J. Lemon Associate Professor of Religious Studies.
Given to Steffey during a special ceremony today, the award honors a faculty member whose professional history reflects a strong, clear, and abiding commitment to excellence in classroom teaching within the undergraduate liberal arts and sciences. Created in 2008 through an endowment gift from the family of the late Hiter Harris, Jr., the award includes a stipend to support Steffey’s scholarly research and professional development activities.
Steffey’s passion for teaching was inspired by his own undergraduate professors at St. Olaf College and by his graduate studies professors at Yale University and the University of Virginia. Specifically, he recalls an undergraduate philosophy professor who spoke with him for nearly four hours over the phone to help him better convey his ideas in an essay on John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration.
“Ever since graduate school, I’ve had in my mind that I wanted to pay down this debt that I earned for having been taught so well by my teachers in college and in graduate school,” he said. “Getting this award makes me feel so gratified, thrilled, and delighted to be able to say that maybe I’m beginning to pay it down.”
Over the course of his 10 years teaching at Randolph, Steffey has enjoyed getting to know his students and inspiring them in their own scholarly pursuits.
“One of the best things about Randolph is that I’m able to offer a range of exciting courses and am able to respond to student needs,” he said. “If a student asks, for example, if I can offer a class on Nordic religions, I can say ‘how about next year?’ There’s a special kind of curricular freedom here that I can respond to particular interests that both I have and students have, and those often coincide.”
Steffey said another of his favorite aspects about teaching Randolph students is that they are constantly asking questions and challenging traditional beliefs.
“We’re making responsible, critically engaged citizens here,” he said. “It’s my hope that students walk away from my classes with a bit deeper appreciation of what it means to say ‘I’m a Jew,’ or ‘I’m a Muslim,’ or ‘I’m a Christian,’ and that they have a sort of nuanced idea about what that means.”
To be considered for the 2015 H. Hiter Harris, Jr. Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, Steffey was required to submit a teaching statement as well as a recommendation from a faculty member, a student, and from the dean of the college. Carl Girelli, vice president for academic affairs and dean of Randolph College, said the VFIC chose wisely in selecting Steffey as this year’s recipient.
“This award affirms not only Professor Steffey’s dedication to and excellence in the teaching craft, but also the Randolph College community’s insight in having honored him this year with the Gillie A. Larew Award for Distinguished Teaching,” Girelli said. “He expresses and embodies the power of the liberal arts education ‘to transform the student such that she perceives the world in finer nuance, and thus to render her a force for good in the smaller fellowships and the broader society to which she belongs.’
“Excellence in teaching has long been and remains today the highest value of Randolph College,” Girelli added. “We share as a community the honor of this recognition, and as dean I feel great pride in the College and the faculty as our commitment to teaching and learning becomes increasingly apparent and recognized through Professor Steffey’s achievement.”