Tibbitts Award winner Church: ‘I want to make history come alive for the students as best I can’

Associate Professor of History Christopher Church honored with one of two F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Awards 2023

Tibbitts Award winner Church: ‘I want to make history come alive for the students as best I can’

Associate Professor of History Christopher Church honored with one of two F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Awards 2023

It was hard not to have the same reaction as President Brian Sandoval when he entered the classroom of Christopher Church, an associate professor of history, early in the afternoon of April 24.

A recurring theme for the class was that of “Pirates and Hackers” – the idea that in many ways there are startling similarities and useful lessons that exist between these two groups, no matter how far the centuries that have passed might otherwise suggest.

“I wish could back to school and take this class,” Sandoval joked as he prepared to present Church with the surprise news that Church had been chosen as one of the University’s two winners of the F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award, which has been presented annually on campus since 1973 to recognize and celebrate outstanding teaching by the University’s faculty members.

Church, clearly moved by the news, and by the presence of several of his colleagues, Provost Jeff Thompson, as well as members of the Tibbitts selection committee, seemed at first almost at a loss for words. But then one of his students in the class offered up what everyone was thinking at that moment, as one of the University’s most masterful teachers was being honored for the profound impact he’d had on his students in a career that started at the University in 2014.

“Ah,” the student said, “I’m going to cry.”

Such is the kind of impact Church has on his students.

Church said later, “It was such a wonderful surprise on Monday! Overwhelming in the best possible way.”

Greta de Jong, chair of the Department of History, wrote in her letter nominating Church for this year’s Tibbitts Award that Church brings together a highly innovative, multi-disciplinary approach that combines history with digital humanities as well as the coin of the realm of 21st century life – big data.

“Professor Church’s expertise in digital humanities has introduced students and faculty to new skills and helped them to think creatively about how to present their research to broad audiences,” she wrote. “He integrates digital skills into all of his courses through teaching web design, digital assets management, digital literacy, and public engagement.

 “Students in his history courses learn how to create online exhibits using content management systems such as Wordpress, Drupal, and Omeka, developing competency in digitizing, analyzing, and organizing historical sources in contexts other than traditional written essays. The courses he developed and his outstanding teaching at all levels have helped to increase enrollments in our program and inspired students to delve more deeply into historical scholarship as a means of understanding the world they inhabit in the present.”


A comment from a student, shared by Sandoval to Church’s class when the surprise announcement was made, drew a smile from Church.

“Dr. Church really loves pirates … secretly might be a pirate,” the student had written. “I can’t wait to take more classes from him.”

What follows is a Q&A with Tibbitts Award winner Christopher Church, about his award this year, his career at the University, and what is still to come.

I’m curious about your motivation. You’ve earned a reputation for not only being a great professor, but also having a reputation for always finding new and interesting ways to present your material to bring history to life for your students. Why is this so important to you?

C.C.: To me, it's important to make the material relevant and engaging to students, because history is ultimately about people, their life stories, and their societies. It's about the decisions people, just like my students, made in the past, the struggles they faced, and the consequences of their choices. I want to make history come alive for the students as best I can, because their engagement is what will make them learn from the past. I can spout facts at students all day long, but it only matters if the material sticks, if it resonates in some way. 

It’s so interesting how much of what you study is incredibly relevant to the time in which we are living. There seems to be an intersection of timeliness and your work that must be incredibly exciting for you. Is that why you originally decided to become a history professor – this idea that creative and talented people like you can make history seem so incredibly current and useful?

C.C.: I became a history professor largely because I see so much from the past operating in the present. We inherit the consequences of the decisions made by our forebears, for better or worse. For instance, we use technologies developed over time by scientists of the past, each borrowing from the last, but we face climate change and environmental degradation due to those technologies. We live in a wealthy nation, but in large part because of the exploitation of billions of our fellow humans in the past as in the present. As an historian, it's important to me that our next generation understand how and why the world works the way it does, and to me, studying the past is absolutely essential to understanding our society, its problems, and how to chart a positive path forward with our own decisions.

Your students certainly enjoy and value their time with you. Why do you think you are able to make such a meaningful and lasting connection with them?

C.C.: I do my best to treat everyone with kindness, fairness, and compassion. I see them first and foremost as fellow people and not just as students. It's my job to stoke their curiosity and to teach them, to help them grow, but I also enjoy getting to know them as individuals. Also, I try to add good humor to the extent that the material allows. Beyond the classroom, I do my best to help students succeed at whatever their goals are, whether that's by writing recommendations, having meetings during office hours, or just checking in on how they're doing.

The Tibbitts process (I’ve been told by past winners) is an incredibly invigorating yet nerve-wracking process. How was it for you? Did you feel that this year was going to be your year? And how does it feel now that you’ve won?

C.C.: I agree. It was exciting to be nominated, nerve-wracking to pull the materials together, anxiety-inducing to wait, and then exhilarating to learn I won. I feel both relieved and invigorated to keep innovating with my teaching. It felt wonderful to be recognized.

What, originally, made you decide to become a professor?

C.C.: I knew I wanted to be a teacher during high school, because I had so many excellent teachers help me during my life. I'm a first-generation student, so I wanted to go as far as I could with my education, which to me meant earning my PhD. Becoming a professor was a dream of mine, and I feel fortunate to have a place at a university. It's very rewarding to bring students along for the journey each semester, whether we're studying the French Revolution, natural disasters, or piracy from the maritime world to the digital.

Now that you’ve won the Tibbitts, what is next for you?

C.C.: There are so many excellent teachers out there to learn from, so learning new ways to teach is for me a never-ending endeavor. I hope to speak with my fellow Tibbitts honorees about how I could incorporate new techniques into the classroom. I agree that it feels like a beginning, one where I am emboldened to continue trying new things.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I just want to say how grateful I am for the award, for my students and their hard work, and for the support I receive day in and day out from my colleagues. The University carries out its mission due to the dedication of its staff and faculty, and the vibrancy of its student body.

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