Nate Hodges receives the 2024 F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award

Colleagues and students cheer on their professor in a surprise classroom visit

Nate Hodges standing next to President Brian Sandoval, Provost Jeff Thompson, and other faculty, students and colleagues in a classroom.

Nate Hodges receives the 2024 F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award

Colleagues and students cheer on their professor in a surprise classroom visit

Nate Hodges standing next to President Brian Sandoval, Provost Jeff Thompson, and other faculty, students and colleagues in a classroom.

When President Brian Sandoval walked into Nate Hodges classroom on April 15 to present him with the F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award, he nearly froze with surprise.

“When the door first opened and I saw President Sandoval standing there, I was like, ‘Oh my god…Did I just get the Tibbitts award?!’ and then all these people began to pour into the classroom: the Provost, then the Dean of Liberal Arts, then the Associate Deans, my Chair, and then the committee,” Hodges recalls.

Hodges, teaching associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, was nominated in September by colleagues for his proven dedication to teaching and student success, and his inspirational attitude at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“Professor Hodges is an outstanding teacher of jazz dance who brings passion, enthusiasm, and professionalism to the classroom,” Ann M Archbold, professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance said. “He is very thoughtful in making the courses progressive in their skill-building which results in notable student achievement and mastery. Colleagues who have undertaken peer review assessments of his teaching commend him on his student engagement in the classroom, the dynamic classroom environment, and his well-developed pedagogical approaches to the subject manner. This is all evidence that he is providing high-quality instruction and is holding his students to rigorous standards. Departmental faculty unanimously acknowledge that ‘Nate is by far the best teacher in the department.’”

At the center of Hodges’ work is the success of his students, as he creates a safe and comfortable environment to explore curiosity and relate classwork to current topics. It is exactly that and his determination to showcase the importance of an education in Liberal Arts that led him to receive this important award.

“I think there is a very strange narrative being written by the media about how upper education is unnecessary, and that there is no value in the liberal arts, especially dance,” Hodges said. “But, my class teaches students how to be comfortable in their own skin, to understand and be able to articulate their personal boundaries, and to be able to think about their choices in how they present themselves in front of people. These are skills they can use in job interviews, work presentations, and meetings. The liberal arts teach the skills that connect us to humanity and not just provide information.”

In a brief interview, Hodges dove deeper into his teaching style and the meaning of his work. 

What does being named an F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Awardee mean to you?

“For me, this is a huge validation and affirmation for years of hard work. As a teaching professor, I teach quite a bit of classes in addition to all the choreography I do. I don’t do anything half-way because my students count on me to offer challenging yet accessible and rigorous yet fun material. I want my students to be as successful as possible, and that makes pouring quite a bit of time, energy, thought, and literal sweat into everything I do. In an R1, there can be lot of emphasis placed on research and tenure professors, so it feels very rewarding to be recognized for my teaching and what I bring to this university. I think sometimes, teachers can question ourselves ‘am I really having an impact?’ and this is a nice validation that I am.”

Your teaching style is described as energetic, passionate, engaging, and unconventional. Your students often leave you glowing reviews with phrases like “best teacher” and “fantastic” appearing often. How would you describe your teaching style and how has it evolved since you began teaching?

“I think in our current culture, there is a lack of value for the arts, especially dance, even though you are constantly seeing it everywhere. I believe strongly in the value of physical expression, the agency of the moving body, and that dance and movement is the embodiment of our culture. I also understand that not every student is the same. You have introverts and extraverts, students who have never been exposed to dance and those that have grown up with it, students who are visual learners or auditory or kinesthetic; I try to create classes that have multiple ways of communicating and multiple avenues for engaging different people. I also employ pedagogical strategies that use engagement activities that break up lecture, and as much interactive opportunities as possible. Class should not only be informative, but social, experiential, collaborative, and, dare I say it, fun!”

How do you translate what you teach in the classroom into department productions and how do these two worlds overlap – teaching and performance?

“For me, collaboration is hugely important. The best ideas, I think, come out of when different people with different perspectives come together to create art or solve a problem. So, I have no problem having conversations about the choreography with the director in front of the students. This way they can see how two professionals communicate, come to ideas through collaboration, and can see how creative decisions are made. It is also really important to walk the cast through why the choreography is what it is, how it supports the director’s artistic goals and vision, and where within it they can find opportunity to infuse it with their character and how it furthers the storyline. I am very thoughtful about the movement I create, especially when it deals with complicated, controversial, or difficult subject matter. I want the cast to be able to confidently articulate why they are doing the movement they are if approached by an audience member.”

Dance is an especially creative and expressive medium. How do you create a safe and inclusive environment for your students, providing space for them to feel comfortable expressing themselves while still challenging them as dancers?

“College is the perfect place, right out of high school but before the professional world, to not only figure out who you are, but to discover the kind of artist you want to be, what your professional and creative boundaries are, and how far you can safely push yourself. I work to create a culture where it is made explicit that we are here to learn, grow, and push ourselves; that there is something for everyone to learn and expand on. I infuse quite a bit of peer observation and feedback into my classes, so that we normalize the process of receiving and giving kind but constructive criticism so that we are not precious about our work, and we continue to grow while also supporting each other. Everyone has a different body with a different kinesthetic history, that’s what makes us all so interesting and beautiful, and those differences should be celebrated rather than stifled.”

In closing, Hodges thanked his department, his students, and colleagues for the award, and the chance to teach at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“I really want to thank my entire department. I am so lucky to genuinely like everyone that I work with, that we all respect each other and support each other, even when we may have different viewpoints. Additionally, the students in our department are just the best! I feel very, very lucky to have found a home at the University.”

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