2017 Faculty Awards

MSU's Beaumont tower in the winter

Michigan State University faculty members will be honored for their outstanding contributions to education and research at the annual MSU Awards Convocation on Feb. 7. Five College of Arts & Letters faculty will be recognized at the ceremony for mutliple awards and honors. 

MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon will congratulate the honorees at the ceremony and salute their contributions to the university’s excellence. Simon also will take a few minutes to acknowledge MSU’s Founders Day as well as deliver the 2017 State of the University address.

William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award

Portrait of a woman smiling at the camera

Ann Larabee is a public scholar dedicated to promoting free inquiry and public discussion about national and international issues. She has devoted much of her career to understanding cultural responses to disaster and terrorism and the formation of radical ideas. Successfully crossing disciplinary boundaries, her work is known to researchers in history, political science, literary studies and the law. Her most recent book, “The Wrong Hands: Popular Manuals and Their Historic Challenges to a Democratic Society,” has been heralded as a brilliant study that asks essential questions about dissent and tolerance in democratic societies. As one commentator noted, “One of our best writers, Ann Larabee brings extensive research and splendid prose to bear on a topic vital to democracy.”

Larabee’s excellent writing, however, is not limited to the academic world; her popular history book, “The Dynamite Fiend: The Chilling Tale of a Confederate Spy, Con Artist, and Mass Murderer,” spent five weeks on the Nova Scotia bestseller list. She has often appeared on television and radio to share her expertise on topics such as terrorism, radicalism and censorship.

Larabee is editor of The Journal of Popular Culture, the study of which has a long tradition at Michigan State University, which houses one of the largest special collections in popular culture in the world. Larabee mentors graduate and undergraduate students as editorial assistants on the journal, takes them to conferences in the field and helps them develop their own work for publication. As one of her former students, now a tenured professor, stated, “To say that Dr. Larabee played a role in my academic and professional growth would be an understatement. Put simply, she was instrumental in my development as a scholar and teacher.”

Larabee has left her mark on the university through her many contributions to service, including the reorganization of academic governance and the formation of a popular culture concentration in the English Department. She helped found the annual Comics Forum at MSU, now in its seventh year, which brings together scholars, creators and fans to explore the medium of comics, graphic storytelling and sequential art.

William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award

Portrait of a man with glasses and facial hair

Paul Thompson is one of the pre-eminent philosophers of agriculture and food ethics in the world. Widely regarded as having created the philosophy of agriculture as a discipline, Thompson has made seminal contributions to interdisciplinary conversations about risk, biotechnology, sustainability and food ethics, especially regarding the development of agricultural technoscience. In his most recent book, “From Field to Fork,” which won the Book of the Year award for 2015 from the North American Society for Social Philosophy, illustrates how food production and consumption are linked to ethical issues regarding social justice, the environment and risk. He constructs a map of the field that convincingly brings together often seemingly disconnected discussions concerning poverty, obesity, animal welfare, environmental protection and gene technology.

A prolific and highly influential scholar, Thompson has authored or edited sixteen books and has published more than 200 journal articles and book chapters. He published the first book length philosophical treatment of agricultural biotechnology in 1997, revising it in 2007. His 1992 book on U.S agricultural policy, “Sacred Cows and Hot Potatoes,” was used as a textbook for U.S. Congressional agriculture staff and won the American Agricultural Economics Association Award for Excellence in Communication. Thompson’s 2010 book, “The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics,” proposed a new framework for addressing questions of sustainability.

Thompson is as innovative pedagogically as he is in research. For classes large and small, undergraduate and graduate, he has integrated experiences in the MSU agricultural and food research facilities on campus into his curricula, giving students an appreciation for the ethical issues on which he focuses. He has directed the dissertations of 17 students and has served as a committee member for 18 more. As a mentor and graduate educator, he works collaboratively with his students, preparing them to be successful and productive scholars in their own right. In the words of one former student, he has a “lasting, transformational impact on the individual lives of his students.”

Thompson’s contributions to MSU include designing the Environmental Philosophy and Ethics graduate specialization; he has also supported a number of programs on campus through his leadership with the Sustainable Michigan Endowed Program.

Teacher-Scholar Award

Portrait of a man with glasses and a mustache

Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai, an associate professor in both the Department of English and the Department of Media and Information, is an accomplished film producer and scholar. With a range of expertise from documentary production and history of film to Hollywood and Hindi genre cinema, Pillai brings his many skills to both his teaching and his scholarship.

Having taught more than a dozen different classes at MSU—from introduction to film and film technologies to film history and even a capstone seminar on the digital documentary — Eswaran Pillai’s ability to combine the scholarly with the creative has propelled his success in the classroom. For example, in the Film in Britain Program, Pillai designed several production-oriented classes on documentary technologies and screenwriting, and embedded them in the specific context of the British cinematic tradition, where documentary has played an especially vital cinematic role. In this way, he combined historical analysis of the British documentary with production of documentaries situated in Britain, allowing students to apply their newly acquired historical understanding to their own creations.

As a scholar, Eswaran Pillai focuses on the history, theory and production of documentaries; some of his specific work examines Tamil cinema and its complex relationship with Hollywood. His 2015 book, “Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema,” a meticulously researched history of Madras Studios and Tamil films, has been hailed as the first sustained and scholarly study of Tamil cinema to date. The study received the prestigious Tamil Literary Garden Award, which recognizes annual significant achievements in Tamil in a number of genres and fields.

Eswaran Pillai’s work as a producer has been equally acclaimed. His 2012 documentary, “Unfinished Journey: A City in Transition,” was selected from more than 200 entries by the African World Documentary Film Festival for screening at the iRepesent Film Festival in Lagos, Nigeria, and at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis. 

Teacher-Scholar Award

Portrait of a woman smiling at the camera

From the moment she arrived at Michigan State from Yale University, Gretel Van Wieren has thrived as an exemplar of the land-grant mission through her multidisciplinary, cross-college work on religion, ethics and the environment. Her research spans many areas, including environmental ethics, religion and nature, agricultural and food ethics, children and nature, religion and nonprofit organizations. Her multiple articles and book, “Restored to Earth: Christianity, Environmental Ethics, and Ecological Restoration,” all speak to environmental ethics and restoration — the ideal of a future in which human impact on the natural world is not destructive but restorative.

Van Wieren recently received the high-profile Humanities Without Walls grant from the Mellon Foundation for her project The New Ethics of Food. She is a contributor to the Center for Humans and Nature City Creatures Blog (www.humansandnature.org/blog) and Planet Experts (www.planetexperts.com). Her current book projects include a monograph on religious responses to key issues in food ethics, an edited anthology on the ethics of ecological restoration and a collection of narrative essays on children’s experiences of nature through hunting and fishing. Van Wieren was the 2015 recipient of the spring Writers-in-Residency program at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest of Oregon State University.

Van Wieren’s teaching includes a wide variety of courses, from Exploring World Religions, an introductory course that often attracts potential majors, to Religion and Nonprofits and Religion and Nonprofit Leadership, two courses that helped the department offer a Nonprofit Leadership concentration that Van Wieren was instrumental in creating. Her additional curricular work reflects additional aspects of her scholarly interests. “Religion and the Environment” and “Human Culture, Ethics, and Nature,” explore religious perspectives on humanity’s relationship with nature. Van Wieren has been lauded for maintaining a respectful rapport with undergraduates while challenging their underlying assumptions and pushing them to think more deeply about the subject under study. Students have extolled her courses as formative for their intellectual lives and for their careers.

Excellence-in-Teaching Citations

Portrait of a man with glasses and facial hair smiling at the camera

Steven Ambrose strives to make learning accessible and gratifying, which does not mean, however, easy. Ambrose constantly challenges students to imagine the succeeding question, the further consequence or the next horizon; in short, he invites them to think beyond what they have known. Whether recruiting a student to study in Amsterdam who has never left the country or prodding another to sharpen a thesis claim into a more trenchant argument, Ambrose acknowledges that the risk of learning can prove uncomfortable or discomfiting to students—and then he makes those next steps less intimidating. He frequently uses what seem to be low-stakes assignments: a video blog, a short in-class response, a quick tweet of an example of sexism or homo corporatism or some other complex concept from a student’s everyday life. Low-stakes assessment does not mean students aren’t learning significantly or challenging their skills or knowledge; it just means that many of Ambrose’s modes of determining how well students are learning are designed to not stress them unnecessarily.

Time and again, students who accept his challenges flourish beyond their expectations, overcoming self-imposed limitations that they do not, initially, even see as problematic. More importantly, students often impress Ambrose by how they not only master a skill or technique but turn it to an unanticipated creative advantage, like the quiet student whose vlogs evolved from stilted talking head to artful, cinematic meditations. Ambrose is open to wherever students may take their learning as long as it is rigorous, curious and self-directed.

In the Amsterdam-based study-abroad course he led, Ambrose became known for responding in detail to student work, his persistence in challenging students to own their learning process, and his sincere investment in students coming to understand matters of social justice and other modes of inequality.

Ambrose is an immensely promising and talented educator who deftly fosters a learning community that is respectful, resilient and builds student confidence alongside knowledge—and he does so without compromising his high expectations for students. Steven Ambrose offers an inspiring example of not just how to teach in the humanities but how to teach through human connection.

Orginally posted on MSUToday.