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Professor given Sheedy Excellence in Teaching award

Sam Stryker | Wednesday, April 20, 2011

When Professor Thomas F.X. Noble heard Notre Dame would present him with the 2011 Sheedy Excellence in Teaching Award April 13, he said his first emotion was pure astonishment.

Once he overcame the shock, Noble said he felt appreciation for those who nominated him.

“It’s enormously gratifying to think the people you work for and with think well of you. It’s not like winning a contest,” Noble said. “I didn’t apply for this. It came as a complete surprise, a welcome surprise.”

Noble, who serves as the chair of the Department of History, specializes in late antique and early medieval history. The Sheedy Award is presented annually to an outstanding professor in the College of Arts and Letters.

Noble began teaching at Notre Dame in Jan. 2001. He said even after 37 years of teaching over 7,000 students he finds inspiration from their vigor.

“I’ve spent my whole adult life with students. I think that keeps you young, it keeps you grounded. It keeps you excited about things,” he said. “You can just draw on the energy of students.”

Noble said he has always enjoyed reading and history, and these passions led to his career as a professor.

“I often kid with students, ‘My mother dropped me off at kindergarten and I never left,'” he said. “I’ve always been an academic.”

One of his college professors pulled him aside and told him he could be a history professor, pushing him towards the profession, Noble said. His career decision was not made instantly, though.

“Probably most people suppose there was this blinding moment of inspiration, and it didn’t happen that why,” he said. “It was a slow process.”

When he gives career advice to pupils, Noble said he tells students to combine their passions with their skills.

“Figure out what you really want to do, and figure out what you’re good at and try to find a way to bring those two together,” he said. “Do you have the fire in the belly? Do you really want to do this?”

Noble said he urges students not to base career decisions on what they will earn in terms of money, but instead on happiness. He said while being a history professor has taken a lot of hard work, he never regrets his career choice.

“I get up everyday and I am excited. I don’t think everybody can say that,” Noble said. “There is a payoff. The pleasures that come along with this don’t have material value, they’ve got moral value.”

Winning the award is an immense honor, Noble said.

“If you have been around Notre Dame any length of time, you know this is really a wonderful award. It’s very prestigious award, a very humbling award,” he said. “You think of all the great people who have won this award, and you think you have been put in that club — that is pretty special.”

Seeing future leaders as they begin their careers is a favorite aspect of his job, Noble said.

“One of the things that teaching young people over all these years has done is make me optimistic or confident,” he said. “We’re handing the world over to good people.”

Noble said the culture of students at the University is unlike anywhere he has taught.

“There is an ethos here that is different from anyplace else. There is this very powerful sense of family,” he said. “People talk about the Notre Dame family. You’d have to be utterly without senses not to feel it.”

Interacting with other members of the University family has been the most defining aspect of his experience as a professor at Notre Dame, Noble said.

“I can’t think of one moment that just stands out to me, but the picture that kept playing on my mind’s screen was all these people that I meet who are connected to this place in lots of different ways, whether they are alums, parents, students,” Noble said.

Noble directed the Medieval Institute for his first eight years at Notre Dame, then became chair of the Department of History three years ago. After an upcoming year of leave, he said he anticipates returning to teach at the University.

“I’ve never been just a professor at Notre Dame, so when I come back from my leave I am really excited for that,” Noble said. “I have a couple of ideas for new classes I might teach.”

Noble said he has reexamined his career after winning the award, and still appreciates the opportunity he has been granted.

“In some ways, I can’t believe people pay me to do this,” he said. “It’s a real privilege.”