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Theater professor named Sheedy Award recipient

Kristen Durbin | Monday, April 30, 2012

Last week, the College of Arts and Letters named theater professor Peter Holland the recipient of the 2012 Sheedy Excellence in Teaching Award.

Holland will be formally presented with the award at a Dec. 5 ceremony. Last year’s Sheedy Award winner, history professor Thomas F.X. Noble, will introduce Holland, who will then deliver a brief reflection on his pedagogy.

The award, named for former dean Fr. Charles E. Sheedy, is the most prestigious faculty honor in the College of Arts and Letters. Since 1970, it has been given to one professor each year who “has sustained excellence in research and instruction over a wide range of courses,” according to the Arts and Letters website.

“It recognizes what’s unique about Notre Dame and Arts and Letters in that it combines the best of a liberal arts college with the best of a research university,” associate dean JoAnn DellaNeva said. “We expect professors to be excellent in both teaching and research, and our students are beneficiaries of that.”

Holland, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Shakespeare in performance, was chosen to receive the award based on “extraordinary” nominations from both students and faculty members that praised his engaged teaching style and informed scholarship, DellaNeva said.

“We had some wonderful letters of nominations for him that talked movingly about him as a concerned professor who goes out of his way for his students, particularly the undergraduates,” she said. “We also had nominations from faculty working with him who were also really impressed by his truly exceptional undergraduate teaching.”

In one nomination, a student praised Holland for channeling his passion into the classroom.

“Holland continually stunned me and my friends with his knowledge and a contagious passion for Shakespeare,” the nomination stated. “When describing him to students who haven’t taken a class with him, I always say, ‘He knows more about Shakespeare than Shakespeare did.'”

Jim Collins, chair of the Department of Film, Television and Theatre and the 2010 Sheedy Award recipient, said Holland’s concern for the ideas of his students and his passion for Shakespeare create a decidedly unique classroom environment.

“What really makes Peter’s teaching so exceptional is not just his erudition. It’s how he values student voices at the same time he shares his vast knowledge of Shakespeare,” Collins said. “Students find his classes mesmerizing because they know they’re generating new knowledge together.  It’s that spontaneous combustion in the classroom … that makes the learning so exhilarating.”

The College solicits nominations for the award from the Arts and Letters community in February, DellaNeva said. Professors nominated by students and faculty are then considered by a committee consisting of DellaNeva, three former Sheedy Award winners and two undergraduate students.

“All the nominees are outstanding and deserving of the award,” DellaNeva said. “It’s a very difficult process to name just one, and we would name five each year if we could. The people who aren’t named for the award this year will be reconsidered next year because they are such outstanding candidates.”

DellaNeva said Holland’s breadth of teaching also set him apart from other candidates.

“He also works very closely with some graduate students,” she said. “His work with graduate and undergraduate students and his outreach in bringing Shakespeare to the general public were all unique to his nomination.”

Holland, who served as director of the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon before coming to Notre Dame in 2002, said teaching at the University has been a transformative experience due to the high level of engagement of his students.

“Before I came to Notre Dame, I was getting burned out as a teacher, but teaching here has revivified the experience for me,” he said. “It’s fun to teach Notre Dame students. I get a deep pleasure every time I go to class, and my heart goes up on the way there. This is what I got into the profession to do.”

His students also strengthen the relationship between his teaching and research, Holland said.

“My teaching informs my research because smart students ask smart questions that push me to rethink what I’m doing and how I do it in my research,” he said. “My research informs my teaching because it is entirely on Shakespeare, which is what I spend my time teaching here.”

Without engaged, curious students, professors cannot exercise their full teaching potential, Holland said.

“You can be a good teacher with bad students, but I don’t think anyone would know about it,” he said.

Although the pool of nominees for the Sheedy Award was quite competitive, Holland said he thinks one intangible quality gave him an advantage over other nominees.

“I do have one built-in advantage over other faculty, which is that I can’t help the fact that I have a British accent,” he said.

Above all, Holland said he is thankful for the opportunity to be a part of the Notre Dame community.

“I really do feel lucky to be working, teaching and researching at Notre Dame,” he said. “The accident that brought me here shows some kind of good luck and good fortune. It’s a pretty good place to be.”