Students name Todd Vanden Berg top prof
May 16, 2008
Worlds collided for Calvin professor of sociology Todd Vanden Berg on Wednesday, April 30, 2008. “I had just started teaching my anthropology of religion class, and my parents walked in … ,” he said. "It was a little disconcerting because I was in teaching mode.”
Vanden Berg’s folks were not making a random visit. They were there, on the invitation of Norm Zylstra, the Calvin coordinator of student and young alumni programs, to witness their son receiving the Professor of the Year Award, an honor bestowed annually on a Calvin faculty member via a majority vote of the graduating class.
"My parents have been very supportive of my vocation, so it was appropriate and poignant that they heard me receive news of my award,” Vanden Berg said. “Of course, my students got a big kick out of seeing Professor Vanden Berg’s parents.”
Zylstra and several student leaders delivered news of the award along with boxes of donuts to be shared by the class. “We had the mom and dad go in first, ’cause we knew that would throw him,” he confided. “I think whenever a student can throw a professor, they’ll take the opportunity.”
Vanden Berg was both startled and honored by the award. “Teaching is one of those occupations where you never feel like you’re doing enough, and you’re never quite sure of the impact you’re having on your students,” he said. “So, it’s affirming to receive this—particularly in light of the professors who have received it before.”
There have been 10 previous Professors of the Year as selected by the senior class (last year’s winner was Calvin professor of biology Joy Bonnema), while the college for the past 16 years also has selected a Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching honoree.
The honor was particularly surprising, Vanden Berg said, because his academic specialty, anthropology, is currently represented by one faculty member: him. “Even though we don’t have an anthropology major here at Calvin …,” he said, “this award is an affirmation that you’re impacting a wider community of students.”
Vanden Berg’s classes tend to draw students from the disciplines of sociology, communications arts and sciences, international development studies and missions studies. The Jamaican Journey, an international development class he teaches in Jamaica with social work professor Lissa Schwander, is a popular January interim, he added.
Vanden Berg’s selection was the culmination of a long process undertaken by the student alumni association Knights for Life, the staff of the Calvin literary magazine Prism and other participating seniors, Zylstra said.
First came the nomination ballots, which were distributed to senior voters in a variety of ways: “At Senior Salute, we handed out nomination forms; at 100 Hundred Days (a party for seniors during Homecoming) we passed out nomination forms,” he recited. “Then I e-mailed all the seniors the nomination form, and we ended up with about 55 nominations for Professor of the Year.”
Zylstra and volunteers compiled a booklet of nominations in which all identifying information—names, genders, academic specialties—had been stripped from the candidates. The nominating committee picked five finalists from that booklet, based on the criteria of excellence in teaching, spiritual impact and concern for students.
"I e-mailed the entire senior class the five finalists, and they would e-mail me back their vote … . And Todd Vanden Berg was the winner,” Zylstra recounted. “I think it’s based on kids who have had him and his reputation among students. Even if they haven’t had him, students talk about which professors to take.”
The process was inspiring, Zylstra said. “I feel like when you’re in that committee meeting, and you hear how passionate students are about the nominees, you understand that a huge part of their connection to the college, as students and as alumni, is their connection to those professors. More than the physical presence of our Knollcrest campus and maybe even our classmates, it’s an adult who took an interest in their life that endears them to the college and maybe to their Reformed worldview.”
Reflecting on his career, Vanden Berg spoke on similar lines: “When I think of my teaching vocation, I’m thinking of it in terms of two spheres that interact, and those spheres should never be able to be pulled apart,” he said. “To me, those spheres are the academic discipline of anthropology as well as an engaged Christian world-and-life view. So when I teach anthropology, the easy part is to teach aspects of the discipline. The challenging part is to engage with students so that they integrate their world-and-life view with the discipline.”
Vanden Berg will receive a special clock at Zero Day, the traditional brunch for graduating seniors.
The donuts, said Zylstra, are a bonus, and a couple of past honorees received them as well on April 30. “At 8:30 a.m., we went right into Joy Bonnema’s biology class, barged right in there with boxes of donuts and gave her a hard time about being Professor of the Year last time. And then we went to Todd’s class… .Then we went around and busted into Jim Vanden Bosch’s class to bust his chops because he’s always asking for it.”
Then, Zylstra said, they ran out of donuts.
~by Myrna Anderson, communications & marketing