Last year Rita Lester assigned Manufacturing Religion to students enrolled in her Liberal Arts Seminar titled, “Myth.”
It is a scholarly piece with which the religion professor is quite familiar with, having used the entire book in an upper-level religion course.
Her student co-instructor added Neil Gaiman’s graphic, episodic novel Sandman: Season of Mists to the list of required reading. Lester quickly admitted to her students that she was unfamiliar with both the format and content of the comic book series.
“I confessed to the students that I did not know where on the first page of Sandman I should start reading,” recalled Lester. “At the end of the class, during the public reading of student learning letters, the students confirmed the pedagogical usefulness of watching a professor struggle with a reading, just like they do.”
Students in Lester’s religion classes and her colleagues are quick to highlight her other strengths: learner-centered, respectful, approachable, rigorous, passionate.
For those reasons and others, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education have named Lester the 2012 Nebraska Professor of the Year. She was selected from nearly 300 top professors in the country. She accepted the award November 15 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
“I am incredibly encouraged to win this honor as a person who teaches a really small major,” said Lester, who has taught at NWU since 1998. “It really puts the spotlight on small majors and how important they are to a student’s experience.”
While her academic department is small, her reach is wide. Lester teaches several general education classes on world religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, women in religion, and religious diversity in the U.S. NWU students are not required to take a religion class but Lester is pleased with the number of students who want to improve their religious literacy.
“What a rewarding experience to discover that I enjoy intense professional and personal satisfaction engaging students who never thought they would be interested in religious studies in the questions, controversies and data of my field, no matter their undergraduate major or career goals,” she said. “My goal is to introduce religion as an academic field. I want students to have the basics. And I want to give them a safe space to think critically about religion.”
Senior Elizabeth Neemann, a senior from Sioux City, Iowa, is that student. She didn’t enroll at Nebraska Wesleyan expecting to study religion, but one class with Lester and Neemann’s interest was piqued.
“She changed my attitude toward the scholarly study of religion and fueled my intellectual curiosity for the subject,” said Neeman. “As a student, my level of excitement about a subject is easily influenced by a professor’s enthusiasm, and Dr. Lester is clearly passionate about what she does.”
That enthusiasm extends beyond the classroom. Last year, for example, Lester spent an hour each week learning Arabic with Neeman to assist in their efforts to better understand Islam and the Quran.
Junior Tim Brawner, an art major from Omaha, has worked alongside Lester for the past several months as her Liberal Arts Seminar student co-instructor. They met regularly over the summer to formulate the class and select reading materials. Now they meet three hours a week to plan future lessons and discuss student progress. Though not a religion major, Brawner asked to co-instruct with Lester based on her reputation and rigor.
“She’s given me the space in a way to operate as a partner rather than just an assistant,” said Brawner. “She’s simultaneously educating me in the art of education while also trying to teach a course to a class of 15 first-year students.”
Outside the classroom, Lester is the faculty president, serves on the Board of Governors, and chairs the Philosophy and Religion Department. In 2011, she was awarded the University’s Margaret J. Prouty Teaching Award, which honors a faculty member for excellence in teaching. In 2010, Lester was one of only 12 professors in the nation to be selected to attend a seminar, “Teaching About Islam and Middle Eastern Culture.” The seminar was held at the American Center for Oriental Research in Jordan and was sponsored by The Council of Independent Colleges and the Council of American Overseas Research Centers.
Lester was one of the 150 authors who contributed to the Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America (Indian University Press, 2006), which was awarded the American Historical Association's Leland Award for Reference. Her most recent publication is a chapter on tradition in Voices of Feminist Theology (Equinox Press), which was published this fall.
Lester is the fourth NWU professor to win the Nebraska Professor of the Year honor since 2001. Others include former music professor Maxine Fawcett-Yeske in 2006, former political science professor Kelly Eaton in 2003, and sociology professor David Iaquinta in 2001.