Professor Stories: Steven Volk

Steve Volk. Credit: Daniel Peck
Steve Volk at the 2011 awards ceremony.
Credit: Daniel Peck

"If my experiences as a high school student in Chile in 1964 helped orient my future career in academia," wrote 2011 national award winner Steven Volk on his blog, "I was formed politically and emotionally by the years I lived there in 1972-73 when I experienced the tremendous hope of the government of Salvador Allende (1970-73) as well as the terrible catastrophe of the military coup in 1973 that overthrew him."

Steven was working on his dissertation in Chile in the early 1970s during the coup, which put Augusto Pinochet into power. Inside Higher Ed reports that for 17 yearsSteven worked with Chilean democratic solidarity movements from the states and was ultimately honored by the Chilean government in 2001 for his role in helping to restore democracy in the country.

Steven takes an activist role toward his own teaching methods as well. After speaking at a conference on teachers' attempts to learn from successes and failures—and receiving a note on a failing first-year student right before the speech—he decided to re-examine his responsibility to take ownership over students' learning. The clear next step, of course, was to bend time and space.

"Concerned that I was using class time to deliver (rather than examine) course content, but also unwilling to surrender my narrative, I opted to time shift," wrote Steven in his passion statement. "I began to produce video lectures which students viewed on the web before class sessions. I retained my historical narrative on the video while freeing class time for deeper engagement with critical concepts and allowing student learning to determine the shape of each class."

"If there is one lesson that I've learned from Steven, it's to never be content with the way things are," said former student Marian Schlotterbeck in her introduction speech at the 2011 U.S. Professors of the Year awards luncheon. "This is true in his approach to mentoring as he pushes students to take on new challenges to teaching as he redesigns his courses yearly, and most profoundly, to being an agent for change."

"Steve Volk ... epitomizes what we mean when we talk about great teacher-scholars at Oberlin," wrote Oberlin President Martin Krislov on his blog. "He is an innovative, inspirational and tireless teacher and mentor...Beyond that, Steve is a key leader of our college, and an active and engaged citizen of our community, our country and the world."

During his acceptance speech, Steven continued to embody this characterization. "Education is at a crossroads in the United States," he said. "Teachers are blamed for creating budgetary crises, portrayed as clock-punchers whose only dreams are of their pensions. Our job as teachers, at every level and in every circumstance, is to cultivate the creativity of all students who come through our doors; to link education to democratic values, to teach our students as if our future depended on it because it does."

Since receiving his award, Steven was commended by the Ohio State representatives and was asked to speak at the American Association of Colleges and Universities. He's also become a spokesperson for Oberlin. "When I won this award, I was told that I'd have a year in which people would listen to me. I'm really trying as hard as I can to make use of that."

Know a great professor's story? Nominate him or her for a U.S. Professors of the Year award.

Steve Volk in the News

Oberlin's Steve Volk named Professor of the Year, The Chronicle-Telegram
Oberlin College's Steven Volk named one of country's top professors, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Rep. Ramos honoring Steve Volk as the 2011 Outstanding Baccalaureate College U.S. Professor of the Year, The Ohio Channel (video)
Innovations in Teaching: Steve Volk (Teacher of the Year), Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Winter 2011-2012