Teaching with empathy: Jennifer Nolan wins Excellence in Teaching Award

by | Jan 23, 2020

Jennifer Nolan shares her passion for the past and its artifacts with UMSL students while maintaining a focus on teaching with empathy.
Jennifer Nolan, Excellence in Teaching Award winner

Assistant Teaching Professor Jennifer Nolan brings the past to the classroom through artifacts, such as antiquarian books, mixed with modern technology like online discussion boards and videoconferencing. (Photo by August Jennewein)

When Jennifer Nolan comes across an old book, she knows there are two stories hidden in its pages: one crafted by the author and one told by the book itself.

She views books as artifacts with each detail – binding, notations, font or handwriting – giving clues about a text’s origin.

Nolan’s unique view of common objects is due to a passion for archaeology, which she discovered at age 4.

“I was with my father on our historic farm in central Illinois, and he was teaching me about the artifacts he found in the field,” she said. “He took me out there, and I found some shards of pottery from the 1800s. I was obsessed from that point on.”

Nolan’s interest in archaeology led to a career in cultural anthropology and museum studies. At the University of Missouri–St. Louis, she combines her passion for the field with her passion for sharing knowledge. The assistant teaching professor recently won an Excellence in Teaching Award from the National Society of Leadership and Success.

“I was really surprised and humbled to receive the award,” Nolan said. “It’s a privilege to work with students and see them develop as scholars.”

She teaches students around the world through online and face-to-face classes. Along with the anthropology department’s outstanding reputation, the development of new online programs was UMSL’s biggest draw when Nolan came to the university more than five years ago.

No matter the format, she strives to create a sense of community in each class. Online, that means utilizing discussion boards and meeting with students through Zoom videoconferencing. She encourages students on campus to come to her office.

“It’s really important to get across to students that we care about them,” she said. “We’re here to help them every step of the way – communicating with them, checking in on them, establishing goals and objectives.”

It’s all part of teaching with empathy, a concept in which educators consider students’ lives outside the classroom.

“Teaching with empathy is realizing that we’re all human beings,” Nolan said. “We all have complexities to our lives. Tragedies happen. Students juggle multiple jobs or have a family. It’s important to have clear communication and be open.”

Her determination to remain in communication with students serves as an asset in her role as advising coordinator for the anthropology and archaeology department. She also teaches courses for the Pierre Laclede Honors College, such as Urban Legends and Folklore.

She still finds time to work with the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. The organization examines antiquarian texts and digital archives from historical and cultural perspectives and attracts faculty from leading universities around the world. Nolan specializes in bringing antiquarian books into the classroom to allow students to study them up close.

For UMSL students who have an interest in historical artifacts, she recommends taking advantage of St. Louis’ museums, such as the Missouri History Museum and Saint Louis Art Museum in Forest Park.

But her can’t-miss destination is Cahokia Mounds, the remains of an ancient civilization located 20 minutes from UMSL. The site regularly sparks visitors’ passion for the past, like shards of pottery did for Nolan.

Karen Holman

Karen Holman