Tempe, AZ- Dr. Neal A. Lester, Founding Director of ASU Project Humanities and Foundation Professor of English, was presented the 2014 Francis Andrew March Award by the Modern Language Association of America (MLA) at the Annual Convention in Vancouver (Canada) on January 10, 2015.
The Francis Andrew March Award was established by the Association of English Departments (ADE) Executive Committee in 1984. The award is named for Francis March (1823 – 1911), professor of English at Lafayette College and the first professor of English in America. The Andrew Francis March Award honors those who have committed exceptional service to the profession of English.
In addition to being the Director of Project Humanities, Dr. Lester has received various teaching and service recognitions: Dean’s Distinguished Professor of English, Parents Association Professor of the Year, and Arizona Humanities Distinguished Public Scholar. Lester received his doctorate in English from Vanderbilt University. In 1997, he joined the faculty of Arizona State University, where he chaired the English department from 2004 to 2010. While at ASU, he has also served as Associate Vice, Dean of Humanities, and Visiting Scholar at Sichuan University (Chengdu, China). Lester has taught and published widely on African American literature and culture, and he is a national and international expert on American race relations.
Lester founded Project Humanities in 2010 at a time when humanities programs were becoming endangered across the country as courses were being cut out of school curricula. Lester was then tasked with making humanities understanding and cross-disciplinary engagement more robust by first debunking the myth that humanities happens in the classroom. He launched Project Humanities with a goal to explore humanities by reaching across disciplines, generations, and communities. Although Lester’s teaching and scholarship emphasis was on African American literary and cultural studies, often his research, writings, and lectures in the area of human rights and race relations sparked vibrant social discourse, a pattern that became the signature of Project Humanities: Talking, Listening, Connecting.
ADE Francis Andrew March Award
Doug Steward, ADE Associate Director of Programs,
Lester and Project Humanities have received major accolades since the Project was founded in 2010, demonstrating the rapidly growing success and impact of this university initiative. In 2014, Lester received the Roy Wilkins Community Service Award from the East Valley National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the inaugural Key of Excellence Award from the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the Juliana Yoder Friend of the Humanities Award from Arizona Humanities, and a written commendation from His Holiness the Dalai Lama for the Humanity 101 effort.
In my 15-year old mind, I HATED my 9th grade English teacher, Mr. Joe Brewer, because he was too hard on us students. He had the nerve to give me a “D” on an essay just because he couldn’t find my thesis statement in the first of my 5 paragraphs. Then to make matters worse, I had Mr. Brewer again and again for English in both my junior and senior years! By the time I reached my last two years of high school, I knew exactly where that thesis statement went and the difference between a thesis statement and a topic sentence for those essays! Thank you, Mr. Brewer.
When I started teaching English—Thank you, Mr. Brewer--way back when, I realized that I had become Mr. Brewer at the university level. I was tough with high expectations for student performance, “unbearable,” some students said, and one even said that my grading is “sadistic.” Although I didn’t fully know to appreciate it then, I know now that Mr. Brewer embodied passion and a commitment to challenging students that I valued and appreciated. He advised the Thespian Troupe and tortured me even more by assigning me the emcee role for the football Homecoming halftime shows and school pageants, and he even had the audacity to nominate and coach me for the Governor’s Honors competition. He thought I could be Purlie Victorious in Ossie Davis’ delightful race play. I remember some of those lines pretty well even now. I was able to thank Mr. Brewer about 8 years ago in a phone call. I thanked him for his confidence in me as a young student, for his guidance, and for his professional commitment and energy. I now know that Mr. Brewer was the foundation of what drew me to English as a student. Mr. Brewer was honest, truthful, passionate and compassionate.
(Mr. Brewer would want a better transition here now….)
In her 2011 Commencement Address at Rutgers University, Toni Morrison offered this rather profound observation that speaks to me on so many levels:
I have often wished that Jefferson had not used that phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” as the third right—although I understand in the first draft was “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” Of course, I would have been one of those properties one had the right to pursue, so I suppose happiness is an ethical improvement over a life devoted to the acquisition of land; acquisition of resources; acquisition of slaves. Still, I would rather he had written life, liberty and the pursuit of meaningfulness or integrity or truth.
This pursuit of “meaningfulness, integrity, and truth” is at the heart of the work I have tried to do these many years—in my teaching, in my research, and in my service. Whether it was sitting on advisory boards; evaluating proposals and manuscripts; conducting program reviews; sitting on an ad hoc committee on student learning outcomes; evaluating annual performance reviews as a department chair; evaluating tenure and promotion cases as a dean or as an external reviewer; co-facilitating ADE new chairs workshops; presenting or paneling at ADE summer institutes; or counseling, calming, or reassuring anxious graduate students about the job market at these annual conventions, for me, this service work is meaningful and reminds me of the passion that brought me to and sustains me in this profession.
Thank you, Rosemary, Dana, David, Doug and other ADE colleagues, for recognizing and valuing the work I continue to do. The occasion of this recognition further underscores the absolute necessity of collaboration in any and all success. Service, generosity, and humility are powerfully satisfying and gratifying. About this power of collaboration, I draw upon Emerson’s words: “To leave the world a better place. To know that even one life as breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
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