For the second year in a row and the third time in four years, a Sweet Briar College professor has earned an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Julia Jackson Nichols Professor of English John Gregory Brown is one of 12 recipients of a 2017 OFA — the commonwealth’s highest honor given to faculty at its private and public universities and colleges.
The awards, which were announced Friday, are given for superior accomplishments in teaching, research and scholarship, and public service. Brown joins math professors Raina Robeva and Jim Kirkwood, selected in 2014 and 2016 respectively, as SCHEV OFA honorees.
Brown said he is honored to be invited into their company, adding, “The nicest thing about this award is that it reaffirms Sweet Briar’s incredible devotion to mission.”
In his SCHEV statement, Brown spoke powerfully of the importance of the College’s purpose.
“In a broader culture that would still, in the twenty-first century, seek to silence women, to objectify them, to encourage passivity, to offer limited opportunities and diminished compensation for their contributions, I can imagine no worthier educational calling than to offer, as Sweet Briar College offers, a contradictory message — that our students can be — indeed, must be — active, ambitious leaders free to pursue their intellectual and artistic ambitions wherever that may lead them,” he wrote.
They will be ambitious in his classes, even if he has to goad them into it. Brown, the author of four critically acclaimed novels, has taught at Sweet Briar for 21 years and directs the creative writing program. Noted for a boisterous, sometimes even intimidating teaching style, students over and over again credit him for infusing them with enthusiasm and never letting them settle for less than their best.
“He gives us a hard time but only because he knows we’re capable of doing great things; he pushes us to achieve them,” wrote one student evaluating his course. Another says his classroom presence is “so huge it’s hard to describe, but I would start with electric, inspiring, intuitive and joyful.”
Many say they owe their writing careers to him, including poet C.M. Burroughs, who graduated in 2004.
“He recognized (when I was only 20 years old) that I possessed a talent that had the potential to transform into success, and he helped guide me into that talent,” Burroughs wrote.
“I was in my spring semester of 2003 when John joked with me, ‘I’m just waiting for you to get your M.F.A. in poetry.’ After this conversation, I shredded my law school applications, and within months, I received word from the University of Pittsburgh that I was accepted to their M.F.A. poetry program. I am now assistant professor of poetry at Columbia College Chicago, and a published writer of poetry and creative non-fiction.”
His English department colleagues also recognize his many sides. Associate Professor Tony Lilly says his “forceful personality” complements his gifts as a teacher. Brown uses any means available to help every student live up to her potential, Lilly says.
“One day with one student, John will be a warm and nurturing parent figure. Another day, a candid critic. Another day, a magical storyteller. Another day, a patiently listening therapist. And each ‘version’ of John is as authentic and genuine and truly as caring as the last,” he said.
Lilly is also one of several colleagues to note Brown’s leadership when Sweet Briar was threatened with closing in 2015. Brown organized a response by faculty and staff, including legal action.
“He teaches, therefore, not only how to craft stories, but how to craft our lives. He teaches us all to find what matters and to give it our energy, our time, our treasure, and our hearts,” Lilly wrote.
But for Brown, it was the alumnae — many his former students — who were the heroines of that story. And, he says, it proved Sweet Briar’s efficacy beyond doubt.
“Their effort to save the school they loved required precisely the skills the College had aimed to teach them — ambition, outspokenness, leadership, organization, clear thinking — as well as a generosity of spirit, a fierce loyalty, and an abundance of faith in the face of what appeared to be a hopeless effort,” he wrote in his SCHEV statement.
Upon learning that he’d been selected for the award, Brown referred back to those words, giving credit where he believes it’s due.
“For two decades I have been the beneficiary of that spirit, loyalty and faith, and it has enriched my life in countless ways,” he said.
The Outstanding Faculty Award recipients will be honored at a luncheon at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond on Feb. 16.
For more about the OFA awards, visit the SCHEV website.