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2009 Dean’s Award: Grant Wacker

May 12, 2009
Grant Wacker

Dean's Award for Excellence in Mentoring

Grant Wacker received his B.A. in philosophy from Stanford University and his Ph.D. in religion from Harvard University. Currently a professor of Christian History and director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Religion, he joined the Duke faculty in 1992 after serving as an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The current research focus of this prominent scholar of American religious history is the influence of Billy Graham on American religious culture. In their nominations, an extended family of past and present students bore witness to Wacker's intense investment in their personal and professional growth.

"Recognizing excellence in others and doing nothing takes very little time. Yet I am forgoing other work and taking time to nominate Grant for this award because that is the sort of thing he would do. I have learned from my mentor the importance of taking time to help colleagues, to work with them and to convey to them my respect and admiration. I have benefited from a mentor who will put other work aside to write a letter of recommendation or to read the third draft of a dissertation chapter. I have benefited from a mentor who understands that mentoring takes time—and who takes the time to do it well."

"Grant's success in the field in teaching, research, and writing provides his students with a wealth of relevant resources and wisdom. He is constantly working to improve our prose so that it will be accepted in the most prestigious journals in the field, and steering us towards a balanced philosophy of research that holds in tension both suspicion and charity towards our subjects. …What I admire most about Grant is his uncanny ability to maintain a tension between collegial friendship and fatherly, pastoral mentorship, all while providing a guiding hand towards holistic scholarly success as a teacher, researcher, and writer."

Professor Wacker plans a variety of activities that help his students grow together as academic colleagues, including monthly colloquia and social activities as well as opportunities for his current students to meet and network with his former students on a regular basis at annual conferences. These efforts lead to what one nominator called “a deep and lasting collegiality.” Because Grant models this collegiality with humility and consistency—generously offering his insights while also making his own works-in-progress available for review—it is effectively contagious.

"Grant offers his students not simply an academic direction but a place to belong. He often puts his own work aside to give students much more attention than any graduate student could hope for. He helps us choose courses, navigate academic hurdles, handle conflicts, and sooth anxieties. He hosts countless colloquium and meetings in his home and at professional meetings, making sure to assist students in making the transition from student to member of the academy. He asks our opinions like they actually matter, sharing his own work with us as fellow colleagues and treating our writing with critical but big-hearted honesty. In times of personal or professional crisis, this is a man who will invite you to dinner and help in whatever way he can. …In my experience, Grant has meant the difference between an anonymous graduate experience and a cherished time of academic and personal development. He allows me to take on ambitious projects, eager to help me accomplish more and climb higher than I thought possible. Because he thinks so highly of everyone, he gives students the confidence to think big and produce work that seeks to change the field."

"Grant creates communities for and from his students. The chief institutional form of this is the monthly colloquium held at his house. …But Grant also fosters a general sense of collegiality among his students. I have been immeasurably helped in every step of my graduate student career by friendly and supportive peers. And despite my competitive and misanthropic nature, I've strangely found myself willing (even eager?) to help my peers in return."

If his nominators' sentiments are any indication, Professor Wacker's investment is paying off nicely.

"Current and former students alike are considered part of the “Wacker Family.” As students, as scholars, as teachers, as friends, we are joined—in large measure—by our admiration for Grant Wacker and our thankfulness for the opportunity to be shaped, encouraged, and befriended by this great man."