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Fostering intellectual curiosity is highlight for Kopke Award winner

Since he arrived on the Baldwin City campus in the fall of 2014, Nick Pumphrey has valued connecting with Baker University students in small classes.

“I sometimes will be able to walk into a classroom and know what style students respond to, which is helpful,” said Pumphrey, associate professor of religious studies. “But in reality, the best part is getting to know your students. I appreciate knowing their interests and being able to help foster their intellectual curiosity. And to see them succeed after they leave is something that makes me proud.”

Pumphrey’s passion for helping students succeed was recognized during the Commencement Ceremony on May 15 when he received the Jennie Howell Kopke and Verda R. Kopke Award for Distinguished Teaching. The award celebrates exemplary faculty who have a record of excellence in teaching, who transform students into scholars, who bring honor to Baker, and who exhibit good moral character. Kopke Award winners also receive a $5,000 cash award.

Flexibility in Teaching

Mixing lectures with discussions, Pumphrey tries to be flexible with his teaching because religious studies encompasses a variety of topics.

“When we are dealing with history and facts, I have to make sure the students get exposed to the basic information, but religion is such a polarizing topic that it is important that students are exposed to viewpoints that are not their own,” Pumphrey explained. “I often say that religion deals with the three things you never speak about in casual conversation: politics, religion, and sex. If they can discuss many of these issues in a civil way, then maybe they will accept other people’s opinions as valid, too.”

In eight years at Baker, Pumphrey has taught Intro to World Religions; Theories of Religion: Race, Power, and Gender; Intro to the Qur’an; Intro to the New Testament; Intro to the Old Testament; History of Christianity; Modern Christianity; Mesopotamian History and Religion; History and Archaeology of Ancient Israel; The Museum and the Bible; Women in the Book of Genesis; Gender and Sexuality of the Hebrew Bible; and Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. He also taught several Interterms, including his two favorites: Sacred Spaces and Digital Archaeology. He has taught several general education courses on pop culture and religion as well as religious diversity in America.

“I love getting to know my students,” Pumphrey said. “But also, I began my career teaching with a mission to expose students to new ideas and to give them the skill set to critically think about their world. That mission works best in a small liberal arts school like Baker. It is so rewarding to see students learn about other cultures as well as their own. College is often described as a life-changing or even identity-altering event. You can really see that with students at Baker. I love to do research, but I am here for the students. To see them grow like you can at Baker is the best thing about this place.”

Learning Outside the Classroom

Pumphrey also appreciates that Baker allow opportunities to learn outside the classroom. In 2008, he went on his first excavation to Tel Megiddo in Israel. Two years later he became a staff member at the Tel Akko Total Archaeology Project and remains one of the senior staff who oversees the excavation as well as helps with lectures.

Nick Pumphrey with three Baker students at an excavation site.

“One year I had three Baker students go, and each thought it was an amazing experience,” Pumphrey said. “This year we had a few interested, but with the latest [COVID-19] surge, the dig was canceled again.”

Pumphrey has received a sabbatical for spring 2023. He plans to spend the semester traveling for a few weeks to develop a book on birds in the Bible. He is an active member of the Santa Fe Trail Historical Society and a council member of the Douglas County Heritage Conservation Council.

“My main specialty is archaeology and ancient history as it relates to the Bible, but I do a lot of publishing in pop culture and religion because it’s fun,” he said. “I also spend a lot of time doing archaeology and historic preservation work in Douglas County.”

In addition to his teaching duties, he serves as the curator of the Quayle Bible Collection on the Baldwin City campus.

“The Quayle is one of the best Bible collections in the area and maybe even a significant collection in the country,” he said. “We have every major early English translation of the Bible, as well as other significant documents.”

Soon after he began teaching at Baker, Pumphrey and former director of library services, Ray Walling, created a classroom in the 350-year-old room from Urishay Castle located in the Kenneth A. and Helen F. Spencer Wing of the Collins Library and houses the Quayle Bible Collection.

“Now we bring as many students as we can into the Quayle,” he said. “It is amazing to let students see these extremely rare and important texts, and allowing them to study them for research, classroom assignments, and internships makes it more rewarding. We have transformed the collection into more than a museum—into a student research resource on campus.”

The Kopke Award was established in 1998 by Charles Kopke, a longtime supporter of Baker University. It is named in honor of his mother, Jennie Howell Kopke, a 1921 Baker graduate, and his wife, Verda.

Written by Steve Rottinghaus, ’14 MSM

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