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Primary Texts work earns Janssen Kopke Award

As a member of Baker University’s faculty, Associate Professor of English Dr. Joanne Nystrom Janssen loves being able to teach a range of courses, allowing her to constantly learn and satisfy her own curiosity.

“As a professor, I get to be the kind of lifelong learner I hope our students will become as well,” she said. “I love being in a community that values good, innovative, passionate teaching. I love sharing my passion for literature and ideas with students. Sometimes I can hardly believe that I landed a job where I get to read books and talk about them; I am constantly aware of how lucky I am.”

Janssen’s passion for helping students succeed was recognized at the May 21 Commencement Ceremony, where she was named the recipient of 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. The Kopke Award was established in 1998 by Charles Kopke, a longtime supporter of Baker. It is named in honor of his mother, Jennie Howell Kopke, a 1921 Baker graduate, and his wife, Verda Kopke. Award winners receive a $5,000 cash award.

The Cliché Is True

Originally from Minnesota, Janssen primarily teaches courses in British literature and world literature and contributes each semester to the Baker Core general education program. “My parents own an apple orchard, and my mom was an English teacher, so yes, the cliché is true—the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” 

Janssen has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Bethel University, a Master of Arts degree from Ball State University, and a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa. All of her degrees are in English literature. Janssen came to Baker in 2012. She was finishing a two-year contract at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh, when applying for the Baker job. Baker faculty were conducting interviews at a conference in Seattle in early January, so Janssen flew back for the interview.

“I had my interview, and then one of the legs of my flight back to Bangladesh was cancelled, so I was stuck in the States for a couple of extra days trying to get a new flight path sorted out,” she said. “During that time, Baker contacted me again and asked me for an on-campus interview. Since I happened to be still in the States, we were able to schedule it quite soon in January before I returned to Bangladesh. At the time, I was very frustrated with the flight snafu, but in retrospect, I’m so grateful that it happened to allow me to have the on-campus interview.”

Intellectually Challenging, Creatively Stimulating

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dr. Darcy Russell, ’80, said Janssen consistently receives excellent student feedback in all of her courses, and that’s one of the reasons she was chosen for the Kopke Award.

“She has greatly furthered my understanding of not only the course material, but also how to be a kind human and effective teacher,” one student said. “I appreciate how she shares her genuine love of her content area, yet she is understanding of each student’s diverse perspectives, preferences, and lifestyles. My only regret is that I was not able to take more classes with her.”

Another student said Janssen is a passionate teacher and can comfortably teach tough topics. “She’s very forgiving when the class may have had a harder time analyzing a text and was able to guide us through it and help us work it out ourselves. She’s supportive and welcomes you to her office hours, especially with papers. I’d love to take another course with her again someday.”

Another student described Janssen has an amazing professor. “She is kind, thoughtful, eloquent, and clearly passionate about her teaching and subject matter. I aspire to be like her! Her courses are intellectually challenging and creatively stimulating; I would recommend any student to take at least one course from her.”

Instrumental in New Program

Russell said Janssen has played an integral role in developing the university’s Primary Texts program, which gives students an opportunity to encounter significant writers and thinkers by emphasizing original works rather than excerpts in textbooks. The Primary Texts program was started in 2015 when Dr. Glenn Swogger approached Baker with the idea for the program. A similar program had been started at Kansas State University, and because Swogger had family ties to Baker, he was interested in expanding it to Baker.

“With the Swogger family’s generous support, we were able to develop a team-taught, interdisciplinary course with the theme Self and Society that we were able to offer through our general education program,” Janssen said. “The course prompted so much excitement among faculty and students that we have been able to add many other courses that follow the same team-taught format. Some of our other themes have addressed minority voices, power and justice, and illness and meaning, and we have also been able to explore fascinating historical topics, such as WWI and the Scottish Enlightenment.”

In 2018, the university secured a $1.2 million endowment from the Swogger family to ensure the continued support of the Primary Texts program. Janssen said that support has allowed Baker to continue to develop new courses, as well as to provide meaningful out-of-class experiences for students. In 2021, another dimension was added to the Primary Texts program—literary salons—and have been offered twice a year.

“A faculty member selects an author that he or she is passionate about and develops an interactive presentation about that author,” Janssen said. “A committee of faculty, students, and community members designs thematic decorations and plans catered food that ties in to the author and their work. These literary salons have been successful beyond our wildest dreams, growing from 30 attendees to 70 attendees. For the last salon, we had to have people preregister to ensure we had enough seats and food for everyone. We are also thrilled that the audience includes Baker faculty, staff, and students and community members.”

Janssen’s role in the Primary Texts program includes recruiting and coordinating faculty who teach in the program, leading planning meetings to develop new courses, serving as the instructor of record for many of the courses, coordinating out-of-class activities, communicating with the donors, and leading the committee that plans and executes the literary salons.

“It’s very humbling to win the Kopke Award,” she said. “In the moment that the award was announced, I was surrounded by my colleagues at graduation, so I was particularly aware of myself as part of this group of amazing colleagues, every one of whom deserves the same honor.”

Written by Jenalea Myers, ’08

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