Sharon James, a professor of classics at UNC, has been creating a unique classroom experience throughout her 22 years at the University — a skillfulness in teaching that prompted recognition from the UNC System.
James was among 17 award winners selected for the 2021 Awards for Excellence in Teaching by the UNC Board of Governors — which represent all 16 North Carolina public universities and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.
The award was established in 1993 to highlight the value and work of educators system-wide. Professors are nominated by committees at their respective institutions. Each nominee submitted a five-page statement on their teaching philosophy.
“I’m really surprised by this award, but I’m very honored,” James said in an email. “I hope it will show people that the classics department is teaching all kinds of exciting, inspiring, important courses — all my colleagues are dedicated, fantastic teachers.”
James teaches courses on Latin poetry, Roman comedy and women in ancient Greece and Rome.
She earned her undergraduate degree in Spanish literature and classical studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. James went on to complete her master's degree and doctorate in comparative literature at the University of California-Berkeley.
Her professors at the University of California-Santa Cruz inspired her passion for classics through taking her seriously as an intellectual, James wrote. She dedicated her book, “Learned Girls and Male Persuasion: Gender and Reading in Roman Love Elegy,” to the professors who encouraged her to pursue her interest in ancient Mediterranean literature.
Now as a professor at UNC, James' courses focus on connecting the lives of people in the ancient Mediterranean to the world today.
“I was interested in classics before I came to college and started taking her classes,” senior classics majorGrace Miller said. “But she really helped me figure out what I wanted to do within classics and learn what classics was really about.”
When Miller was a first-year, she told James about her interest in the field and her goal of becoming a professor one day. James then invited Miller to her office to discuss her plans and help her navigate the path to becoming a professor.
Miller will pursue a classics doctorate at the University of California-Santa Barbara after graduation.
James’ lasting influence on her students is apparent, as several of her former students participated in the nomination letter for the award, Donald Haggis, chairperson of the department of classics, said.
“Professor James is remarkably sensitive,” he said. “She has an intimate understanding of her students as individuals, and this is really what sets her apart from many of her colleagues and many of her fellow teachers at the University.”
James’ scholarship extends far beyond the classroom. She is the co-founder of the International Ovidian Society, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the studies of the Roman poet Ovid.
In 2012, James co-organized the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute's “Roman Comedy in Performance.” The 20 performances have garnered nearly 35,000 views on YouTube in 130 countries.
Although James' teaching focuses on the ancient Mediterranean, she said she is committed to highlighting the relevance of her scholarship to her student’s lives.
“I’d say that my philosophy is to take students seriously as intellectuals; to ask them to take themselves seriously as intellectuals; to treat them as partners in figuring out and understanding the complex, contradictory, often disturbing materials we are studying in class,” James said.
What James enjoys most, she said, is teaching her students to connect aspects of ancient Greek and Rome to their lives.
“We learn together, a process that is endlessly rewarding."
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