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Two MacArthur Fellows, One Signature Class

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To put things in perspective, a college student has a higher probability of being struck by lightning than of being taught by one MacArthur fellow, much less two.

So when MacArthur Fellows Nora England, a linguistics and anthropology professor in the College of Liberal Arts, and David Stuart, an art and art history professor in the College of Fine Arts, teamed up to teach the fall 2010 freshman signature class “The Maya: Classical, Colonial and Contemporary,” 150 students were poised for a unique classroom experience.

Focusing on their areas of expertise, Stuart covered archaeology and the ancient Maya, and England devoted her time to the modern Maya. The two professors worked together to show their students the strong relationships between the present world and the ancient past, and to expose them to the different ways of studying the Maya. They incorporated real-world examples and experiences into their teaching.

“There's nothing as powerful as actually experiencing the social situations you talk about in a social science course,” says England. “It is also important, I think, to try to convey the fact that other people, like the Maya, face many of the same life circumstances as anyone else, even if in a different country, a different context and a different culture. I always hope that real examples help students see our common humanity.”

Stuart says part of the students’ initial attraction to the class and to Mayan culture may be that the Maya hold such a powerful place in the modern imagination as an exotic and romanticized ancient culture.

“We’re trying to dispel some of the mystery, and show the ancient and modern Maya as real people with a real history and identity in today’s world,” says Stuart. The ancient Maya did not disappear — they transformed. The ancient Maya occupied an area where their descendants live today that includes eastern Mexico (the Yucatan Peninsula), Belize, Guatemala, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador.

Stuart and England are among an elite group of 828 MacArthur Fellows who have been chosen from a variety of disciplines, ranging in age from 18 to 82 at the time of their selection, since the program’s inception in 1981. Recipients receive up to $500,000 in “no strings attached” support from the philanthropic John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation — giving its fellows unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create and explore over the course of five years.

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