Brenda Deen Schildgen has taken hundreds of UC Davis undergraduates through Dante's nine circles of hell. Yet her students love her.
"(You) gave me a different way of looking at the world," one of Schildgen's comparative literature students wrote in a course evaluation.
"(I have learned) lessons beyond belief … reading about Dante could save one's life," another wrote.
"She is perfect," a third student commented.
Such testimonials — combined with her stellar scholarship — have earned Schildgen the 2008 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement. The prize comes with a $40,000 award, believed to be the largest prize of its kind in the nation. The winner is selected on the recommendations of faculty members, students and research peers.
"Professor Schildgen is a teacher and scholar of the highest order," said Jessie Ann Owens, dean of the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, in a letter of nomination for the prize. "Her commitment to her students and her profession is an example for all of us."
Meg Stallard, chair of the UC Davis Foundation Board of Trustees, said: "This prize is presented each year in the belief that excellence in undergraduate teaching, combined with distinguished scholarly achievement, is what distinguishes great universities.
"It also reinforces UC Davis' commitment to its students by recognizing that the quality of their education starts with the caliber and successes of our faculty. It is with great pride that the UC Davis Foundation recognizes Professor Schildgen's extraordinary scholarship and gifted teaching with the 2008 UC Davis Prize."
A scholar who works with literature in English, Italian, French, Spanish, Greek and Latin — she describes herself as "dabbling" in Sanskrit as well — Schildgen has written five critically acclaimed books and edited four others, and authored some three dozen scholarly articles and more than a dozen invited book or article reviews.
An internationally respected authority on Dante, Chaucer and the gospel of Mark, especially in the context of Islam and Judaism, she has lectured throughout the United States, in India, the Middle East and Europe, and received numerous fellowships, grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities and other prestigious organizations.
"She is a stellar scholar and an extraordinary teacher, beautifully melding the two in the classroom," said Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef. "She truly represents the best of UC Davis."
And she has inspired thousands of undergraduate students to care about long-dead writers. Her student course evaluations abound in capital letters and exclamation points: "I want a minor in COMP LIT!" … "GREAT course" … "I love this course!!!" … "EXCELLENT!"
Several students, in areas of the evaluation that ask for helpful suggestions, said Schildgen's classes should be longer.
Twice, Schildgen received the highest possible rating — 5 on a scale of 0 to 5 — from every student in a class. One of the classes was Comparative Literature 180, "Selected Topics in Comparative Literature." The other was Comparative Literature 167, "Comparative Study of Major Authors."
She also receives superlative marks from her colleagues. "'Original' is one of the adjectives that occur again and again in the letters assessing Professor Schildgen as a scholar, others being 'erudite,' 'brilliant,' and 'rare,'" wrote Gail Finney, a professor of comparative literature and German, in a letter of support for Schildgen's prize nomination.
One of Schildgen's books, Power and Prejudice: Reception of the Gospel of Mark, won a Best Academic Book Choice award in 1999. Among her more recent critically acclaimed titles are Medieval Readings of Romans, published last year, and Other Renaissances: A New Approach to World Literature, published in 2006
Her work on Dante, especially on his knowledge and treatment of the Middle East, Islam and India, has been especially celebrated. "I know of no other Dantista as able as she is to take up the fascinating question of Dante's relationship to Islam," one prominent Dante scholar commented.
Born in London to a Russian mother and Indian father, Schildgen was the first in her family to go to college. Her Jewish mother and Muslim father sent her to a French convent in England through high school.
Crossing the Atlantic for college, she earned a bachelor's degree in English and French at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a master's and doctorate in comparative literature at Indiana University and a second master's, in religious studies, at the University of San Francisco.
Her path to an academic career was also unconventional. Schildgen served for eight years as a lecturer at UC Davis before she was hired in 2002 as a full professor of comparative literature — an almost unheard-of jump in academia, where faculty typically climb, rung by rung, from assistant professor to associate professor to professor.
In addition to her research and teaching at UC Davis, Schildgen has been instrumental in building the campus's highly praised University Writing Program and has been a staunch advocate for the development of writing skills not just in English courses but across all disciplines.
Schildgen's prize was announced to the campus during a surprise celebration Tuesday, complete with cupcakes, at the first meeting of her spring quarter undergraduate "Bible as Literature" course. The 2008 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement will be formally presented to her at a May 8 gala dinner in her honor.
Schildgen said she was "completely, completely surprised and very gratified" to learn of the award — and emphasized that good teaching is a team effort.
"It's not one person," she said. "It's a team, all helping students. We can all take some pride if we have done our best to make our students curious and make them want to learn, if we have helped them find the courage to ask really difficult questions, the courage even to fail at a difficult task and the courage to work with other people."
For more information on the prize and Schildgen, visit the Spotlight Web page at www.ucdavis.edu.