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English prof Charles Rzepka named Methodist Scholar/Teacher of the Year

CAS English Professor Charles Rzepka (left), and President Robert Brown at the September 15 new faculty reception, where Rzepka received the 2006 United Methodist Church Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Charles Rzepka insists that his approach to teaching is less than extraordinary: he encourages students to share their thoughts, to respond to one another’s ideas, and to appreciate points of view other than their own.

But generations of his students say his dedication to those goals is extraordinary. In letters nominating Rzepka for this year’s United Methodist Church Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award, they consistently praise the expert on Romanticism and detective fiction for availing himself to students long after his office hours have ended, for the humility with which he handles classroom discussions, and for his infectious passion and sense of humor.

For one student, taking a class with Rzepka meant showing up as a boy and leaving as a man. “I never imagined I would take three of his classes after I received my first paper grade,” he wrote in a nomination letter. “We argued for about half an hour in his office.” Rzepka ultimately boosted the paper grade, the student recalls — an act that, in hindsight, seemed “a calculated strategy of encouragement, [despite] my own shortcomings. . . . Rzepka is the professor most responsible for my suffering through graduate school in hopes of becoming a professor in his mold.”

Rzepka, who has taught at BU for the past 26 years, received the 2006 United Methodist Church Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award at the new faculty reception on September 15. Established by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church, the award is conferred at colleges and universities historically affiliated with it. Carrying a $2,000 unrestricted stipend, it recognizes outstanding faculty members for their dedication and contributions to higher education.

Rzepka’s scholarly pursuits are remarkable for their breadth; his current research and teaching interests include detective and crime fiction and history of science, as well as 19th-century British Romanticism. His forthcoming book, Detective Fiction (Polity Press, 2005), follows the history of the genre from its early 18th century beginnings and examines its relationship to urbanization, social reforms, war, class-consciousness and concepts of race and gender. He also is the author of Sacramental Commodities: Gift, Text, and the Sublime in De Quincey (1995) and The Self as Mind: Vision and Identity in Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats (1986).

But perhaps Rzepka’s love for William Wordsworth is what impresses most students. “I usually begin by telling them I used to hate Wordsworth,” Rzepka says, adding that the poet’s introversion repelled him as a young man, as he was uncomfortable with that trait in himself. “He’s just not the kind of guy you’d like to have over for dinner,” he says. Rzepka still regards Wordsworth as “strange and self-righteous,” he says, yet admires his “sophistication and ability to clarify the condition of being human.”

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching, Rzepka says, is bearing witness to students’ transformations. He recalls a student last year approaching him after class to explain how a Wordsworth poem spoke to his life, and specifically to the confusion he was experiencing as a college student. “It’s moments like that when I feel privileged to be in this spot, to be helping bring about those transformations,” Rzepka says. “It’s an amazing thing to see. I always tell my students: I’m not here to change your tastes in literature. But we all get tired of our favorite books, and if you don’t, your mind is not growing.”

Rzepka, a Lexington resident, is married and has two sons. When he’s not teaching or writing, he enjoys playing the trumpet and kayaking.