College Announces 2024 Trilling Book Award and Van Doren Teaching Award

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Academic Awards Committee of the Columbia College Student Council awarded Eleanor Johnson, associate professor of English and comparative literature and director of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, and Sharon Marcus, the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature, the 49th annual Lionel Trilling Book Award and the 63rd annual Mark Van Doren Award for Teaching, respectively.

Johnson was honored for her book Waste and the Wasters: Poetry and Ecosystemic Thought in Medieval England (2023), which, according to the committee, “subverts common notions of the medieval era to make a gripping statement on climate change with clear and profound implications for the present day. The committee awarded Marcus for her engaging and accessible teaching, concluding that she is “an outstanding and passionate professor with a fierce dedication to her students’ undergraduate education.”

Eleanor Johnson, 2024 Lionel Trilling Book Award Winner

Professor Eleanor Johnson

Jill Shomer

The Lionel Trilling Book Award, established in 1976 in honor of Lionel Trilling CC 1925, GSAS’38, is awarded annually to a member of the faculty whose book was published in the previous year and upholds a level of excellence commensurate with Trilling’s legacy. Trilling, a gifted and dedicated Columbia professor committed to undergraduate education, was also a public intellectual known for his scholarship and literary criticism.

Throughout her career, Johnson has focused on how the concrete, poetic materials of literary language can do complex philosophical, theological and social work. In writing Waste and the Wasters, she hopes to show a wide audience why considering pre-modern ideas of ecosystemic peril is valuable to contemporary discourse on climate change and ecosystemic collapse. Her earlier books are Practicing Literary Theory: Ethics and the Mixed Form in Chaucer, Gower, Usk, and Hoccleve (2013) and Staging Contemplation: Participatory Theology in Medieval English Prose, Verse, and Drama (2018).

The committee lauded Johnson’s ability to “challenge the way we understand not only medieval England’s relationship with climate, but [also] our relationship with nature today” in a way that appeals to a broad audience and posits “profound implications for the present day.” Her capacity for speaking to both the past and the present, and to literary and social analysis, fortified the committee’s verdict: “Professor Johnson’s scholarship speaks to the world.”

During her 15 years at Columbia, Johnson has taken joy in teaching a variety of classes ranging from “The Canterbury Tales” to “Vernacular Theology,” from “Avant-Garde Feminist Poetry” to “History of Horror.” Her pedagogical life at Columbia and engagement with students has shaped and spurred her scholarship.

Sharon Marcus, 2024 Mark Van Doren Award for Teaching Winner

Professor Sharon Marcus

The Mark Van Doren Award for Teaching was established in honor of Mark Van Doren GSAS 1920, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, novelist, playwright, critic, editor and biographer, as well as a renowned scholar and legendary Columbia faculty member. It has been awarded annually since 1962 in recognition of a faculty member’s “humanity, devotion to truth and inspiring leadership.”

Marcus earned a B.A. from Brown University and a Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University, both in comparative literature, and has taught at Columbia since 2003. Her recent undergraduate courses include Contemporary Civilization; a lecture class on the Bildungsroman; and a research seminar on odd women in Victorian England.

The committee praised Marcus’ engaging classes and her talent for simplifying complex texts and ideas, noting that “every student leaves her class with a heightened and enriched understanding of the course material.” Marcus cultivates student-led discussions that she contextualizes with other readings and concepts that tie in. This high participation rate and inclusiveness made it evident to the committee that all of her students have a “strong grasp of the text and its key themes.”

Marcus has published three books: Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London (1999); Between Women: Marriage, Desire, and Friendship in Victorian England (2007); and The Drama of Celebrity (2019). She has edited Jane Eyre for the Norton Library (2022). She was co–editor-in-chief of Public Books, an online magazine dedicated to bringing scholarly ideas to a curious public. Her writing has appeared in the London Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, Vox, the Chronicle Review and The Guardian.

About the Academic Awards Committee

The Academic Awards Committee of Columbia College is composed of 10 students who represent a cross section of classes and majors. The group meets throughout the academic year to determine the book and professor most fitting for awards, reading the books of Trilling Award nominees and auditing the courses of Van Doren Award nominees.

Trilling Award nominations are considered for style, accessibility, scholarship, relevance and whether the committee would recommend the book to their peers. Van Doren Award criteria includes class presentation of material, undergraduate community involvement and mentorship of students.

Johnson and Marcus were recognized at a ceremony on Wednesday, May 8.

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