When Karen Moore, the office manager for the Department of Religion and Culture, heard a strange sound emanating from Matthew Gabriele’s office, she went to investigate. Until that moment, he had been having a normal day and was settling into the lunch hour. Then he received an email.

The sound Moore heard was one of pure joy. The Virginia Tech Department of Religion and Culture had received the 2019 University Exemplary Department Award from the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

“It’s great ­­to see the university recognizing even a small department like ours,” said Gabriele, who is a professor and chair of the department. “We’ve done a lot of under-the-radar research here along with really interesting teaching.”

The department, founded in 2012, includes 14 tenure-track faculty. It hosts two majors, eight minors, two masters-level certificate programs, and two graduate degrees, one of which is in collaboration with the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. In addition, several faculty members are part of the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought graduate program better known as ASPECT. They often work with units beyond the academic, such as with the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, the Black Cultural Center, the Women’s Center, and community organizations through Appalachian Studies.

“We are happy that this award recognizes the department’s highly valued collaboration, as we work with units across the university, and not just academic ones, but student service ones as well, for the betterment of the student experience at Virginia Tech,” Gabriele said.

Aaron Ansell, an associate professor who worked on the application for the award, said the department is at the forefront of the university’s efforts to engage undergraduates in the investigation of biotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics, and anthropogenic climate change — topics that demand expertise in ethics, social change, the adaptive powers of traditions, and human nature.

The university gives the Exemplary Award to departments or programs who have earned distinction for their efforts and achievements in maintaining a high-standard of teaching and learning environments for students and faculty. It recognizes the effectiveness in engaging students in collaborative instructional environments that work beyond boundaries to offer exceptional student learning opportunities.

The Department of Religion and Culture has met these requirements through several grants and awards, and faculty members have used the funding to keep classes relevant to both contemporary and future topics. In 2014, for example, Ansell won a 4-VA Grant to redesign the Introduction to Religion and Culture course to meet the university’s First-Year Experience requirement. Through this, his adaptation covered how human intimacy transformed through long-distance communication, internet dating, and social networking.

From there, the course’s evolution continued with internal funding from the Office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs and a First Year Experience Grant. Ansell and Sylvester Johnson, a professor and director of the Center for Humanities, won the latter, to cover human-artificial intelligence relations and the application of virtual and augmented reality use through human interaction. Instead of relying on lecture and discussion-based learning, students use virtual-reality headsets to study the new technology-mediated world they will inhabit as professionals and citizens.

Other department accomplishments include several Diggs Teaching Awards. Zhange Ni, an associate professor, received hers for a 2017 student conference related to “Posthuman Bodies,” which explored the fiction and reality of monsters in relation to the cultural divide between the humanities and social sciences on one side and science and engineering on the other.

Emily Satterwhite, an associate professor and director of Appalachian Studies, with Rebecca Hester from the Department of Science, Technology, and Society, received the Diggs Teaching Award for “Thinking with a Drone: Exploring What’s at Stake in our Techno-imaginary.” They used funding to buy a drone to help undergraduates understand that technology for problem-solving can be a political decision with social and political consequences.

These are just a few of the ways the department reflects its dedication to merging ideas of technological innovation with the conceptual and ethical insights of the humanities, providing multifaceted engagement with Virginia Tech’s founding land-grant mission, and upholding the commitment to the rigorous study of cultural and religious diversity on both a local and global level.

“Faculty and staff in the Department of Religion and Culture collaborate beyond department and program boundaries for exceptional student learning through collegiality, interdisciplinarity, and creativity,” said Rosemary Blieszner, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, “The University Exemplary Department Award is an acknowledgement to their dedication to enhance the Virginia Tech community.”

Written by Leslie King