An approach to project-based learning that gets undergraduate history majors excited about researching and writing a 20-page essay? That’s a solution worth sharing.

For Mark V. Barrow Jr., professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, sharing such pedagogical innovations led to his being named the winner of the 2023 Teaching Scholar Award for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning by the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. The award is presented every three years to a faculty member who pursues scholarship addressing teaching and learning in higher education.

Over his 30 years at Virginia Tech, Barrow has earned most of the teaching awards the university has to offer, including the William E. Wine Award for Teaching Excellence, the Diggs Teaching Scholars Award, and the Alumni Teaching Award.

But winning the Teaching Scholar Award means something different. “It's not about just accomplishment in the classroom,” Barrow said. “It's about trying to share knowledge that you've learned through conferences and publications — trying to move beyond the immediate context of your department and out into the larger community. Recognition of that is very meaningful.”

'The Book Project'

Barrow’s most widely shared assignment is “The Book Project,” a fresh approach to the capstone senior seminar that turns undergraduate history majors into published authors.

In the class, students research and write essays around a particular theme, like food history or the culture of the nuclear age. Through step-by-step assignments, they learn how to frame a research question, find and cite sources, create an argument, present evidence, and collaborate to produce a cohesive project.

At the end of the semester, students’ essays are gathered into a self-published book that is deposited with University Libraries — a highly motivating end goal. “The usual transaction is the student writes a paper, they turn it in at the end of the semester, and that's the end of it, right?” said Barrow. “This is an actual physical book that has a life outside of the class.”

The Book Project's slightly higher stakes motivate students to work harder than they might otherwise, Barrow said. As a result, many of his students have gone on to win prizes or present at undergraduate research conferences. “It's amazing,” he said. “They go from ‘I'm not sure I can do this’ to figuring out how to complete this really complex project and creating a book, all in 15 weeks. It's a lot of fun and very satisfying.”

The project has been so successful that Barrow has published and presented about the course approach with his Department of History collaborators, Associate Professor Robert P. Stephens and Associate Professor Emerita Kathleen Jones, who helped him create it. Since then, colleagues from Virginia Tech and elsewhere have adopted their own Book Projects.

Continuous improvement

Continually improving his teaching has become a passion for Barrow, though not one he would have predicted at the beginning of his career. “When I was in graduate school, I was terrified at the idea of teaching,” he said. “I thought research was going to be the thing that really excited me.”

Then he got his first taste of the classroom. “I was exhilarated by the experience and decided that this was something that was going to be central to who I was as an academician,” said Barrow, who earned an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Florida and a Ph.D. in the history of science from Harvard.

To spread his passion for pedagogy, for almost two decades Barrow has led a Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning-funded pedagogy support group in his department — a regular meeting for discussing a teaching-related reading, sharing successes, and collectively solving classroom problems. More than 75 graduate teaching assistants, early career faculty, and established colleagues have participated over the years in the meetings, meaning that "thousands and thousands of students have benefited from having engaged teachers who have regularly grappled with the real-world implications of pedagogical literature, received constructive feedback on their classroom efforts, and felt supported in their teaching endeavors,” said Barrow.

Because he happily shared that innovation too, several Virginia Tech departments have modeled their teaching communities of practice after the Department of History’s, making the broader impact hard to overstate — and making Barrow exactly the kind of teaching scholar for whom the Teaching Scholar Award is a fitting honor.

All full- or part-time instructional and research faculty are eligible for the Teaching Scholar Award for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. The next call for nominations will be for the 2026 Teaching Scholar Award for Large Class Teaching. For more information about the award, the nomination process, and past winners, visit the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

Written by Melody Warnick