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Saint Mary’s College Recognizes Joan Peterson With the Professor of the Year Award

Joan Peterson Standing in front of a window.Joan Peterson studied English at San Francisco State University because she loved literature. Teaching allowed her to keep literature at the core of her daily life.

That was nearly 50 years ago. Peterson has since gone from newly credentialed English teacher at Clayton Valley High School to longtime faculty member at Saint Mary’s College—and recipient of the 2018–19 Professor of the Year Award.

Nominated by current and former faculty peers at the College, Peterson is recognized for her leadership, teaching, and scholarly pursuits. She has contributed to the success of various programs, leading the development of a Kalmanovitz School of Education master’s degree program for students who already hold a teaching credential, and shaping the Collegiate Seminar as a member of its governing board. Described by a colleague as “the heart and soul of the Single Subject program,” Peterson has taught and redesigned its teacher education courses over the years. She has also earned the gratitude and affection of students throughout the College.

“You have to teach with heart and continue to learn,” said Peterson. “The broader you become, the better you become.”

While still teaching high school students, Peterson earned a master’s degree in British and American literature at Mills College. After joining SMC in 1991, she completed a doctorate in curriculum and instruction at the University of San Francisco.

Peterson discovered her passion for studying the Holocaust while attending a meeting of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. She has introduced her students to the book Night, Elie Wiesel’s account of life in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.

“Keeping genocide visible is important. The Holocaust absolutely proves where religious and racial hatred ends,” said Peterson. “My students become angered and fired up by what they learn.”

Peterson incorporates the topic in her Collegiate Seminar teaching and presents educational events on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Each year, her Jan Term course focuses on an aspect of the Holocaust, such as Holocaust remembrance in art, music, literature, and memorials; the Holocaust in France; the aftermath for Nazi war criminals and Jewish survivors; and how theological anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism are linked to the Holocaust.

“Jan Term is compact, so I can’t cover everything at once. Next time, I want to open it up more so students can explore their own interests,” said Peterson, noting that with the College attracting students from more diverse backgrounds, class members now bring personal or familial experiences of genocide to the discussions.

Peterson’s scholarly examination of the Holocaust has been supported by fellowships from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Northwestern University’s Institute on the Holocaust and Jewish Civilization. She has published articles in national journals, such as Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. She also demonstrates what her colleagues term “intellectual rigor and moral passion” by presenting papers at the Annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches.

Since joining the SMC faculty, she has been recognized by the Holocaust Remembrance Committee of Alameda County and received the Bilha Sperling Holocaust Education Award. Fitting for a professor one colleague called “the very epitome of a Lasallian educator,” she also received the Brother O. DeSales Perez Award for Distinguished Faculty in Collegiate Seminar in 2003.

Peterson now focuses on teaching Collegiate Seminar and Jan Term, writing about the Holocaust, and contributing to conferences. She’s preparing her Professor of the Year speech to deliver next spring, “Teaching Brother Agathon and Questions That Haunt.” Peterson is also eager to resume work on a personal narrative about studying the Holocaust.

“I don’t know enough yet, so I have to keep learning,” she said. “I’ll never stop studying and writing, even if I’m retired.”  —Amy DerBedrosian