Honors Faculty of the Year

Joel Walker wins 2018 Honors Excellence in Teaching Award

May 8, 2018

Honors Faculty of the Year

Portrait of Dr. Joel Walker

Dr. Joel Walker, an Associate Professor of History and the inaugural holder of the Lawrence J. Roseman Endowed Professorship at the University of Washington, dazzles students with his demanding, high-charisma, multi-faceted approach to history, earning him this year’s coveted Honors teaching award.

Each year, UW students present the Honors Excellence in Teaching Award (HETA) to publicly recognize the knowledge, enthusiasm, and dedication faculty bring to our classrooms. Below are just a few reasons the Honors community is delighted to be honoring Joel Walker with this year’s award.

Walker invented the “cow course”

Why study cows?  Professor Joel Walker regularly begins his favorite Honors course with this simple question. The query quickly leads into a free-wheeling, high-spirited exploration of human-animal relations in world history, ranging from Paleolithic cave art to pet cemeteries in modern America.

Walker came to his interest in this unusual topic almost by accident. An historian of ancient and early medieval Eurasia, he regularly teaches an introduction to the Ancient World. Inspiration for the “cow course” arose when students pointed out that bulls kept cropping up in nearly every lecture: the bull-headed harps of early Mesopotamia, the sacred bulls of ancient Egypt, the Greco-Roman legend of the Minotaur. As a scholar of early Christianity, Walker was also interested in why people in the Roman Empire eventually stopped worshipping and sacrificing animals.

Similar themes enliven another seminar he teaches for the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, “Jerusalem and the Holy Land: From King David to the Crusades.” This seminar invites students to think carefully about how Jews, Christians, and Muslims — each in their own way, but with myriad variations —deploy narratives, rituals, and architecture to define their sacred spaces. Walker’s other courses: “The World of Late Antiquity,” “The Empires of Ancient Iran,” and “The Mongols: Empire and Resistance in Medieval Eurasia,” address a range of related themes.

For Walker, inspiration goes both ways

Through his courses, Walker has inspired hundreds of UW Honors undergrads to care deeply about history, to communicate effectively and creatively, and to open new horizons for their own reading, travel, and thinking. He also makes time for the less visible work of a favorite professor —counseling students as they navigate tough choices and difficult moments in their lives, prizing their humanity above academic metrics, and always challenging them to do better, and to notice more.

Walker is inspired and challenged by students, too: “Teaching for the Honors Program has pushed me to become both a more ambitious and more careful thinker, as students constantly help me see my texts and topics in new ways.”

Walker’s joy while working with Honors students is infectious, as any student can tell you. Here, let a few of them tell you….

Walker expects greatness — and gets it

Spencer Peters, a computer science and physics double major preparing to graduate with College Honors this spring, writes that “Bull of Heaven and Earth: Animal-Human Relations from Paleolithic Cave Art to the Chicago Stockyards” raised his expectation about the level of discourse possible for undergrads.

“Dr. Walker set the standard for rigorous discussion among all the humanities classes I’ve taken. The material was extremely complex, rich and interconnected, yet Dr. Walker insisted we pin it down in specifics with well-supported arguments, in discussion as well as writing. I believe I improved my writing in Dr. Walker’s course more than in any other class at UW. When I decided to create a video Crash Course summary as my final project, Dr. Walker was very excited about the idea and supported me from beginning to end. In fact, the concept came from one of his comments on my first paper for the course.”

The fun, short video, which encapsulates projects completed by Spencer’s classmates, too, is still publicly available.

Watch Spencer’s “cow course” video

Walker shows that history is very full of life

Calvin Paulson, a second-year student pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in history with Honors, took Walker’s “Ancient World” class early in his freshman year:

“Though I entered somewhat unsure as to what I wanted to major in, by the end of my first quarter I was certain beyond doubt that History was the major for me. This is, in part, due to the enthusiasm and passion with which Dr. Walker presented the material in that class. Though my historical interest remains more modern than the material covered in that class, “The Ancient World” was an opportunity for me to see what someone truly in love with the field looked like, and how contagious such an interest can be.”

Hannah Takemori, a senior history major pursuing Departmental Honors, has taken three Interdisciplinary Honors courses with Dr. Walker:

“While he does not portray himself as an activist, Dr. Walker has a talent for using his expertise in history to challenge the dominant political narrative. The true genius of his teaching style is not only making the past relevant to modern discourses, but valuable as a standalone field. Among many wonderful classroom memories, some that stand out include tracing racial stereotypes in modern cinema to the writings of Herodotus and pouring over cow artifacts at the Burke Museum. On any given day, students expect to be met with a zeal for learning unprecedented by such a distinguished professor.”

Walker is too popular to pick up this award

Hannah, Spencer and Calvin will present the 2018 Honors Excellence in Teaching award at our faculty celebration on May 15. Since Professor Walker has a prior speaking commitment at the University of California, Irvine, on the day of the reception, his wife, Kira Druyan, a corporate attorney, will accept the award on his behalf.

Druyan promises “not to embarrass Joel” with too many stories about late-night lecture preparation.

More on Joel Walker


Honors’ Excellence in Teaching Awardees represent departments across campus, because great teaching at UW is genuinely boundless.

Other recent HETA winners include:
Jon Herron, Biology, 2017 & 2014
Clare Bright: Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, 2016
Theo Myhre, School of Law, 2015
Frances McCue, English, 2013
Andrew Loveless, Mathematics, 2012