Published: March 8, 1998

CU-Boulder anthropology Professor Dennis Van Gerven, who last fall was named the 1998 Colorado Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, will discuss teaching and learning in a talk to state legislators Monday, March 15, at the Colorado History Museum.

The talk will follow consideration of a joint resolution that morning in the Colorado House and Senate honoring Van Gerven's naming as 1998 Professor of the Year. The resolution is being sponsored by Sen. Dorothy Rupert of Boulder and Rep. Ron Tupa of Boulder.

Although Van Gerven is widely known for his research on Nubian mummies, a topic that has captivated college students and audiences throughout Colorado, his legislative luncheon talk will focus on "the mission and purpose of higher education, and how we know when we're successful." He will discuss "Learning in the Total Living Environment," a play on CU President John Buechner's Total Learning Environment initiative.

Drawing on the theories of educational psychologist Claude Steele, Van Gerven will discuss commonly held myths about education and why students fail or drop out of school or college. Steele contends that black students fail because they do not view achievement in school as a source of self-esteem, making academic achievement unimportant.

Van Gerven says that mindset is a problem for all students, no matter what their ethnicity or socio-economic background. "They are unwilling to care about grades, and this lack of caring is their protective shield," he said.

Van Gerven said his own academic career was that of an outsider until an anthropology professor took notice of him at the University of Utah in his sophomore year. That encouragement not only sparked Van Gerven's interest in anthropology but led to his career as a professor of anthropology. It also taught him to focus on students in the same way his mentor at Utah had paid attention to him.

Through that positive experience as an undergraduate, "I had made the transition from being an anthropology major to being an anthropologist. My education had become a reliable source of self-esteem," he said.

Years later as a professor of anthropology at CU-Boulder, Van Gerven describes his excitement over the achievement of a group of students who became highly engaged in a project for his class as a high point in his career. The students not only published their research work in an undergraduate journal, but went on to present their findings at a professional meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

His students had become anthropologists through the course of that project, he said, and their self-esteem had been bolstered by their work as anthropologists.

But achievement in academic circles or the workplace should not be the sole focus of education, Van Gerven contends. "Our graduates will spend only 24 percent of their waking lives and 16 percent of their total post-graduation lives working. The young people who leave the University of Colorado should be prepared for a life 75 percent to 84 percent of which won't involve their work."

Van Gerven will end his talk with the story of one of his best Honors students who excelled in several jobs as a legislative assistant, campaign manager and later in law school. She is now applying the same zest for learning she had as a student and a professional to the job of raising her young son.

"For Lisa, her education was not a stage in her life; her education has become a never-ending part of her life," Van Gerven said. "Her education has done more than help define what she did, it has become a part of who she is."

Lisa's story illustrates the purpose of higher education, according to Van Gerven, which is to prepare students not only for careers but for every significant thing they do, so they can draw on their educations to make those experiences more meaningful.

Van Gerven teaches two to three courses per semester, including Introduction to Physical Anthropology, and directs CU-Boulder's Honors program, which enrolls more than 800 students annually in 80 seminar-style classes.

An acclaimed skeletal biologist, Van Gerven's collection of Nubian mummy skeletons is widely known and used frequently in his lectures to demonstrate that clues to the lives of the ancient Nubians are locked in their well-preserved bones. His study and publication of findings about the remains of the ancient Nubians established Van Gerven's pre-eminence in his field.

One of his first discoveries was to identify the modern antibiotic tetracycline in the bodies of Nubian peasants, which was later traced to bacteria in the soil that was transferred to grain and consumed by the inhabitants.

Professor Dennis Van Gerven

Colorado Professor of the Year 1998


"The mission of this institution is to tap into the richness of these young people who come to us every year. In a world that is changing as fast as ours, we can't fill students' heads with facts and assure them that those facts will get them through the next 20 or 30 years of their lives. The facts will change too fast. Stuffing their heads won't do anymore. We have to teach them to learn more actively than we have done in the past. It's the never-ending process for learning that we have to prepare them for."

Teaching Awards

1996 President's Teaching Scholar Award

1995 SOAR Award, Student Organization for Alumni Relations

1992 Boulder Faculty Assembly Teaching Award

1991 Gender Free Language Award for Teaching

1984 Honors Program Teaching Award

1982 Dean's Superior Merit Award

1982 Boulder Faculty Assembly Teaching Excellence Award

1981 Departmental Merit Award

Teaching and Advising

Professor Van Gerven annually teaches one class of 500 students, two honors classes of about 15 students each and an anthropology honors seminar, in addition to serving as director of the Honors Program. The Honors Program enrolls more than 800 undergraduate students annually. He also directs several students per semester on their Honors theses assignments and has been a graduate adviser for master's and Ph.D. students for the past 20 years.