Dr. David H. Nikkel is UNC Pembroke’s 2012 recipient of the UNC Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence. Dr. Nikkel, who is chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion, is a teacher and scholar of religious studies.
UNC’s Board of Governors established the award in 1994 to highlight the importance of teaching and to reward good teaching across the university system. The coveted award is given annually to a tenured faculty member from each UNC campus.
Dr. Nikkel will be presented his award during the spring graduation ceremony. As part of the recognition, Dr. Nikkel will serve as University Marshall during the 2012-13 academic year.
Dr. Kenneth Kitts, provost and vice chancellor for the Office of Academic Affairs, said Dr. Nikkel is a model scholar and teacher whose love of teaching stems from his passion for the subject of religious philosophy and his desire to ignite that excitement among his students.
“We are delighted that Dr. Nikkel has been selected for this award,” said Dr. Kitts. “He represents the very best that UNCP has to offer. We salute him on this accomplishment and thank him for his many contributions to our students and campus community.”
Dr. Nikkel received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University in mathematics, a Master of Divinity degree from the Methodist Theological School in Ohio and a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University. He went to seminary with the plan to work in the ministry and fell in love with theology. He now practices professionally in both arenas; he currently is pastor of a small church in Fayetteville, N.C.
A 10-year member of UNCP’s faculty, Dr. Nikkel calls himself a generalist. He has developed five new courses and taught 13 different courses from Introduction to Religion to Theories and Methods in Religion. For three semesters, he has co-taught the course Religion and Science with Dr. Bruce Ezell of the Department of Biology.
“The university is fortunate to have a person like David Nikkel,” Dr. Ezell said. “Our Religion and Science class is now taught on a regular basis at the university. Students have responded in a positive fashion.
“I have known David Nikkel for more than 10 years in several capacities, as a professor, mentor to his students and a faithful academic colleague. By any criteria, he is an outstanding individual,” Dr. Ezell said. “He is truly a ‘professor’s professor.’
“Dr. Nikkel is a flexible and innovative academic, who welcomed the opportunity to jointly teach cross-listed courses,” Dr. Ezell continued. “Several years ago, he and I developed a team-taught course in science and religion. It was during the teaching of this course that I came to know and appreciate Professor Nikkel’s commitment to academic excellence. No one is more deserving of this recognition than David Nikkel.”
Students find Dr. Nikkel’s classes engaging and challenging. Sarah Weatherman took one of Dr. Nikkel’s courses. “He is ready to offer each of his students the assistance she or he may need to complete his class successfully,” Weatherman stated in her letter of recommendation. “In advanced classes, he also explained difficult and complex ideas clearly so that we gained greater understanding of them.
“In his class, we didn’t have to abandon our ‘believer’ hats, but we had to be sure to interpret and evaluate the ideas and practices we studied beyond simply comparing them with our personal beliefs,” she continued. “Dr. Nikkel made this essential point clear and memorable.”
In his statement of teaching philosophy to the awards committee, Dr. Nikkel said his “passion for teaching stems from my fascination with the subject of religion and from the satisfaction of kindling interest and learning in my students.
“Enthusiasm about teaching and about the subject sets an atmosphere in my classroom conducive to learning,” his statement continues. “I also attempt to convey a personal sense of caring for my students, which not only directly facilitates the learning process, but can create windows that allow me to help students succeed in other aspects of their lives.”
In an interview, Dr. Nikkel discussed his third book as well as his newest course for upper-level students. “I am giving the students exposure to the most important methods in religious studies as well as classic and contemporary theories about the nature of religion,” he said. “The class has aspects of a seminar, and reading and discussion weigh heavily in the final grade. It’s weighty material.”
Dr. Nikkel is conversant with complex topics. His book, The Varieties of Mystical Experience: William James and Paul Tillich, is awaiting a contract from Mercer University Press.
“The book is about the mystical and religious experiences of these two thinkers, as well as their theorizing about these types of experience,” Dr. Nikkel said.
In the final chapters, Dr. Nikkel compares and contrasts the philosophy of James and Tillich with contemporary scientific thinking and applies Tillich’s style of cultural analysis to modern art.
“A reason to focus on painting is that Paul Tillich had a mystical experience in which he felt the presence of God while viewing the “Madonna and Child with Singing Angels” by Sandro Botticelli,” he said. “This experience provided the inspiration for Tillich to develop the method of analyzing religion and culture for which he is famous.”
Tillich, a German-American theologian and Christian existential philosopher, is the subject of Dr. Nikkel’s graduate research and his first book. Like Tillich, Dr. Nikkel’s scholarship knows few boundaries as he tackles modern issues of science and culture from a theological perspective.
All agree that Dr. Nikkel’s success in the classroom is the result of his comfort with the most complex theological issues and his comfort in the real world, or “close to the ground,” as he says.
“In their own way, ministers also make religion relevant in the modern world,” Dr. Nikkel said. “We all wear believer’s hats—some of us as disbelievers in religion—and scholar’s hats.
“Having experience as a pastor of a church provides examples for many of my students,” he continued. “In my classes, I’ve had students of all religious, non-religious, and anti-religious stripes, and they feel comfortable sharing their personal beliefs. I challenge them to think about religion in new ways.”
A man of faith and a man of science, Dr. Nikkel is also a man of humility. “I really like being here at UNC Pembroke, and I appreciate the opportunity to teach,” he said. “I really love teaching, and I am able to do research too.
“I am pleased and thrilled by this award,” Dr. Nikkel continued. “At the same time I am humbled because we have so many good teachers at this university.”