Peter Stearns, a teacher first and foremost

Peter Stearns (center) with (left to right) Michelle Marks, vice president for academic innovation and new ventures; Mason President Ángel Cabrera; and Kim Eby, associate provost for faculty development at the official opening of the Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning. Photo by Bethany Camp.

At age 81, Peter Stearns shows no sign of slowing down.

The University Professor is teaching three classes in world history and cultural history this semester at George Mason University, and will teach two more in the spring. He has two books forthcoming, having written eight since 2014, when he retired as the university’s provost, a job he held for 14 years.

“A lack of imagination on my part,” Stearns said when asked why he isn’t relaxing somewhere with his feet up. “I can’t think of anything else I really want to do on a full-time basis. I just like it.”

An iconic figure at George Mason, one of his signature achievements was the creation of the university’s first faculty support unit, the Center for Teaching Excellence. So when Mason turned the fourth floor of Innovation Hall on the Fairfax Campus into a faculty support space that consolidated teaching units from several locations around campus, it was an easy decision to call it the Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning.

“It just makes so much sense,” Mason President Ángel Cabrera said. “As provost, Peter always made sure teaching excellence was a top priority for the university, and he led by example with his own teaching. Many people know Peter through his prolific scholarship, which is second to none. What some people outside the university may not know is that he is an equally remarkable teacher, dedicated to his students and always ready to lead the way in applying new techniques. I am delighted our center for teaching and learning will carry his name. It will be a reminder of why we’re here and why we do what we do.”

Teaching always has been a priority for Stearns even as he encouraged the university, as its provost, to build its research portfolio, a commitment that in 2016 resulted in Mason being named a top research university by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Learning.

The Stearns Center embodies a similar commitment to teaching as it brings together the expertise of teams formerly in the Office of Digital Learning and the Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence as a one-stop destination for all Mason faculty and graduate students looking to hone their skills as educators and keep up with the latest discoveries.

“I was really eager that we didn’t lose focus on teaching, and we retained a healthy balance,” said Stearns, who taught at least one class a semester as provost. “The center helps individual faculty carry the torch for teaching more generally, and it acknowledges the place teaching has at Mason. It is absolutely central to our future.”

It will be even more so as student bodies continue to diversify, he said.

“We face a student body that wants to learn but doesn’t come in uniformly acclimated to learning at the college level, and that’s a fair teaching challenge,” Stearns said. “One of the reasons I like teaching freshmen is you’ll see some who come in and are a little lost at sea at first. But by the time they are done with the course, many of them have figured stuff out, and that’s very rewarding.”

The Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning opened its doors in August, but the official dedication on Oct. 4 gave Stearns’ peers a chance to acknowledge his contributions, including his emphasis on global education and the 137 books he has written, edited or revised on history, teaching and university issues.

“He’s always led by example,” said Kim Eby, Mason’s associate provost for faculty affairs and development. “He has never stopped teaching, he’s never stopped writing. He remains the quintessential faculty member. It’s most impressive.”

“The thing he always wanted to talk about was the students and the importance of teaching them well,” said Michelle Marks, vice president for academic innovation and new ventures. “When I would come in for a meeting, he would often be grading essays and commenting on the strength of the students that semester. He always appreciated the level of talent he saw.”

Of the Stearns Center, she said, “This is so fitting. It’s just feels right. It’s perfect, actually, what we’re doing and what we’re calling it.”

“To have my name attached to it is very meaningful,” Stearns said. “I am deeply, deeply honored.”