May 4, 2023

Jennifer L. Nye, a Senior Lecturer II in the Department of History, won the 2023 College Outstanding Teaching Award (COTA), in recognition of her excellence in teaching and many contributions to students in the history department, College of Humanities and Fine Arts and beyond.

Nye is committed to teaching and social justice both in and out of the classroom. She holds a law degree from Boston College Law School and has worked at Southern Arizona Legal Aid and the Arizona Center for Disability Law. “From a young age, I identified as a feminist, and I knew I wanted to use the law to protect people’s rights as the civil rights and women’s movement did,” Nye says in her teaching statement. When she joined the UMass faculty eight years ago, she envisioned using that legal experience to “demystify the law for students, empower them to be engaged citizens and even inspire a few of them to pursue careers in public interest law.”

For Nye, this vision, and the very act of teaching legal and political history, has felt more vital than ever in recent years in the face of significant challenges to the rule of law. Nye has supported students both by teaching them to think critically in the classroom and by arranging opportunities for them to get more involved. In the past three years, she has developed innovative new courses, like History 397RL: Rape Law—Gender, Race, (In)Justice, which responded to the #MeToo movement. In addition, Nye has organized panels of guest speakers – both in her classes and in her capacity as co-chair of the Five College Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice Certificate – on recent Supreme Court decisions and legal career planning, among others. 

A testament to Nye’s teaching, all the students and alumni who nominated her had taken multiple classes with her. Each spoke of how she creates classroom environments that enable students to take on controversial and personal topics and to think more critically about the world around them. Evan Fournier, a senior in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, says that he has taken three of Nye’s courses because of both the important content and because of her “immense compassion and empathy” in teaching such weighty topics. 

By engaging with contemporary issues in her law and history classes, Nye challenges as well as nurtures students. Alumna Nargis Aslami ‘18, who took four classes with Nye during her time at UMass, remembers that Professor Nye encourages students to interrogate their own worldviews, holding them up to the light of historical analysis. “She teaches the history of legal movements by exposing the hard truths and outlining a clear progression in societal thinking.” Many of Nye’s students mention that the direct engagement with challenging issues like campus sexual assault or abortion inspired them to get more involved in social justice issues. 

Not only does Nye support students’ endeavors in the classroom, encouraging them and pushing them to excel, but she opens up other opportunities by sending them to conferences and helping them see a future for themselves in activism and advocacy. Between 2017 and 2020, she helped send 37 students to the Rebellious Lawyering Conference at Yale Law School, which brings together "practitioners, law students, and community activists from around the country to discuss innovative, progressive approaches to law and social change.”

Nye’s mentorship has encouraged students like Fournier and Aslami to pursue law after their time at UMass to continue their advocacy. Aslami praises Nye’s support both at UMass as a first-generation student and in transitioning to her current work at Yale Law School. Nye, Aslami says, is “a true institution and is absolutely a distinguished professor, mentor, and friend.”

The College Outstanding Teacher Award is presented based on nomination and support from colleagues and students. Both students and alumni wrote in support of Nye’s nomination and spoke to the long-term impacts of her work on their lives. As Evan Fournier says, “I can confidently say that Professor Nye has had the largest impact on both my academic and professional career aspirations out of anyone in my life.” 

- Alison Russell