English department's Janet Peery wins SCHEV Award

It's Friday night and about two dozen MFA in creative writing students are crammed into the coffee shop portion of Prince Books in downtown Norfolk to hear the latest work by some of their classmates. Among them sits Janet Peery, clad in a black leather jacket, blue jeans and black boots, looking very much like she could be one of the students.

Perhaps that's her secret. Janet Peery, associate professor of English, is actually one of the group - a student just like the others. However, this student of life and words has a new credential for her resume - recipient of a 2002 Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. In fact, she is one of only 11 faculty members statewide selected for the prestigious awards, the commonwealth's highest honor for faculty at Virginia's public and private colleges and universities.

The SCHEV awards recognize demonstrated excellence in teaching, research and public service. Since the program's inception in 1987, 13 Old Dominion faculty have been so honored, including Dwight W. Allen, eminent professor of urban education, and Sushil K. Chaturvedi, professor and chair of mechanical engineering, last year's recipients and the second "double winners" at Old Dominion. Karen Polonko, professor of sociology, was the university's first winner in 1991.

Peery was honored March 1 at a ceremony at the State Capitol. She received a check for $5,000 and a plaque from SCHEV. Seventy-five faculty members from 32 colleges and universities statewide were nominated for the 2002 awards.

Peery knows the honor is a special one, but at the moment what is more special is watching one of her students share his fiction with his classmates. She's seen this particular piece grow through four rewrites, each time revealing more of the writer's voice. She knows that voice because she knows the writer. That's one of the keys to her success - Janet Peery cares about her students.

"I may not know the details of students' biographies, but I feel as though I begin to know their character," she explained. "I love being in the classroom, especially because I come to know the students."

If you had asked Peery, a Kansas native, if she'd find her calling in front of a class of students, no doubt she would have scoffed at the idea. She had a full life as a speech pathologist and mother before ever deciding to go back to school to learn the craft of writing. Peery, 53, came to teaching in 1993, only one year after receiving her master of fine arts degree from Wichita State University, and the school that hired her was Old Dominion.

"I needed a job desperately," she said. "I had no money, three children and no way to support them."

What she also had, however, was an amazing talent and a book about to be published - the latter extremely rare for a new graduate. (The average time it takes an MFA graduate to get published is nine years.)

That first book, a compilation of short stories titled "Alligator Dance," won the Whiting Foundation Writers Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Foundation Award. Her first novel, "The River Beyond the World," was one of five finalists for the 1996 National Book Award. She later received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1998.

With hundreds of textbooks available to teach the mechanics of writing, Peery sees her job almost as that of a sculptor, helping shape the vision of her protégés and guiding them on a path that leads them to creating their own works of art.

"It's the ineffable that's difficult to teach in fiction and creative writing - that mysterious quality of good art," she said.

And sharing her art with her students is part of what makes her job so special. She enjoys the give-and-take of the classroom and the opportunity to create something, share it, critique it and continue to make it grow, all in an environment that both encourages and challenges.

"That's when I think the real learning can take place, and the real teaching, too."