Kirsten Burke, a PhD candidate in the history of art and architecture, brings a rare combination of energy, knowledge, and warmth to her teaching at Harvard College, along with an enthusiasm and intellectual intensity that draws students into learning.

“While she was keen for everyone to participate, she would never be forceful,” a student of Burke’s says. “Instead, her enthusiasm for the subject would rub off on everyone around her. Her knowledge and passion for this subject in particular, and the discipline of art history more generally, is infectious.”

In the courses she teaches, Burke helps students gain an understanding both of specific readings and of how to discuss art history texts in general. “She always got the balance right between giving her much more informed opinion of the texts, especially the difficult ones, and allowing us to express our views and thus develop an independent art historical voice,” says another student. “She is very knowledgeable on all the material and is able to synthesize the more difficult concepts of the readings with clarity and precision that demonstrates her intelligence.”

During the move to remote teaching necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Burke reached out to the students in her class to keep them connected to the subject matter—and one another. “In addition to providing specific help and advice, she also works tirelessly behind the scenes to build community in HAA and foster a love for art history in creative ways,” one student wrote in a testimonial. “She regularly meets with students to talk about how their classes are going, and generally discuss interesting things going on in the larger world of art history and museum studies.” Outside the classroom, Burke launched a workshop that changed how students approached writing about art and architecture. As a result, several were inspired to form the now-flourishing Art History Society of Harvard College.

In nominating Burke for the Bok Award, Joseph Koerner, Victor S. Thomas Professor of History of Art and Architecture, praised her as “far and away the most engaged, effective, imaginative, and inspiring graduate student teacher I have ever known in over 30 years of teaching.”

“Burke brings to teaching a highly unusual and infectious sense that what one learns in college—what happens in the classroom and in conversations beyond the classroom about one’s learning—is existentially relevant,” Koerner says. “This sense of relevance goes beyond merely affirming the humanities as fostering civic virtues. Through her, students learn, or learn again, that academic study is deeply meaningful for who one is as a person.”

Kirsten Burke, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is pleased to present you with the Derek C. Bok Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Teaching of Undergraduates. Congratulations!

Kirsten Burke: 2021 Derek C. Bok Award Citation

Photo by Tony Rinaldo