Skip to main content

Transformative Teaching in the College of Arts & Sciences

By Judith Zwolak

We all remember that special class—the one that challenged our fundamental assumptions and exposed us to new information and concepts that created a small shift in the way we understood the world and our place in it. Perhaps it wasn’t the easiest course, but years later, while we may not recall everything about our time in the class, we’ll remember how it inspired and changed us.

The USD College of Arts & Sciences’ mission is to provide outstanding teaching and mentorship that lead to these transformative experiences. One way we honor the many exemplary teachers in the college is through the Monsignor James M. Doyle Humanities Teaching Award, established in 2008 by James Doyle, a prominent theologian who served as director of religious studies and USD Newman Center director from 1967–1979. The award is presented annually to an outstanding teacher in the Humanities Division of the College of Arts & Sciences—which includes history, philosophy, Native American studies, English, communication studies and modern languages and linguistics.

Doyle described his thoughts on higher education’s approach to fostering understanding through teaching when he returned to USD to give the 2004 commencement speech: “Knowledge and understanding are siblings, but they are not twins. Understanding embraces and enriches knowledge. It puts working clothes on knowledge. Understanding helps us to discern between what is credible and what is flawed. Knowledge is like a knife—it can help or hurt you, depending on whether you grasp it by the handle or the blade. Our university has helped you put the handle of understanding in your hand.”

Following are three recent recipients of the Doyle Award and profiles of their approach to teaching one of their classes.

David Burrow, Ph.D.

2015 Doyle Award Winner

David Burrow, Ph.D.

Associate Professor and Chair of History, Philosophy and Native American Studies

Course: The Holocaust

David Burrow teaches the course The Holocaust every other spring semester. “This is not a fun class,” he tells his students on the first day. “This can be an emotionally difficult class. In February and March it is a slog to get out of bed on a gray day and read about millions of people dying.” While April and May bring no lighter course content, longer and warmer days provide some respite from the dark subject matter.

“It’s not a cheery thing to study,” he adds. “But it’s an important thing to study.” Burrow, who specializes in modern European history, says teaching the Holocaust class was one requirement of his hiring in 2006. Attending two of the annual seminars for college faculty at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. provided perspective on the material that combined with his background teaching a similar class as a graduate assistant while earning his doctorate. Burrow also served in a workshop of history professors that advised the museum on the web publication of survivor diaries as research and teaching resources. His experiences inform how he structures the class and the texts he requires students to read.

In his most recent semester teaching the course, Burrow focused on books written by women to show the motivations of the perpetrators and the voices of the victims and survivors of the Nazi effort to annihilate Europe’s Jewish population. Newly published diaries grant his students greater understanding of the causes and impacts of the Holocaust.

“There are a lot of ways to teach this topic successfully,” Burrow says. “There is a school of thought that I don’t agree with, but I empathize with and understand—that the moral imperative of Holocaust studies is to gather as many of the stories of the victims as possible and forget the perpetrators. There is a range of ways to understand the Holocaust, but I don’t think a class like this could ever refrain from acknowledging the existence of the people who carried it out.”

The course covers the period 1933–1945 and explores Jewish life before the Holocaust and the historical context, means and methods by which the Holocaust was brought about. Burrow aims to keep his students current on the latest research on this pivotal and devastating 20th century event by including relatively new information on women as victims and survivors. Students read and discuss first-person accounts of Jews who experienced the Holocaust, often in the form of diaries. Burrow says teaching one of the most horrific events of recent history requires a careful approach, particularly with students of typical college age. Periodically, students will cast what they have learned in the class in a light similar to Anne Frank’s famous quote, “despite everything, I think people are truly good at heart.”

“A lot of 19- and 20-year-olds may want to come out with the idea that this was a terrible thing that happened but it’s past us and basically people are good,” says Burrow, who connects the course content to more recent episodes of genocide to illustrate the naivety of that sentiment. Other students may struggle to understand why German Jews did not flee as soon at the Nazi rise to power started. “Later in the semester we talk about how all of the choices available to people in that situation had outcomes that were bad. Students then have a greater understanding of what it was like to be 18 years old in 1938.”

Paige Wright, ’18 B.S.Ed., was a history education major from Brandon Valley who took Burrow’s course in the spring of 2017. Now a social studies teacher at Harrisburg South Middle School in South Dakota, she says her professor’s approach to the class helped shape how she teaches today.

“I took the class because I wanted to be a teacher—I want to help people,” Wright says. “I think teaching and reteaching such dark and depressing things that have happened in the world and have affected the United States is just one way that I can help people understand that, just because history was so long ago, we don’t have repeat it.”

Wright says Burrow took extra steps to engage his class. “I could tell Dr. Burrow was invested deeply in his students,” she says. When Holocaust survivor Inge Auerbacher came to USD at Burrow’s invitation, Wright was one of a few students that Burrow invited to a small lunch meeting with the visiting guest. “I still remember eating lunch with her, shaking her hand and hearing her story. I can still hear her voice in my head. And that’s all because Dr. Burrow invited her to USD. It really meant a lot to me.”

Wright taught her middle school students about Auerbacher in her own class and shared the story of her meeting with the survivor. “They were blown away,” she says of the reaction of her students, some of whom went to the library and looked for books on the subject. “It’s all about planting a seed and seeing that idea spread.”

Kelly McKay-Semmler, Ph.D.

2017 Doyle Award Winner

Kelly McKay-Semmler, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Communication Studies

Course: Communication and Conflict Resolution 

Although Kelly McKay-Semmler teaches in the Department of Communication Studies and requires participation in her classroom, she empathizes with students who may not feel comfortable speaking up at every class meeting.

“I can identify with those students,” she says. “As a student, I was always very quiet.”

Even so, communication studies students learn best when engaging with each other, so McKay-Semmler spends the first month of class building a climate where everyone feels comfortable. Name tags help her take roll but also ensure students know each other by name. Encouraging a mindful approach to communication helps students stay in the present and remain open minded when they listen and speak in class.

“My favorite style of teaching is very participatory,” McKay-Semmler says. “In the Communication and Conflict Resolution class, it’s almost all activity based.”

Designed to enhance and strengthen students’ skills in managing and resolving interpersonal conflicts, the course addresses the dynamics of everyday conflicts across a variety of settings, from personal relationships to the workplace, she says.

In one classroom activity, two students engage in mock conflict while two other students act as an angel—saying things like “try to see their perspective”—and a devil—who suggests, “they are trying to take advantage of you. They don’t understand you.”

“Through all of this, two participants engage in conflict and hear all those voices that might be involved in understanding why somebody is having a disagreement,” McKay-Semmler says. “It gets kind  of wild.”

Kayla Mitzel, ’19 B.S. biology and communication studies, says that McKay-Semmler seamlessly integrated lectures, discussion and activities while Mitzel was a student in the Communication and Conflict Resolution class a few semesters ago. “It wasn’t her just talking at us, it was her talking with us,” she says.

Many of the activities in the class underscored the importance of listening as well as talking as part of the communication paradigm. In one lesson, students were each given two poker chips and could only contribute to a conversation by surrendering a chip. “The exercise showed that when you aren’t allowed to talk, you may hold on to some valuable information that could have been useful,” says Mitzel, who is originally from Herreid, South Dakota. “It also makes you more aware of how your act of speaking can take away from someone else’s ability to speak. It was revealing.”

The concept of compromise also took on new meaning. “Before this class I thought compromise was such a great thing,” Mitzel says. “But Professor McKay-Semmler talked about how you are giving up half of what you want and the person is giving up half of what they want. It’s better to try for a more integrative solution.”

Mitzel eventually plans to attend medical school and is spending the summer after her undergraduate studies interning at a medical clinic in Patras, Greece. She says the listening and communication skills she gained in her communication studies classes complement her biology coursework and will help when she enters the medical profession. “One thing I’ve learned is to avoid language that can set up a defensive communication climate,” she says. “That includes reiterating what someone has just said to avoid misinterpretation and let them know they were heard.”

Practicing listening and talking through conflicts in the classroom with the guidance of their professor prepares students to deal with conflict in personal and professional settings.

“We learn a few principles and then we try to put those into practice,” McKay-Semmler says of her teaching style. “Then when people find themselves in real conflicts, they will have the skill set that’s needed to be successful in managing that conflict.”

Prentiss Clark

2018 Doyle Award Winner

Prentiss Clark, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of English

Course: Investigating the Ethical Life in Literature

“I don’t know how Dr. Clark does it,” says Chase Stehly, ’19 B.A. sustainability and English, from Mitchell, South Dakota. As a student in Assistant Professor of English Prentiss Clark’s Ethics in Literature: Investigating the Ethical Life in Literature class last year, Stehly says the interactions among the participants in the class were always lively, engaging and respectful.

“She really knows how to generate a conversation and provide ideas and concepts to discuss, but she  kept her own opinions out of it,” he says. “I’ve been in classes where nobody wants to talk, and I’m a pretty introverted person myself, but I always wanted to speak up in that class. I always wanted to hear what my peers had to say.”

Clark joined USD in 2014 and is also the recipient of the 2019 Belbas Larson Award for Excellence in Teaching, the university’s premier teaching award. Investigating the Ethical Life in Literature offers Clark a way to discuss complex themes surrounding ethics and life’s meaning. Although she says she enjoys all of her classes, this one consistently ranks as one of her favorite courses to teach.

“It’s always an exploration with students in this course because we are grappling with these big questions: What makes a human life significant? What makes a human life ethical and according to what criteria?” Clark says.

A specialist in 19th-century American literature, Clark’s texts primarily include writers from that period in areas such as poetry, essays, short fiction, novels, and some formal philosophical works. “We explore how authors in these really different genres raise and respond to similar questions about freedom, about love, about moral obligation,” she says.

With her students, Clark ponders the question of whether reading literature—and writing about it—help us be better people. She cites James Baldwin’s quote, “the artist is someone who gives me back my experience” as a guiding message. “Maybe a book can articulate what you’ve experienced, what has happened to you, what you feel in a way that you might not have words for until you read that book.”

Mutual exploration of themes and concepts through discussion and writing allow students to encounter a range of human experiences that offer insight to their own lives. “It’s a magical thing to read literature and talk about it with students,” Clark says. “What is it about fiction that enables us to explore and express things that other genres can’t?”

When he took Clark’s class, student Chase Stehly says the readings—ranging from Herman Melville’s novel Billy Budd, Sailor to Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals—improved his ability to communicate ideas about morals and ethics. “This class definitely helped me gain the vocabulary to talk about ethics and these abstract theories that these authors have introduced to me.”

Stehly answers in the affirmative to the class’s principal question of whether reading and writing about literature can us better people.

“It definitely can make you a better person,” he says. “This class awakened me to certain ideologies and I feel like I’m a lot more accepting of others’ thoughts. And, if I don’t see eye-to-eye with someone, I don’t get as frustrated. It was a really enlightening class.”