VERMILLION, S.D. – Prentiss Clark, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of South Dakota, is the 2018 recipient of the Monsignor James Doyle Humanities Teaching Award, presented by the College of Arts & Sciences at USD.
Clark joined the university in 2014 and has taught courses ranging from general education classes through graduate seminars, including Early American Literature, Introduction to Literature, Introduction to Criticism, and 19th Century American Literature.
One of her favorite courses to teach is Ethics in Literature: Investigating the Ethical Life in Literature. “We compare different genres—poetry, essays, short fiction, novels—and discuss how these different genres are asking similar questions about freedom, about love, about moral obligation,” Clark said. “Although we often take the definitions of these words to be givens, a word like freedom means something very different to someone like Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery, compared to someone like Henry David Thoreau, who went to live at Walden Pond.”
When Clark last taught this course, students began referencing quotations from books they were reading in other classes or items they came across in popular media. These ranged from James Madison’s famous words: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary” to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”
Although not part of her original syllabus, these references became a focal point of discussion and Clark began recording them each week. “I would write down whatever example students had brought from other books and other courses and then made a commonplace book at the end of the course,” she said.
When teaching her literature classes, Clark asks students to engage with the material on a personal level. “I encourage students to have a conversation with the books that they read,” she said. “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.”
Clark said she learns just as much from her students as they do from her. “I’m astounded by how many responsibilities our students have. They’re coming to class and reading texts and taking care of families and working two jobs,” she said. “That is something that is different from my experience in college and I really admire students for their commitment to pursuing their education.”
The Doyle award is made possible thanks to a gift from Monsignor James Michael Doyle, former chair of religious studies at USD and a prominent theologian inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame. The award is presented annually to an outstanding teacher in the Humanities Division of the College of Arts & Sciences.