Murphy Award winners: Josh Boyd and Keith Dickson

May 4, 2010

Josh Boyd, associate professor of communication, welcomes some of his best and most interested students to his home for dinner and a critique of their class. He finds it a valuable way to get feedback. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

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Five exceptional teachers were honored with 2010 Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Awards in Memory of Charles B. Murphy at the Celebration of Teaching Excellence on April 27 in Purdue Memorial Union. This week, Purdue Today will feature a profile on each of the recipients. Today, we focus on Josh Boyd, associate professor of communication, and Keith Dickson, associate professor of classics.

* Josh Boyd, associate professor of communication

Each semester, at some point in COM 204, Boyd teaches his students how to tie a bowtie.

But, for some reason, his first attempt to tie one himself always ends with the bowtie upside down. Boyd goes on to explain to his students how many of them are like the polka-dot fabric around his neck.

COM 204, a class Boyd created and has taught himself since 2002, is the only large-lecture, writing-intensive class at Purdue, as far as he knows. The course is one of the required courses for prospective communication students, and Boyd wants his students to learn how to express their ideas persuasively in writing.

However, at first, many students' critical writing looks like his bowtie — a bit misguided.

But with some practice and a little molding, Boyd says while adjusting his knot into its correct place, everyone can learn how to write effectively.

"My primary goal is certainly to help students learn," Boyd says. "But in most of my classes I also focus on helping students gain skills that will equip them in life — thinking critically, writing cleanly and clearly, and examining and interpreting messages thoughtfully."

Though he didn't spend much time in large-lecture settings in his own education, Boyd loves the challenge of connecting with students and holding their attention, while delivering a personalized lecture.

"It needs to be interesting," Boyd says, on what makes an effective and engaging lecture. "It needs to have clear learning outcomes. And whatever makes it interesting needs to be connected closely enough to learning outcomes that students don't just remember the visual aid, illustration or example, but the point that tool was used to make."

Boyd even takes time out of his personal life to interact with students and strengthen his courses. Each semester, he invites his top students to dinner at his house, where he adjusts his courses based on the suggestions and critiques of committed and outstanding students.

"My interaction with students is most rewarding when I feel like I am helping to equip them for the next chapter in their lives," he says. "For me, this goes far beyond the lessons and concepts taught in class."

* Keith Dickson, associate professor of classics

Dickson's inspirational and entertaining lectures on everything from comparative and classical mythology to science, medicine, and magic motivate students to attend classes and engage in passionate discussions.

As part of Purdue's faculty since August 1989, Dickson has consistently encouraged students to take a different approach to learning from what instructors usually expect.

"[T]he most valuable kind of learning is often learning to unlearn what you've been taught," Dickson says. "I hope my students will learn from me how to question what I tell them."

Students admire Dickson's use of multimedia and Internet sources to supplement course teachings. He maintains one of the largest online image databases for Greek, Mesopotamian, Mesoamerican, Hindu, Chinese, and Celtic myths as well as the most comprehensive bibliography of texts on comparative mythology available online.

Dickson's classes also provide a stage for him to perform.

"I enjoy playing with ideas in front of audiences," he says. "It entertains me, and I have hope that it's also useful for my students."

Students have said of Dickson: "I left class almost every day inspired." ... "He makes students WANT [sic] to come to class and makes the student as passionate about the subjects as he is." … "He is always prepared, knows the material far beyond what is simply necessary for class, and, most of all, is entertaining."

Students at Beijing Language and Cultural University and Beijing Capital Normal University (CNU) also got the chance to experience his unique teaching style from 1991 to 1992 and 1996 to 1998.

While teaching in Beijing, Dickson implemented the first undergraduate Western Cultural History program in the People's Republic of China. He has a teaching position at Beijing CNU planned for summer 2010.

Along with this year's Murphy Award, Dickson received the foreign languages and literatures outstanding faculty teaching award in 2009, and he constantly receives praise from students for his refreshing lectures.

For Dickson, a "willingness on the part of both teacher and student to take risks" is the most important part of any great lesson or lecture.