April 20, 2017

Murphy Award: Dorsey Armstrong

Dorsey Armstrong Dorsey Armstrong, professor of English. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood) Download image

Five exceptional teachers have been selected as recipients of the 2017 Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award in Memory of Charles B. Murphy. This Q&A focuses on Dorsey Armstrong, professor of English.

Years at Purdue: 14.

The most important lesson Armstrong wants students to take away: More than anything, how to think critically and express themselves clearly. If they have the tools to analyze/dissect a piece of literature and the ability to craft a persuasive argument concerning a text, or a piece of art, or a film, then they can apply those tools to every area of their lives. Also: to love literature, and understand how it can be both a source of pleasure and a means of education/information. 

What Armstrong has learned through teaching: While your students are there to learn from you, you can also learn from your students. On occasion, they will bring a fresh perspective to a text that has never occurred to me. I love those moments, when suddenly the students' point of view is able to reshape my own understanding of something I've been studying and teaching for years. 

Armstrong's inspiration to go into teaching: All my life, I have loved literature, and I've also been fortunate to have amazing teachers, from first grade through college. When I was a junior in college, sitting in Professor Seth Lerer's class on Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and loving it, I suddenly thought -- wait a minute, you mean someone might pay me to study awesome literature and teach it to other people?  

I'd also like to give a shout-out to Kristine Matiasek, who was my teacher in second and third grade. Every year in her class, we had a book reading contest. The four kids who read the most books by the end of the year got to go to Disneyland with her. Aside from that, she was just a fantastic teacher who loved all the kids in her class and wanted them to succeed. I think elementary and secondary school teachers deserve medals and combat pay. They are the greatest. 

Armstrong's favorite course to teach: Anything to do with the Middle Ages, my area of specialty, but especially anything to do with King Arthur. The Arthurian myth has been incredibly popular for 1,500 years, and every age and culture reinterprets it in new and interesting ways.   

Armstrong's favorite teaching moments: There are so many! In my Medieval World course, instead of a final exam, the students have to have a medieval feast, complete with authentic food, entertainment, and creative projects they share with the class. One year we all ate stewed rabbit while we watched a medieval morality play (complete with sets and costumes; all staging done by the students). Then I got to try on a coat of chain mail that one student had made for her final project. The evening concluded when we all went outside to watch a student demonstrate the trebuchet he had built: He launched wet sponges from Heavilon Hall toward the Union. It totally worked. 

I also took students on a field trip to the Newberry Library in Chicago, where they got to actually handle medieval manuscripts. Afterward, one student said, "Professor Armstrong, I have jumped out of a plane, and touching that 1,000-year-old manuscript was way more exciting." By the way, that student is now finishing her PhD in Old English at IU! 

What her students say: She is by far the most helpful professor I have ever had and I have enjoyed her class immensely. The feedback she provides on papers is invaluable and my writing has improved as a result… She gives feedback that is relevant and concise. This helped me a lot because I understood not only what needed improvement, but also things that I did well. It's important to receive compliments as well as criticism… Professor Armstrong was by far the best professor I have ever had in my five years at Purdue. I have never felt so respected and encouraged to do well in my class work, as I did in her course. I learned so much and because I could tell that she really cared about her students, the opportunity to succeed was fully in my hands. Because she was so dedicated to her students, I naturally felt obligated to do the absolute best work possible that I was capable of. I have never had a professor so dedicated and loyal to the personal benefits of her students. 

Writer: Cat Dillon, 317-869-5566, dillon16@purdue.edu

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