Inside USD

Professor Keith Receives Davies Award for Teaching Excellence

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The plaques are there. They are neatly arranged on Ken Keith’s office walls.

There’s the one for University Professorship. Another for the Outstanding Preceptor Award. And others, including being named a Fellow in the American Psychological Association. The psychology professor will add one more acknowledgment Oct. 23 after being named the 25th recipient of the annual Davies Award for teaching excellence at a ceremony at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice.

But, it isn’t the awards and accolades that keep Keith ticking. While he appreciates receiving them, he said that’s not what he strives for when teaching. He said awards come as incidental by-products of doing a good job.

“One of the things in my experience as a student and as an observer of great teachers over the years is that great teachers always have a passion for what they do,” he said. “That’s one of the things that I want to try to do, is to show students that I care about this, and that there are reasons why they should care about this too. I think if you do that and you do it reasonably well, things like awards are just sort of a by-product. I don’t think you can set out to win awards without taking teaching seriously at its base.”

The Davies Award was established in 1984 by Darlene Davies in memory of her husband, Lowell Davies. Mr. Davies is most remembered for his service and philanthropy to The Old Globe Theater, where his service extended more than 43 years. The focus of the award is teaching excellence, and is awarded within the College of Arts and Sciences. Mrs. Davies thought that her husband’s memory could be best served by emphasizing what is stipulated in the USD’s rank and tenure policy – “a superior attainment, as evidenced primarily in teaching, but not excluding research or other creative achievements, is an indispensable qualification for reappointment, promotion and the granting of tenure.”

Jennifer Zwolinski, assistant professor in psychology, nominated Keith for the award. When reviewing the award criteria for teaching excellence, including commitment to values of a liberal arts education, demanding intellectual presence in the classroom, and accessibility to students, among others, Keith was a clear candidate, she said. While being demanding in the classroom, she said his impact on students goes beyond their time in his class; even beyond their years at USD.

“I used to wonder how he is able to be rigorous in the classroom and yet not have students chronically complain about the expectations in the course,” Zwolinski wrote in her recommendation letter. “I believe it is because he has this ability to encourage his students (to) want to meet his expectations. He truly believes in a rigorous educational experience, and yet he is always available as a source of support and guidance. Because of this, students find comfort in the fact that they know that although they are expected to perform their best, they will be generously supported in their efforts to do so.”

Professor Keith has been at USD for 10 years. He currently teaches research methods and the history and systems of psychology. He learned of his award selection during the faculty Honors Convocation in May.

“I was both flattered and embarrassed,” he said. “I don’t know that I’m a better teacher than a lot of other people around here, but it’s very pleasing when people recognize what you’re trying to do. The most important thing about it is that it says something about being respected by your colleagues, and that’s a nice thing.”

Keith’s approach in the classroom is to do his best to engage students and help them relate to the coursework. Although the workload may be demanding, he tries to be enthusiastic and bring the work to life for the students.

“I try to have some sort of give and take, or in cases where that doesn’t seem to be the right strategy, I try to give what I’m talking about some kind of narrative or story that makes sense to the students,” he said. “For example, in teaching the history of psychology, a lot of people would see that as a pretty dry subject, but I try to tell stories about the important people in history and do my best to bring it to life in a way that students can feel like they’re involved in the process.”

Professor Keith earned his bachelor’s degree at Northwest Missouri State College, a master’s degree at Kansas State College of Pittsburg, and doctorate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. At USD, he teaches Introductory Psychology, Cross-Cultural Psychology, Human Behavior Analysis, and upper-division research methods. His research interests include cross-cultural psychology, quality of life, and the teaching of psychology. He will head to Japan for two to three weeks in January to study quality of life differences in American and Japanese college students by doing research at Kwansei Gakuin University and Seirei Christopher University.

Professor Keith has also studied quality of life of older people, people with intellectual disabilities, and people with Type A behavior, among others. His written work on these topics includes numerous professional and scientific articles, book chapters, and books, including “Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Quality of Life.”

Past recipients of the Davies Award include:

  • James Bolender, Chemistry/Bio-Chemistry
  • Mary Sue Lowery, Biology
  • Molly McClain, History
  • Mary Quinn, English
  • Noelle Norton, Political Science
  • Fred Robinson, English
  • Luby Liao, Mathematics and Computer Science
  • Tammy Dwyer, Chemistry/Bio-Chemistry
  • Mitchell Malachowski, Chemistry/Bio-Chemistry
  • Cynthia Caywood, English
  • Lisa Baird, Biology
  • Thomas Herrinton, Chemistry/Bio-Chemistry
  • Delevan Dickson, Political Science
  • Lukasz Pruski, Mathematics and Computer Science
  • Judith Liu, Sociology
  • James Gump, History
  • Virginia Lewis, Political Science
  • Donald Peterson, Chemistry/Bio-Chemistry
  • Gilbert Oddo, Political Science
  • Lawrence Hinman, Philosophy
  • Dennis Rohatyn, Philosophy
  • Irving Parker, English
  • Therese Truitt Whitcomb, Art
  • Iris Engstrand, History
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