College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Meet Murphy Award winner Yvonne Pitts

Yvonne Pitts
Associate Professor of History Yvonne Pitts (Photo by Mark Simons/Purdue University)

Meet Yvonne Pitts, one of two College of Liberal Arts professors who won the 2019 Charles B. Murphy Award, Purdue’s highest undergraduate teaching honor.

Here the associate professor of history shares her thoughts on teaching with THiNK Magazine:

Q: Do you remember when you decided to become a teacher and what motivated that interest?

A: I think it’s been an organic process. I found myself, even at a very young age, wanting to tell people what I knew. But I was also fascinated by the process of how do we learn something new and make choices or decisions based upon that?

I wanted to be able to take that skill and share it with other people in things that I was passionate about, which happened to be things like thinking about democracy, thinking about civics, thinking about the rights and liberties that we as Americans have, and how we engage each other.

So it happened not only through a process of my areas of interest – that I wanted to study them – but I’m also the kind of person that wants to share that information with others in a way that informs them so that they can then go out and do the thinking, or the research, or whatever to make their own choices.

Q: Who do you look up to in the teaching profession?

A: Well, I have so many great colleagues.

Melinda Zook, who’s doing Cornerstone. I’ve watched her build that program from the ground up. I’ve learned something about the inside part of program building for creating this integrated liberal arts program. It’s not the part about sitting in the classroom, but it’s the part about conceptualizing the program itself and how it’s going to fit in within the broader structure of curriculum in education. So, she’s been a huge mentor, and I have so much admiration for what she’s done.

I look at people on the national stage like Michelle Obama, the education that she did with youth and the way that she talks to people about issues. I think that she’s a fantastic kind of public intellectual – and national figure, as well, who herself is not a politician, so she’s not caught in some of the crossfire that elected politicians are.

If you want to get classical, Cicero. Cicero’s ability to explain things to people as an orator, his ability to communicate ideas when I’m thinking about rhetoric. Or when I’m thinking about, for instance, how to persuade someone, I think about the great works of Cicero. So there’s three for you.

Q: What do you find most rewarding about being an educator?

A: Seeing the light bulb go on. Knowing that a person walks away from a classroom, or a course, or even a conversation, thinking in new ways or having a new interest that they themselves are going to pursue.

Q: What is the main rule you try to follow as an educator?

A: Keep an open mind. Let the unexpected happen. That’s when new things happen. That’s when the imaginative, the innovative, the creative happen, and that’s when we put two concepts together that otherwise would never have been put together and create a new way of thinking or a new understanding.

I have to remember to pull back and sometimes let my students lead me in terms of what they do know – because they know a lot, but they don’t realize that they know it. So excavating that and showing them how they can use the tools that they have and the knowledge that they have towards things like an ability to ask a good, focused question that’s going to get a useful response. They have the information, but they don’t know how to ask the question. So, in those terms, it’s a very methodological approach, but that’s why I say to let the unexpected happen.

Q: What does winning the Murphy Award mean to you?

A: Having won some of the other teaching awards, I had recognized it as the highest honor that we offer at Purdue, but I wasn’t convinced that I was at that place yet where I had the achievements to be recognized. This is such an honor, and it’s also humbling because I realize some of the people who I now will be listed alongside, have been these iconic and great teachers and leaders – not just here, but nationally. It was really a very, very satisfying, humbling, inspirational moment because it inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing.