MU theater professor receives top teaching award

Honoree Suzanne Burgoyne has worked at the university
for 14 years.
Tuesday, August 26, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:15 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

Former MU student James Rone recalls an afternoon when his professor, Suzanne Burgoyne, drove to a tiny rehearsal room to watch him direct a scene. It was her day off.

“She wouldn’t accept thanks. She just said, ‘This is what I love to do,’” said Rone, who now works with CLIMB Theatre in Minnesota.

This month, Burgoyne was honored as the Outstanding Teacher of Theatre in Higher Education by the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. She received the award Aug. 2 at the group’s national conference in New York City.

Burgoyne, 57, has taught at MU since 1989. She teaches in both undergraduate and graduate programs and is often a mentor to doctoral students. She has published books and articles, holds leadership roles in national organizations and recently served as a Carnegie Scholar, an interdisciplinary program dedicated to promoting the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Burgoyne grew up in Michigan. Originally an advertising student at Michigan State University before switching to theater, she spent her first year of teaching at the former Northeast Missouri State University, now called Truman State University. She spent her second year at Southern Seminary Junior College in Buena Vista, Va.

“I was having to learn what I was teaching one step ahead of the students,” she said.

One of the reasons Burgoyne won the national award was that as she prepares to start her 29th year of teaching, she remains committed to learning. “She could easily rest on her laurels, but instead, she pushes herself to be better, both for herself and for those around her,” former student Brian Stuhlman of Pechersk School International in Ukraine said.

When she teaches a directing class, Burgoyne does as little lecturing as possible — instead she uses hands-on exercises and encourages her students to give each other advice.

“Teaching isn’t me imparting information — it’s us working together,” she said. “It’s a collaborative thing.”

Her students agree, and they appreciate her honesty and willingness to show them her own work.

“The expectation is not that she tells students what to do and we do it, but that she shares her best with us and we share our best with her,” former student Marisa Kennedy said. “By exposing her own rough drafts and fledgling attempts, she trusts us enough to help us free our fear of failure and really learn something.”

Past students said her classes are tough, but that she works with her students to ensure they reach their potential. “It was not until she signed her name on my dissertation that I knew I deserved my degree,” former student Robin Stone said in a letter supporting Burgoyne’s nomination for the award. Stone’s was one of about 50 such letters; the award requires 20 to 30 letters.

Burgoyne has had an effect not only on individual students, but on the community of theater education. Several of her former students have gone on to become theater professors, taking some of her teaching strengths with them, former student Elisabeth Hostetter said in a letter nominating Burgoyne. Hostetter teaches theater and dance at Rowan University in New Jersey.

“She created a place for learning that was everything I thought a Ph.D. program in theater was supposed to be — a challenging but supportive place, a time for friendly debate and rigorous exploration and a forum for connecting theory, history and practice,” said former student Cynthia Gendrich, who teaches theater at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, in a letter supporting the nomination.

After taking her class in script analysis in his sophomore year, former student Brett Merrill decided to major in theater.

“She had such a positive outlook on teaching and was such a presence during each and every class that I knew the department must be great if she was a part of it,” Merrill said.

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