September 5, 2018

Abigail Heuss Honored with Presidential Excellence Award for Teaching

VALDOSTA — Abigail Heuss is the recipient of Valdosta State University’s 2018 Presidential Excellence Award for Teaching. 

The Presidential Excellence Award for Teaching recognizes a faculty member who employs innovative teaching strategies and demonstrates a strong commitment to student success. Heuss, an associate professor of art, was chosen for consistently creating an active learning environment that encourages collaboration, inquiry, and self-discovery.

“[Abigail] is the most selfless and generous teacher with which I have had the pleasure to work,” said Hollis Barnett, interim head of the Department of Art and Design. “Her Student Opinion of Instruction (SOI) scores are always among the highest within the department and the university. It is not uncommon for the students to rank her teaching a perfect five on a five-point scale.

“[She] is an organized thinker and focused instructor. She is a natural teacher. Her personality and enthusiasm is infectious for her students and her colleagues.” 

Heuss, who specializes in jewelry, metalsmithing, and three-dimensional art, has taught at VSU since 2013.

“This award is such an honor,” she said. “I love my job. I wake up excited to come to work every day, and so it’s really nice to hear that I’ve had an impact on other people’s experiences at VSU as well.

“My goal as a teacher is to inspire and encourage students of all levels to work hard, to take chances by investing something of themselves into the work, and ultimately to become empowered by making art. I work to build an environment where students feel safe to ask questions, take risks, and occasionally fail at things in the short term in order to learn how to research and be active learners.”

Heuss said she makes collaboration a priority both inside and outside the classroom. She brings in guest speakers and fellow colleagues to allow students to gain new perspectives and learn from artists who have built successful careers using their art. These visitors included Atlanta artist Jeff Mather, who collaborated with three-dimensional design students to brainstorm designs for a public sculpture that is now installed in Smith Park in Valdosta.

Heuss regularly asks for student assistance during demonstrations and seeks student input on assignments and scheduling as a way to keep students engaged. In her advanced courses, she incorporates student involvement into the course design itself by requiring students to write and present a research proposal at the start of the semester. The students then spend the semester making assigned work through the lens of that research topic.

“I have noticed that when my students are given more responsibility for the direction of the class, they stay more excited, come to class better prepared, work outside of class more, and become more involved and invested in the other students’ work,” she said. “In order to encourage a sense of personal empowerment, I also work to find and emphasize students’ strengths and encourage individuals to take leadership roles within the classroom, asking more experienced students to help students who are struggling.”

Heuss has coordinated several exhibits to allow students to showcase their work and build their resume. She also maintains a website that features student work from VSU’s jewelry and metalsmithing courses. 

Heuss redesigned the Department of Art and Design’s small metals lab to make it more efficient for her students and purchased updated metalsmithing tools and equipment. She also secured a grant from The Enamelist Society to purchase the necessary materials and equipment to teach enameling in one of her courses.

Her motivation to see students succeed comes from her passion for the art she creates with her students, Heuss said.

“There’s something really empowering about learning how to make things,” she said. “I think about the change in my own life that came about when I figured out that I had that power to take a material, take tools, and turn that material into something that was meaningful to me and to other people. Being able to help somebody else have that same experience is really beautiful to me.”

Heuss advances her own learning and teaching skills by participating in a teaching roundtable with fellow colleagues. The members share lesson and project ideas, brainstorm about teaching and critique strategies, and provide peer review for each other.

She spent a semester practicing and learning casting techniques in order to teach the medium in one of her courses. She also spent several months researching and practicing a metal inlay technique, which she demonstrated at a national metalsmithing conference and now teaches to students.

“I consider myself incredibly lucky to be in a position where I can learn and grow alongside my students every day,” she said. “Their enthusiasm and excitement feeds me, and hopefully it is returned in kind.”

Heuss’s work has been featured in numerous local, regional, national, and international exhibitions and publications. Many of her pieces have won awards, and she has presented on her craft at multiple conferences. 

Within the Department of Art and Design, Heuss is a member of the Curriculum Committee, Personnel Committee, Senior Capstone Committee, and Safety Committee, as well as co-chairwoman of the Recruitment, Retention, and Scholarship Committee and the Recruitment Materials Committee.

Heuss holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in jewelry and metals from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and a Master of Fine Arts in metal design from East Carolina University.

Each year, VSU continues its tradition of honoring faculty excellence with five awards recognizing the diverse talents and contributions of its innovative and active faculty. Awards are given for excellence in teaching, research, service, online teaching, and scholarship of teaching and learning. The 2018-2019 recipients were publicly recognized at the fall convocation and received a monetary prize of $1,000. 

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