Transformative Potentials in a Class on Death and Dying

Dr. Gary Steward, UCO Associate Vice Provost for Institutional Effectiveness

UCO’s Associate Vice-Provost for Institutional Effectiveness, Gary Steward, has taught a class on death and dying for several years, typically during the spring intersession. It’s been a popular class, with students of all majors enrolling in the course.

By its very nature, such a class holds the potential for personal transformation among students — few topics hold such inherent prompts to self-reflect on one of the most important considerations in which humans engage: what is the meaning of my own life, and how do I want it communicated during my own memorial?

Moon (2008), in discussing how physicians should prepare themselves to best assist end-of-life discussions with terminal patients, says that success in doing so requires doctors to move away from conveying “sterile medical information to patients and their relations” in favor of momentarily living “alongside human beings facing immediate mortal matters. Such circumstances are potentially transformative for all parties involved” (p. 276).

Moon’s article, “Death-talks: Transformative Learning for Physicians,” points out that such death-talks — those conversations physicians must have with terminally ill patients — are “social engagements among meaning-making human beings” (p. 271), which is exactly what occurs in Gary’s class as students actively work together around this topic. (See below for Gary’s comments about the challenges in teaching 4.5-hour class sessions.)

His approach for leading students toward making meaning of death and dying routes them through ritualized eulogies and de-ritualized eulogies. Reading and writing eulogies, which Davis, Quinlan, and Baker (2016) say “serve a sense-making function of identity construction” (p. 316), can be transformative because doing so forces both introspection about one’s own life and consideration about the rituals around our society’s interpretation of transition.

Making sense of one’s own life can lead to one aspect of UCO’s definition of transformative learning: expanding one’s perspective of relationship with self.

“I utilize many strategies to engage students in both cultural and personal reflections. Often, the selection of the level of activity is predicated upon the chemistry and disposition of the class. Over the past 15 years, there have been classes that are remarkably eager to engage in deep reflection. Similarly, I have experienced, especially on this topic, classes more reserved and less apt to engage in such reflection. I have learned to be sensitive to indicators that inform my assessment of the class.

“One example that highlights this approach is a section in the course that I address the social forces of ritualization and de-ritualization related to the funerary. All cultures are subjected to forces of de-ritualization and ritualization simultaneously. This overlaps a central question in sociology; what keeps cultures static and perpetual? The obverse, what causes social change? It is this interplay between the static nature of society and its dynamism that has rendered a great deal of theory.

“After discussing these central ideas, the class is divided into small groups. They are asked to create a fictional memorial service that embeds ritualized forms of the funerary. They must identify such elements in their discussion and explanation to the class. They are required to detail the nuanced artifacts of ritualization. Similarly, they are required to include elements that would be considered de-ritualized elements. Many of these pertain to tailoring the service to the idiosyncratic elements of the person’s life.

“If the class shows signs of deeper personal reflection, I alter the assignment and ask them to include themselves as the object of the memorialization. We simply move from a fictional character to personal preferences. In this manner, they are able to identify elements of ritualization and de-ritualization in their own preferences.

“Of course, there are a myriad of alternatives to this basic assignment. I have tasked some groups to analyze a funeral or memorial service of a celebrity, local personality, and a friend or relative. Every year, without exception, I receive an email or phone call from former students. They share with me a recent loss and how this course helped them contextual their perspective of the social functions related to this life experience.”

Apart from the content in the class being a natural prompt for transformative learning, the structure of the class is one that Gary has found absolutely requires the use of high-impact teaching practice, another of the hallmarks of UCO’s process for transforming students’ lives. The class occurs across intersessions during a 2-week stretch of 4.5-hour-long night classes.

Lecture just isn’t going to work in that environment, and Gary says that teaching in such a structure “has chiseled my pedagogy to include heavy doses of spaces where students can actively engage” with the material.

“One of the immediate challenges of this course was the first class period 15 years ago. Since the class is offered during the spring intersession, the course only spans 10 days. The required seat time, including breaks, is a minimum of four and a half hours. I will never forget the first class period. Class began at 5:30p. I planned to lecture until 10:00p. I was excited about the content of the course, but specifically remember looking at my watch and noting that it was only 8:15p. I had two more hours and if I continued along this trajectory I would be in danger of putting myself to sleep. It was at that point that I was convinced that each student had to have a stake in the learning process and it was incumbent on me to find ways to actively engage them in the process. Since the early 2000s, my classroom approach has been informed and chiseled by these experiences.”

To read more about the class, including some transformations experienced by students, please click here to go to the article about the class in the Spring 2016 issue of Old North.



Davis, C. S., Quinlan, M. M., & Baker, D. K. (2016). Constructing the dead: Retrospective sensemaking in eulogies. Death Studies, 40(5), 316-328.

Moon, P. J. (2008). Death-talks: Transformative learning for physicians. American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Medicine, 25(4), 271-277.

Steward, G. (2016, Spring). Death, dying class reveals changes. Old North, 26-27. Edmond, OK: University of Central Oklahoma. Available:

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