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The challenges and rewards of teaching

The challenges and rewards of teaching

Making teaching a priority benefits both students and instructor.

In 1984 I returned to Queen’s and took up a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of History, where I taught my very first course, on 16th-century England, to a class of about 25 in the basement of Jeffery Hall. I’ve thought of that class often over the years; I’m still in touch with a few of its members, one of whom is now also a faculty member at Queen’s, and another of whom went on to become a prominent Canadian politician. Watching what one’s former students do with their lives is perhaps the single greatest reward of being an academic.

Having now been on the instructor’s side of the desk for three decades, at Queen’s and four other universities, and having taught dozens of courses, I have noticed huge changes in technology and pedagogical methods – the overhead projectors I used for years are largely a thing of the past in the era of Moodle and YouTube. One thing, however, hasn’t changed. Effective teaching depends less on delivery methods, or technology, or even outright mastery of the material, than it does on a passionate enthusiasm for the subject and ability to arouse something like the same interest in students. Although opportunities to teach in my current role are limited, I have done some undergraduate teaching every year since I have been back at Queen’s as principal, including “guest” appearances in the same first-year course I took as a student nearly 40 years ago.

Doing even this very modest amount of teaching takes time away from my duties as principal, but it has been eminently worth it, and I’m planning to continue the practice in my second term.

There are a number of reasons why I do so. First, academic administrators are academics first and administrators second, even if their duties can take them away from the classroom and their research for extended periods. (My own first year English professor, now retired, reminded me on my appointment that the title of principal meant “principal professor”.) Secondly, it’s a great way to keep up with my fields of interest (early modern British history and the history of historical writing). Thirdly, I get a charge out of sharing my ­enthusiasms for sometimes-recondite topics with our students, who are always very strong. Fourthly, teaching is something of an intellectual workout for me – not always easy and requiring effort. Some people are naturally very strong, ­instinctive teachers. For me, it’s always been something I have had to work at to improve. One experiments with different techniques in the classroom, and sometimes they don’t go the way we hoped; I’ve had my share of flops. But just as we tell our students not to be afraid of failure, we as faculty need to be prepared to try new techniques, add difficult readings or assignments that may not result in successful sessions. One hopes that each ­iteration of a course is an improvement on its predecessor. In short, teaching should be as much a learning experience for the instructor as it is for the student.

That’s true for the university as a whole. Queen’s is committed under our Academic Plan and Strategic Framework to continuing to improve the in-class experience of our students. You’ll hear more about some of these initiatives in the next few years. Personally, I’m really ­excited about these, not least at the prospect of learning some “new tricks”, older dog though I may be. 

[Queen's Alumni Review 2014-3 cover]