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How Good Teaching Changed My Life

How Good Teaching Changed My Life

Alumni Review Editor Ken Cuthbertson explains how good teaching changed his life.

My professors had awakened in me a latent thirst for knowledge that even I didn’t know was there. They didn’t teach me all the answers, but rather something far more important and lasting. They taught me to ask questions.

When I hear people talking about the importance of teaching at Queen’s—or any university—I can’t agree more. Good teaching changed my life. No, really, it did.

[Old fashiooned teaching] There was a time when a professor could lecture by reading from a course textbook or notes, no more. (Alumni Review file photo).

I graduated from Grade 13 away back in the spring of 1970 (after six undistinguished years in high school), I did so with a less-than-stellar grade average of 68 per cent. Nowadays, when first-class standing is the bare minimum for admission into first-year studies in many programs, I could never get into Queen’s.

I wasn’t a diligent student in high school. I was in the wrong academic program. I was ill-disciplined, and I was bored, and so it was no small miracle that I got admitted to Queen’s. In fact, when the letter offering me admission appeared in my mailbox one day in June, I figured there’d been a mistake. Mind you, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to go to Queen’s.

Having grown up in Kingston, I thought I knew what university was all about. It was football games and those rowdy post-game “snake dances” that blocked traffic on Princess Street. It was the annual Snowball Winter Carnival, the Bitter Grounds coffee house, pretty co-eds, and student hi-jinks. It never occurred to me that there was a whole other side to being a university student -- i.e. academics.

 I mention all this by way of explaining the difference between my marks in high school and my marks in first year at university, which, to the surprise of one and all—no one more than me!—were far better than any that I’d ever earned before. There are at least three possible reasons.

Professors were a varied lot

We can rule out possibilities one and two. One being that the academic standards at Queen’s were lower than those at my secondary school; two being that I suddenly got a whole lot smarter the moment I set foot on campus. Possibility number three makes the most sense, and it’s the one I know to be true: The quality of the teaching at Queen’s was light years ahead of anything I’d ever encountered or benefited from before this.

The professors who taught my first courses were a varied lot, but all were first-rate teachers, and all of them were interesting people who made going to classes fun. Even on Monday morning at 8:30 am. No kidding.

For the first time in my young life I felt challenged, stimulated, and thoroughly engaged intellectually. I’d be wealthy (and probably retired by now) if I had a nickel for every hour that I spent in the stacks of the Douglas Library reading, studying, and soaking up knowledge, more often than not on topics that had nothing at all to do with any of my courses.

I didn’t “live in the library” because I was intent on graduating and getting a job. No, I was there because my head was filled with questions, a million and one questions, to which I needed to find the answers. My professors had awakened in me a latent thirst for knowledge that even I didn’t know was there. They didn’t teach me all the answers, but rather something far more important and lasting. They taught me to ask questions. Three university degrees and a bunch of years later, I’m still asking questions. And I’ve even written a couple of the books that students today may be checking out in the Stauffer Library, and there are couple more in the hopper.

So you see, good teaching made all the difference in the world for me, just as it did for generations of students who came before me and who have followed. And it will continue to do so. Good teaching enhances and is at the core of the student experience. It makes learning challenging and stimulating. And it broadens and changes lives.

For those reasons, I’m delighted that in this issue of the Review we turn the editorial spotlight on the quality of teaching at Queen’s. Principal Daniel Woolf has talked about the need for a “balanced academy”—a healthy balance between teaching and research. Those two essentials are the twin pillars of excellence here at Queen’s. And both are vitally important to the quality of the student learning experience. That I can tell you from first-hand experience.



[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-3 cover]