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The makıng of those memorable professors

The makıng of those memorable professors

Whatever their faculty or school, whatever their year, most alumni recall at least one special professor with a seemingly inborn gift for whetting their curiosity, inspiring academic success, and instilling lasting life lessons. But good teachers can be made as well as born.

When Pamela Murphy took up a faculty position in the School of Business in the fall of 2007 she had some classroom experience, but no formal teacher training.

Murphy, newly graduated with her PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had cut her teeth in her profession working as an instructor at Winona State University, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. “That’s where I really fell in love with teaching as a career,” she recalls.

[Dr. Joy Mighty, Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen's]Dr. Joy Mighty is the director of the Centre for
Teaching and Learning at Queen's University.
(Photo by Greg Black)

However, at the time she had no idea of how to effectively put together a course or how to use her own time and that of her ­students effectively, much less any guiding philosophy of what teaching is all about. That all changed when she got to Queen’s.

Murphy signed up for a couple of instructional programs, one of which was called “Teaching Matters”, a Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) primer on how to design and structure a university course. Think that sounds simple? Well, you have another think coming, just as Murphy did.

“It was a real eye-opener for me,” she says. “The course had a hands-on aspect to it, and there was even a follow-up component in which CTL staff attended my classes to assess my performance and the effectiveness of the course that I’d designed.

“Looking back on the experience, I think the most important thing I learned was how to tie together everything I do in a big-picture kind of way. I’m now much better at setting goals and ­objectives, at communicating with students, and at actually achieving what I set out to do in a course.”

Such words are music to the ears of Dr. Joy Mighty, the director of the CTL, the unit whose job it is to promote faculty development and to enhance the quality of teaching and student learning opportunities at Queen’s. To those ends, the Centre offers a wide range of pedagogical programing – everything from workshops and seminars to development days, diversity awareness training, classroom performance assessments, a grant program in support of innovative teaching initiatives, and even a series of biannual “brown bag” sessions with the Principal.

Courses are offered gratis

The CTL’s varied offerings are available gratis to the University’s more than 2,500 faculty (that number includes full-time faculty, clinical medicine and other teachers and researchers, many of whom are part-time adjuncts) and their grad student teaching assistants. Participation is voluntary; however, Joy Mighty says in recent years she has noticed a heightened level of awareness of and interest in the Centre and its programing. As a past president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, a national association of educators, Mighty says she knows that much the same situation holds true at many other Canadian universities, even though faculty at all schools face ever more demands on their time and energies. “There’s a growing awareness of the importance of teaching,” she says. “A teacher has opportunities to change people’s lives forever, and that’s an awesome responsibility.”

While this has always been the case, the idea of specialized training for those who teach at the post-secondary level is a relatively new development.

[Dr. Christopher Knapper] Dr. Christopher Knapper was the
founding director of the Instructional
Learning Centre, the predecessor of
the Centre for Teaching and Learning.
(Queen's Gazette file photo)

In days of old, when literacy skills were scarce, teaching – like reading and writing – was largely the preserve of priests and holy men. With the emergence of universities in Europe in the 12th century, the development of the printing press three centuries later, and the growing demand for education, teaching began to emerge as a profession.

The first “normal school”, which offered teacher training – the term “normal” being derived from norma, the Latin word for “standard” or “rule”, was established in France in 1685 and the idea spread from there, washing up on North American shores in Massachusetts in 1839. The idea of training teachers eventually spread from there to Canada.

Oddly enough, no similar system of teacher education was ever adopted at the university level, although the old normal school ­system in Ontario disappeared in 1920, when teacher education was centralized in Toronto. Several universities in the province (Queen’s among them, in 1965) eventually opened education ­colleges to train new primary- and secondary-school teachers.

The only preparation to which novice faculty members at the university level had access continued to be on-the-job training. Nowadays, as cash-strapped universities struggle to stretch scarce resources thinner than the threadbare elbows of an impecunious academic’s old cardigan, many schools call upon grad ­students to assume an ever-larger share of the work traditionally (and better) performed by those who have earned a PhD.

Doctoral and Master’s students serve their ersatz apprenticeships working as teaching assistants, for better and for worse. They supervise undergraduate study sessions, help mark essays and exams, run labs, and sometimes stand in for their supervisors.

The irony is that this is a system that has been perpetuated by the generation who came of age in the hippy-dippy idealism of the ’60s, at a time when university students across North America and Europe were marching in the streets to demand more say in how their schools were being run and how courses were being taught. One element of the push for change was the notion that young faculty members should be given better – or in many cases at least some – teacher training.

Queen’s, like many of its peer institutions, signed on. After a fashion.

Emeritus Director Christopher Knapper, who founded the forerunner of the CTL in 1992 and headed it for 11 years, notes that original venture – was inadequately funded and for some now-forgotten reason was run out of the University’s counseling services office. “From a strategic viewpoint, this was far from ideal, and the initiative eventually failed,” says Dr. Knapper, a University of Sheffield graduate and a psychologist by training.

There was a renewed impetus for change in the late 1980s, when a Senate committee headed by Dr. David Turpin (now the president of the University of Victoria) proposed that Queen’s renew its faculty development initiatives. “That committee’s report suggested that Queen’s do something, and it was fairly specific about how the University should go about it,” says Knapper. “The report even suggested how many people were needed and what their qualifications might be.”

Many people on campus at the time agreed that there was a need for more and better faculty development programing. Knapper, who was heading a similar venture at the University of ­Waterloo at the time, originally came here to share his expertise and get the ball rolling. Then in 1992 Queen’s recruited him to head what was then called the Instructional Development Centre (IDC).

AMS support was crucial

“I was very lucky because I was on campus before I actually began to work at Queen’s,” Knapper says. “I got to know people, and I saw that there was grassroots buy-in from many faculty members and the students to the sort of initiatives that were needed.”

The provincial government contributed $452,000 in seed capital to help fund the IDC. However, Knapper notes that without the support of the Alma Mater Society (AMS) student government, the unit would never have opened its doors. “The students agreed to an annual student levy to help fund the unit, and that money – $750,000 in total – made all the difference. At the time, it was the largest gift ever made by students to a program of this sort anywhere in the world. It may still be.”

The IDC was initially a barebones operation nonetheless. The staffing at the start consisted of Knapper, one clerical support person and one part-time faculty associate on course release from the Faculty of Law – Mark Weisberg – with another staff person – Susan Wilcox – joining the unit a year later. “Basically, I had to do everything, and so I relied heavily on the help of volunteers,” says Knapper.

The original terms of reference for the IDC called for a review of the unit’s operations and its track record after its first five years of operations. After visiting campus during the 1998-99 academic year to assess the situation, two external consultants opined that the IDC’s operations should not only be maintained, they should be expanded. 

Knapper passed the torch to Joy Mighty 

The University acted on this recommendation in 2001, when it hired another full-time IDC faculty member, Dr. Denise Stockley from Simon Fraser University, as Adviser on Teaching and Learning. The following year, the IDC moved into new digs, its current home, in Mackintosh-Corry Hall. Knapper retired in 2003 when he passed the torch to Joy Mighty, under whose inspired leadership the IDC has undergone a name change and has continued to evolve and grow. Today, the full- and part-time staff of the CTL numbers 10 people, and the annual budget is about $700,000. This includes the annual income of about $68,000 from the AMS endowment.

The need for faculty development and teaching excellence are pretty much a given nowadays. Understandably so. Today’s students (and their parents) are more demanding, savvy – and, yes, consumer conscious – than ever before. What is more, in an era of tight budgets and scarce resources, it is imperative that teachers work as efficiently and effectively as possible. The days are long gone when a professor could teach by standing at the front of a lecture hall droning on for 50 minutes, rehashing material that students can find in their textbooks or that the professor displays in a Power Point presentation.

[Archival classroom shot]The days when a professor could simply stand
at the front of a classroom and lecture or reading
from the textbook are long gone.
(Alumni Review file photo)

According to Joy Mighty one of the pivotal ways the CTL is now working to improve teaching and learning opportunities at Queen’s is by encouraging professors to move away from a didactic approach to teaching – simple lecturing – to one that places much more emphasis on a multi-dimensional student focus that’s active as well as collaborative. “This involves what we call ‘inquiry-based learning’. We encourage students to ask questions and do research that helps them find answers for themselves,” says Mighty.

The tactic is an integral part of a much broader educational philosophy that aims to teach students to think critically and not just to regurgitate information they learn by rote. “Today’s graduates need to be able to use the knowledge and generic skills they acquire in a variety of ways. That’s critical in a world in which our horizons are now global,” says Mighty.

It is also the reason that the University, like many of its peer institutions in Canada and the U.S., is placing renewed emphasis on faculty development. At Queen’s, it is part-and-parcel with Principal Daniel Woolf’s goal of a “balanced academy” in which undergraduate teaching and research not only co-exist in harmony, but also buttress each other. “Good teaching is at the core of an exceptional student experience,” says Woolf. 

That is a sentiment that many young faculty such as Pamela Murphy would agree with. “There’s no question that if you’re well organized, and have a clearly defined set of objectives and an overall philosophy of what you’re trying to get across to the students, you’re a better teacher.” says Murphy. “That makes the classroom experience much more enjoyable and rewarding for everyone.

The Center for Teaching and Learning
for more information about the centre and its programs, please visit www.queensu.ca/ctl.

Teaching is a passing on, an act of future. The expert may expand the range of what is possible, but the teacher expands the range of who can do the possible.

Ken Dryden, hockey goalkeeper, lawyer, and author-turned politician, as quotes in "verbatim", the Globe and Mail, July 22, 1996.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-3 cover]