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New lessons in old things

New lessons in old things

There are those who say Classical studies are passé and are of little relevance in today’s world. But 2011 Alumni Teaching Award winner George Bevan isn’t among them. Nor are his admiring students.

Professor George Bevan’s quiet, unassuming, way might seem to make him an unlikely candidate to win kudos as a remarkable teacher. However, it is his careful, thoughtful, and thought-provoking manner that is so appreciated by his students that they successfully campaigned to make him the 2011 winner of the Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching – in only his fourth year at Queen’s.

Prof. George Bevan (Classics)Prof. George Bevan (Classics) is the 2011 Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching winner (Bernard Clark photo)

They’ll tell you that Bevan, a Classics professor, has an astonishing capacity for turning ideas on their head. He teaches courses in Ancient Greek and Late Antiquity (the period of time between Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages), and when asked about the relevance of his courses to the contemporary workplace, he answers that they demand a level of academic rigour not readily available nowadays.

“Studying an ancient language is very empirical,” Bevan says. “It requires discipline, concentration, and thinking capacity, and it develops the brain in ways that are surprisingly conducive to other types of thinking.

A student of math and computer science before switching to classics, he began his teaching career in 2005 at the U of T and came to Queen’s as an Assistant Professor in 2007.

Bevan’s main research interests
now include the ecclesiastical politics of the fifth and sixth centuries, and he’s busy working on a monograph on the fifth-century Bishop of Constantinople.

He’s not keen on the idea of teaching as a type of performance art. Bevan views post-secondary education – particularly the senior undergraduate years and beyond – as a kind of apprenticeship.

Asked to explain, he gives a concrete example of what he does: “We’re developing simple, inexpensive 3-D imaging tools, such as Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) and stereo-photogrametry. Using such readily available equipment as standard cameras and software packages, we’ve been able to develop novel methods for capturing such things as petroglyphs. I’m really focussed on RTI, which requires fixing a camera in place and taking a series of photographs. RTI allows for the extraction of enhanced surface information
and enables the reading of very weathered, ancient surfaces."

Petroglyphs and 3-D? These are the tools of a course in Classics?

RTI is normally an extremely expensive process that requires sophisticated equipment, but Bevan is experimenting with methods that will make the tool much more affordable and available, not only for his students but for researchers in general.

A Principal’s Undergraduate Summer Student Research Program has allowed him to hire a fourth-year student to work with him on developing a stereo photogrametry tool with a software package used in the mining industry for mapping rock walls. Their goal is to map petroglyphs in Wyoming.

“While it’s fantastic to go line-by-line through Plato, this apprenticeship allows students to see another very hands-on, practical side of Classics research,” says Bevan.

He takes his students to cemeteries to practise 3-D imaging of old headstones. “Using the equipment described, we’re able to extract interesting information,” he says. “Field trips to Greece would be good, but this allows us to develop the field techniques right here in our own backyard. Every student can experiment with the tools, and this is an important part of learning,” he says.

“Photogrammetry allows students to see how they can make a contribution to their field of interest.” A Learning Engagement and Community Service grant from the Centre for Teaching and Learning has helped support this classwork in the cemeteries. Bevan’s 3-D imaging expertise is attracting attention and collaboration not only across disciplines, but at other universities and even corporations, both nationally and internationally.

Every week [Prof. Bevan] goes above and beyond the normal expectations for a professor and inspires students to find their direction and pursue it.”

As for crosscurriculum at Queen’s, Bevan works with faculty and students in Mechanical and Civil Engineering, Physics, Art Conservation, and Geology, collaborating on everything from neutron computer tomography to capturing those petroglyphs. He’s developing tests for those tools’ resolution accuracy by having students look at large numbers of images of Roman coins.

Bevan’s interest in, respect for, and belief in his students is profound. “I’m always amazed at what they can do when given the support,” he says. “Students are good, and they’re an underutilized resource.”

Bevan’s thoughtful and circumspect manner inspires his students. As one of his charges wrote in a letter nominating for the Teaching Award, “His quiet, knowledgeable demeanour has endeared him to many students. Every week he goes above and beyond the normal expectations for a professor and inspires students to find their direction and pursue it.” Such praise was repeated many times, making it clear to the panel of judges that George Bevan is an inspiration to all those students who are fortunate enough to study with him.

THE ALUMNI AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN TEACHING was initiated in 1975 when students asked the Alumni Association to support a prestigious, campus-wide, teaching honour.

The award, worth $5,000, has been presented every year since to Queen’s teachers who demonstrate “outstanding knowledge, teaching ability, and accessibility to students.”

George Bevan will receive his award at the QUAA Alumni Awards Gala, to be held Oct. 15.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2011-3]