Gary McCarron

Excellence in teaching awards: Gary McCarron

April 3, 2008

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By Stuart Colcleugh

Gary McCarron was in a Vancouver coffee shop recently when a young man in an expensive suit approached him and said, “You won’t remember me, but I’m winning a very prestigious award tonight because of you. I was going into a completely different discipline until I took your first-year communication course.”

McCarron, an associate professor and graduate chair in the School of Communication, and one of this year’s SFU Excellence in Teaching Award winners, smiles as he recalls the incident. “It’s always amazing when that happens,” he says. “And the guy was probably in a class of 300 people. You just don’t know how many people’s lives you’ve really affected when you’re teaching.”

In McCarron’s case, the number is probably quite high. Director Martin Laba calls him the school’s “secret weapon” for maintaining high enrolment levels. Students often mention him as their reason for majoring in communication. “I kind of blush when I hear that,” admits McCarron. “But I’ve taught one of our introductory courses for years and that’s the most common thing I hear at convocation four years later.”

His secret? “A few years ago I was selected as one of SFU’s funniest professors, according to our student newspaper, and that sums it up,” says McCarron. “I think a lot of good teaching is just good performing.” He also uses personal stories to convey theories and concepts. “I might say, ‘today we’re going to talk about Marshall McLuhan, but first let me tell you about something I saw on TV last night.’ Then I’ll tell a funny story and point out how it actually illustrates something McLuhan said, which they’ve just read.

“Giving it a narrative spin encourages them to think about their own lives and their own learning as kind of a grand narrative.”

A Vancouver native, McCarron earned a BA at SFU then an MA and PhD in social and political thought at York. He returned to SFU as a sessional instructor 1989 and a tenure-track professor in 2000. “You might think winning an award by being funny is trite,” says McCarron. “But I think of it as keeping people engaged and teaching them difficult material in a way that makes them feel it has meaning in their lives. There’s nothing trite about that.”

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