Honouring Excellence in Teaching

January 27, 2005, vol. 32, no. 2

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Each year SFU presents three excellence in teaching awards to top teachers nominated by their students, alumni or colleagues. The winners are chosen by a committee of faculty, alumni and students who select recipients based on several factors, including their ability to stimulate students to think creatively and critically, to bring enthusiasm and innovation to the teaching process, and a demonstrated caring for students' learning. The honour, which includes a $2000 prize, will be presented at an awards ceremony on Feb. 9 at 4 p.m. in Images Theatre, Burnaby campus.

 Paul Budra
 Mark Leier
 Simon Verdun-Jones

Paul Budra
By Howard Fluxgold

Paul Budra says he likes lecturing to large classes, probably because the one-time standup comic and musician is accustomed to performing for a crowd.

“Most people think that all teaching goes on in small groups, but lectures are just a different form of teaching,” says Budra, an associate professor of English and winner of a 2004 excellence in teaching award.

For Budra two principles provide the secret to teaching success. The first is to try to make lectures as clear as possible.

“It is so easy when you know a subject well to forget what students need to know,” he explains. “I try to take things step by step, keeping in mind what students need to take the next step and never assuming anything.”

The second principle stems from his belief that “you can't teach someone who is unconscious. We tend to forget that we are teaching something that we have spent a lifetime on and we tend to drone on. So if a student falls asleep, we say it is his fault,” he laughs.

Budra tries to make his courses as relevant to his students' lives as he can.
He also “tries to lecture with as much energy as I can to keep students interested.”

Performing as a standup comic in Toronto in the 1980s and playing Vancouver clubs with a rock band provide invaluable experience when it comes to grabbing the attention of his classes.

Budra's energy was not lost on his students. Said one in support of his nomination for the award, “He was very enthusiastic about the subject and kept me thinking for three hours at a time at night - sometimes a difficult task.” Another said, “He made me wish that the lecture was more often than twice per week.”

Budra's colleagues, however, may be victims of his success.

His nominating letter notes that “students flock to his courses and complain when subsequent professors are less engaging.”

Mark Leier
By Howard Fluxgold

Mark Leier is known to many of his students as the singing professor, even though he isn't a music teacher. The associate professor of history and director of the centre for labour studies says he uses music to grab his students' attention.

“I teach a first year Canadian history course to 300 students whose overriding notion is that this course is going to be the most boring thing in their life,” says the banjo playing, folk singing former busker.

Leier not only plays his banjo and sings songs “to wake some of my students up,” but to illustrate the points he is trying to make. “Legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie once said that a good song is worth a dozen sermons,” Leier related. “Singing brings people together.”

Many of his students who supported his nomination with letters of commendation mentioned his banjo playing and singing as well as his enthusiasm.

“Leier took a subject that could be dry and boring and not only made it interesting, but created an environment where you wanted to learn more,” wrote one student.

Another wrote, “I wish I could continue taking courses with Leier for the rest of my life so I could experience his vibrant approach to learning.”

Leier believes that another secret to his success is rejecting the teaching of history as a series of facts, names and dates. “That doesn't get people excited. I try to make the point that history is not something done to them (the students), but something they do,” Leier maintains.

“I try to show that history is about people making choices. And we make decisions that are based on history, even if it's just our personal history. That's why understanding history is so important - the more we understand, the better our decisions.”

Leier did his BA and MA at SFU as a mature student then went off to Memorial University of Newfoundland for his doctorate before returning to teach at SFU in 1994. This is his first excellence in teaching award.

Simon Verdun-Jones
By Diane Luckow

A good criminal lawyer must also be a performer and the same might be said of a good criminology professor.

Simon Verdun-Jones, a 2004 excellence in teaching award winner, never fails to excite his audience of undergraduate and graduate students, despite the complexity of his topic - criminal law.

With flailing arms, the occasional bounce, and a firm command of his subject matter, Verdun-Jones exudes energy and enthusiasm during his lectures and seminars. Students say he brings his subject to life with real-life cases and intriguing details.

A lawyer and a criminologist with degrees from Yale and Cambridge, Verdun-Jones also has a long list of scholarships, fellowships and publications.

He brings the same dedication to his teaching as he does to his research. Despite teaching at SFU for the past 20 years, he continues to spend hours before each lecture ensuring his material remains current with the constant change in his subject area.

“How you approach teaching varies by the level of student and the format of the class,” notes Verdun-Jones. “In lectures I try to engage people and make them enthusiastic; in seminars I have to bring people out to discuss things; at the graduate level, you must treat people as potential colleagues.”

Prior to seminars with students in the field placement program, for example, he reads all of the students' field journals in order to draw them out and include them all in class discussions. “Getting people to talk when they're nervous is the most difficult thing a teacher can do,” he explains. “It requires a lot of homework - figuring out what they've been doing, asking them questions - it's difficult to learn but an important skill in teaching.”

His students can't say enough about his teaching abilities. “He was not only enthusiastic and knowledgeable when teaching, but he also made students want to learn and want to think critically and in-depth,” wrote one student nominator. Said another, “His passion and enthusiasm for teaching clearly and consistently exceed expectations.”

His interest in his students does not go unnoticed, either. “I respect Verdun-Jones for having interest in his students' work,” said a nominator. “It makes students feel motivated and appreciated.”

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