Teaching Excellence

February 09, 2006, vol. 35, no. 3

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Paul Matthew St. Pierre
As his students enter the classroom, English professor Paul Matthew St. Pierre is deep in thought, poring over the pages of an academic journal.

No, wait - it's a mainstream magazine. Harper's perhaps? The Atlantic? The Walrus? No: the winner of this year's award for teaching excellence is apparently engrossed in the latest issue of Soap Opera Digest.

It's precisely the sort of quirky jest that has endeared St. Pierre to legions of students over his 19-year career at SFU and contributed to his reputation as - in the words of his student nominators - a warm, intelligent and creative professor.

The research side of his work - he has published extensively in the field of world literature - came easily to St. Pierre, who is by nature an introvert. But the teaching side was a more formidable challenge: “I didn't really know how to brazen it out in a classroom.” Knowing he wanted not only to educate but to entertain, he modelled his technique on favourite professors from his own undergraduate years who engaged his intellect and interest by weaving relevant pop culture references and personal anecdotes into otherwise serious lectures.

The result, according to one nominator, was a method of teaching that added “a degree of humanity to every topic” and quite often made “the entire lecture hall smile.”

Though delighted to be honoured for his teaching prowess, St. Pierre says he “can't get complacent. The key to my teaching is that I try never to forget that I was once a student, and never to remember that I have tenure.”

Alain Duncan

SFU business senior lecturer Alain Duncan is no stranger to teaching awards. He's a two-time winner of the TD Canada Trust distinguished teaching award bestowed annually on the two best business professors and instructors.

This year, his exemplary teaching style has won him the SFU excellence in teaching award.

Duncan came late to teaching, first working as a government economist, then as a chief financial officer in the corporate world. He switched to teaching accounting, he says, because of his fondness for working with people as well as numbers. As well, teaching could be in his blood - his parents were both teachers at Queen's University.

Duncan brings to his teaching all the precision of an accountant. He teaches upper level accounting in the undergraduate business program as well as accounting courses in the executive MBA program. His mission, he says, is to appeal to the intellectual ranges of all of his students. To do that, he eschews textbook exercises in favour of his own laboriously crafted case studies in which questions become progressively more difficult so that even the best students encounter some challenges.

To maintain objectivity and prevent favouritism, he insists that students place a number on their exams rather than a name, a ploy that is particularly useful in the executive MBA courses, where students' classroom contributions could influence his marking.

Students appreciate his extra efforts. “His skill really comes through in his ability to properly test students,” says one. “A skill that is unfortunately lost to many other instructors.”

Jennifer Hyndman

Excellence in teaching award recipient Jennifer Hyndman has returned to Sri Lanka to study the impact of last year's tsunami on a huge social issue - work.

Hyndman is spending the spring semester following up on what she calls the post-tsunami geographies of people's livelihoods. “I'm looking at how the people have been affected by the fact the government won't allow them to rebuild in the 200-metre zone of coastal land,” notes Hyndman, who has spent the past several years studying migration patterns and displacement from war in Sri Lanka.

She travelled to the stricken country in the weeks following the tsunami to offer consulting services to communities. “The tsunami also had gender implications, as more women were killed than men. I'm trying to determine who has taken up this women's work; whether men have adopted some of these jobs or if other women are intensifying their workloads as they look after the sons, brothers, uncles or neighbours of those women who died in the tsunami.”

Hyndman's research provides fuel for teaching and is a key to her success in the classroom. “Teaching is the social expression of my research,” says Hyndman, an associate professor of geography, who teaches courses on economics, gender, globalization and migration.

“My central goal as a teacher is to impart critical thinking, convey excitement about new ideas, and generate ground for creative knowledge production.”

Hyndman's teaching strategy includes illustrating concepts. She recently took an economic geography class to a former Vancouver fish processing plant, now retrofitted with an advertising company and a clothing company. “In a single space, evidence of resource extraction, business services and industrial production could be juxtaposed and analysed in real life,” she says.

In her undergraduate teaching Hyndman strives to connect global and national processes with personal outcomes, such as examining where students' clothes come from and why, or how conflicts abroad lead to refugee movements that shape life in North America.

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