Excellence in Teaching

Mar 07, 2002, vol. 23, no. 5
By Roberta Staley

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Each year three awards are given to top teachers at SFU who've been nominated for excellence in teaching awards. 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, present complex information clearly, bring enthusiasm and innovation to the teaching process, and who care about their students' learning.

The mere mention of history triggers Pavlovian yawns in many people. Middle Eastern history professor William Cleveland inspires quite the opposite.

A recipient of SFU's excellence in teaching award, Cleveland instills such passion and objectivity about the Middle East that one wishes he were spearheading modern-day peace talks.

One of the university's most venerable professors - he's been teaching for 34 years at SFU - Cleveland is an Iowa boy who graduated from Princeton University, arriving at SFU in 1968, just after the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War. (Middle Eastern turmoil since then, Cleveland says, warrants a course unto itself.) Anything but bookish, this peripatetic professor has travelled extensively in the Middle East, especially Egypt, where he just returned from a brief stint as distinguished visiting professor at Cairo's American University.

Although Cleveland enjoys an international reputation for Middle Eastern scholarship, it is the respect he enjoys among SFU students that garnered him the teaching award. Cleveland avoids turning his lectures into exercises in ennui with diverse teaching methods, including visuals such as documentaries, videos, overheads and slides. He emphasizes the big picture when discussing the historical importance of wars and treaties. Students also appreciate Cleveland's insight, extensive knowledge, ability to cultivate critical thinking and willingness to entertain challenges and questions.

His ultimate objective in teaching, says Cleveland, is to encourage sympathy and open-mindedness in his undergraduate and graduate students. “It's important not to view the Middle East just through the lens of a Western perspective,” Cleveland says.

Tammy McMullan grew up on a Vernon orchard where she found that fruit's charm limited, but the creatures inhabiting the orchard endlessly fascinating. McMullan would bring home all manner of wild pets, a habit her mother tolerated. However she drew the line at snakes.

McMullan is still obsessed with creepy crawlies, although her curiosity is now channeled through SFU's masters of pest management program, where she has been a laboratory instructor and lecturer for 12 years to undergrad and graduate students. (McMullan received her undergrad and masters degrees from SFU.) Enthusiasm for the field is one of the reasons McMullan is a SFU excellence in teaching award recipient. Her dedication toward students has also earned her kudos. Students describe McMullan as “personable, friendly, comforting, an outstanding educator” and someone who “treats her students as peers.”

McMullan's love of small things makes her specially suited for the pest management program. Unique in Canada, the program emphasizes a holistic approach to pest control, using biology rather than chemical blitzkriegs to keep crops healthy. “British Columbia has one of the lowest pesticide-use rates in Canada. Our graduates are out in the field, making an impact. They are also involved in the development of policy at all levels of government,” McMullan says proudly.

McMullan realizes a minority of students in her introductory biology lab classes will obtain a science degree. Still, she wants to help instill the science bug in all students, including those entering the liberal arts. Rapid scientific advances means that a well-rounded citizen should be informed, McMullan believes. “Biotechnology is growing in importance and students should be able to make critical decisions.”

Cultivating an understanding of the enormous power and influence of media in our lives is a passion for Martin Laba, director of the school of communication and one of SFU's excellence in teaching award recipients.

“Society is in urgent need of young people who are informed, engaged, and motivated, who understand their roles as citizens, and who can take to task powerful systems and institutions in society, from advertising to politics,” says Laba, a Memorial University graduate, musician and author.

The development of critical thinking is a vital foundation for an informed citizenry, and universities and teachers must encourage, guide and inspire students to think and act with a critical edge, Laba continues. Extensive work in Pakistan with NGOs and community groups in the area of communication and education has brought this philosophy home. Citizens must be vigilant on matters of human rights and democratic freedoms, and this vigilance necessarily involves the critical study of media and their institutions, says Laba.

There are lengthy lineups for his courses despite Laba's continuing willingness to expand enrolment. His teaching methods are unique. He doesn't teach through memorization or rote, instead creating an atmosphere that is lively and participatory. Laba acts as a provocateur in his classes - challenging students to think creatively, believing that academic rigour and imagination are inextricably connected.

The trust and respect he garners from students is not something Laba takes lightly. “My pedagogical approaches are never static - they are necessarily inflected with the dynamics of wider social, political and economic currents and the changing social environments and cultural lives of students within those currents,” he says.

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