Cormack Teaching Award recipients pictured with Dean Jane Pulkingham at the FASS Autumn Reception: Tina Adcock, Steve Weldon, Leith Davis, Dean Pulkingham, Dai Heide. Unfortunately, Douglas Allen could not attend the reception.

Teaching, Achievements

2018 Cormack Teaching Symposium: The craft of teaching and putting yourself in your students' shoes

October 30, 2018

By Christine Lyons

Each year the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) recognizes our best instructors with the Cormack Teaching Awards and invites the recipients to speak about a facet of their teaching at the Cormack Teaching Symposium, an event that highlights teaching excellence and teaching community within FASS.  

This year’s symposium on October 11 opened with a welcome, territorial acknowledgements and drumming led by Gary George of SFU’s Office for Aboriginal Peoples.

During the welcome drumming, Dean Jane Pulkingham and several attendees joined George and his associates as he called upon the audience to acknowledge where they come from both territorially and geographically (Wit'suwit'en, Squamish, Vancouver, Burnaby, and further afield) and disciplinarily (Political Science, Philosophy, English, Arts and Social Sciences, among others). Associate Dean Catherine Murray then introduced three of the five 2018 Cormack Teaching Award recipients who were able to attend and give illuminating talks on the question:

What motivates us to improve as teachers?

Dr. Steve Weldon, Dr. Dai Heide, and Dr. Leith Davis shared their insights and motivations which included: self-reflection and recognizing that one’s teaching needs improvement, the desire to not only improve but also perfect one’s teaching methods, and the ability to situate oneself as a student and see things from the perspective of a learner—whether that is in a large lecture hall, classroom tutorial, or small group graduate seminar.

Political Science’s Dr. Steve Weldon put it simply, “I want to be good at what I do,” he said.

Weldon recounted that his motivation came from the knowledge that, while his mentorship and supervision record looked fine on paper, he felt he wasn’t necessarily helping students to prepare for success after SFU as much as he could.

Like any good researcher, Weldon began his journey to improvement by reading up on the topics of leadership, mentorship, group decision-making, and teaching. He says two things seemed increasingly important to establish: ensuring everyone feels valued for their contributions in the classroom and setting a collective goal so that everyone—both the instructor and students—is working towards a common purpose.

To supervise his graduate students and upper-level undergraduates, Weldon has established a research group focused on the Politics of Extremism and Democracy. The group holds weekly meetings with everyone working toward a common goal. For the PhD students but also MA and undergraduate honours students, there is a strong emphasis on the research process and bringing that research to publication. “Everyone is working towards some kind of publication and in these regular one-hour meetings we work together to advance our individual goals. We’re also checking in about work/life balance and we discuss topics ranging from how to manage one’s time, setting appropriate goals, and how best to achieve those goals, to the importance of sleep and having hobbies.”

Weldon says it also helps to create a “flattened hierarchy” in the classroom or group, and a big part of that falls on him as the group leader to actively undermine the inherent hierarchy that students face in the university structure. The online collaboration app Slack adds an easily accessible informal setting where student can communicate with him and each other online, hash out ideas, collaborate and help one another.

Dean Jane Pulkingham with Philosophy's Dai Heide.

Philosophy’s Dr. Dai Heide answered the question from a philosophical angle, saying “while many things motivate me to improve as a teacher, something that I think motivates many academics is a perfectionistic tendency to want to master our craft.” He went on to say that improving as a teacher comes not just from the knowledge and skills you amass, but from understanding the “philosophical difference between knowing and knowing how.

One can have expertise in and amass knowledge about a subject matter, Heide says, but knowledge alone doesn’t make one an expert. Being a baseball fan, he used the example of having a lot of knowledge and experience with the sport. Yet, having watched it and played it for years, Heide admits he’s never been able to throw a curveball.

Anyone who has the perfectionistic tendency to improve and master their technique does so through practice, Heide says, and among these most excellent professional baseball players, athletes, musicians, and artists, are also, dedicated teachers.

Dean Jane Pulkingham with English's Leith Davis.

The Department of English’s Dr. Leith Davis says lightheartedly that her main motivation is “blind ignorance” in her hope that—if she can just find the right way to communicate and convey the material—her students will be as passionately interested as she is in studying heroic couplets or the literature that is considered the beginning of human rights discourse.

At heart, though, Davis says her teaching motivations come from wanting to connect with her students, and especially wanting to help them find the material accessible, interesting, and meaningful.

“Being a good teacher means putting myself in my students’ shoes,” she says. “As an expert in my field, I’m outside of what I do. It’s useful, then, to take a step back and ask myself, ‘what do I experience and like as a learner?’ ”

Davis says she’s had two “epiphanies” in recent memory have given her particular insight into what it’s like to be a learner. One was a workshop on re-thinking teaching where participants were asked do a 3-minute free-write exercise and self-reflect on the process. Davis says it was “eye-opening” to do an exercise she often asks her students to complete.

The second epiphany was through fiddle playing, a hobby of Davis’. Taking an improvisation-based workshop on Bluegrass style fiddling very much put Davis in the position of learner and novice. It is a technique and style unfamiliar to Davis and one which, she says, really forced her to examine how she learns, and forced her to think about what it means to be a student.

The three award winners’ presentations spoke well to each other and also to the second portion of the teaching symposium. This included a presentation from members of SFU’s Teaching Assessment Working Group (TAWG) and the work they’ve been doing to establish a conversation about teaching evaluation and learning beyond the scores on the Student Evaluation of Teaching and Courses (SETC) platform. As a whole, the event was an enlightening afternoon that brought faculty members from a wide range of disciplines in FASS together and encouraged self-reflective conversations about teaching and learning at SFU.