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2021 Cormack Award Winner Emily O’Brien Reflects on Her Teaching Philosophy and the Challenges of Student Engagement

December 09, 2021
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By Huyen Pham

Humanities Undergraduate Chair Emily O’Brien received this year’s Cormack Teaching Award in recognition of her “passionate commitment to the importance of liberal arts in the 21st century university.”

Since joining SFU in the fall of 2005 shortly after receiving her PhD in History at Brown University, O’Brien has become a favourite among students, earning a reputation as an enthusiastic professor who motivates her students by making them feel valued in the classroom and stimulates their interest by creating an environment that encourages engagement and participation. As a recent student said:

“Professor O’Brien is one of the best instructors I’ve ever had. Not only is she extremely knowledgeable but she is also very passionate. She cares immensely about her students and makes an extra effort to interact, help, and communicate with us. Though I tend to struggle with the course material, she is always available to help.”

When asked why she thought students respond so positively to her teaching methods and philosophy, O’Brian identifies her genuine passion for what she teaches and its value in post-secondary education as one of the reasons.

“I can’t help but be enthusiastic,” she says, “and that kind of passion can be contagious––it certainly was for me when I was an undergraduate!”

O’Brien also describes her seminars as “marathons of intense thinking and talking” but also a place where students have “fun while [they] learn.” The latter is made possible by her commitment to connecting with and helping each of her students individually, whether it is a mid-semester email to see how things are going or a coaching session about joining class discussion.

While COVID-19 has changed the teacher-student dynamic completely and made student engagement more of a challenge for many, O’Brien found a way to connect with her students by asking them to reflect on the Black Death while living through a pandemic themselves:

“Last fall, I asked students in my medieval and Renaissance history course to read Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous eye-witness account of the plague in Florence in 1348. One student read a passage in a way that startled me: she recognized in it the isolation, the loneliness she felt from being in lockdown and unable to see her friends. The words just jumped off the page for her because she knew instantly from her own experience what that isolation felt like. It was a remarkable moment. She saw in this text the mental toll of the Black Death on a level that I never had before. At the same time, I think that seeing people facing the same struggles in Boccaccio’s text made her feel understood––and perhaps, even less alone.”

By teaching her “students to slow down so they can think, to linger over words as they read, and to re-read so that they can really focus” through “all the noise,” O’Brien says her hope is that students “come away with an appreciation for that quiet of the mind where they can tend to their ideas and watch them grow.”

In closing, how does one become a good teacher while navigating through one’s own “noise”? As a mentor to emerging scholars balancing research and teaching responsibilities, O’Brien considers the difficulty balancing being teacher and researcher:

“I find it very challenging to work on my research during my teaching semesters (and I know I’m not alone). I need to give all my attention and energy to my students and my courses to “do it right” (or at least feel that I’m doing it right).”

Kindness toward oneself and finding balance are key, she notes: “I’d say don’t be too ambitious about being a scholar and a teacher simultaneously and be kind to yourself as you try to figure out that balance. There’s no one right way to do it. Find your own rhythm, and really protect your time when you have that space to read, think, write, and work on your own projects.”

At the same time, O’Brien says finding connection and crossover between one’s teaching and research is another good strategy.

“I recommend looking for ways to make connections between your teaching and your research. I’ve done this more and more in my courses, whether it’s by assigning sources I’m writing about or reshaping certain classes to take on issues and questions that I’m grappling with in my own work. I find that putting my teaching and research in conversation with one another is both intellectually energizing and immensely constructive. And I’m never more passionate in the classroom than when I’m talking about my own research!”