TVO’s Best Lecturer Competition: A vote for a good dusting?
Dusting the mind: in a perfect world, we would perform this action as regularly as we would brush our teeth, walk the dog, or eat a meal. We would daily recognize its vital importance to our well being and our ability to live with each other, not to mention with ourselves. Yet, as Thoreau mused over a century ago, it’s an action that very often gets left undone. We need reminding, even prodding, in order to set upon our mental “furniture” with a duster and pan.
“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.”
-Henry David Thoreau, from Walden (1854)
It seems fitting that I received my copy of Thoreau’s Walden from a future professor – a friend who, after many years as a journalist, joined the faculty of The University of Victoria. Good teachers can remind us to do some mental dusting. They can introduce us to new ideas or help us see familiar ones with new insight. If we’re lucky, they’ll also be able to speak – even perform – in a truly engaging manner, one that both invigorates and clarifies the subject at hand.
It is this unique talent that TVO’s Best Lecturer competition strives to recognize. In its inaugural year, the contest invites students from colleges and universities throughout Ontario to nominate the professor whose classes are, in the words of TVO, “not to be missed.”
The response has been enthusiastic. Earlier in the year, over 250 students sent in their nominations. A panel of three judges – Bronwyn Drainie of the Literary Review of Canada, playwright Andrew Moodie, and columnist Robert Fulford – then narrowed the field to 30. From this group, 10 were chosen to deliver a lecture on TVO’s BIG IDEAS program between October 8 and November 5, 2005. The viewing audience will ultimately determine who is named Best Lecturer. The winner will receive a “Brain Candy” award and a $10,000 grant to his or her teaching institution.
The University of Windsor garnered four Best Lecturer nominations for professors in a diverse range of disciplines: Ken Cramer, Department of Psychology; Marcello Guarini, Department of Philosophy; Scott Mattson, Department of Sociology and Anthropology / Department of Psychology; and Gillian MacKay, formerly of the Department of Music. All four professors successfully reached the second round of the competition. All four, moreover, have received accolades for their teaching in previous years, from the Kathleen McCrone Teaching Award (Ken Cramer) and a nomination for University of Windsor Student Association Teacher of the Year (Marcello Guarini), to a Sessional Recognition Award (Scott Mattson) and both Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and University of Windsor Student Association Awards (Gillian MacKay).
If these statistics are admirable, so is the professors’ commitment to their students. Scott Mattson is drawn to “the dynamism and energy (he) get(s) from being with others and sharing ideas in the classroom.” Ken Cramer welcomes “students’ questions about love and life and learning,” which in turn “feed (his) love of psychology.” Gillian Mackay “love(s) sharing (her) enthusiasm for music with students, and working to stimulate their imagination about the arts and what they’re capable of accomplishing.” Marcello Guarini enjoys witnessing “eyes open wide when (students) see something they’ve never seen before.”
But how do these professors manage to transform their commitment to teaching into action in the classroom? All agree that thorough preparation is essential. With preparation comes the flexibility to diverge from a singular path, to welcome students’ questions and opinions while communicating key points clearly. Ken Cramer acknowledges the delicate balance between directing the flow of information and accommodating his students’ input: “Without my preparation, they wouldn’t be as engaged and contribute as they do...but because they contribute so heartily and with so much enthusiasm, the lecture soars and learning becomes inevitable.”
As Scott Mattson observes, good preparation can also mean knowing one’s subject well enough to find innovative ways of making ideas relevant to one’s students. By Mattson’s own estimation, he did not learn to teach effectively until he stopped hiding behind copious lecture notes, emerged from the lectern, and shared some of his own experiences with his students. “Tired eyes in the classroom lit up at that point,” he recalls. He began polishing his natural talents as an actor to engage students further in class discussions.
“Without my preparation, they wouldn’t be as engaged and contribute as they do...but because they contribute so heartily and with so much enthusiasm, the lecture soars and learning becomes inevitable.”
-Psychology Professor Ken Cramer
Preparation and performance: recognized ingredients to the creation of good lectures. Yet if the professor happens not to be a natural performer, this mix can be hard to achieve. Marcello Guarini acknowledges that he long maintained a “horror” of public speaking. And, truth be told, he could have worked hard to avoid performing in his professional life. He is not, like Gillian MacKay, a musician and conductor. Rather, as his recent SSHRC grant attests, he is an active researcher and writer on the topic of analogical reasoning. That Guarini works hard to overcome his “horror” confirms precisely what sets him and his fellow nominees apart: his desire to reach his students and to communicate with them at a profound level rather than simply “dazzling them with technical terms.”
At the end of the day, what does all this have to do with TVO’s Best Lecturer competition? It depends upon whom you ask. Two of the nominees remain positive about the competition’s ability to raise awareness of teaching excellence among students, faculty, and the general public. The other two emphasize alternative strategies – teaching conferences, visits to colleagues’ classrooms, peer demonstrations – would have more productive and substantial effects on faculty, students, and the administration. In this view, collecting “brain candy” does little more than provide a sugary high. If teaching is not recognized as a pursuit equal to research and if higher learning is simply seen as a hoop to jump through rather than a challenge to continually embrace, even the best intentions of TVO’s Best Lecturer competition are for naught.
I, for one, remain impressed that so many University of Windsor professors were nominated as Best Lecturer. I am also impressed that so many students were compelled to make nominations. Effort made in the name of learning? That’s surely something to make Thoreau – and The University of Windsor – very proud.