The delicate art of teaching

Three Queen’s faculty nominated for TVO’s Best Lecturer Competition reflect on their craft and the changing role of the professor

Biology professor Virginia Walker, one of TVO’s Best Lecturer Competition nominees, delivers a lecture at the BioSciences Complex on Thursday morning.
Biology professor Virginia Walker, one of TVO’s Best Lecturer Competition nominees, delivers a lecture at the BioSciences Complex on Thursday morning.

As the University grapples with budget cuts to its academic programs, three professors have been recognized for their ability to captivate and engage students in the classroom.

Biology professor Virginia Walker, political studies professor Eleanor MacDonald and music professor Kip Pegley have been selected as three of the top 20 finalists in TV Ontario’s annual Best Lecturer Competition. The winner will be announced in March.

The 20 nominees were selected from more than 600 anonymous submissions from university students across the province, and will be narrowed down to 10 after three-person jury asses lecture footage of each candidate.

“I did know it [the competition] existed because I saw it advertised on TVO and they said they were encouraging students to nominate, and I think the incentive was a high-end iPod,” Walker, said. “So, I refuse to have my head-swollen. I think my students wanted a high-end iPod.”

Self-depreciation aside, Walker said although the nomination came as a surprise, she was honoured to hear students chose her.

“They could have nominated the four other ones they had,” she said. “Out of the five, they decided to nominate me.”

Walker, whose research interests are in molecular biology and insect genetics, said she believes she was acknowledged for her work teaching the first year BIO 103 class, which consists of approximately 1,000 students divided into three sections.

“I enjoy teaching the first-year students. ... Many people don’t like to teach the first-year classes because they’re large,” she said. “When you lecture one group in a day, you have to do the same lecture twice over. So, it requires a certain amount of energy, so I guess not everyone can do it.”

Walker said she has always taught either the first-year or second year biology course during her 29 years at Queen’s.

“Teaching first year, of course, you can’t be completely familiar with everything you teach because I teach the pre-med section. Can you imagine how big the field of pre-med is? So, you can’t be familiar with everything, but I don’t think it matters,” she said. “Sometimes students ask me questions and I can say I don’t know and then maybe they’ll feel not as badly that they don’t know the answer. We are kind of all in it together.”

Walker, who also acts as Queen’s Research Chair, said she believes research and teaching take on a symbiotic relationship for a professor.

“I’m probably a better researcher because I teach and I’m a better teacher certainly because I do research,” she said. “The new principal may be changing things a little bit. Doesn’t he say our ‘brand’ is undergraduate teaching? So, I would like to debate him on that. I think research does inform your teaching. I think it’s very important.”

Walker said she uses various teaching methods to accommodate different types of learning.

“I believe I was the first person at Queen’s to put my lecture notes on the web. That was in ’93 or ’94. ... I know some people learn by listening, others by looking, others by kinetic learning, so I try to capture all those styles in my lectures.”

Walker said the large-lecture style in which she’s grown accustomed to wasn’t around when she was an undergraduate student.

“For an ecology class, we went out and shot a porcupine, dissected it and pulled out and looked at all the parasites in its gut. We would never do anything like that today,” she said. “It meant that we had a lot of hands-on, which I guess for someone with dyslexia, like me, it was really great training.”

Political studies professor Eleanor MacDonald said she believes being a good lecturer is only part of being an effective academic.

“There are so many other things that are involved in good teaching ... much of it is finding assignments that allow people to think through the material, finding formats for the teaching that fit other learning styles. Not everyone learns by sitting in a classroom and listening to a lecture,” she said.

MacDonald said her own experiences as a student continue to influence her educational philosophy.

“I think as a student I found lectures really exciting, but some of the most profound moments were when the teacher stopped talking and put a problem to it,” she said. “A professor just asked a question and refused to give us an answer; all of us were sitting there trying to figure out the problem.”

MacDonald, who’s on a six-month stint at the Centre for Canadian Studies in Edinburgh, Scotland, said a professor’s role as teacher isn’t developed prior to their entrance into the classroom.

“To teach at a university you don’t even have to have taken five minutes of teaching experience. As professors, we’re supposed to be disseminating research and passing along information,” she said. “That’s very much how it is. There’s a lot of support for developing your teaching if you want to through the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s. There’s no overall, overarching philosophy when it comes to teaching. One of the things I would say is we get a lot of training as researchers, but the training we get as teachers is largely volunteering.”

MacDonald said being able to conduct lectures wasn’t traditionally part of the role of the professor. Increased post-secondary enrolment has made teaching a larger part of the job description.

“Our jobs are much more defined in terms of our ability to add to the knowledge of our field and in doing that it is expected that you are to impart that to others,” she said. “It’s more that you’re supposed to share your information.”

MacDonald, who specializes in political theory, said her genuine interest in her subject matter translates into her teaching.

“I think that helps. I have a strong sense of organizing intellectual materials,” she said. “I really like all of them. I really enjoy every aspect of teaching. I love a good seminar—it’s like an intense discussion. It’s like when you’re at a party where everyone is interested and likes the same thing.”

Music professor Kip Pegley said her background in music education deeply impacted her approach to teaching.

“My first degree is in music education. It’s always about finding ways to make the material more inspiring, because if I’m bored, the students are bored. As I’m going over the material, I’m always trying to think of what I’d be thinking if I was in the front row or back row of one of my own lectures. Why should they care? Why should I be telling them these things?” she said. “It’s trying to find out new things that you haven’t found before. I don’t use my voice all the time. I use multimedia, video and other types of technologies to make it more captivating.”

Pegley, who is cross-appointed with the departments of gender studies and film and media studies and specializes in the areas a popular music, visual culture and critical theory, said she feels passion for the subject matter is a vital part of being an effective lecturer.

“I also love what I get to teach and not everybody has that privilege,” she said. “I was talking to a colleague about this yesterday, and if you’re not ready, comfortable or if you’re not comfortable with that material, then it becomes drudgery. If that’s the case, oh my God—do something else. Rather than being 30 per cent of your job, it’ll feel like 80 per cent of your job and you’re unhappy.” Pegley, who is best known for MUSC 171, her open popular music course, said she enjoys teaching non-music students.

“A lot of people don’t like teaching non-majors, they see it as something that you have to do. I love how varied people are when they come in,” she said. “Students are so knowledgeable and it gives them the opportunity to show that, and I learn from them to.”

Pegley, who has also taught at York University, the University of Toronto and McMaster University, said Queen’s allows its faculty the opportunity to balance teaching and research.

“I think what’s really good is that there’s some places where profs have to teach even more than we do on average. Here, the average course load is that profs teach two courses in the fall and two courses in the winter—and that changes according to each department. I have a colleague who teaches at UPEI and he’s teaching four and four right now. You’re just trying to get through the day when you’re doing that much. There isn’t enough time to either have time to put into developing the class, or put in research in order to help the class, so I think that our load here is good and supportive for us to be effective teachers.”

Pegley said she finds she’s constantly learning from her students.

“I sometimes talk about class in my research, so there’s an exchange of dialogue that goes on. If I’m not learning with my students, we don’t have a good enough dialogue.”

For more information on TVO’s Best Lecturer Competition and to stream lecture footage of all 20 finalists, click here

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