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A mathematician, an anthropologist, a psychologist and an electrical/computer engineer walk into a room. Not a precursor to a punch line, but a group that took the stage at Fall Convocation. Each received a very special honour the 2006 Principal's Prize for Teaching Excellence.
Established seven years ago to celebrate excellence in teaching and its importance, the awards celebrate teaching excellence at four levels: professor, associate professor, assistant professor and faculty lecturer.
But just how are four professors chosen from among McGill's teaching greats? Course evaluations, letters of support from deans, chairs and presidents of student associations, along with letters from former students all enter into the equation. A selection committee helmed by the Principal and Provost and comprised of representatives from faculty, students and staff weigh in. After much consultation, four leaders emerge.
This year's winners of the Principal's Prize for Teaching Excellence are:
Faculty lecturer level
Dr Axel Hundemer
Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Faculty of Science
As a child growing up in Germany, math was foremost on Axel Hundemer's mind: "I was always passionate about math and in high school I did more work than was required." Years later, when he decided to become a teacher, it was this love for the subject that would distinguish his teaching abilities. The soft-spoken professor, who describes himself as shy, uses only chalk and blackboards in his classroom. While shunning modern gadgetry as teaching aids, he takes "great care" in explaining mathematical principles and contexts to his students. "I love my subject and transferring that enthusiasm to my students."
Assistant professor level
Professor André Costopoulos
Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Arts
When André Costopoulos received a letter from the Principal's office marked "Personal and Confidential," his first thought was that he was in trouble. But worry soon turned to delight when he learned of his Principal's Prize win. After the initial shock, the former H. Noel Fieldhouse award winner was humbled that so many people had been working on his behalf unbeknownst to him for months. The award is extremely meaningful to Costopoulos, who comes from a family of teachers — his mother is a special education teacher and his dad was a youth probation officer. "When you grow up with two educators, teaching pervades the home and questions were always encouraged," he said. "I love teaching and especially here at McGill where the students are so eager to learn, I'm not lighting the fire, I'm channeling it to make sure it serves a purpose."
Assistant professor level
Professor Daniel Levitin
Department of Psychology, Faculty of Science
In a past life, Daniel Levitin was a record producer, working with some of music's elite. When asked why he decided to become a professor after so many years in the studio, Levitin characterizes the decision as selfish. "I wanted to get into teaching because I saw it as a way for me to keep learning. Being surrounded by interesting colleagues and students keeps my mind challenged and active." The psychology professor declares that he doesn't "teach" his students; rather he "unteaches" what it is his students think they know. He also considers a sense of surprise to be essential to learning and believes that if there's no surprise, there's no fun and students won't remember what they've been taught. The Principal's Prize was one award which Levitin never expected to win but one which will only make this hard-working professor work harder.
Full professor level
Professor David Plant
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Faculty of Science
David Plant loves his job. He describes it as "wildly refreshing" because something new is always happening in his labs. Plant runs two centres at McGill, Agile All-Photonic Networks and SYTACom, Centre for Advanced Systems & Technologies in Communications. He counts the great opportunities he was given as a graduate student as part of what makes him so passionate about teaching. "I like to make it rain for others and create the best possible environment for students to learn," says Plant. He describes the moment he received his prize as a tear-welling experience and says he is exceptionally grateful to be given such a distinction.