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What could possibly provoke a geologist and his program administrator to dance a jig in the kitchenette of a building on Macdonald campus? Not much, one would think, but something did: a Principal's Prize for Excellence in Teaching.
Four such awards, for which professors from all faculties are eligible, are handed out annually at Fall Convocation. There are four categories: Faculty Lecturer, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Full Professor. Along with bragging rights come student and peer recognition, $5,000 and that happy feeling that might make you get up and dance.
Such was the case for McGill School of Environment Professor George McCourt, the aforementioned kitchen-jigger and winner in the lecturer category, who was thrilled to hear he was making a difference.
"I really, really enjoy teaching," he states plainly, but is quick to further explain that by itself a knack for lecturing does not a teacher make. Students must be an engaged, active part of it: "Standing up and giving the lectures is a part of the teaching process, but it's not the whole thing. As much learning goes on when they come and sit in my office and talk, or catch me in the hallway."
McCourt likes to get his students talking so much that he doesn't even mind when they find him later on to lodge a particular complaint—he sees it, in fact, as a measure of success. "What really sticks out in my mind is how many students have come back to me and said: ‘I couldn't walk downtown Montreal without trying to identify what those rocks were' or ‘George, I'm out in a field and you've got me looking at the rocks instead of the mountain goats.' That, from my point of view, is the most satisfying thing that a student can say to me."
When the Department of Psychology's Richard Koestner, who has been at McGill for some 20 years, found out the Principal's Office was looking for his office number to deliver a letter, he did not dance a jig.
"I was afraid that I was in trouble," he explains, "for some film I had shown in Intro Psych that may have offended someone." The letter contained no admonition, to his relief, but rather word that he was chosen for the award in the Full Professor category.
Like the other winners, he points to the connection between the subject matter and a student's real life as the key to engaging that student's interest. He once learned, for example, that a student had really enjoyed his Human Motivation class because it was, as she described it, the most "human" course she had taken at McGill. "After some reflection, it occurred to me that the special quality I may have as a teacher is that I can make the scientific research I describe accessible to students at some practical, every-day, ‘human' level," says Koestner. "Once aware of it, I developed an approach to teaching that focuses on getting students interested and excited about psychological research because of how they can use it in their own lives."
Dr Howard Riggs, Professor of Education and winner in the Associate Professor category, has been here even longer than Koestner—34 years—and has reached a strikingly similar conclusion: students respond to interactive learning that mirrors their personal or professional reality.
"I tried to practice what I preached," says Riggs, who retired in August. "That's not easy in a university-level course on teaching methodology, because some aspects of the university reality, such as large lecture classes, are not typically part of the work of an elementary school teacher. However in the labs, I attempted to model strategies and approaches that were adaptable to school classrooms."
As for taking home the honour for his final teaching year: "It's a nice way to go out," he says, adding with a chuckle, "and it has the advantage that nobody can hold me to it now."
Professor Paul Wiseman, an expert in biophysics and biophysical chemistry and winner in the Assistant Professor category, agrees that the key to teaching success is connecting with students.
"I try hard to make the experience interactive and I try to respond to the students as quickly as I can. This can push me in the very large Chem 110 class, but the feedback from the students makes it such a joy to teach."
On one memorable occasion—a day on which Wiseman was "overwhelmed with deadlines and was wondering how I would keep my head above water"—solace came in the form of such feedback. A former student from that monolithic Chem 101 class stopped him walking across campus to say that "the course really made a difference in her first year experience at McGill," a comment that "made me realize once again why we are professors at McGill and what our central role in the university is."
Hearty congratulations to all these deserving professors. Jig at will.
The Principal's Prizes for Excellence in Teaching will be awarded as part of the Fall Convocation ceremonies on Nov. 9 at 2 p.m.