The 3M awards: teaching’s Nobel

Do professors prefer research to students? Not these 10 winners.

KEN MACQUEEN June 26 2006

The 3M awards: teaching’s Nobel

Do professors prefer research to students? Not these 10 winners.

KEN MACQUEEN June 26 2006

The 3M awards: teaching’s Nobel


Do professors prefer research to students? Not these 10 winners.


Pity the poor under-

grad: an empty vessel to be filled with cafeteria food, cheap beer and, oh yes, knowledge. Great gobs of wisdom are harvested from overpriced textbooks and delivered in overwhelmingly large classrooms by The Learned, for whom such lectures are an un-

welcome detour on the path to their next great research breakthrough.

An exaggeration? Perhaps. But most every student has endured classes led by brilliant researchers who lack the skill or enthusiasm for teaching. Such classes may inform; they rarely inspire. And yet, it has long been a given in Canadian university life that academic careers are built on research productivity, not classroom performance.

That reality is changing, albeit slowly, as universities awaken to the value of a good

teacher’s ability to motivate students and keep them enrolled. Part of the credit goes to the legacy of the 3M Teaching Fellowships— Canada’s only national award for university teaching and leadership. The awards, now in their 21st year, sprang from an initiative by John Myser, then president of 3M Canada, who believed that inspirational teachers were an underappreciated resource. 3M collaborated with the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) to recognize those professors for whom the teaching of undergraduates and the fostering of improved university instruction is both a passion and a calling. Maclean’s joins this year as the program’s media sponsor. ThelO winning fellows of2006 will be inducted into the STLHE, and in November, they’ll attend a retreat at the Fairmont Le Château Montebello in Quebec.


In 1986, to recognize the importance of university teaching, the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada created the 3M Teaching Fellowships. Up to 10 university faculty members are recognized each year for their exceptional contributions to teaching and learning. This year, Maclean’s proudly becomes the program’s media sponsor.

The other rewards, of course, are glowing student reviews and enhanced performance. “I have never felt so seen, acknowledged and encouraged,” said a student of 3M-winner

Gweneth Doane, a professor at the School of Nursing at the University of Victoria. But despite the accolades, many professors find their student-focused approach can be a career detriment, putting them at odds with an administrative structure

inclined to use research and publishing records as the criteria for awarding tenure, promotion and merit pay, says Arshad Ahmad, program coordinator for the 3M fellowships, and a professor and director of the Finance Co-op Program at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University. In more than one instance, 3M awards have prodded institutions to offer tenure or long-overdue promotions. “Someone once said that excellent teachers are folks who make a lot of trouble,” says Ahmad, a former fellowship winner himself. “They’re trying to change things, where academia is extremely averse to change.”

The greatest difference is in attitude. For this year’s fellows, as those before them, students aren’t passive consumers; they’re partners in the pursuit of knowledge. Among the winners:

David Kahane, Philosophy,

University of Alberta

Meditation? When 20-year-old political science major Danielle Taschereau-Mamers signed on for Philosophy 368—Equality and Social Justice—she hadn’t anticipated Kahane’s unconventional approach. He was determined not to explore global inequity in the abstract. He wanted to personalize it, drawing from his students in oil-rich Edmonton a discussion of “our obligations as privileged people in a world full of suffering.” He used techniques like stream of consciousness “free writing” to draw out stu-


dents’ visceral, unfiltered reactions, and mini-debates known as “contemplative cage matches” to test the rigour of various philosophical responses to inequity. And he started

each class with about five minutes of meditation. “I was totally intimidated,” she says, but resigned to her fate. “I’m here now, there’s nothing else I can do.” In fact, for Taschereau-Mamers and her equally skeptical classmate, 21-year-old Meena

Gupta, the course proved a riveting and rewarding journey outside their comfort zone. It was an exploration of guilt and obligation, and of the limits of personal responsibility. And yet, says Gupta, “it was surprisingly upbeat for such a topic.” As for meditating—an idea inspired by Kahane’s visit to the silence of a Zen monastery in California—it may not have elevated the women to a higher level of consciousness but it did, as Gupta puts it, “clear your mind of all the background nonsense that’s gone on that day.”

True to form, Kahane is now examining that experimental course to see what worked and what didn’t—and to assess, as he says

with a laugh, “its overall flake-factor.” Kahane often makes mid-course corrections. In fact, he redesigned the university’s Philosophy 101 “Supersection,” an unwieldy introductory course of up to 245 students, to create an active learning environment using teams of teaching assistants and graduate students. It’s become a model for large-class learning at the university. The best teachers, he says, are great listeners. “It always seems to me my students have a tremendous amount to bring into the classroom,” he says. “It just becomes fun, finding structures that allow what they have to offer as well as what I have to offer to flow into that space.”

Deborah Berrill, director, School of Education and Professional Learning, Trent University

In an email setting up an interview time with Maclean’s, professor Berrill proudly attached photographs she’d taken of two of her bachelor of education students posing by the waterfront in Richmond, B.C. The two women were marking their graduation this spring with a cross-country bicycle trek to gather stories of the impact of breast cancer on survivors and their families. Berrill, in B.C. on other matters, was there to see them off. “ ’Twas a morning of brilliant sunshine but cold strong wind when we gathered at the

Fishermen’s Memorial,” she wrote of the students. “But, it was immensely gratifying to wish them well, with the wind at their backs.” That’s as fine a description as any of the propulsive power of good teaching. It was teachers, after all, who inspired her own career. “I had so many outstanding teachers who opened doors, who challenged me but supported me,” she says. “Who introduced me to new ideas and possibilities.”

Much has changed, and much has been learned, since she first stepped into a classroom-teaching Grades 7-13—in 1974She’s learned that every class and student has a unique set of challenges and gifts. “I don’t make assumptions that what I find interesting will be of immediate interest to my students,” she says. “Nor that I’m the only one who can identify the things we should be learning.” The same eagerness to learn holds true in her role as an administrator shaping the direction of Trent’s bachelor of education program. “She strikes me as the kind of person whom you could put in charge of the world,” says one colleague on faculty, “and then go to bed and have a very restful sleep.”

As long as the napping isn’t in one of her

classes. She feeds off the energy of her students. “For me, the buzz is not a performance high, it’s because of their ideas, of stepping aside and having them do the talking.” There is, for Berrill, the added joy of the ripple effect of teachers

teaching teachers, who in turn inspire yet more students. She’ll hear back from ex-students and marvel. “You see that you’ve had a small role in what they’ve gone on to do, and oftentimes you don’t know what it was,” she says. “Sometimes you may, but oftentimes you think, I’m not sure just which aspect lit their fire or grabbed their imagination.” Or set them on a course, she might have added, with the wind at their backs.

Frédéric Gourdeau, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Université Laval

It’s Saturday evening in Calgary and Gourdeau stands at the front of a hotel meeting room explaining his teaching philosophy to the summer conference of the Canadian Mathematical Society. There are sessions this weekend on Symmetry in Geometry, on Set Theory and Infinitary Combinatorics, and on that old favourite, L-Functions, Automorphic Forms and Representation Theory. By any measure, Gourdeau’s talk is more accessible. He apologizes for including biographical details, such as the four years he worked as a regional coordinator for Canadian Crossroads Interna-

tional, a group committed to voluntarism, international development and social action. It’s just, he explains, “that so much of what I do is grounded in my beliefs.”

This includes engaging the interest of the pre-university crowd. Gourdeau heads a group that runs an annual provincial mathematical games aimed at primary and secondary students. It focuses on fun, and sometimes, he says, it throws off“those little sparks” that ignite a passion for the subject.


Much of his work at Laval, apart from his research in functional analysis, is teaching undergraduate education students—future math teachers. His challenge is to make mathematics relevant to them so they can make it meaningful to their pupils. “I am teaching to the person as a whole,” he says. Apart from the usual diet of numbers and theory, he assigns readings on mathematical culture. He even assigns an essay— an idea prompting nervous laughter in the room tonight—to encourage them to think about why they want to teach mathematics.

It was his work for Crossroads, preparing people for the culture shock of international development, that made him a better teacher, he says. “It’s how to reconcile two things, the very pure academia of mathematics, when, yet, we are citizens of a world where there is lots of suffering.” Numeracy, for instance, is how informed citizens comprehend economic policy or World Bank aid initiatives. “We need to understand what our politicians are saying,” he says. And when their promises don’t add up.

Heather Smith, International Studies, coordinator of professional development, University of Northern British Columbia

Smith’s career as a professor of international studies seems inevitable; it just took a while

to realize it. Her father was in the military and served as a peacekeeper. “I was born in Germany,” she says, “and grew up all across Canada.” Her mother was a teacher, so was her grandmother and an aunt. Smith was 24, had just finished a master’s degree and was expounding to a group of friends on the value of teachers. They told her anyone who loves teaching that much is the kind of person who should be a university professor. They were right, she realized. “I walked in the next day and put in my application to do myPh.D.”

As a founding faculty member at UNBC, her career has grown in tandem with a young university. It has given her scope to be a researcher in her field, and an administrator as both chair of her program and coordinator of the university’s Teaching and Learning Centre. “Yeah, I’m an academic. And, yeah, I’m published,” she says. “But teaching for me is where you change lives.”

Like many 3M winners, she’s known for her high standards and heavy demands—but also for her flexibility and her ability to respect and to read her class. Students differ from term to term and from day to day, and so, too, should the way teachers respond to them. “I’ve learned over time to let go some authority,” she says. She’s also learned, she adds, “you can’t please everyone.” Her courses can be a heavy slog through poverty, death and destruction. “I teach about Afghanistan and I teach about Iraq and I teach about environmental degradation,” she says. Yet there is something inspiring about the dawning comprehension of a fresh point of view. “It counters the sort of pessimism that seems to pervade some of the topics.”

The program has had students working for the United Nations, for foreign aid programs, for the Red Cross. “It’s so profound, so fundamentally profound to know that there are people out there who will say ‘Heather Smith made me see the world differently,’ ” she says. “What more can you ask for?” M