Great Teachers

Rated as one of the best in Canada, McMaster 's Richard Day lectures with wit and unbridled enthusiasm

Brian D. Johnson October 21 1991

Great Teachers

Rated as one of the best in Canada, McMaster 's Richard Day lectures with wit and unbridled enthusiasm

Brian D. Johnson October 21 1991

Great Teachers

Rated as one of the best in Canada, McMaster 's Richard Day lectures with wit and unbridled enthusiasm

The lecture theatre is one of those institutional mistakes of the 1960s, a stuffy auditorium with cinder-block walls painted in lurid pastels—grape, mauve and mustard. As some 300 students filter in, taking their seats in a room littered with coffee cups and muffin wrappers left by the previous class, Richard Day paces up and down the aisles, humming softly, psyching himself up for another session of Developmental Psychology 2A3. Bearded and balding, he is casually dressed in an open-necked shirt, jeans and suede sandals. On the stroke of the appointed hour, 1:30 p.m., he just starts talking, without asking for the students’ attention or waiting for the stragglers to drift in. With the sound of his voice, the din of conversation gradually subsides, as during the opening credits of a movie. The professor makes an announcement. The blue pages at the back of the textbook, he says, will be on next month’s test. There is a low groan from the class. In teaching, some things never change.

But when Day begins to lecture, his performance is rivetting. For 50 minutes, he never stops moving. He walks up and down one aisle, circling the front of the room, then stalks up and down the other aisle, and so on. Talking all the time, he walks forwards and backwards. Carving out his thoughts with constant gesticulation, he speaks with the strength and confidence of a stage actor. His topic for the day is how infants learn to perceive the world around them, how they respond to stimulus and develop “strategies of attention.” And as Day works the room, he appears to have developed his own strategy for sustaining attention and stimulating young minds. He is not just teaching psychology; he is practising it.

Of the 36,000 teachers in Canada’s universities, Day is considered to be one of the best. An associate professor of psychology at McMaster University in Hamilton, he belongs to a 1991 Top 10 of educators who received 3M Teaching Fellowships—Canada’s only nationwide, interdisciplinary awards for teaching excellence. Being a great teacher, however, is often not the highest goal of those who dispense higher education. By all accounts, published research continues to be the main yardstick by which most universities evaluate and promote their faculty.

Day, now 44, gave up research in 1980 so that he could concentrate on teaching. And despite his obvious talent as an educator, he remains an associate professor. “Most of the faculty my age are full professors,” Day told Maclean’s. “But I’m doing something I enjoy, so it doesn’t bother me.” Then he added: “Students and faculty have very different perceptions of what the university is for. For the faculty, it’s primarily here for research.” Good teaching gets no respect. That, in brief, was the overwhelming conclusion last week of Stuart Smith’s Commission of Inquiry on Canadian University Education. Writes Smith: “The best teacher in the world, given a poor or non-existent research record, has little or no

chance of promotion at most of the research-intensive universities.” On the other hand, the report added, “a truly terrible teacher” with an excellent research record will be promoted. Most professors consulted by Smith agreed that there is too much emphasis on research. “I don’t spend time on teaching because there is absolutely no payoff to me,” Ian Gomme, a sociology professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, told the commission.

Because of the sheer number of students, however, the lecture remains the primary link between undergraduates and their professors. And Day conducts his lectures with unbridled enthusiasm. He says that he happily volunteered to teach firstand second-year psychology courses—which other professors try to avoid. “There are people who see undergraduates as a nuisance,” says Day, “as carousers, heavy

drinkers. But my experience is that they are intelligent and well motivated.”

During a year, Day teaches about 3,000 of McMaster’s 11,000 full-time and 3,500 part-time undergraduates—but not all in person. The 1,900 first-year students enrolled in his introductory psychology course watch him on videotape. The course consists of 50 one-hour tapes. They are available for private viewing, but most students watch them in small classroom groups. Each class is supervised by a tutor—usually a senior undergraduate—who fields questions and supervises tests. “Within the first few

weeks,” he says, “I’m perceived as a television person rather than a real person.”

Many of Day’s first-year students go on to see him in the flesh in second year. David Shaver, 22, and Karen Hill, 21, two friends majoring in physical education, sit together in Psychology 2A3. “When he’s in person, it’s a lot better,” says Shaver. “He gives more examples.” Hill concurs. “This class is a lot better than the one on video,” she says. “On video, he doesn’t repeat stuff as much, so you don’t have as much time to write down what he’s saying.”

In Psychology 2A3, Hill sits with her head cocked to the side of her notebook, which rests on a fold-out writing table. She methodically takes down the highlights of Day’s lecture on perceptual and social devel-

opment. He lectures at an energetic pace, chopping through thickets of terminology. Occasionally, he steps up to an overhead projector at the front and jots down some key phrases in point form with a blue marker. His scrawl, along with the shadow of his hand, show up larger than life on a screen on the wall.

Every so often, Day interrupts his parade of marshalled ideas with anecdotes. The students relax their pens and listen. To explain how an infant extracts order from the apparent chaos of “a stimulus situation,” he offers an example: “I came to Canada about 20 years ago from the States. I grew up outside Boston. And at that time, where I lived, nobody played hockey. I mean nobody. There was no public rink within 20 miles. There was hardly any hockey on television.” On seeing his first hockey game in Canada, Day recalls, “the first thing I noticed is that it’s chaos. People were skating all over the place, waving sticks. It was meaningless.” Laughter ripples through the class. “But as I watched more and more,” Day adds, “I came to see the higher order of organization—the flow of the game. That was something I had to learn to extract from what I took to be chaos.” Throughout the lecture, Day stickhandles smoothly between the jargon of his discipline and the slang of common sense. Churning through theories about an infant’s attachment to its mother, he first introduces the terminology, then cuts it down to size. An “avoidant infant” becomes an “infant that is cheesed off.” A baby’s instinctive responses to separation anxiety are “illicitors” that include “signalling” and “executive” behavior. Signalling, says Day, means “cry-cry, wave-wave, wigglewiggle—the baby’s saying, ‘Yo, don’t go!’ ” (The professor wildly £ waves his arms by way of illustra5 tion.) Executive responses, he I explains, include crawling and I grabbing. (He refrains from act1 ing them out.)

^ By the end of the lecture, the 5 room seems hotter and stuffier than before. “Phew, it was pushing 78° in there,” says Day, walking out into the fall sunshine. Like a performer who has just stepped off stage, he seems both exhausted and exhilarated. “There are days when I’m really tired,” he says, “and if I taught the way I felt, I’d really be dragging my ass.” He adds: “Then there are days when you come out of there flying. It just flows out of you and you can’t say a wrong thing. It’s a high to teach. In the Sixties, you’d call it a rush. I can’t believe they pay me to do this.” Then Day, a happy foot soldier of higher education, unlocks a battered bicycle from a rack, straps his briefcase on the back and heads back to the anonymity of his office.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON in Hamilton


Student/teacher ratio

1. Memorial

2. Regina

3. New Brunswick (UNB)

4. Brandon

5. Sainte-Anne

6. Mount Saint Vincent

7. Acadia

8. Alberta

9. Mount Allison

10. Manitoba


Operating budget per student

1. McMaster

2. Mount Allison

3. McGill

4. Guelph

5. British Columbia (UBC)

6. Montreal (U of M)

7. Toronto (U of T)

8. Manitoba

9. Lethbridge

10. Laurentian

Most residential beds per student

1. Sainte-Anne

2. Mount Allison

3. St. Francis Xavier

4. Acadia

5. Guelph

6. Brandon

7. Bishop’s

8. Trent

9. St. Thomas

10. Queen’s

Source: Maclean's Ranking, 1991