Passion for Teaching in Higher Education: Two People Who Caught It

Passion for Teaching in Higher Education:
Two People Who Caught It

Lorne Adams
2004 3M Teaching Fellow
Anna Lathrop

2001 3M Teaching Fellow

he came to my office in tears. I was very surprised by this turn of events. She was, in my estimation, the brightest member of the class. Her academic performance clearly set her apart from her peers. She was incredibly organized, hard-working and, some would say, driven. An advisor’s dream, she was doing her fourth-year thesis under my supervision. She did things that needed to be done without being asked. Her research was extremely thorough. She feared that she might miss something and that it would compromise her need to have all the pertinent information. Her writing was advanced. Clearly, she was an intellectual in the making. But now, this gifted person (who I would later tease for holding ultra-conservative and right-wing values) was sitting in my office in tears. She just couldn’t do it. She couldn’t manage all the work she had to do and maintain the standards she had set for herself. She was, as they say, “beside herself” I offered these strategies-a little prioritizing, putting things in perspective, setting work for me aside for a while–and a little reassurance that the world would unfold as it should. Standards could and would be maintained.

After graduation, she came to me and indicated that she felt she needed to pursue a Master’s degree in physical education, and ultimately, an academic’s life. I provided what support I could and wished her well. Not long after that, or so it seemed, during my term as Chair of the Department, she made the short list for a position advertised by my institution. She was young, energetic and so full of potential. That potential may not have been clear to everyone, so as Chair, I certainly supported her application-and, as some might say, lobbied strongly for her appointment. Her application was successful and we were no longer student and advisor. We were colleagues.

I remember distinctly when she first stated that she had a strong commitment to teaching. She told me that she wanted to be known as a storyteller. She wanted to bring subject matter to life and provide the richness and depth as only a good storyteller can do. She didn’t want to just teach; she wanted to captivate, to instil the same passion for learning that she herself felt so intensely. And so, her journey began. Once again, we shared chats along the way about expectations, students, success and failure, what might work and what might not. She was consumed by her passion for her subject, and as such, her teaching steadily improved. As Chair, I didn’t have to see her course evaluations to know that her teaching was effective. I heard it in the halls, in my office, in conversations with students and comments from colleagues.

As class sizes continued to grow, the demands on professors increased concomitantly. No longer was it possible for an instructor to give the lectures and run all the seminars. So the University increasingly hired teaching assistants to run seminars and to help with the marking. It is no surprise that in some departments, TAs were left pretty much to their own devices. “Here’s a seminar outline-go to it.” Also, not surprisingly, Anna was not one of those professors. Teaching assistants were screened very carefully and given formal training sessions. They attended weekly briefing and debriefing meetings.

Not content to do this only for her students and TAS, she approached the Instructional Development Office to share what she had to offer. She was welcomed with open arms. Sharing and mentoring became a large part of her professional life. Undergraduate students actively sought her out as a thesis advisor to the point that she had to set limits. Graduate students also actively pursued her as a mentor and supervisor. New faculty recognized her as someone who was not only incredibly gifted, but also incredibly willing to share. She was a member of the institution in the truest sense of the word-someone who leads by doing. She was someone from whom you could learn-a storyteller in the truest sense of the word. In 2001 Dr. Anna Lathrop, the young woman who had earlier sat in my office in tears, became the first faculty member in the Department of Physical Education to receive a 3M Teaching Fellowship. The mentee was now the mentor. It was I who was left with a tear in my eye.

THE STUDENT’S PERSPECTIVE

I first met Dr. Lorne Adams in 1974 during my undergraduate program of study. He was a relatively young professor who modeled a number of characteristics that I neither liked nor appreciated. I held very conservative values. I believed knowledge was absolute, academic disciplines were discrete and well-defined, and that students were expected to absorb knowledge as it was delivered to them by the professoriate. Universities were sites of privilege that maintained the highest academic standards of inquiry. Students were to be rigorously tested. If they failed, they alone were responsible.

Dr. Lorne Adams challenged these values. He was unorthodox in appearance and demeanor. His style was relaxed and a bit too casual, it seemed to me. Covering course content appeared secondary to discussion and critical reflection. He seemed to model his subject and thus, classes were never boring. He was a “storyteller” weaving bits of biography, current events, and the generational markers that students would find relevant and meaningful. At the time, I considered this approach rather unnecessary.

In my third year, he was my professor in a health issues course. Naturally, every topic was rife with controversy, and I always appeared to be on the “right” end of the political debate. This experience, again, made me feel very uncomfortable; and yet I felt that I was being pushed to think outside the box-wrestle with issues in regard to human rights and diversity-in a way that felt “safe” and respectful. In year four, I found myself doing the unthinkable. I asked Lorne to be my thesis advisor. By this time, I recognized I wanted an advisor who would give me the freedom to pursue my research agenda and also, do so with a measure of academic rigor, safety, trust and mutual respect.

In a pattern all too familiar for a number of female academics, the next ten years of the journey might be described as academe disruptus. I entered graduate school. I married. I dropped out of graduate school. I gave birth to two children. (A senior university administrator would later ask what I had done for those “eight lost years” not appearing on my academic transcript. I replied that I was “fulfilling the dominant paradigm.”)

In 1988 I returned to my former alma mater, and there, in an interview that included my former professor, was hired as a sessional instructor. Over the next sixteen years my academic journey proceeded-still characterized by a struggle that entailed the completion of two graduate degrees while balancing the fulltime demands of teaching and research. At this juncture, Lorne became a confidant, colleague and friend, ensuring that my shift from former student to full colleague was seamless. As a teacher, although I still struggled with the earlier ghosts related to covering content, maintaining professional distance and institutional gate-keeping, I had the benefit of working within an academic environment that included other colleagues, like Lorne, who truly valued teaching and embodied it in their every professional decision and interaction. I learned how to build the practices of teaching excellence into my courses, and I began to see what institutional systems were essential in order to preserve and foster an academic climate that valued teaching.

Massie May Kirkwood, one of a very small group of Canadian women who achieved university teaching positions early in the twentieth century, said “Scholarly passion is caught from persons by persons.” I am indeed pleased that I caught a piece of this passion from one of my great teachers, and I am hopeful that I can pass it along to others.