University Professors and their Passion for Teaching
By Mercedes Rowinsky-Geurts PhD
As I sipped my coffee last Saturday morning, I found myself reflecting on Margaret Wente’s article: “Want to know why professors don’t teach?” As a university professor, I questioned the generalizations presented in this article. First of all, let me clarify some points. Most university professors are committed to offer the best quality education possible to students who come to class full of expectations, hopes, and questions about the world around them. They are curious, excited and ready to accept the challenges posed to them. Their parents, and most of the time, students themselves, are the ones paying for their education and they expect to get full value for their investment. I take my job seriously. I have a high sense of responsibility towards those young minds eager to discover new possibilities. To explore new ideas and unveil issues unknown to them.
Being an excellent professor is a demanding task.
Exploring themes for classes that may spark students’ interest, motivating them to perform at the best of their abilities, and presenting the material in an engaging manner takes time. Most professors dedicate long hours to their teaching. Universities are full of excellent professors, who contribute time to developing the curriculum, creating learning objectives, preparing lectures, marking and advising students, among other duties. To assume that we are all gallivanting around the world presenting talks that nobody attends. Or that we live secluded in our research silos writing some obscure article that nobody will read, as presented by Margaret Wente, is not only untrue, it is also disturbing. Such comments undermine the excellent work being done today, at our Canadian universities, by thousands of devoted professors.
Academics who try to do both excellent research and outstanding teaching know that these two activities don’t exclude but complement each other.
Part of my research interest, for example, is on exile and identity. And I have done, and I’m still doing, extensive research on the topic. Many of the ideas explored in my research resurface in the classroom. And heated debates take place within those four walls, where the most enticing questions arise. Students want to know more about what is going on in the world. They want to be exposed to new concepts, different cultures. Each class is like a trip to faraway places where people are different in many ways. But at the end, appear so similar to us. The debate doesn’t end in the classroom, though. We gather after a cinema class to keep the momentum going, for example.
Students have emailed me with concerns about a topic discussed in class. They feel intrigued about the situation of children’s poverty in Brazil after the screening of a film, and they decided to organize an awareness day where the issue is presented and discussed further.
That’s what a good professor does. Plants a seed, offers the tools to grow it, and shares the excitement of the learning process.
In this way, research and teaching merge in the creative field of academia. By attending conferences, we network with others to gather new information. Students want to see active academics excited about ideas and passionate about their course content.
With that said, some professors dedicate more time to their research than they do to their teaching. But this is at the core of what needs to be changed in academia. We have to find a healthy balance between these two fields. Institutions need to recognize that teaching is at the core of what we do, and research should accompany our teaching mission.
Universities are teaching and research institutions, and both activities should be celebrated and encouraged by all involved.
There are many outstanding teachers at Canadian universities. Professors that are full of initiative and creativity, passionate about the craft of teaching. They are also prolific researchers and committed members of their institutions, sharing willingly their time doing administrative work, even during the summer months. For those who believe that each summer we do what we please, let me warn them. Summer is sometimes the busiest time for an academic. This is the period where we attend conferences, plan for the year ahead, keep up with our research, and still, answer students’ queries. The job of an academic is never-ending.
This summer I started to work on a second Canadian Edition of a Spanish textbook. I kept working on a current monograph on my research and I attended meetings at my institution. Additionally, I participated in ongoing meetings with the Executive Council of the 3M Fellows and kept abreast with the activities of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. All the while working on a Collaborative Research Project on Undergraduate Degree Level Expectations in Ontario. Meanwhile, I got a request from the Dean of the Library to become a member of an Ad Hoc Committee of the Ontario Council of Universities Librarians, and I accepted the challenge.
Apart from those activities, I also made time to share days with my loved ones and experience the beauty of having an incredible grandson who is eager to learn anything that you present to him.
Yes, we are academics. We try to learn and teach about the world we live in. We encourage others to ask the hard questions while we reflect on them also. And we try to engage students’ minds. We encourage them to challenge themselves to be better, to aim higher, to trust themselves with their critical thinking process. Sometimes we guide them, and other times we facilitate the process. Most of the time, we stand wondering how come we have been blessed with the opportunity to enlighten young minds that will be the future of a country that we all love. I’m a university professor. A teacher and a researcher committed to form the leaders of tomorrow, and I’m not alone.