Volume 12, Number 18 May 13, 2005

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Thompson, Schwier win prestigious 3M teaching awards

By Colleen MacPherson

The art of great teaching got significant recognition May 13 when it was announced that two U of S professors have been awarded prestigious 3M Teaching Fellowships this year.

Prof. John Thompson

Prof. John Thompson

John Thompson, retiring this year as a professor of sociology at St. Thomas More (STM) College, and Richard Schwier, professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum Studies, become the fourth and fifth U of S teachers to receive Canada’s only national award for university teaching and leadership.

For Thompson, the award “caught me by surprise … and I feel embarrassed, to be frank, because there are a lot of great teachers out there.”

Well-known for his “live sociologist at work” method of teaching writing that involves doing an essay on the blackboard with his students, Thompson knew he wanted to devote his life to teaching just 10 minutes into his first class, which was Algebra II for 20 Grade 11 students. Since then, “there’s been something inside of me that never wanted to stop working harder at teaching.”

Now in its 20th year, the 3M fellowship program, sponsored by the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, presents up to 10 awards annually to teachers across Canada who not only excel at teaching but who are also innovators and leaders in the field.

Prof. Rick Schwier

Prof. Rick Schwier

Thompson’s award comes at the end of a distinguished career at STM that began in 1982. In fact, Thompson took time out of marking his final set of exam papers to speak to On Campus News, admitting “there will be a certain joy when I come to the last one”. In addition to being recognized for his teaching, the 3M award pays tribute to Thompson’s extensive work with the Gwenna Moss Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC) to support and encourage teaching at the U of S. One effort to refocus attention on undergraduate education he has particularly enjoyed is his presentation to graduate students entitled “The Vocation of Teaching”.

When asked to describe his reaction to receiving the fellowship, Schwier said, “I have to use words like stunned, but there is also a feeling of responsibility and humility that comes with it.” That responsibility comes from his viewing himself as “more of a representative of a lot of people who really care about teaching, who’ve taken it on as mission”.

Schwier graduated from Indiana University with a BS in English and both an MS and EdD in instructional systems technology. He joined the College’s Department of Educational Communications as an assistant professor in 1978 and was appointed full professor in curriculum studies in 1993.

In describing his teaching philosophy, Schwier uses the analogy of a sailing adventure with the teacher as captain charged with the responsibility to keep his crew safe, to inspire confidence in their own abilities and to motivate them to reach their own destination. Teaching, he said, is “a priority and a passion”.

He added it was a privilege to have previous 3M winners as their nominators – Ron Marken, English professor and founding director of the TLC, for Schwier, and Kinesiology professor Len Gusthart for Thompson. The other 3M recipient at the U of S is Civil and Geological Engineering professor Mel Hosain.

Both Thompson and Schwier believe much of the credit for receiving the 3M Fellowships belongs to Tereigh Ewert-Bauer and Kim West, instructional developers and graduate consultants at the TLC, who meticulously assembled their nomination dossiers.

Marken said the 3M award is “easily the equivalent of a research chair, not that they get any funding but in the cachet they carry internationally as well as nationally.”

In the view of the University president, winning 20 per cent of the country’s 3M awards in one year “is a striking reminder of the quality and importance of teaching at this University”.

“This is fabulous news,” said Peter MacKinnon. “John and Rick are wonderful teachers and scholars, and their record of achievements fully merits recognition at a national level.”

Thompson concurs with the president that the quality of teaching is high at the U of S “but I worry at times that the University is trying to do so many things. It emphasizes both research intensity and teaching” and while the institution has worked hard to maintain both messages, “if you want to get ahead in a career, teaching is not the way to do it. Research is.”

Winning two 3M awards in one year is indeed significant, Schwier said, “especially in a year when the University is trying to express its commitment to teaching. Have we supported teaching well on this campus? There would be a lot of debate about that, but the University is trying to understand the role of teaching. There has been so much attention paid to the research side, not to the exclusion of teaching, but isn’t it wonderful to celebrate teaching. This day we can say ‘Hey, teaching is important’.”

The fellowship includes an intensive weekend retreat for the winners at Chateau Montebello in Quebec in November.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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