Supporting teaching excellence for a third of a century

- Phil Saunders

Dr. Neil Gold picks his words carefully. Not only because he is a law professor, but because he is addressing an issue some academics struggle to balance in their careers. Gold is at UVic to give a talk about the scholarship of teaching and learning, marking the 33rd anniversary of the Learning and Teaching Centre (LTC).

Gold is currently a faculty member in the University of Windsor law school, but in 1979 he helped found UVic’s LTC and served as its first director.

“There’s no doubt that there is a perceived conflict between teaching, as it’s seen in a traditional university setting, and research-based scholarly work,” he says. “But I think that tide is shifting now for a number of reasons.”

Gold says this transformation is an opportunity to support and champion teaching at UVic, a mission he was asked to take on with LTC in the late seventies in addition to his work as a law professor.

Then–vice-president academic and chemistry professor Fred Fisher approached Gold because of his expertise in teaching prospective lawyers how to manage the challenges they face in communicating and working with clients who lack a grounding in the law.

“There’s no doubt that there are similarities in the approach,” Gold says. “Clearly the paradigms between practitioners in a legal setting and their clients are similar to those who have been trained and encouraged to conduct research rather than teaching. The point is finding a way to integrate both in universities and treat both equally when it comes to promoting faculty who teach and publish regularly.”

This sentiment is echoed by Andy Farqharson, 3M Teaching Fellow (1986) and LTC director from 1984–87 and 1990–99, though he puts a finer point on the culture that created the teaching and learning centre.

“I recall [former UVic Vice-President, Academic,] Murray [Fraser] calling me down into his office after I’d programmed a number of lunchtime chats called things like ‘Tax Planning for Academics’ and ‘How to get your book published’,” recalls Farqharson—the idea being to attract people to something they are interested in and then also peppering them with short, 15-minute “infomercials” about the practice of teaching. “He looked at me and said, ‘You can’t do that.” I said, ‘Oh yes I can, and I’m absolutely convinced that’s the way to do it.“

That story aside, many credit Fraser with establishing an important place for teaching at UVic.

“After all the accolades that Fraser receives as a visionary force in the early days of UVic, he hasn’t been adequately celebrated for the significant contribution he made by championing the Learning and Teaching Centre here,” says education professor Antoinette Oberg, director from 1983–84.

Current LTC Acting Associate Director Joe Parsons says that recognizing and rewarding teaching is the most important decision the university has made.

“I tallied all the teaching awards received by UVic instructors, and you see a marked upward climb, peaking at 20 in 2001,” he says. “I can’t explain why that is, but I can say that there has been a steady rise in the appreciation of the practice of teaching.”

Mary Sanseverino (computer science), who acted as director from June to May of last year, agrees. “Recently I was asked by former graduate student to write a few reference letters for their teaching abilities,” she says. “A few letters wouldn’t be a problem to kick out, I thought. Thirty letters later, I’m still writing them. So it proves that teaching ability is becoming increasingly desirable in the job market for academics. The market is demanding it now.”

“One of the important things that we do at LTC is to take a scholarly approach to teaching,” says Teresa Dawson, current director and whose idea it was to hold the anniversary celebration. “Teaching excellence to me is about being a reflective practitioner, and as our master teacher Ed Ishiguro likes to say, if I ever stop learning about teaching, that’s my cue to retire.”

Gold assesses the change in focus on teaching as a result of a number of factors, including students demanding a more interdisciplinary approach to teaching as well as a certain level of educational delivery at university. However, the most compelling is accountability.

“We have parents, government and employers demanding accountability for the dollars being spent.” he says. “So there are a lot of pressures for us to do better. And whether it’s just value for money on the one hand, or a sense that society really needs people who are powerfully able to move the economic situation along, it makes little difference. The point is we have a lot of reasons to help students be better abled, better educated.”


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Keywords: teaching, award

People: Neil Gold

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