Wells, 46, grew up in Toronto in a family where there was a lot of music and many teachers. After graduating with a BA in music history at the University of Toronto, she worked at a radio station as a classical music programmer. She chose to go back to university to do graduate work in musicology at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, because she “wanted to go deeper” in her knowledge of the art form. She has been teaching at Mount Allison for 10 years and says that being appointed a National 3M Teaching Fellow in 2010 felt like winning an Oscar.
Why she’s good
Wells has developed a number of cool courses—there’s one devoted to The Beatles. Another, Music and Difference, comes with a warning label about the R-rated content. Wells is part of a growing movement called the scholarship of teaching and learning, which advocates that professors constantly refine their methods of how to engage students. So, for example, instead of a 15% participation grade, Wells now awards students a 15% professionalism grade—a more important benchmark.
“Because I’m a very organized person, I used to design courses that were very tight, very focused,” Wells says. “Now I am much more spontaneous because that’s where the real moments of learning happen.” Even people who aren’t registered in her class drop by because of her gregarious reputation.
On engaging students
She is empathetic to students who don’t feel comfortable speaking in front of others and will tell them a story about a painfully shy woman she knew at university—herself. Students are often impressed and touched by her candour. “The journey from a place of uncertainty to a place at the front of a classroom seems a very long journey indeed,” Wells says. It’s important for “us to always be mindful, with gratitude, of our students—their journeys, their struggles, their victories, their stories—which are ours as well.”
Professor of English, University of Winnipeg
Deborah Schnitzer, 61, has been teaching at the University of Winnipeg since 1988. She did an undergraduate degree in English and philosophy at the University of Western Ontario and graduate work at the Universities of Calgary and Manitoba. She is also a published poet and novelist, a filmmaker and a social activist. She is a National 3M Teaching Fellow.
Why she’s good
Schnitzer loves that students in her classes are not just English majors but come from all disciplines. She welcomes the use of multimedia for assignments, “anything that a student conceives of”—be it a quilt, a picture, a music composition, a dance, a video or a sculpture. Schnitzer is a big believer in learning by doing and started a program where students get hands-on experience through university-community partnerships. In one of these practicum courses, students commit themselves to working four to six hours a week for a non-profit organization, in addition to their time in the classroom. In the second half of the course, they develop a collective community-building class project.
The first thing Schnitzer does in all of her classes, even if there are dozens of students, is to make a circle with the desks. “In a circle, people can’t hide in the back with their laptops,” she laughs. Regarding the distraction of iPads and smart phones, she chooses to be upfront from the very beginning and asks the students to make a collective decision about what place the devices have in the classroom. She calls it a bill of rights. “We don’t pretend it’s not going on. We deal with it with humour, warmth, generosity and authenticity.”
On engaging students
Schnitzer is devoted to undergraduate teaching and says that she found her very first experience dramatic and exciting. She loves sharing epiphanies with her students, “watching people fall in and out of love with literature.”
Undergraduate Laboratory Co-Ordinator, Department of Biology, University of Ottawa