Basso, 51, has been teaching molecular biology and microbiology at the University of Ottawa since 2000. Growing up in Montreal, he wanted to be a vet but, ironically for an award-winning educator, he felt he wasn’t a good enough student. He has an MA and PhD from Concordia University, and held two postdoctoral research fellowships before turning to teaching. He was a professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and then moved to the University of Ottawa where he teaches in both English and French.
Why he’s good
Basso’s open-door policy is so well known that even students who aren’t in his class drop by his office to see him—their friends who are in Basso’s class assure them: “Go see John. He will help you.” Basso offers assistance with everything from deciphering scientific jargon to helping students figure out job applications to prepping them for interviews for medical school. “Students are often intimidated by professors,” he says. “Unless you make it really clear to them that you are available, they won’t [come to see you.]
He tells students: “My name is John,” and asks them to avoid calling him “Dr. Basso.” “I want to show that I’m just like one of them. Not better than them.”
On engaging students
He finds interacting with students more gratifying than scientific research and has chosen to commit himself exclusively to teaching, rather than trying to juggle both. “With teaching, you have an immediate impact. You can change minds. Independent of the size of the class, you just want to show the students that you care about what makes them unique, you care about what they’ll do and that you’ll guide them.”
THE FLIPSIDE: RESEARCH OVER TEACHING
Professors should be inspirations and mentors, but far too many students are left disappointed with the person at the front of the lecture hall. In an analysis of 6,000 students as part of the Canadian University Report survey last year, one-quarter said their worst academic experience related to a poor professor. This ranged from frustration over a professor’s organizational skills, such as inadequate office hours, to poor language or pedagogical skills and rude or mean demeanour. “They are common complaints,” says Alex Usher, founding president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, which analyzes the report’s survey responses. First year of university can be a huge shock to many students, he says, and “students are looking for contact and sympathy. They just feel lost and are looking for someone to give them a hand.” But unfortunately, many of them are not finding this guidance from their professors. And the situation is getting worse, Usher adds.
Part of the problem stems from professors who are too caught up in their research to be committed to their undergraduate teaching responsibilities. But Usher also blames the economics of how Canadian universities are set up. The institutions are rewarded, both financially and through greater prestige, by producing top-level research. So universities admit more undergraduates then they can realistically handle and then skim from those earnings to pay for research going on at the top.
Given the reward structure, Usher doesn’t see the overall picture improving any time soon. However, there are some smaller changes being made to improve undergraduate students’ connection to their professors. For instance, the University of Toronto has first-year seminar courses which are limited to 20 students, instead of the more typical 200 or 300. “Hopefully the professors signing up for these seminars are motivated [to build strong relationships with first-year students]” Usher says.
A more systemic change that would be necessary, he adds, is for university administrations to make the connection between overall budgeting and course loads for professors. He says universities are not deliberately hiding the trade-offs, but they are not making them transparent.