There's no sage on a stage in Mikael Hellstrom's classroom. Instead, the sessional instructor in political science puts lectures on his own YouTube channel and uses classroom time to have students "play" their way through his course.
Whether the students earn badges and points or role-play the part of legislators, Dr. Hellstrom says, exchanging lectures, essays and exams for a gamified course has increased their engagement.
"It increases motivation beyond the normal. C students can get As," he explained during a seminar at this week's Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa, the annual gathering of academics from across Canada.
Dr. Hellstrom, who has taught at the University of Calgary, is part of a new generation of professors, many of whom are just entering the job market, who are as interested in teaching as research. Yet younger academics sharing their pedagogical strategies at the conference say they have found that institutions and many established colleagues have to be persuaded to innovate. The growth of teaching-track positions, which helps universities manage larger class sizes, has helped passionate instructors land jobs. But overall, when universities make hiring decisions, they are counting the number of journal articles.
"We live in a publish-or-perish paradigm and there is not much incentive to invest time in the teaching," Dr. Hellstrom said.
He was short-listed for a tenure-track job, he said, but the position went to someone with more published work. "It is often assumed that capacity in research equals teaching capacity," he said.
Graduate students who prioritize teaching ignore that reality at their peril, said Jenepher Lennox Terrion, an associate professor in communication at the University of Ottawa.
"Graduate students who are ravenous get the big CVs," she told a group of students who had gathered for a workshop on mentoring, one of several career seminars the conference offers to address material rather than epistemological preoccupations (e.g. how to pay a mortgage).
Dr. Terrion has sat on hiring committees: Hundreds of applications come in for each opening, she said.
"You should always have articles out there being reviewed for publication. The first time you get the comments back, it hurts, but take what you can and send the pieces back out. You don't want things sitting in your computer. Don't go to too many conferences … focus on producing," she advised the students.
And she issued a warning, one she had been given when she was starting out: "Don't fall into the 'teaching trap.'" Everyone loves teaching, she said, "but it can gobble you up."
Some newer academics would rather change the world than pursue success on those terms.
For Dominique Robert, who was also giving job advice at the mentorship panel, lecturing was uncomfortable.
"Defining myself as an expert was detrimental to my quality of life," said the criminology professor at the University of Ottawa. "I had to think about what I love about university, and I love to learn, so I allowed myself to become a learner again," she said.
Dr. Robert now conducts research alongside her undergraduate students. "Profs don't always see students as people, and people who are interdisciplinary. We can learn from them," she said, pointing to the fact that today's students were born long after the birth of the Internet.
Many tenured professors care about teaching, but are hemmed in by how institutions reward it – or rather, don't.
Harold Jansen, a professor at the University of Lethbridge who participated in Dr. Hellstrom's seminar, and is himself an advocate for improving university teaching, was concerned about the time involved in setting up gamified courses. But he praised the renewed attention to the undergrad learning experience.
"The art of teaching is trying to understand who students are rather than being frustrated that they are not more like us," he said.
If one thing sets Generation X academics apart, it is that they are willing to adapt to the differences they have with their students.
Zack Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, said he discovered that he had demanded too much when he asked his class to take on a major research project around the 2014 municipal election in Toronto.
"The group work was difficult, it's difficult to do at a commuter campus," he said.
That is why he's come to believe that trying out ambitious teaching strategies "needs to be a campuswide project," one where each professor can learn from others' experiments.
In the meantime, new academics are trying to move the academy by getting off the stage. "There are many ways to be a prof. You have to take ownership of how you define yourself," Dr. Robert said.