For Western professor Wendy Pearson, teaching excellence is about valuing people as much as pedagogy. It is a lifelong commitment that has earned her recognition among the national classroom elite.
Pearson was recently named a 2019 recipient of the prestigious 3M National Teaching Fellowship, one of 10 recipients nationwide. The award goes to an elite group each year who show excellence in teaching philosophy. She becomes the 25th winner in Western history.
“I’m fairly experimental as a teacher so I may be talking (to colleagues) about this thing that I tried that worked really well or this thing that was a total flop,” she said.
“I’m not really enamoured of the test/exam/ essay combination most people do some variation around. For me, the value of being experimental is that it does do something for a specific course but it’s also a way of trying to get people to think a little bit differently. They’re all used to doing the research essay; they’re all used to the final exam; they’re all used to these specific things. So it’s one specific set of skills. But once they’ve mastered those specific skills, or once they’re better at them, I don’t think that’s always pushing them beyond their comfort zone.”
Her teaching and research engage a range of fields, including film studies, feminist theory, cultural studies, queer theory, science fiction and Indigenous studies.
While teaching Canadian film studies, Pearson realized that few students had even watched Canadian films. That led her to create Canada Watches, a competition in which all students watched different films, created Wiki pages to promote them to their classmates, and then voted on the best of the bunch. The winning team received movie passes – and all gained insight into far more movies than would have been possible in a traditionally designed class.
For one of her Queer Studies classes, students designed an infographic or a public service announcement to explain why queer theory is important today.
That wasn’t as successful, but it was also an opportunity to learn, she said, recalling a presentation by English professor emeritus Allan Gedalof (himself a 3M National Teaching Fellowship recipient). His teaching philosophy was to fail, try again, fail again and fail better.
“That sums up for me a lot of what we do. When something fails, or doesn’t completely succeed, you just have to do it better next time,” said Pearson, Chair of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research.
Established in 1986, the 3M National Teaching Fellowship is awarded annually by 3M Canada and the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE), a private-sector and not-for-profit co-operative initiative. The award recognizes university and college teachers who have shown local, national and international leadership in teaching excellence and have a superlative, sustained undergraduate teaching career.
3M Teaching Fellows receive no money or research grants but instead receive a lifetime membership in STLHE and a four-day study retreat together at the Château Montebello in November and are welcomed during a conference and ceremony, to be held this year in Winnipeg.
Of Pearson, the award committee said, in part:
“Good professors inspire their students to be better scholars. Great professors inspire students to be better people. Wendy Pearson’s approach to social justice is personal. She starts with individuals and figures out what they need to function in the world, and she makes the changes happen that will make those individuals comfortable and capable. With patience and quiet guidance, she creates a classroom community of engaged individuals who discover how to learn and find their own place. In short, she prepares students to change the world.”
That self- and world-changing notion is entirely by design, Pearson said.
Pearson hopes she has encouraged students to have “the confidence to think through their ideas, and the evidence to support them and express them well.”
She added, “I’ve been the ‘out’ person in the classroom since 1984 when I was teaching part-time at Trent (University). Quite often, I might be the only out faculty member the students know. That’s less true these days. But if you’re white, straight, middle-class – all those things – the classroom is kind of designed for you. Everything is sort of set for your comfort level and comes out of your cultural background. If you don’t fall into one of those boxes, it can be a much less welcoming space.
“What I’ve been trying to do is make the classroom as inclusive as possible so that people don’t come in and feel really uncomfortable.”
She said one rewarding aspect of her work has been to be part of a team that led the department out of declining enrolment and into new and better course offerings.
Pearson has developed about two dozen new courses at Western and won the Edward G. Pleva Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2016.
Among her many advocacy activities, Pearson is co-founder of the Queer Caucus at Western, which links LGBTQ+ people and their allies from across campus to forge a strong community, and organized an annual Queer Research Day.
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Western has a proud tradition of 3M National Teaching Fellows with 25 winners in the program’s history including:
2019 Wendy Pearson, Women’s Studies and Feminist Research
2014 Cameron Tsujita, Earth Sciences
2013 Mark Goldszmidt, Medicine
2012 Marjorie Johnson, Anatomy and Cell Biology
2008 Jim Silcox, Obstetrics and Gynecology
2005 Anton Allahar, Sociology
2004 Bertha Garcia, Pathology
2000 Francis Ping-Hung Chan, Anatomy and Cell Biology
1998 Mike Atkinson, Psychology
1996 Donald Cartwright, Geography
1995 Tom Haffie, Plant Sciences
1994 David Bentley, English
1994 Paul Mercer, Physiology
1993 Brock Fenton, Biology
1993 Marilyn Robinson, Physiology
1992 H.G. Murray, Physiology
1992 Wayne Weston, Medicine
1991 Alan Gedalof, English
1991 T.D. Gaily, Physics
1990 Madeline Lennon, Visual Arts
1990 Colin Baird, Chemistry
1989 Paul Sills, Dentistry
1988 Peter Rosati, Engineering
1986 James Erskine, Business
1986 Eileen Gillese, Law