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Alissa Trotz receives President's Teaching Award

Alissa Trotz is one of three recipients of the 2013 President's Teaching Awards (photo by Johnny Guatto)

Alissa Trotz was named one of three recipients of the University of Toronto’s President’s Teaching Awards last week in recognition for her work with students at the Women and Gender Studies Institute and in the Caribbean Studies program.

Trotz receives the award along with Professor Lawrence Sawchuk, Department of Anthropology, and Dr. Chris Perumalla, Department of Physiology and Division of Teaching Laboratories, Faculty of Medicine. 

As an associate professor with the Women and Gender Studies Institute, cross-appointed to the Caribbean Studies program, Trotz’s influence runs deep in the New College community. Among her students, she’s garnered a reputation for open discussion, dedication and passion in her teaching.

Writer Gavin Au-Yeung spoke to Trotz about her approach to teaching and more in the first installment of U of T News' interviews with the Teaching Award recipients.

How did you get into teaching?
Quite by accident, actually, I never started out wanting to be a teacher; I always wanted to be a lawyer. I was torn between wanting to be a lawyer, and a set of questions which began to preoccupy me as a political science undergraduate. Then I decided to pursue a different set of questions at a graduate level through two different degrees – and I kept postponing the law. I ended up getting a fellowship, which required me to do some teaching, and it turned out that I liked it.

How would you describe your teaching style?
I think of my responsibility as a teacher as facilitating students to fully recognise their own capacities. I’m less interested in telling students what they think they need to know so much more interactive learning takes place in an environment in which excitement and curiosity are nurtured. Part of my task is to teach students to go beyond what I can offer them, to encourage them to extend themselves in new directions, ultimately, I suppose, to outgrow me!

How do you relate to your students?
One thing I have come to realise is that teaching does not end at the conclusion of the lecture, and it is important to make space and time beyond the class for students to share ideas and ask new questions. It’s not just about my relationship with students; it’s also about facilitating relations among students and bringing their diverse experiences into the class in ways that really enhance the learning experience.

I always tell students: it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. I encourage students to read novels and poetry, to always think carefully about the terms they use and encounter, about the creative crafting of an argument. One of my high school teachers told me to make the thesaurus – not the dictionary – your best friend, because that’s how you expand your vocabulary, and it’s one of the best pieces of advice I ever received.  

Are there any notable teachers who have influenced you in the past?
There are so many, but the first and most formative teacher that comes to mind is my high school teacher in English literature from Guyana, the late Mr. Pat Fredericks. Incredibly generous (and stern as well), he really encouraged us to be creative and imaginative, to take risks in our work, and to go beyond the requirements of the examination syllabus. He also encouraged a love of language and a love of words – and a love of the worlds those words can open up. Those experiences with him have undoubtedly shaped the teacher I try to be today. 

How do you integrate your research and teaching?
In a variety of ways – from designing upper level courses that overlap with ongoing research projects, to having undergraduate students work with me as research assistants, to taking students to the Caribbean with me to visit some of my field sites among other places. It certainly keeps my teaching current, but I also get so much from the students’ input that helps me sharpen what it is I am looking at. It’s a mutually beneficial process.

How does U of T foster education?
The college system is a great way of fostering really meaningful undergraduate teaching experiences. Being part of New College is really important for me, personally. It is home to a lot of really incredible programs: Caribbean studies, Women and Gender Studies, African studies, Equity Studies, Human Biology, and brings together students across these diverse areas in a way that allows for small group experiences and also enables exciting cross-fertilization of ideas among colleagues that makes its way into the classroom in rewarding and unanticipated ways.

What is the most rewarding part of teaching?
Challenging the students not just to understand what is at stake in the texts we read, but to increasingly find and trust their own voices.  When students are confident enough to fully and respectfully engage (and challenge you), it means that they are confident enough to take the course material into new and exciting – and sometimes surprising! - directions.

What does this recognition mean you?
It’s an incredible honour, one that reminds me that this is an ongoing journey and process. There is so much to learn. It’s important not to become complacent, and to ask myself not just what I have accomplished that has resulted in this prestigious nomination, but to be aware of my own shortcomings and to continue looking for new challenges, new solutions, and things I can do differently and better. The award is most certainly a privilege – but I’d like to think it is also a wakeup call. 

Gavin Au-Yeung writes for U of T News.