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A word to the wise

Three U of T professors share their thoughts on great teaching and learning

Pictured here (left to right) Professors Nick Mount, Yu-Ling Cheng and Mark Kingwell

With the University of Toronto’s 186th academic year underway, U of T News asked Nick Mount, Yu-Ling Cheng and Mark Kingwell - three members of the University’s Teaching Academy - what they loved about teaching and what advice they would give to students and teachers just embarking on their academic careers. (Learn more about U of T’s Teaching Academy)

Professor Nick Mount of English

What do you love about teaching?

Many things. Perhaps weirdly, one of them is preparing to teach something, before class time. I love finding or figuring out the perfect example, discovering just the right window on a problem or a book, the moment when it falls into place for me and I hope for them.

What advice would you give to new students beginning their university studies?

Don't take so many notes. Just write down the a-ha moments: yours, not the professor's. Those are the only notes that matter. Pretty much everything else is on the Internet or at Robarts, so you can always look it up.

What advice would you give to new teachers beginning their U of T careers?

Funny you should ask. I happen to have on my shelf the third edition of Mistakes in Teaching, prepared by one James L. Hughes. It's undated, but since it belonged to my grandfather, I'd say it's from the 1920s. Here's some sound advice from Dr. Hughes:

"It is a mistake to censure trifling errors too severely. Some teachers pour out their 'vials of wrath' to the last drop on the heads of those whose offenses are not of a very serious nature. Their sternest countenance, and harshest language are called into requisition to find fault with the little unfortunate who carelessly lets fall his slate, or turns to look at his neighbor behind him. Pupils of such teachers soon learn to disregard even a command, unless it is accompanied by a thunderbolt..... It is of the utmost importance that the teacher should never confound the accidental with the intentional, or thoughtlessness with design."

For the curious, Dr. Hughes also has a whole chapter on how to whip a student effectively. Apparently it's all in the wrist.

Professor Yu-Ling Cheng of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry

What do you love about teaching?

I love interacting with students who are eager to learn, and I learn a lot myself when I have to know something well enough to explain it and to answer tough questions from very bright students.

What advice would you give to new students beginning their university studies?

University is about a lot more than what happens in the classroom. Get to know professors by going to their office hours and look for opportunities to do research or do an internship, or participate in clubs. 

What advice would you give to new teachers beginning their U of T careers?

Try to make it fun. Teaching can be hard work - I don't know anyone who enjoys marking for example, but it can also be a lot of fun to interact with students and to think of clever explanations for difficult concepts.   

Professor Mark Kingwell of Philosophy

What do you love about teaching?

Pretty much everything, except maybe grading! Being in the classroom or lecture hall is when I feel most alive, that sense of connecting with students, with ideas, with the process of thought itself. It’s intimate and public at once. I suppose that’s one reason I’m skeptical of online teaching: I can’t, myself, imagine being happy without the sense of shared space, being in a room together, thinking.

What advice would you give to new students beginning their university studies?

Read even more than you think you should. I mean, read all your required course materials, and then read some more, and some more. Read everything, fiction, history, science, biography, poetry, philosophy. You will literally never get this chance again, to live your interior life 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (I know many students have to work as well as study. Look for a job where you can read.)

What advice would you give to new teachers beginning their U of T careers?

As Johnny Cade says in The Outsiders: “Stay gold, Ponyboy!” There are lots of things that challenge the intellectual enthusiasm that got us here in the first place: institutional duties, publishing pressure, performance stress. I just try to remind myself of the pure joy that is at the heart of all intellectual life. Cultivate a sense of irony. Also, make sure you have a beer or a glass of wine every now and then.