Dylon McChesney, PhD student in philosophy, is one of only four recipients of the Amit & Meena Chakma Distinguished Teaching by a Student Award this year. The award recognizes excellence in teaching with consideration for intellectual vigor and communication skills in the interpretation and presentation of subject matter while demonstrating concern for and sensitivity to the academic need of the students.
The Department of Philosophy is incredibly proud of Dylon's achievement. Here are Dylon's thoughts on winning the award and his approach to teaching.
What do you like most about teaching?
Teaching provides a unique opportunity to make a positive impact in people’s lives; it provides a chance to help people realize and meet their potential, to inspire self-discovery, and to reverse some of the dehumanization of contemporary life. It’s not uncommon to observe students fundamentally changing how they think and see the world throughout the duration of a course (or sometimes even in a single class); to help facilitate this kind of experience is an incredible privilege.
How do you feel about receiving the award?
It’s an honour to be formally recognized for my efforts, and a bit surreal at the same time. Knowing that I was nominated by both students and faculty is really meaningful to me.
Can you explain how you would describe innovative teaching? How does your teaching align with this?
There is overwhelming evidence that interactivity is really important in the classroom. Active learning is not a gimmick or fad; it’s here to stay. Students do better when engaging material actively than they do passively soaking it in. With respect to the shape that the active learning takes, there is room for creativity, which can be as daunting as it is exciting. At the same time, innovation isn’t always extreme. For some teaching styles, a big innovation could be just to incorporate more discussion, ask more questions, or do simple activities like “one-minute essays” where students are forced to reflect on what they’ve learned while still in the class. These are not new ideas, but for anyone not already regularly implementing them, they can make a big difference; as a bonus, they cost little to nothing in terms of preparation. Philosophy naturally invites debate and dialogue, so we have a bit of an advantage there.
I have experimented with less traditional approaches to teaching like using gamification and conditional assignment structures, to which my students responded positively. But teaching methods are just tools, and I’m not convinced that finding the right tool for the job is a process that can be codified. Classrooms are dynamic, and important learning opportunities will sometimes emerge due to the incorporation of an innovative teaching method that was painstakingly modified to fit a lecture, and sometimes those opportunities will emerge in more organic ways. The best bet is to prepare to be flexible.
Any advice for those new to teaching?
Teaching is hard even when everything goes right. Don’t underestimate the time you’ll spend on seemingly trivial tasks like getting a document formatted properly, or how difficult it can be to stop replaying a lesson in your head. Thankfully, there are many resources available for new teachers. The Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) offers development opportunities through workshops and programs, as well as a website full of valuable information. At the same time, draw upon the resources immediately available to you: talk to professors and sessional instructors about their experiences, ask a colleague to watch you teach and check your cognitive blind spots, and so on. For people that face marginalization, teaching comes with additional challenges, so it will likely be helpful to seek out others with shared experiences to strategize and find solidarity.
Anything you want to add?
Yes, there are a lot of people I need to thank! I’d like to thank my students for placing their trust in me and giving me so much helpful feedback over the years. I’d like to thank the department for giving me many opportunities to teach. I’d also like to thank the CTE for the life changing experiences I had while I was part of their team. Thank you to everyone who has patiently listened to me talk about teaching or shared their knowledge and experience with me. Special thanks to Greg Andres and Jim Jordan for their invaluable pedagogical insights and unwavering support.