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Sauvé Forum Series Event Considers the Caring Classroom

April 21, 2017

Teaching with Compassion: Holistic Approaches to Building Community in the University Classroom. The Forum Series, created by Professor Kim Samuel in collaboration with the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation, explores the root causes of social isolation, along with strategies for building social connectedness through international policy and program development. It began last fall with weekly discussions at the historic Jeanne Sauvé House in Montreal covering a variety of topics, from the ongoing refugee crisis to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

The Series is also closely linked with Professor Samuel’s fourth-year seminar course on social connectedness at McGill University, the first of its kind. The April 12th Forum Series event focused on the value in building a community in the university classroom, and in creating opportunities for students outside the classroom. Convened were five McGill University professors from across disciplines, nominated by students to speak because of their effective approaches to teaching and dedication, including:

  • Stephanie Posthumus, Department of Languages, Literature & Cultures, Faculty of Arts;
  • Tina Piper, Faculty of Law;
  • Lisa Trimble, Department of Integrated Studies in Education;
  • Michael Jemtrud, Faculty of Engineering, School of Architecture; and
  • Ken Ragan, Department of Physics, Faculty of Science.

This particular event was also special because it was planned in partnership with students of Professor Samuel. In addition, student attendees were encouraged to invite other professors to join them in the audience. The evening began with opening remarks by the student co-organizers, Jessica Farber and Karina Alibhai, who proudly declared that the classroom community created by Professor Samuel is alive and well. They added that the professors on the panel were fostering belonging in the classroom “whether they know it or not,” and that they make students feel like “more than just a number.”

Professor Samuel then set the stage by recalling her first day of teaching and how nervous she had been. But reassuring herself, she remembered thinking, “Everyone here is going to give me a chance, and as long as they know I am there for them, my students will be there for me.” Professor Samuel also drew attention to the realities of being a university professor. “For all the focus on scholarship and research expertise, university professors receive far less encouragement for mastering the art of teaching,” she said. “Add to that the rigorous institutional requirements for success in academia . . . the demands of being on a tenure track and the pressure to publish or perish . . . perhaps it’s not surprising that many students report they have little personal connection with their professors.”

Kim Samuel, Professor of Practice, Institute for the Study of International Development, McGill University

Professor Samuel also noted with concern how difficult it can be for students to adjust to university life: a demanding workload, a new environment, unfamiliar faces, and lecture halls “the size of a movie theatre”. It can be so challenging and the support so limited, she explained, that roughly 10 percent of McGill students have “seriously considered attempting suicide”. This is why, Professor Samuel explained, she wanted her classroom “to be a place where everyone knew that their voices were valued and heard, where differences were welcomed, and everyone was seen and accepted for who they are.” The result she found was that students became more engaged and excited to be part of the course.

But Professor Samuel knew her passion for teaching was shared by the panelists. Professor Trimble spoke of the importance of knowing her students’ names and stories, and of being meaningful and authentic in interactions with them. She added that students need to be given “low-stake opportunities” to try out ideas. Professor Ragan mentioned how he strives to make his students feel like scientists. Professor Piper said she encourages students to connect their own experiences to what they’re learning.

When asked about challenges to building community in the classroom, Professor Piper mentioned the traditional physical classroom setup at university. Professor Trimble noted that institutional policies, such as when students must submit assignments or policies around extensions, can run counter to supporting students. “When we only define student success by grades,” she said, “we lose the human experience.”

Tina Piper, Faculty of Law and Stephanie Posthumus, Faculty of Arts, McGill University

The panelists were also asked what universities can do to emphasize community over competition. Professor Ragan said he often defends his students to the administration when a higher than average proportion of his students get an A. He added that he finds the bell curve to be “far too arbitrary” and understands how helpless students can feel when their fate depends on that of their cohort. Professor Jemtrud added that competition isn’t all bad, but that it needs to be monitored closely.

Another question was how to encourage students, particularly young women, to feel comfortable and confident to speak out and participate in class. One of the other professors in the audience said she found it to be very effective in large classroom situations to have students “pair and share,” and ensure that proper attention is given to students seated in the upper levels. Professor Trimble added that while silence can make people uncomfortable, professors should foster an environment where students are given time to process their thoughts and gather the confidence to speak up.

With this event, the 2016-2017 Sauvé Forum Series comes to a close, but stay tuned for information about the Fall 2017 Series in the months ahead!