Teaching Excellence: Creating a culture of life-changing learning
Sometimes it’s the smallest things that have the biggest impact on the course of one’s life.
At least that’s been the experience of Carrie Smith-Prei, whose disguised life-altering moment came while she was registering for her first-ever semester of classes at Bard College, a very small liberal arts school in upstate New York.
“There wasn’t any online registration or anything like that,” she remembers of her early-‘90s initiation into the world of post-secondary queues. “First-years had to stand in line in front of the professor you wanted to register with, which was crazy.”
Smith-Prei recalls that all the popular classes were closed out by the returning students, which left slim pickings, one of which was German.
“I had taken it in high school and I vowed never to touch again. I hated it with a passion and I took it because I thought language would be good for me,” she said. “I panicked and thought, I have to sign up for four courses and I can always drop German.
“I signed up and that professor changed my life,” she said. “The subject matter was 18th-century drama—it was not necessarily material I had any interest in or knew anything about—but she was the most amazing and engaging professor I had ever had.
“I didn’t drop the course and that’s history.”
Now, as an assistant professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta, Smith-Prei is teaching German cultural studies, trying to make the same positive impact a professor once made on her. And so far, she seems to be succeeding: Smith-Prei has been named a winner of a 2013 Provost’s Award for Early Achievement of Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
“I want to make sure students are part of the learning process—not just as receivers, but that they actually guide the learning process,” she said. “I am the professor who knows a bit more than they do, but I see it as a collegial atmosphere—they are my colleagues-to-be potentially, and I attempt to incorporate their ideas, their critical responses, as much into the classroom as possible. That means that I stay pretty flexible.”
Smith-Prei is willing to try anything in the classroom. Recently she incorporated a community service-learning aspect into her German 353 Myths, Tales and Legends class. Also, she has begun asking students to log their thoughts about the class, about the text they are reading and about the conversation, and then to comment on others’ entries. “That type of interaction in an online format really helps some students who are not as vocal, or who feel more comfortable if their fingers are on a keyboard.”
She says her top priority is to aid students in developing their own voice that will help them not only in reading and analyzing literature, but also in developing a critical perspective on their realities.
“I guess the main tool I use is just attempting to listen as much as I speak.”
She says listening is a trait that she comes by honestly because it is a healthy part of the U of A’s teaching culture.
“I am very impressed by the level of attention paid to teaching, to the recognition of teaching, by the university,” she said. “Teaching is very important, and MLCS instructors are very good at it, and it shows in our graduate students who consistently win teaching awards at the Faculty of Arts level and our great history of instructors winning any number of awards. Now I feel super honoured about receiving this award and feel I carry this award with a lot of my colleagues.”