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Laurier professor wins prestigious OCUFA teaching award
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Pedagogy. It's a word Carol Duncan uses often when she talks about her profession, and it suits her graceful and thoughtful tone. It’s defined as "the art or science of teaching," and for Duncan, it’s a perfect choice of words, because what she does is so much more than teaching. To her, it's an art.
“I teach because I care,” says Duncan, associate professor and chair of Laurier’s Religion and Culture Department. “I love teaching. It excites me. It energizes me. I learn a lot from my students.”
Peter Erb, a Religion and Culture professor at Laurier, as well as Duncan’s other peers, were so impressed by the profound impact Duncan's passion for teaching has had on others that they nominated her for a prestigious 2006 Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) teaching award. She will receive the award at a ceremony in Toronto on June 8th.
“In short, the faculty is most fortunate to have a teacher-scholar of Carol’s calibre,” writes Erb in his nomination letter. “It now has the opportunity to declare it publicly.”
Duncan is no stranger to teaching awards. She holds many of them, and has two of Laurier’s top teaching awards to her name: the 2004 Award for Teaching Excellence and the 2004 Faculty of Arts Teaching Scholar Award. But her latest award from OCUFA carries with it the distinction of coming from an umbrella association and advocate group representing 16,000 university faculty from across Ontario.
Duncan is “thrilled and very touched” by what she sees as “a gesture of thanks and acknowledgement of the importance of teaching to what we do as scholars.”
While the teaching awards in themselves are meaningful, it's the sincere praise and admiration from colleagues, superiors, students, and community members making up her award nomination package that paint the real picture of Duncan's teaching impact.
From their words emerges an image of a woman who, in addition to her role as a pioneer in her area of research on Caribbean and African diasporan religion and culture, takes a genuine interest in mentoring students, consulting with colleagues on teaching issues, lending her voice to community initiatives, and honing her craft to create relevant and meaningful dialogues within the classroom.
But perhaps the greatest affirmations of her teaching abilities come from the students she inspired to continue their studies and who are now teachers themselves.
Chris Klassen, an assistant professor of Religion and Culture at Laurier and former student of Duncan’s, models her teaching after Duncan. “I try to provide multi-media resources as she has always done. I try to engage students in questioning the material, as she has done. I try to be approachable and yet always professional, as Dr. Duncan continues to be. If I can achieve even half (Duncan’s) level of teaching skill, I know I’ll be a good teacher. Dr. Duncan, however, is one of the best.”
Purnima Sundar, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Carleton University, writes in her letter of support: “(Dr. Duncan’s) enthusiasm for her subject material is something I strive to emulate in teaching, and her challenging but supportive style of supervision is something that I draw on to guide my interactions with students.”
It is not surprising that Duncan’s former students connect with her teaching style. She views the interaction between teachers and students as a creative enterprise.
“I’ve used the jazz analogy before,” Duncan says. “But teaching is similar to the discipline and preparation required by jazz musicians and vocalists. The preparation allows you to let go and fly in the moment – it allows for improvisation and conversation between the players as the moment requires.”
And prepare she does. Duncan uses strategies she’s learned from conferences and workshops, and from previous experiences to bring multiple perspectives and an interdisciplinary approach to her topics. She incorporates multi-media, popular culture references, guest speakers, cutting-edge research and group and individual work into her classroom. Her approach keeps students interested and helps her to stimulate class discussion, encourage critical thinking and challenge her students. Because “many of my students haven’t had the opportunity to explore the controversial areas of my courses (race, gender and religion) in sensitive ways,” she also models appropriate ways for students to address these topics.
Based on her consistent above-average student evaluations in all of her courses, she’s doing something right.
Sue Horton, Laurier’s vice-president: academic, agrees. “Carol’s commitment to excellence as a Chair has greatly impressed me, and I believe she carries this commitment to excellence in all aspects of her professional work.”
This commitment is also evident in Duncan’s approach to curriculum design. Duncan describes the 12 courses she’s developed at Laurier – including designing and teaching the department’s first PhD course in ’04 – as representing “a concerted effort to broaden the curriculum in religious and cultural studies by including specific focus on gender, race, class and sexuality as social relations of power.”
Duncan is currently a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School. While there, she has developed a course on Gender, Religion and Visual Culture in the African Diaspora, which involved working with students on a course website — something she hopes to bring back to Laurier.
Despite her accolades and accomplishments, Duncan remains grounded.
“I need not emphasize that more of us, scholars and pedagogues, human beings sometimes made insular and selfish because of our research imperatives, need to learn and practice charity and humility,” says George Elliott Clarke, an esteemed poet Laureate and professor of Canadian literature at the University of Toronto. “In my interactions and communications with Dr. Duncan, these are the qualities she constantly exudes. Such a teacher is a rare and powerful presence.”
Lori Chalmers Morrison