Jenni Case is a professor, with a particular focus on academic development, in the Department of Chemical Engineering. She was recently announced as a winner of the CHE-HELTASA award for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and has just launched a book entitled Researching student learning in higher education: A social realist approach.
Receiving a national award for teaching excellence is a great honour, but while compiling the portfolio to support this nomination a few months ago, I realised that the real reward was already in my hands. My Head of Department had invited graduates of our programme to make submissions in support of this nomination, and thus I found myself with a pile of statements that made me feel very good. My husband jokingly said, "You can't take these things too seriously, people always write nice things", but what I particularly appreciated was that students seemed to have actually noticed the things I was trying to do in class. Here is an extract from one of them to illustrate this point:
"Prof Case has an incredible ability to break down complex concepts into simpler, accessible ones. Secondly, despite the very quick turnaround in marking, she manages to provide detailed feedback. Thirdly, she is highly interactive in tutorial sessions and will go an extra mile to help a student understand. Lastly, she has an incredible memory; she is able to recall a whole class of more than 100 first year students by first name just a month into the course."I am sharing this with you because on one level I think it does show that good teaching is not always rocket science. I am sure that most UCT lecturers could tick off most items on this list, except maybe for the crazy endeavour of trying to remember student names. This is the reward of teaching: when students express the ways in which one's teaching has 'worked' for them. And, having recently experienced the loss of my father – also an academic – I was reminded again that we have the rare privilege of being able to positively influence many lives. Colleagues and students queued up at the funeral to share memories with me.
As much as these kinds of awards might suggest a 'lone ranger' model of the excellent teacher, this is actually an illusion. University teaching has a departmental and an institutional context, and a teacher in a non-supportive environment will have an uphill battle. I am fortunate to have lived my academic life in a department with strong leadership and academics who are committed to undergraduate teaching. This has been an amazing space to grow; I started when I was 27 and I am now 45. I am a scientist from my undergraduate education and an education scholar from my postgraduate work, and it is the boldness of this place that allowed me to join chemical engineering 'through the back door' and to teach in the undergraduate programme. I have been mentored by brilliant senior academics and can now, in turn, offer support to the next generation of academics.