Dr Eric Pawson - Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Dr Eric Pawson (Department of Geography, University of Canterbury) - a Sustained Excellence winner 2009
Department of Geography, University of Canterbury
Eric is an excellent and scholarly teacher who has taught geography at the University of Canterbury for over 30 years. As a Professor, Eric teaches courses at all levels and has supervised over 50 Masters and Doctoral students. He is committed to student-centred learning and as a reflective teaching practitioner, his aim is that as his students become more experienced they will become increasingly confident learners. Past students now in senior academic positions credit Eric with being the inspiration for their own careers.
Eric is recognised as a “leader and supporter of the learning of his colleagues in the discipline internationally”. Having a special interest in the first year geography curriculum, he has taken a leadership role in identifying the skills portfolio that students will build as they progress through geography’s curriculum pathways. Eric is involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning and has made a significant contribution to higher education in geography that goes well beyond New Zealand.
My approach to learning
I well remember the excitement of finding an essay by Alan Jenkins that put into words what I had known, but not articulated. He characterised education as a process of “drawing out” rather than “filling up”, and he described the distinction between being “an authority” and being “in authority”. This crystallised much of what is important about my teaching role for me.
Consequently I have framed my teaching within the progressivism, social constructivist tradition, with a focus on the discovery of knowledge as personally meaningful, the development of problem solving skills in cooperative environments, and the acceptance of responsibility for one’s own learning.
In sum, my preoccupation is not with what people learn, or how much information they retain. It is with how they learn, how they think, and how our encounter might help them to make more sense of their own worlds.
This is the privilege that I was accorded when I was a student in Oxford. My purpose since has been to find ways that replicate elements of this for my students at the University of Canterbury.
As a result I have long been engaged in an ongoing series of experiments in teaching and learning at all levels in the curriculum. 100 level is particularly important to me: I would be very unhappy not to teach at this level because it is so necessary to try to transmit a sense of enthusiasm to new students and to show them that they matter.
Over the last twenty years, I have led the framing of 100 level geography at Canterbury around a series of “integrated” courses. We intentionally teach together as physical and human geographers. This builds bridges between the science and social science approaches to our discipline. It enables us to spark off each other in pursuit of our underlying aim to advance understandings of environmental sustainability amongst students. We try to do this in critical areas such as climate change, urban and population growth and the cultural use of resources.
At all curriculum levels, I feel it is important to be as student-centred as possible and to use methods of active learning and student engagement. To a certain extent this can be done through conversation in the classroom, lecture hall and field, but in recent years I have also adopted a range of techniques to encourage students to read, research and reflect more actively for themselves. At 200 level I use reading journals, which require students to read key articles and discuss these in lab sessions. They are also asked to make presentations in small groups about key thinkers in human geography. This brings all sorts of creativity to the fore, including one group this year who called up an eminent American professor on the phone and interviewed him on the spot!
At 300 level I am a proponent of Problem-Based Learning (PBL), and with my colleague Simon Kingham have recently recast our capstone research methods course using service learning combined with PBL. Student groups work with community groups on topics chosen by the community groups, be these the making of a neighbourhood map, the assessment of household carbon budgets, analysis of the impacts of the Lyttelton Farmers Market, or the potential for Sumner School to act as a community hub.
Teaching without walls
My ideal is a classroom without walls. PBL and service learning are excellent for this purpose and it’s an experiment I have tried in many ways and in many contexts over the years. With a colleague I always take all of our 100 level students out onto the Port Hills and to Birdlings Flat on the second weekend of their first semester. This engages them socially and allows us to work as a class and in groups on a carbon cycle exercise and discussions about the effect of climate change on local landscapes.
I have in the past encouraged students to work in groups of their own making in a 200 level human geography course, undertaking “geographical expeditions” in which they designed a programme of field work in the local urban landscape (for example to see how the privatised space of a shopping mall is structured, or how a gated community or retirement village works). I have run classes in rooms with no desks, and if we have to have them, prefer not to sit at the head of the table, the point being to de-centre authority in an obvious way.
One of the joys of teaching is to see students coming through the ranks, and taking on the challenge of writing an Honours project, or a Masters or PhD thesis. I currently have a group of postgraduate students from several different parts of the world, including New Zealand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and France.
I have supervised about 15 PhDs and over 40 Masters theses. Again my aim as a supervisor is to encourage people to be self-starters and to think for themselves about how they would like to frame and carry out their research project. This is an area of teaching where feedback and encouragement is no less important than for younger students: in many respects, it is more so, particularly for the growing numbers of postgraduates who are working in English as a second, or third, language.
I was Head of Geography at Canterbury for six years until 2005. A central aspect of this role was to mentor new and existing staff about teaching, research, and wider professional roles. After discussion with colleagues, I introduced a department-specific form of PDR (Personal Development and Review), some years before the university followed suit.
Our method was rather simpler than the official format that succeeded it, but enabled us to discuss goals for the coming year, to assess progress over the last year and to think about the broader shape of careers.
Scholarship of teaching and learning
In recent years I have developed an interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning and, with a colleague in the UK and one in Washington DC, co-direct the International Network for Learning and Teaching Geography in Higher Education (INLT: www.geog.canterbury.ac.nz/inlt).
My interest in PBL was initially stimulated by leadership of an INLT team on the topic at a workshop in Glasgow. This led to two peer reviewed publications in international journals. The team included faculty from five different countries, and we are keen to reignite this work. This is one of the projects for which I will use some of the award money.
I organised an INLT workshop for 50 people at a congress in Brisbane in 2006 on the theme of active learning and student engagement. The three of us who co-chair the INLT have been asked to republish the papers from that workshop and the one in Glasgow as a book entitled Active Learning and Student Engagement (Routledge, 2010). Our next workshop in Washington DC in April 2010 will look specifically at some of the wider contexts of teaching and learning in the form of the constraints and opportunities that currently face geography teaching programmes around the world.
One of the great thrills about winning this award is the recognition that it gives to quite a long teaching career. In fact, as my Vice-Chancellor announced to the university the next morning, I started in 1976! Needless to say it hasn’t seemed anything like that long. There are always new students to work with, and new colleagues to teach alongside. Almost all of the teaching that I do these days is as part of a team, which is very much how I like it. As I said in my short speech on the Awards night, teaching for me is co-learning, and co-learning is an ongoing adventure.
Peer and Student Comments
“One of the joys of teaching with Eric is that he comes with a great mix of ideas based on research and practical experience, coupled with a willingness to listen to other people’s ideas. Out of all the people I have taught with over the years he is the most innovative, thoughtful and fun to teach with.”
Associate Professor Simon Kingham, Department of Geography, University of Canterbury.
“Being treated like a peer has been an enormous boost to my confidence. His example of student-centredness, energy, generosity, commitment as a teacher, and his active role as a researcher of teaching as a practice, has been inspiring. I could not have hoped to have had a better mentor during my entry into university teaching.”
Dr Lee Thompson, Otago Medical School, Christchurch.
“Eric has been a key influence on my academic career. Perhaps the most important aspect of his style is his realization that one size doesn’t fit all: he is excellent at recognizing, supporting and rewarding the particular strengths and abilities of specific individuals. He is a superb academic leader and tactician who guides proactively and constructively but also, importantly, by example.”
Dr Jamie Pearce, School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh.
“I had the pleasure of being a student in Professor Pawson’s geography courses at University of Canterbury from 1986-1988. He is an inspirational lecturer who has had a profound influence on the sort of academic work that I have done ever since – historical, cultural, and feminist geography. He has also had an influence on my teaching of New Zealand history. He is a generous and openminded encourager of diversity and independent thought. He has now equipped generations of students with an allencompassing geographical toolkit and has fuelled many life-long geographical imaginations.”
Associate Professor Katie Pickles, History Programme, University of Canterbury.
“'It is coming up to 30 years since I finished my Masters thesis. In that period I have learned many different things from a large number of fine scholars, including my PhD supervisors and research collaborators on numerous papers and monographs. But among all those friends, collaborators and advisors, I cannot think of anyone who had a more profound impact on my understanding of the nature of academic scholarship and the commitment to teaching which is an integral part of it.”
Professor Neil Quigley, Deputy Vice- Chancellor (Research), Victoria University of Wellington.