Professor Robin Kearns – Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile by Professor Robin Kearns (School of Environment, The University of Auckland) – Award for Sustained Excellence 2011
Enthusiasm is everything
I am an enthusiast. I believe in either giving 110% to a task or declining to take it on. This has been an enduring personal philosophy that has pervaded my academic career, especially with respect to teaching. In 1983, as I embarked on my PhD. one of my long-time mentors at the University of Auckland memorably said, “bite off more than you can chew … then chew like hell.” I have incorporated this dictum into my teaching philosophy and it sums up my involvement with students. I believe in ‘going the extra mile’ and, in my estimation, there is nothing more satisfying than maintaining and sustaining co-learning relationships with students.
Educare (to draw out) is at the root of education. To me, the best context for creativity and discovery is when we ‘draw ourselves out’ into new territory, and not draw back to the comfort of our own specialties and the way we’ve always taught. Collaboration is what keeps teaching exciting and the prerequisite for collaboration is fostering dialogue among colleagues and students.
A collaborative spirit
As a social and cultural geographer, I am interested in understanding the meanings and dynamics of places and their influence on human wellbeing. My involvements in exploring the links between places and wellbeing have ranged from participatory research in small rural communities to membership of the National Health Committee, advising the Minister of Health. Co-learning has been the marker of all such engagements. In my view, collaboration is a precondition for sound research and quality learning. My workplace, the School of Environment at The University of Auckland, was formed with the combination of geography, geology and environmental science in 2009. This merger has brought opportunities and challenges in teaching with colleagues across the spectrum of social and physical science. All of my class-based teaching is collaborative, given that our School’s courses are team taught. In this setting, while ‘flavours’ of delivery style particular to individual lecturers are inevitable, I believe we need to blend our contributions to offer students a seamless learning journey. We should also allow them the opportunity to witness, and participate in, debate among us over key issues of theory and method.
When designing collaborative courses, I believe one needs a generosity of spirit – to meet colleagues as well as students halfway and be willing to stretch ourselves as well as those we work with. Communication is the key and it is a word closely aligned to community and hence implies being with others and forging connections. Earlier in my career, I primarily sought to convey information. This changed when I began to feel more at ease with the performance aspect of lecturing and with the realisation that students easily ‘panicked’ about whether they retained all the information that I was including in lectures. After trialling what I call a ‘concept-rich/data-light’ approach, I increasingly found that students retained key ideas and sustained this learning by seeking data and their own case examples to augment lecture content. My goal now is to formulate learning objectives for each lecture that connect with students’ everyday lives in some way. I seek to convey ideas and novel ways of seeing the world that will inspire students to seek out information themselves.
The theatre of learning
As a geographer, undergraduate teaching is the primary portal through which I can reach out and inspire especially younger people to ‘read’ the landscapes of everyday life, to critically reflect on the state of the world, and to consider creative alternatives to the status quo. For me, it is no coincidence that the usual arena of these interactions is termed a lecture theatre. To teach effectively in this space one must perform and fill the stage with a memorable presence and passion for new perspectives on the world.
Yet to complicate the challenge, students must not be rendered passive spectators but rather be engaged as active contributors in the drama of discovery. Too easily, a lecture hall can be like an operating theatre – the expert in command, holding all the instruments; the audience rendered passive by the power of his/her presence, anesthetised by fear of disrupting the expert. For me, dialogue is central to learning in whatever context, and the key in the classroom is to invite questions, and, most of all, conversations during the ongoing course of study.
The importance of the field
In my experience, the dynamics of the lecture theatre must always be complemented by interactions in a more fundamental learning environment: the field. Fieldwork is the glue that cements relationships between learners and the research journey. I’ve had a key role in our stage three field course for human geography majors for over two decades and that annual week away from regular routines consistently generates the excitement of discovery such that many students return into our postgraduate programme.
My belief that we are always ‘in the field’ has inspired research in my own neighbourhood into ‘locally wicked problems’ such as traffic congestion and parental reluctance to allow children to walk to school. This work underpinned the establishment of Auckland’s first walking school bus and provides an example of neighbourhood-based research that easily resonates with students’ experience. This concern to connect education, urban design and healthy lives continues to inform my involvement in a number of Health Research Council-funded projects. These grants support both PhD students and summer studentships which provide a bridge between undergraduate and postgraduate research.
Passion for postgraduate supervision
I am passionate about postgraduate supervision. I now count many of the 60+ thesis and dissertation students I have supervised at The University of Auckland as friends. For me, supervision is a deeply fulfilling, if time-consuming, process. This fulfilment is because supervision presents an opportunity to develop a collegial relationship with the supervisee and enjoy seeing them develop intellectually and personally over a more sustained and intense period than classroom teaching permits.
My enthusiasm for supervision is fuelled by knowing that the process is much more than its literal meaning (‘over-seeing’). I prefer to frame supervision as ‘research accompaniment’ – a co-learning journey that must be professional but personable; a journey given direction by a quest for knowledge by both parties. This approach invariably results in a subtle shift over the course of supervision, with the student moving from regarding me as expert to seeing me as a colleague. This shift is facilitated by de-stabilising the ‘expert’ role and seeing the postgraduate research journey as involving the co-construction of knowledge.
Re-framing the supervision process
Without being able to accompany (particularly postgraduate) students in their learning journeys, academic life would be arid indeed. Their presence in my doorway and via email, troubling over ideas and presenting written drafts enlivens the privileged position of being a professor. Whatever wisdom I can impart is more than returned by the novelty, curiosity and dedication I witness on their journeys to completing theses and dissertations. I believe my own capacity to offer supervision is, however, shaped by a personal journey of self-knowledge and willingness to be transparent about my own strengths and limitations. As one of my guides on the teaching journey, Parker Palmer states in The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (1998), ‘...good teachers must live examined lives andtry and understand what animates their actions for better and worse’. Preparing a portfolio for this award, upon the urging of colleagues and students, has been another useful moment in the necessary self-examination that underlies the learning journey an effective teacher must undertake.
I am interested in both the processes and practices of teaching. In terms of processes, how does learning happen and how is this influenced by the related but different process of teaching? What are the places and contexts that work best for teaching? In an era of online learning, how important is teaching as performance? I suspect it is as critical as being at a concert compared to listening to music on a CD.
In terms of practice, can teaching be the glue to bring science and arts into closer conversation? As a geographer, I wish to explore how social science understandings of places can be complemented in the classroom with interpretations of places as seen through the artists’ eye. I aim to use some of the awarded funds to initiate conversations between geography and the arts in sites ‘off the beaten track’.
Peer and student comments
Dr Francis Collins, Lecturer in Geography , National University of Singapore, former PhD student, 2004-07
Alexandra Boyle, Master of Health Sciences student, 2010
Dr Clare Mouat, Lecturer in Planning, University of Melbourne, former Masters student, 1995-96
Erin James, Solicitor, BA (Hons) supervisee, 2006
Jed Horner, Bachelor of Health Science student, 2010
Dr Damian Collins, Assistant Professor of Geography, University of Alberta