If you meandered through the halls of the Faculty of Education this spring, you would have seen the sunshine-yellow posters promoting the 2008 TV Ontario’s Big Ideas Best Lecturer Competition. Proudly displaying the smiling face of our very own Dr. Finney Cherian — complete with suit jacket and signature bowtie — the posters call to passers-by for support for one of the University of Windsor’s most recognized and distinguished lecturers. A two-time nominee for this Ontario-wide teaching award, Cherian has enjoyed the humbling aspects of such recognition.
“I’m truly honoured by the nomination — that the students see me this way,” says Cherian. “I am extremely proud to represent the University of Windsor and Faculty of Education in this competition.” An impish grin begins, and then he adds, “And of course, there are also bragging rights involved.”
The hardest thing about the publicity surrounding his position as a finalist, however, has been Cherian’s own struggle with the concept of being labeled a “Best Lecturer.” As an Education professor, he eschews the concept of “The Lecture,” and indeed he feels his job is to unseat the practice of lecturing from its central role in too much education.
For Cherian, powerful education is not about lecturing, but about moving away from the fixed, central podium towards a model that puts mentoring and supporting student learning at its core. “Teaching is about relationships,” he explains. “It is a relational act, a growth process, for myself and for the students. It’s paradoxical, this idea of being rewarded for ‘lecturing’ — I do not lecture my students. I engage them, turning them into idea makers, critical participants, who learn to question their own learning and teaching practice. My goal in the classroom has always been to create an inquiry environment.”
So where does one of the top-ten finalists for “best lecturer” receive inspiration for his thought-provoking classes? “The world. Where else should knowledge be situated? I try to bring the real world into my classroom, and encourage these future teachers to do the same with their own students.”
As with most great work, Cherian’s has not gone unnoticed. Dr. Alan Wright, Vice-Provost, Teaching and Learning, could not be more pleased with the University of Windsor’s participation in such competitions.
“This [competition] brings attention to the inspirational work of our teachers,” says Wright. “Windsor needs to spotlight its accomplishments by celebrating what teachers are doing to improve student learning.” The designation of being one of the top lecturers in the province is an accomplishment that has a ripple-effect on students, faculty, and the University’s extended community as a whole.
“The outstanding teacher, like Finney [and Dr. Ken Cramer, also a University of Windsor finalist in the competition], can have a great deal of impact on the student experience and the reputation for excellence of a university, and that’s the kind of reputation enhancement that really counts,” says the Vice-Provost.
Wright recalls a time when he asked Cherian to take over a graduate class in his absence. Cherian’s creativity and enthusiasm were well-received by his students. “He did such a fabulous job I thought maybe I should go out of town more often!” Wright chuckles. “You simply cannot emulate that joy of teaching. You can’t beat Finney.”
The lecture Finney created for this competition was his way of completing an unfinished conversation with a student in his course who died tragically in a car accident just a few days after their discussion. As Finney explains, “It was, in part, an opportunity for me to deal with her loss and, in some small way, to honour a bright and promising student.”
Reflecting upon his competition experience and what he’s learned through the process, Dr. Cherian offers a few words of wisdom: “Be in the moment. Make room for the impromptu knock at the door, and embrace those interruptions, for your interruptions are your work.”
Although another candidate was ultimately chosen as ”Best Lecturer,” Cherian remains our best non-lecturer, and that, we feel, is an even higher achievement. Put the podium aside; Dr. Cherian is in the room.