by Cory Monahan
SofiĆne Tahar's teaching philosophy is simple: "Basically, a good teacher is one who can keep the attention of the students." However, it's not as easy to put into practice as it sounds.
In 1996, the first year of Tahar's full-time appointment as a professor of electrical and computer engineering, he found himself responsible for teaching a demanding course in computer organization, publishing research papers, and establishing and maintaining contacts within industry to fund graduate students.
"The most important thing under which junior members suffer is the management of time," Tahar said in an interview. "Almost all things we have to do ourselves. I'm my own secretary, my own travel agent -- managing the time is a very tough task."
That's one of the guiding factors behind the mentor program offered by Concordia's Centre for Teaching and Learning Services (CTLS). Offered to all faculty members, the program hooks up new faculty members with experienced professors to facilitate discussion about academic life.
"[Mentors] can give you real advice about how to optimize your time," Tahar said, "because it's nothing you can read. You have to get it from somebody with experience."
CTLS has been offering various teacher-training workshops and seminars for 27 years. Heather MacKenzie, the assistant director, estimates that in the past few years about 200 faculty members have come to the Centre for guidance. An orientation social is given by the CTLS at the beginning of each year to familiarize new faculty with the services, and about 80 per cent attend.
Most workshops run between two and three hours, and are available to all faculty members. However, the most popular is the three-day Instructional Skills Workshop, which covers such basics as lesson design, and how to effectively engage students' interest. The workshops have the added value of creating a forum where teachers from different Faculties get a rare opportunity to talk to each other about teaching.
"They're always amazed at how much they can learn from each other," MacKenzie said. "We bring together faculty members who have never met each other. It really does help people to see how teaching in the fine arts can illuminate the teaching in engineering. It's sort an interdisciplinary think-tank."
Tahar said that he has reached into that think-tank often, and come out each time with a handy new tool for communicating his subject. He has found that practical approaches like the use of classroom discussions to flesh out complex concepts are as effective in the hard-wired world of computer engineering as in the humanities.
"What happens in lectures is that students sit there and copy what I put on the board," Tahar said. "So before I start talking about the memory in computers, we talk a little about memory in general. What do you know about memory? What are the different kinds of memory you know about? And then I jump to the course material."
One thing all teachers often have to confront is the short attention span of their audience, especially in large classes. Tahar said that the material from CTLS workshops help him to focus his classes, and provides insight into methods for keeping the students' attention. For instance, he breaks up his lectures into segments and incorporates ideas such as one-minute tests, given at the start of a class to refresh students' memories about what went on the class before.
But Tahar's experience has taught him that teachers can learn from students as well, and the CTLS encourages faculty members to find out from their students what helps them learn, by using class assessments, among other means.
"Students are way ahead in some ways," MacKenzie said. "They expect to be using the World Wide Web in their courses, for example."
Finances have not increased to keep pace with the demand for CTLS services, but last year Concordia received a $1.25-million technology advancement grant from a private foundation, which could greatly improve matters. "It will not only help us promote our services," MacKenzie said, "but also provide really focused training and support to faculty who are using the computer in their teaching."
The Centre for Teaching and Learning Services is located on the Loyola Campus, and in cyberspace at http://relish.concordia. ca/ctls/Pub2.html
Copyright 2000 Concordia's Thursday Report.