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Larry Sawchuk receives President’s Teaching Award

Larry Sawchuk recently received a University of Toronto’s President’s Teaching Award. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Larry Sawchuk was named one of three recipients of the University of Toronto’s President’s Teaching Awards last week in recognition for his work with students in the Anthropology program at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Sawchuk receives the award along with Dr. Chris Perumalla, Department of Physiology and Division of Teaching Laboratories, Faculty of Medicine, and Associate Professor Alissa Trotz, Women and Gender Studies Institute and Caribbean Studies at the University of Toronto.

In his more than 30 years as an associate professor, Sawchuk’s commitment to improving the undergraduate learning experience continues to be evident, especially in his use of experiential learning and development of new and innovative teaching tools through the use of technology.

Writer Don Campbell recently spoke to Sawchuk about his approach to teaching and the methods he uses to engage his students.

How would you describe your teaching style?

I try to inject as much humour into my lectures as possible. It’s difficult to maintain full attention for two straight hours, so I use levity or breaks to allow students to relax and refocus. I’ve also learned from my mistakes and have recognized what works and what doesn’t work, so teaching for me is a continuous learning process. Most importantly I want my students to take away transferable skills. I’m not obsessed with memorization, rather I’m more concerned if my students can write and think critically. 

My teaching style has evolved. I am dyslectic so it’s very difficult for me to read notes. I try to be spontaneous and engage my students, so I will walk into a classroom without notes and rely heavily on my PowerPoint slides and my memory.

How do you relate to your students?

I’ve taught some truly wonderful and remarkable people over the years and I still keep in touch with many former students. I don’t think it’s difficult to take top students and turn them into good citizens. What’s more important for me is to give students a second chance. There are students that for whatever reason may not have done well in their first or second year. I try to find what they are very good at and maximize their potential, while the things they are not so good at I try to give them ideas and suggestions on how they can improve.  I don’t try to be a father figure, I just try to be as pure as I can in helping my students move forward.

What have you learned from your students over the years?

Students have always been very demanding, and rightfully so; they are paying a lot through tuition to receive the best possible education. Students will always push you to be your best. They vote with their feet so to speak. You know very quickly if they are attentive, if they are paying attention in class and I use those visual cues to pace the lecture and know whether or not I am getting the material across.  

What’s the most rewarding part of teaching?

Definitely my students. My graduate students especially. They push me because they are very passionate and very good at what they do. That feedback pushes you because you always want to be at your best for them. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve made a difference in some of these students’ lives and they have changed me. I wouldn’t have been a good teacher without them. The demographics of the students are always changing. I can’t say the student of 20 or 30 years ago is any brighter. They are just as bright and just as passionate and that’s what keeps me youthful. I’ve received so much more than I’ve actually given.

How about the influences on your career as a teacher? Can you recall someone who inspired you?

A person who influenced me was Dr. Joan de Peña. She took me on as a graduate student when I probably shouldn’t have been based on my marks alone. She gave me an opportunity to get into the program when mark-wise I was at the bottom. By the time I finished I was considered one of the better students. This is why I think I resonate with many students who may need a second chance.

How do you integrate your research and teaching?

I use examples from my research on health and disease from Gibraltar and Malta as case studies on social and biological determinants of health. I often go to Gibraltar for field work and I’ve taken quite a few graduate students there for what I call a living laboratory. By that I mean they have an opportunity to interact with people who have experienced past epidemics either first-hand or through the memories of people they know.

I’ve also helped develop various teaching tools for forensic anthropology. One was a game where you had to determine the age, sex and cause of death by examining the bone of an individual. A graduate student of mine also developed a three dimensional tool called the digital skeleton. So I always try to allow students, even in their first year, to use real data so they can make connections to what they are learning.

How does U of T foster collaboration?   

When I visit the classroom of a junior lecturer for a performance review I get to see what they are doing and it inspires me. I try to integrate some of their visuals or methods into what I do. Also, we’ve always had great support. The teaching and learning services at UTSC have always been very supportive. It’s really a wonderful place to work.

How does it feel to be recognized for your teaching?

To be recognized among your peers is humbling and it’s definitely an honour, but heck after 30 years there can’t be much competition (laughing).

© University of Toronto Scarborough