Nick Baxter-Moore, recipient of this year’s Faculty of Social Sciences Teaching Excellence Award, reflected on the journey that brought him to teaching in a recent interview with The Brock News.
On paper, you’ve had quite the journey. When you were pursuing a Master’s degree at the London School of Economics, did you imagine you’d ever be teaching event management or popular music at a university in Canada, or that you would finish your career receiving an award for outstanding teaching?
When I was studying at LSE, I was already teaching and had more or less determined that would be my career. But, when I was at LSE, I was a hard-core political scientist, studying and teaching mostly Comparative Western European Politics. I never dreamt I would end up teaching courses on popular music or event management in Canada.
In fact, in 1975-76, popular music and event management were scarcely found in the topics of articles in obscure academic journals, let alone subjects of academic courses in universities.
“Teaching was not on my radar until I (almost accidentally) started teaching. Then I fell in love with it, and I hope I have affinity for it.”
Was teaching always on your radar, or was there a moment when you decided that it was the direction you wanted to pursue?
When I was in high school in England, I studied languages and thought I might end up as a translator. In my last year of high school, I took Geography and Economics, and that probably steered me to the Social Sciences – and possibly towards journalism as a career.
At the time, I did some work for a local newspaper. The editor urged me to go away to university, to get a degree and then come back. I went away, but I didn’t come back.
My undergraduate degree was at the University of Manchester, where I studied politics and sociology, played soccer at semi-pro level, and booked bands for University socials. I spent too much time on the last two pursuits and too little on the first to win a scholarship to grad school. Although I was offered places in two MA programs, I was tired of being broke.
In the absence of better opportunities after university, I took a job teaching Geography, Economics and “Games,” or team sports, at an all-boys grammar school in an industrial town in England. I was one of the last cohort of people allowed to teach in a secondary school in England without an education degree or diploma.
I loved high school teaching. The students were great, but I experienced some problems in “teaching to the test,” given the highly structured national exam system in the UK. I tried to teach them principles of Geography and Economics that would mean something to them, such as the characteristics of a city and its hinterland that could best sustain a professional soccer team, rather than naming the capital of Mongolia.
I was also hired to teach a couple of evening courses at the local technical college, not unlike a community College in Canada. There, I was probably the youngest person in the room, teaching History of Business and some basic Economics to mostly mature students taking a Higher National Diploma in Business Studies.
I quit the Grammar School after a year. But at both of these teaching jobs, I learned some important things about teaching, especially at the post-secondary level.
I spent the next two years cobbling together a living as research director for a small research institute, part-time instructor, freelance journalist, and a contract employee for government agencies, including a stint working in Northern Ireland at the height of “the Troubles” in the early 1970s for the Chief Electoral Officer of Northern Ireland, educating local returning officers and community groups of all political stripes (both non-violent and violent) on the mechanics of the new electoral system the British government had foisted on the province. The gig economy is nothing new!
Then I was lucky enough to win a full-time teaching job at Ealing College of Higher Education, later part of Thames Valley University and now the University of West London, where for four years I taught a wide variety of courses ranging from vocational to professional to degree-level work. My primary expertise was in British and European Politics and Political Theory, especially Marxist theory.
Since I was the only person interviewed for that job who didn’t have at least an MA, I figured I should get a postgrad degree if only to justify my hiring, so I applied to LSE and got in. By that time, I already had two co-authored books on elections ready for publication. I didn’t get an MA; I got an MSc instead, and got my first experience of academic conferences, both domestic and international.
Then I realized I wanted to work eventually in a University, and for that I would need a PhD.
Teaching was not on my radar until I (almost accidentally) started teaching. Then I fell in love with it, and I hope I have affinity for it. I have been teaching, in one form or another for fifty years.
In the thirty-five years that you’ve been at Brock, what would you say has stayed the same about students? What would you say has changed?
On the whole, Brock students are nice. That’s never changed. And my experience, including teaching elsewhere – even since coming to Brock – would suggest that our undergraduate students are fundamentally nice, and that they are all at university to learn something even though they’re not always sure what they are supposed to learn or how to do it. Many of them come from suburban and rural backgrounds. Even today, many of them are among the first in their families to attend university. Many have been persuaded by parents or others to enrol in programs for which they are not best suited, and which don’t really interest them. They are good hard-working kids; they want to learn, and they want to succeed. But they often need direction in how to accomplish these goals. I’ve spent a lot of my time at Brock, whether formally as an Undergraduate Advisor, Chair, Director or Associate Dean, or simply as a faculty member that students have asked for advice, counselling students about their program choices and selections of courses within those programs.
When I came to Brock in 1985, we had about 5000 students. Now we have close to 20,000. Brock students in 1985 were almost uniformly white and disproportionately male. The student body is now much more diverse with respect to gender, racial and ethnic origin, and sexual orientation.
But have students changed as individuals? No. Not really. They are still fundamentally nice human beings, they are mostly young, and inexperienced, and anxious to succeed.
And I think we as faculty members and administrators have to respond appropriately in order to do our respective jobs, while maintaining our social responsibilities. In one respect, my responsibility is to the students, to try to provide them with the requisite skills – both academic and other, including social skills – to succeed, following graduation.
At the same time, I have a responsibility to the wider society which those students will come to inhabit, in order to ensure that we have a cadre of well trained, socially and politically conscious future leaders, or at least well-educated employees and well-informed citizens.
“I believe teaching and learning go together. So, rather than simply presenting facts, and concepts, and theories to my students, my principal goal as a teacher has been to inculcate my students with strategies to learn things for themselves. Perhaps that’s one reason I was drawn to the teaching of research methods.
Do you have a teaching philosophy or any core principles that you’re willing to share?
In brief, good teaching – in any area and at any level – depends on communication, mutual respect, acknowledgement of values, and enjoyment. Of course, content is also important, but in the absence of the characteristics mentioned in the preceding sentence, it’s unlikely to be received by many students.
Teaching is a performance. Especially when you’re teaching in front of large classes, it is very much a performance – sometimes literally being on stage. You’ve got to think in terms of what your audience wants out of this, what the students need or want.
Something I’ve always tried to be is fair to students, fair on exams, have assignments that actually look at stuff that we’re doing on the course and don’t come out of left field. Exam questions, likewise.
My very early teaching experience was important to me because when I was teaching high school I was 21 and my oldest students were 19. I couldn’t really use age and experience as ways to gain respect. I had to show respect for them and where they were coming from and hope they did the same for me. When I was teaching at the tech college at about the same time, virtually all of my students were older than me. So I guess I learned to respect students really early on.
I think the most important value is fairness for all of the students, and that means acknowledging their values, too – why they’re taking the class, what they expect to get out of it – and trying to reinforce those values to make the course relevant to them.
Even if they don’t always see it now I suppose you can always promise, “You know, you’re going to appreciate this methods course a couple of years down the road, even though you hate it now.” Sometimes they actually do come back and say, “You know, I didn’t believe you at the time, but it actually did come in really useful.” So that’s always good to hear.
I believe teaching and learning go together. So, rather than simply presenting facts, and concepts, and theories to my students, my principal goal as a teacher has been to inculcate my students with strategies to learn things for themselves. Perhaps that’s one reason I was drawn to the teaching of research methods.
One night in a bar – lots of my Irish stories start that way – a prominent and later somewhat controversial Irish politician by the name of Conor Cruise O’Brien, a former UN diplomat and later editor-in-chief of the Observer newspaper, asked me for some factoid of Irish electoral trivia. I said I didn’t know the answer, but I would find out and tell him tomorrow, or if he needed the answer urgently, I could tell him where he would likely find it.
He laughed and said: “There speaks a truly learned man. The wise man is not one who thinks he knows everything, because he’s invariably wrong, but one who knows how to find the answer.”
Of course, this was in the days before Google!
But, I have always remembered his words, and they have guided my approach to teaching ever since.
What is something you wish students understood about teachers and what they are trying to do? What is the most rewarding thing about your relationships with students?
Sometimes I think students see teachers as obstacles to achieving their goals. Professors have multiple responsibilities to their disciplines and to their universities and to wider society, which contribute to “standards” in their courses. I would hope that, for example, students passing my courses and getting a degree in Communication Studies from Brock University, have fully earned all of those qualifications. I view it as my role to provide a path to ensure they can accomplish all of these things.
THE THREE MOST REWARDING THINGS ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS WITH CURRENT STUDENTS ARE
the opportunity to learn from students about content, particularly examples that may allow me to enhance the relevance of the course for their peers, or at least to illustrate the theoretical and conceptual elements of the course that allow other students to understand things better
watching those students go on to bigger and better things, often elsewhere—staying in touch with students who have already moved on to bigger and better things is also a source of satisfaction
working with a student in my class to develop in that student transferable skills such that she/he/they does better in other classes, too. That’s probably the biggest thrill of all!
Any final thoughts on teaching?
I’ve always enjoyed collaborative or team teaching, and I think it’s essential in certain kinds of courses, interdisciplinary courses, especially when both professors are in every class, lending their separate and collective perspectives. In particular, I enjoyed co-teaching with the late Professor Marilyn Rose and the late Terrance Cox in teaching various Canadian Studies courses, with Professor Leah Bradshaw in “Great Works in Politics” (POLI 5P80), and in recent years with Professor Munroe Eagles at SUNY-Buffalo in the MA Program in Canadian-American Studies. Working with each of them made teaching more fun, and I learned a lot from all of them.
Last, but not least, I’ve been fortunate to work with some wonderful teaching assistants. There are too many to mention, and I would hate to miss someone out, so I’m not going to list them, but if you’re one of my former TAs, and you’re reading this, and you think you did a great job, take this as a vote of thanks. Good TAs helped me improve my teaching by giving me feedback on style, content and student progress; and sometimes, through their teaching skills, they made my teaching seem better than it probably was. I still think the seminar system – done well – is great for Brock and enhances our competitive advantage.