Q & A with Dr. Nick Watier, Teaching Award
Dr. Nick Watier was awarded the 2023 Senate Award for Excellence in Teaching. When asked about this award and what it means to him, this is what he had to say…
Q: What does this award mean for you?
Dr. Watier: It means quite a lot. It highlights how fortunate I am to have colleagues that are supportive, encouraging, and want me to succeed; it reveals that my students are appreciative, willing to embrace challenge, and have trust in me; it reminds me that my efforts at continuously practicing and revising my lectures have not gone unnoticed; and finally, it underscores that teaching and learning should ultimately be enjoyable for all those involved. If I experience positive affect while teaching, and I get the impression that students are in a similar state, then that signals to me that I am probably doing something right as an educator, and that my current teaching strategy is worth pursuing. Receiving this award has reinforced that conviction.
What is your teaching philosophy?
Dr. Watier: Resistance. My aim is to offer resistance to students’ intuitive and preliminary understanding of the material. By doing so, students must confront any limitations, ambiguities, or inconsistencies in their existing knowledge structures. We can then work together to revise their knowledge structures in light of those shortcomings, which subsequently enables their knowledge to progress. The general principle I try to follow, which admittedly isn’t always possible, is that teaching should be less about transmitting expertise and more about creating the conditions where students develop their own. An analogy I find helpful is to consider an athlete learning to play a sport. To demonstrate a sufficient level of mastery in a sport, to the point where they could be considered competent, they have to actually play the game. They cannot simply sit and passively observe others. They have to try out the motor-movements, see what works in different situations, and revise accordingly. It is a process of trial-and-error. Mistakes will undoubtedly be made, but fortunately those mistakes enable the athlete to discern which strategies are worth pursuing and which ones should be discarded. By successively revising their approach, they begin to develop competence in the sport.
“An analogy I find helpful is to consider an athlete learning to play a sport. To demonstrate a sufficient level of mastery in a sport, to the point where they could be considered competent, they have to actually play the game. They cannot simply sit and passively observe others.”
I think the same is true in academics: if the student is to demonstrate some degree of mastery of the material, to the point where they could be considered competent, they have to play the game. In this case, the game involves being confronted with similar types of problems as those confronted by the expert, proposing tentative solutions, testing those proposals, eliminating those that are unsatisfactory, and maintaining those that are useful, until a more challenging problem presents itself, in which case a new round of the game begins.
What do you love most about teaching at Brandon University?
Dr. Watier: The small class sizes, supportive environment, and open-minded attitudes of the students at BU is what makes teaching here so special. There are moments in class where everyone seems completely engaged with the problem at hand, so much so that there is unique palpable feeling to it, like a sense of collective excitement mixed with a strong collaborative attentional focus. It is during these moments where students seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves. They are laughing, discussing what comes to mind, proposing different solutions, entertaining alternative approaches to the problem, sharing personal anecdotes – being present, the type of presence that you generally want out of life.
“There are moments in class where everyone seems completely engaged with the problem at hand, so much so that there is unique palpable feeling to it, like a sense of collective excitement mixed with a strong collaborative attentional focus.”
And it’s fun when that happens; it is incredibly fun. There is a sincerity and honesty that reveals itself in everyone involved, myself included. These moments are rare, but unforgettable when they manifest. The ultimate goal is to cultivate a classroom atmosphere where these moments can occur more frequently, but that might be trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
Who have been your teaching mentors?
Dr. Watier: I have been fortunate to have several outstanding educators throughout my entire academic life, from grade school to graduate school. I have distinct episodic memories of how good it felt to be in their classroom or under their supervision. The gratitude that I have for them is immeasurable. I could not possibly do any single one of them justice by summarizing the impact they had on me in just one paragraph. Each, in their own way, awoken something in me that I didn’t know was there, and consequently taught me that I am capable of achievements that I would have otherwise thought impossible.
Future goals for teaching?
Dr. Watier: I feel like there is still so much more room for improvement in each of my courses. Anxiety with public speaking is something I am trying to improve. I have been teaching for over a decade, and I still get nervous before every class, some days more so than others. I’d like to work on overcoming that. The pacing and exposition of classes could be tighter: there could be more active demonstrations, in-class exercises and practice problems could be more engaging, discussion questions could be revised so that they pinpoint the heart of the issue and get students talking. There are different types of assessments that I have yet to play with, and I have barely scratched the surface on AI and technology in the classroom.
Congrats to Dr. Watier. Over and out!