Ontario lecturers are fighting it out on TV to be top of the student charts, writes Philip Fine
A television channel has passed up the charms of a usual pretty face, the star researcher, and has set its gaze instead on its poor cousin, the rarely celebrated university lecturer.
In what some have nicknamed "Academic Idol", TV Ontario is preparing to announce the winner of a contest to choose a professor who offers his or her students the most engaging lecture in the province.
The top ten finalists have been strutting their scholarly wares in 45-minute on-location television and online broadcasts for the past two months, in subjects ranging from snake sex to Italy's "father of humanism", Francesco Petrarca.
Jacalyn Duffin of Queen's University is one of the top ten in the contest, which is now in its second year. She said she appreciated the attention in an age where the profession of teaching has been referred to as "knowledge transfer".
She spoke about the importance of connecting with students and getting them to question common beliefs.
She said the idea of hiring star researchers and offering them teaching exemptions bothered her enormously: "If you don't want to engage with people in the classroom, then get a job with a think-tank or an engineering firm."
Dr Duffin, a medical historian, believed that the role she plays for her students is part of the reason she was nominated. "I invite them to question the canon," she said.
One game she leads in class has students looking at various medical figures to decide whether the person is a villain, a hero - or both.
She said that many students tended to place almost everyone who has contributed to medicine in the hero category, and she offered them the other side of the story - such as Hippocrates' elitist leanings - or reminding them that a Nazi-sympathising doctor, Alexis Carrel, helped to pioneer transplantation through his vascular suture innovations.
Allan Hutchinson, a professor at York University's Osgoode Law School, said: "Your first commitment is enthusiasm and energy. If you can't do that, then you might as well pack it in." But he added it was impossible to present entertaining lectures on a regular basis.
Another contender in the top ten is neuroscientist Michael Persinger of Laurentian University. The image he has presented is far from the stuttering graduate student he was when he first lectured students.
But while his lecturing skills are being publicly celebrated, his university has not put out any publicity on him, which is probably due to the fact that he and his graduate students have been feuding with the Sudbury-based university and are locked out of its animal research facility. At least he still has the lecture hall.
The winner of the Best Lecturer Competition will be announced on February 17 and will earn a C$10,000 (£4,300) scholarship for their university.
Lecturers can be viewed at www.tvo.org , where visitors can also cast their votes for the best lecturer.