Professors Rosalie Jukier and Robert Leckey talk about engaging students in the creative classroom

Rosalie Jukier and Robert Leckey high-five each other

Comic books and crayons. As professors in the Faculty of Law, Rosalie Jukier and Robert Leckey have seen their share of brilliant essays and exams, but when it comes to their fondest classroom memories, the two recipients of the Principal’s Teaching Excellence Awards are quick to come back to comic books and crayons.

“Last year, two students presented me at the end of the class with an entire comic book of the course,” says Jukier, who took home the Associate Professor category of the award. “It was mind-boggling. One of the things I like best about teaching is seeing the way students learn creatively and bring their own talents to the course. I’ve had people do skits; I’ve had people do songs. That doesn’t happen every class, but those are my favourite moments.”

Robert Leckey, who nabbed the award in the Assistant Professor category, has a similar tale to tell: “I did an in-class activity where I gave the students blank paper and asked them to map, to visually represent, the last month of the course. One student immediately cracked out these crayons, saying he had had them with him every class since law school began and this was the first chance he’d had to use them.”

The Principal’s Teaching Excellence Awards, handed out every year at Fall Convocation, are the University’s most prestigious teaching award: professors and lecturers from all faculties are eligible and the winners fall into four categories: Full, Associate and Assistant Professor, and Faculty Lecturer. At the Convocation ceremonies at Place des Arts on November 29, Jukier and Leckey will accept two of this year’s four awards, joining an elite group of teachers chosen since the recognitions debuted in 2000.

“Innovative, top-level teaching and learning have always been priorities in the Faculty of Law, and this past year more than ever,” said Dean Daniel Jutras, noting the creation of the Law Teaching Network for the 2010-2011 academic year. The initiative encourages discussion and collaboration among professors about their teaching experiences. “These two awards come at a most opportune time to underline the efforts of all professors in the Faculty to raise the bar once more and keep this law school at the forefront of legal education.”

Below, a conversation with the two professors about teaching students and, more often than not, learning from them as well.

You’ve shared your best classroom memory with us. What about your worst? Have you ever had a moment where you feel like you stuck your foot in your mouth or wished you could take back something you said or did?

RJ (laughing): Happens every day, like calling a student John when his name is Jordan… I have very few inhibitions when I’m up there teaching and I let it all out in class. Sometimes I think, “Oh God, why did I just say that?” And I find the best way to deal with that is to address it right away, to say, “Oops, I shouldn’t have said that, what I really meant is…”

RL: The first year I was teaching, there was a moment where I had posed a really poor question to the class. It was so bad that no one could say anything, and I said, “Guys, this is really embarrassing.”

I was clearly talking about myself and what I meant was, “I’ve posed a terrible question that’s either so simple no one’s going to bother answering or so complicated they don’t know where to begin but it’s clearly my fault.”

I read in the evaluations afterward that three people in the room heard me say, “You guys are really embarrassing.” I was horrified. I realized then that you can never fully control how people are going to interpret what you say, but you can try to shape the learning space so at least they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

RJ: I had something similar happen. I once actually called the law schizophrenic because there was an unbelievable disconnect between the way the law was moving in one direction but not in a related direction. I had a student come up to me at the end of class, so upset and so terribly hurt and I got a real talking-to about being more understanding about mental illness. I had never intended it to be aimed at any student or any person but sometimes you don’t realize how personally students take what you say in class.

In many ways, though, this award is a testament to your ability to communicate well with your students. What are you taking away from it?

RL: I had never taught a day in my life when I started here in 2006. So for me, this award means so much because it’s been such a learning curve and I know I still have a lot to learn but that I’m better than I was in 2006-2007. The very first year, I connected with some of the students in my class. The thing I’m proudest of is that I think, in the last couple of years, I’ve expanded the band that I’m teaching to, so that it’s not just a club of people to whom the law comes naturally but a bigger range…

I like to help students understand that, yes, they’re learning a new language with highly developed conventions but there’s still a lot of space to play within law.

RJ: The letter that the Principal sent congratulating me on the award contains a paragraph where she excerpts statements from some of my student referees’ letters. One of the excerpts was very meaningful to me because the student said something to the effect of, “You think this course is going to be just a series of rules of civil procedure but Professor Jukier crafts it in such a way that it’s really a statement of a whole philosophy of civil justice and procedural fairness.”

I was struck at how this linked exactly to something I had said in the teaching approach I had to articulate for this prize. I said that I hope to inspire my students to become critical thinkers as well as ethical jurists. I was so touched that this particular student pointed out something that I myself am trying to do.

It’s very heart-warming when your own goals seem to have translated into reality… for at least one student!

Photo credit: Lysanne Larose.