James Craig Wins F2018 Teaching Excellence Award! – A Deep Dive Into This Instructor’s Excellence

The Teaching Excellence Award is awarded to an excellent instructor every semester. They are selected through a nomination period by a committee composed of both VP Academics, two at large council elected members and a representative from the Associate Dean, Teaching. The winning instructor’s nomination(s) must indicated that the instructor has contributed significantly to at least one of the following:

  1. Employed non-conventional teaching techniques
  2. Allowed opportunities for experiential learning
  3. Showed a commitment and dedication towards ensuring academic success for students

James Craig is an Associate Professor in the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering here at the university. James went above and beyond this term to employ your different learning styles to combine a comfortable mix of theory, example and group work to allow for experiential learning opportunities throughout his ENVE 279 class this term. He always makes sure to clear up confusion, explaining concepts in different ways to ensure his class has the understanding of a new concept.

He has always exceeded expectations in the past, winning the Outstanding Performance Award, Sandford Fleming Foundation Teaching Excellence Award, and Distinguished Performance Award from the University of Waterloo/Faculty of Engineering in the past few years. If you want to hear more about his efforts as a professor, read the interview below to find out more!

Note: Since the term comes up often during this interview, “flipping the classroom” or a flipped classroom environment is the nomenclature for having students work on problems in class with professor assistance being available if needed.

What made you want to be a professor?

James Craig initially started teaching during his PhD at University of Buffalo. He has always gravitated towards being a professor, enjoying the process and being attracted to it since he was an undergraduate. He is currently the Candidate Research Chair, so he currently has a very active research program right now. However, he enjoys the diversity, and likes working with students on a regular basis.

What’s your favourite aspect of teaching a course?

The main aspect of teaching he enjoys is having students come to the understanding of the subject material right before your eyes. “That’s the most energizing part of teaching,” Professor Craig says. “Especially in classrooms is fine, but the best is that one-on-one where they’re asking questions and it’s more of an active learning environment, something you would get through helps sessions or a flipped classroom environment.”

He also notes that whereas graduate students you put more into the students’ hands and expectations of what they come in with, for undergraduate students you usually assume a clean slate and try to build up fundamentals. That’s why he often gets that enjoyment, exposing a lot of ideas simultaneously that his students have never seen before.

Have you felt that you’ve made a large impact on a specific class or student?

Professor Craig thinks that he has made a large impact on Environmental Engineering students this year, as he had the opportunity to create ENVE 279 which was first taught this term. He describes it as a brand new thermodynamics course tailored to what is important for Environmental Engineering students to learn. The fundamentals haven’t changed in 100 years, so while they used to teach thermodynamics many years ago and dropped the course, now the applications have changed. Modern applications such as renewable energy make it important to think about what exposure to what material would be most important to teach.

In terms of his impact while teaching, he feels that it’s hard for him to assess himself when doing so. “You can kind of see it during the lectures,” he states, “but it’s always unclear whether that nod is one of comprehension or of pretending that they comprehend. ‘Oh yeah, that kind of makes sense’ versus really getting it; it’s hard to discern that in a lecture hall.” He often relies on feedback from students through means like course critiques to assess and improve himself.

How do you tailor your lectures to accommodate for different learning styles?

His style of teaching has shifted throughout the years. He doesn’t use overheads anymore and goes to the traditional teaching style on the board more often than not. For the classes he teaches, like with differential equations, it’s often more effective. He tries to avoid death by powerpoint and not to implement any particularly polarizing teaching style, and likes to think there’s a reason for students to come to class.

Regarding ENVE 279, he has the opportunity to engage in more experimental learning as he also got to teach the course this term. He describes it in one long sentence very well. “The idea was we’d try to engage students in a variety of different ways, go over the big picture of whatever topic it is that particular week, talk about what kind of energy problems there are in the world, then we might get into some of the detailed thermodynamics, and do problems on the board where people get to see how it’s applied, and then work out problems in a reversed classroom setting.”

What do you think is the most important aspect or quality of a good lecturer?

Professor Brush doesn’t think he does anything fancy in regards to teaching. He things you should be well-organized, have some depth of knowledge in the material you’re teaching, as well as being fair and open with your students. Additionally, having them engage in the material, through answering questions as well as non-conventional means like flipping the classroom helps him figure out how much and which parts of the content the classroom understands.

A good lecturer should aim for academic success for a student, which he feels is actually knowing stuff and retaining the fundamentals for future use. “You can forget the recipes quite easily,” he says, “but if you really understand the material, then you can apply that to a whole bunch of different types of applications. Knowing that ‘this is a problem related to this’, and I can figure out how to do it by picking up my old notes.”

What’s your favourite drawing that you’ve created?

Besides being an accomplished lecturer and researcher, Professor Brush also has an extensive sketch catalogue. He drew a lot in his 20s, basing it off of what he read in junior high and high school, mainly with a fantasy/fiction theme. He does so less frequently nowadays, but currently his favourite thing to draw is realistic animals from photographs.

If you have any questions about the Teaching Excellence Award, please feel free to reach out to Thomas Dedinsky at vpacademic@engsoc.uwaterloo.ca. If you would like to be a student at large position for the Teaching Excellence Award committee, come to EngSoc Council Meeting 1 next school term!