Season 4, Episode 2: You Belong Here: celebrating and encouraging diversity, accessibility and good teaching at MRU
Dr. Tim Rahilly is MRU’s tenth President and first Vice-Chancellor, but he’s had an extensive teaching career before that. His journey through academia has taken him to Fraser University, University of Manitoba, Royal Roads University, Technical University of British Columbia and McGill University. Recently, he co-authored “University Pathways: A Global Perspective” and “Serving Diverse Students in Canadian Higher Education: Models and Practices for Success.” In this episode, Dr. Rahilly talks about what “good teaching” means to him, and why MRU’s slogan “You Belong Here” resonates with him.
You can follow Dr. Rahilly on Twitter @TimRahilly
Meg Wilcox: I’m Meg Wilcox and this is Teaching Strides—MRU faculty daring greatly. In this episode, what exactly is good teaching and how can we support it?
It’s Dr. Tim Rahilly’s first year at school—here at Mount Royal at least. But our new president and vice chancellor has worked across the country from his days studying in Montreal at McGill and Concordia to teaching in Manitoba and BC. He started in administration at Simon Fraser University in 2003 but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s given up on teaching. That’s what we’ll be talking about today. Thank you so much for joining me, Tim.
Dr. Tim Rahilly: I’m happy to be here.
MW: So first off to you, how would you define good teaching?
MW: I’m just getting to the big stuff.
TR: Yeah, nothing’s been written about that! I guess in two ways. One, I guess we know that good teaching is that which engages our learners. But I think there’s always been a tension between the art and science of, of teaching, especially I think in the postsecondary world. So I think for me I know it’s good teaching when I feel that strong sense of engagement and I can see that gleam in students’ eyes. And so I think that when done well and we continually challenge each other—students and faculty alike. It’s learning for all involved.
MW: And when it comes to good teaching at MRU, where do you see it? How do you define it? How do you seek it out?
TR: Well, I think for me, I came to Mount Royal University because of its reputation as an undergraduate intensive university and being student-centered. And I have been so impressed with the faculty members and contractors that I have spoken with, in terms of their commitment to teaching. I have not had the opportunity since being here to visit Mount Royal classrooms—to witness this.
Although the other day I did have the opportunity to, I guess have a little bit of teaching in the Riddell Library and Learning Center. I watched one of our colleagues kind of give a little mini intervention there for a visiting minister. And it was fantastic and I could see the passion in her eyes. So I think one of the challenges for me is going to be to be able to connect in that manner. And I don’t know that every faculty member is going to necessarily want to invite the president into their classroom.
MW: Yeah. Let me get a bit more classes under my belt and then I can invite you. But I guess you’re already sort of hinting at that idea by being an administrator. You support teaching. You obviously have been a teacher, you’ve done that work, but now you’re, you’re sort of looking at the business and on other end of teaching, but not getting a chance to necessarily engage with it yourself. So what are some of the challenges that come with that in your role and things that you were sort of trying to address?
TR: Well, I think maybe one of the first challenges for me is that I didn’t come up the ranks at Mount Royal university. So I have to draw on my experience from other institutions. Obviously, other institutions do have classes and they do have professors and they do good work. I think for me one of the challenges in representing Mount Royal is to be able to have real experiences to draw on. So that will be something I’ll have to work on.
I think part of that is for me to make it very evident to all involved in this is that universities are places of collegial governance and, with respect to the good and honest hard work that faculty do, I see myself as their peer. I don’t see myself set apart and they tell that story of good instruction and, and I’ll have to learn from them and piggyback on their stories at MRU.
MW: What are some of the, you mentioned just the, the culture of MRU as you’ve come in. What would you say are some elements that are defining it that are something that you’re, you’re engaging with maybe for the first time or in a different way?
TR: Some elements of the culture related to teaching and learning?
TR: I think for me, one of the things that stood out for me was a commitment to the scholarship of teaching and learning. I did have the opportunity to go to some workshops on that earlier, in my time. It is very refreshing to be able to chat with those faculty members who are engaged in that scholarship. My doctoral degree was very much related to that.
MW: Some of your research and published work has been around diversity within that, within like the importance of it I guess in teaching and learning. How do you sort of define that? I mean, it’s so easy to say something like diversity is good, but for you, what does it mean to see diversity in education and what are its tangible values?
TR: So I guess I would define diversity in its broadest terms. I think that MRU is, not to sound too much like a president and to go completely on brand, but you belong here. The brand actually speaks to me. Because I think that when we talk about diversity, for me that speaks to people of different experiences. It speaks to learning styles. It speaks to age, it speaks to gender, it speaks to origin. Certainly the work we’re trying to do on reconciliation.
So, you know, there’s certainly a lot of dialogue about the challenges of whether or not you have to adapt or it’s universal design or how you approach teaching and learning with such a diverse body of learners. So, you know, my work and my interest have really focused on internationalization and first-generation students. I think those groups actually have a fair bit in common.
I think that for domestic students who don’t have parents who have been to postsecondary, it is a cultural shift for them to come into the postsecondary. Similarly, I think for new Canadians or people who are coming here on study visa, I think it’s a huge eye-opener for them. And there’s, you know, good research from back in the 60s that talks about student-institutional match. I think that students perceive that and in order to have them stay engaged and to retain them in the school that there has to be that match.
I think inside the classroom we need to approach our teaching by understanding that there is a diversity of learning styles. And that we do have students who have disabilities. Now that’s not necessarily, you know, the big banner that we put outside the front gates, you know, “give us your poor, your huddled masses and we will educate them.” But I think that in fact, all of us, when we are presented with this diversity of students in our classroom, you know, we have an obligation, an ethical obligation to do our very best to teach what’s before us and to help them succeed.
MW: From your experience, I know it’s Simon Fraser, you were working specifically in the areas of student and international. Are there any, I guess, moments that have stuck out for you either there in, in your work of I’m seeing that sort of diversity in action or being able to see, teach good teaching that was able to bring in groups that may have been left behind otherwise?
TR: Well, I think in terms of salient memories, probably, I would point to some of my colleagues who felt challenged by educating international students, understanding that perhaps they need to change their practice in some ways to accommodate those students. And to see their evolvement, how they over time, began to embrace this and saw how that teaching made them a better teacher across the board. So certainly when you do that kind of work there’s a good deal of faculty development that has to happen.
I think that means you yourself have to learn a little bit. There are some issues of cultural competency that I think you have to learn whether you’re in the classroom or you’re an administrator or you’re supporting students. So for me that kind of work, I think, has certainly been very meaningful. And then I guess my mind jumps to particular cases.
You know, students who encountered some adversity. I mean I have lots of those cases, whether those are international students or domestic students. But I think that when you’re working with a student who has had life experiences that are so different than your own. I also did some work with faculty members who were displaced from Syria, and these are academics. And you know, I remember being invited to a dinner and sitting across from some academics who are telling me about their siblings or their parents who were killed as a result of conflict. And just kind of how my own mind just kind of reeled to think about how one presses on and you’re so dedicated to your discipline and your profession that it’s such a part of your identity that you, you carry on. So yeah, those kinds of stories I think are very meaningful to me.
MW: One of the elements that comes with diversity within a university is, that if we look at the roots of universities and maybe some of the governance or policies or the way it’s come through, they’ve come within a very specific context that doesn’t always, I would say play well with diversity or bringing in diverse groups. I’m thinking, in a previous episode
I interviewed Patti and Spirit and they do a lot of work in indigenous work and they say that sometimes they’re finding challenges in university policies, just trying to get everything to line up, both covering the university side and covering what they need to do in their responsibilities and their research. And I guess I’m curious to hear your thoughts on where are some ways that the university could improve or where are some areas that it needs to work on to really help encourage diversity?
TR: I think that one of the tensions that we often have in universities is our ability to be adaptable. We’re not known for it. I think we are known for being reasonably resilient, but that’s a bit different than adapting to the needs of those people who, who come to our institutions. I think we see that over the years, we see some generational differences and universities and colleges have half a chance at making those kinds of adaptions because we have a longer runway, more time to do that. I think when it comes to the individual needs or group needs, I think we are a little bit more challenged.
MW: One of the other elements in terms of bringing more people into a university is looking at access to education and access to the university. What do you think are some key things that the university needs to be considering? Maybe challenges that right now we’re looking to overcome to improve access for students?
TR: Well, I think I have my political answer first as a new Albertan and then a president of a university, I think the first thing I would say about access is having enough seats. And so we know that in Calgary that we do have a deficit in seats. So in order to consider that more broadly, I think we need to look at that capacity issue. Then I think my own mind turns to people and their own conceptions about who they are and what their skills are and what’s for them.
I think there’s a very strong agenda right now for jobs, trades and I will never speak against jobs and trades. Obviously, those are very important things, but they’re not for everyone. And I think some of the concerns that I have had for a number of years has to do with some of our potential students who don’t see themselves as having a future in postsecondary education. Research shows us that they, those students and their parents in particular, overestimate the costs and underestimate the benefits of a postsecondary education. And so why we often have the dialogue about student loans and finances.
And we hear a lot from students who are in the universities about the challenges they have, the long hours they work. And I’m not unsympathetic. I lived that life myself. I think there is a broader dialogue about those people who don’t see themselves and who would never consider coming to a university. And, and I think that’s something that as a society we need to think about.
MW: In your experience, what encourages access? I mean obviously having seats is a good place to start, I’m thinking of if we’re reaching out to new communities or have you seen anything that’s worked well?
TR: I think that some programs, I don’t know that they’re necessarily well-researched, but anecdotally, you know, if people are bringing their kids to summer camps on university campuses or. So they see their parents pursuing postsecondary education going back to school re-skilling you know, these are things that I think can be motivational and can help. I think that, you know, in the, in the good old world of education and in psychology and public policy we know issues around maternal education have a huge impact on the education of young people.
And that’s a bit of a challenge for us in the postsecondary world in terms of the return on investment. I think there’s a strong argument to be made that, you know, putting money into kindergarten classrooms has a huge impact, sometimes dollar for dollar. You know, people don’t perceive as having the same impact at the postsecondary level.
That being said I do think that obviously the transformational power of a postsecondary education changing the way people think and approach the world. It changes them and I think it can have such a positive impact on our society.
MW: And so now, I mean, I’m not saying that you don’t have your hands full, you know, full time being the president and a vice chancellor, but do you think you might consider going back to the classroom while you’re here at MRU?
TR: So that’s an interesting question. There’s quite a debate. And I’ve been reading about that recently in the chronicle of higher education between presidents who thinks it’s essential for you to be in the classroom, and for those presidents who say, “Hey, look, you have a full-time job. Other people can do that, like make room for others.” I don’t know where I fall on that scale. I have been for the last almost eight, nine years, exclusively been teaching at the graduate level. So not that much time has passed since I’ve been in the classroom, but I already miss it. I am going to have to find ways to get into the classroom somehow.
Hopefully I can at least do a guest lecture here and there. And I’d actually be happy to take a course if I could work that in. I’d love to take your podcast and of course, for example, or I recently was learning about some medieval literature the other day from one of our colleagues. And I thought that’s fascinating. I’ve never been exposed to that. I guess I’m still a learner at heart. Maybe I’ll be able to work my way into doing some work or be on some graduate student committees or something to keep an oar in that water.
MW: Wonderful. Thank you so much for chatting with me.
TR: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
MW: That was Dr. Tim Rahilly, President and Vice Chancellor at Mount Royal University. You can follow him on Twitter @TimRahilly. Teaching Strides is produced by Hadeel Abdel-Nabi and me, Meg Wilcox, in conjunction with the Academic Development Center at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta.
We’re proud to broadcast from the traditional territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, the Tsuut’ina, the Îyâxe, Nakoda Nations, the Métis Nation (Region 3) We look forward to sharing the stories and experiences of the many people who live, learn and teach in the treaty seven region. You can find us wherever you podcast at teachingstrides.ca.