July 4, 2019Print | PDF
As the fall term approaches each year, many new and returning Wilfrid Laurier University students anticipate the first day of class with equal parts nervousness and excitement.
Those students can take comfort in the fact that, after nearly 20 years of university teaching, a professor can still relate.
“I still get nervous, but I never tire of the fall term,” says Dana Sawchuk, associate professor in Laurier’s Department of Sociology. “The students aren’t the same each year and the teaching isn’t the same. There are always new issues and approaches to keep things fresh.”
In recognition of her dedication to creating stimulating classroom experiences and contributions to the scholarship of teaching and learning, Sawchuk received Laurier’s 2019 Donald F. Morgenson Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence in the sustained excellence category.
Sawchuk has made a commitment to teaching leadership since her first day at Laurier in 2001. She has been mindful of the impact her research has on her teaching practice.
Sawchuk’s research focuses on media representations of marginalized groups and on the sociology of aging. She says her body of research has led to a greater consideration of the diversity of students in her classroom.
“My research has caused me to reflect more on students’ individual abilities, backgrounds and interests,” says Sawchuk. “I want to build opportunities for connections between myself and the students, as well as between the students and the course material.”
Cultivating deeper connections with students sometimes means admitting you don’t always have the answers. It also means being ready to shift focus to address current and emerging issues.
“If you want to be genuine with students, it’s not always polished and scripted,” says Sawchuk.
Engaging students in active learning is one way to create meaningful classroom connections. Sawchuk designs and integrates active course components that help students make the transition from relatively simple to more complex material, skills and tasks.
In Sawchuk’s course SY216, Aging in Social Context, students take part in the "birthday card exercise," working in groups to replicate a research study that involves analyzing bundles of store-bought cards for positive, negative and neutral messages about aging.
Over the course of a three-hour class, groups analyze the cards, compare and discuss their findings and write brief summaries for evaluation. The activity is designed to draw on earlier classwork about stereotypes, ageism and media representations, as well as empower students to conduct their own pop culture analyses in the classroom and outside of it.
“This was my first active learning course and I didn’t know what to expect,” says Danielle Wolff (BA ’18), a former sociology undergraduate student who served as a teaching assistant in Sawchuk’s introductory sociology course in fall 2018.
“The final assignment was the most interesting project I did during my undergrad. I watched the television series Grace and Frankie to identify and analyze instances of ageism. It made me cognizant of the fact that this is a real issue I needed to open my eyes to.”
Wolff began her master’s of sociology in September and says Sawchuk is one of the main reasons she pursued further education in the field.
“Dana made me realize age isn’t something that needs to be corrected – that your opportunity to shine is open at all ages,” says Wolff.
Sawchuk inspires teaching excellence in the wider academic community through her publications about active and engaged learning, as well as through leading conference workshops about teaching. In 2014, she co-founded the Canadian Sociological Association's teaching practice cluster, a group that facilitates a forum for teaching sociologists to exchange resources and support throughout the year.
While she provides leadership and encouragement to post-secondary colleagues at Laurier and across the country, Sawchuk says her own learning journey continues.
“What works in the classroom today isn’t the same as what worked for me in 2001,” says Sawchuk. “As long as there are excited, engaged students, I will never stop learning.”
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