Dr. Jan Newberry has hit her stride, and her students continue to reap the benefits.
Newberry, in her 14th year of teaching anthropology at the University of Lethbridge and the current Chair of the department, is the 2015 recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award, an honour many feel is a longtime coming.
Ask Newberry how she feels about the award and she’ll humbly admit that it’s “nice” before quickly adding that, “all the hoopla is not my favourite thing in the whole world”. Her favourite thing – that would be why she’s receiving the award.
“I love teaching, I love being in the classroom, it’s one of the things I really feel I’m able to do,” says Newberry. “I may struggle some when it comes to my research, but in there – I know what to do.”
Her success is rooted in a student-centred approach that endeavours to make students active partners in their education. Infectiously passionate and enthusiastic, Newberry doesn’t just take her students on a ride through anthropology, she puts them in the driver’s seat, presents a road map and challenges them to determine where they want to go. Known for her use of group work, Newberry highlighted that philosophy in an essay she wrote for the Teaching Centre’s Light on Teaching publication.
“I’m not one of those teachers who thinks, ‘here’s the goal and now I just need to get you to the goal’,” she says. “I don’t actually know what the goal is entirely – other than thinking – and what I want students to do is wander around and make up their own mind. A little struggle doesn’t bother me.”
It has taken some time for Newberry, a naturalized Canadian who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, to find herself as a teacher after working as an archaeologist and then assistant dean at an Ivy League college. Ironically, her goal to help students find their voice and to involve them as active learners is a far cry from her student experience.
“I sat in the back and was super, super quiet and just did my work. I never challenged anybody,” says Newberry, who came to the U of L from Bryn Mawr College, a women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. “I’m now much more about learning to talk in the classroom. I guess I’m trying to reach that quiet kid in the back and get them involved, because we tend to teach to the loudmouths – they get our attention. It’s those quiet ones who just show up and do the work that can get forgotten, so I try and get to that middle ground.”
Newberry sees teaching as central to the mission of the University, a value that must be balanced with its research goals. And while her style is entirely unique, it connects.
“I make jokes, it’s like slapstick comedy some days but that’s a little bit of who I am,” she says. “Until you figure out who you are and what that voice is, you will struggle in the classroom.”
Newberry has definitely found her voice. Her Distinguished Teaching Award is the second such honour she’s received in the past year, having previously been recognized with the American Anthropological Association/Oxford University Press Award for Undergraduate Teaching in Anthropology.
Newberry has devoted considerable time to work beyond the classroom, readily accepting responsibilities as a supervisor for independent study projects, applied studies, honours theses and graduate students. Heavily involved in improving the excellence of teaching on campus through the Teaching Centre, she served a one-year term as a Teaching Centre Fellow in 2010-11 and was appointed to a two-year term as the Board of Governors’ Teaching Chair in 2011.
Newberry also jumped on board with the Liberal Education Program and helped create the Liberal Education 2850: Mapping Self, Career, Campus and Community course through her committee work for the Recruitment and Retention Project. She has continued her attention to effective interdisciplinary teaching through her involvement with the Liberal Education Revitalization Team.
Again, all her work is geared towards improving the student experience, and helping students find their way.
“I think we have to provide a lot of support as students first make that transition from high school to university,” she says. “I’m very present in that first year and then every successive year I kind of step back until it’s mostly them. They might get scared at times but that’s OK.”
Now that she’s been recognized formally as one of the best at what she does, Newberry is able to look back at her maturation as a teacher.
“The big thing for me is that years of experience make you less nervous and less frightened of making mistakes. Actually, your mistakes become the best thing sometimes,” she says. “I think you get more resilient in the classroom after 14 years. You do better teaching when you are there, you feel more confident about what you’re doing.”
She then laughs at the notoriety the awards carry, shining the spotlight her way.
“In some ways, they make me think, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to work harder now’.”
It’s hard to believe that is possible.