Excellence in education

UNB professor Diana Austin is the recipient of the Association of Atlantic Universities' 2010 Distinguished Teaching Award. Josh O'Kane photo.When it comes to teaching, Diana Austin considers herself a pragmatic idealist. As a professor of English at the University of New Brunswick, she believes every student has the chance to succeed in her courses, and she works with them to make that happen.

Her approach to teaching is making waves - she's been named the recipient of the Association of Atlantic Universities' 2010 Distinguished Teaching Award.

"When I look at my students, my attitude is, ‘Every one of you is capable of great things,' " says Austin. " ‘It's your choice to make, but I'm going to teach you as if these are the most important 50 minutes of your life.' "

Already a recipient of numerous teaching awards at UNB, it's no surprise she's the latest Atlantic educator to take home the prize. Austin knows she's teaching more than just English literature and poetry - she's teaching students the all-encompassing skill of critical thought.

"Even if they might forget a particular story or a particular poem, they will not forget how to think, how to care about things, because you stirred that in them," she says. "That's going to be the same whether they end up boxers, engineers, schoolteachers or university professors."

Satisfaction over struggle

Austin doesn't let anything get in the way of teaching the way she wants to. While she's afflicted with multiple sclerosis, which has hindered her mobility for over 15 years, students still consistently call her one of the most animated professors they've ever had.

"Once the class gets going, they forget about it, because they're so engaged in the ideas that are going on in the class," she says. "They forget about the fact that I can't move to get away from the lectern until I grab the chalkboard ledge."

That doesn't mean Austin lives with MS without struggle - after a 50-minute class, she explains, she often needs to put her head down on her desk to rest for 15 minutes before she has the energy to get a drink from the water fountain. Even getting into an elevator to get to her office proves a constant struggle.

Ultimately, though, the choice to teach is still an easy one.

"Life doesn't usually give us the choices we want, but it nearly always gives us choices. It's up to us to decide how we want to react to the choices it's given us. I can either rest at home and watch TV and feel sorry for myself, or I can come here and teach you and have fun. I can't cure this by choice, but I can have fun living by choice."

Perennial student

Austin was "thrilled and surprised" to win the 2010 AAU Distinguished Teaching Award over thousands of other eligible professors in the region.

Teaching is something that's always come naturally to Austin, because learning has always been important to her. Before she was even in school as a child, she was playing school at home. "I think I became a professor because I wanted to be a perennial student," she says.

"I loved being a student and I love being a professor. When I'm teaching a class, I see the students and recognize where they're coming from, so I try to make sure I'm empathetic. ... If you're interested in improving your teaching, you want to find out how it's affecting the people you're teaching."

Planting the seed

As a teacher of English literature and poetry, over the past 25 years Austin has seen plenty of students struggle or simply give up on literary analysis for fear of being told they're wrong. She teaches her material from a different view: you can't be wrong as long as you can provide logical reasoning for how you arrived at your interpretation.

"Some students think poetry is just a riddle and nobody will give you a key, but I say no, poetry is just human experience, crystallized in a couple of words," she says. "There's not a right or a wrong about it. It's like somebody had a strong emotion or a strong thought, and they compressed it into those few words - if you add water . . . poof! . . . You don't know what's going to grow. And it'll grow differently for each of us, because we're coming at it from different angles."

Austin is actually a former student at UNB, having studied for her undergraduate English degree at the Fredericton campus before completing her M.A. at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. and her D.Phil. at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. Since her teaching career at UNB began in 1983, her reputation as an educator has been recognized with a number of the university's awards, including the Arts Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching (in 1992) and the Allan P. Stuart Award for Excellence in Teaching (in 2000). In 2008, she was named a University Teaching Scholar.

Austin is the second UNB professor to have her teaching reputation recognized by the Association of Atlantic Universities. She joins Dr. Kate Frego, a professor of biology at UNB Saint John's campus, who won the award in 2002.

Contributed by Josh O'Kane. This story was made possible thanks to the financial support of the UNB Associated Alumni