A Fondness for His Subject
Dean of Science Richard Peter speaks for most people when he says "snails, slugs, worms and other creepv crawlies are not an immediatelv attractive subject."
However, when the subject is taught by U of A zoology professor Hugh Clifford, ' invertebrate zoology develops a certain appeal. Students and colleagues who supported Clifford's nomination for the Rutherford Teaching Award that he won this , year agree that the popular teacher has a particular knack for getting students to warm up to invertebrates.
Since joining the University faculty in 1965 Clifford has become known among students and colleagues for not consulting notes during his lectures. As one admirer has said, "Hugh Clifford does not lecture from notes. He does not publish ' his notes for students nor does he place a photocopy of his lectures on reserve in the library. He lectures from his head and his heart."
Clifford is the author of a popular textbook, book, The Freshwater Invertebrates of Alberta, illustrated by his wife, an artist, and published last year. Yet his teaching style doesn't rely on textual material. One former student says: "[We] found that Dr. Clifford's ability to speak without referring to notes made his lectures less the dry stuff of textbooks, and more a living body of knowledge."
Working without notes makes lectures look deceptively easy, says the soft-spoken professor, who prepares extensively before each lecture with notes he updates every year. Early in his career, Clifford lectured directly from notes but found them getting in the way. "I found that I was spending a great deal of time finding my place in my notes, and I lost contact with the students when I did that," he says. His confident lecturing style also helps Clifford win over his students early in the course. And Clifford believes that to be important: "If the students don't have confidence in the instructor, you can spend a whole year teaching and they won't learn anything."
Clifford particular interest is stream ecology, and he has spent many hours during his 30-year career as an invertebrate zoologist studying a brown-water stream near Chip Lake, just west of Edmonton. His years of familiarity and fondness for the subject rub off on his students. "He illustrated almost every group of invertebrates with anecdotes of personal encounters with the creatures, and spoke of their lives with evident enthusiasm and affection," one student remembers. "It was this enthusiasm that fired my own interest in invertebrates." Clifford was himself influenced by a former chair of the Zoology Department. In discusssing his interest in teaching, the Rutherford Award winner pays tribute to J.Ralph Nursall, who retired in 1988. "I think most of us, as new staff members in Zoology, were influenced by his commitment ot excellence in teaching."
As those who nominated Clifford for the Rutherford Award agree, being an excellent teacher means passing on enthusiasm and appreciation as well as knowledge. Students tell Clifford that he has inspired some of them to major in invertebrate zoology, and "it is doubtful that anyone has completed Dr Clifford's course without having an appreciation of the diversity and importance of the world's invertebrate fauna," one student says.
Since 1984 graduating honors zoology students have been asked to evaluate the department's courses and instructors. John Holmes, current chair of the Department of Zoology, says that there is a strong tendency for students to rate courses in their major interest the highest, but even students who do not choose to major in invertebrates rate Clifford's courses very highly. "He is cited by about half the graduands as the 'best' professor they experienced during their entire undergraduate program," Holmes says.
Published Autumn 1993.