Creating an appreciation for learning and critical thinking through respect and trust

Associate professor Judy Davidson uses thoughtful teaching philosophy to challenge and engage undergraduate students

Nicole Graham - 08 August 2019

Judy Davidson is well aware that the students who take her required classes aren't walking in the door on the first day excited for what's come over the next 13 weeks. Teaching two core socio-cultural undergraduate degree courses in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation-Applied Ethics in Sport, Physical Activity and Exercise, and Philosophies of Leisure and Sport-is a challenge that Judy has embraced for almost 25 years.

"Generally, I know my classrooms are not freely or voluntarily populated by keen, interested students," says Judy, associate professor and a 2019 Rutherford Undergraduate Teaching Award recipient. "I recognize and value the intellectual and affective labour in which they engage to meet the challenges I put to them."

While students may walk into Judy's class somewhat underwhelmed at the prospect of ethics, theories and philosophies, they more often than not walk out with a new appreciation for critical thinking, considering new perspectives, and the art of discourse. This is largely due to Judy's thoughtful approach to teaching, which is grounded in three principles- respect and trust, excitement about thinking, and engaging with difficult knowledges-all of which have been a part of who she is as a teacher from very early on.

Early love of teaching

Born and raised in the small farming community of Ardrossan, Alberta, Judy's love for the outdoors was prevalent throughout her childhood, and it was at summer camp when she was 13 years old where her passion for teaching was ignited.

"This was in the 70's when camp was only $35 a week, and everyone could attend. I grew up at these camps. I spent summers in the mountains with 40 kids and camp leaders hiking, climbing, living outside - it was magical and a completely transformative experience."

Judy went from being a camper, to a leader-in-training, to camp instructor and eventually camp director. She also got involved with the Strathcona Wilderness Centre where she was a ski and paddling instructor, and she spent many of her high school years teaching swimming.

"I learned about alternative leadership styles, peer-leadership and inclusive recreation where effort was made to ensure everyone was involved in programming and activities. This is how I learned to teach."

Judy's connection with fellow outdoor enthusiasts brought her to the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation (now known as Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation) at the University of Alberta to pursue a bachelor's degree in outdoor education, and eventually a Masters and PhD in Physical Education. During her entire post-secondary journey, Judy's training has been deeply interdisciplinary, studying with outstanding feminist scholars from a range of programs across the U of A campus. Critical pedagogy and queer theory have also deeply shaped her teaching style, which was developed through various teaching assistant and principle instructor roles in the Faculty over the years.

Respect and Trust

The experiences Judy had early on have set a respectful and inclusive stage for each of the classes she teaches. Her courses take on sometimes difficult or contentious topics, and often challenge students to not only acknowledge their taken-for-granted assumptions, but to explore potential ethical and political dilemmas they will encounter in their future work practice. It is here where developing respect and trust within the classroom is so important.

"To think differently about one's investments can be disorienting, and students must come to trust themselves to be able to undertake this task. I'm asking these students to analyze and synthesize their own diverse personal, professional and political beliefs, realities and limits. It's a difficult task that is not often asked of students in KSR. So, if I'm going to ask them to do this, then they need to know that what they say is going to be respected."

To establish trust and respect, Judy first and foremost ensures that she learns everyone's name (sometimes in classes of up to 90 students), and addresses them as such for the entire term. Some students have reported to Judy that they often experience university as a nameless or faceless institution. By knowing a student's name and getting to know them a little, Judy helps remove that anonymity and makes her classroom less intimidating.

Secondly, Judy creates a classroom where students are given structured time and space to risk thinking with themselves, with her and with each other. Deviating away from the straight lecture method, Judy invites students to a variety of large and small group engagement processes in every session her students come together. The various methods, such as in-class writing shared anonymously with peers, and collaborative group work, allow for structured, low-stakes opportunities for every student to speak into the room in some way, making for a dynamic, engaged classroom.

Lastly, Judy pays as careful attention as she can to what is put into the room, and engages with those contributions in open and curious ways.

"I model thinking out loud with my students, and that risk invites contributions and questions that productively engage course content. Learning how to listen openly and respectfully is fundamental to ethical professional practice, and I try to enact this way of being at the front of my classroom."

Excitement about thinking, and the laughter it sometimes provokes, has left a lasting mark
on the thousands of students Judy has taught.

For Judy, learning how to contend with the ethical and political dilemmas that students will inevitably face in the workplace is an invaluable part of their education. Her classes broach subjects that challenge students to consider their ideas of what is 'good' or 'right' in sport and leisure, and engage with difficult knowledges - questions about structural inequities and systematic oppressions that are impossible to ignore in this contemporary socio-political moment.

Working through ethical dilemmas as a group, Judy teaches students to trust themselves to be open to ideas that challenge their own deeply held beliefs. In her classroom, she invites students to risk knowing differently and to ask after the complexities of justice, power and inequality that they will inevitably encounter in their personal and professional practice in sport, leisure and recreation contexts.

"I encourage students to evaluate alternatives they have never considered, to think creatively, justly and carefully. My goal is to unsettle them. And in that unsettlement, I hope that it will lead to a certain curiosity about the world, to question what's going on, and to just live more consciously."

Above all, Judy wants her students to have an appreciation and excitement about thinking.

"This sounds deeply cliched, but I love teaching. I love to think and I love engaging with my students. And because of that, I bring a lot of enthusiastic energy to my classroom. I share the process of how to think critically, and how to be curious in animated ways. And we have fun. We talk about desperately hard things, yet we laugh a lot."

This excitement about thinking, and the laughter it sometimes provokes, has left a lasting mark on the thousands of students Judy has taught. Over the span of her teaching career at the University of Alberta, which is closing in on the 25 year mark, former students have reached out to thank Judy, often wanting to have coffee to re-engage in the kinds of critical conversations they had with others in her classrooms.

"This is what I love about the work I do-engaging with students who rarely enter my classrooms desiring what I have to offer and leaving with what they likely did not anticipate."

Judy was awarded the Rutherford Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching earlier this year as part of the 2019 Teaching Excellence Awards.