The Class of 1965 Teaching Excellence Award, 2013
“Your Absinthe from Class Forum: A Call for Simplicity”
Dr. Billy Allan
Article by: Huw Osborn – Associate Professor, Department of English
On 28 November, 2013, the RMCC community and members of the public gathered in Currie Hall for the Class of 1965 Teaching Excellence Award. The winner of the 2012-2013 award was Dr. Billy Allan of the department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering. The Award was established in 1990 on the occasion of the twenty-fifth reunion of the Class “to recognize excellence in teaching and to promote that standard throughout the College.”
Acting-Principal Pierre Roberge opened the evening with a tribute to the Class of 1965, thanking them for their generosity and vision in establishing the award. Jim Carruthers, the RMC Foundation President, followed with a brief and impressive presentation on the wide-ranging initiatives supported by the Foundation. The Foundation continues to be a vital contributor to the colleges, their students, their faculties, and staff, providing invaluable support to projects that enrich research and teaching. Class of 1965 representative, Charles Emond, then donned a ball cap to recall the days when he and his fellow classmates sat in the same classrooms as the cadets gathered in the audience. The Award, he explained, was established to honour the important and formative role that RMC professors played in their lives and careers and to recognize the continued contribution of inspiring teachers like Dr. Allan. Dr. Phil Bates, Dean of Engineering, rounded off the opening statements with an introduction of Dr. Allan. He highlighted Dr. Allan’s tireless commitment to his students, noting especially his contribution to the college in being the driving force behind the creation of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering programme.
Dr. Allan began the lecture by telling his audience to turn off their cell phones to remove the temptation of technological distraction, warning them that anyone caught beeping or ringing would be stuck paying for the first round of drinks at the reception following the lecture. This was our first hint at the meaning behind the enigmatic title of the lecture.
What is the “absinthe” in the class? Absinthe, Dr. Allan explained is a drink whose supposedly powerful inspirational qualities made it a favourite of the French decadents of the nineteenth century. Known and marketed as “The Green Fairy,” it was credited with almost magical qualities, though its long-term effects were destructive to those who overindulged in its pleasures. A similar false promise is found in the two-fold dependency of university education on business plans and technology.
Dr. Allan pointed out that there are many areas in life that cannot be reduced to an economic value, and the “education and inspiration of young people” is one such area. As we recklessly search for efficiencies in meeting these business plans, we are tempted to believe in the green fairy of learning technology. We must, however, detach ourselves from the distractions and temptations of technology in the classroom and reconnect to the simple engagement of people in rooms passing on knowledge and inspiration. Dr. Allan’s lecture was a call for simplicity in classrooms that are increasingly beset by business plans, cost analyses, and the inflated promises of learning technologies.
In this context, Dr. Allan’s props made sense. In the midst of the audience, a cut-away turbine engine stood on the red carpet, reminding us that there is no digital replacement for getting one’s hands on the real thing, whether that thing be the dynamics of political debate, the language of a poem, or this engine, a carefully crafted “wizardry of shapes” that houses flames reaching 1000°C. Behind Dr. Allan, a blackboard offered a contrast to glowing screens onto which so much teaching has been displaced.
Dr. Allan made the case that the false exhaustiveness and authority of the Internet, the supposed efficiency of the video lecture, and the unachieved democratization of the MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) will never replace the essential, immediate, and long-standing connection between teachers and their students; in the traditional classroom, students and teachers learn to think critically in non-standardized and unpredictable environments, where discussion and trouble-shooting of problems defy the repeated patterns of online lectures and video labs.
As Dr. Allan explained, the “most pressing needs of today’s society will be met by passionate innovators attending to the needs of people unknown to them.” That commitment is kindled in the classroom by passionate teachers with dynamic access to the expertise they possess. As long as we rely on the magical qualities of technology while applying business models to unaccountable outcomes, we will distance ourselves from what university education does best: breaking people out of their habits of thought to see the world in new and productive ways.
After his lecture, Dr. Allan was presented with a framed copy of his lecture poster and the Class of 1965 Teaching Excellence Award honorarium.
Following the presentation, the audience gathered in Baronial Hall for a reception generously sponsored by the Commandant of RMCC (and delectably) supplemented by a selection of craft beer provided by Dr. Allan!)
The evening was another great success for the Class of 1965 Teaching Excellence Award and a welcome reminder of the important work of RMCC teachers and alumni.
Ed: Traditionally many members, as possible of the Class of 1965 attends this annual lecture. A number travel in from out-of-town. This year 14 class members attended from Kingston, Toronto and Ottawa. Prior to the formal lecture they met as a group at a local restaurant for an informal dinner.
L-R: 6364 Mike Braham, 6630 Peter Glynn,6069 Peter Houliston, 6588 Steve Arnold, 6602 Jim Cale, 6508 John Adams, 6715 Yvan Gagnon, 6475 Mike Houghton, 6560 Andrew Nellestyn, 15595 Billy Allan, 6585 Richard Archer, 6439 Hugh Spence, 6604 Jim Carruthers, 6541 Fraser Holman, 6446 Charlie Emond