Jonathan Finn tells all about engaging students in a large classroom
For Dr. Jonathan Finn, engaging students in the subject of criminology is easy.
In fact, "it's dead easy," says Finn, an associate professor in the Communication Studies program at Wilfrid Laurier University.
"Especially in the third and fourth-year courses, where we get into topics like surveillance and criminal identification…because everybody has their own experiences with that kind of technology. Students are great to offer up examples like seeing themselves on cameras in stores, or cameras on campus, which make for some really fruitful class discussions."
While completing his B.A. at McMaster University, Finn pursued a year of study at the University of Leeds, England. He received his M.A. in Art History at York University, then entered the Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester, earning his doctorate in 2003.
"I had some training in pedagogy at the University of Rochester, which is a small, private institution," explains Finn. "So the training I had reflected that class size, which taught me that teaching is never a performance, but rather you have to get down and interact with the students individually."
It was a challenge, Finn admits, when he found himself at Laurier teaching to classrooms of 250 students. "Interacting with everyone individually becomes very difficult in that kind of class size, especially the ones who sit in the back and come and go as these please. Experience has shown me, though, that sometimes you're going to get a small group of students who simply don't want to be there and interact."
That's why Finn strives to engage as many students as possible through a lively and relatable discussion.
"In media history and visual culture, I always like to put images up when I begin each class that ties into some contemporary news, and something that fits the course theme as well," says Finn, whose interests include visual communication and surveillance studies, with a particular emphasis on the use of photographic technologies in scientific and social practices.
Moderating those often-boisterous class discussions, and running a tight ship in large classrooms, is an integral part of Finn's approach to teaching.
"There's always a danger with that kind of material — discussing advertisements, film, television, and surveillance — where you could easily fill an entire lecture with enthusiastic students chatting and sharing personal anecdotes that relate to the subject matter," says Finn, who is the associate dean of research and curriculum. "So I always go in with a very firm plan and make it clear to the students that my classes are fun, but you have to be able to do the work, think critically, write seriously and coherently about the topics discussed."
The trick, Finn says, is to weave student engagement and intensive coursework into a seamless whole.
"For me, there's always a fine line between wanting to have a very rigorous course plan, but also wanting the students to enjoy their time in my class," he says.
Finn happens to find his own research quite fun, incidentally — he's currently developing a new project on photographic representation and sport. He is intrigued by the history of the photo-finish, instant-replay and related uses of the photograph as a juridical tool in sport.
His book, Capturing the Criminal Image: From Mug Shot to Surveillance Society, is a critical examination of the use of visual representation in modern and contemporary Canadian and American law-enforcement practices.
"With something like mug shots and surveillance, I strive to get the students thinking about the subject matter even when they're outside my classroom, or in some cases even apply it to other courses they're taking," says Finn. "It's rewarding to see them realize there's a link between what they're learning in my classroom with other activities they're involved in, whether that be something like sports or volunteering somewhere.
"I'm very fortunate, because the subject matter I teach lends itself in that way, and I think that ultimately the students will remember and apply it to their everyday lives."
Marshall Ward was a studio instructor for five years in the Fine Arts Program at Laurier, and was the recipient of the 2007 Wilfrid Laurier University Award for Teaching Excellence, Part-Time Contract Academic Staff. He is a weekly columnist with the Waterloo Chronicle and contributing writer for SLAM! Wrestling (Canoe/Sun Media).