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Catherine Black awarded the 2006 WLU Award for Teaching Excellence
Catherine Black, an associate professor in the Department of Languages & Literatures, has been awarded the WLU Award for Teaching Excellence for 2006.
The award recognizes Black’s considerable accomplishments in the classroom and her continuing research in developing innovative teaching methods, as related in the numerous tributes that accompanied her nomination.
As one student put it:
“Dr. Catherine Black is a passionate, enthusiastic and innovative teacher. She is always ready and willing to listen to suggestions to better ... her classes and the department. By helping to create new courses and interesting extracurricular activities, she shows a genuine interest in the undergraduates and the school.
“I am sure I speak for most of her students, past and present, when I say that she has had an impact on our university experience by showing us that it is possible to learn things and have fun at the same time.”
A former student, who is now pursuing a PhD in the United States, wrote:
“I can credit Catherine with many things: my teaching style, the open-door policy I have with my students, my formation as a scholar who does cultural studies and, most fundamentally, my going on to graduate school.
“Her teaching and mentoring were not only tremendously helpful to me, but now also to a second ‘generation’ of students, in another country, because I seek to emulate her.”
It is not the first teaching award Black has received. She won a Distinguished Teacher Award from the University of Waterloo in 1994, and was nominated for the Award for Teaching Excellence at WLU in 2001. She has also been the faculty associate for instructional development for six years.
Teaching “is something I like doing,” says Black. “It’s exciting to see students grow and see that you touched them in some way and motivated them to go forward.”
While she is now a gifted teacher and solid researcher, as a young woman Black’s life appeared to be headed in a very different direction.
Black, a native of Grenoble, France, was educated in France and Canada.
“I wanted to be a commercial pilot,” she says in an interview in her office. But women were not allowed to become commercial pilots at the time, and the French military wasn’t interested in female pilots, either.
So Black studied Russian “so I could be a flight attendant. I even applied and got in with TWA and Pan Am,” but instead of heading off to Florida for training she applied to the Paris Institute of Oriental Languages. She was accepted, but again got cold feet. She finally decided to study English, with the goal of becoming an English teacher.
She became a teaching assistant at the University of Calgary, then came to Ontario, where she became a teaching assistant at the University of Waterloo while pursuing a master’s degree in French.
Black received her PhD in Linguistics from Université Laval in 1997. Her dissertation was entitled “Étude des productions orales d’apprenants de niveau universitaire dans le cadre d’un cours de français d’expression orale par la dramatisation” (Analysis of French oral utterances of university students taking a language course using drama techniques) and it was, in many ways, a continuation of the work and research she had already been doing.
Using drama to teach French is still very much part of Black’s bag of teaching tricks. She routinely teaches a fourth-year course, Atelier (workshop) in Oral French Through Drama.
Asked what makes her a good teacher Black pauses for a few moments.
“Respect for students,” she says. “My classes are not top-to-bottom. There is an equal partnership, I learn from them and they learn from me.”
But, Black adds, that doesn’t mean she babies students. “You have to stick to what you believe. Very few students have a big attitude (but if they do) it doesn’t fly with me and they know it from Day One.”
Her teaching style includes an active interest in seeing students succeed. “If I see someone is not doing well, I call them, ask them what’s going on. If somebody’s not performing, there is a reason.”
Black’s research is all based on innovation in pedagogy. Her lab is the classroom “and my students are, in a certain way, guinea pigs.
“My research involves trying new approaches that will enhance and improve the teaching and learning of languages.”
“My main goal,” she says in her teaching dossier, “is to build confidence in students: the confidence to use French whenever they can and to know that they are competent in it. I want them not only to understand the intricacies of the grammar, but also to discover how language works and what a powerful medium it is...
“My secondary goal is to challenge students intellectually. To push them to go beyond of what they think they are capable. I also want them to become more inquisitive about the cultures of the francophone regions and the world as a whole...
“To summarize, my job is to instill my love for the French language and French culture that will go beyond the four years students spend at our university.”
Black, who eventually obtained a pilot’s licence (with night and float plane ratings), will receive her teaching award at the spring convocation.