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History professor Ken MacMillan receives 3M National Teaching Fellowship

Award recognizes excellence in teaching and educational leadership


History professor Ken MacMillan received a prestigious 3M National Teaching Fellowship, recognizing his teaching excellence and leadership in education. Photo by Adrian Shellard

By Joni Miltenburg
February 24, 2016

A few years back, Ken MacMillan saw that his history students were struggling with an assignment on crime and punishment in 17th-century England. Directed to study accounts of true crime dating from the period, they wrestled with the archaic language and obscure terminology.

So MacMillan worked with two of his undergraduate students to annotate the sources and wrote a detailed introduction to the topic. The resulting book, Stories of True Crime in Tudor and Stuart England, will be the new course textbook and the basis of students’ first assignments.

The book is just one example of MacMillan’s outstanding dedication to student learning and educational leadership, which has earned him a prestigious 3M National Teaching Fellowship.

Sponsored by 3M Canada and the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, the award is the top teaching honour that can be bestowed on a Canadian university professor.

“It is fantastic to see Ken recognized for his dedication and commitment to his students, his scholarship related to teaching and learning, and for his leadership on campus,” says Dru Marshall, provost and vice-president (academic). “Ken deservedly now joins an elite group who have won the prestigious 3M National Teaching Fellowships.”

One of only 10 university teachers in Canada to be recognized

MacMillan is one of only 10 university teachers across the country to receive the 2016 award. The winners were announced in the Maclean’s magazine annual student issue earlier this month.

“The 3M National Teaching Fellowship recognizes an outstanding record of teaching excellence and educational leadership, and Ken MacMillan epitomizes the ethos of this award,” says Lynn Taylor, vice-provost (teaching and learning). “His sustained efforts to enhance student learning — in his own discipline and across the university — truly reflect what it means to be a teacher-scholar.”

“It’s not enough just to talk about teaching. You have to be sure that the strategies you’ve developed are working before you try to lead others,” MacMillan says.

MacMillan has developed a number of innovative strategies to engage his students in studying history. In large first-year classes, he uses classroom assistants to make group work feasible. These senior undergraduate students circulate among the students, asking and answering questions, and provide him with feedback on how students are grasping the material.

MacMillan also models assignments to prepare students for writing essays. He provides students with an essay-writing handbook, writing workshops, model essays and grading rubrics to give them a concrete sense of the expectations for the assignment.

“He’s extremely dedicated to working with students as partners, in publishing with them, mentoring them and helping them mentor each other,” says Natasha Kenny, director of the Educational Development Unit of the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning and one of MacMillan’s co-nominators.

An enthusiasm for teaching that goes beyond the classroom

Kenny also praises MacMillan’s commitment to helping other instructors excel.

“His enthusiasm for teaching goes far beyond what he does in the classroom,” Kenny says. “He’s incredibly gracious in his willingness to share his innovative approaches and help others succeed.”

MacMillan has shared his expertise through workshops and publications as well as informal discussions and mentoring. He’s also a founding member of the Teaching Academy, a group of University of Calgary Teaching Award recipients committed to supporting the development of teaching and learning expertise across campus.

Through the Teaching Academy, MacMillan was one of the leaders in developing Open Classroom Week, an initiative that sees instructors invite their colleagues into their classes to observe them teach.

“I really try to eschew the idea that people are innately good at teaching. I think it takes strategy, trial and error, failure and development,” he says.

“With Open Classroom Week, we’re taking teaching out of being an intensely private activity and opening it up. We’re letting others see that we’ve all struggled with teaching, we’re still struggling with teaching, and we’ve developed strategies through that.”

The 10 recipients of the 3M National Teaching Fellowships are invited to the annual conference of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education to receive their awards, and will participate as a cohort in a four-day intensive retreat in Banff in November.

“For me, the most exciting part is meeting this community of like-minded people,” MacMillan says. “I’m eager to share some of these ideas and get new ideas as well, and this is a good community to do that.”