On Campus

Canada's Best Teachers: Maureen Mancuso

She makes university work for shy students

Maureen Mancuso 3M Fellow

Maureen Mancuso, 2011 3M Fellow

In 1986, to recognize the importance of university teaching, the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada created the 3M National Teaching Fellowships. Ten university faculty members are recognized each year for their educational leadership and exceptional contributions to teaching. Maclean’s On Campus is profiling all 10 of this year’s winners. This week, we look at Maureen Mancuso, an expert in political ethics, who was one of the first female lecturers in the political science department at the University of Guelph where she is now the Vice-President Academic and Provost and a pioneer of the first-year seminars program.

Maureen Mancuso wasn’t always as confident as she is today. “I never even spoke to a professor until third year, and then only because he called my name out and asked me to come see him,” she says. “I was panicked — but when I met with him, it turned out that I had gotten the best grade in the class.” She also had to be prodded into applying for graduate school. “[My professors] got the forms for me, basically filled them out, and made sure that I requested a teaching assistantship rather than a research assistantship,” she says. Those mentors are people she’s kept in the front of her mind as she’s risen to the highest ranks of teaching leadership at the University of Guelph.

That highly personal experience with professors also explains why she “more or less requires participation” from her students. (And yes, she does still teach one class.) She wants no one  to sink so deeply down into their chair that they miss out on discussions that could lead them to do great things.

Her strategies work. Students mentored by Mancuso are now lawyers, politicians and professors, like Melissa Gabler, who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in 1996 and then did her Master’s degree at Guelph under the supervision of Mancuso, before earning a PhD and a teaching job at her alma mater.

“Was she not in my life,” says Gabler. “I probably wouldn’t have become a professor at all.” Without any other female role models in the department, she’s not sure she wouldn’t have had the confidence. Mancuso also took her to the Canadian Political Science association meeting in Ottawa when she was a master’s student. “It’s usually only PhD students or above who go,” she says. “That really empowered me.”

Speaking of confidence, one of the methods Mancuso uses to turn shy 18-year olds into eager scholars is hands-on projects that span entire semesters. “Building up to the principles of political science,” is what Gabler calls it. She was one of 40 students who Mancuso trained for a monster study comparing the ethics of Canadian politicians with the ethics of the general population. “Can you imagine that?” says Gabler. “Fourth-year students on the phone interviewing sitting MLAs and MPPs.”

Another way Mancuso prevents shy students from slipping out the back doors of lecture halls is by throwing away the lecture slides. “In any field, you run across people who make presentations by reading their power point slides verbatim,” she says. “That’s not engaging, and it doesn’t really do much more than fill time. Any university student can read — the purpose of the classroom is to exchange ideas.”

But in large lectures, a reality for most first-year students, that exchange is nearly impossible. Guelph’s first-year seminar program, which was developed, nurtured and creatively-funded by Mancuso and her fellow administrators, may be a part of the solution. Research has shown that students who take the 18-person seminars have grades that average nine points higher by fourth year. Even more importantly, they report more sophisticated research habits.

The seminars might sound familiar. They consist of collaboration on one big problem between students and professor, in order to build skills and confidence, just like Mancuso has always done. Now, fewer students will have to wait until third year before their first personal encounter with a professor.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.