On Campus

Marjorie Johnson, top of her class

Celebrating Canada's 3M Teaching Fellows

Photo by Andrew Tolson

Marjorie Johnson is just one of the ten 3M Teaching Fellows announced in the annual Maclean’s student issue, on sale this week. To see who the other nine winners are, click here.

Story by Gustavo Vieira.

A soothing guitar ballad is piped through the sound system, muffling the chatter of a few dozen second-year kinesiology students; they’re waiting for anatomy class to begin at an auditorium at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. A slide show reviewing the body parts studied in previous classes plays on a loop: the medial pterygoid, trunks of brachial plexus, the maxillary artery, and so on. Two minutes later, the lights dim; a clip from Grey’s Anatomy appears, depicting a blood-gushing patient being treated by a frazzled young medical resident struggling to contain the bleeding. The students go silent. It’s time for Marjorie Johnson to start her lecture on the intricate anatomy of the human neck. Not before she pulls up a photo of Steve Nash, the Phoenix Suns superstar, his neck’s veins, muscles and nerves bulging beneath his skin as he protects the ball from an opponent at a basketball game. “He’s one of my heroes,” Johnson later confesses, “so they see Steve Nash a lot.”

Sports images, preferably from basketball, her favourite sport, or clips from popular TV shows are just some of the tools the anatomy professor uses to keep students tuned in. She’ll frequently hand over her laser pointer during lectures, encouraging students to identify, for example, the hypoglossal nerve. “That’s just to break it up a bit, so they can refocus,” she says. “Otherwise it gets pretty boring.”

For her collaborative spirit and passion for the subject she teaches, Johnson was one of 10 professors named a 3M National Teaching fellow this year, an honour established in 1986 by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada to recognize the importance of university teaching.

In order to make anatomy more than a memory game, Johnson has used all kinds of analogies and props. Once, for Halloween, she dressed as a mammary gland—that’s a breast to you. For a class on pelvic organs, she put a bedsheet over her head to represent the broad ligament, a muscle that drapes over the uterus, while holding two footballs representing the ovaries. To envision the inside of a female pelvis, a couple of students volunteered to act as props: one representing the bladder, the other the rectum. Did they mind? “They get a kick out of it too,” she says.

For someone capable of those sorts of tricks and stunts, you’d think she has never hesitated in front of a crowd, but Johnson says she’s actually a shy person. “Was I nervous the very first lecture I taught? I still get nervous,” she says. “But it’s a good nervous energy.”

That’s because Johnson takes her role as an instructor way beyond relaying information to students. She believes teachers have the privilege of working with young people to help broaden their horizons and influence their career decisions. In fact, much of Johnson’s prestige with students comes from the relationship she develops with them outside the classroom, whether it’s at her office doling out advice or the countless hours she spends with them in the anatomy department’s cadaver lab.

“I remember myself, a terrified second-year student entering the cadaver lab,” says Michael Berger, a former kinesiology student of Johnson’s who is in his sixth year of a seven-year program that combines an M.D. and a Ph.D. at Western’s medical school. “She was such a calming influence, her elbows deep inside a cadaver, so happy to be surrounded by students trying to find this nerve or dissect through that artery.” Berger says he plans to teach after watching Johnson teach the same course for more than a decade: “If I come out half as positive and enthusiastic and as much of an influence on students as she is, then I’ll be quite happy.”

Five years ago, Louis Kour was one of Johnson’s undergraduate students, but his dream was to attend medical school. He’s currently in his final term of a master of science in clinical anatomy, under the supervision of Johnson, who is also the program director. Kour says after spending time with Johnson—first as a student, then volunteering in her lab and working as her teaching assistant—he decided he wanted to teach as well. Her passion and her concern for students inspired him to switch gears. “She’s come in on weekends, snow days, all because of the students. Things like that made me realize there’s more to the world than just medicine,” he says.

Johnson, who’s been teaching at Western since 1994, says her graduate studies at the University of British Columbia, working under the supervision of “some great mentors,” inspired her to devote her career to the teaching side of academia, more than research.

Back in the classroom, pointing to the photo of the Canadian basketball star’s neck, she asks her students, “What is that?” One student mumbles: “It’s the jugular vein.” After a few wrong answers, someone gets it: the omohyoid muscle. Naturally.

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