Community Champion Shai Cohen
Shai Cohen has been teaching mathematics at U of T since 1995 and is currently a part of the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering.
1. In the nomination, the student describe you as “an inspirational professor” and also state that you “showed them the true spirit of mathematical thinking”. Could you tell us a bit more about your approach to teaching and your perspective on the traits necessary for establishing an excellent teacher-student connection.
I have been teaching mathematics at U of T, first as a TA, then as a course instructor, a sessional lecturer, and now as a professor, since 1995. Nearly every course I have ever taught has been aimed at students who would much rather be taking something else – math for the life sciences, math for commerce, math for computer science, math for engineers. It makes our job as teachers more difficult when we need to motivate the students just to care about the subject outside of the mark that they will get.
On top of this, I am a big believer in an aspect of Plato that I learned from Professor Jack Slater in my first year as a student in this university, which is that all learning is painful. I have found over the years that our students often do respond very well to being challenged – far more so than we tend to give them credit for when we prepare our courses.
All of this, though, should not be foisted on the students in an unfair manner. As I half-jokingly tell students, I only want them to fail my course due to a lack of knowledge. If a student does not put in an effort in the class, I have no problem with giving them a low mark, but I do not want someone to fail because of an unfair disadvantage. I have had a long acquaintance with anxiety, depression, and work pressures as they relate to student ability, both among my students and among those closest to me.
In my classes, then, I try to get my students to see the beauty and usefulness of mathematics and to give them as much support as I reasonably can to make their experience in the course fair. This involves taking a lot of time to show what the thinking behind mathematical theorems may be. In the end, being able to pick up the ability to think mathematically is the most important part of the course. I try to show the students that the subject is a lot more than just a series of tools for them to use thoughtlessly.
At the same time, I also try to make the class entertaining. Jokes, stories, and odd juxtapositions are used to let the students get a moment’s respite before the next difficult subject.
On the health side, I make frequent mention of the resources available to students and encourage them to make use of these. On occasion, I have even taken a student to Accessibility Services when the student has found it difficult to approach them on their own. I often give advice about creating a proper life-school balance, giving out recipes for hot chocolate, suggestions for books and TV shows, or (during office hours) explaining the importance of a well-delivered curse word.
2. Discussions about health are often related to concerns about healthy eating, physical activity, managing stress and sleep. We’d be interested to hear from you, your thoughts on the concept of a healthy campus and how it can be integrated into the lecture setting?
I am not sure how we can meld the two. I take one lecture each semester to tell my students about test-taking strategies (which include general stress management and other long-term advice) and I give them occasional tips and reminders, but the lecture form itself does not seem to have much room for a healthier delivery. Some classes have the ability to insert a small break or two in the action through their 50 minutes, but math – and especially engineering math – is a rather dense subject and we don’t tend to have much free time. There is a lot of room, though, to assist students in living a healthy lifestyle outside the class. We are doing a far better job of this support than we were when I was a student here in the nineties and we seem to be coming up with more and better ideas all the time. The path we are taking is definitely encouraging.
On a personal note, I was a big fan of Food Truck Fridays a few years ago. They may not have encouraged healthy eating, but french fries carbonara does a lot of good for one’s soul and having a predetermined cheat day built into one’s diet can be helpful. That trade-off between different aspects of a healthy lifestyle is a topic that we should discuss more when we talk to students.
3. In the nomination, students state that you, “give them life lessons”. Furthermore, students state that you, “somehow make time to explain stuff in a very interesting, unorthodox way”. Please let us know what this nomination as a Healthy Campus Champion means to you personally and/or professionally?
It’s quite nice to see evidence that students are listening. This is a large university and first-year classes are necessarily massive, so there are not too many opportunities to find out how our students are doing. I have an advantage over many of my colleagues in that my office hours are very informal.
My office used to be in Sidney Smith, which is north of the area that engineering students can travel. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed when I spent semester after semester with only two or three regular students out of classes of hundreds. After far more time than I am willing to admit to, I finally thought of bringing my office hours to the students and started holding them in The Pit, which is the main cafeteria for engineers. Even though my office is now in the engineering area of campus, I continue to have my hours in this very relaxed, public zone. Students are not as guarded there and I often get a better sense of what troubles they are facing. We also get to discuss a variety of non-mathematical topics and there are always students from previous years who are there for the entertainment and are willing to help the first-year students.
To be shown that there are students who appreciate this enough to go an extra step and nominate me for the award is something that certainly helps during the days when I wonder if there are all that many students, despite the fact that many do listen, who follow my advice.
4. We would also be interested to know if you have any suggestions about what more could be done to foster campus environments that support the wellbeing of students?
Other than bringing back Food Truck Fridays? I think that we need to figure out how to motivate the students to try out our advice, rather than just listen to it. Quite a few students get all of the information they need, but do not act on it and I do not have a good answer as to why that is. Perhaps we need more exposure to the information. Maybe we need to present it in a more personal way. Getting the students to do more work in groups so that they get motivated from the examples of others seems like it has a lot of potential, especially when the groups have a mentor attached. I am a big fan of all the College One programs; when I taught at UTM I worked with a couple of the RezOne teams on their year-end event and I think that these small, supportive groups are excellent for students’ wellbeing.