Open Your Mind: A Q&A with Celia Popovic, director of the Teaching Commons at York University

Celia Popovic

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on Celia Popovic, director of the Teaching Commons at York University and a member of the Faculty of Education’s teaching corps.

Popovic is an educational developer who has focused her research on teaching and learning in postsecondary institutions. She is most interested in how people learn, how they teach and how to support and raise the profile of teaching in the university setting. 

Celia Popovic
Celia Popovic

Q. Please describe your current role at York University and field of research.

A. I am faculty member in Education and the director of the Teaching Commons. I am interested in how people learn, how people teach and how to support and raise the profile of teaching and learning in universities such as York.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of work? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry into teaching and learning?

A. As an undergraduate in the early 1980s I was aware that I found some courses more engaging than others. I learned more in some courses than others. In some courses I felt the point was to learn the game according to the professor and try to guess what it was he or she wanted from me. I thought this was my problem – that one way or another I hadn’t learned the secret of how to be a good student. When I became an instructor in a community college, I was shocked to find that I was given the class and the topic and left to sink or swim. I was sure this couldn’t be the only way but I didn’t know what the alternative might be. Gradually I found like-minded others who were interested in the craft of teaching. I learned from them and I also sought out formal courses and support. A masters degree, a doctorate and a few years later found me teaching in a university and very quickly I made the transition into supporting teaching.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research into educational development in lay terms?

A. I am interested in how people become educational developers. What support is available, how we become professionals, what our values are and how we might define our corpus of work. There is a growing body of literature that looks at educational developers’ identity − my interest is this but I am also pragmatic − how do developers develop?

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. York University is emerging as a leader in educational developer support. Last April, the University hosted the Educational Developers’ Caucus (EDC) three-day institute. Around 50 developers from across Canada came to the University to engage in professional development sessions led by several experienced developers. We also have the only accredited course in Canada (and likely the world) that is designed for TAs who have an interest in educational development. Our STAY symposium (May 6) is a one-day event full of a wide range of workshops on an array of teaching and learning topics designed by and for York TAs. We received a small grant from EDC to create an online resource for new or aspiring developers:

In my most recent project I am leading a working group drawn from across the globe to create a suite of fully online courses for educational developers. This is a first − it is endorsed by the International Consortia of Educational Developers (ICED) and is a very exciting project. I hope that York University will be the hub of this project providing the infrastructure for the program, with courses developed and delivered by educational developers from across the world, from Australia to the United States (USA), from Canada to Sweden, and Japan to the United Kingdom (UK).

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. I believe in being collaborative and inclusive. I like to make connections and to help others to see and make connections likewise. I also believe in being professional. I think it is this passion combined with a certain stubbornness that allows me to complete projects, but most of all I enjoy working with colleagues who have a passion for teaching and learning.

cover of celia popovic's new bookQ. What findings have surprised and excited you?

A. I recently co-edited  a book with David Baume titled Advancing Practice in Academic Development (Routledge, 2016). This was a mammoth task of “cat herding” as we worked with multiple authors located across the world, in Australia, Sweden, the UK, the USA and Canada. What I found amazing was the similarities in our work and our values, which were far more apparent than our differences.

Q. What role will your new book play in the world of educational development? 

A. I am privileged to have had the opportunity to co-edit this book with David Baume who is considered one of the founding fathers of educational development in the UK. I co-authored two chapters with David and another with Kathryn Plank on Change in Higher Education. The chapters I wrote with David were perhaps the most fun, as we sought to contextualize educational development in one and to foresee the future in the other.

The book is primarily for educational developers, but as the field expands this title can be applied to more and more, not just to those who have the title as their job. I hope that readers will find answer to questions that trouble them, to find encouragement in their endeavours and support for their passion.

Q. Every teacher and researcher, from novice to experienced, encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry or teaching, or both, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. The main challenge for me is finding the time and energy to do this work. My full time dedication is to the role of director of the Teaching Commons − this is truly my dream job! So the research and service to the development community has to come during the evenings and weekends.

Q. How has this work opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. I am increasingly aware of the growing field of educational development. I am constantly finding and hearing about new ways to engage with faculty in their teaching.

Q. With respect to your research into teaching, what are the interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. Teaching touches every discipline. Many disciplines believe their’s is unique and has special approaches. While this is true, for example teaching biology in a lab is not the same as teaching history in a class room or dance in a studio, there are also many similarities. Just as I am energized and excited by ideas that are shared by colleagues in different countries, I believe the same energy and excitement can be generated by encouraging teachers from different disciplines to talk about their approaches.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. No!

Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. Yes, I teach a three-credit graduate course − Teaching and Learning in Post Secondary Education. This is the perfect course for an educational developer as it offers the opportunity to talk to grad students about my work in teaching and learning. This year we are having fun networking with students in the UK who are taking a similar course. Once again the difference of culture and context is energizing if somewhat puzzling at times as we negotiate the differences.

Tell us a bit about yourself:

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?

A. My first degree was English and American Literature. I remain an avid reader. Since moving to Canada in 2011, I have read far more Canadian authors than previously and have learned a great deal about my adopted home. Joseph Boyden leaps out as an inspiration as does Michael Ondaatje. I have long had a love of Margaret Atwood’s work and Carol Shields, of course, but since moving here have discovered many more, with Patrick de Witt’s The Sisters Brothers high on my list of favourites as well as Emma Donahue’s Room.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. Right now I’m reading Marge Piercey’s He, She and It – I do love  a good dystopia!

The last movie I saw was a Cohen Brothers’ movie  Hail Ceasar and it make me laugh a lot because it was very funny and George Clooney, well what more could you want?

Q. What advice would you give to students thinking of pursuing a graduate degree or embarking on a teaching career?

A. I would say do you love your subject? If so − do it and do it with passion. If you are at all undecided, I’d suggest wait until you find your passion!

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?

A. My husband − I seem to spend so little time with him these days!

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. Apart from sleep you mean? I love hiking, travelling, spending time with friends and family.