The Underground began awarding professors with the Professor of the Year award in their Features issue for the 2009-2010 academic year to fill a void in student to faculty appreciation. The Professor of the Year Award aims to honour the work of a faculty member at the University of Toronto Scarborough for their outstanding excellence in teaching and their dedication to imparting knowledge.

This academic year, professors were selected based on the breadth requirements of the courses they were nominated for. And so, there is one award winner from each of the five breadth requirement: social and behavioural sciences, quantitative reasoning, natural sciences, history, philosophy and cultural studies, and arts, language and literature.

Department of Political Science

Professor Alison Braley-RattaiRGB_alisonProf_NoorAqil

Professor Alison Braley-Rattai is a breath of fresh air. She is enthusiastic, approachable, and her teaching style makes the material so easy to digest that learning about the Charter becomes exciting (I’ve never been this motivated to do the optional readings). She provides ample opportunities for self-improvement through multiple ‘build-up’ assignments (instead of one big assignment worth 35 per cent) which not only helps students track their progress in the course and monitor their strengths and weaknesses, but also makes them feel like they are in control of their education and more than hopeful about achieving a good grade. She understands, and respects, students’ stressful schedules and accommodates them by providing one week extensions (after the deadline) for students to submit their work without any penalties.  With Professor Braley-Rattai, it is always more about the quality of the learning experience than about the nitty gritty logistics of a typical university course – although she is very thorough with that as well. Professor Braley-Rattai is funny, engaging, accessible, and always inspires me to deeply care about my work, to want to go the extra mile, and to produce work that I genuinely believe in – which, I think, is ultimately all that really matters. Being her student is nothing short of deeply rewarding. Undoubtedly one of the best professors I have had in my four years at UTSC.

   – Reem Ayad, fourth year psychology and public law student

On inspiration: I am inspired by those students who are genuinely interested in learning for its own sake. I appreciate that students have many concerns about their futures and many responsibilities in their everyday lives. But those students who enjoy grappling with ideas and wrestling them to the ground for the sake of being an engaged social citizen really inspire me to work hard at helping them do so.

On guilty pleasures and television: When we get a chance, my husband and I tend to watch trite and formulaic, Agatha Christie-style British murder mysteries that have virtually no redeeming features.

Life philosophy: This is a tough question, but I guess if I had to sum it up I would say that I genuinely believe in living my life in a principled way. What that means first and foremost is to be mindful of how one ought to act and to try to do that, even, of course, when it is inconvenient, difficult or not well-understood by those around you.

Favourite novel: I started my undergraduate career many moons ago as an English major so books have always meant a great deal to me. As a result, I could not name just one favourite, but among my favourites are James Baldwin’s Tell me how Long the Train’s been Gone, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, and Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners. There is a common theme regarding the compassionate and visceral way that these authors relate the experience of marginalized peoples and characters.

On the high school experience: I hate to admit that I was not that engaged in high school and tended to excel (or not) to the extent that I was already interested in a given subject. I regret that I did not apply myself at that time to those subjects that were not as interesting or did not come as naturally to me, because everything is interesting once you understand a little something about it. (I do not, however, regret secluding myself in the library to pen a poem called “Ode to the Death of a Laboratory Rat” in defiance of having to actually dissect one for biology class.)

On the university experience: Not great the first time around, which is why I took a number of years off to figure out what I really wanted. When I went back I was a little older and very focused and was able to really enjoy the learning and researching that I was doing and also to avail myself of some of the non-academic opportunities that universities offer, which I really encourage students to do.

Extracurricular activities: I don’t know if this ‘fits’ the archetype or not as, in my experience, professors have wide interests, but, when I can, I perform in community theatre. I am appearing in a musical with the Oshawa Little Theatre right now.

Alternative life: I would likely find work in the area of labour relations, broadly construed, perhaps as a government-appointed employment standards inspector or employed with a labour organization as a union-side grievance or negotiating officer … and if I couldn’t do THAT, I would volunteer a lot more with municipal committees and get a lot more involved in the theatre.

Department of Anthropology

Professor Andrea ChariseRGB_Andrea_Andrea

Dr. [Andrea] Charise is an innovative and award-winning interdisciplinary researcher, a talented, caring, and dedicated teacher, and a gifted organizer dedicated to building the Health Studies community beyond the classroom. Dr. Charise is an innovative and award-winning interdisciplinary researcher, a talented, caring, and dedicated teacher, and a gifted organizer dedicated to building the Health Studies community beyond the classroom. Dr. Charise, in teaching her Health Humanities courses, and in creating the first Health Humanities Minor in Canada (currently in process), provides UTSC students with access to a crucial and cutting edge field for those seeking employment in the health field, whether future physicians, medical researchers, activists, or health administrators.”

UTSC colleague

“Professor Charise always brings a fire to her teaching. I have never seen her have an off day in my life. She’s extremely approachable, helpful at all times, and completely non-judgemental of her students in that she understands that sometimes life gets in the way of studies. She has unknowingly helped me pick myself back up during a couple of depressive episodes and has given me, and all of her other students, the opportunity to flourish and grow in her classrooms. She promotes students’ confidence development, and outside-of-the-box thinking, and empowers them to bring their own mind to the current body of Aging Arts. Quite unlike any other professor I’ve ever encountered.”

Gabriela Osorio, fifth-year neuroscience major

On inspiration: I am lucky to be surrounded by sources of inspiration, whether it’s my students’ insights and humour, the support of my colleagues, my partner (who is a gifted poet), or the art in my office. What keeps me calm? It can be tough; but yoga, making lists, and unplugging from email on the weekend helps me.

Guilty pleasures: Bad television, white wine [and] Fuzzy Peaches. (When combined, the guilt disappears.)

Life philosophy: I often think of a passage by the late 19th-century writer Oscar Wilde in a book he wrote shortly before his death: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Wilde wrote this at a time of profound despair, but it testifies to his lasting belief in the nourishing effects of a relentlessly observative life. The arts give us innumerable case studies of how we might choose to live according to our circumstances. My lesson so far: choose generosity, imagination, and courage over the alternatives.

Favourite novel: I’m a voracious reader so I wouldn’t dare pick just one. George Eliot’s Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss are two novels that I will read over and over again until I die. More recently, I’ve been moved by W.B. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here.

On the high school experience: I went to a small rural high school about an hour outside of Ottawa. One day a friend of mine lugged a heavy black garbage bag onto the yellow school bus and told us that he had a present for our science teacher. It turned out the bag contained a pair of cow lungs fresh from slaughter the previous weekend – my buddy, who lived on a cow farm, didn’t want to see the lungs go to waste and thought they would be good for practicing dissection. You could call that part of my high school experience pretty ‘country’, I guess. It was also home to wonderful teachers that had a big impact on my education and especially my recognition of the importance of the arts. Later, I ended up at boarding school in Italy, but that’s another story.

On the university experience: I graduated summa cum laude from McMaster’s Arts & Science program where I took a pretty typical ‘pre-med’ slate of undergraduate courses—biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, organic chem, and so on—while combining my degree with an Honour’s program in Comparative Literature. That was the beginning of my realization that I didn’t have to choose between my interests in the arts and the health sciences as I was finding my way into a career. My undergrad experience really launched me on the path to where I am now, which is researching and teaching in the field of Health Humanities at UTSC.

Extracurricular activities: I use Twitter a lot. I bake sourdough bread using a starter I made from wheat grown on my parents’ farm. I can’t stop watching Mad Max: Fury Road.

Alternate life: Practicing geriatric medicine or finishing the book of poems I’ve been brooding over.


Department of Biological Sciences

Professor Jason BrownRGB_JasonProf_NooAqil

“Dr. Jason Brown is, by far, the best biology professor that I have ever had. I genuinely feel lucky to have taken multiple courses with him. His passion for what he teaches is inspiring – he turns biochemistry mechanisms, enzymes, research experiments and findings, from hundreds of isolated facts, into a story that makes sense. A story that I actually become excited about and intrigued by how it ends. Beyond his undeniable intelligence (he’s a genius), Dr. Brown is so, so kind. He has a great sense of humour that comes out during his lectures and in his office hours, and is ALWAYS willing to help his students. Small gestures like making more office hours available before the few weeks prior to an exam, rescheduling office hours when meetings come up instead of simply cancelling them, always making midterms available for viewing (instead of limiting this), creating practice questions so that students may adequately prepare for exams, and bringing snacks to class for students during in-class group assignment work are just some of the ways in which he displays his kind nature and empathic sensitivity to student needs. Basically: the (university) world would be a much happier place if more professors were like Dr. Brown.”

  • Nikki Shah, fifth-year, human biology and psychology double major

On inspiration: Perhaps this will sound peculiar, but I’m inspired by competence. I want everything in the world to work as it should, and I get so frustrated when it doesn’t. Sometimes I let that frustration consume me, and sometimes I use that frustration to try to improve the world.

On guilty pleasures: Food is definitely my guilty pleasure, whether sweet, salty, or savoury.

Life philosophy: I believe that everyone is endowed with certain talents and skills that they are supposed to use to improve the lives of others rather than their own lives; that is to say, each of us is supposed to serve others rather than seek to be served by others. In that way, richness in life is measured by the number of people whose lives are better because they know you, not by the number of dollars that you accumulate in your bank account.

Favourite novel: Honestly, and perhaps surprisingly, I don’t enjoy reading novels at all. I like to read in order to gain factual knowledge, so I am much more likely to read a newspaper, textbook, or scientific article than a novel.

On the high school experience: My high school experience was interesting for a number of reasons. First, I had a core group of great friends that I hung out with on the basketball court almost every day, and they truly respected me. For example, I don’t drink or smoke, and, in retrospect, it’s quite shocking that none of my close friends ever pressured me to do so since most of them did. They just accepted what I did, and I accepted what they did, and we had enough in common to have a great time. Second, although I wasn’t popular myself, everyone who was popular knew who I was because we all had classes together. Being popular-by-association certainly helps make the high school experience easier.

On the university experience: My transition to university life was a complete disaster! I was so homesick for the first few months that I contemplated dropping out almost every day. I think that my difficult transition stemmed from the fact that none of my high school friends came to university with me, and I don’t drink or party much, which seemed to be the only way to make new friends in first-year. I eventually settled in, but I probably spent way too much of my undergraduate career studying and doing assignments, and not nearly enough time hanging out and exploring life in the city.

Extracurricular activities: In the summertime, I umpire youth baseball. The people you meet in that job are completely different than the people you meet as a university professor, which is part of the reason I love it. It allows me to take my mind off biology for a while. I also love playing video games with my brother, but only sports-themed games. We started playing these games together back when we were little kids, but we still make the time to play together even now.

Alternate life: I have three young children, and so I’d probably be a stay-at-home dad. Right now, it’s a challenge just to find time to do the simple things in life, like go to the grocery store, and when I do, it’s always a hectic, rushed trip because I know that I have work that needs to be done. If there no work to be done, then I could revel in the sheer simplicity and beauty of these simple tasks.

Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences

Professor Kathleen Smith RGB_KathleenProf_NoorAqil

“Dr. [Kathleen] Smith explains concepts in a clear, concise and accurate way. She simplifies complicated mathematical concepts. She used her extra time to assist me with math questions when I was in first year. Her motivation and enthusiasm in teaching motivated a lot of students including myself to always try to learn more and to understand the course materials better.”

  • Jenkin Tsui, third-year, mathematics specialist

On inspiration: My students, all of them (from the strong to the struggling), inspire me. Their hard work, commitment, passion and curiosity. They are a source of strength, motivation and energy for me. I am junior faculty – only finishing off my second year here at UTSC as a faculty member. I did my undergraduate studies at UTSC and then my MSc and PhD at St. George. Being ‘new’, I find that I do as much, if not more, work than at any point when I was a student. So there are late nights. I do get very tired and feel stressed out at times. However, when I walk into a classroom or I encounter my army of students that come to office hours, whatever exhaustion I was feeling disappears. There truly is something about my students and the connections that I am fortunate to seem to always make with them that keep me going (‘calm’) and loving what I get to do.

On guilty pleasures: Food, of the variety that one should not eat too much of. That, and students rarely see me without a big hot chocolate or latte that I carry to class with me. My defense in the latter case is that I do not use a microphone so sipping on a hot drink intermittently does help me to keep my voice. I often joke that my stomach is in control of me; that it actually does the math, my work. At least that is an explanation that I give as many a food analogy tends to work its way into my math lectures. For example, usually near the start of my first year (second term) calculus proof course, I am trying to explain to students the need for logical connectives and order between their arguments, etc. My words of importance are usually met with a look of routine compliance. The thing is that I want them to really understand, so then enter food comparison: “Let’s say you are making your mother cookies. Why not, right? You get all of the ingredients to make the cookies: flour, eggs, milk, chocolate chips …. You place all of them in a basket. Now, if you take that basket to your mom and exclaim ‘Look mom, I made you cookies!!’ and hand her the basket, would she think that you made her cookies?” They usually snicker and say no. You have everything you need, all the ingredients, in that basket but how you put them together and the order in which you do so is a crucial part of making that cookie, right? A proof is like a mathematical cookie. You can have all the ingredients but how you put them together and the order in which you do so makes a difference. I have other food analogies along those lines but always appropriate to the audience (say a first year biological science calculus class with more computation and less proof, or a fourth year abstract algebra class filled with math enthusiasts).

Life philosophy: I try to keep it simple. I try to be a good person and be thankful (for everything, especially the small things). It usually only takes a millisecond to imagine how something could be worse, so one should not forget to appreciate what one has. If one doesn’t like what they have then do something to change it.

On the high school experience: Interesting. In my initial years I was the type to be involved in everything. Academics I found easy and I absorbed everything like a sponge. I received English and art (studio & history) awards throughout high school. I was very involved in sports too both outside and inside of school.

On the university experience: I came to UTSC for my undergrad because it was close to my parents’ home where I still lived at that start of my Hon. BSc. University was a time where I learned a lot about me and I also found my passion to teach mathematics. I came to university thinking that I liked chemistry best and would maybe like to teach it at the high school level. By the end of my first year of classes, I had fallen into a mathematical ditch and then never got out. I knew by the end of that first year that I wanted to teach mathematics and I wanted to do so at the university level. This was further confirmed when I began TA-ing for what would become CMS (Dept. of Computer and Mathematical Sciences) as an undergraduate. I should point out that wanting to teach math at the university level meant that I would be a student for a lot longer (MSc, PhD). Note I never got around to taking chemistry in university. I was going to take it the summer after my first year but never did. Perhaps life would have been different had I taken first year chemistry? 😉

Extra-curricular activities: I like to go to concerts when I can. I honestly thought this was not excluded from the ‘professor archetype’ until last summer. I was at a concert downtown when I had a now former student run up to me at intermission yelling ‘Professor! professor! I didn’t know you listened to […].’  It was amusing and surprising to me. The reaction from my students in the weeks that followed seemed to make rounds around my summer classes. I think that perhaps many students do not see ‘us’ as human, for lack of better wording. This tends to negatively affect ‘approachability’ in my opinion. That is actually part of why I try to present a very real, down to earth, approachable ‘me’ in my classroom.

Alternative life: I have no idea. Honestly.

Department of Human Geography

Professor Thembela Kepe RGB_kepe_NoorAqil

“[Professor Thembela Kepe] takes time to talk to students outside of class, not only about his course material, but about life in general and career advice. He participates in many student group initiatives at UTSC. He has given talks and motivational sessions to groups such as IMANI; African Students Association and Jamaican Students Association. He regularly gives lectures to high school students who visit UTSC. Over the years he has participated in several Black History month events at UTSC and in high schools in Toronto.”

  • Dulaa Osman, fifth-year city studies major, African studies and human geography double minor

On inspiration: I always loved stories of people who overcome. Those stories [that often] come from behind successes just get me going because I feel they describe a large part of my own life. I get a dose of this regularly in my classes and with my research students, undergraduate and graduate alike. I just enjoy seeing them finally get it. They usually can’t hide the feeling. If you know you contributed to someone’s joy, you can’t help but be inspired.

On guilty pleasures: I probably have many, but I would have to pick road running. I run organized road races from 10 kilometres to a marathon (42 kilometres) all over Ontario. I get such a high from running. The paradox is that many friends and family don’t understand the pleasure part. This is because unless you have a light body, running long distances hurts. The blisters and the lost toe nails are just a few of the ‘pleasures’. Oh, add the $60-$100 registration fee per race. But the real pleasure is that you are doing something that the average person, and your body, thinks is a crazy undertaking.

Life philosophy: I have many. If I have to pick one or two it would be, first, ‘The world does not revolve around me or you’. So, people can see when you behave like you are all that. Second, fear can paralyze you. If it creeps in from time to time, tell yourself you can conquer it. If you don’t, it will destroy your life.

Favourite novel: Not an easy question for me because I have unusual habits about reading novels. I read the same novels over and over, in at least three languages. I read in isiXhosa (South African language), Afrikaans (Dutch dialect spoken in South Africa) and, of course, in English. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte would be my favourite (that the readers would recognize).

On the high school experience: I went to three different high schools in South Africa, so my experience is mixed. It was a process of surviving and finding myself. Playing rugby would have to be my highlight. Rugby is big in South Africa, so if you did better than average in playing it, you gained quite a lot of social points here and there. To be honest, rugby probably got me elected onto the the student council.

On the university experience: I enjoyed my classes, as most of what I did was applied. In my undergraduate degree, I studied agriculture/land use planning, so it was fun to learn to do stuff. Outside of classes, life was tough in South Africa those years. My grad school experience at the University of Guelph was enjoyable. I managed to return to playing rugby for the University of Guelph Gryphons.

Extracurricular activities: I actually don’t know what a professor is supposed to be like outside of work. So I just do what I do without paying much attention to what my career is. But I would have to say paying money to run long distances, where you come in at position 2500 or so in a race, and you do this on regular basis, has to be a little off for some people. But I like it.

Alternate life: A farmer. I just love the open spaces, the dirt, the smell and the knowledge that you are part of creating something that can sustain life – food.