‘Get involved’

Learning doesn’t stop in the classroom, so think about how lessons apply in the ‘real world’

Nicole Li-Jessen teaches in the Speech-Language Pathology program at McGill’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders. She also holds the Canada Research Chair in Personalized Medicine of Voice Disorders. Winner of last year’s Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching (Assistant Professor category), Prof. Li-Jessen shares her thoughts on teaching and learning at McGill, and on how the education environment here differs from that in Hong Kong and the U.S., where she was a student:

What are the best things about being a teacher?

Nicole Li-Jessen: What can I leave for my students after their graduation? The answer to that question is central to my teaching. Our Master’s program in Speech-Language Pathology offers two years of intensive professional training – and I teach three courses throughout the program. At the beginning of the program, I can always feel the uncertainty and anxiety that our students often experience. As we move towards the end, the students simply transform – they become more and more confident and competent in working with their clients. It’s always gratifying to see how they grow and overcome challenges in such a short, intensive program. To that end, I feel like I am contributing or returning something great to society after many years of what society has given me. And that’s the best thing for me as a teacher.

What are the biggest challenges?

Jessen: Given the time constraints of the program, one teaching challenge for me is how to promote student success in the transition from knowledge acquirer to knowledge user -- or even to knowledge creator. I thus designed my courses to knit together active classroom learning, hands-on practice and community outreach, while instilling research experience.

How do you create a strong connection with your students?

Jessen: I think empathy is a keyword. If we all have more empathy toward people around us, the world will be much better.

Is information technology changing teaching?

Jessen: Absolutely. I am grateful for receiving lots of support from McGill Teaching and Learning Services to incorporate IT in my teaching – for example, developing self-learning online modules for part of my course. Because of the IT, I am now able to engage the class in more interactive learning activities, such as case studies and hands-on practice.

What advice do you have for students about how to get the most out of your courses?

Jessen: I would say “Get involved as much as you can. Keep exploring your potential.” I believe every student is unique. A major role for me as a teacher is to help students discover their unique talents and help reach their full potential.

Also, don’t be shy of asking questions. I believe many teachers, like me, would value questions over answers.

Your research into using computer technology to develop personalized treatments for vocal-cord injuries has drawn international attention. As a professor, how do you balance research and teaching?

Jessen: Teaching and research are strongly connected. Research synthesizes new knowledge that contributes to course materials. Teaching stimulates students to think and question existing assumptions, methodologies and understanding, which in turn brings new insights that drive research. Oftentimes, I get inspired by my students in class (through their creative questions) to come up with new research projects.

In that sense, I don’t work particularly hard to balance research and teaching. I see research as part of my teaching and teaching as part of my research. And most importantly, I find teaching enjoyable.

Our voice is something we often take for granted – except when we get hoarse or have a sore throat. What got you interested in this area of research?

Jessen: I direct the Voice and Upper Airway Research Lab at McGill. I am always intrigued by the larynx – an organ that is critical for our breathing, voicing and swallowing.

Laryngology is a niche field – which means there are a lot of scientific unknowns to be discovered. When there are challenges, there are opportunities. When there are opportunities, there are challenges. That makes this field interesting to me every day!

You did your undergraduate studies in Hong Kong and your PhD (and post-doc) in the U.S. What do you think is special about the learning environment at McGill?

Jessen: Well, the education system and learning culture in Hong Kong is a mix of British and Asian; it is very different from the system in the U.S. I found that McGill has a good mix of all. The campus is vibrant and inclusive compared to many others in the world. The student body and faculty is diverse and, of course, we still have room to do better on this. Many courses are cross-departmental, which is essential to prepare our students in the face of rapid-changing society and technology.

What strikes me in class is that students always ask more questions than me. And many of those are great questions. This is quite unique compared to other universities where I have studied and taught before, and indicates the natural curiosity of these great McGill students.

What are some of your favourite things about living in Montreal?

Jessen: A beautiful city is made up by the beautiful people living there. So for me, the favourite things are the super-nice and friendly people that I interact with every day: my students, colleagues and of course my super-hero husband.

Anything else you’d like to tell students who are thinking about coming to McGill?

Jessen:

  • Be open and embrace new challenges. There may be some subjects that you have no interest in. However, you never know – maybe at the end you will fall in love with the topic, and the knowledge and skills learnt in class will open a new adventure in life.
  • Also, learning doesn’t stop in the classroom. Be connected to the community and think about what you learn would mean in the “real world”.