Joy, playfulness and inclusivity – these are the qualities UTM's Ken Derry strives to bring to the classroom and to his collaboration with colleagues, and it’s an approach that has earned the historical studies professor the university’s highest teaching honour.
Ken Derry is among five faculty members recently honoured with the President’s Teaching Award, which recognizes sustained excellence in teaching and ongoing contributions to educational leadership and innovation.
Derry, who has been teaching history of religion courses at U of T since his days as a graduate student, joined UTM in 2010, where he quickly established himself as someone dedicated to supporting the success of students and colleagues alike.
In his classroom, Derry introduces students to the intersection of how modern cultural products might relate to more “traditional” religious beliefs and practices.
In 2019, he edited a collection of essays that examined the Star Wars movies through the lens of theology and myth – the first book by religious scholars about the famous space film franchise.
Dedication to student success
For Derry, the student experience is paramount. Within his first few years with the UTM campus, Derry helped to establish Prandium, the annual open-access journal by historical studies students, and founded Exam Jam, the twice-yearly event that helps students prepare academically and mentally for end-of-semester exams. He has also lent his support to developing pilot projects to bolster struggling students, problem-based learning initiatives and helped to establish active learning classrooms and writing.
“My most important goal as a teacher is to create environments where students feel safe enough to learn for themselves,” Derry says.
One way he does this is through a secular ritual he uses to open his Introduction to the Study of Religion course: as students file into class, Derry plays a pop song like Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” alongside an image of a well-known non-religious event, like a photo of Raptor Kyle Lowry celebrating the Raptor’s first-ever NBA championship win 2019. Class begins when the song is over.
Derry says the ritual saves him from shushing students, and instead invites them to collectively settle down and prepare to contribute to a wide-ranging conversation on religious thought, but with accessible and familiar points of entry. “It shows the students that, whatever their background, they each have knowledge that will be helpful,” he says.
Derry also puts the class at ease by sharing that he is “an extreme introvert” whose hands shake when he talks in front of large groups, despite decades of experience at the front of the classroom. The seasoned instructor hopes his honesty helps to break down barrier for his students, and dispense with any potential feelings of intimidation that might prevent engagement. Taking that light touch and sense of play also helps to broach the sometimes-heavy subjects that arise in the course.
“I want everyone – especially those feeling vulnerable or marginalized – to know they belong and have something valuable to contribute,” he says.
Learning from collaboration
“I do my best to make a positive impact from working with – and learning from – others,” says Derry, who is quick to credit his own development to collaboration opportunities with colleagues within his department, the Office of the Registrar and the Robert Gillespie Academic Centre.
“They see the struggles of students and work so hard to help them individually and improve institutional systems of support,” Derry says.
“Fundamentally, leadership is about support, collaboration and service,” he says. “It’s about working with and for others with the aim of creating a more genuinely inclusive, welcoming, and just community, one that can reflect on its own shortcomings and do better.”
That collaborative spirit has earned kudos from his colleagues. “Ken is brilliant at teaching difficult material in a way that makes students feel capable and included,” says Mairi Cowan, an associate professor, teaching stream with UTM’s historical studies department. “He is joyful as a teacher, yet devoted to doing the serious work of ensuring that his teaching is effective.”
“Working with Ken has enriched my own teaching in countless ways,” Cowan continues. “Fundamentally, Ken teaches for others, and I am grateful to be among the colleagues who are better teachers for it."
That collaboration can be as simple as making an informal visit to see a colleague in action, something Derry heartily encourages. “Seeing how others teach, and talking about this with them is a powerful experience.”
He also takes inspiration from the writings of the late Lee Maracle, celebrated Stó:lō Nation writer, activist and member of the university’s Elders Circle, who talked about the importance of replacing the “knower’s chair” with the “facilitator’s chair.”
“Top-down teaching is not just bad, but dehumanizing,” Derry says. “It’s about using skills and knowledge and experience to establish opportunities for other people to develop their thinking and contribute.”
Focus on inclusivity
Derry, whose doctoral work focused on Indigenous literature, says supporting Indigenous initiatives is imperative in his work at the university. He has co-chaired the Indigenous Task Force that recommended hiring of Indigenous faculty, and supported the establishment of the Indigenous Centre at UTM. He also threw his support behind a 2018 symposium on Indigenous education that was the first official collaboration between U of T and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, and has produced talks, workshops and publications for faculty about responsibly incorporating Indigenous materials into their courses.
“As an institution we have, in many ways, just started this process. There is a lot more to do.”
Derry says he’s honoured by the recognition of the teaching award, which comes with opportunities for further development and contribution. Winners of the President’s Teaching Award receive $10,000 per year for five years to be used towards professional development. They also become members of the U of T Teaching Academy. The academy meets regularly to discuss matters relevant to teaching and offers advice to the president and the vice-president and provost, as well as the director of the Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation.
Reproduced in full from the original article by Blake Eligh, with kind permission.