Interview: Dr. Donald Taylor
Donald M. Taylor is Professor of Psychology with the Faculty of Science. His research interests include laboratory and field research in the area of intergroup relations. His research focuses on refugees and Aboriginal groups in Canada, and racial groups in urban centres in Canada and the United States, South Africa and Indonesia. In this interview, he discusses some of the challenges and rewards of teaching at McGill.
Q: What courses have you taught during your career?
A: I taught Introduction to Social Psychology and Intergroup Relations.
Q: What qualities make a good professor in your opinion?
A: Good professors convey three important messages immediately: A) they care about students; B) they respect students, and C) they care about what they are teaching. Regardless of teaching style, these three qualities come through to students immediately and dictate their response.
Q: Looking back, did you have a preferred teaching style?
A: I tended to tell stories. The good students ‘got it’ right away. They saw, hopefully, that there was a point to the stories. One of the biggest challenges for students is not learning academic theories, it’s understanding their significance and applying them to everyday life. For that reason, I would often tell stories designed to show how an abstract theory works in real life.
Q: Are you involved in research?
A: I do a great deal of research in the area of intergroup relations. My particular interest is disadvantaged groups in society. That usually means groups like Aboriginal communities in Canada or intercity racial minorities in the United States or newly arrived refugees.
Q: How important is it for a professor to be involved in research, in your opinion?
A: Research enhances teaching and teaching enhances research. Innovative science is all about developing and framing new ideas. To articulate a new idea to a group of smart undergraduates, you have to have a very understanding of that idea yourself. The capacity to capture the essence of an idea and its implications is very much enhanced by teaching.
Q: What are the rewards of teaching?
A: It’s both a privilege and a responsibility to share information with young people. Our whole educational structure says to students ‘your professors are experts, they’re worthy of paying attention to.’ If they do happen to pay attention, you’re influencing their worldview. And that is a huge responsibility.
Q: Have students changed much over the past 40 years?
A: There has been a huge demographic shift. When I began teaching, the majority of students were male. Now they’re overwhelmingly female. Today’s students also seem to care less about social injustice. They have become much more conservative and practical.
Q: What moments in your career stand out in your memory?
A: One day, my students were doing an exam in Leacock 132. About a third of the way into it, some poor student became violently ill. Three students immediately stood up and helped the guy. Three others complained their attention had been disrupted. In that one event we saw the best and the worst of people!
One of the most difficult classes I ever taught was the day after 9/11. It was a large class, very multicultural. None of them were interested in the lecture. I said ‘I know being here today seems trivial, but this is a class that talks about groups, and 9/11 is all about groups.’ Interestingly, three weeks later, the students were handing in written assignments and I thought to myself, ‘wow, life has returned to normalcy!’ Students were back to caring about what, on the day of 9/11, seemed like ‘small’ things. It wasn’t that they had drifted back to the trivial, because the daily things we do are not trivial. They’re small steps which are part of each person’s meaningful journey through life.