Top Gun Teachers: Dr. David N. Harpp


In his 40-plus years at McGill, Dr. David Harpp estimates he has taught over 50,000 undergraduate students.

Professor David N. Harpp is the Sir William Macdonald Professor of Chemistry and holds the Tomlinson Chair of Science Education at McGill University. During his over 40 years with the Faculty of Science, he calculates he has taught over 50,000 students and supervised 33 graduate students. His research interests include organic sulfur chemistry, teaching innovations and academic integrity issues. He was instrumental in the creation of the Office for Science and Society, a unique venture dedicated to the promotion of critical thinking and the presentation of accurate scientific information. In this interview, he discusses his thoughts on some of the challenges and rewards of teaching at McGill.

Q: What are some of the courses have you taught?

A: Right now I’m involved in one undergraduate organic chemistry course. I also help teach the World of Chemistry courses. These courses examine the chemistry in four areas: food, drugs, technology and the environment. Last year, the food course was ‘translated’ into a massive open online course (MOOC) with 32,000 registered students.

Q: In your view, what makes a good professor?

A: Obviously, knowledge of the subject, but beyond that, having a built-in sympathy for the situation of the student. In undergraduate courses we have to remember we’re usually training first and second year students. Only a small percentage will become professors or professional chemists.

Q: You get very high marks for clarity. Why is this?

A: Pictures are a big help. Words can sometimes muddle the message, while a picture or graphic can make the point more clearly. Long before the advent of tools like PowerPoint, I was using animated slides in my courses to explain chemical reactions.

Q: How important is it for a professor to be involved in research?

A: It’s important on many levels. For one thing, students need to understand how research activity pushes the boundaries of science forward, and to interact with people who are involved with that activity.

Q: What are some of the rewards of teaching?

Marty the martelet

In his spare time, Dr. Harpp acts as quizmaster for McGill’s Trivia Quiz nights. One favorite question: what is the name of this McGill mascot? (Answer: Marty the Martlett)

A: Getting feedback from students is always wonderful. I recently got an email from a full professor of medicine at a Canadian university, reminding me of an incident many years ago. Apparently, during one of my exams he gave an offbeat answer to a question. He was expecting to get low marks, but I gave him full credit. He never forgot the incident, and he told me that my openness to unorthodox answers influenced his approach to teaching.

Q: What are the challenges of teaching?

A: Keeping up to date, keeping fresh, keeping interested. It’s also important to remember that students are at different places and different times in their lives. Not everyone is devoted to getting top marks in your class. You have to be sympathetic to individuals’ situations and not to take yourself too seriously.

Q: Have students changed a great deal over time?

A: Overall, no. Of course, they’ve got Facebook and Twitter now, but I find McGill students to be stunningly fair, reasonable and polite.

Q: Why do you think students give you a high rating?

A: I always try to treat them with respect and fairness. Students are often scared to interact because you’re the professor. I try to relate to them as though we had met on vacation or at a restaurant. I also make an effort to deliver quality lectures and to make a good first impression. It’s a small thing, but before the first lecture I figure out where the lights are, how to work the computer, where the chalk is and so on. Negative impressions linger.

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