‘The DTA is the only UCT award I have ever coveted’

04 December 2023 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Robyn Walker. Read time 10 min.
“I think teaching in higher education is a massive privilege.” – Distinguished Teacher Awardee Assoc Prof Pippin Anderson of the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences
“I think teaching in higher education is a massive privilege.” – Distinguished Teacher Awardee Assoc Prof Pippin Anderson of the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences

Associate Professor Pippin Anderson of the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences (EGS) in the Faculty of Science is one of three 2022 Distinguished Teacher Awardees (DTA) announced by the University of Cape Town (UCT). It is the highest accolade awarded to teaching staff at all levels within the university and recognises the primary place of teaching and learning in its work.

In an interview with UCT News, Associate Professor Anderson said the award is like being voted Most Valuable Player (MPV) at the end of a soccer match. “It’s definitely that wider team that makes teaching at UCT the great joy that it is.”

Helen Swingler (HS): How and when did you get into teaching? Was it by choice or chance?

Pippin Anderson (PA): I come from a long line of teachers. Both my grandmothers were teachers, and both my parents were teachers. I think it runs in my blood and I would likely have ended up in some form of teaching, one way or another. However, my current job was a chance opportunity and I think I was lucky to be in a position to apply for it when it came up. While doing my PhD, I worked for UCT’s Writing Centre, and the training and experience I received there, in conjunction with my disciplinary training, put me in a strong position to step into a teaching role in the EGS department.

HS: What do you teach and to whom?

PA: My own training is in ecology, and I teach all manner of plant- and animal-related geography; really anything that relates to distributions, through time and across space, comes under the banner of what I teach. At the second-year level, I teach biogeography where I build on basic biome distribution knowledge, and we unpack the factors that determine what plants and animals get to live where. I use the biome edges, those critical zones where two biomes separate out, as a place to explore the processes and ‘rules’ that determine these distributions. At the third-year level, I bring in the role of people and how we drive system change. I use the city as a useful place to explore people ecologies. My hope is that while the students consolidate and build on their knowledge base in the third year, they are also learning that there are multiple ways of understanding and knowing the world, and that metrics and scale are critical in determining what information is brought to light. This third-year teaching block culminates in looking at positive paths of action to creating just, equitable, and functioning ecologies. At the fourth-year level, I teach pure urban ecology. In this postgraduate course we really dive into the ecologies of cities. The course is designed such that students can pursue a particular interest of their own within the urban ecology framing, allowing for some degree of self-direction, which feels appropriate at that level and makes the teaching much more fun. 

 

“My teaching style might be described as disruptive.”

HS: How would you describe your teaching style?

PA: I think my teaching style might be described as disruptive. My hope in my teaching is to produce knowledgeable, critical thinking, and reflective individuals who are empowered to contribute to a functioning and just society in an uncertain future. I think this takes a lot more than delivering content in an interesting and accessible manner (though that is part of it, for sure). I give a lot of attention to getting students to think and respond. I ask them to consider where knowledge comes from and to position themselves in that knowledge-using and knowledge-generating space. I am always mindful that in any class you will have students who are excited by your material and others who are not, or who are perhaps floundering for whatever reason. Who falls where on this range, can change day to day. I think students have a lot going on these days. It’s a competitive and demanding world out there. Some of them have been alone and adulting for a long time, while others are still tucked up at home. They all deserve our attention and interest, and teaching has to speak into these vast differences in any class. I think this means my teaching is rather eclectic. We stroll through slides of information, we read and talk about papers, we scrutinise who is writing about what, and on what grounds they make the claims they do. We play games, we get to know each other, and collectively critically consider our landscapes and our position and roles in these.

HS: What do you love most about working with students?

PA: I love the enthusiasm of students. I think teaching in higher education is a massive privilege. At the university level, your class has chosen to be there, and it really makes the task pretty easy. I find it very rewarding when new voices enter the conversation in the classroom – it always feels like a small win!

HS: How has your relationship with your students, your teaching style and subject matter changed over time?

PA: I’m not sure my relationship with my students has changed, but it’s possible I am both more approachable and simultaneously less accommodating! I think I have grown up and that reflects in my teaching style. I am less anxious and more comfortable to admit when I need to look something up when a question comes up that I don’t have an immediate answer to. I think with age you gain confidence in your discipline and your material, and this makes you a lot more relaxed in the classroom. Don’t get me wrong, I still have that moment of anxiety before any lecture, just less of it now! My subject matter changes all the time. Urban ecology is a relatively young field and as it is tied to urbanisation and as I am teaching it on the fastest urbanising continent on the planet, it whips along at a giddy pace. Ecology, by contrast, is older and slower to shift and change, which is itself something to reflect on in the teaching space. Taking up the challenge of decolonising teaching and curricula in geography, and more specifically ecology and urban ecology, also means the subject matter must be revisited and reimagined all the time.

HS: What are the challenges of teaching in an age of AI and ChatGPT, et al?

PA: I believe AI [artificial intelligence] will ultimately be a positive and empowering learning tool. As matters stand, however, I have yet to see it produce a submission that is better than what a student would submit. But then again, it’s possible some of the really good ones, where students have actively managed to use the tools to good effect, are slipping past me unnoticed. I am mindful that those who have access, and those who can use it to good effect, are not consistent across our student body. All technology as dependent on Wi-Fi, computing power, regular access to electricity, the hardware on which to use it, presents issues around access and justice and must be engaged accordingly. This year was the first time that AI really came into the classroom space with the advent of ChatGPT. At the undergraduate level, I only really managed discussion around its use but did not actively engage it. At the postgraduate level, my students were using it to summarise papers and it came into the classroom in a more effective and useful way. I can see this will need to be more actively engaged in my future teaching.

 

“UCT attracts interested and interesting students who are up for the challenge of being called on to think and engage critically.” 

HS: How significant is this DTA recognition to you?

PA: The DTA is the only UCT accolade I have ever coveted. I love teaching, and to have that passion recognised is wonderful. I have never had the courage to apply, so was truly delighted when my third-year student nominated me. I could not be more pleased!

HS: Is there anything else you would like to add?

PA: Teaching is a bit of a team sport really; to be singled out feels a bit like being named Most Valuable Player (MPV) at the end of a soccer match. You can’t teach without a willing audience, and I think UCT attracts interested and interesting students who are up for the challenge of being called on to think and engage critically. You also benefit from all the collegiate support around you – the staffer who keeps the photocopier going, or that you can call when the data projector fails to respond to your 100th push of the on/off button, or the colleague who sends you a paper or news article they know you will appreciate or shares their thoughts on assessment over a cup of tea. I could go on and on, and for sure I feel all the warm glow of being acknowledged as MVP with this DTA, but it’s definitely that wider team that makes teaching at UCT the great joy that it is.


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