Our Campus: Dr. Tiffany Potter is helping students see the world and ‘make sense of it’

The department of English’s Dr. Tiffany Potter has recently been awarded the 3M National Teaching Fellowship Award, which recognizes exceptional contributions to teaching and learning. It’s not her first time being recognized for her pedagogical achievements, however — she also won the 2006 Ian Fairclough Prize and 2015’s Killam Teaching Prize. With yet another academic achievement, you’ve got to wonder: how does Potter do it?

To answer these questions, Potter looked back at her academic beginnings. She began her studies at the University of Victoria, where she was supported by the late Dr. Anthony Jenkins through her bachelor’s of arts honours in English literature. She credited Jenkins as her primary inspiration to go into the honours program and later begin a master’s degree, which she completed at Queen’s University. At Queen’s, Dr. Peter Sabor inspired her to pursue a PhD and, upon completion of her doctorate, she began a fellowship at the University of Alberta before moving to Vancouver and UBC.

“I wish I could tell you that I was [a] forward-thinking, self-confident, self-empowered 20 year-old woman, but I really wasn’t. It was really [those] great professors who helped me to see what I could do,” she said.

Potter’s story reflects the power that professors have to instil a passion for learning. Now she hopes to do the same for her students.

Paying it forward

Potter has had great success in her endeavours and strives to provide students with routes to success as well, including ways to “see the world in a way that helps them make sense of it and find their placement.” She strives to give the same support she received as a student, saying that, despite her accomplishments, publications and research, she found her work as a professor to be her greatest task.

“I think that the most important thing I do is teach … [and] what I hope that does is invite them into scholarship,” she said.

Humanizing scholarship

Majoring in English literature may not be the goal for all her students, but Potter wants to show its “intrinsic value” nonetheless.

She enjoys teaching her English 110, 353 and 490 courses, but admitted there are challenges in each. Especially in 110, where there are often many non-arts students taking the course, there is the daunting task of presenting literature as engaging and worthwhile for students who may have little interest in the subject.

Ultimately, she said, “[she wants] to humanize the scale of first-year teaching in those great big courses.”

First-year courses can make or break a student’s next steps at university, so Potter’s approach is geared toward self-discovery. Her current ENGL 110’s theme is ‘Shipwrecks and Life’s Big Questions,’ which focuses on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. These texts are from different centuries, but Potter brings them together in order to examine their potential to illuminate broader ideas.

“We spend the whole course thinking about how literature asks us those questions and what are the stories that it tell us about ourselves,” she said.

Developing ideas

Although she enjoys studying 18th-century literature, Potter’s academics go beyond lecturing. Last year, she had the unique opportunity to take part in a project with the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology, helping to develop the ComPAIR app. ComPAIR is a peer assessment and feedback application and is paving the way for greater access to educational tools in high schools and universities.

Potter also noted that UBC’s funding for the project means that ComPAIR is “actually open access, it’s free.”

Overall, Potter found the project to be a great success, where she was not only a part of the development team for a teaching tool, but also a part of a team that brought many branches of UBC together.

“We built it from the ground up,” she said.

Diving deeper

App development, teaching and research are just a few places of interest for Potter. Her awards reflect the dedication that she puts specifically into being a professor and the skills she brings to the role.

“I think, for me, being a teacher [and a] scholar means that you are always working with other people to create new [ways of] thinking,” she said.

To that end, Potter helped organize the Pedagogy Hub at Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2019, hosted at UBC. Congress is the largest multidisciplinary academic gathering in Canada, hosting more than 10,000 participants. Before Potter’s involvement, conversations about formal pedagogy were often put into “The Career Corner,” but in co-creating the Pedagogy Hub, she helped Congress stimulate discussion.

“Having those conversations about teaching, as part of the conversations that we have about our scholarship, is really, really important to me,” she said.

Potter is glad to have seen a shift from the older, ‘survey model’ of instruction, which includes all the “important texts of the 18th century,” to the argument-based model, “where professors are bringing current thinking and their own research into the classroom.”

“Students are really participating in cutting-edge conversations,” Potter said.

Powerful professors

Potter noted that, as an undergraduate, she needed a little encouragement. Her talents brought her to her position at UBC today, where she tries to pay it forward by inspiring students to realize their potential. Ultimately, Potter hopes to bring students from all faculties together to support their education, from first year to graduation.

“You [graduate] as someone who has paths and doors, and I think that thinking more broadly about how we can bring the parts of the university together is actually a really, really great way to open those doors."