Migrant brought passion for teaching

AWARDED: Professor Eric Pawson.
AWARDED: Professor Eric Pawson.

The recipient of last year's University of Canterbury's Teaching Award, Professor Eric Pawson, uses Christchurch city as a classroom, writes BECK ELEVEN.

When Eric Pawson spotted an advertisement for a job at the University of Canterbury, he had no idea it would lead to a new life on the other side of the world. He was just 24 and living in Sussex, England.

"It was 1976 and it seemed the best job going for someone like me and the fact it was on the far side of the world made it all the better."

As the plane flew over Palmerston North towards Christchurch, it dawned on him just how vastly less populated his new country seemed.

Thirty-eight years later, the role that is "different every day" is exactly what makes him call Christchurch home. And he has consistently proved his dedication to the job with a number of awards under his belt, most recently the University of Canterbury Teaching Medal.

The medal rewards innovation and a sustained contribution to teaching at the campus, although Pawson - who teaches Cultural, Environmental and Historical Geography - is quick to say much of his work is "team teaching" with fellow colleagues.

"Students are all individuals and every group is different. I enjoy drawing people out and encouraging them to learn. What interests me is the most effective way in which you can encourage people to take responsibility for their own learning."

The professor, 62, teaches across all levels from first-year students to postgraduates and says Christchurch's earthquake and the rebuild make learning that much more interesting.

The term "biophilic cities" describes the discipline of designing and planning urban space with nature in mind. The natural contours of a city are enhanced so people are more inclined to use them for health and recreation.

The Avon River is a perfect example when it comes to Christchurch, which is one reason Pawson uses it for his students.

"I don't believe in an authority- driven model of teaching. That is what we have to do in some respects because that's how lecture halls are structured. You've got one person at the front with rows of people waiting to be filled up with wisdom but I don't think teaching should be like that."

Post-quake, classes were held in tents which one might think painful. However, Pawson remembers it as "extremely liberating" because he could wander up and down the aisle rather than standing and shouting at the students from the front.

"Many people learn more readily if they can actually see the point of what they're doing. There is a practical aspect to geography. We don't go as far as work placement but we use the city as a classroom.

"The earthquake provided a fresh impetus for thinking through how we do things more effectively and differently. That's always challenging - and for people who get halfway there, quite satisfying."

Pawson's technique includes setting up the students with community engagement. For example, they are assigned to agencies such as the Christchurch City Council, Christchurch 2.0 or the Avon Okarito Network where they must take an idea and research with the community before presenting it back to the organisation.

Last year, Pawson devised an aspect to a course which sent students on a self-guided expedition through the red zone. He gave them a choice of three starting points; the Pallet Pavilion, C1 Espresso or any point along the river from the city to New Brighton and asked how they could be enhanced.

"I feel hugely positive about the work the students do and it's wonderful the way in which community groups are both prepared and enthusiastic about working with student groups. The students take these things very seriously."

Understandably, the geographer has a love of tramping in the great outdoors - and lately he has taken up photographing it. Over the last year or two he has become quite passionate about photography, and something called "re-photography".

It's a hobby that involves discovering old photographs and capturing the same vista to record changes over the decades.

Last year he found a panoramic photograph of Akaroa Harbour taken from the Summit Rd in 1999 and re-photographed as precisely as possible.

"It was only a 13-year difference but the extent to which areas of native bush has regenerated is quite remarkable."

It might have started as a hobby but for a man with a life-long interest in teaching and learning, this pastime has a point.

"You don't do this just for the hell of it, you do it because it leads to a whole series of wider questions. Why is this occurring? What is the underlying dynamic? That's what interests me and it will continue to interest me. I've still got a lot to learn."

The Press