Dr. Toni Samek wins 3M National Teaching Fellowship

By D.C. Brandon

Maclean’s magazine and the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) announced today the winners of the prestigious 3M National Teaching Fellowship, embodying the highest ideals of teaching excellence in Canada. Included on the 2012 list is our own Toni Samek (PhD).

This comes on the heels of news that the University of Alberta is home to 4 out of 10 of this year’s 3M National Teaching Fellowship winners.

The excitement has been felt throughout the university, but no more than in SLIS where Toni’s colleagues and students are particularly proud of her achievement. 

"The University of Alberta is a powerhouse for good teaching, and that is not an accident.  Each of our recipients has worked incredibly hard on their own teaching success but they are also superbly generous colleagues who extend their reach to assist many others across our campus, and compel us all to make teaching a priority. It is indeed another occasion of pride at the U of A,” shares Fern Snart (PhD), dean of the Faculty of Education.

"Having heard the terrific news about Dr. Samek receiving a 3M Teaching Award, my first reaction was sheer joy.  This is affirmation that the right things happen when someone is completely committed to teaching and scholarship, cares deeply, and works as hard as Toni has for many years, for the benefit of her students.  The affirmation also extends to the collective expertise and impact of our School of Library and Information Studies; we are so proud to have this group of colleagues within the Faculty of Education,” the dean comments.

Dr. Samek was touched when she heard that she had won a spot on the prestigious list in 2012. She remarks, “it is really humbling. I am so lucky. There are so many great teachers across the country. It is such an honour.”

She doesn’t plan to let any of it go to her head. She says, “I want to be courageous and forward thinking with this platform and make gains for the Faculty of Education and for SLIS. I want to keep my feet on the ground and keep in mind that I have been supported by great people – the context that I teach in is so wonderful – this is reflective of something much bigger than me. It is important for me to acknowledge Ernie Ingles and Fern Snart. They asked me to go forward with the nomination process. They saw something with me that I didn’t. Their leadership got me here.”

Ernie Ingles ( F.R.S.C.), Director & Executive Professor in SLIS is encouraged with the recognition that Dr. Samek is getting. He says, “We couldn’t be more proud. We nurture great teachers here at SLIS. Toni is the first among equals in this faculty. SLIS has always prided itself on the quality of its teaching and its relationships it has with its students.”

When asked where she gets her motivation from, Dr. Samek recounts her youth, “My parents were products of war from Eastern Europe. My mother was in a displaced persons camp for years. Global perspective on issues such as censorship was topics of conversation growing up.”

She says, “my father was a law professor at Dalhousie and my mother worked for a time as a public librarian. The kind of conversation that happened around our dinner table prompted me into thinking broadly about the world and the human condition. When I came to librarianship, I understood that in this field I could engage with human rights, access to information and information ethics issues.”

Her determination to pursue hard topics and social justice led her to becoming a leader in intellectual freedom, social responsibility, diversity, and inclusion. 

Though not exactly subjects which always result in peaceful debate, Dr. Samek is up to the challenge when comes to providing the right conditions for learning. She explains, “I don’t teach in a vacuum. I am a rigorous teacher, but humane. I respect individuality. I try to go by the old adage “education isn’t safe, but you want education to happen in a safe environment”. I want my students to think of things in new ways. Critical thinking involves disruption sometimes. Having pedagogy that is provocative but safe is important. You can have a good topic and good lecture notes, but it is important to keep in mind the dynamic of the classroom.”

She goes on to say, “I teach in the areas of intellectual freedom, social responsibility, diversity and inclusion. They are challenging topics, but I always do my best to ensure a safe environment for discussion.”

Students who have taken classes with Dr. Samek have been moved by her commitment to them. “She's really interested in all of her students, and she facilitates an environment where people can be drawn out and talk about anything. It was a very rewarding class.  We walked into the room wearing one set of glasses that we see the world with, and we left with a new tint or bigger frames,” explains Laura Hochheim, a student in SLIS. 

“Dr. Samek has really opened my eyes to a lot of important opportunities, especially with regards to intellectual freedom and social responsibility, part of the core values of librarianship. She has helped to develop and further my passion for libraries and I am really thankful,” says Jessica Thorlakson. 

Her teaching goes even beyond the door to her classroom. For the past 6 years she has co-taught a workshop on intellectual freedom at Edmonton Public Library. Linda Cook, CEO of Edmonton Public Library says, “she has consistently received great reviews from our staff. She is so inspiring. One of our employees who experienced her teaching said, ‘Toni gives meaning and value to my job. The way that she teaches transforms a person.’”

According to Dr. Samek, her teaching philosophy stems from the idea of the right to education. She explains, “I take into account the importance of education in human development, free development of personality, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and all of the human rights that we hope to have and build those ideas into important lessons. I would like our students to get a quality education in their field, but underneath it all a broader education connecting it and them to the changing contexts at play in the world..” 

“It is not an accident that I am in Library and Information Studies – I am in this field because librarianship has a core value of intellectual freedom.  I feel that I have a responsibility to act on the academic freedom that I have, in no small part due to the fact that there are people in the world who do not have it,” she says.

When asked what best describes how she feels about teaching at the University of Alberta, Dr. Samek says, “The favorite part of my job is teaching. My favorite room in the building is the classroom. It is such a privilege to be a teacher. It gives me joy. But more than that, it is an important job. I feel good about going to work every day, hopefully doing my part to help society.”

These surely are words of a great teacher.