After retiring from his career as a high school teacher, Prof. Fred Pulfer says he “sat around” while his wife continued nursing with the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON). But he wasn’t napping in front of the TV, their Goldendoodle at his feet – he was still tutoring students privately. As it happened, the father of one of his students was a Trent professor who mentioned the university sometimes needed instructors to teach in Oshawa or during the summer.
So in 1999, one year after retiring, Prof. Pulfer was pleased to begin teaching in Trent’s Math Department. In 2003, an opportunity came up in the School of Education, and he taught there too. His own educational background spans both areas: he has master’s degrees in math and in education. His wife has since retired, and he says, “She’s envious I have a nice job like this” to supplement his pension.
Now, Prof. Pulfer teaches mathematics courses at both Symons Campus in Peterborough and Durham Campus in Oshawa. He lives in the Peterborough area, so Wednesdays, his Durham day, he allows himself about an hour each way for the commute – a bit longer in winter. “You’re always looking at the weather,” he says.
But he doesn’t mind the commute for another reason: one of his two daughters lives in Bowmanville and recently had a baby. “On my way to Oshawa, I always stop in. And usually my wife goes with me and stays there while I teach.” His other daughter lives in Montreal.
Tuesdays, Prof. Pulfer teaches Applied Calculus (MATH 1005 H), with an enrolment of 138. The course is often challenging for students, he says, and “traditionally has had a high drop rate compared to other courses.” This year, though, the drop rate has been lower. So what are his strategies for ensuring students stick with it?
“In my view, it doesn’t matter when you learn something,” he says, “as long as you learn it.”
So with the approval of the Math Department’s chair, Prof. Pulfer “started running second-chance quizzes and problem sets. Anyone can rewrite them. Students can take 80% of the new mark or an average of the old and the new mark,” he explains. He adds that he thinks this evaluation format helps students do better on the finals. These extra chances do mean there’s “a lot more marking!” But, he says, “I get a teaching assistant and a marker. With the CUPE collective agreement, instructors mark the first 50 papers, but the marker does the rest.”
In Oshawa, he’s teaching a course he’s never offered before: An Introduction to Everyday Math (CCTH-MATH 1080H). “I’m making it up from scratch—there’s no textbook,” he says. His goal: to “make it enjoyable, and to make it useful. But, make it enjoyable,” he says, raising his eyebrow and smiling.
The email feedback he’s already received from one student suggests he’s succeeded: she says the course is useful, interesting, relevant, and the most “stress-free math course” she’s ever taken. She also noted that it’s helped her improve her math skills and her interpersonal skills; Prof. Pulfer frequently puts students in small groups, which has helped her overcome her shyness. And, she’s found lots of ways to apply course material to real life and to her academic career – particularly statistics.
When asked about possibly teaching an online course, he comments, “I thought, I just couldn’t do it. I love putting on my show and being in front of a class.” When students hesitate to answer his questions in larger classes, he encourages participation in other ways. “I make them vote with thumbs up,” he says, making the gesture, “so they have a stake in the outcome.”
Prof. Pulfer uses other strategies to maximize students’ engagement and learning potential. For one thing, he says, “I like to use models.” He retrieves some objects from a shelf in his office: a cardboard box with lines drawn in marker, and some lengths of dowel to represent the X, Y and other axes. He’s also used his wife’s bowls, which he places at the front of the class, “upside down with a tablecloth over top, to simulate surfaces,” he explains.
And though he’s also a fan of good old blackboards, he’s taught himself a new trick. “With this calculus course,” he says, the room’s configuration of blackboards didn’t work. “So I did the whole course in PowerPoint slides,” he explains. “I can’t believe how much time it takes to make all those slides!”
The payoff is worth it for students, who have told him they prefer the slides to the PDFs of his lecture notes he used to post on Blackboard (that’s capital B, for Trent’s online learning system, which allows students to access course-specific content). “So now, I incorporate the slides into all of my courses.” This sort of adaptation to technology is precisely the kind of problem solving he encourages in his students. So Prof. Pulfer presents a good model in yet another way.
In 2005, Prof. Pulfer was the fifth winner of the CUPE 3908-1 Award for Excellence in Teaching. From amongst over 40 other contract teachers, Prof. Pulfer was selected unanimously as the winner. Several students from his courses nominated him, with his teaching performance described as “inspirational,” “amazing,” “excellent,” “fantastic” and “outstanding.” He’s also won the School of Education Excellence in Teaching Award (2007).
A “strong believer in CUPE” and unions, Prof. Pulfer took a turn as chair of the 2009 CUPE Teaching Awards Committee. Noting a few procedural gaps, he “formalized the process to make it smoother,” with approval from the executive.
Unions, he says, can complement any employer. “As soon as one group is stronger,” he explains, “everything suffers. A union helps keep a nice balance – each side looking out for everybody, so the staff, faculty and students all benefit.”