Antony Humphries: Scrapping teaching philosophy for a learning philosophy

“What I began to realize was, in the end, it wasn't so much what I was teaching that mattered, it was what the students were learning.”
Antony Humphries misses his pre-COVID-19 days where he could sit one-on-one with students “pushing symbols across a paper together and figuring things out”

Ironically, Antony Humphries, winner of the 2020 Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching in the category of Associate Professor, doesn’t see himself as a teacher first.

“I’m a research scientist. That’s why I’m at university. I can set my own agenda and work on my problems,” says Humphries, an internationally acclaimed researcher in functional differential equations and the numerical analysis of dynamical systems.

Humphries pauses and smiles. “But over the years, it’s kind of dawned on me that maybe the teaching I do is having a bigger impact than my research.”

He keeps tabs on his students – undergraduate, graduate and postdocs – and as he lists their accomplishments, the pride is palpable. “The success of my students is very gratifying,” says Humphries.

Former students are now tenured professors, postdoctoral fellows and postdoctoral researchers at some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, including Harvard and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States. His undergraduate research students have gone on to complete PhDs at NYU, Berkeley and Brown, and MScs at McMaster and Stanford. Others are currently graduate students at Brown, Johns Hopkins, U of Toronto, Cornell, UC San Diego and École Polytechnique in France.

“If I count all the achievements of my students, then it’s much more than what I’ve done. I can’t claim all the credit, even though I’d like to,” he says laughing.

Student experience helps inform approach to teaching

Humphries came to McGill in 2002, joining the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. In the classroom, he has developed a reputation for his ability to integrate research and teaching. To illustrate how to apply specific principles, Humphries often incorporates his own research, and that of colleagues in other McGill departments, into his lectures.

Humphries’ approach to teaching has evolved over the years. In part, it has been influenced by his personal experiences as a student. “I have seen good teaching and I have seen bad teaching,” he says.

But his has also been informed by his own time in front of the classroom – not all of it good.

As a grad student in England, Humphries’ initial teaching experience was decidedly uninspiring.

“Their idea of tutorials was to have the students do exercises in advance and then come along and watch you regurgitate answers on blackboards,” he says. “It was a dreadful experience.”

His next stop, at University of Sussex, was a very different. Working with the professionals from teaching and learning services, he began formulating a teaching philosophy, which he says is, more accurately, a learning philosophy.

“What I began to realize was, in the end, it wasn’t so much what I was teaching that mattered, it was what the students were learning – and the two things are not the same,” Humphries says.

A firm believer in active learning and learning outcomes, Humphries designs much of his classroom and course assignments with the idea that students only really learn when they put techniques into practice for themselves. This includes smaller undergraduate workshops in which students work together to solve problems. “If you think about learning as what the student learns, and not what the teacher tells them, then it doesn’t matter if they learn how to solve the problem from a classmate, or from me,” he says.

With his graduate students, Humphries loves nothing more than sitting one-on-one with them “pushing symbols across a paper together and figuring things out” – something COVID-19 has made impossible to do in person.

Keeping the mood relaxed with humour

Although Humphries is demanding, colleagues and students alike praise for his ability to weave humour into his classes, something that helps keep the atmosphere relaxed even when the subject matter is challenging.

“I teach ordinary differential equations, sometimes to mathematicians, and sometimes to engineers. When I’m explaining why we do certain things, and why certain things are important, I’ll sometimes tell the mathematicians jokes about engineers. And, of course, I’ll tell the engineers jokes about mathematicians as well,” he says with a chuckle.

“if you ask the class, ‘Would you like another example or would you like another theorem?’ the engineers will always say another example, and the mathematicians will always say another theorem,” says Humphries. “And if you just recount that with a straight face, both groups think it’s hilarious.”