Taking the plunge
As a first-year art history student, Dr Kit Messham-Muir would sit at the back of lectures with his Walkman on.
"I thought I was an undiscovered genius so I didn't feel art history was important," he says with a laugh. "Now that I'm teaching first year, I know where the most cynical students are coming from and will go to great lengths to keep their interest."
It was Messham-Muir's determination to engage fine art students in a lecture about 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke's concept of the sublime that inspired him to take a dramatic leap out of a plane. The skydive was a birthday gift from his wife and coincided with the start of the 2010 academic year.
"I'd been planning my lectures and was trying to come up with a contemporary example of the sublime and there it was," he recalls. "When I saw the present, I sucked in my breath and thought, right, now you've got what you're looking for and you're going to have to go through with it."
He filmed the "frightening, exhilarating" skydive, edited the footage, posted it on YouTube for his students and used it in lectures.
"The sublime is about awe, fear and delight in the face of nature," says Messham-Muir, of the School of Drama, Fine Art and Music. "Burke wrote about how nature's vastness impacts on our senses to the extent that we're overwhelmed and unable to act. I wanted to convey this to students in a way they'd understand."
It's not the first time Messham-Muir has surprised students with his antics. Half way through a lecture in surrealism, he changed into his pyjamas to demonstrate the influence of dreams on artists' work.
And while his approach may appear gimmicky, Messham-Muir is adamant it is all about helping students connect with the content. "I approach teaching empathically," he says. "It doesn't seem that long ago that I was a student wanting my lecturers to communicate in a way that was on my level."
Messham-Muir's creativity and effort earned him the Early Career Award in the 2009 Vice-Chancellor's Awards for Teaching Excellence. The recognition from his peers and students thrilled the academic who has been at the University for over three years.
"It was an occasion for me to take stock," he says. "It also came after I completed a Graduate Certificate in the Practice of Tertiary Teaching last year, which transformed my attitude to my own teaching and made me rethink."
The certificate, which is offered through the Centre for Teaching and Learning, increased Messham-Muir's workload but he can't recommend it highly enough.
"I thought I was an okay teacher, but it reminded me that you can always gain new skills and push yourself."
Messham-Muir was one of eight academics to be honoured for outstanding contributions to student learning through the Vice-Chancellor's Awards for Teaching Excellence in 2009.
Other award winners were Newcastle Business School's Brendan Boyle and Anthony Morrison; School of Psychology's Rowena Cooper; School of Education's Melissa Coote and Tracey Kelty; School of Drama, Fine Art and Music's Dr Philip Matthias; and School of Biomedical Science and Pharmacy's Josephine Smith.
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