As anyone who has ever benefited from one well knows, having an inspirational teacher or teaching mentor can make all the difference in an academic career—for both students and instructors alike. Those who know her will not be surprised to learn that Art History & Visual Studies professor Victoria Wyatt has been named the recipient of the Harry Hickman Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching and Educational Leadership for 2020.

Wyatt, who joined AHVS (or History in Art, as it was then called) in 1989, has been recognized with UVic’s highest teaching award because of her commitment to foster inclusive and culturally aware teaching practices, emphasizing non-linear thinking and Indigenous ways of knowing.

AHVS professor Victoria Wyatt
2020 REACH Award winner Victoria Wyatt (UVic Photo Services)
“It means a tremendous amount to me that my students and colleagues supported me in this way,” she says, noting that both were required to nominate her for this honour. “AHVS has been a very supportive place for me . . . we have a lot of flexibility to develop our own approaches to teaching and our curriculum so we each can apply our own strengths in our classrooms. That environment made this award possible for me . . . . I appreciate working in a department of colleagues so dedicated to research-informed teaching.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Art History & Visual Studies.

“The department is delighted that Dr. Wyatt has received this significant award,” says chair, Dr. Marcus Milwright. “We are fortunate to have such a dedicated and innovative instructor. She is a passionate advocate for students and, for many years, has embraced online technology in her teaching. She is committed to decolonizing the curriculum and teaching practices through respect for Indigenous ways of knowing.”

Embracing creativity & resilience

Victoria Wyatt’s teaching and research focuses on the creativity and resilience of North American Indigenous artists in response to colonization—an interest that originated during her Masters and PhD studies at Yale.

“I got the opportunity to curate an historical exhibition focusing on ways Northwest Coast Indigenous artists responded with inspiring creativity and resilience to contact with settlers, despite the devastating impacts of colonization,” she explains. “At a time when—even more than today—academic historical disciplines were based on written sources left by settlers, these arts spoke directly in the voices of the artists. I wanted to keep exploring that.”

Wyatt’s innovative teaching practices include adapted lesson plans, flexible due dates and meeting a wide range of learning needs; her commitment to teaching is also reflected in her leadership roles within the faculty, UVic and the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

“An inspirational teacher can help students develop the habit of considering diverse perspectives and alternative explanations,” she says. “That orientation is important in all areas of life; for our society to make progress with anti-racism, decolonization and social justice, it’s essential.”

She says she was “very fortunate” to have great instructors as a post-secondary student herself. “I went to Kenyon College, a small undergraduate liberal arts college [in Ohio], which put a very strong emphasis on research-informed teaching,” she recalls. “There were so many tremendous instructors there, with very diverse teaching styles. I absorbed a lot about teaching from watching them. As students, we got to know them well, and some of my instructors there have remained lifelong friends

Wyatt (right) with undergrad Baylee Woodley in the new AHVS art collections classroom in 2017

Fostering inclusive & culturally aware teaching

While art history may be Wyatt’s passion, she feels her practice of fostering inclusive and culturally aware teaching practices—as well as emphasizing non-linear thinking and Indigenous ways of knowing—should apply to all students in all courses.

The world works like an ecosystem, a constellation of complex relationships, rather than a linear hierarchy,” she explains. “Non-linear thinking—the awareness that everything connects—is essential to addressing the global challenges we face. The alternative—focusing on individual components of a system while ignoring the dynamic relationships between them—is based on the fallacy that we must simplify to understand.”

Wyatt feels this kind of reductionism is typical of a Western perspective. “Many cultures in various parts of the world never stopped acknowledging and celebrating such interconnections,” she continues. “I’m curious what the impact of the Internet will be: it is a very nonlinear system, and now an entire generation in colonial contexts has grown up with it. I’m hoping this will encourage more nonlinear thinking and more focus on interconnections and relationships.”

Celebrating diversity & complexity

She admits her own teaching has significantly changed over the years, noting an “Aha!” moment where she was having difficulty writing an introductory lecture for the first class of the year.

Rather than “artificially slice interconnected experience into discrete categories” that inherently “disrespected these arts” and “misrepresented reality”, she instead decided to explore how themes of diversity, complexity, relationships and process converge in each art work and in all our lived experiences.

“In a colonial context, we’re often expected to label and classify . . . . I was trying to isolate, but everything connects,” she explains. “We need to think in such terms—which represent the way the real world functions—if we are going to address global challenges such as climate change,” she says.

Wyatt (far right) participating in a Fine Arts panel on creativity during UVic’s Ideafest in 2013 (Photo: Colton Hash)

Advocating for innovation & mentorship

A passionate advocate for innovative pedagogy locally and nationally, Wyatt provides invaluable mentorship to colleagues at all career stages.

“There are great opportunities at UVic to talk with other instructors and exchange ideas,” she says, pointing to the Learning & Teaching Support & Innovation workshops and annual Let’s Talk About Teaching symposium. ”It’s exciting and revitalizing to hear what others are doing and what has worked for them. At the same time, teaching has to feel authentic, and an approach that suits one instructor may feel awkward to another. So it’s a process of listening to a lot of ideas and experimenting with those that seem like a good fit for one’s personality and style.”

Wyatt also stresses the importance of maintaining a lifelong commitment to learning for instructors.

“It is hard to teach effectively if one doesn’t,” she says. “It’s often less of a conscious commitment to continue learning, and more just what naturally happens from an eagerness to keep current with contemporary issues and to demonstrate the ongoing relevance of our work.”