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posted on July 23, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
Reflections on the notion of 3M Currency

Ron Stoltz,
Jeanette Boman,
Tim Pychyl,
and Lee Gass
from the 1999 cohort of 3M National
Teaching Fellows
a year later when we continued discussions.


The night
they offered me the job
at UBC I knew
I’d be a second-
class citizen for life. 
‘We’re hiring you
for your teaching,
Peter Larkin told me on
the phone
but we’ll fire you for your research
and don’t you ever forget it!’ 
I never forgot
it.  How could I?
But I learned to live with
it, came to understand it,
eventually turned it to

On the
strength of experience
designing and delivering courses
from middle school to graduate school,
and teaching teachers,
I fell into one of
the best places in the world for
research in of ecology.  But
what to do?

I had learned
my classroom manner
and pedagogy long before arriving
at UBC but had to learn my science on the
job, running from behind to catch up. 
could I forget that if I had not become a world
class scientist by tenure time they would
fire me? 
That was a fascinating
period of my life, to say
the least.

I reveled in
ecology community,
which was a wonderful place to do,
and learn to do, science.
My research group
thrived in that community and for about thirty
years found fascinating things about hummingbirds
published them in the world literature.  The ecologists
openly embraced curiosity and ignorance.  I had lots of
both, and I felt quite at home there.  At least when
I ignored tenure. 
Gradually, I learned to do
science well enough to keep my job.  B
I never forgot that I was not a
real scientist.

I was a
teacher, first and foremost,
but that wasn’t good enough by itself.
squeaked through tenure and promotion with a
warning but became stuck in grade at Associate
Professor and stayed there for 19 years.
I was refused
promotion to Full Professor twice because of the
marginal quantity, not quality, of
my research.

I continued to receive
cost of living increases in salary but
was barred from the more significant career
progress increments and merit pay.
As my first letter
of refusal from President David Strangway put it, I was
unproductive‘ in the eyes of my employer and my
career progress was deemed to be over.  O
result was that my pension fund grew
more slowly than those of
my colleagues.

was that because associate
profs carry less clout than full profs in
academic decision-making,
I had less influence
even on decisions about curriculum
and pedagogy than I would
have had otherwise.

 From graffiti
along the road I learned
the ‘wages of sin is death’.
It became achingly clear over time that
the wages of strong commitment to education in
research universities may be second class citizenship
and second class income, compounded for life.
feels horrible to say it that way, but
it is difficult
to avoid considering the notion that
may be sinful in academe.
As a sinner with
strange values, I was isolated from
peers in terms of teaching
and learning. 

I was isolated even in
the small-scale world of the first year
biology program because until much later it was
difficult for us to discuss the intellectual growth of our
We had little shared language for talking
about teaching and learning.  We assumed
different things about how learning
occurs and how best to
foster it. 

than once I was
asked to leave committee meetings
for repeatedly asking difficult questions
about pedagogy that were considered to be,
and were, and were intended to be, disruptive.
In that professional environment, it was
difficult to speak of anything
but subject matter

was the last thing I
thought we needed to discuss.
For most of my peers, it was intuitively
obvious and unquestioned that teaching involves
a one-way flow of information from professor to
Students are and should be passive recipients
of that information and assessing that learning
requires only remembering the information.
That’s just the way it was in academe.
The professor’s job was
to profess.

It followed
that to teach well requires
only that we cover the material
expose students to the right amounts
of the right kinds of information,
I didn’t believe it
for a minute.

I did much
less lecturing than anyone
expected me to, including my students,
and we did other things. 
My students worked hard,
learned well,remembered what they learned, and enjoyed
themselves, and I felt successful in teaching
even while my peers criticized me,
some of them strongly, for
how I did it.

Many interesting
things happened in my courses
in the first 16 years, including wonderful
experiences with teaching assistants in an upper
level human ecology course for non-majors.
But with
important exceptions my pedagogical isolation from my
peers continued. 
Each time peers evaluated my
teaching for promotion, tenure, or local teaching
awards, for example, at least one judge
criticized my teaching strongly. 

One, a
teaching award winner
from another science department, even
asked me, in front of my students, to explain
why I had wasted his time.
He had come to evaluate
my teaching, he said, not my students’ ability to
work with each other in groups, and I had failed to
inform him that nothing important would be
happening in my class that day.

Then a new
Dean of Science appointed
me in 1990 as one of five individuals from
five departments to invent an interdisciplinary first
year science program. 
We spent most of our first year
defending disciplinary perspectives and the political
positions of  our departments, but the two
year process literally changed my life
and that of my institution. 

In the end,
we proposed an intensive
21-credit program for science “keeners”
in which four research professors from the core
science disciplines and three more science PhDs
would work together in the classroom to
present science as a coordinated
and integrated whole. 

The planning
team was the first
Science One
teaching team in 1993. 
After teaching in Science
One and two other programs that sprang from it for a
decade, I was nominated for a 
UBC Killam Teaching Prize
and a
3M National Teaching Fellowship in 1999.
rior experience of peer evaluation of
my teaching led me to expect
both nominations to fail.

When I won
the local award my Dean
asked me to reconsider promotion,
but a few minutes’ discussion revealed that
our Faculty was not yet ready to recognize my
accomplishments in teaching, as opposed to writing
about teaching, and I refused. 
A few months later I
learned I had won the national award and m
y Provost,
formerly the Dean who had commissioned Science One,
asked me the same thing.  But instead of appealing to my
wish to be recognized, he tapped into my desire to serve.
said UBC needed a poster boy (my term) for P&T
reform and
my case would accomplish that.  I
hesitated, not wanting another rejection,
but he said he and the president would
support me, even in the face of
rejection in P&T reports. 
agreed to the year
long process.

The year was
intense and public, partly
because a colleague from another science
department made very disparaging, very public,
very indefensible statements about undergraduate education,
to which I had no real choice but to respond,
equally publicly.
Our university-wide exchange eventually reached Vancouver’s
major newspaper and bounced to syndication. That long
story included both the conflict between research and
education that our comments represented
and the related story of my non-
progress through the
P&T process.

That embarrassing
process did lead to my promotion
to Full Professor and it resulted in substantive
changes to UBC’s promotion and tenure procedures.
There is no doubt that my 3M Fellowship played
a key role in that transformation.  It also
played a powerful role in my
own transformation.  

three-day 3M
award gathering
Montebello, Quebec,
was wonderful in many ways,
including deep personal connections
I developed with others who shared my
values, my experiences, and my dreams of
education that works well for everyone.
Talks that expanded our minds and
expanded us emotionally by
sharing so much.

Though it
turned out later to have
marked a major turning point
in my career, the simple ceremony
on the last evening of the retreat was,
well, a ceremony. 
A   3M Canada executive
gave us a ‘diploma’, a painting, a box of 3M
products, some of which I’m still using
20 years later, and some kind words.
One thing he said didn’t strike
me as significant at the time,
but simmered in my mind
all night and went off
like a time bomb on
the plane back to
the next
talk, he
it as something
of a joke that 3M
Fellowships come with
no monetary reward, j
ust a
trip to Montebello, excellent food,
an opportunity to commune with like-
minded fellows,
and 3M Currency. He didn’t
explain what 3M Currency was,
but hinted strongly
that it was extremely valuable and he thought
we shouldn’t squander it.
He laughed and
we laughed with him, but I really
had no idea what he was
talking about.

MontebelloThe Canadian Pacific hotel at Montebello.

The next
day on the plane
I reflected on the notion of 3M
Currency. I knew I was ignorant of
finance, which put me in foreign territory
in my meditation and led me to consider the
problem metaphorically. 
In behavioural ecology
and economics, a currency is a measure of accounting
of value.
In my hummingbird foraging research, for
example, we consider the amount of energy harvested
in a given time as one of several possible
currencies for evaluating the foraging
effectiveness of  individuals,
compared to others.

In the
theoretical part of our
work, we imagine foraging strategies
to be directed to maximizing or minimizing
those currencies, which leads to tests of predictions
in lab and field.
This reminded me of the hint that
Fellows could either squander or invest currency
and I wondered what I could do to
allow my own 3M Currency to
compound in value
over time. 

on the fact that people at
UBC responded to me differently
as soon as they learned of my award,
suddenly, overnight, revealed something
much more important than that. 
The ear,
the eye, and the openness of mind that the
award engendered in nearly everyone
around me, and the curiosity, I
realized, could render my
own \actions key, if I
conducted myself

I was responsible
for compounding of value,
to me and to the system in which I
I still didn’t know what to do
about it, but before the plane landed I
was committed to being much more
intentional and strategic in my
work than ever before.

At the beginning
of my meditation, I had
considered ‘3M’ more or less
irrelevant to 3M Currency, being
merely the name of the company that
funds the Fellowship program each year. 
bit later, I folded what I knew about the company
into my understanding of the  award. 
There can be no
more valuable attitude for a scientist than to be open
to his or her own ignorance, and the 3M tradition of
celebrating and rewarding magnificent failures
is a great metaphor for budding scientists
as they develop their personal
learning strategies.

This relates
to key elements of the
culture that develops in my
courses, in the programs I help to
create, and in all effective research
To learn well as scientists
we must embrace our own ignorance
and learn to express it, publicly, with
out embarrassment,
and learn to
respect and encourage those
attitudes and actions
in others.

We must
speak so clearly
about what we don’t know
that it can guide questioning to
knowledge and understanding and
develop the habit of listening deeply and
responding respectfully to this kind of speaking
by others. 
The 3M metaphor applies not just
to students and professors, or to scientists,
but to corporations, universities,
and other social entities with
the capacity to learn from
their experience.

In this way,
the vague, abstract notion
of 3M Currency evolved into a
powerful framework for intentional,
transformative action in education and I
learned to use it effectively. 
One of the wages
of investing my 3M Currency was bootstrapping
the 3M award into a CASE/CSAE
Professor of the Year
award in 2002, and
to honours and openings that
stemmed from it.

In effect,
that second national
award increased the interest
rate on my 3M Currency and revealed
many opportunities to influence faculty
development and institutional change that
had not existed before, both at UBC and many
other places. 
I could not have imagined any of
it even a few years earlier.
In particular, the
credibility that came with the awards brought
ready access to Deans, Department Heads,
Vice Presidents, Provost, and faculty
in all disciplines to promote
a major innovation
at UBC.

We had
known for years
that in spite of the success
of the programs we created, we
still lacked understanding of a wide
range of fundamental issues in teaching
and learning.
Because of that lack, we also
lacked a strong basis for strategic reform of
During a year of intense talks
with many individuals and groups, I felt
growing openness of the entire campus
community to the idea of a new
research unit
to study those
issues and disseminate
the results. 

I’m sure
it’s true that largely due
to the power of 3M Currency the
Institute for the Scholarship of Teaching and
now exists at UBC.  It stimulates, funds, and
coordinates research projects, publishes reports on the
work and helps colleagues apply the results. 
I have no doubt
that the 3M fellowship program and other ways of recogniz-
ing quality in teaching are social investments of a high
Not only does this recognition acknowledge
a few of many worthy individuals in a rapidly
evolving educational system but much more
importantly than that,
as I hope to have
demonstrated here,
it powerfully
the course of
that evolution.

The story
I tell about Gerhard Herzberg in

Creativity: The Case of Gerhard Herzberg
is a wonderful example of the need to embrace
ignorance in science. 
In the podcast Stories about Stories
there are several stories about embracing ignorance and
Five Questions to Change Your Life emphasizes it.

The way I
told this story implies
that it was my own 3M Fellowship
that made the difference in creating UBC’s
Institute for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.
That’s not true because there were at least two of us at the
Gary Poole won a 3M award before he came
to UBC and we cooked up the idea and promoted it together.
In relation to that I tell a story about Gary Poole in

Secrets of Silence in the Classroom.

University Professor of the Year
award no longer exists in the US or Canada,
though the Council for  Advancement and Support
of Education (CASE) still describes the
US versionA
version of this story was published in the book

Making a difference: a celebration of the
3M National Teaching Fellowship

Edited January 2019

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