Novel approach wins accolades

Dr Sarah Baker accepts her Griffith University Teacher of the Year award from Vice Chancellor Professor Ian O'Connor.

Sociology students don’t expect to launch into singing Teenage Dirtbag as their initial university experience but that’s exactly what happens in Dr Sarah Baker’s lectures.

The forthright teacher likes to ‘think out of the box’ so ending her first Youth and Society class with ‘Classroom Karaoke’ was a gamble that paid tremendous dividends.

“It was an instant hit, far exceeding my expectations,’’ Sarah says of the first time she played the Wheatus song in the lecture three years ago.

“I had been thinking about how I could get the students to feel comfortable talking with each other as soon as possible, as they would be collaborating on digital narratives, which involves sharing personal stories of transition, just two weeks into the course.

“Bringing popular culture into the classroom resonates with students.

“By the end of the song, everyone was laughing and chatting. And when the students arrived at their first tutorial many of them had already started forming what became long-lasting friendships. Having the students sing together really broke the ice.”

The song also aided the students’ initial understanding of the theoretical and conceptual issues covered during the semester.

Since joining Griffith in 2008, Dr Baker has made popular culture a fixture of her cultural sociology courses and this is one of the reasons she is so well regarded by students, consistently scoring in the top 5% or 10% of student evaluations.

This year she also won the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Griffith University Teacher of the Year.

“I was very honoured. It was a lovely surprise and means a lot to me. My goal is always to help students achieve their best.”

As a first-year advisor to students in the Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Communication and Bachelor of Journalism at the Gold Coast campus, Sarah is constantly in touch with students and helps them with their study and program structure needs.

“I see students as being both active and independent learners, so in my classes I want them to have a sense of purpose,’’ she says.

“In the Youth & Society course for example, they had to record a four-minute digital narrative about something that was important to them. They then had to analyse other students’ narratives.

“So from the very beginning, they’re acting like sociologists — producing data and then analysing it in a way that is meaningful to them.”

And for any teacher, having students engage well with their subject matter is a boon.