July 14, 2000

“Enthusiasm and the importance of learning by doing”

Excellence in Teaching — humanities

by Robie Liscomb

Enthusiasm — the word keeps cropping up when colleagues and students describe the teaching of Dr. Thom Hess. The longtime member of the linguistics department is the first recipient of the humanities faculty award for excellence in teaching.

Hess’s colleague, Dr. John Esling, calls him “the most enthusiastic, authoritative, stimulating, effective, entertaining, admired and respected teacher in the department.

“Students are constantly telling me what an effect [his] classes have had on their learning.... Students are impressed with his humility, particularly in contrast to the vast knowledge of linguistic forms and structures that he demonstrates.”

Hess, who came to UVic in 1968, retired from the university this year. He’s a leader in the study of northwest coast Native languages and in particular Lushootseed Salish, which is spoken in the Puget Sound area.

He has created a number of new courses for the department, including courses in the Nitinaht language, Salish, Sanskrit, an introduction to the Native languages of B.C., and a survey of writing systems of the world. He was also involved in the Native Indian language diploma program, which was offered from 1975 until 1981.

Hess has done all this in spite of a dearth of adequate teaching materials. Says Esling: “Thom has written essentially all of the course materials that he has used in his classes. Standard published works are not accurate enough or adapted adequately to the specific course for him to rely on them.”

Hess has worked extensively on Native language curriculum development and delivery with many native groups. His publications include a Lushootseed dictionary and a Lushootseed reader.

Esling says, “It’s impressive to hear the number of people at conferences — experienced teachers of younger teachers of Native languages — who say that Thom Hess ‘taught them their language’.”

Speaking of his many efforts with Native groups to perpetuate the teaching of their languages, Hess says: “They were done in part to return to the people a little of what their elders had given me, in part to maintain goodwill with the Native communities, in part to glean still more linguistic information in a manner that was useful to both the Native and the academic communities, and in part because I like doing it.”

In retirement, Hess plans to continue his research, including collecting and analysing Native myths and working on a reference grammar of Lushootseed for linguists.

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