An interview with the 2019 3M National Teaching Fellowship Recipient: Dr. Sheri Fabian

Dr. Fabian talks about her path to becoming a lecturer and the importance of talking about Indigenous history in her research and teaching

Image courtesy of SFU School of Criminology

By: Mishaa Khan 

Dr. Sheri Fabian, a lecturer at the School of Criminology, has always had a passion for teaching. In an interview with The Peak, she shared her story of writing an essay in grade one, all about wanting to become a teacher when she grew up. She laughed at the memory and said, “Teaching has always been in my soul. Everything I have done has involved teaching, even if it has not been formal.”

For her, the most important part of teaching is “encouraging students to think critically about the world around them. It’s about getting them to understand the assumptions they make everyday and unpacking those assumptions, and often the privilege that comes with the assumptions that we make with other people and . . . understanding that there are multiple perspectives in the world and they all have value.”

Out of the 14 classes she’s taught, her favourite courses to teach are CRIM 131: Introduction to the Criminal Justice System, CRIM 311: Minorities and the Criminal Justice System (CRIM311), and research methodology courses. The reason? She’s able to watch students learn to think critically, grow, and challenge their assumptions.

“I get to see them grow as human beings, as academics, as young people, and it’s really rewarding,” Dr. Fabian said.

When asked what is one thing she would want SFU students to know about the criminal justice system, Dr. Fabian said she wants students to exercise caution and critical thinking when consuming the media.

“How about instead of don’t believe the media; be cautious about what the media tells you, and be critical about it.”

Her talent for teaching is evident in the number of awards she has received. In 2016, she received SFU’s Excellence in Teaching Award and recently, she received the 3M National Teaching Fellowship awarded by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Dr. Fabian says that receiving the prestigious 3M National Teaching Fellowship is “an honour and privilege,” and she looks forward to meeting the other recipients in June to work with other researchers on a national level.

“I didn’t expect to get it so when I got the phone call, I was over the moon. It was really exciting [ . . . ] and ironically I had to teach 90 minutes later.” When asked what her plans to do with the award were, she said that there is not anything confirmed yet, but also that it will be about Indigenous experiences.

One of Dr. Fabian’s current research projects, alongside colleague Dr. Tamar O’Doherty, is a collaboration with the Indigenous Student Centre to learn from Indigenous students about their experiences. She also conducted another project about resiliency.

“We were interested in building resiliency in our students,” Dr. Fabian said. Studying and working in criminology and related fields can be difficult because of the nature of the content. “We were looking at techniques that we could use to teach our students how to take in difficult materials without actually traumatizing.” She continues on to say that “it’s not just applicable to crim students; it is applicable to everybody.”

Despite all her accomplishments, Dr. Fabian’s journey to becoming a lecturer was not a “traditional trajectory.”

It began in 1984 when she graduated with a BA in Sociology and English. She went on from there to work in probation, with individuals who were taking part in community service. Within three years, she set out to understand the system better by pursuing a post-baccalaureate program in criminology, followed by a master’s degree at SFU.

She continued on with her career by working with an HIV/AIDs education program where she worked with marginalized populations, at a time when “HIV was very much a fatal disease.” Dr. Fabian explained that the amount of death and pain that she saw caused her to burn out. After five years, she left that job, she worked with the police services for the provincial government where she was responsible for running statistics and crime data.

In 2001, after being laid off, she returned to SFU to pursue her education and earned her PhD in Criminology at SFU in 2011. While she was studying, there was a vacancy available as a continuing lecturer in the criminology department at SFU and she decided to apply.

Another important aspect of Dr. Fabian’s career was contract work for the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, validating the claims of residential school survivors. This aspect of her work also included research, overseeing the research of others as quality control, and leading workshops.  

“I looked at thousands of claims,” Dr. Fabian said. “So you read their accounts and then you put together the evidence to show that they were there.”

Dr. Fabian includes the history of residential schools in her classes. She says that while these topics can be triggering and troubling, it is important to shed light on the subject because “it is a very real part of Canadian history and we need to own it and acknowledge it.”

“It is about being forthright about our history, understanding out history, talking about it in terms of settler responsibilities (…) and trying to be as frank as possible about our history, but in a respectful way…. I do want them to understand that our history of colonialism is not over. We continue to act in very colonial ways.”

The responses to this in classrooms have been overwhelmingly positive, though she has also seen people roll their eyes whenever the topic has come up. Overall, however, she has seen the impact it has on students. She continues on to say, “For me, there is nothing more rewarding than talking about it in one of my classes and having a student acknowledge what we have done.”

Dr. Fabian’s research interests, like her teachings, include looking at Indigenous peoples’ experiences. She has recently received a second Teaching and Learning Development Grant to continue her work. She also works as a facilitator with the Decolonizing Teaching Seminar series through the Institute for the Study and Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines.

Her path to becoming a lecturer serves as a reminder that no experience is ever wasted, and that it is OK to try different things outside of school and comfort zones. She also shows the importance of shedding light on matters that can be difficult to talk about, but must be done because of the impact they have in society. By broadening the minds of her students one at a time, she is able to increase the understanding of her students and colleagues and the individuals they will teach, creating a better space for us all.