In a shifting academic year, St. Mike’s community and creativity keep students engaged
A strong reputation among students, creative, empathetic responses to the pandemic, and hosting some of the most popular undergraduate classes and programs at the University of Toronto have all helped St. Michael’s weather the challenges posed by COVID-19.
“This is a surprising story,” says Interim Principal Dr. Mark McGowan. “We planned for the worst, hoped for the best and were pleasantly surprised. We were dealt an unusual hand and staff, professors, and students responded admirably to the challenges we have been dealt.”
The result, says McGowan, is that enrolment at St. Michael’s has remained healthy, with increases in enrolment in all college courses. This, he says, is due to a number of factors. One is the ongoing popularity of St. Mike’s Book & Media Studies program, which takes an interdisciplinary approach, offering an historical investigation of the role of printing, books, reading, and electronic and digital media in cultures past and present. The program remains one of the most popular at U of T.
Another decision that has kept enrolment numbers strong was St. Mike’s rapid move to online classes, assuring students — and especially international students — that they could continue their education safely from home. At times, this has driven students to discover new interests, as demonstrated by an increase in the number of international students, for example, in Mediaeval Studies courses.
And if students can’t engage in the international travel that is a key component of programs, St. Mike’s has decided to bring the world to our classrooms. In response to the cancellation of the trips that are a key aspect of the popular first-year One seminars, St. Mike’s is creating what is being called a global classroom, allowing students in Toronto to engage virtually with research and data from around the world. Funded in part by a grant from Universities Canada, the global classroom will have dedicated space on campus, complete with cutting-edge technology, to engage with students, professors, and researchers around the world.
The Boyle Seminar in Scripts and Stories, which offers students an interdisciplinary approach to examining the Celtic influences in the mediaeval world, with particular focus on early books and historical artifacts, will be the first to use the concept, partnering with Maynooth University in Ireland. Students here and in Ireland will engage with their peers, accessing digital resources from both universities. With the plan that student travel will resume once travel bans are lifted, the virtual classroom lends itself to any number of courses and programs, as well as a hybrid model of virtual and in-person classes.
Along with the university’s outstanding faculty members, a roster of strong sessional instructors has drawn students to enrol at St. Mike’s courses. In Book & Media Studies, for example, award-winning journalist Michael Valpy has returned to St. Michael’s to teach media ethics while journalist, scholar and activist Emilie Nicolas is teaching a new #BlackLives and the Media course. In Celtic Studies, meanwhile, Shane Lynn is teaching modern Irish History, a course whose numbers have been growing steadily.
But one of the biggest strengths that allows St. Michael’s to remain vibrant is a strong reputation for a student-driven approach, McGowan says.
“Student word of mouth focusses on things like how well the students are treated at St. Mike’s, or small class sizes,” he says.
This academic year has highlighted the care faculty and staff have for students, he says, noting, for example, how impressed he was when he sat in on a regularly scheduled Zoom session, organized by librarian James Roussain, Dr. Iris Gildea and Dr. Felan Parker, for professors to talk about student issues and how best to offer support.
“It is edifying to listen to compassionate professors focussed on being merciful, especially during COVID,” he says.
Underpinning classes and communication is a strong commitment to IT, the interim principal says. To help ensure smooth delivery of classes, the Principal’s Office offered faculty members funding to upgrade equipment to better serve students online. McGowan also credits St. Mike’s IT Supervisor Pio Sebastiampillai , working with the team at the Faculty of Arts & Science, with enabling professors and students to make the best of online learning.
And while in-person events are still not happening, enhanced student experiences continue to happen. This year, for the example, the annual USMC Research Symposium will still take place, online, on Saturday, March 13, on the topic of “Community, Citizenship, and Belonging.”
St. Mike’s also continues to engage with the important matters of the day. For example, the popular Truth and Reconciliation Commission Reading Group, started by Dr. Reid Locklin in 2019, moved online this year so that the university community can learn how it can better engage in the recommend, holding its meeting recently and welcoming everyone to future sessions when they resume in the next academic year.
“St. Mike’s responded well,” McGowan says. “We didn’t panic but worked as a team.”