Brennan Hall in wintertime with snow visible on the roof and shrubbery

Brennan Hall in wintertime with snow visible on the roof and shrubbery

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.”                                           

James Roussain begins a new role at the John M. Kelly Library this January as the Interim Head of Public Services, a change from his position as Outreach and Instruction Archivist, which he has held since 2017. Prior to joining the University of St. Michael’s College, James worked at Scotiabank, where he was involved in the maintenance and deployment of the corporate records management program. At the Kelly Library, James assists students with their research, exposes students to the treasures in the Kelly Library’s Special Collections, and teaches in the college’s Book and Media Studies program. James is a past president of the Archives Association of Ontario (AAO) and the Toronto Area Archivists’Group (TAAG). In his spare time, he is pursuing a Master of Education in Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). He holds a Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information.


On Jellyfish, Loneliness, and Learning

As the new semester gets under way in the coming days, it is important to take a step back and think about those we are working to support: our tireless and dedicated students. With our new reality of living apart and working remotely becoming just that—our current reality—we need to remember that these are indeed strange and stressful times not just for us but for our students, too. As a librarian at the Kelly Library, I am fortunate to work directly with students assisting them in their research, writing, or in navigating the complexities of the University of Toronto’s immense library system. For many, the library is an intimidating space in the best of times. Compounded with the challenges of remote work and a lack of helping hands, finding resources and completing research has never been more challenging, especially so for many of our first-year students, for whom the academic library is an entirely new entity.

During the fall semester, the Kelly Library, in partnership with the Principal’s Office, hosted twice-weekly Research and Writing Help Drop-In sessions, where students were able to join us—remotely—for one-on-one assignment help. With two writing instructors at my side, we would greet students and, using private break-out rooms, answer as many questions as possible over a two-hour period. What started off as a way to accommodate students who were unable to snag longer scheduled appointments grew into a window on our students’ lived reality: too many due dates, a mess of assignments vying for their attention, and an overwhelming sense of isolation and, at times, loneliness. Logging in from their living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and sometimes an enviable patio, students shared with us their frustrations in working alone and, for many, navigating time zones and poor internet connections. This has not been an easy time.

As I helped students find articles, tidy up citations, or figure out the best keywords for their upcoming essay on, say, vestigial traits in jellyfish, I grew to realize two things. The first—and perhaps sacrilege to our faculty readers—is the trivial nature of our work during these incredibly challenging times. In more than one occasion I felt the need to reassure students that while, yes, your essay is important, so too is the need to care for yourself and reach out to others. This is not to say we must lessen academic rigour, but rather carry a realistic understanding of what is possible. The second thing I learned is how little I know not only about jellyfish but about every single topic brought to me during these drop-in sessions. The level of academic achievement on our campus is truly astounding. There has not yet been a case where working with a student on their research has not taught me something new, and for that I am thankful.

In looking ahead to the coming semester and the challenges it will surely bring to our students, especially those graduating into a world of social, political, and simply logistical unknowns, we need to work together to ensure empathy and perspective are at the front of our minds. The rise of mental health programs and services on campus—so well advocated for by our dedicated students on SMCSU—brings overdue awareness to the importance of creating community wherever possible. Week after week, soon after logging in, the same group of students would join our drop-in sessions. Some came for detailed questions on style and structure, while others came just to check in. We created community in the most unlikely of places: a Zoom call focused on academic research and writing help. Who knew? In our own unique way we forged a space where students could share their frustrations, get some help, and see a familiar face at the same time. It is easy to get caught up in administrative matters, the daily to-and-fro of emails and meetings, or the challenges of bureaucracy. Take a moment, as often as possible, to guard against these blinders and seek our community. Or, if so inclined, check in with our students and ask them how they are doing. What may be seen as a hollow “How’re you?” during pre-COVID times may now carry more weight than you know. 

While the library’s stacks are closed for the time being, our dedicated staff remains available to help. We strive to place the student experience at the centre of our work and tailor our collections, services, and spaces to offer them an inclusive, welcoming, and supportive environment—both in a physical and virtual sense—where they can flourish during their time on campus. In my own role within the library, and my small role on the University of Toronto campus, I am proud to have the opportunity to work daily with our students and to learn alongside them.


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The crest of the University of St. Michael's College

November 2, 2020

A generous gift from the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust to the University of St. Michael’s College will help make the work of the beloved spiritual writer more accessible to researchers and readers around the world.

The funding will support a 12-month contract for an archivist to process the Henri J. M. Nouwen holdings in the Archival and Manuscript Collection housed in the university’s John M. Kelly Library. A search to fill the position is now under way.

Working with library staff, the archivist will handle the preservation, arrangement, and description of various materials, as well as promote their existence and add them to web-based finding guides. The position holder will also digitize materials so that the wealth of books, letters, promotional and related materials in the collection will be easier to access.

Karen Pascal, who is the Executive Director of the Toronto-based Henri Nouwen Society, stands next to a portrait of Henri Nouwen alongside St. Michael's President David Sylvester
Karen Pascal, Executive Director of the Toronto-based Henri Nouwen Society, and St. Michael’s President David Sylvester in a photo taken before the pandemic.

“We have always been grateful for our partnership with St. Michael’s, and this position will help open up Henri to a whole new generation,” says Karen Pascal, who is the Executive Director of the Toronto-based Henri Nouwen Society. “Henri’s writings touched people’s hearts, and demonstrated that vulnerability is part of leadership. As St. Mike’s works to create new leaders, this is a perfect fit.”

University President and Vice-Chancellor David Sylvester is delighted for the continued partnership the funding acknowledges between the society and St. Michael’s.

“The University recognizes and appreciates that this gift builds on the Nouwen Society’s longstanding support of the collection, and we share the commitment to ensuring the collection is preserved and made available to scholars, students and the wider community,” he says. “We look forward to welcoming the new archivist, and to continuing the conversation about other possible partnerships.”

More than 100 researchers accessed the popular collection last year, and John M. Kelly Library Archivist Simon Rogers notes that the funding from the Nouwen Legacy Trust will help to increase the discoverability of its materials. It may become possible “to surface previously unprocessed materials including photographs, audio-visual archival materials, personal correspondence and oral history recordings,” he says.

“We are excited that we are going to be able to give focused attention to these materials, allowing broader engagement for the larger Nouwen community,” Rogers says, adding that the library archive anticipates new materials, including letters and photos, to be added to the collection soon.

A priest, pastor, professor and writer, Henri Nouwen was born in Holland in 1932. A prolific author, he produced dozens of books of spiritual reflections during his life, with more than seven million copies of his works sold. His writings were varied, reflecting on everything from Rembrandt’s depiction of The Prodigal Son through to Thomas Merton, the topic of aging, and a sabbatical year Nouwen spent living at a Trappist monastery in upstate New York. His vast career saw him teach at Harvard and Yale’s divinity schools and live with communities on the margins of society. He spent his final years at L’Arche Daybreak, a community for people with developmental disabilities, just north of Toronto. He died in 1996.

Sr. Susan Mosteller, C.S.J., who served as executrix of Nouwen’s estate, donated the archival material to the Kelly Library in January, 2000, and the archives were officially opened later that year. With a mandate to collect, preserve, and support archival material on Nouwen, the archives hold more than 16,000 letters, various sound and video recordings, a complete set of his published books—including translations—and a comprehensive collection of articles published by Nouwen between 1957 and 1996.

“Henri died before the explosion of the Internet,” says Pascal. “He was a prolific letter writer and felt letters were part of his ministry. He wrote to all sorts of people. Accessing more of these letters, for example—and making them available to researchers—will teach us so much about him, because there’s still so much to learn.”

Noel McFerran has worked as a librarian at the University of St. Michael’s College since 1998. His current position is Theology and Rare Books Librarian.


“Be Right Back!”

Image depicts a student waiting for curbside pickup service assistance

I spent last Wednesday morning in the Kelly Library providing curbside pickup service to faculty and students. As a librarian, it was exciting for me to see the library taking further steps to provide library materials to patrons while maintaining the health and safety of everybody involved.

Since mid-March I’ve been working from home, keeping very busy responding to emails from faculty and students about their course work and research. Wednesday was one of my first times back inside the Kelly Library. The most important thing was to be trained in how to function in my regular work environment during a pandemic. I thought that I knew all about social distancing, wearing masks, and sanitizing hands—but it’s so much more important in a workplace where there are other staff using the same desk and equipment. Just like in the supermarket, we’re maintaining a one-way route in the library in order to reduce face-to-face encounters between staff.

Every day the Kelly Library receives a computer-generated list of books and DVDs which patrons have requested through the UofT Library Catalogue. One staff person looks for these items on the shelves. Most items are where they are meant to be, but occasionally we have to search for something which has wandered from its regular home. Items then get checked out to patrons. Right now all items are signed out until September 18, 2020.

Another Kelly staff person, working from home, sends personalized emails to patrons telling them that their books are ready to pick up. Sometimes patrons respond with special requests (e.g. “Can a friend get my books for me?”).

At present patrons can pick up their requested items at the Kelly Library anytime Monday to Friday between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. The pick-ups ebb and flow. I filled the low periods with other library work to keep myself busy.

The first encounter between a library patron and staff is through a glass wall where the patron shows their library card. (I had real difficulty reading the card through the glass, so I might need to make an appointment for an eye exam!) You can’t really hear people on the other side of the glass, so we have various printed signs which communicate the most frequent things (like “Be right back”).

Staff retrieve the patron’s bag of books and place it on a table outside the library under the overhang. Even then there is reduced interaction between staff and patrons. Smiling doesn’t mean so much when you’re wearing a mask, so I tried to wave in a friendly way.

The response from faculty and students to the Kelly Library’s curbside pickup service has been very positive. My colleague Risa de Rege, who has worked many shifts in the past week tells me, “People have been very grateful that we’re offering curbside pickups, and are also respectful of our space and policies.” In the first week, 76 patrons submitted requests for 141 items. As more people learn about the service and how easy it is to use, that number is likely to increase. So far, though, we’ve been able to respond quickly to requests.

Nobody wants the COVID pandemic to go on any longer than it has to. But for the present and near-future, the Kelly Library is developing solutions to continue to provide library service to our faculty and students. I love being a part of that, knowing that my work contributes in a small way to the academic success of others.