Given the diverse program offerings available to graduate students at Western, Linda Miller knows it can be difficult to measure students’ academic achievements using the same criteria.
This is especially true when it comes to deciding which students should receive awards like the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS), which recognizes academic excellence, said Miller, Vice-Provost (Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies) at Western.
“When you think of academic excellence, it’s traditionally at the graduate level, particularly at the PhD level. What we use as the indicators of that tend to be things like papers that have been either submitted, or published, or conference presentations – the more traditional academic metrics of excellence,” she said.
“Yet, we’ve got graduate programs in things like Visual Arts and Performance Music, where the metrics aren’t consistent with the traditional metrics. They are things like, where is your art displayed? Who’s interested in your work? Where are you performing? What are international adjudicators saying about your performances? There really isn’t a way to easily equate those sorts of metrics with the more traditional metrics.”
The general criteria for an OGS award (a minimum grade average of 80 per cent, plus publication and conference presentations) doesn’t recognize achievements of graduate students in performance-based programs, Miller noted. This is something Western decided to address last year by earmarking OGS funding for performance-based awards.
Every year, the ministry gives each university an allocation of OGS scholarships, awards distributed to students at the institutional level. Western receives roughly 350 awards each year, and now, two of those are specifically designated for students in performance-based programs. An additional two awards are allotted for Indigenous students.
“It’s an apples and oranges comparison when it comes to criteria, and this is our effort to try and balance things out a little bit, to say we’re going to specifically designate these awards to recognize performance excellence,” Miller noted.
“We decided, rather than having the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (SGPS) sort out the criteria, we would just go to the faculty of Arts and Humanities and the (Don Wright) Faculty of Music, and say, can we give you one award specifically targeted at performance and let you decide the best criteria for choosing those individuals.”
The first recipients of Western’s OGS Artistic Performance Awards were Heidi Wall, a second-year Master of Music in Literature and Performance (solo piano) student, and Colin Dorward, a second-year PhD student in Visual Arts. Both students had a chance to showcase their talents at a SGPS awards celebration in December.
Miller stressed, “they are strong students, and competitive, if we’re looking at things like academic grades. But they have internationally adjudicated performances and art shows, rather than having publications and conference presentations. This was our way of deliberately trying to recognize the breadth of scholarship and creativity at the graduate level. And it sets us apart from what others are doing.”
Wall, who comes from a musical family, called the award a “huge honour,” noting it was especially significant as recognition of something she finds meaningful.
“It’s the activity in which I feel most engaged and turned on in life; it’s incredibly challenging and I get better at it every year. I haven’t plateaued and the growth I’m going through is enjoyable, as well,” she said.
“I was freaked out about being a professional musician; there’s a lot of them in my family and it’s not the easiest life. It feels like I’m working constantly. You have to do a lot,” Wall continued.
In addition to teaching piano privately and working for the Kitchener-Waterloo Kiwanis Music Festival as their coordinator, Wall maintains a busy performance schedule.
Working on a PhD in Visual Arts was likewise an opportunity to pursue and develop talent in something he enjoyed, Dorward added.
After completing his MFA at the University of Ottawa, he attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Before coming to Western, one of his paintings was purchased for the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.
“No one knows how to assess art,” Dorward noted. “And universities are all about assessing if something is good or bad, while the art world is rife with this insecurity of assessing the quality of artwork. And that makes it hard for universities to decide when their artists are succeeding.”
“I hope this (award) means the university is becoming more aware of art practices that happen in the studio rather than on paper,” he continued, adding he felt honoured to receive one of the first OGS Artistic Performance Awards.
“It was nice to be part of that awards (reception). There’s not a lot of chances for the rest of the university to see what happens here. The paintings I put up weren’t even finished, but just the chance to connect with people, it was nice to feel that and get some visibility for the department, too.”