The Faculty of Arts and Humanities took on new leadership last fall when former University of Guelph professor Donna Pennee became dean. Pennee, a first-generation university graduate, started her academic career in the sciences, but quickly found the degree requirements in the arts challenged her in a new and exciting way.
Faculty of Arts and Humanities Dean Donna Pennee hopes to build Western’s reputation for offering a unique and leading arts education.
“I found my neurons were firing off in a way that was different than in my science classes,” she says.
Western News sat down with Pennee recently to find out how she is settling in to the new position and what the future holds for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.
Western News: You come to Western from the University of Guelph where you served in a similar position as Associate Dean of Arts and Social Sciences. What are your plans for increasing the profile of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities?
Donna Pennee: That is a big question and it still seems like early days to answer that question. The difference in the size of the job I left and the size of the job I have now is such that I still feel I am just learning all about the faculty on a day-to-day basis.
I think a key piece of work for me, in conjunction with everyone else across the faculty, will be to make sure that when people think of Western, they think of Arts and Humanities first and foremost. I think historically, even though we are one of the absolutely best faculties in terms of expertise, research, quality of teaching, quality of curriculum, and quality of students who choose to study here, we are actually not always at the top of people’s list when they think about what Western is all about. Western tends to be marketed as the school for engineering, for business, for the professional schools –medicine, dentistry, and so on.
For a faculty that is relatively small by comparison to some of the other faculties, we actually manage to capture a significant percentage of the signature areas on campus. We know other folks on campus know the value of the arts and humanities and the national and international calibre of researchers and award-winning teachers that we have here, but we need to get that message out more broadly than on campus alone.
Another goal I have for the faculty is to be much more proactive around research in the undergraduate classroom and to create a distinct undergraduate Arts and Humanities experience at Western through the development of research literacy, particularly information literacy.
WN: One of the big controversies in the last federal election was the comments Prime Minister Stephen Harper about making cuts to the arts. With the new budget about to roll out, what are your arguments for arts funding?
DP: Arts graduates populate a lot of boardrooms, corporate executive teams, positions of civic leadership, are members of the government – federal, provincial, municipal, county and so on – we find arts graduates at every level of leadership in business, whether it be for-profit, corporations, non-profit and minimally paid positions. Arts graduates are everywhere and yet there is this perception that we don’t need them and that the arts as an area of endeavour … that we don’t need to fund it. And yet to me, the irony is that given that arts graduates do populate so many sectors of our society and are so often leaders in our society, it seems to me to be obvious that arts continues to deserve to be funded. Also, a healthy ecosystem depends on diversity, and we need people in the public and private spheres whose capacity to think and to act is not tied only to the view of ‘the bottom line.’
WN: What are your personal choices when it comes to the arts (for example, movies, literature, etc.)?
DP: I’m actively interested in visual arts. I spent time at my former institution as a member of the graduate faculty for the School of Fine Art and Music, so I actively keep my hand in what is happening in the visual art world. I am an avid fan of music of all kinds.
I don’t get as much time to read as I would like to. I find my reading tastes these days tend toward works of non-fiction, things like This is Your Brain on Music. Because my research is in literature, specifically Canadian literature, I also try to keep up with what is going on, particularly in fiction.
I’m fairly eclectic in my interests in the arts. I’m also actively interested in photography. In terms of films, I tend not to get to a cinema to see a film when it is new. I tend to see it in front of the TV at home, sometimes as many as ten years after it has been released.
WN: The Faculty of Arts and Humanities has several strong research areas, including literature and cultural theory and the Philosophy of Science, which have been identified as among Western’s signature areas. What is your plan for building upon these strengths?
DP: My plan is to work as closely as I can with the members of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities to see where they want to go with these strategic areas. Also, I think it’s important to realize we have a lot of new faculty members on campus, not just in the arts but across all faculties and many of the newer professors are arriving with quite a bit more cross-disciplinary interests and many of them with cross-disciplinary expertise. I think a significant portion of my leadership around the strategic areas might be in the direction of encouraging more cross-pollination if you will between faculties, as well as making sure that disciplinary specialization within my own faculty continues to be supported.
WN: What are your top priorities for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities?
DP: Outreach in making sure people think of Arts and Humanities when they think of Western, in the same breath they think Ivey, Schulich and Engineering and so on. Student satisfaction and faculty and staff satisfaction (because) it is my view an institution is only as good as its people. For those people to be as good as they can be, they need to be satisfied with their circumstances and inspired to contribute to bettering those circumstances.
There is a lot of stuff in flux right now. We are on our way to a new president and it will be key to make sure Arts and Humanities is on the radar for the new president because President (Paul) Davenport has been amazingly supportive of liberal art pursuits. It will also be important for me to help the Faculty of Arts and Humanities move through the next phase of budgetary uncertainty.
WN: Although you will hold the position until June 2013, what do you think the Faculty of Arts and Humanities will look like in 10 years?
DP: I would like the faculty to be able to look toward being situated in an environment where Arts and Humanities is genuinely recognized as core to post-secondary education and I would like Arts and Humanities at The University of Western Ontario to be the place that both undergraduate and graduate students look to for the best convergence of quality of campus life and quality of faculty as teachers, researchers, and creative practitioners and community activists in Canada.
I think in making the move from a so-called comprehensive university to a research-intensive university that I bring to this position a perspective that perhaps brings teaching and learning more to the forefront as a balance to the research mission. I bring a specific objective which is to integrate as thoroughly as possible the teaching and research missions … for both faculty and students so we don’t perpetuate the view that one of these activities is more important than the other. They are mutual, reciprocal and necessary, particularly in an Arts and Humanities context where very often the lab is the classroom.
Born: Tweed, Ont. (A village north of Belleville, Ont.)
Favourite books: The Wars by Timothy Findley, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Dog or cat person? Dog
If you were not a university professor, what would you be? Probably a medical doctor