University’s role in society at heart of new course

Deb Van Brenk // Western NewsNext year, English and Writing Studies Professor Jane Toswell will teach This University, a new online/in-class course intended to be an academic look at what universities are – and are not – against the backdrop of Western.

If you think the debate over the role of higher education is new, think again. You’ll need to look deeper than today’s headlines for answers – perhaps as far back as the Middle Ages.

To help in that understanding, English and Writing Studies Professor Jane Toswell will teach This University, a new online/in-class course for Winter 2020 intended to be an academic look at what universities are – and are not – against the backdrop of Western.

“Universities are the longest-standing institutions, probably the most important institutions, coming out of Europe,” said Toswell, an expert in Old English texts and medievalism.

Yet despite the importance of the institutions, she sees students who do not know much more about Western, or any university, beyond the school song or location of their classrooms.

“Students don’t realize we’re part of a very long sweep of history about what we are doing as a university and what the purpose of university is.”

The course is not an introduction to Western so much as it is a guide to thinking critically about the university, its evolving role in society and students’ place in it.

The discussion includes learning about the physical space Western occupies, with a total of 101 buildings that collectively have a value of more than $9 billion. They range from the gothic-style University College to the brutalist architecture of The D.B. Weldon Library to utilitarian sheds and labs.

“We actually have a lot of interesting things on campus and they’re worth paying attention to,” said the longtime member of university Senate and Western’s Board of Governors.

That also includes Western’s governance structures, rituals and cultural and academic presence – some of which have roots in medieval Europe, some with roots in the British structure and others that are Western’s alone.

“I want to look at Western. I want to think about the different elements that make it unique among Canadian universities,” she said. “I want them to know the academic calendar. I want them to know the role of the affiliate (university) colleges.”

Along the way, students will read The Beggar Maid by Nobel Prize-winning alumna Alice Munro, LLD’76, whose setting for that short story includes a building not unlike University College where Munro studied. (“The college buildings were not old at all, but they were built to look old. They were built of stone. The Arts Building had a tower …”)

Students will also learn how different aspects of the university – student health services, codes of conduct and athletics, for example – stem from the structure and philosophy of the institution.

“I’m hoping what they get out of this is why you go to a university – and why go to this university,” Toswell said.