‘Be fearless and be yourself’: Faflak wins OCUFA teaching award

Award-winning professor Joel Faflak teaches 18th-century Romantic poetry. (Western News file photo)

Joel Faflak’s faculty profile will tell you he teaches British Romantic poetry of the 18th century.

But he will tell you – and his students and colleagues will attest – that Faflak’s primary aim is to teach to the soul, to their humanity itself.

Knowledge, intellectual rigour, critical thought all are important, he says. Essential, even. But Faflak is also convinced they’re not enough: that we too often draw rigid lines between the soft spaces of intellectual and experiential; practicality and creativity, education and life.

That belief led him to launch a raft of university-community collaborations as inaugural director of the interdisciplinary School for Advanced Studies in the Arts and Humanities (SASAH), from 2012 to 2017.

And it also persuaded Faflak that, for him at least, teaching with authenticity entails getting personal: “I gradually realized that who I was as a human being was, above all, probably the most important thing I was bringing into the classroom and that I shouldn’t be scared to bring that in. I think that makes what you’re doing in the classroom more real and more relevant for the students – and it gives them the license and the agency in turn to be who they are, and to discover who they are.”

Faflak, awarded numerous honours through more than two decades at Western and a sought-after lecturer, is newly named one of Ontario’s most outstanding university teachers by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA).

The award recognizes the most exceptional instructors from among more than 17,000 professors and academic librarians in 30 faculty associations across Ontario.

“My colleagues, my department, my faculty and Western have been wonderful. They’ve been congratulatory and I’m very glad to be here,” Faflak said. “But above all, it’s for the students, and if I won the award it is because of them.”

Arts & Humanities dean Michael Milde said the award is richly deserved. “Joel Faflak is a gifted, charismatic teacher. As the founding director of the Faculty’s School for Advanced Studies in the Arts and Humanities, Joel led the creation of a unique interdisciplinary program that is fully engaged with the community – and he continues to model the creativity and resilience that are its hallmarks.”

The OCUFA award letter quotes testimonials from students who say Faflak’s lectures, and approach to university and life, have helped shape who they are. He in turn credits his parents, who lived through the deprivations of the Depression and the Second World War. “They pushed me to be better and they gave me all the opportunities that I’ve ever had.”

Faflak’s adult life in academia was punctuated, like a subordinate clause, by a seven-year stint as an entrepreneur.

Joel Faflak

Award-winning professor Joel Faflak teaches 18th-century Romantic poetry

And although he returned to academia when he realized business wasn’t where his heart lay, the experience showed him how critical it is that the university connect community and classroom, heart and scholarship, leadership and passion, failure and success.

Converting that philosophy into the immersive arts and humanities experience that became SASAH “was the biggest learning experience I’ve ever had. I was given the opportunity to just turn the classroom and the school into a complete laboratory.”

Faflak also said English professor Ross Woodman, a Western icon who taught him a third-year Romantics course and later became a mentor and friend, inspired his classroom teaching like no one else. “He would simply walk into a room, open his book on the lectern and just start talking to us for two hours every week. And it was charismatic. Ross, quite apart from knowing the poetry backwards and forwards, just grabbed everything that was around him: his personal life, the movies he’d seen when he was very young, other pieces of literature that you knew. Art, music, everything, it all came into play.

“That, more than anything, turned my life around and opened a door that has never shut. I learned fearlessness from him: If we can’t be ourselves, as cliché or corny as that sounds, well, what are we doing here? (Now) I say to others, ‘be fearless and be yourself.’”

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