The classical literature Carol Off studied at Western more than 40 years ago was on her mind while reporting from war zones, writing each of her books and during 16 years at the helm of the CBC Radio show As It Happens.
The veteran journalist and award-winning author – known by Canadians coast to coast for the thousands of incisive interviews she led on the popular current affairs show – is returning to Western to teach in the School for Advanced Studies in the Arts and Humanities (SASAH).
It’s a meaningful role for Off, BA’81, LLD’17, who credits her time at Western with not only jump-starting her journalism career but providing a crucial base of knowledge she’s used every day since.
She called her English language and literature degree “an extraordinary opportunity.”
“I just felt so privileged to spend those four years in humanities, learning English literature and being challenged and questioned. What I learned in studying literature and humanities, I use every single day. As a journalist I drew on that knowledge every single day,” Off said.
Reading Greek classics, she learned about war. From John Keats and William Butler Yeats, history.
“Understanding how people think and how they operate – I got that from English literature,” Off said. “I would be covering wars around the world and I would remember Achilles (from the Iliad). I just don’t know how I could have done As it Happens without having that grounding.”
She began her journalism career writing for Western’s student newspaper, the Western Gazette, later working with the country’s public broadcaster, reporting from all over the world.
Off has been busy since she signed off from As It Happens almost two years ago. Her class at Western will be based on her newest book, At a Loss for Words: Why We Can’t Talk to Each Other, due to be released in fall 2024.
The fourth-year capstone course, called Endangered Words, will explore the weaponization of language, including words that have become especially polarized – even contaminated – such as liberty, equality, freedom and democracy.
Each week Off will introduce a new word to the class, prompting reflection on those terms as well as others of the students’ own choosing.
“Words have meaning. Words have an effect on people – they can be used to hurt people, to open a conversation or shut it down. We don’t have the language to have civil conversations anymore, because our key political language has been stolen and weaponized and turned upside down.” – Carol Off, former CBC journalist and visiting lecturer at Western
The course will focus on reclaiming those words.
“I want to make the students conscious of language and words. To hear the words around them, and know these have a history, a strength and power. There’s a need to agree on what they mean, to move forward,” Off said.
Unique program drives tight-knit classes
The fourth-year SASAH capstone is led each year by a visiting lecturer. It also includes an individual research project and a group project, but both are designed by the students, under the supervision of SASAH director Aara Suksi.
“The whole idea is that the students, who have been pursuing an arts and humanities interdisciplinary program for four years, will now, as they step out into the world, have someone from the world step into their classroom,” said Suksi, who is also a classical studies professor.
“We are very excited that our students will have the opportunity to be exposed to the mind and experiences of this woman who has traveled the world, worked in war zones, interviewed hundreds of people and has such a continuously curious brain and open mind.”
SASAH, which launched in 2013, is based on small class sizes, with a cohort of about 25 students journeying through the interdisciplinary program – while completing another major – during their degree.
The unique program accepts a small number of students straight out of high school each year after an essay and interview application process. It’s a diverse and tight-knit class with a variety of skills and areas of expertise – the group Off is teaching includes an award-winning poet and a professional ice skater.
“We’re looking for students who have wide-ranging intellectual interests and who are looking for collaboration and community experience. At this point, they’ve all done internships, they’ve all done majors alongside SASAH. They’ve accumulated quite a lot of skill, especially after that community-engaged work, by the time they get to fourth year,” Suksi said.
She is moved “to tears” to see what the students produce each year, she said.
During the first half of the year, their work culminated in an exhibit about time that was displayed in the University Community Centre.
“Queer time, crip time, gendered time, all different kinds of cultural experiences of time – it had them all thinking about the conversation they had on the first day of class about how there’s never enough time,” Suksi said.
“Knowing the students as I do, I’m just really excited to see what they’ll come up with, as a result of what Carol brings to the classroom.”
Off brings ‘slices of humanity’ from reporting career
After decades telling stories from across the globe, Off has collected what she calls “wonderful little slices of humanity.”
She’ll bring those slices and the knowledge she gleaned from those interviews – serious and silly, from daring life-or-death moments of rescue to the knitting group making sweaters for chickens – as she returns to Western to teach the next generation.
“They were sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, sometimes scary and sometimes heroic, but they were all little shards of the human condition. Nothing gives you more of those shards than reading. I encourage everyone to read,” Off said.
Her current picks include Sarah Polley’s memoir, Run Towards the Danger – Polley shared the same message with graduates at a June 2023 convocation ceremony after receiving an honourary degree from Western – The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone and work by Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen.
Now with time to read exactly what she wants – rather than endlessly for work – Off said it’s the advice she gives to everyone.
“Read broadly, read widely, read deeply. Read with pleasure.”
Much has changed since Off graduated from Western in 1981. The payphones dotting campus have disappeared, she pointed out with a laugh.
But she’s noticed weightier differences, too, like a more diverse campus and a priority placed on safety.
Off recalled the emphasis on male culture in the 1970s, with few female authors highlighted in her classes and just one woman professor during her four-year degree. The annual bridal show that once took over the University Community Centre has since been replaced by women entrepreneurs, experts and activists sharing their passions with the university community.
“You can’t imagine how different this is. You think, ‘that was then, this is now.’ But it’s not a long period of time. I’ve seen what happens when you do push the limits,” Off said.
“I feel privileged being able to be on a campus with the diversity that I see here today.”