by Daniel McCabe
In recent years, the Department of Education in the Arts and the Department of Religion and Philosophy in Education were having their problems. Relatively small units to begin with, both departments were hit hard by retirements and by a hiring freeze that made it almost impossible to replace the scholars who left. The next few years didn't look too promising.
Today, the professors from those two departments are contemplating a much rosier future. They've joined forces and created the brand new Department of Culture and Values in Education-a move which they say is charging their academic activities with a new vitality.
"Obviously this was done in part to deal with dwindling resources," says the new department's chair, Professor William Lawlor, formerly a religion and philosophy in education professor. "But there is more to it than that. If we were just making the most of a bad deal, there wouldn't be the sense of excitement around here that there is."
The new department was formally approved by the Board of Governors in a recent meeting and it has been offering undergraduate and graduate courses since September. It isn't just professors from Education in the Arts or from Religion and Philosophy in Education who've joined the new unit. Professor David Smith, an expert on pacifism and intercultural education who used to belong to the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, has become the new department's director of graduate studies. Professors Ratna Ghosh and Jing Lin, from the Department of Administration and Policy Studies in Education, are now members of Lawlor's department as well.
"Professors Ghosh and Lin were in a department where the majority of people were concerned with administrative issues, whereas they are both interested in cultural issues and gender issues. I think they feel this department is a better fit for their areas of research," says colleague Boyd White, former chair of Education in the Arts.
According to Lawlor, the expertise now present in the new department should help students receive a more varied and comprehensive schooling. The department trains instructors who will work in primary and secondary school settings. These days, a high school teacher in charge of a course on morality would be hard-pressed to avoid issues of culture and gender
"We used to bounce ideas off each other in an informal way, but now we're talking about setting up colloquiums and about joint research projects," says White.
One of the first collaborations has been a new undergraduate course team-taught by Ghosh, White and former religion and philosophy in education professor Stanley Nemiroff. "It's an experiment in multiple perspectives and the sort of thing we'll want to try out," explains White.
Smith believes most graduate students are excited by the increased possibilities for interdisciplinary studies offered by the new department. "There has been over a 20% increase in graduate enrolment in anticipation of this move," says Smith.
The changes have also led to some casualties. The Department of Education in the Arts used to offer programs aimed at giving artists who taught others a chance to hone their creative abilities. To a large extent, that is gone. "There used to be a strong component in studio art practice. I don't see that taking place now. From now on we'll be concentrating on more traditional theses at the graduate level. Students will focus on art education rather than on their own artistic development," says White.
Lawlor says many of his old colleagues had mixed feelings about the change.
"The word 'religion' didn't survive in the new title and some people from the old department feel badly about that," says Lawlor. Still, he believes the shift to Culture and Values in Education will help encourage new ways of looking at religious education.
"Traditionally we had very explicit programs designed to train teachers who could teach Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism. We're trying to have those programs communicate with one another more, to be more integrated." It's a move that makes sense in an increasingly pluralistic society and one which the new combinations of expertise in the department can help foster. "This isn't happening in any other school."
Lawlor says the changes were planned over two years and that all the members of the new department had a large say. "Our departments and our interests were interconnected to begin with," says Lawlor. "There is a natural interplay when you talk about the study of culture and values. It's healthier not to handle them in isolation from one another.
"I've been here for 35 years and I've never seen a change of this magnitude carried out so quickly and smoothly."
Indeed, White says the process isn't over yet. "It's sort of snowballing. For instance, Concordia has some very good offerings in art education and we're talking to them. Can we share courses? Who would be best suited to teach in certain areas? We're prepared to go beyond our own walls to create the best programs. We're also looking at possible links to the Faculty of Music."
There could well be more mergers in the Faculty of Education. Having lost Ghosh and Lin, the Department of Administration and Policy Studies in Education is currently carrying on discussions with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
As the University grapples with its financial woes, department mergers are being considered as one way to cope with shrinking resources. Merging departments is a controversial notion to begin with-many scholars are wary of what they might entail. A merger that didn't work well would likely make subsequent ones much more difficult to achieve.
"There is no question that people are watching us," says Lawlor. "Is this just expediency or are we trying something interesting here? The administration has been supportive, but this isn't something they've forced on us. This is the solution that we came up with for ourselves."