Practising Academic Activism


Preparing students for university studies

Phyllis explains that much of her activism in both university and community came about because someone asked her to take on a particular task, rather than because she had a grand vision or plan of action for a better world. Her work with students whose first language was not English is a good example. Soon after she came to Memorial, a Geology professor asked if she would help an Asian graduate student who was having trouble with his English. At that time Memorial had no courses or programs in English as a Second Language (ESL) and she discovered the desperate need for such courses and other supports for overseas students and their families.

A few years later, in the early 1970s, three Innu students arrived from Labrador to attend Memorial, and Phyllis describes how she was asked at short notice to prepare and teach what may have been the first ESL course at Memorial. "I learned very quickly that the Innu students needed not just a course in language but in academic skills generally, and indeed in urban living," said Phyllis. Though she had no experience or training in ESL she set out to design and teach such a course. "I don't think I did a very good job," she acknowledged.

As she worked with her Innu students she learned more about inequalities and injustices faced by Aboriginals inside and outside the university. She became part of St. John's Native Support Group, which included anthropologists and other academics, Aboriginal people, activists from the community and anyone else interested in the issues and committed to change. Some members had devoted their lives to research in Aboriginal history, politics, policy development, language, culture and more. "The greatest immediate success of our support group," said Phyllis, "was persuading Leslie Harris, the university VP, to let us use a tiny unfurnished room in our well-named 'Temporary Buildings' as a Centre for Aboriginal Students. The students liked having their own space, and it was soon bursting at the seams. A few months later it moved to larger premises off campus, and became the first Native Friendship Centre in the city, with staff, resources, programs and eventually accommodation." It is now an important centre for Aboriginal people throughout the province.

From 1965, when Phyllis started working at Memorial, she realized it was not only international and aboriginal students who were inadequately prepared for university. Many other students needed help to upgrade their skills if they were to succeed. As an English professor, Phyllis was especially concerned to offer programs in writing, academic writing in particular. Phyllis said, "At that time students were expected to sink or swim. The university took no responsibility for helping those from small, poorly equipped schools, or with other academic challenges." There were always a few professors who were dedicated to helping students in their own classes, but it was a hit-or-miss affair, and many smart, dedicated, ambitious students missed out. So Phyllis helped set up the innovative Foundation Program, giving an extra, introductory semester of non-credit courses for students who needed them. A whole new structure for incoming students was designed and approved, with Phyllis planning and teaching a course in basic academic writing.

Women's studies development

Later she and a few colleagues introduced second-year courses in what was called "Composition, Writing and Prose Style." Her best students in these classes wanted more writing courses. "Good idea," said Phyllis. "Let's do it." She and her keenest students got together and designed a course on "Gender and Writing." She worked with them to decide on readings, assignments, grading system, and scheduling. In 1992 the course was offered as a pilot, and listed as an optional credit towards the Minor in Women's Studies. (It's still regularly offered). As teacher of this course Phyllis became a member of the interdisciplinary Women's Studies Council and attended regular Council meetings.

What a contrast with English department meetings! I felt I had come home," said Phyllis "[to] a place where I felt comfortable talking about issues of justice, and how best to address these in our teaching. We'd sit around the WS Council table and talk about our own experiences of gender inequities at Memorial: unequal pay, unfair procedures for tenure and promotions, lack of funding to attend women's conferences and do feminist research, and more. We'd discuss gender issues beyond Memorial and how to address these in our classes. We brought our issues to Faculty Council, the faculty association, the university administration, and to feminist organizations such as the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW) and the St. John's Status of Women Committee (SJSWC)."

Phyllis started to teach core WS courses, learning as she went from colleagues such as Roberta Buchanan in English, Marilyn Porter and Barb Neis in Sociology, and Joan Scott in Biology, and from students in WS classes, many of whom were active in women's shelters and other feminist spaces in the community. She told Liz: "I was impressed by their courage and commitment. Some were single mothers supporting their children while getting a degree, but they somehow found time to volunteer to help abused women."

In 1993 a new opportunity arose for Phyllis when the WS coordinator resigned at short notice. No one else wanted the job, Phyllis was asked to do it, and she agreed to take it on. "In fact," she says, "that's pretty typical for much of my activism in the community as well as the university. I don't see myself as particularly innovative or visionary. Often my engagement was triggered by an invitation from someone who approached me and asked directly for help," as mentioned above in her accounts of her work with Aboriginal students, and with students wanting her to introduce a course focusing on gender. "I think of myself as someone who steps up to the plate to do a job that needs to be done. I'm usually not interested in competing for a job that others want to do, especially if I think they're well qualified for it."