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‘We need to see other women in roles we might aspire to’

Four Concordia professors reflect on the past, present and future of teaching,
March 26, 2014
By Tom Peacock

From left: Arpi Hamalian, Ketra Schmitt, Alexandra Panaccio and Lorrie Blair.

In March, to mark International Women’s Day at Concordia, we launched a bimonthly series of published conversations with visionary leaders, teachers, researchers and community members.

This week, the series continues with four prominent teachers.

In her 40 years at Concordia, Arpi Hamalian has contributed in numerous ways to the university. She has served as chair of the Department of Education, director of the graduate programs in both Educational Studies and Adult Education, and principal of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute. A key player in the establishment of the Concordia University Faculty Association (CUFA), Hamalian also contributed to the development of the modern university network in Quebec for more than 25 years, and for the last four as President of the Fédération québécoise des professeurs et professeurs d’université (FQPPU).

Hamalian’s teaching practice is rooted in research related to life-long learning in comparative and international perspectives. She has been very active in the supervision of masters and doctoral students, as well as in many university and community service initiatives.

Alexandra Panaccio started out as a lawyer. However, a strong interest in business compelled her to return to university at HEC Montréal, where she earned an MBA.

Before accepting a job as an assistant professor in the Department of Management at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business in 2011, Panaccio spent two years studying leadership as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research focuses on leadership, workplace commitment, retention, performance and employee wellbeing.

Lorrie Blair, professor and acting chair in the Department of Art Education, came to academia after realizing her passion for teaching rivaled her love of art.

Inspired by graffiti, tattoos and other topics that motivate young people to learn about art, she teaches undergraduate courses in popular visual culture, Irish popular culture and pre-service teaching at the secondary-school level. In 2005, Blair received the Faculty of Fine Arts Distinguished Teaching Award.

Ketra Schmitt is an assistant professor in the Centre for Engineering in Society and director of Concordia’s Individualized Program. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on technology and policy issues that influence human health.

Prior to joining Concordia in 2008, Schmitt worked as a research assistant at the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, the world’s largest non-profit research and development organization.

Why did you choose a career in academia?

Arpi Hamalian: First and foremost, because of teachers who taught me to love learning.

While earning a BA in Business Administration and an MA in Sociology and Anthropology and during my doctoral studies in educational policy, I was lucky to hold research and teaching-assistant positions. My multidisciplinary background ensured me a job at Concordia as one of two professors hired for the new Educational Studies Program in 1974.

Alexandra Panaccio: It was really important for me to find a job that I loved and not just something I was reasonably good at or that I liked just enough. Both research and teaching fit that description.

I think most people in academia really love what they do. We have to be productive, but we have so much freedom and autonomy. What we teach is rarely imposed on us. Our interests are really taken into account.

Lorrie Blair: After a decade of teaching art to mostly apathetic teenagers, I was given the opportunity to teach a night course in psychology at a community college. My students were adult women who worked during the day and studied at night to become nurses. They were motivated to learn and this was my idea of teacher heaven.

Ketra Schmitt: When I was in my senior year of undergrad, a student advisor suggested I should become a professor, and that had always been the career I envisioned for myself.

At the time it seemed that I was being really unimaginative, so I actually looked hard for something I could be passionate about outside of the academy. I’ve worked as a health inspector, ran an accounting office, forecasted natural gas demand for a utility and performed statistical and systems analyses for clients in the U.S. government.

These jobs have given me some great experience, but being a professor is absolutely the best job I’ve ever had.

How did you end up in your field of study?

AH: Fluency in languages and a family background of forced migration and genocide survival led to my choice of adult education and lifelong learning as my field of study in comparative and international perspectives.

AP: During my MBA program at HEC, I realized I loved certain aspects of business, such as organizational behaviour and management, a lot more than others, such as finance or accounting. I was interested in a theoretical approach more than an applied approach, so it was a good fit with academia. I also liked the idea of teaching.

LB: Growing up, I had few female role models. Professional women were teachers and nurses. I didn’t know women doctors, lawyers or engineers. If I had, my path might have been different. But I have no regrets and feel incredibly fortunate to be engaged in the arts and to be a mentor for the next generation of teachers.

KS: I always knew I wanted to work on environmental and human health problems, and that the science and policy aspects of these were equally important. My undergraduate degree was in environmental sciences and policy — it was the perfect degree for my interests, but I didn’t have the quantitative skills I needed to get a job.

While I was studying for my MA in statistics, I found a PhD program in engineering and public policy. It gave me the tools to solve the problems I am passionate about.

As a professional and as a woman, who inspired you the most?

AH: To mention a few: Tunisian-born Fatima al-Fihri, who in 859 founded the degree-granting al-Karaouine University in Fes, Morocco, still in operation today; my sister, Sona Hamalian, for establishing the American University of Armenia (AUA) in 1991, in Yerevan, and as director of AUA’s Extension Program; my anthropology professor and mentor, Dr. Louise Sweet, a specialist of the Middle East; in Canada, the Famous Five; in Quebec, Madeleine Parent, a leading feminist and union organizer, and Carole Lafrance, a pioneer in the business world.

Loyalty, service orientation and determination characterize these women in their work and relationships.

AP: On a personal level, I would say my mother. She came from a pretty traditional Italian family where it was understood that guys would go to university but not girls. She did. She broke the mould of what was expected of her, and I think that was an inspiration to me.

LB: Barbara Houghton, chair of the art department at the university where I taught before coming to Concordia, inspired me most. She was strong, wise and fair. She broke down the hierarchy between junior and senior faculty, and stepped in to confront a bully. If someone makes a film about an academic superhero, she should play the role.

KS: I didn’t have female mentors until much later in my career. Perhaps that’s the reason I’ve never thought of mentors, or people’s achievements, in terms of gender. The sad truth, though, is that women have far less access to education and the workplace in many parts of the world, and even with high levels of access, women hold a surprisingly low number of leadership positions — 4.6 per cent of Fortune 500 and 1000 companies are run by women.

I’m profoundly grateful to the women who paved the way for people in my generation to work in places that are more equitable and offer opportunity to all. But while we have made much progress, we still have a long way to go.

Has the position of women in university teaching positions changed during your lifetime? If so, how?

AH: Not really — although there is more lip service to a “rhetoric of equality.” Women starting their careers should pay serious attention to preserving the few gains made, and learn to identify and change the structural and systemic barriers in order to maintain their status and quality of life and work.

AP: I saw certain changes, but mainly related to cultural differences. It’s really different in the States — there’s a lot more pressure for results. There’s really not a good work-life balance for both men and women, but it’s even harder for women because when you have kids it changes your balance. As a result, it’s a high-pressure environment.

LB: If I think back to when I was a student, much has changed. In 1975, women didn’t hold leadership positions and most of my professors were older men. By 1985, when I was studying for a master’s degree, my university began to hire younger women artists for tenure-track positions. Now, many women occupy leadership roles.

KS: We certainly have more female faculty members now, particularly in science and engineering.

What’s one way that universities could improve?

AH: Relentlessly defending academic freedom will be one way. Academic administrators should stop the trend of marginalizing departments and schools of education, where teachers who will nurture future philosophers and scientists are prepared.

They should rekindle questions of ethics of care and meaning and collegiality, as trustees accountable for the advancement of learning for a more peaceful and sustainable future.

AP: I think Concordia is doing so well. I don’t see anything that can be improved! From my perspective, my department and my faculty, while they’re very productive, very encouraging and motivating, they’re also very understanding, especially for people with kids. A lot of professors have children in my department. You don’t sense you’re perceived differently.

LB: People are working far too much. My colleague, David Pariser, told me when I was first hired that an academic career is a marathon, not a sprint. I think people are trying to sprint a marathon, and this is not healthy or sustainable. We must regain a balance between our work and our personal lives.

KS: Role models. We need to see other women in roles we might aspire to — as undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members and administrators.

Clearly, the gender gap in engineering — and STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields more generally — is set well before students reach university. But the women who do come to study engineering need to see a possible future for themselves embodied in graduate students and professors.

Read about four Concordia women who are leaders in academia.


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