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Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Arts
October 28, 2016
Canadian Excellence

Twenty-Six Years with the Department of Geography - Helen Parson

By Dr. Helen Parson

A Selective View

Helen E. Parson

In the spring of 1975, I sent my CV to the Department of Geography at Wilfrid Laurier University. In reply I received the standard “don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you” letter. I was, therefore, quite surprised when Russell Muncaster, the Geography chairman, actually called. John Lewis, it seems, had given three weeks notice and gone off to work in the real world. At the end of a brief meeting, Russell told me that I could have a position as lecturer – for a year – provided that I taught John’s resource management courses. With considerable apprehension concerning those courses, I accepted.

With the position, I inherited John Lewis’s oversized executive desk which I managed to hang onto for about a week before it was whisked away for someone more senior. I inherited his courses. These remained a problem for several years until they were gradually replaced by ones I was somewhat more qualified to teach. And I inherited his office, 3E2, which became my second home for the next 26 years. Here I survived falling ceiling tiles, water leaks, great clouds of a mystery dust that wafted sporadically from the ventilation system, several paint jobs, the major remodelling that reshaped the entire floor, and the room renumbering that turned my 3E2 into what is now 3E3. I also inherited a shared phone extension with Bruce Young next door in 3E1 (now 3E2). This was long before voice mail and we tried a series of signalling systems to get the other’s attention (tapping/hammering on the wall, yelling, a buzzer). Much of the time Bruce, whose filing system involved determining the angle of repose of the papers dumped randomly on his desk, couldn’t find his phone let alone the buzzer. Needless to say, in those early years when I answered, callers usually assumed I was his secretary. I was not amused.

In 1975 there were 12 faculty members in the department – John McMurry, Gunars Subins, Herb Whitney, Jerry Hall, Ian McKay, Russell Muncaster, Al Hecht, Bruce Young, Grant Head, Barry Boots, Houston Saunderson and me. In 1976 Ken Hewitt was hired to make it 13. The 13 of us who made up the Geography Department in 1976 all stayed for the long term – we are referred to as the “old guard” in some circles. Over the ten years following 1976, many others came and went mostly on short term contracts. It was not until 1986 that the next person who has stayed – Mike English – arrived. He was followed by Gordon Young, Bob Sharpe, Scott Slocomb and, in 1991, my first female colleague Mary-Louise Byrne. Mary-Lou, as will become clear below, arrived much better prepared for her first fall field camp than I had for mine 16 years earlier.

The third year field camp has always been an important event in this department. In the past, when most faculty members went to field camp every year, it was good for departmental morale. We went to some great locations although my older colleagues would have you believe that the very best field camps happened before 1975. No, I wasn’t at any of the Algonquin Park field camps; nor was I on the train to Moosonee although I have heard so much about these trips that I sometimes think I must have been there. My first field camp, which I approached with trepidation in the fall of 1975, was on Manitoulin Island. I survived. The following two years field camp was held at Stony Lake. By then I was looking forward to them.

Debates about the purpose, structure, and requirements of field camp were on-going. In 1978 the department decided that, in addition to the usual academic and social objectives, third year field camp should also expose the students to a new cultural environment. We decided to go to Quebec City; somehow I found myself in the position of organizer. We went by train and stayed in a little hotel called Chateau Laurier near the Quebec legislature. Maybe the mixture of Laurier students with those members of the Legislature that used this hotel as their home away from home was not the ideal arrangement – it was particularly less than ideal the night the students had a toga party and ran through what passed for a lobby. However, the cultural experience was very good for our students most of whom knew so little about Quebec when the trip began.

The next year we opted for quite a different cultural experience and went to the Petawawa Forest Station. In fact the culture here was so remarkable that we went back for three years in a row. After a hard day slogging through the bush or driving the back roads in search of abandoned farms, the faculty would occasionally regroup in the evening at a bar out on the highway where country singer “Nicole from North Bay” belted out the tunes. You don’t find culture like this just anywhere. However, deciding that beer comprised rather too much of the cultural experience, we opted to move on. For the next five years we went back to Quebec City staying each time at Maison Acadienne inside the wall. Grant Head, determined that we should really get into the local scene, would strike out early and bring back a massive supply of croissants for all. As a rural geographer, I got to know the fascinating landscape of Ile d’Orléans quite well. We all struggled along in our varying degrees of indifferent French. Quebec City was good for all of us.

Camps in Montreal, Ottawa, Collingwood followed; the cultural component was waning. In 1991 we went to the Haileybury/New Liskard area. Mary-Lou, newly hired, was with us on this one and, as a physical geographer, she obviously had insight into the field experience that I had lacked in 1975. Mary-Lou showed up with a massive bottle of fine Scotch that she claimed she had won for guessing the excessive number of overheads used to illustrate a presentation she had recently attended. Scotch as culture? Works for me!

In the spring of 2001 I cleaned 26 years worth of stuff out of my office. One of the disadvantages of a large office is that you don’t have to throw things out – I had a lot of stuff, really well organized stuff. Every single course evaluation over the years had given me high marks for organization. Of course, those same evaluations never gave me the perfect 7.0 I deserved on the “attends class regularly and arrives promptly” question so they remain suspect. Yes, I still had all those course evaluations, as well as minutes of committees long defunct, volumes of lecture notes, mark sheets back to 1975, great quantities of student documents relating to my 15 years as Undergraduate Officer, and 26 years of department meeting minutes. Most of this stuff went straight to the shredder but, out of curiosity to see how things had changed, I skimmed through the minutes. I quickly realized that you could shuffle the years around and, for the most part, no one would be the wiser. The issues remained the same although the minutes got longer. When Lillian Peirce, long-time department secretary who retired in 1984, was doing them they were usually a page in length, rarely two. She regularly used the phrase “after much discussion” and then neatly summed up the outcome.

There has been change of many types over the years. The department is now much bigger; women are more fairly represented; there is more red tape: there are more variations of the original Honours Geography program; the personal computer for all has replaced the big typewriters on which Lillian and her assistant would so accurately pound out not only all departmental documents and minutes but also each faculty member’s course outlines, research papers and other requirements. But as well, the strong sense of collegiality that characterized the department in the past has eroded over the years; the demands of the job are more rigorous; everything is more serious. The open-door policy that we all practiced is history. Security concerns mean that no one goes to meetings or classes and leaves their door open or even unlocked. Students can’t drop by anytime; office hours are strictly defined and limited.

It was a fabulous 26 years but I am pleased to have retired (early!) when I did. I worked with a great group of people who gave a lot to the Department of Geography (and Environmental Studies). We still all get together from time to time to laugh about many things. Funny how often the field camps come up.