At a time when universities are attempting to respond to the demand for "job-ready" graduates with statistics proving their alumni's skills, one university has gladly chosen a humanities teacher and learner as its new president.
William Robins, a Chaucer expert whose research has focused on the development of medieval literature from popular story-telling to high art, will become the president of Victoria University in the University of Toronto.
Victoria will continue championing the humanities and their impact on the lives of students, said the professor of English and medieval studies, who takes over from Paul Gooch, president since 2001. "How do students understand their place in the world as they move into leadership positions? Part of understanding [that] is understanding the cultural history of their world," said Dr. Robins, who has been at UofT for 18 years.
Dr. Robins says he wants to expand the model of undergraduate education pioneered by Dr. Gooch through Vic One.
That program, begun over a decade ago, allows first-year students to take part in small discussion classes focused on several academic streams, from education to sciences. Since its inception, the model has expanded to every college at UofT.
Dr. Robins would like to bring the format, which caps class sizes at 25 students, to those in third and fourth years.
As universities grapple with budget cuts, small seminars are needed more than ever, he said.
"What we can do at Vic is to … emphasize the way discussion about ethics and other matters takes place more potently in a face-to-face environment."
His own academic research has mined the medieval art of story-telling and the leap from vernacular tales shared in taverns or town squares to written books.
"I like the students to think about how it is that we became modern and not to think of the world that we live in as the only way that the world could be. We arrived here through a variety of developments, including cultural developments," he said.
To help students understand the material, Dr. Robins draws analogies to their experience. He won an award for outstanding teaching in 2014.
"In the Middle Ages, you had a debate about story-telling – was it something that was serious, or was it something to do just for diversion? Now you have television. The Wire, The Sopranos are accepted as television art."
Victoria University is made up of Victoria College, which offers literature, semiotics and Renaissance studies among others; and Emmanuel College, a theological college of the United Church of Canada.