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Dr. Noreen Golfman on tension within universities, wellbeing, student support, film festivals, and the challenge of change.

Chelsea Parker

Chelsea Parker

Feb 16, 2022

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Noreen Golfman, former Provost and Vice-President Academic at Memorial University in St. John’s Newfoundland and inaugural member of our Academic Advisory Board in Canada. During our conversation, we discussed some of the many accomplishments of her academic career, advice for young people keen to work in academia, and her incredible work in supporting women in film. 

Dr. Golfman at Cape Spear, in her home province of Newfoundland & Labrador

Dr. Golfman’s most recent position at Memorial University served two roles, Provost and Vice-President, overseeing university-wide programs and setting goals and priorities for the school.  Dr. Golfman was also Dean of Graduate Studies, overseeing the large growth of international graduate students and initiatives to encourage equity, diversity, and inclusion at all of Memorial’s campuses. 

What inspired or spurred your career in academia?

I really never left school. I guess I've always been one of those people who love to read and liked to be around other students. I loved my teachers very early on. I was very encouraged by my family and it was inevitable that I would end up being an academic or a teacher of some kind. I was encouraged by some really important teachers in my life, high school and professors, and I just kept going - It was a very organic part of my whole development, personal and professional.

Dr. Golfman (bottom left) representing Memorial University at a recruitment event in China

What initially drew you to your field of specialism?

My specialty opened up into film studies, which I've claimed as the dominant area of my research and teaching. When I started out there were no film studies programs in Canada and I loved reading, so it seemed like the best thing to do would be follow my interests and my passion.

I ended up as an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal, where I was born, raised, and educated early on. I had a number of inspiring professors and ended up in an honours English program. That program was rather experimental at the time, and it was opening up into media film studies. It was really an early field and wasn't even a discipline yet. Many English departments in North America, and some in the UK, just started extending their canon into the study of story on film, not just stories and fiction.

I've always loved going to the movies. I came again from a family that was really avid, ardent about film, and again, one thing led to another. I ended up having a parallel learning, and then active teaching and research and career in both literature and film, and both of those areas clustered around Canadian fiction, Canadian writing, and Canadian films.

What have been some highlights of your academic career?

There are many! It's hard to name, even just a small handful, because I really, really feel lucky about having had this career. It's a very privileged one and there are far fewer low moments and there are high moments day after day.  Getting my doctorate - huge highlight, huge accomplishment. Getting my first tenure track job, getting my first article published - the milestones of an academic career.

But overall, I would say it's my experience in the classroom teaching film because the response from film students is always immediate. Everybody has seen the film. We've usually seen the film together, and so we have this kind of shared experience. With film, you have an immediate audience in the classroom.

And I would say, an overriding continuous highlight of my career was teaching, talking about film and learning from my students about their reactions to the films I was teaching. I ended up becoming very close friends with many of those students over the years and across generations, working with them on film festivals and film projects. It's been a very integrative happy, extended highlight of my career.

Dr. Golfman (right) at the House of Assembly in Newfoundland, receiving the ACTRA Woman of the Year award

What role do you think universities and higher institutions play in modern society?

I think it's something that most of us think about quite a bit because it's a question that drove us into academic life in the first place - a sense of making contribution through teaching and sharing ideas with colleagues, writing about our research and our ideas, and having that field of activity be relevant to whatever might have been going on in one historic moment.

The challenge to post-secondary education today is that it needs to change. It tends to be institutionally very conservative in the Western world and is reluctant to shift or expand thinking about what students today require or need or how they should be directed in terms of knowledge creation. And it's an ongoing conversation, but the institution itself is generally slow to change, and I understand that it's a very comfortable place to be when you're in stride with it.

But it has some huge challenges, and public funding has been withdrawn across the world from post-secondary education institutions. And so, there are challenges about how to keep the level and quality of teaching and learning when your funding is being cut. So being relevant is a big, big question. And then by that consideration of tension between serving a marketplace that is demanding certain kind of skills and serving the need for knowledge creation in itself. I don't think these are necessarily oppositional, but that tension is always been there in university life and the question of how to be relevant changes depending on what the market is demanding and what students themselves are asking of their own education.

In your opinion, what opportunities currently exist for institutions?

I think for the last 10 to 15 years, there's been a kind of inching or creeping of interest in micro-credentialing. It's really hard for universities to accommodate because we're so locked into our semester structures of examination, of evaluation, and movement through the institutions towards a degree.

Again, institutions tend to be kind of rigid by definition, almost in practice. We are seeing a shift coming largely because students, and what we used to call non-traditional learners, who may have graduated a while ago want to retool themselves are making demands on our institutions for new ways of acquiring knowledge and certificate certification validation for the skills that are acquiring. I think it's a good thing, but I don't think we've completely figured out where our responsibilities can extend.

And again, much of it has to do with the economics of labor itself and the limits of what's possible. So if you have to acquire a whole new set of labor practices, are you taking it away from core programming? And then you have to question whether your core programming itself is still relevant and worthy? These are the kind of things that consume administrators at universities all the time, as well as vice-presidents and provosts.

What would you say is an opportunity that universities have to continue pivoting in terms of learning strategies?

There's a tension that exists, certainly for most of my career, and that was between traditional disciplines and more interdisciplinary ways of programming. Coming from literature and then eventually going into media studies, film studies, and cultural studies, I've always been a big advocate for that  cluster of craft and interdisciplinary fields.

I’ve been a supporter for loosening of disciplinary boundaries and more encouragement of a kind of programming that brings students from one small part of the university into an engaged learning experience with others from somewhere else from the university students might not normally encounter.

I think that's increasingly the way we need to go to give students, not necessarily a more shallow range, but certainly a wider broader range of options in their learning. It's hard to do. Institutions are very disciplined- based and the whole way in which we're structured depends so much on the traditional system, which is now over 150 years old. But the pressure starts to graduate school and then trickles down into undergraduate learning to have more cross-pollination cross-fertilization, I think results in some really good change at university. I think that's an ongoing challenge but a necessary one.

I've known so many over the years who started in one discipline and then accidentally or maybe unknowingly found themselves in a subject they didn't think that they would be interested in or knew much about, and ended up majoring or shifting across campus into another area. But I don't think we necessarily create the pathways that allow that to happen more organically.

Convocation ceremony with student (crop)-jpg

Dr. Golfman with a student at a Memorial University convocation ceremony

Have you seen the importance of supporting student wellbeing increase throughout your career?

I've seen a change quite radically in the last decade, certainly. I think the resources that universities have had in place to deal with mental health, anxiety concerns just weren't there before. They weren't there when I was an undergraduate or when I was a grad student. You were really on your own. I think, just in general, there's a kind of social acceptance of expressing more kinds of anxiety.

I've seen that in my own institution, and I directly supported when I was Provost and Vice President, Academic. The Office of Student Counselling went from a small unit that was isolated relatively from the rest of campus, to what is now really a central site of interaction both virtually and in-person for students and communicating with the student body letting them know that service is there. It has been a really important first step because a lot of students wouldn't even realize that there was any kind of resource for them. What has also changed is the investment in student wellbeing. Financial investment has been really considerable across the board at just about any institution I know of, and certainly at mine.

What are your thoughts on the current state of student support at institutions?

I think the demand has grown. It is a bit of a chicken and egg. But the more students are aware that resources exist, the more they might be tapped. And I think what's happened is awareness over the last several years to work those resources to grow to support domestic or local students and international students different needs.  

International students might be coming from a culture where seeking that kind of counselling is not 'cool' or not appropriate or not encouraged. There are students in need who just haven't thought that help is right for them. I've seen this on my own campus. Special attention needs to be given to different groups of students. 

A number of years ago, I took a trip with vice presidents from across Canada to Scandinavian countries to study their systems. When we went to Sweden,  I remember my peers over there at several universities being quite surprised that our government itself didn't provide resources to citizens, visitors or students. Their universities were not investing in the same way we were at our institutions because the state was already doing it. That was news to me and showed me the different ways in which we've been responding. Those kinds of resources tend to be very localized, where workplace or learning centre we happen to be inhabiting, not necessarily part of a larger social resource, which perhaps it should be.

I think there's always room for reviewing student support resources, thinking them through and getting lots of feedback from the user groups about how effective they've been. We need to reflect back to the university how resources have been serving our student populations. 

Outside of the classroom, where does your passion lie?

33 years ago, I fell voluntarily into a project which was showing a bunch of films here in St. John's at a repertory theatre which showcased productions of plays more than film. The response to that evening, which featured a bunch of films made by women,  was hugely enthusiastic. My colleague at the time was working with the National Film Board and suggested that we do it again.

30 years later,  the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival is the second longest-running women’s film festival in the world. I'm an honorary board member, but I passed the reins of the leadership after 30 years to a new generation to continue the success of the festival. It's normally a five day festival and happens in October every year. It's been a huge, huge source of joy and stimulus and energy and passion in my life.

I'm very proud of it – it has probably been the most satisfying, you might say extracurricular thing I've done, but it's been integrated into my teaching and research career because I've learned so much from the films that we've curated at the festival, and especially about the emergence of women behind the camera, not just women in front of the camera.

Dr. Golfman (middle) at the opening night of the St. John's Women's Film Festival 

What advice would give to students probably entering their first year or younger undergraduate students?

I would say don't worry about committing yourself to one thing. I think I was lucky enough to be an undergraduate, at a time where the pressure to define one's whole life going forward, or to identify oneself with a career track, really didn't exist in quite the same way I think it does today. Expectations are different from the ones my parents had and now more focused on the necessity to define oneself earlier, the pressure of the labour force, or all of the above.

I would advise students, especially in early years, to follow your passion. Study what you want. Leave lots of room for failure, or at least changing your mind. That is really old, familiar advice, but I really believe that deeply.

I've always said to students who are very distraught about not doing well, try to relax. Maybe it just means you don't like it very much and have to rethink other options for yourself. Don't be that hard on yourself. Don't put that pressure on yourself.

Those early years should be really free of that kind of pressure and outside of the pressure of exams, doing papers, or other evaluative benchmarks, try to enjoy it, embrace it, learn, and don't let it defeat you.

What drew you to getting involved with Studiosity?

It was an invitation I could not refuse. When I looked into the mission and mandate of Studiosity, I realized it was so student-centric and so globally focused. It had a really elegant, simple approach to serving students, and I thought being involved was a great way for me to continue my interests and commitment to education, and I really applaud the leadership it chose.

I've been trying to reach out to students all over the world to help them in their experience, going through what's often a very difficult and anxiety filled path towards self-improvement, towards wellness, towards bettering everything. And yeah, and I think the team at Studiosity really appealed to me and connecting with them just seemed very natural, easy and I've been inspired.

It's heartening to see that a lot of students availing themselves to the services. I wish I have had that. I can think of a lot of long, lonely weeks trying to figure things out on my own and being too shy to ask anybody for help. I didn't think there was anybody to ask.

Dr. Golfman (top middle) participating in Studiosity's Staff in Mind Symposium, March 2021

Dr-Noreen-Golfman-AAB-Studiosity-200-133Dr. Golfman is a literature and film studies scholar, media writer, commentator, and actor, and was named the 2020 Woman of the Year by the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists.  She was a two-term president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and President of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, and founder of the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival.

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A big thank you to Dr. Noreen Golfman for sharing her passions, stories, and words of advice and encouragement. You can read interviews with other members of Academic Advisory Board, here.

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