York Circle expands its intellectual offerings for curious minds

At 77 years of age, Elizabeth Pitt is heading back to school and she couldn’t be happier. A grandmother of a York University fine arts student, Pitt is a member of the York Circle, a legacy initiative of York University’s 50th anniversary.

The York Circle is an ongoing program that offers curious people like Pitt an opportunity to experience university lectures first-hand. It was created for parents and family of York students, alumni, neighbours and friends who want to hear leading York faculty explore their ideas and research.

Right: The York Circle offers an opportunity for non-students to hear lectures by York faculty

Pitt is among more than 500 people who have joined the York Circle since it began last October and says that she appreciates the opportunity to experience University life because she was never able to realize her own dream of attending university. "When I was growing up in Britain, the country was just coming out of the Second World War," she says. "The soldiers lucky enough to survive were offered priority spots in university programs. There were very few spots left for everyone else. I was not able to attend university and instead studied to become a children’s nurse. This program offers a great chance for me to experience university."

Coordinated by York President Emerita Lorna Marsden and Cynthia Bettcher, special adviser to Jennifer Sloan, vice-president of university relations, with help from York’s Alumni Office and print media sponsors Toronto Community News and York Region Media Group, the York Circle embodies the spirit, energy and intellectual excellence of the University’s 50th anniversary, which was celebrated in 2009. 

Left: York University alumnus and York Circle member Bart Zemanek (BA Spec. Hons. ’07, MSc ’10) with Lorna Marsden

For Marsden, the York Circle offers a wonderful opportunity to transport the magic of York’s talented faculty into the University’s affiliated communities. “The York Circle comes from the goal of making our really marvelous faculty members better known through their ideas and work, and helps the community to better understand the University,” says Marsden. “The York Circle offers serious talks for lay people who don’t have the opportunity to attend lectures.”

The circle offers a cross-section of York’s leading professors and researchers presenting talks on topics that are current and engaging. Twice a year, the circle’s membership gathers on York’s Keele campus for a full day of lectures and a complimentary locally sourced (locavore) lunch. The inaugural event took place last fall. On May 1, the York Circle returned, bringing more than 150 members back to the Keele campus.

Right: There is no generation gap here. York Circle member Irina Shoikhedbrod brought her son, York political science master’s student Igor Shoikhedbrod, to the May 1 event

The October launch event featured lectures by Faculty of Health Dean Harvey Skinner, astronomy Professor Paul Delaney and theatre Professor Phillip Silver.

The May 1 event repeated the format established by the inaugural event and offered lectures by four York faculty. The morning sessions featured presentations by film Professor Seth Feldman and psychology Professor Debra Pepler. Feldman talked about his experience working for a year on a documentary about Charles Darwin and about why Darwin matters and how the noted scientist means different things to different people. Pepler spoke about how the patterns of power and aggression established in playground bullying move on to become sexual harassment and dating violence in adolescence and workplace harassment in adulthood.

Left: Professor Seth Feldman talks about his research and experience making a documentary on Charles Darwin 

Following lunch, the York Circle members listened to talks by Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Allan Hutchinson and Schulich School of Business Professor Bernard Wolf. Hutchinson delivered an energetic lecture about some of the great cases that shaped the legal world. Wolf talked about the aftermath of the most recent economic crisis, the resulting ballooning national debts and the implications of the economic health of the United States, Greece and Spain on the global community.

Videos of each of the presentations are available on the York Circle Web site.

The response to the York Circle events have been heartwarming, says Bettcher. “Seventy-two per cent of those who attended the May 1 event completed a survey about their York Circle experience," she says. "Of those, more than 99 per cent indicated that they were very satisfied with the day. What we found so significant about the responses was that everyone said they would attend another York Circle event.


The recipe has been modified to reflect family-size proportions

2 medium pumpkins
Olive oil (about 1/4 cup)
8 carrots, sliced
4 quarts of vegetarian stock
1 large onion, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon each of allspice and nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
3 heads of celery, chopped
2 bay leaves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Cut and hollow pumpkins and then cut into chunks. Leave the skin on and toss in half of the olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread on a cookie sheet or in a shallow casserole dish. Roast until soft, (about 35 minutes). 

While the pumpkin is roasting, finely chop the carrots, onions and celery, and sauté in the remaining olive oil until translucent. 

Remove pumpkin from the oven and peel off the skin. Add the pumpkin to the sauté along with the bay leaves. Stir well to coat the pumpkin and vegetables with the spices. Add the vegetarian stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for one hour. Stirring every so often.

Remove from heat and let cool for 15 minutes. Using a hand blender, blend all ingredients and adjust seasoning and spices to taste.

"One of the biggest requests we got following the first York Circle event, which took place last October, was for the recipe for the spicy pumpkin soup that was served at the locavore lunch,” laughs Bettcher. She and Marsden immediately got to work tracking down the recipe (right) and arranged to have it modified for smaller, family-sized portions. The soup, says Bettcher, was created for the York Circle lunch by the chefs working at the Underground restaurant on York’s Keele campus.

What’s next on the agenda for this legacy jewel? Bettcher says the next event is Raise Your Space IQ, which will take place on Saturday, July 17, from 9 to 11pm. During this event, York astronomy Professor Paul Delaney (who delivered a presentation at the inaugural York Circle event) will lead participants through a tour of the night sky. The 50 York Circle members who were first to sign up for the event will have an opportunity to look through the University’s telescopes and listen to Delaney and astronomy students talk about the wonders of the universe.

Coming this fall, York Circle members will be able to purchase tickets to a new series of concerts and events brought to York University from venues around the world through a new partnership between the York Circle and DigiScreen. In a departure from other York Circle events, the Prestigious Performances have been thrown open to everyone, including York students and faculty. The Prestigious Performances Series will be brought to the big screen in the Price Family Cinema by DigiScreen through the company’s alliance with Opus Arte and the Royal Opera House of London.

The Prestigious Performance Series will offer world-class concerts, theatre, opera and ballet, presented in high definition format, from venues such as Covent Garden in London, the Palais Garnier in Paris, Teatro Real in Madrid, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and the Lincoln Center in New York City. York professors will moderate each performance.

The series will be presented on Sunday afternoons starting at 2pm, with the first presentation on Sept. 26 showcasing a performance of As You Like It by William Shakespeare, from the Globe Theatre with an enlivening commentary by theatre Professor Mark Wilson, associate dean in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

Other performances include a concert featuring the music of the late jazz icon Ray Charles with commentary by York music Professor Ronald Westray and a presentation of Puccini’s opera La Bohème. For more on these performances, visit the York Circle Web site.

Left: York Circle member Elizabeth Pitt

The membership will also be returning to the Keele campus on Oct. 30 for another full-day lecture and lunch presentation. Details of this event will be made available early in June on the York Circle Web site.

"I can hardly wait," says an enthused Pitt. "My calendar for the fall is looking wonderful."

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor and eldest daughter of Elizabeth Pitt