Be prepared and disregard rules when necessary, grads told

When York Professor Naomi Black first came to teach in the Department of Political Science in 1964, her father, a professor elsewhere, gave her a few words of advice: Always break the chalk in two to prevent it from squeaking on the blackboard, make sure the fly of your pants is done up (or for women, the seam in your stockings is straight) before giving a presentation and always look up the answer to anything you don’t know.

Black received an honorary doctor of laws during Tuesday’s 2010 Spring Convocation ceremony for part of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and thought to share these wise words with the graduating students. The words translate roughly into several maxims, she said, the first being, know the tools of the trade. It may no longer be chalk, but “perhaps it corresponds now to something like locate and test the plugs and the sockets before you have to give a presentation,” said Black, who taught at York for 30 years and was the first female political science professor hired. The second was about advance planning, which Black said is more useful now than ever, and the third “was about admitting when you don’t know something and then finding out about it, and this is always a good idea.”

Left: Naomi Black

But although those words of wisdom are still relevant today, many other things have changed since Black first started at York. At that time, women professors accounted for less than one-tenth of the academics at Canadian universities. “By contrast, at this University today, about 45 per cent of the faculty is women. That’s more than four in every 10, in sight of half, and for students, again there are huge changes,” said Black, one of the founders of York’s pioneering Graduate Program in Women’s Studies.

Black promoted the study of women and feminism and fought to legitimize the study of women and politics within her department as well as within the Canadian Political Science Association, which led to the creation of its Women’s Caucus. “The first graduating class of 1963 had 43 members – 32 of them were men, that’s about three-quarters, fairly average for the time. This year, there are 810 of you eligible for this convocation, 810, compared to 43…. More than two-thirds of your entire class is women. Numbers don’t tell the whole story about change, of course.”

Indeed they don’t. Black read a snippet of what was written in York’s 1963 yearbook about a young woman who had “achieved the ambition of every female student at York – a man. She had married another York student,” says Black. That same woman was described as a housewife in the following yearbook. “That’s the yearbook that shows six men for the first class at law school, including the well-known activist lawyer Clayton Ruby. None of the women are at law school or anything comparable.”

Much has truly changed in both attitudes and numbers of female students. “The statistics about faculty and women and students at York in fact reflect a major shift in Canadian life from when professional women were the exception. A girl’s aspirations at university were indeed what were sometimes called – my daughter remembers about this – the M-R-S degree,” says Black. “So it is an unbelievably different world for all of you, men and women both.”

Black was part of what prompted the change. She served on the Ontario Committee on the Status of Women in 1972 and since the 1970s her research and publications have focused on the history of feminism, women’s leadership and women’s history. She helped establish York’s Nellie Langford Rowell Women’s Studies Library and is co-author of Canadian Women: A History.

Black, who began her speech reciting York’s motto, ended by reiterating the importance of those words – the way must be tried. “When I began at York in the early days, the way was untried, unclear, but we had great hopes and considerable resources,” said Black.

In the Maritimes, where she now lives, there is another proverb Black finds useful – the wind and the waves favour the prudent mariner. “It means be very, very careful. Keep your paper charts, even when you have GPS,” she said. And, in the international collision avoidance regulations about how a ship’s captain should act to avoid a collision, another gem of advice follows what’s called the general prudential rule, where regard should be given to special circumstances that make a departure from the rules necessary.

Black left the graduands with these words: “Being prudent sometimes includes disregarding the rules, being imaginative, being daring when necessary. You have no choice. The way must be tried. You will have to face the world as it is and the unpredictable future as it may be. Be prudent, but also be bold, and be lucky, as you were to be educated here.”

York’s 2010 Spring Convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived on the Internet. To view Black’s convocation address, visit the Convocation Web site.