Professor Ann (Rusty) Shteir urges graduates to reflect on history

After a teaching career at York University that spans five decades, Professor Ann (Rusty) Shteir says history serves as a springboard for cultivating our future.

Shteir offered graduands of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies a glimpse into the future by looking to the past during the seventh of 13 Spring Convocation ceremonies on June 22.

Chancellor Greg Sorbara, Ann (Rusty) Shteir, and President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri
Chancellor Greg Sorbara, Ann (Rusty) Shteir, and President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri

Shteir, who began teaching at York University in 1972, received an honorary doctorate of laws from the University. She is a well-known scholar of women and science, and in her nearly 45 years teaching at York she has made significant contributions to academics and pedagogy, including as founder of York’s graduate program in women’s studies.

During her address to graduating students, she spoke of her own history at York University during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

“(These) were historically significant decades at York,” she said. “This university gave leadership across Canada in crafting new programs and ensuring full access to education for its students. It was a glorious time of high energy for my generation of feminist teachers, students, scholars, and administrators.”

In those years, York’s Office of Adviser to the President on the Status of Women spearheaded important projects, she said, and York was the first university in Canada to address matters of sexual harassment with a published report in 1982 and the creation of the Sexual Harassment Education and Complaint Centre.

Coming into more recent decades, there is now York’s School of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, with its undergraduate and graduate programs, the Centre for Feminist Research, the Nellie Langford Rowell Library, and the Bridging Program for Women. As well, York’s pioneering PhD in Women’s Studies began in 1992, and it was the first in Canada.

“I loved being graduate program director during those early years and working together with colleagues holding conferences, shaping innovative courses, guiding students through the privilege of advanced study,” she said, adding we should not take any of this history for granted. “It is important for us to know about (this history). It is important to make it visible for ourselves and for others.”

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Ann (Rusty) Shteir

Shteir told graduates she felt her feminist forebears – such as author Mary Wollstonecraft – would be proud of what York University has accomplished with respect social change and women’s rights.

“At York, in Canada more widely, and indeed globally, we have much to celebrate: more women in public office; a Canadian woman, finally, to be on a bank note in 2018; and now the selection of Hillary Clinton as the American Presidential candidate from her political party,” she said.

She was careful to highlight that despite these successes, human rights are still far from uniform in many parts of the world.

“The struggle continues, to find one’s voice, use one’s voice, and make our voices heard,” she said.

She also reflected on the work Candide by French writer Voltaire, and what graduates could take from that story. Candide, she explained is the story of a young man looking for guidance on how to live in dangerous times.

One of his teachers on his journey insists that, despite everything, the world is a good place; another teacher is a pessimist; and a third teacher has endured untold sufferings, but still loves life. In the end they find themselves on a farm in Turkey and decide to stay put, and each agrees to take on tasks as part of a larger whole.

In this story, she explains, the final word goes to Candide, who has grown to be resilient and even somewhat hopeful. “Enough of talking,” he says, “now we must cultivate our garden.”

“Instead of retreating from the world, they should be active in the world: doing and making, and joining with others to achieve a greater good,” she said, interpreting the writing for the graduates. “As I see it, knowledge of ideas and writings from earlier times is a springboard as we get our hands into the soil of our world, and use the tools of our own education to cultivate our gardens.”

York’s 2016 spring convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived online. Shteir’s convocation address will be archived at the conclusion of spring convocation ceremonies. To view her address, visit the Convocation webcast archive.