Passings: Professor Emeritus Nick Elson

The following tribute to Professor Emeritus Nick Elson, a long-serving member of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics (DLLL) in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, was submitted to YFile by Professors Brian Morgan (Glendon) with contributions from Ian Martin (Glendon), Linda Steinman (DLLL-ESL) and Roberta Iannacito-Provenzano (Chair-DLLL). Professor Elson died on Sept. 10 in Toronto, Ont. A memorial is planned for Oct. 10, from 4 to 6pm. All are welcome.

Remembering Nick Elson

Professor Nick Elson, York U
Nick Elson

In 1996, in Chicago, York University Professor Nick Elson was invited to give a plenary address at the annual convention of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) organization, the world’s largest and most influential organization for English Language Teaching.

“The Making of Educational Change,” the title of Nick’s inspiring address, succinctly summarizes a lifelong career of educational leadership and an enduring commitment to improving the working conditions and professionalization of ESL teachers. Nick not only theorized and detailed the conditions necessary for change, he also acted on them and inspired others as a tireless and formidable public advocate for ESL students and teachers.

At various points in his career, Nick served as a Metropolitan Toronto School Board trustee as well as president of the TESL Ontario and TESL Canada organizations. Nick chaired TESL Ontario’s ESL/D Action Committee, a political action committee that from 1980-86 lobbied the provincial government to provide adequate funding and properly trained teachers for its growing ESL population in K-12 classrooms. The committee’s activities also focused on advocacy for precariously employed ESL teachers in colleges and universities. Under the aegis of TESL Canada, Nick co-chaired the National Symposium for Language Education for Indigenous People in 1984.

York University is especially indebted to Nick. In collaboration with Professor David Mendelsohn, Nick helped design York’s innovative content-based, credit-bearing English for Academic Purposes program. As well, Nick was a key mover in the design and implementation of the York English Language Test (YELT), a test that was far ahead of its time in assessing the integration and performance of English language proficiencies necessary for postsecondary education. Indeed, Nick’s leadership was sought out at all levels of governance at York. He was a founder and frequent chair of the York University ESL Coordinating Committee, a rare pan-University forum in which ESL issues, problems and solutions could be addressed. Nick also served numerous long terms as Undergraduate Coordinator (Languages and Literatures) (1979-1982), Chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics (1998-2004), as well as Director of the Graduate Program in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics.

A Fellow of Winters College, Nick was also their academic adviser for many years and served as acting Master several times. In terms of curricular innovations, and in the spirit of his TESOL plenary, Nick designed a course titled Socio-Political Issues in Second Language Teaching (LING 3600 3.0), a required course in York’s TESOL Certificate Program, which Nick also helped design and coordinate. The course design is visionary and unique in fostering teacher agency and critical awareness of the social and political realities that impact upon language teaching.

Following retirement, Nick maintained a level of community service and scholarly activity that rivaled most full-time colleagues. In the Graduate Program in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics he continued to teach courses and help with graduate supervision. He also continued to teach credit ESL courses. Beyond the University, Nick served as project lead for the field validation (Phase III) of the revised Canadian Language Benchmarks.

Nick Elson will be greatly missed. Those who wish to share memories of Nick are welcome to join us for a “Remembering Nick Elson” celebration on Tuesday Oct. 10 from 4 to 6pm, hosted by DLLL in the departmental lounge Room 556, South Ross Building, Keele campus.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations in Nick’s memory be made to the Canadian Cancer Society.