Classroom of the Future
Dean of Divinity Christopher Brittain and Dean of Arts and Vice-Provost Michael Ratcliffe on the importance of thoughtfully investing in and evolving Trinity’s academic offerings for the future.
By Liz Allemang
As the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in Canada in late winter, individuals and institutions alike had to figure out their new normal. Christopher Brittain, Trinity College’s Dean of Divinity and Margaret E. Fleck Chair in Anglican Studies, was one of the many who found themselves recalibrating his daily life, both as it impacted his work and his students’ lives. Meanwhile, Michael Ratcliffe, Trinity’s Dean of Arts and Vice-Provost, was on sabbatical in Japan when Prime Minister Trudeau issued the call for Canadians to return home in March. Trinity magazine spoke with the Deans on the importance of academic investment and evolution at Trinity. This subject, which is perhaps more relevant now than ever as the Trinity community navigates through these pivotal times, is doubly important as the College launches its $40-million Living Trinity campaign.
Trinity College is considerably more than just an academic institution. It is, for example, also a community of diverse individuals who come together with common goals and values. And it’s a space that fosters the coming together of this community, encouraging conversations among learners and leaders about how to become better equipped to tackle the ever-evolving challenges, both small-scale and monumental, of society as it moves forward. But it is an academic institution, with the pursuit of knowledge providing the reason for being, the central force that brings together the community and populates the College’s spaces, its quad, classrooms, chapel, dining hall and library.
The Living Trinity campaign encompasses and aims to strengthen all aspects of the Trinity experience. Its strategic investments will increase space and infrastructure with the introduction of a new student residence and academic building—the Lawson Centre for Sustainability—and enhance student success with campaign funding that will buttress student supports. Another important component of Living Trinity is ensuring academic excellence, now and in the future.
“Thanks to the visionary support of our alumni, the successful interdisciplinary Margaret MacMillan Trinity One Program has reinvigorated the academic mission of the College over the past several years,” says Provost Mayo Moran. “With the addition of the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, new streams in Trinity One and other vital program enhancements, Trinity is well-positioned as a leader in interdisciplinary education. Now we must build on this momentum to continue to attract and develop top talent from around the world, and continue the interdisciplinary innovation that is the hallmark of Trinity’s programs.”
Christopher Brittain understands well the impact that further elevating the College’s educational experience will have, given his demonstrated ability to shift Trinity’s existing offering for students forward. Being deeply rooted in both the Faculty of Divinity school and the College as a whole (he completed his Masters of Divinity and doctorate degrees here), and working so closely with students as an instructor and an administrator also provides him with an informed perspective on the importance of the College’s unique academic programs. These programs, like the Margaret MacMillan Trinity One Program and its new sustainability offerings, including courses on scarcity and sustainability in international relations and sustainability issues in ethics, society and law, are already addressing the needs and challenges of the country’s future leaders.
“Trinity is a small college with a global ambition. If we’re going to be training leaders—Canadian and international leaders—for today’s world, our students are going to need the skills and knowledge base that enable them to take on those roles,” says Brittain.
“Our reputation, historically and currently, is one that encompasses excellent contemporary, world-class and globally focused education. And we can’t sustain that by standing still. We must continue building, growing, learning and enhancing our expertise. Because the world is a rapidly changing place, one with new challenges and opportunities. If we are to continue to offer expert leadership and train leaders for that kind of environment, we require ongoing evolution.”
Growing the benefits of smaller classes
Evolution of Trinity’s academic offering entails the adoption and continuation of several priorities. Key among them, according to Brittain, is a seminar approach to teaching, which enables interaction, case studies, student-led research and independent learning through small classes. Within these classes, versus a traditional large-scale lecture format, the instructor is able to get to know each of the learners individually since there may be 20 students instead of 200. Smaller class size also allows for more group work and conversation and lends itself better to pedagogy and teaching techniques that reinforce interdisciplinary skills. The result is that students are trained not only in inquiry and problem solving, but also in thinking creatively, innovatively and collaboratively.
Expanding our digital footprint
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, moved all classes online. The seismic shift toward learning and working from home helped to highlight the growing need for digitizing classrooms to help better prepare both students and the College academically for the future.
“COVID-19 has brought home to us, in clear terms, how important it is to ensure that all classrooms at Trinity are up to the highest standard in terms of technology and infrastructure,” says Michael Ratcliffe. “We are still committed to providing the best educational experience, regardless of its delivery mode. We have upgraded the Larkin classrooms to increase bandwidth and enable our instructors to teach to both online and in-person audiences. And as we build our new academic space, we have to ensure that our classrooms are fully digitized, to foster connections between learners and leading thinkers from around the world.”
Complementing the existing course catalogue with new offerings that tap into society’s most complex, encompassing and urgent concerns offers another way forward for the College. “Our students have made sustainability a priority in their lives, and have demanded that we do the same,” says Ratcliffe. “We strongly support this vision and Trinity is committed to leading by example in the field of sustainability, in the way we live and learn here, and in the leaders we send out into the world. We understand that our actions are critically important now, and for future generations.”
Contextualizing this commitment, Brittain speaks to how all programs at Trinity are taking up the theme of sustainability, exploring different aspects of a complex issue as they relate to individual disciplines, such as Brittain’s field of theology. Within his faculty, he sees sustainability being realized in three ways: Training leaders of religious communities who will, in turn, lead church and faith communities to adopt more sustainable practices; preparing graduates to promote and advocate for sustainability in their professional and public lives; and providing religious communities as well as the broader community with the spiritual resources and emotional support that helps individuals find the resilience to manage this period of transition to a more sustainable society in a healthy way.
The College is finding that students are responding well to these new offerings and specializations, and is eager to meet continuing demand. One example is the undergraduate First-Year Foundations seminar that Brittain launched in the spring, with full enrolment.
“The course is ‘Disaster and Terrorism: Religion and Ethics at Ground Zero,’ which feels pretty apt now,” he says. It looks at different historical examples of disaster and how people respond to crisis, taking a particular interest in the religious and spiritual elements amid such debates. Brittain had planned on having the course cover disasters from the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 to the September 11 terror attacks, but quickly pivoted to allow the class to address climate anxieties as well as the course’s current focus—the COVID-19 pandemic, with students examining the moral and emotional challenges of the crisis and the entrenched anxieties as they unfold in real time. Brittain also quickly acted to shift the course, its lectures, presentations and group work online when classrooms closed amid the pandemic in March. He has been amazed by the maturity, analytic ability and eagerness among his students to confront and understand challenging issues.
This course was one example of the efficacy and agility possible within Trinity’s current academic offering. But, more broadly, its very existence and success reflects the desire and the need to continue the pursuit of a forward-thinking, well-rounded and interdisciplinary approach to Trinity’s academic programming and the need to invest in effective approaches to teaching and learning.
Ratcliffe, whose first-year Trinity One course, The Art of Scientific Discovery, has high enrolment this fall and particular relevance as we navigate COVID-19, underlines the College’s commitment to academic innovation. “Our ability to offer relevant courses, delivered in smaller classes and seminar-based group settings, to all of our students, is an important part of the Trinity experience. And it’s that unique experience that helps each student at the College to fully realize their incredible potential.”
“Teaching these students, we see them strengthen their independence, identity, personal value and self-confidence,” adds Brittain. “We see it click when they realize that they have something to contribute, are part of a team, that it makes a difference what they say. In our classrooms they establish a mature and professional sensibility; they become better, more responsible citizens. And it’s both those skills and that sense of self that a future leader needs to have in place. And we can work with students to build both, in a safe environment, during their time here. So, by the time they’re at the end of a degree, the person who arrived has been transformed, with the skills, confidence and maturity to hit the ground running and be leaders and advocates who will take the world forward.”
As published in Trinity Magazine Fall 2020