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Dr. Ellen Shields

     When Ellen Shields arrived at the University of Waterloo in 1966, there were still very few women in the academy. In a way, that’s why she came here. Like many PhD students in the United States nearing the completion of their degrees, Dr. Shields attended the Modern Language Association’s annual conference, where many American (and a few Canadian) postsecondary institutions conduct a first round of job interviews for the positions they have available. The year was 1965. With a curriculum vitae that testified to a consistently strong record of academic performance, she was confident heading into her appointments. She noticed, however, that she didn’t have as many as her male classmates. "Then one interviewer actually said that if his department couldn’t find a man to take the job for which they were interviewing, they’d hire me," she recalls. Her memory of her MLA meeting with Dr. Warren Ober, at that time the Chair of the English Department at UW, is very different. He offered her a position, and as their meeting ended he added, "We need more women at Waterloo, so I hope you will come." The prospect of being welcomed into a university, and not just tolerated, tipped the scales in Waterloo’s favour.

     Indeed, what stands out in Dr. Shields’s memory about her early years on campus is the camaraderie of the vibrant Arts Faculty community. In the mid-1960s, the English Department was housed on the second floor of the Modern Languages Building. A Faculty Common Room in the ML basement adjoined the cafeteria, and faculty from all over the university would gather there for lunch. These gatherings declined after the new humanities building, Hagey Hall, opened and the department relocated. Hagey Hall did not have a cafeteria and "was just not set up for socializing in the same way," she says. Still, a lively atmosphere in the Faculty continued to prevail at meetings such as those of the Arts Faculty Committee, which among its many other responsibilities handled all student appeals. When Dr. Shields arrived, all courses began in September and ended in April. If undergraduates failed even one of their classes, they failed the entire year. That regulation made the stakes pretty high for students, and Dr. Shields remembers some interesting Council meetings in May, when the appeals began to arrive.

     Dr. Shields taught twentieth-century British literature for the Department, but remembers a 200-level course, The Development of the Novel, as one that she particularly enjoyed because it gave her the chance to teach Henry Fielding’s great mid-eighteenth-century novel Tom Jones, as well as other well-loved narratives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During her time at UW, the English Department also introduced graduate degree programs, but not before it expressed serious reservations over the shortage of library resources, which it argued had to be significantly more robust than they were at the time in order to sustain graduate programs. Dr. Shields completed her own doctoral dissertation on the works of Virginia Woolf, an author whose sentences are still capable of "stunning" her with their "magnificent rhythms." An avid reader, she recommends a recent find, Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise (2009), to anyone who wants a light, humorous, and ultimately satisfying read: "When I finished it, I had a smile on my face."