Skip to the content of the web site.

Featured Profile: Dr. John North

     Upon completion of his PhD from the University of Alberta, Dr. John North received job interviews from the University of Sudbury, Trent University and the University of Waterloo. He visited Waterloo first and was so taken by the Department of English, the campus and surrounding area that he accepted the job on the spot. The fresh feel of the UW campus, the beauty and tranquillity of the surrounding farmland and the excellent faculty members all made the position at UW Dr. North’s ideal.

     When he arrived in September of 1968 the English faculty was made up of a group of people entirely different from those who make it up today. Professors here at the time included Harry Logan, Roman Dubinski, Warren Ober, Keith Thomas, Rota Lister, Helen Ellis, Walter Martin, Ellen Shields, Mary Gerhardstein and Bob Gosselink, to name just a few. Dr. North recalls the sense of adventure that he and his colleagues had when it came to research. Because the university was so young, teaching and research possibilities were not "set in stone," as at some other postsecondary institutions. UW’s venturesome spirit was exemplified in the Pascal Lectures, which Dr. North co-founded. The first of these lectures occurred in 1978 and they examined the Christian search for truth in a university setting. Dr. North recalls his favourite Pascal Lecture, delivered in 1980 by Lebanese philosopher and United Nations diplomat Charles Malik, who gave a lecture entitled "A Christian Critique of the University." Dr. North is currently editing Charles Malik’s 17,000 pages of personal meditations. Another example of UW’s adventurous spirit manifested itself in the institution’s willingness to use computers as a medium for education (it was one of the first universities to do so), as well as Distance Ed.; Dr. North enjoyed research in these areas, co-founding Waterloo Computing in the Humanities (WATCHUM), which eventually became the Arts Computing Offices (ACO).

     Over the many years since his arrival, Dr. North has witnessed UW’s transformation from a small, fresh university surrounded by farmland to a sprawling, sophisticated institution cradled by an ever-growing urban landscape. While UW has built up its physical structure, it has also enhanced its reputation: "The University of Waterloo is not only a leading university in Canada, it has an international reputation." That reputation is not limited to the research success that is achieved here; it is also due to the excellent funding prowess and financial stewardship of Waterloo, as well as the professors themselves, who make up the "backbone of the university." Professors add a great deal to the positive atmosphere of UW, Dr. North believes, because each faculty member provides support for their students. A quite rare feature for a university is for each student to have a faculty member whom they can relate to outside of the classroom. "Even a professor whom a student may not appreciate," Dr. North says, "may end up becoming a mentor to that student." On a similar note, the faculty in UW’s English department may not always agree ideologically, yet they are able to maintain a harmony that keeps the department healthy and productive. Similarly, Dr. North has witnessed many disagreements during his terms on the Faculty Association, the Senate and the Board of Governors, yet each time conflict occurs the opponents are able to resolve their differences in a civil manner.

     Even when Professor North arrived in 1968, a time when the "hippie" counterculture was flourishing in North America, Dr. North recalls only a few noisy student protests. Perhaps the friendliness between students and faculty and the wisdom of the administration diffused rebellion, or perhaps most students didn’t feel that there was much on campus to protest. Dr. North notes that a very few faculty were openly rebellious: UW was once regarded as "Canada’s Red (i.e. communist) University," for a few faculty members expressed communist views both on and off campus. These few faculty contributed to the false idea that UW was a communist-supporting university, but when communism collapsed after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, there was a decline in support for that system among even the staunchest believers.

     Similar to the consistently supportive relationship between students and faculty at UW, Dr. North finds that the quality of the students has not varied much over the years. English students today are just as insightful and communicative and generally achieve the same range of grades as their predecessors. "What has changed," says Dr. North, "is technology." Students have been affected by technological advancements such as email. "Email has made students more demanding, as they expect instant answers to requests and concerns. When I was an undergrad, students rarely met or contacted their professors. Meeting professors requires more patience than emailing them." Dr. North also notes that students who are passive in undergraduate classes become more involved in their senior and graduate student years. This has also remained fairly constant during his tenure here.

     Though Dr. North specializes in Victorian literature and his PhD thesis was on Alfred Tennyson, his favourite classes to teach focus on Shakespeare. "His writing is so powerful and there’s so much to work with," Dr. North says. He also used to teach Rhetoric; these classes often had many students (around 500 usually), who would become frustrated at the heavy workload Dr. North created for the course. Despite their aggravation, the course ended up helping the students greatly and they often came back to Dr. North in later years of study to thank him for those difficult readings and assignments.

     When asked what value there is in studying English, Dr. North asserts that literature "liberates and disciplines the imagination." In fact, according to Dr. North, what separates most liberal arts students from Science or Engineering students is their unfettered way of thinking. "Literature introduces students to philosophy, religion, history, art and drama, as well as psychology, sociology and anthropology." It is not the study of one specific thing, but of the multi-faceted condition of humanity. In this way literature is instructive when it comes to issues of love, happiness and compassion, among other concepts. It also introduces readers to ways of thinking that they never before imagined. In this way, the lives of English students become richer through absorbing the insights of novelists, dramatists and poets of the past, Dr. North believes. Apart from the intellectual benefits of studying English, Dr. North says that English graduates end up with better jobs, higher salaries and often a higher rate of employment than Engineering or Science students; this seems to contradict many parents’ belief that their children must have a so-called "practical" degree to become financially secure.

     The English faculty at Waterloo remains quietly humble yet excellent as ever; and while the world has changed drastically since he arrived here, Dr. North remains honoured to be part of the English Department at UW. In 2003, he received a Distinguished Teacher Award for his "devotion to teaching, courtesy, generosity and wisdom."1

Click here to view an image of Dr. North on the Faculty of Arts 50th Anniversary website.