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Innovative professor wins Northrop Frye Award

Photo of: Ayesha Valliani, Kinza Shaukat, Emma Vleming, Erin Ray, Kaleigh McLelland, Russell Turner and Meaghan Weatherdon with Pamela Klassen.

Students Ayesha Valliani, Kinza Shaukat, Emma Vleming, Erin Ray, Kaleigh McLelland, Russell Turner and Meaghan Weatherdon with Pamela Klassen. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

Toronto is a learning lab for students in Pamela Klassen’s Religion in the City course

Pamela Klassen’s passion for teaching and research has brought her the 2015 Northrop Frye Award.

The award, given by the University of Toronto Alumni Association, recognizes distinguished achievements in linking teaching and research. Klassen, from the Department for the Study of Religion, was nominated by some of her graduate students and will receive the award at an April ceremony.

“It is a special thing to be nominated by students, and it is very special to get an award named for Northrop Frye because he was such a legendary scholar and teacher,” said Klassen, whose office is located in Northrop Frye Hall.

A dedicated researcher herself, Klassen finds unique ways to bring research into the classroom, often using the City of Toronto as a laboratory.

“Toronto is an amazing site for studying religion, either historically or ethnographically,” Klassen said. “From my first year at U of T, teaching the introductory “World Religions” course, I’ve had students out walking in the city, looking for “religion” in both likely and unlikely places.” Working with Frances Garrett, a previous Northrop Frye Award winner, Klassen developed a third-year Religion in the City course that had students do research in city neighbourhoods to explore the ways religion had influenced various public sites, such as education, healthcare and the landscape itself.

“The architecture of the city may appear largely Christian, with churches on many corners and subway stations called St. Andrew’s and St. Patrick’s, but Toronto is now a very religiously diverse city.” Klassen said. “And before those churches were built, there was a long Aboriginal presence on this land.”

Team teaching and collaboration appeal strongly to her. She has team-taught courses with colleague Kevin O’Neill, and is currently team-teaching a Big Ideas course about the internet, with computer scientist Steve Easterbrook and environmental scientist Miriam Diamond.

Working with Ajay Rao at U of T Mississauga, Klassen created Museums and Material Religion, a course that examined how museums present objects as “religious” in today’s multicultural society. Each professor taught a section of the course on his/her campus, and classes met periodically at the Royal Ontario Museum to examine the museum’s collections, many of which were gathered by Christian missionaries.

“With the help of ROM curators, we gave the students theoretical tools to think about the significance of religion for the way that objects have been collected and curated, and then sent them into the museum to develop their own “object stories.” said Klassen. “They were very creative.”

The museums course came out of the Religion in the Public Sphere Initiative, which Klassen directs. “Religion in the Public Sphere brings together faculty, students, and community partners engaged in questions of how religious diversity is play in public contexts, and has been an important place for students to see how what they are learning applies in real-world contexts. The RPS service learning course is a great example of this.”

Klassen has also been involved with the Faculty of Arts & Science 299 research opportunities program. For several years, she has had teams of undergraduates assisting her with her research for course credit. Currently four students are helping Klassen to create a digital storytelling platform to accompany her forthcoming book.

She has also participated in the Faculty’s 399 research excursion courses, taking students with her to archives in the U.S. As well, the Germany/Europe Fund supported Klassen, along with colleagues Amira Mittermaier and Simon Coleman, in bringing graduate students on several visits to research workshops in Germany.

“It’s fabulous that Arts & Science has all of these programs students can make use of to develop themselves as researchers,” Klassen said.

She believes strongly in tying teaching and research together.

“I need to do both,” Klassen said, “in order to be good at either. And I think that students learn better when tasked with research of their own. Once students actually realize that they can create knowledge and are accountable for it, they want to learn more and care more about what they are learning.”

Klassen said that most of the assignments she gives include writing, which is another important research skill.

“I like to help students become better writers, because doing their own research makes them want to communicate it,” she said. “The best research tells a really good story based on evidence.”