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‘I believe humanities is about people’: A Q&A with English Professor Emerita Alexandra Johnston

What can you do with a degree in humanities?

Alexandra Johnston sitting outside in front of a wrough iron fence

Alexandra Johnston, professor emerita in the Department of English at the Faculty of Arts & Science. Photo: Wajiha Rasul.

Just ask Alexandra Johnston, professor emerita in the Department of English at the Faculty of Arts & Science.

After retiring from a rich career in teaching and the theatre – making an impact in everything from administration, research, production and direction to singing and acting – she has focused more of her efforts on the Records of Early English Drama (REED) project, an international scholarly publishing project she co-founded in 1975.

REED was the first to thoroughly research and catalogue the context in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked. This includes locating and transcribing historical documents that contain evidence of drama, secular music and other forms of communal entertainment from the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period.

Johnston studied medieval drama in her post-graduate work at U of T, and after teaching at Queen’s University, she returned to Victoria College at U of T to serve as assistant professor of English in 1967, becoming professor in 1978.


Visit REED Online where you can search through the surviving records of drama, secular music, and other popular entertainment in England from the Middle Ages until 1642, when the Puritans closed the London theatres.

In 1981, she was appointed the first female principal of Victoria College, and served in that position until 1991. She served again as acting principal in 2004. She remained a full-time teacher until her retirement, supervising 19 doctoral students.

Among her many honours and achievements, she holds honorary doctorates from Queen’s University and Presbyterian College, Montreal. She has also received the University of Toronto Faculty Award, was named a member of the Royal Society of Canada and was recently made a member of the Order of Canada.

“I look at the names of people who have been named to the Order if Canada and I think to myself: how do I belong to this group?” says Johnston. “I’ve been told to stop being so modest and enjoy it. Indeed, I am very gratified to see how pleased people are for me.”

Wajiha Rasul of the Department of English spoke to Johnston about her research and what inspired her to choose her career path.

What made you interested in studying the humanities?

I was raised in a church, and was inspired by stories in the Bible. One of the many duties my father, a clergyman, had was to manage a congregation. It encourages one to understand people, and to be open to their differences. I have always been a people person, and was interested in understanding them. I wanted to study English literature, history and drama, because I believe the humanities is about people — it introduces you to people from the past and present, from different cultures and to different ideas, and it all helps you understand the present world.

Tell us a little bit about your research and how you got to where you are today.

In my undergraduate years, I was interested in the history of English literature, and during my graduate years I became interested in medieval literature and plays. I was most interested in York plays and they were a major part of my doctoral thesis. I used my first sabbatical to visit the city of York in England to improve my medieval Latin and my ability to read medieval manuscripts by researching references to plays in the records of the Corpus Christi Guild in York.

While working there, an archivist showed me a newly discovered document – an indenture [a contract] between the Guild of Merchant Adventurers and their Pageant Masters. The Guild was responsible for a play about the Last Judgment in a series of plays performed annually on Corpus Christi Day through the streets of York. The Pageant Masters provided details about the wagon stage they had built, its properties and decorations and all the actor’s costumes.

This was the most detailed evidence ever discovered about the staging of any of the late medieval plays performed in England. I then learned that a graduate student from Australia was working on the city of York’s records of the plays, and we got together and agreed to publish the document through the help of her thesis director.

American colleagues then invited us to give a paper together at the Early Drama seminar at the Modern Language Association meetings in New York in 1972.  In 1973, we took part in a seminar about dramatic records in Chicago and, at that meeting, participants expressed the need for a coordinated project to oversee the publication of all surviving records with a consistent paleographic and subject policy. I was asked to try to create such a project.

And how did that project come to be?

After much consultation with colleagues internationally, I brought a group together in Toronto in 1975, and the REED project was founded. In 1976 we received a major grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, and later from the newly-created Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Since then the project has published 24 collections of city and county records in 28 print volumes and two online, and the project continues to this day.

REED became possible because of good friends, generous colleagues, and superb staff members.

What advice would you give to humanities students?

Stick to it, because not only are the humanities an enjoyable set of subjects, but they also teach you how to think. They teach you what the world is and how it works. Humanities graduates are making an impact in all sorts of jobs: government, schools, law firms, corporations and more.