Student Life

The details of data mining

Krzysztof Dzieciolowski shares his passion for teaching and statistics

Krzysztof Dzieciolowski describes himself as a man of two professions, two laptops, two jobs, two locations and two new kittens. However, he’d never want to give any of it up.

For the last 24 years, Dzieciolowski has worked in the telecommunications industry and as a part-time faculty member at the John Molson School of Business (JMSB). “I’m always on the run between them, conceptually as well as physically,” he said, referring to his two jobs.

Dzieciolowski regularly teaches two courses—statistical software for data management, and analysis and data mining techniques—as part of the data intelligence minor at JMSB. His courses allow students to learn the basic concepts and techniques of data management using Statistical Analysis System (SAS), which is the world’s largest statistical software used by many businesses and government bodies. Dzieciolowski also helps students learn data mining techniques using different kinds of data.

Outside academia, Dzieciolowski leads a modeling and analytics group at Rogers Communications, where he helps create predictive models. These types of models are used by businesses to develop techniques for customer acquisition, customer retention and company growth.

“Commercially, companies exist to satisfy their mission to provide returns to their stakeholders,” Dzieciolowski explained. “So in a way, we help companies, using math, become more effective in generating profit, as well as be more cost effective, and providing the products and services to customers.”

Using mathematical and statistical models, Dzieciolowski works to define “events of interest,” such as making a sale, acquiring a new customer or losing a customer, and relate such events to that customer’s profile. Dzieciolowski and his team can compare the profiles of customers who did or did not experience any given event of interest, and their behaviours prior to this event or non-event, to see if a correlation exists between a given profile or event.

Using this data, Dzieciolowski is able to create a model, such as an equation which relates independent variables to the observed event, that can help Rogers predict the probability on a scale from zero to one of a given event of interest, such as making a sale. This probability score allows Rogers to know who is likely to purchase a product from the company. These tools are very useful for marketing and sales, but also benefit customers by providing them with better and more relevant service.

“It boils down to a simple question—who should we talk to, what about and why?” Dzieciolowski said. “I like challenging questions, and my colleagues in the office keep me busy, whether they’re from marketing or product sales or finance. They often come to ask me a variety of questions which are fairly complex. I enjoy working with them and solving those questions together, whether it’s related to mathematical aspects of the solution or whether it’s actually on the applied side.”

Another challenge Dzieciolowski has always enjoyed is teaching, which has always been important to him. When he was living in Poland during the 1980s after having completed his master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Warsaw, Dzieciolowski worked for four years as a math teacher and social worker at a high school for inner city youth who had dropped out of regular schooling and were at risk for using drugs.

“That was a great experience,” Dzieciolowski said. “I was not much older than my students. I was 25.” The school was funded by Poland’s Ministry of Education and Behaviour, but the ministry maintained an arm’s length relationship with the school because, according to Dzieciolowski, they would not officially acknowledge the country’s heroin epidemic.

Dzieciolowski’s young age made teaching an even more rewarding experience. “We were socializing with them as well, by taking them to camps, school cinema which I used to run, also ski camps and cooking together in the kitchen and cleaning up everything afterwards,” he said. “We had a lot of common activities, and it was a fun place to be.”

During this time in the 80s, Poland’s communist government had put the country under martial law. “I was trying to find a job, but as a non-party member, I didn’t have much of a chance to land anything,” Dzieciolowski said. “I finally decided to come to Canada to do my PhD and follow in the footsteps of my colleagues who were also grads of mathematics and also went abroad to continue their studies in Canada or Europe.”

While studying at the University of Warsaw, Dzieciolowski joined a quantitative seminar in the sociology department. It was there that he was introduced to the quantitative applications of math, which Dzieciolowski explained can be used to model social events, social phenomena and social patterns.

“I discovered that I have an interest in real-life applications and how people use math and how their lives and their social lives can be described using mathematics,” he said. “So it was natural to turn to statistics.”

Dzieciolowski started his PhD in statistics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. Three months before completing his PhD, Dzieciolowski was offered a position at Bell Canada in Montreal.

“I had to quit my studies and move to Montreal and start the job in three weeks. It’s always like this in the business; when they have an opening, it’s always for yesterday. I took the job and I became a part-time, off-campus student and finally finished my thesis two years later,” he said. “Professionally, I think it was a good thing to do because I really enjoyed applied work.”

In addition to the job offer, Dzieciolowski said his decision to move was greatly influenced by Montreal itself. “The reason why [my family and I] came to Montreal was mainly because of the lifestyle and culture the city offers, which is so close to our experience in Europe.”

Several years later, Dzieciolowski was offered a position as a part-time faculty member at Concordia, which allowed him to rekindle this love of teaching.

“The best part is interactions with students and creating a fun environment to learn. I think I promote a lot of teamwork in the classroom. Sharing and presenting and having a learning experience without necessary stress is a great achievement, I think, and I’m always striving to get to that point where people are learning in a stress-free environment,” he said.

Dzieciolowski said his teaching style focuses on allowing students to learn the material on their own, so they are more motivated and interested in the topic. “My role in the classroom is really to help them learn how to learn. We are in it together.”

Dzieciolowski has accomplished a lot during his time at Concordia. One of his proudest achievements, he said, was creating the joint undergraduate certificate between JMSB and SAS in 2016.

“I’m very happy about this, and a lot of students ask about it. We will have another batch of students graduating with this certification this year as well,” Dzieciolowski said. “We’re collecting applications from last year and this year to jointly award them together sometime in May or June.”

Students interested in the certificate must apply to the department of supply chain operations management within JMSB and successfully obtain a B in four out of five option classes. “I’m happy to say I teach two of those classes, and students show a lot of keen interest in learning new methodologies and new thinking and new applications of statistics in data science,” Dzieciolowski said.

“The joint certification means we are now able to use the state-of-the-art statistical software, which has been installed in our labs without fee. Students are learning the leading data mining software that is widely used outside, and they’re getting ready for the jobs that are there which require them to know SAS and understand the business problems the software is helping to solve,” he said.

Dzieciolowski was recently the recipient of a $10,000 Special Project Award from the Concordia University Part-time Faculty Association (CUPFA) to conduct research into new predictive methodologies and data matching techniques while at Rogers last year. On March 22, Dzieciolowski presented this research, his experience teaching data science to students, and his proliferation of data science applications and artificial intelligence during a talk at JMSB.

Dzieciolowski’s research explored how to create predictive models when a company doesn’t have access to information about all events of interest. “In practical terms, you may think about two different databases that have to be connected or merged together, and those databases are often disconnected and do not talk to each other. The only way to identify if the customers have both accounts would be to merge the data based on their name or address,” Dzieciolowski explained. “But those kind of merges often produce incorrect results. So we think they do have both accounts or they don’t, which is a false positive, or they do actually but we classify them as if they didn’t, which is an example of a false negative.”

Dzieciolowski’s research focused on how to create predictions when confronted with such “fuzzy merges,” and on determining how misclassifications impact the quality of the predictive models. “It’s very much applied, very much up-to-date and of great interest to large companies, whether they’re from telecoms or business, because there’s always a need to conduct those fuzzy matches between the data sources,” he said. “Therefore, there will always be an interest in making sure we predict what we want to predict.”

Although Dzieciolowski enjoys being a part-time faculty member, he said that status has caused some difficulties over the years. “I never had a chance to get a grant, for example for hardware, even though I do conduct research as well as teaching,” he said. However, this is the only disadvantage he has experienced as a part-time professor at Concordia. “I’ve been a part-time professor since day one 24 years ago. I never had an issue getting courses to teach, especially since I teach the data mining classes which not many people are interested to teach for some reason or another,” Dzieciolowski said. Nonetheless, he appreciates that other part-time professors experience job insecurity.

“As you can see I’m a pretty busy person,” Dzieciolowski added with a laugh. Despite his busy life, Dzieciolowski makes time to travel, recently adopted two kittens, and stays in touch with his former students in Poland. “I keep in touch with many of them on Facebook. They discovered I still exist a few years ago and we reconnected,” he said. “It’s all a very rewarding experience.”

Photo by Alex Hutchins

Student Life

Putting others in the spotlight

For long-time curator Nicole Gingras, it’s all about supporting artists

For the past 34 years, Nicole Gingras has curated and showcased the work of artists across the city and on an international stage.

“Curating, for me, is to go outside of my comfort zone,” said Gingras, a part-time faculty member in Concordia’s studio arts department. “In some ways, I taught myself to be a curator. I started to curate because I had an interest in some artists, and I wanted to bring light on their work.”

Gingras teaches master’s seminars once a year at Concordia. In one of these courses, “Thinking through Sound,” she makes students aware of the way sounds resonate in art. She does this by analyzing the texts of philosophers, engineers and musicians who have studied the significance of sounds.

For Gingras, teaching is a way to meet student-artists and further her research. “I love to teach,” she emphasized. “It is a good research ground, and it is a good opportunity to test some ideas that I have.”

In addition to teaching, much of Gingras’ time is dedicated to curating and highlighting the work of artists through exhibitions. However, this was not a passion she initially had as a student. “I never thought I would be a curator,” said Gingras, who has bachelor’s degree in cinema from Concordia and a master’s in art history from the Université de Montréal. Yet, art has always been important to Gingras. “I wanted to support and diffuse the work of artists. It was something that came out very naturally. That was the moteur to start curating.”

Nicole Gingras curated Karen Trask – L’ombre et la forme at the Maison des Arts de Laval in 2014. Photo by Paul Litherland.

The curating process

For Gingras, it is not the finished product but rather the process of developing an exhibition—from mounting it to giving a tour to visitors—that is her primary focus as a curator. “I like to follow the work of an artist who is developing,” she said. “I am very interested in the creating, researching and thinking processes; these elements reflect themselves in my curatorial projects.”

She stressed that curators have the responsibility to be aware of new artists and where they come from, as well as the innovations of the field. “[Curating] is a way of living, because curators are aware of artists and contexts of exhibiting, how ideas are developed in the public space, and how notions of exhibiting have transformed.”

Among other topics, an artist’s use of still and moving images to create tension between the two media fascinates Gingras. She said she appreciates the benefits of the two media; still images have duration, while moving images last for only an instant. “This tension is a way of talking about the movement between the presence and the absence,” Gingras said. “It is a way to talk about fragility, vulnerability and mortality.”

She emphasized that the interaction between these two media also engages the viewer. “When you look at [an image], it challenges you when the state of the image is changing,” Gingras said. “It’s very subjective, and every viewer will get a different moment in this passage from stillness and motion.”

Gingras said she believes it is crucial to help tell an artist’s story in the way she curates an exhibition. “When I am curating for institutions, I think it is very important to put in context new work and its history to show where the artist is coming from,” she said, noting that curating brings artists together to develop a network. “Curating is also to develop links between artists, practices or thematics, and these links should be organic so that the viewers can find their own perspective.”

Accompanying exhibitions with some sort of textual element is also important in her curatorial work. “Publication is a very good medium to disseminate the artist’s work,” said Gingras, who founded a publishing house, Éditions Nicole Gingras, which focuses on artists from Montreal and abroad who “have never had a book.” It is one of the many ways Gingras sheds light on artists and their work.

In terms of choosing which artists to work with, Gingras said it is not a question of choice but a question of timing. “I’m interested in research and exploratory approaches,” she said, which is often what guides her decision.

The exhibition Spectres, waves and modulations was featured at Oboro in Montreal this year. Photo by Paul Litherland.

A landscape of works

Gingras has worked on a long-term basis with the International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA), which focuses on films and documentaries about artists on an international scale. She was first invited to be a guest programmer in 2003, and a few years later, Gingras was appointed as the director of one of the festival’s sections, which she later named FIFA Experimental. This particular section “presents the latest in video art and experimental film while reconnecting us with the achievements of pioneers and the emergence of other singular voices,” according to the festival’s website.

“I thought it would be interesting to reflect the artist’s work, so it is like an addition to the exhibition,” Gingras said. Some of the films and videos she has curated for the festival are based on the artists’ practices and processes, while others are more like art essays.

Additionally, over the years, Gingras has been invited to curate the collections of various film distributors and video centres in Canada based on select themes. Among these distributors is Group Intervention Vidéo, an artist-run centre dedicated to supporting female artists and video makers. Gingras said she was particularly interested in their collection because of its focus on social issues and art.

“We go very deep in the process and in the intention of these artists,” said Gingras about the process of curating this type of collection.

One of the challenges Gingras has faced as a curator is balancing multiple projects at once. “All of the projects are not at the same moment of their development. The challenge is to coordinate all of these aspects and to be able to manage them,” she said.

Another challenge she has experienced is mounting an exhibition in another country, because it takes a lot more communication and coordination between her and the artists. Nevertheless, she assured “it’s a good challenge.”

The longest exhibition Gingras curated abroad was Où sont les sons? / Where are Sounds?. This exhibition was displayed in Brussels, Belgium, from April 20 to Sept. 10, 2017. The project involved the works of artists from Montreal, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Greece, France, Norway and Italy. According to Gingras, the project incorporated many of her curatorial interests—sound work, silence, kinetic installation, transformation—into one exhibition.

“In this exhibition, you can experience sounds from different parts of your body, not only from your ears,” she explained. “Sounds can be transmitted to your body through your teeth, skin or bones.”

Où sont les sons?, on display in Belgium, was the longest exhibition Gingras curated abroad. Courtesy of Nicole Gingras.

Current endeavors

Gingras’ latest curatorial work, Spectres, ondes et modulations, was on display at Oboro, a contemporary and new media art centre in Montreal, from Feb. 3 to March 10. For this exhibition, Gingras took the work of Martine H. Crispo, an artist-in-residence at Oboro, and gave it a particular angle.

“When I proposed this exhibition to the selection committee, I thought it would be interesting to show one piece by Martine, but also to make relations with artists who are using film or video.” According to Gingras, the purpose was to build a connection between the thematic elements in Crispo’s work and their connection with the work of other artists in film and video. The exhibition focused on the different experiences of duration and sound in relation to motion or moving image, she said.

Gingras also put together six programs, featuring a total of 29 artists’ works, for FIFA Experimental in the latest edition of FIFA, which wrapped up on March 18. On the festival’s final weekend, Gingras organized a public conversation followed by a Q&A session with two filmmakers, Alexandre Larose and Shelley Niro. According to Gingras, Larose looks at reality, nature and domestic space, while Niro’s work deals with identity, the land, its history and how all of this is disseminated in a powerful manner.

A piece of advice Gingras would give to her students, or any student who wants to be an artist or a curator, is to immerse themselves in the art world. “See as much as possible in galleries,” she said. “[It is important] to live your own experience of the work, to get this experience, and to refer later to the memory of this experience in [your] own work.”

“Artists make us aware of things that sometimes we don’t see, hear or understand, so as a young artist or as an aspiring curator, you have to go through these experiences yourself.”

Feature photo by François Quévillon.


Art through a mechanical, system-based lens

Simon Laroche takes on the seemingly dichotomous roles of engineer and artist

Multimedia artist Simon Laroche’s studio is in an unusual state: it’s partly vacant. Two art pieces that usually fill some of the space are missing. One is being exhibited in Kitchener, Ont., and the other recently finished its exhibit in Quebec City.

Laroche, who moved into the studio about three years ago, said the partially empty space lends itself to new projects. “It feels like there’s more room to make more stuff,” he said.

The “stuff” Laroche is referring to can be summed up in a few words: “a systems-based approach to art.” His work incorporates robotics and moving parts to produce installations, interactive shows and performances.

Nous Sommes les Fils et les Filles de l’Électricité premiered at 100%, a Paris arts festival, in 2016. Photo by Gridspace.

In 2003, Laroche and Etienne Grenier founded Projet EVA, a collective that produces digital art installations and performances. The two met while completing their master’s degrees in communications at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). They rapidly became friends and began collaborating.

After responding to open calls and requests for projects during the collective’s earlier years, Laroche and Grenier developed a way for their pieces to circulate in different galleries, museums and festivals while the artists produced and conceptualized ideas for other work at the same time.

“[We] envisioned a way to have three operations running at the same time: the circulation of work, the production of a piece and […] the phases where you think about the project, you conceptualize it,” Laroche said. “[The] aim was to have all three of these things running at the same time so we would get more activities.”

As Laroche and Grenier had hoped, Projet EVA’s pieces began circulating more frequently. The funny thing, however, was that some installations toured outside Montreal before being exhibited in the city.

Nous Sommes les Fils et les Filles de l’Électricité premiered in Paris, France, two years ago at La Villette Park for 100%, a multidisciplinary festival. The piece, which is a combination of performance, live participatory theatre and digital art, according to Projet EVA’s website, was also displayed in four Maison de la Culture art centres throughout Montreal about a year later in November 2017. “It actually toured in Europe before coming here,” Laroche said.

Laroche called Montreal’s art scene a “great portal to Europe,” having had several experiences touring small and large works in France, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Cinétose, a work made of metal sheets that lower onto viewers, toured in France. Photo by Gridspace.

Cinétose was one of the larger projects Projet EVA created that circulated in various locations in France. The electromagnetic installation, measuring 20 feet in length and 30 feet in width, is made of steel sheets and lowers onto viewers mechanically. “It covers the whole ceiling of a venue,” Laroche said. “[Cinétose] marked a change in the way we produce art, making [Projet EVA] envision larger, more complex pieces involving more resources.”

Despite success in Europe, Laroche said Projet EVA is trying to circulate more of their works in Canada as well as work with more Canadian art centres.

Balancing engineering and art

Laroche’s artistic background is based in arts and communications. He became interested in multimedia during his undergraduate degree at UQAM because it was “experimental and open-ended.” However, Laroche moved away from strictly audiovisual platforms when he found projects stopped being dynamic. “Even moving images on a monitor seem too static to me,” he said.

This prompted him to incorporate computer programming into installations, and interactive platforms with moveable, physical components. As an undergrad, Laroche worked as a computer programmer, so he was familiar with concepts like coding, which he later brought into his pieces. This coding know-how helped Laroche incorporate robotics and moving parts into many of his projects.

Perpetual Demotion is a human-feeding robot powered by three motors. It was built for Hedonistika, which was presented at the Biennale internationale d’art numérique exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal four years ago. When viewers stand in front of the robot, it detects movement, locates a face and aligns the spoon to move towards their mouth.

Perpetual Demotion detects movement, finds the participant’s face and aligns the spoon with their mouth. Screenshot from Vimeo video by Simon Laroche.

The project required inverse schematics, which involves mathematical functions that undo each other. Laroche turned to YouTube to find experts and videos about the unfamiliar topic. He said the process of learning to build elements of his works can sometimes involve being as “stubborn as possible to figure out how things work [to] reappropriate [them].”

Since Laroche uses “a lot of code that isn’t necessarily developed for the arts,” he tries to figure out what works by creating numerous prototypes. Perpetual Demotion was no exception. He built several small mockups to test out which mechanics would give him the desired effect. This “experimental approach,” as Laroche calls it, is a live, real-time way to test both the ideas he has prior to beginning the project and the ideas that come about while building a project.

Getting to this prototype phase often comes after hours of conceptualizing an idea, researching potential ways to make that idea come to life, and constantly adjusting mechanic and artistic aspects as the piece is being built.

One of Laroche’s collaborations with Ying Gao is Incertitudes, a project featuring voice-activated garments. Photos by Mathieu Forting.

Laroche’s knowledge of mechanics and art allows him to completely understand each component of his pieces. While he often collaborates with other artists, Laroche likes taking on the seemingly dichotomous roles of engineer and artist. “By mastering technicalities of [a project], I can better tune the aesthetics of it,” he said.

In 2013, Laroche collaborated with Ying Gao, a Montreal-based fashion designer and professor at UQAM. The two met while completing their master’s degrees. Laroche remembers being in Gao’s studio as she moved a magnet above some needles and asked him: “How do we do this without holding the magnet?”

Incertitudes was the answer to that question. The pair used Laroche’s knowledge of mechanics to create voice-activated, kinetic garments. Similar to the needles Gao once laid out and moved with a magnet in her studio, the garment is covered in pins that move when spectators speak to it. The pins’ movement creates a dialogue between artwork and viewer.

Teaching at Concordia

Laroche began teaching classes in Concordia’s intermedia and studio arts programs in the early 2000s. While some of the classes have changed names, what hasn’t changed is his devotion to his students. Laroche enjoys exchanging ideas with students, as well as guiding them towards what they want to do in the future. The exchange of ideas that occurs between professor and student furthers Laroche as an artist.

“Even if there’s a difference in knowledge or experience, there’s still this dialogue that comes up and that makes me progress as well,” he said.

Teaching part-time gives Laroche an ideal schedule—he has enough time to balance his professional work with his teaching. “Having one class per year or per semester is great for me,” he said.

When Laroche is teaching a course, he likes to start off with a bit of background in art history and programming basics before proceeding to projects. This way, his students are well-versed in the theory before they begin practical work.

One of the most challenging parts of being a part-time faculty member is that he cannot supervise independent studies courses for undergraduate and master’s students. “There are students I’ve had in first and second year; I know where they want to go and I know where they are at,” Laroche said. Yet, despite having taught some of these students more often than full-time professors have, when students ask him to supervise their work, he has to say no. “It’s kind of deceiving.”

Nonetheless, he has managed to find a way to support students with the help of the Concordia University Part-time Faculty Association (CUPFA). With funding from the association, Laroche can hire students to work with him at Projet EVA. In turn, he can help them with their own ideas. “I want to help students develop their projects,” Laroche said.

Feature photo by Valeria Cori-Manocchio

Student Life

From stage to screen to studio

Long-time instructor Harry Standjofski is bringing his ilm and theatre experience to the classroom

“I’ve never really had a job,” quipped Harry Standjofski, a part-time instructor in Concordia’s theatre department, when asked about the beginning of his career. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Although his career may not fit the traditional nine-to-five model, Standjofski has spent years working as an actor, playwright and director in Montreal and across Canada. From quirky theatre anthologies to best-selling video games, Standjofski’s work transcends diverse mediums. While the highlights of a career spanning nearly four decades have included the publication of two original plays and a string of roles on both the stage and screen, no project has been as long-term as his work at Concordia.

“I started here as a student, actually,” Standjofski said. “A few years later, I was working here, so in that way, there wasn’t really a time before Concordia.”

After studying theatre and graduating from the university in 1982, Standjofski, who was born and raised in Outremont, spent three years traveling and working as an actor before signing his first part-time contract with Concordia. Since then, he has spent most years working with the university in some capacity, often teaching one or two studio courses per semester. Unlike theoretical courses, which focus on studying concepts, theory and the work of other theatre artists, many of the courses Standjofski teaches offer students practical knowledge of the theatre craft.

the invisible man
Caption: A scene from “L’homme invisible/The Invisible Man”, a bilingual production Standjofski directed in 2014
Credit: Amy Keith

“Actors [in the theatre program] will spend most of their classes actually acting and learning in the studio,” Standjofski said. In past years, he has also taught playwriting, theory and scene study, and has been involved in the process of auditioning actors for admission.

Although most of the acting courses are reserved for students in the program, Standjofski misses a time when students from other departments were also allowed to enroll.

“One of the greatest feelings was when a student [from another program] would take a class, and then afterwards actually decided to switch into theatre, which happened more than once,” Standjofski recalled.

In addition to his work as a teacher, Standjofski is also heavily involved with the Concordia University Part-time Faculty Association (CUPFA) as a representative for the theatre department. He acknowledges the fact that the experiences of part-time staff members are varied across departments and faculties, but he has been happy with his experiences as a part-time staff member, and the theatre department has embraced his involvement with CUPFA.

“I really couldn’t ask for anything better,” Standjofski said about his experience in the department. “They’ve done everything they can to work with us, and they’ve listened to my recommendations. […] The theatre department wants the best for us. In that sense, it has been really great.”

An award-winning theatre career

In the worlds of both theatre and film, Standjofski said there is often an expectation that artists, particularly actors, have to travel for their work, whether it’s for touring theatre productions or location film shoots. For many actors, being rooted in one city might make finding work a challenge, but Standjofski has thrived in Montreal’s vibrant theatre community.

“I’ve spent time travelling a lot in Canada. I did shows in Vancouver, in Calgary […] I found myself all over the place,” Standjofski said about his early years as an actor. “I don’t see Concordia or being in Montreal as something that has limited me in terms of opportunities.”

Despite the fact he has worked at Concordia since 1986, Standjofski has balanced his position with consistent theatre work. Acting may be the craft he focuses on as an instructor, but he has also made waves as a playwright. In 1986, he began his professional playwriting career as a playwright-in-residence at the Centaur Theatre, one of Montreal’s most prominent English theatres. In 1992, he published Urban Myths, an anthology book that featured Anton and No Cycle, two of his original plays. However, he said he has seen many more of his plays produced in cities across the country, from Edmonton to Montreal.

Some of these written works have earned him notable awards. In 2004, his one-act play jennydog earned two Montreal English Critics Circle Awards (MECCA), and in 2005, his play Here & There was nominated for a Masques Award, a provincial award for theatre excellence in Quebec.

Along with playwriting, Standjofski has established himself as a notable Montreal actor. One of his standout passion projects is Urban Tales, an anthology series that runs annually at the Centaur. Consisting of multiple short pieces linked by distinct themes, Urban Tales is an opportunity for emerging and established Montreal artists to work together. Over the past 11 years, Standjofski has directed and written for the series, and performed as both an actor and musician. One of his most recent roles was the part of Russ in Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer-winning play Clybourne Park. Produced by the Centaur, the show ran in April 2017.

Standjofski said teaching part-time offers an element of flexibility that allows him to pursue other projects during the academic year.

“I’m able to teach my classes, mark my students and that’s it,” Standjofski said.

From the stage to the screen

While theatre may be his first love, many of the projects Standjofski has taken on have been on-screen roles.

Some of his film credits include roles in Canadian films like Café Olé, as well as critically acclaimed international films like the 2010 adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s novel Barney’s Version and Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film, The Aviator.

Standjofski (back row, second from right) with the cast of Clybourne Park in April 2017
Credit: Centaur Theatre (photographer not named)

Standjofski has also tapped into a lesser-known entertainment market: voice acting.

“At this point, if you watch [animated series] or like video games, you’ve probably heard my voice,” he said. Standjofski has lent his voice to everything from Canadian-made animated series like Young Robin Hood to mainstream animated movies like Arthur’s Perfect Christmas. Perhaps most surprisingly, Standjofski’s vocal work can be heard in a variety of video games, including every one of the popular Assassin’s Creed video game installments. “It’s a lot of f

un to do, and it has been consistent work,” he said.

Standjofski has also benefited from being a bilingual performer. He has appeared in a number of French-language television series, such as L’imposteur and A nous deux.

In Standjofski’s experience, there is much more fanfare when working in French television, compared to its much larger, more saturated English-language counterpart. While there may be more anglophone roles in Canadian television, francophone fans are much more likely to recognize him in public.
“It’s a lot different,” Standjofski said. “People you meet recognize you, they’ll know you from the things you’ve done. There’s a connection there.”

Training the next generation

While film and voice acting are fulfilling careers in their own right, Standjofski’s teaching position keeps him close to the work that made him fall in love with theatre in the first place.

Harry Standjofski with actress Sylvie Moreau on the set of the French film Un Capitalisme Sentimentale

“You can appear in dozens of things, and never do anything you really love,” Standjofski said about working in the film industry. “In class, we read [Anton] Chekhov, we’re looking at work on that level, and I like being able to get back to that work […] I can’t speak for every student, but most of the time, they’re here because that’s the work they want to be doing.”

Despite the versatility and longevity he has found in his own career, Standjofski admitted there are barriers for emerging and established artists within the theatre world, namely when it comes to finances. Specifically, some of the most illustrious job opportunities may be very removed from the works Standjofski is so happy to teach.

“You might have to do something that’s not really […] what you’re passionate about,” Standjofski said about the challenges of finding acting work that’s both profitable and fulfilling. “But taking a commercial and doing something like that can be what funds everything else.”

Ultimately, his favourite moments as a teacher don’t come down to a single production or class. In fact, his proudest memories don’t take place in the studio at all—they come later, when he sees his students succeeding post-graduation.
“In a lot of things, like Urban Tales, I’ve worked with students, year after year. I’ve cast a lot of graduates,” he said. “There’s something really nice when I can work with someone, and not as their teacher, but now just as a collaborator.”

Feature photo by

Student Life

A teacher who never stops learning

How Dan Babineau brings his passion for filmmaking to his courses at Concordia and Champlain College

When Dan Babineau wants to teach his students about filmmaking, he tells them to learn it by themselves.

“I realized that where they really learn is the assignments and when they’re off on their own,” he said. “Standing there with a PowerPoint about all the stuff you know is not going to make them learn it.”

Babineau has been teaching at Champlain College on Montreal’s south shore since 1992, and has been the chairman of the creative arts department since 2008. He is also a part-time faculty member in the communications department at Concordia University. Yet, Babineau never studied to be a teacher. In fact, it wasn’t even his first-choice profession.

Babineau was studying literature and language at Champlain College when he decided to take a film class. He enjoyed the class so much that he realized he wanted a career in the film industry.

Once he graduated from Champlain in 1975, Babineau began studying communications at Concordia, and graduated in 1981. After university, Babineau said many of his peers had trouble finding jobs in the film industry, and some became stock brokers or winemakers instead.

“I did the same year or two of [looking] around, trying to get work and, by accident, ended up in the corporate world basically helping companies lie to their employees with media,” Babineau said.

Babineau (on drums) played in a band called The Alpha Jerks while he was a Concordia student. Here, the band is playing at Reggies Bar in the Hall building in 1982. Photo by Ian Migicovsky.

Nonetheless, in the corporate world, he fulfilled his dream of making movies for a living by creating advertisements and other promotional videos. For 15 years, Babineau freelanced for multiple production companies. He wrote, produced, directed, added voice-overs and supervised entire projects. At times, he worked as a consultant for companies in need of a story idea. According to Babineau, his background in communications and his passion for filmmaking helped him a lot with these various projects.

“A lot of people working in that business were like shoe salesmen; they didn’t know anything,” he said. “They knew this company wanted a video that said, ‘Molson beer is the best.’ They didn’t know anything about video or how to write a proper script or use the right picture. There I was with the communications background and all these ideas, and I did very well in that business.”

Babineau had to travel a lot for his job, and said that, for six years, he commuted between Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. Right before his daughter was born, Babineau’s film teacher from Champlain, John McKay, who was the chairman of the creative arts department at that point, contacted him about teaching a course. Babineau agreed immediately. His daughter was born on Jan. 8, 1992, and he started teaching on Jan. 20.

“I loved it, and I thought: ‘Wow I’m in class on my feet shooting around ideas like I used to, but it’s not for stupid clients and not for stupid products,’” Babineau said.

He balanced work and teaching for a few years, but quickly realized teaching was his calling. “I suspect I was always destined to teach, without knowing it,” Babineau said. “In the corporate world, I was coaching executives on how to give their speech; I was pitching in front of committees and standing up a lot.”

Babineau said that, by his second year of teaching, he had learned the tools of the trade. He also gave himself rules to live by as a professor.

“I promised myself I would never be pretentious, which is something that drove me crazy at university with PhD teachers,” he said. “I’ll try not to be dull. If it isn’t fun and exciting, then it’s probably not worth teaching. And to be myself […] I’m me. I’m not a trained teacher, but I have creativity.”

Champlain College allowed Babineau to continue teaching more courses until he became a full-time professor a few years later. In 2002, Champlain College gave him a permanent position. More than 25 years after he first stepped foot in a classroom to teach, Babineau is still learning. He said a few years ago, he heard his son playing Led Zeppelin on the guitar, which he’d learned to do by watching videos on YouTube. It was then that Babineau realized that, when students are passionate about something, they will learn it themselves.

“As a teacher, what’s the best thing you could do? Make them interested enough so they can learn it, then just get out of the way,” Babineau said. He applies this when teaching a special effects course at Champlain. He said his class is too big to teach everyone individually, so one assignment involves students sharing with the class what they learned about special effects on their own time.

Little Girl Blue, partially funded by the National Film Board of Canada, was shown on CBC in December 2016. Babineau is in the middle. Photo by Bruno Parent.

In 1999, the year his son was born, Babineau returned to his alma mater to teach a filmmaking class for Concordia’s communications department. Little did he know, his former teacher-turned-colleague, McKay, was teaching the other sections of that course. Together, they taught the course until it was cut from the curriculum in 2008. Babineau didn’t teach at Concordia for two years after that, until the university offered him film studies classes, which he has been teaching ever since.

Babineau has noticed a big difference in the way he approaches a course at Concordia compared to Champlain. He said students in CEGEP, unlike university students, don’t know what they want to do as a career.

“The thing at CEGEP that you’re looking for is to help [the students] figure out what they’re going to do next, and what they’re good at,” Babineau said. “At university, they’ve already figured it out, and they’re intellectually way more challenging. […] People are going to ask you challenging questions because they’re way more smart, they know what field they’re going into and who they are. University, for me, is an intellectual reward.”

Babineau’s film, Little Girl Blue, is a Christmas movie, but it’s set in a hospital. Photo by Thilelli Chouikrat.

However, Babineau said he feels rewarded when he notices his CEGEP students finding their passion. Champlain’s creative arts department makes their students produce a short film in their fourth semester. Babineau said the production is similar to making a real movie, with everyone being assigned a different role, including sound, camera and makeup.

“They feel like they’re working on a real film, and they go, ‘Oh my God, this is what I want to do as my real job.’ Three weeks before they graduate, they figure it out,” Babineau said with a laugh. He added that the best moments as a teacher happen outside of the classroom.

“I bend over backwards to make the class exciting and good,” Babineau said. “But I know having drinks at Brutopia the night after they finished screening their film will be what they remember from that class.”

Babineau and other faculty members often help students out with their film projects. One year, the students wanted to produce a zombie film, and Babineau happily got involved to help them in any way he could. That involvement included lying on the floor and pretending to be a zombie at 8 a.m. on a Sunday.

“We’re lying on the floor, and I look at [another teacher] and say, ‘What a great job we have, eh?’ Can you picture other people whose job is to lie on the floor and wear zombie makeup?” Babineau said.

Babineau (left) said medical experts helped in making Little Girl Blue. Photo by Thilelli Chouikrat.

In 2015, Babineau had the opportunity to bring his students from Champlain and Concordia together to produce a movie.

During a Christmas lunch at Champlain one year, staff members from different departments screened homemade Christmas movies. “My department is notoriously not involved in school stuff, so we didn’t do anything,” Babineau said.

That’s when a colleague from the nursing department suggested Babineau write a Christmas film for the following year. So he went home, thinking he would write a silly video involving the nursing department and Christmas. But after listening to “Little Girl Blue” by Nina Simone, a sad Christmas song, Babineau’s focus changed.

“Nurse. Christmas. Sad,” Babineau said. “So I ended up writing a story about a nurse who has a bad day and ends up quitting her job, but on the way home, has to deliver a baby for a homeless woman […] I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s baby Jesus.’”

The idea for the film quickly escalated from a video for a Christmas lunch into a bigger production. He started to get former students from Champlain and Concordia to volunteer their time to produce the film. Without much of an initial budget, Babineau got a whole cast and crew together to shoot for five days. He said seeing his former students work together made him proud.

Babineau (left) talking with the lead actress of Little Girl Blue, Iris Lapid. Photo by Alex Turcot.

“Can you imagine, you taught a student 10 years ago and he becomes a professional cameraman, and then comes back to work with you on this project? I have all this talent around me, and I taught them when they were 17,” Babineau said.

After receiving a professional development grant from Concordia’s Part-Time Faculty Association, and with post-production help from the National Film Board of Canada, Little Girl Blue, a 20-minute film, was shown on CBC during the 2016 holidays. Babineau said he had fun making the film, and didn’t expect it to get so big.

“I had my Oscar speech prepared, but I didn’t expect it to go that far,” Babineau said with a laugh. “All the students came on board and raised the [quality of the project].”

After nearly three decades in the profession, Babineau knows his time as a teacher is coming to an end. He made a promise to himself that, as long he enjoys teaching, he will continue doing it.

“If you can’t bring the real fire and passion, why would you inflict it on these kids? They don’t need to see someone whose fire has burned out and [doesn’t] think anything is interesting,” he said.

Babineau already knows what he will do once he retires: “When I leave teaching, it won’t be to go to another job.”

Main photo by Thilelli Chouikrat.

A previous version of this article said Babineau started teaching at Champlain College in 1991, and that his daughter was born the same year. A photo caption also said his band was called The Alpha. The errors were fixed and The Concordian regrets them. 

Student Life

Piecing together fragments of history

Colleen Gray brings her experience as an editor, writer and poet to the classroom

Colleen Gray was flipping through books at the St-Sulpice Library, searching for a topic for her PhD thesis, when “this person’s voice just jumped out of the book and grabbed me.” It was the voice of Marie Barbier, a teaching nun from the Congrégation de Notre-Dame who lived in Montreal between 1663 and 1739. “I had this feeling I was going to write about this woman,” Gray recounted. “I felt that her voice needed to be heard by other people.”

The book in which Gray first discovered Barbier’s voice was actually written by a male priest who had collected the nun’s writings, inserted them among his own depiction of her story and then thrown away the originals. As with so many marginalized voices in history, what remained of Barbier’s work was fragmented and corrupted.

“That’s what happened to women in history. It’s your classic paradigm of how we’ve lost our voices in history,” Gray explained.

When Gray began studying history at the undergraduate level in the 70s, it was not only the women in history who were being marginalized; little space was provided for the women seeking to study it. This was one of several factors that stopped Gray from pursuing a master’s degree at the time.

She also saw that the field of history was moving away from a narrative discourse and focusing more on quantitative analysis. As a writer and a long-time poet, it was a shift Gray wasn’t willing to make. “That was just a little bit over the edge for me,” she said. “So I thought, ‘Well it’s time for me to step outside of that area.’”

Over the next two decades or so, Gray traveled and taught English as a second language; she edited manuscripts, had children and worked for the Science Council of Canada. In the early 90s, however, something began to change.

“I started to feel like time was running out, and if I wanted to really do something in academia and poetry, I had to do it now,” Gray said. Even her poetry, which she had continued to write and publish over the years, focused on historical themes in Montreal and seemed to demand the footnotes that characterize scholarly writing.

When she returned to university to complete her master’s, Gray was surprised to find that, not only had narrative history made a comeback, but women had also taken centre stage in her field.

“I came back at just the right time,” she said. “The beginning of my PhD was a wonderful adventure, a wonderful exploration in women and women’s voices and women’s archives. It was just such a liberation for me to be able to do that and do that with integrity without hiding it.”

A few years after she completed her PhD at McGill University in 2004, Gray decided it was time to rescue Barbier’s voice as best she could. The process involved transcribing, translating and annotating the nun’s writings to give them context. Compiled in the latter half of Gray’s book, As a Bird Flies, Barbier’s writings tell their own story. For the last three years, Gray has been writing a biographical introduction for the book—an endeavour that has grown from an anticipated 10 pages to nearly 100.

“It wouldn’t have gotten bigger if I hadn’t seen, as I was doing it, […] how much more real she became and how much more we could understand her life if it was presented this way,” Gray explained.

Yet a comparison can be made between the priest’s appropriation of Barbier’s work and the way Gray is presenting the nun’s writings. In fact, it was a realization that slowed down the progress of As a Bird Flies. “I was very judgmental with what he had done when I started the project, but as the journey advanced, I realized that I have no right to judge him because that’s what I’m doing,” Gray said.

The difference, Gray explained, is that she has preserved the integrity of Barbier’s writings in the second half of her book for people to read and interpret on their own. “I didn’t throw her writings away, and I tried to be as true as possible to the original source as I encountered it,” she said. “It’s corrupted, but the fact remains—and this is something that is difficult to prove—you can hear her voice.”

Colleen Gray reads an excerpt from her book, No Ordinary School, at The Study in 2015. Photo courtesy of Colleen Gray.

Part of the challenge has also been striking a balance between historical accuracy and an engaging narrative. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Gray said with a laugh. “I just reach a point where I can’t do it anymore, and I have to do something else.”

For Gray, there is always something else to do because the trajectory of her career has allowed her to remain “diversified,” as she put it. Although completing her master’s and PhD later in life didn’t make her an ideal candidate for tenure, Gray said that path “wasn’t in the cards” for her anyway. Instead, she has worked as a part-time professor at Concordia since 2006, and also taught at Queen’s, McGill and Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont.

Most of the courses she teaches—including her pre-civil war American history class at Concordia this semester—are what she refers to as “survey courses.” Typically assigned to part-time professors, these classes take a broad look at long periods of history and have allowed Gray to diversify her own expertise.

“Now, I’m no longer this 17th century PhD specialist,” she explained. “I have really a broad, expansive understanding of North American history—both American and Canadian perspectives—and history from women, from natives, from different ethnic groups.”

Unfortunately, cutbacks in education in general have significantly reduced the number of courses available to part-time faculty in the history department, Gray said. The last course she taught was in 2016. While her freelance writing and editing offer her other sources of income, “it’s very difficult to rely on being a part-time faculty member,” she admitted. “It’s inconsistent and it’s insecure, but it has its advantages too.”

Gray said she enjoys being able to teach and still have time to work on her poetry and her freelance writing and editing. “You get to develop yourself outside of that box,” she said. It is this ongoing personal and professional development that can make part-time faculty members a unique asset to students.

“Many of us are not mainstream academics,” Gray said. “I have one side of me that is, but I’m a poet, I’m an editor. I have a lot of these different dimensions that I do bring to the classroom.”

She added that she feels her “roundabout journey” to the academic world is a valuable life experience she can share with her students. “When they come to me for help with their essays, you can’t help but talk to them about what they’re going to do and what they want to do and if they feel they should be doing history,” she explained. What Gray said she hopes students can learn from her experience is to see the bigger picture.

“It looks so difficult when you’re young. It seems so narrow, and there don’t seem to be any openings,” she said. “Maybe at the moment [history] is not for you, but that doesn’t mean 10 years down the line it’s not going to be. […] People change directions all the time, and it’s not looked down upon.”

Although these interactions allow Gray to mentor students to a certain degree, she said part-time professors are limited in the work they can do with students outside of the classroom. In particular, she said the fact that part-time faculty are not allowed to supervise a master’s or PhD thesis is “a huge restriction” for her.

“I feel I am very qualified to do so, and I feel stifled by that [restriction],” she said. “It’s understandable, because I’m not working sometimes, but so what? I would continue to supervise somebody’s work even if I wasn’t teaching just because I’m interested in it.”

For Gray, being interested in the subjects she engages with is a driving force for her work. “Writing is always a headache,” she said. “But it can be so invigorating as well, if you get the right project.”

This was the case for a book Gray wrote in 2015 as part of the centennial celebrations of The Study, a Montreal private school. “It was like the Marie Barbier project,” Gray said. “It jumped out at me that I wanted to do this project.”

The result, No Ordinary School: The Study, 1915-2015, “was a two-year, huge, under-the-gun project,” Gray recounted. The process involved sifting through old student newspapers and the school’s archives, as well as speaking with former students, teachers and headmistresses.

“There were 90-year-old women with wonderful memories, and they could give me the history of their school and what it was like during World War II,” Gray said. “One person could even go back as far as the 1920s.”

Part of what kept Gray engaged as she rushed to meet her deadline was the connection she felt to the women she was writing about. “It was almost like reliving my girlhood as a privileged private school girl,” she said with a laugh. While some people may have perceived these students as snobbish, upper-class girls, Gray didn’t approach it that way.

“I saw it as having a wonderful girlhood where you had the best education that was available for women at that time,” she explained. “I looked at it from a different angle, and stepped into those shoes.”

For Gray, being able to put herself in her subjects’ shoes and immerse herself in the material is crucial. “I wouldn’t take up a project unless I could do that, because it’s fun,” she said. “If it’s a project where you don’t want to put yourself into it like that, then that’s for somebody else to do; it’s not for me.”


At the age of 10, Colleen Gray discovered poetry. It was the spark for her career as a writer. “[Poetry] is something I’ve always had, that I’ve always done,” she said. Gray’s poems have appeared in literary journals such as The Canadian Forum, Zymergy and Fiddlehead, and she has performed her work at venues like the Yellow Door.

Consolidating her interests in history and poetry did not come naturally to Gray at first. “It took me a while to see the two of them merge,” she said. Although Gray has experimented with confessional and political poetry, historical topics often become the focus of her poems. “It’s not strictly history—it’s interpretive history,” she explained. “[The facts] are still there, but you can play with them a little bit more.”

Atironta, ca. 1650 1

(I am Atironta, son of mighty warriors)

… and in the silence of the night I pray

to you my Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin

                    my lighted

candle flickers in wind howling through the bark

of our longhouse and beyond the forests, above

the pine trees rushing into the mist of a thousand

cataracts I follow the wind to our home

                        Huron Land

(Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, save us)

… our dead are strewn beneath the earth

their groans echo in my prayers –

                    you have not released our souls

                    to our Villages of the Dead

                        Atironta, mighty warrior

  • Loosely based on a historical person, Pierre Atironta, survivor of the dispersal of the Hurons by the Iroquois in the late 1640s, appearing in Reuben Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents (Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers Company). Published in Matrix: Writing Worth Reading 32 (Fall 1990): 37.
Student Life

A passion for justice through filmmaking

Dipti Gupta has been teaching for 17 years and directed the South Asian Film Festival

“During my 20s, I used to constantly read about things that were happening in India, and it made me feel extremely angry and uncomfortable,” said Dipti Gupta, an independent documentary filmmaker, researcher and multidisciplinary artist. “I wanted to do something which would lead to justice—to a fair society for all. I thought that the pen as well as the camera were two very significant and strong tools that could bring change.”

Gupta used her writing and passion for film as tools to shape her career. In the 1980s, she regularly contributed to magazines and won many writing competitions, but she said there were no university programs in India that offered courses in filmmaking or journalism at that time. While she was studying political science and commercial art at the University of Delhi, however, she met Siddharth Sanyal.

At the time, Sanyal was producing magazines under an organization called Workbench, and he took Gupta on as a proofreader. Workbench’s office was in the same building as the production company Cinemart Foundation, which produced political and socially relevant documentaries. The company was headed by documentary filmmakers Suhasini Mulay and Tapan Bose, who became inspirations to Gupta.

One of the first documentary films Gupta saw was An Indian Story (1981), a story about the suppression of civil and democratic rights in a democratic nation. Created by Mulay and Bose, the documentary focused on a series of incidents that took place between 1979 and 1980 in Bihar, India where more than 30 people on trial were blinded with acid by the police. “It made me angry and moved me no end,” Gupta said. “At 20, it made me aware of the many injustices in our world.”

An interview with Bhavna Pani. Photo courtesy of Dipti Gupta

Gupta said she was very keen to work for Mulay. “I had seen her work and had admired her immensely,” she said. Despite her ambition, Mulay was reluctant to give Gupta a job. She told her: “Do you see any other women working in this organization?” When Gupta replied that there were only men, Mulay said: “Well, then you will not survive here.”

Nonetheless, Mulay ended up hiring Gupta because “she realized that, even though I looked really scrawny and small, I had a lot of guts.” Gupta got most of her training in the field while working for Mulay and Bose. “I learned a lot while working with her. She became my mentor, and today, she is a very dear friend,” Gupta said.

In addition to giving Gupta some challenging assignments—one of which required her to travel to a remote part of Delhi to interview a Hindu fundamentalist group—Mulay was also the one who introduced Gupta to her husband. He was working as a playwright in Canada, and Gupta eventually moved to Montreal in 1991 to be with him. “When you look back in life, you realize that there was some kind of a path,” Gupta said. “All the dots connect now.” Gupta’s husband runs the Montreal theatre company Teesri Duniya Theatre, which is dedicated to producing socially and politically relevant plays. Gupta has been on the company’s board since arriving in Canada.

When she first moved to Montreal, Gupta wanted to work for Studio D, a National Film Board of Canada studio dedicated to producing women’s documentaries. Unfortunately, the studio closed in 1996 due to a lack of funding. Around that time, “there wasn’t much work for new immigrants and someone who had very little or no Canadian work experience,” Gupta said.

After working for a short time with a few documentary filmmakers, including Martin Duckworth, Gupta decided to go back to school. She completed a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and got her master’s in media studies, both at Concordia University. During her studies, Gupta had a special interest in social and women’s issues. For her 1998 master’s thesis, “Confronting the challenge of distribution: Women documentary filmmakers in India,” Gupta interviewed several female filmmakers in India about the challenges they faced.

“I focused on women who had addressed issues of poverty and violence, women who were focussing on everyday struggles in society, be it education, social injustices, gender discrimination,” Gupta said. “There were so many things happening, and that’s what inspired me to do my master’s work.”

A group photo with the committee members and organizers of the South Asian Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Dipti Gupta.

Twenty years later, these challenges are still prevalent. “I just came back from India a few days ago, and what is really sad is that not a lot has changed,” Gupta said. “People are making good films, but there is still very little funding, and today, many artists are also facing state censorship.”

After completing her master’s, Gupta began her PhD studies at McGill University in art history and communications. However, Gupta’s daughter made her realize she wanted to work in a system that would allow her the flexibility needed to take care of her child while doing research and teaching.

Gupta has now been teaching in the cinema-video-communications department at Dawson College for 17 years. She is also a part-time faculty member at Concordia where she teaches art forms of Bollywood cinema. However, she still feels sad that she never completed her dissertation at McGill, despite finishing all her course work. She said she hopes her current work may help her eventually finish it.

Gupta’s pedagogy has always focused on exploring situations or moments in history that have brought about change. “I have consciously created courses which highlight and focus on the evolution of society and the community,” she said. “I always recognize that we are ever fortunate to have an education, and we need to use this privilege to create a fair democratic society in every way.”

According to Gupta, teaching at the CEGEP level has been an extremely humbling experience. “I always remember and recognize how I was at that stage of my life as I teach these young minds. I was idealistic and had huge dreams. It is an impressionable age. Hence, we as teachers have a huge responsibility towards this age group,” Gupta said. “My focus on my teaching has always been to make sure that I can inspire students and give them tools to prepare them for their future studies and careers.”

A portrait of Dipti Gupta, an independent documentary filmmaker, researcher and multidisciplinary artist. Photo by Sandra Hercegova.

At Concordia, Gupta’s art forms of Bollywood course focuses on the study of the construct of mythology—marriage, motherhood, masculinity and misogyny—within Indian cinema, especially films coming out of Mumbai. “My aim through that is to look at this particular construct and also to break certain stereotypes that exist while viewing and engaging with popular culture from India,” she explained.

Currently, Gupta is working on a new documentary film which explores these topics. “I think cinema gives us that window to explore and study the trends—after all, art imitates life and life often imitates art.”

These are ideas Gupta promotes outside of the classroom as well. For the last seven years, she has been on the organizing committee for the South Asian Film Festival. Hosted by the Kabir Cultural Centre, a charitable organization in Montreal, the festival highlights the work of South Asian filmmakers that focus on contemporary issues in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan. In 2017, Gupta worked as the festival’s programming director alongside her friend and fellow director Karan Singh.

One film featured in last year’s festival that particularly stood out to Gupta was A Billion Colour Story. Directed by Mumbai-based filmmaker N. Padmakumar, the film discusses communal tensions and identity issues in India. It was voted Best Film by the festival’s audience.

“The film took my breath away—with its story, it’s beautifully composed shots and the acting,” Gupta said. “[N. Padmakumar] made one of the most incredibly humane stories I have seen on screen, and it is a must-watch.”

The work Gupta does for the south asian film festival is entirely voluntary as it is a volunteer-driven festival. According to Gupta, teaching at Dawson and being a part-time employee gives her more time to contribute to other projects, such as the festival. “I am growing older, and I am realizing the urgency to contribute as well as give back to the community that has really supported me,” she said.

Dipti Gupta alongside filmmaker N. Padmakumar.

In terms of support, as a part-time faculty member at Concordia, Gupta said she feels that the Concordia University Part-time Faculty Association (CUPFA) is supportive and generous when it comes to providing grants for research. However, the research grants are not very large. “Often, as teachers, we end up putting in our own money to pursue the work,” she said.

According to Gupta, even if part-time professors only teach one or two courses, the number of hours that one puts in to create a course, to mentor or give feedback to each student is still the same as any full-time teacher. “The sad part is that, often, we are not even sure if we will continue to teach the class the following term—so you can be putting in all this work for just one term or maybe two,” Gupta added.

According to Gupta, the vice-president of CUPFA, Lorraine Oades, has created interesting forums/micro-talks on campus for part-time faculty. “Every time we get a CUPFA grant, we come and talk about our research work and the kind of contributions we are making in our discipline,” she explained. “This is very helpful.”

Aside from the film festival and teaching, Gupta is an independent filmmaker herself. Using funding from CUPFA, she made a short documentary film in 2014 alongside Karan Singh called At Home in the World. The short film celebrates over 100 years of Indian cinema in the multicultural city of Montreal. It explores Montrealers’ love of Indian cinema and their understanding of films from that country.

Gupta said establishing connections with people has been important to her life and her success. “One encounter can create a lifetime of great bonds—that is what I have learned through this entire journey,” she said. “You just have to have love in your heart and respect for people, and you will go a long way.”

As for women who aspire to become documentary filmmakers, Gupta had one piece of advice: “The key as a filmmaker and as an artist is to identify what inspires you, what drives you. I think, in your heart, you always know.”


CUPFA and Concordia reach a consensus

New collective agreement enacted retroactively, to expire on Dec. 31, 2017

After two and a half years of negotiations, the Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association (CUPFA) and the university’s administration signed a new collective agreement on Nov. 10. However, it will only be in effect until Dec. 31, 2017, because it retroactively fills the void since the last collective agreement expired on May 1, 2015.

According to Patrice Blais, CUPFA’s vice-president of grievances and collective agreement, the new agreement addresses many issues the association brought to the negotiating table, such as the pension plan and online courses for part-time faculty members. Concordia spokesperson Mary-Jo Barr said the university wishes to represent a united front with the union with regards to the collective agreement.

Although negotiations began in May 2015, they were slowed down by a number of factors, including administrative changes in both parties, a replacement of the university’s vice-provost—the chief negotiator for faculty relations—and a CUPFA election, Blais explained. The process was also slowed because the two parties re-wrote most of the collective agreement rather than simply making a few amendments.

Among the association’s goals for the new agreement was a decrease in the number of credits required for part-time faculty to be given access to benefits, including a pension plan, sick leave and a comprehensive health plan. The previous agreement set the minimum at 50 credits of seniority, but that requirement will be lowered to 45 credits in the new agreement.

The previous collective agreement also did not have any guidelines as to how part-time faculty members could implement extra duties, which are tasks such as academic advising, course coordination and supervising graduate students. These tasks offer more work opportunities, according to Blais, which is important to CUPFA. However, Blais told The Concordian that extra duties were previously done by full-time faculty because of the lack of criteria for part-time faculty. The new collective agreement has clear-cut parameters for the implementation of extra duties by part-time faculty, including a remuneration model for such tasks.

Another significant change to the collective agreement is the modernization of paternity leave, as the previous agreement did not include paternity benefits. “Fathers will be able to get complementary benefits the same way that mothers do,” Blais said about the new agreement. This amendment allows fathers who are part-time faculty members to receive an income from the school during their five-week paternity leave, Blais explained. This amounts to 93 per cent of their regular salary, which is in line with last year’s adjustment to the Quebec parental insurance plan.

While Blais stated that improvements were made in the new agreement, CUPFA focused on pressing issues. “I am happy we’re going into a second round of negotiations [for the next collective agreement] because there are issues that still need to be addressed,” he said.

One of the issues CUPFA will be keeping an eye on are course cuts within the university. According to Blais, approximately 150 courses were eliminated because of government budget cuts and a decrease in enrollment three years ago after admission letters were sent out late.

In the 2016-17 academic year, approximately 80 courses were added to the list of those offered to part-time faculty. “We expect that with an increase in enrollment […] and voluntary retirement, it will lead to more work opportunities,” Blais said.

“It’s the end of a long process of negotiation and hard work, but the party doesn’t last very long,” he added. During the negotiations for the next collective agreement CUPFA will table an application process for online courses with part-time faculty, as these courses are structured differently than in class course.

Parallel to the negotiations about the collective agreement, CUPFA had discussions with Concordia about representation within the university. The association is demanding the creation of a part-time benefits committee, specifically for health benefits, and a non-voting seat with privileges in the university senate. These two demands have passed all the internal steps of approval and will be addressed at the board of governors meeting on Dec. 5.

Graphic by Alex Hawksworth


Instability of work is cause of stress for Concordia’s part-time faculty union

New collective agreement will reduce number of credits necessary for health care coverage

Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association (CUPFA) chair of communications Laurie Milner left a tenure position at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art and Design for a part-time faculty position at Concordia.

It’s a unique situation, she admitted, but she “wanted other things in life, other than being inside one academic community.” While being a part-time faculty member allows her to work outside the university, it is also a lot more unstable than working full-time.

“The stresses for a part-time faculty member can be pretty high in terms of job security,” Milner told The Concordian. That’s because part-time teachers apply for courses at the beginning of every year, no matter how long they’ve been working at Concordia. Milner said part-time faculty often start with only three or six teaching credits a year, the equivalent of just one or two classes.

This issue is compounded by the fact that CUPFA members are only eligible for health care coverage after 50 credits of seniority, a condition agreed upon in their last collective agreement signed in April 2012.

Milner said “part-time faculty often [don’t] have coverage for nine to 10 years” because of that condition.

The union’s new collective agreement with the school—which has to be approved by Concordia’s Board of Governors—will reduce the number of credits necessary to obtain coverage from 50 to 45. The health care plan includes access to psychologists and other mental health professionals.

In a statement, Concordia University vice-president of services Roger Côté said the agreement between both sides was a “representation of the teamwork and positive contributions of all parties.”  Milner said CUPFA members are happy with the agreement, but wished the number of credits to qualify was even lower.

CUPFA’s chair of communications added that the topic of mental health has been discussed in the Department of Studio Arts’ appraisal committee where Milner said departments do a “very intensive self-reflective analysis of where we are and where we want to be.”

The topic of mental health was also discussed in a Fine Arts Faculty Council Steering Committee by the faculty’s dean, Rebecca Duclos. Milner said “she was very happy […] it was raised as one of the issues we should focus on more.”

Duclos was a part-time faculty member herself at Concordia and eventually became the dean of graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before returning to Concordia in August 2015.

Milner, who described Duclos as “sensitive to part-time [faculty],” said department chairs and deans have a big influence. “It’s possible that you have a chair who is not particularly sensitive or supportive of part-time faculty, and they set things up in ways that suddenly exclude you from courses that you’ve been teaching for a very long time,” Milner explained.

According to Milner, the university has lost about 100 part-time faculty members in the last 10 years because of the increase in limited-term appointments or LTAs.

These positions are described by the Concordia University Faculty Association as appointments “limited to a stated term and which carries no implication that the appointee [will] be reappointed or considered for tenure.” Milner told The Concordian that LTAs have a heavy workload which consists of six courses in their first year and seven in their second and third, which pales in comparison to the workload of part-time faculty members.

“If [part-time faculty] have been there awhile, they’re not only losing money—they’re losing the health insurance if they had it, they lose their access to the library to continue their research,” Milner said. “So the stakes are so high for people.”

Photo by Alex Hutchins

Student Life

Spirituality and Sara Terreault

A pilgrimage through the life of a part-time professor

As I enter the room where I will be interviewing part-time faculty member Sara Terreault, I can’t help but notice how strikingly different the rooms in the theological studies department look compared to other departments on campus.

The paintings on the walls and the many books on the shelves seem to mirror Terreault’s  life, while the room’s beautiful wooden furnishings give a rich perspective of theology in contrast to the sterility sometimes prevalent in modern academia.

“God, the G-word—a naughty word in academia—you’re allowed to use it here and take it seriously and understand both historically and in contemporary contexts what that means for people,” Terreault said.

Terreault is a professor of theology and Irish studies. She has taught eleven different theology courses at Concordia, including a class on Celtic Christianity.

“I think something that distinguishes theology and makes it very rich and attractive to a lot of students is that we ask those existential questions while allowing a horizon of transcendence,” Terreault explained. “You’re allowed to ask questions that include ultimate questions.”

Terreault had not envisioned herself teaching theology when she was younger. Despite her Christian upbringing and lifelong involvement with the Church, Terreault initially planned to be an artist.

From the age of 13 to 19, Terreault apprenticed with painter Helmut Gerth, focusing primarily on watercolours. “I convinced my mom to get me these private art lessons, and I just took to it like a duck to water,” she said.

From there, Terreault enrolled in Dawson’s Studio Arts program, where she was able to practice studio art, including painting and sculpting. However, Terreault eventually pursued art history at Concordia—a decision influenced by her travels and year living in the UK. “I went to Europe and saw lots of art and loved it,” she said. “So when it came time to pick a major, I picked art history.”

Though spirituality and Christianity had been important parts of Terreault’s life, she became distant from this aspect of her identity when she started her undergraduate degree.

“At that time, religious things were, in that academic environment, uncool—and the worst of all was Christianity,” Terreault said. “I towed the fashionable line and sort of let that all go.”

But spirituality was never far from Terreault’s mind, she said, even if she wasn’t actively thinking about it. “I did a lot of literature and classics for electives,” she said. “They were all sort of sideways, backdoor ways of getting at that same sort of [theological] area.”

Terreault moved to California in 1988 when her husband was offered a job there. She lived there for seven years, working as a stay-at-home mother for her two boys and running an in-home daycare part-time.

Terreault had a moment of spiritual clarity when she gave birth to her first child. “Having kids really helps you start thinking about what really matters, and I guess I just got the balls to say [spirituality] is what I really care about,” she said.

After being out of school 10 years, Terreault decided to move back to Montreal to complete her undergraduate art history degree and to pursue her graduate degree in theology at Concordia. She is now a part-time professor there, teaching on average one to two courses per semester.

Her favourite course to teach, she said, is THEO 234 Pilgrim Bodies, Sacred Journeys, which allows students to undertake personal pilgrimages or participate in an organized class pilgrimage. She has travelled with students to the Camino de Santiago de Compostella in Spain, across Ireland, and to the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk reservation to explore both Christian and Mohawk traditions of spirituality.

Terreault has undertaken many personal pilgrimages as well, particularly around Ireland and the UK. Her favourite pilgrimage, she said, was one she made to Iona in Scotland.

“I’m interested in those early Celtic saints—their lives and their wishes and dreams and values,” she said. “I really feel like there’s a kind of communion with them when I’m in places that they were in, or where they’re buried, or where others have walked towards them.”

Most of the pilgrimages Terreault does are on foot, though she said this does not have to be the case for everyone. “For some people, the journey is the whole thing. For other people, the end point is the whole thing—they might fly as close to their destination as possible and then take a car,” she said. “I would say, for me, it’s both.”

Class pilgrimage to the Kahnawake Mohawk reservation in 2016. Photo courtesy of Sara Terreault

“There’s a lot that goes on when you walk long distances in a sustained way over days upon days. Physiologically, it changes the body. Psychologically, it slows you down,” Terreault said. “In a walking pilgrimage, the journey becomes part of the point, and it provokes existential questions and reflection.”

Teaching, and her ability to engage with students, she said, is what she is most proud of. “They are just wonderful people to hang out with, and when you get a sense that you’ve contributed something valuable to them, that’s pretty darn fulfilling.”

However, being a part-time professor has been challenging for Terreault. The hardest part, for her, is the lack of recognition and funding. “Funding, if you’re part-time, is a lot harder to get for research,” she said.

But the Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association (CUPFA), she said, has been a saviour with regards to her research. “CUPFA has simply been a lifeline in terms of allowing me to do research in these ancient pilgrimage places,” Terreault said. “They’re completely supportive of research, and there’s not much help for that elsewhere in the university unfortunately.”

However, Terreault still struggles. There are semesters when she is given no classes to teach at all. “It’s a small department, and courses have been cut over the last few years with budget cuts, so there are fewer offerings,” she said. “I would certainly love to teach more, but sometimes the courses just aren’t available.”

During these times, she said, finances can be a struggle. “Food bills and mortgage payments and things like that, you’ve got to meet them.” Though she’s thought about getting another job, she has no real plans to do so.

“This is what I love to do,” she said. “I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to get enough that it keeps me going.”

The classes she teaches now attract a very diverse group of students—and that’s how she likes it. “If theology is about what it means to be human in all dimensions, then all the different disciplines have something to say to that question,” she said.

Terreault works hard to welcome and incorporate all students’ experiences and value orientations into her classroom, whether they are religious or not. “I invite students to bring their experience and understanding into the conversation. You don’t check your beliefs at the door—you bring them in and learn how to look at them critically and in a historical context or cultural context,” she said.

Terreault says her classes are widely popular. Interest in theology, she said, has become less taboo since her university experience in the 80s. Any given class she teaches will include students from many different departments.

“I would say it’s spread pretty evenly across the disciplines,” she said. “I think they find that balance between intellectual orientation and that sort of holistic orientation of theology which speaks to them in some way that’s valuable.”

Terreault said she always tries to bring her curiosity and care to the classroom. “I care about learning and I care about the students. I love them. I think I’m pretty open-minded, but at the same time, a pretty disciplined thinker.”

Outside of her Concordia classes, Terreault has worked as a spiritual and community animator for the English Montreal School Board. In this capacity, she helped students tackle spiritual and existential questions, and incorporated each student’s spiritual and religious beliefs into counseling.

Unlike psychological counseling, which focuses solely on the individual, spiritual animation, she explained, focuses on students’ well-being in a wider community context. At the same time, it gives students the space to think about life’s big questions and what they mean to them.

“Some of my students, I would meditate with them. For some of them, they may want to pray,” she said. “It may, for some, have a religious component. For others it may not. And it’s also a way to give them a space to sort of think about and act on those questions and concerns, and also a way of getting them involved in community action.”

Terreault on the Pilgrim’s Way to Holy Island of Lindisfarne, in northeast England, a location of the early medieval monastery of Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert, in 2016. Photo courtesy of Sara Terreault

One year, Terreault’s students put on a music concert and invited a retirement community to come watch. She says activities like this help grow students’ combined spiritual, personal and community identity.

Terreault said her work as an animator allowed her to work with students from a variety of backgrounds, from Judeo-Christian students, to Muslim students, to Sikh students and even irreligious students. “The school I worked in was complete diversityland,” she said about her work at Holy Cross Elementary. “It was a wonderful, wonderful environment.”

Outside of teaching, Terreault enjoys gardening, travelling and going to art museums. “I still love my art history,” she said. “There’s something about that combination of art and theology.”

Although it’s been awhile since Terreault has painted seriously, she said she hopes to get back into it in the future. “[My eldest son] has sort of gotten interested in painting, so he and I are thinking of setting up a little studio in the basement chez nous, and he’ll come over and we’ll do some painting together,” she said.

Still, spirituality plays a big role in her personal life. Terreault attends Church and engages in what she calls “classical practices revamped to fit [her] lifestyle,” such as meditation and fasting.

She said most of the things in her life are guided by spirituality. “I consider a lot of the things I do, both in the classroom and outside, spiritual,” Terreault said.

“Teaching and learning and connecting with students and discussion is really spiritually important to me,” she explained. “The same goes with engagement with art and gardening and getting your hands into the earth—that whole generative, beautiful thing about gardening—I think it’s all pretty spiritual for me.”


A time to talk about dance

Part-time faculty member Philip Szporer breaks down contemporary dance

After a few years of performing with a dance company, Philip Szporer realized he did not want to dance—instead, he wanted to talk about what was going on in the world of contemporary dance.

Over 35 years later, Szporer, now a part-time faculty member at Concordia, hasn’t run out of topics to feed his passion for dance. He hasn’t even run out of inspiration—he’s excited about his upcoming project—a film collaboration, which took him to India during Concordia’s reading week. The film, with Shantala Shivalingappa, who performs the southern Indian classical dance style of kuchipudi, has been in the works for three years. The 10-minute dance film will capture Shivalingappa as she dances in this classical form. Szporer beamed when he said the project will be filmed in Hampi, India, a cherished place for Shivalingappa and a new location for him.

“It’s going to be fascinating. [Shivalingappa]’s a marvelous artist,” Szporer said. One of the first times Szporer worked with her was when he was a scholar in-residence at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the U.S. After getting to know her form of dance and witnessing a part of her production, Szporer said to himself: “That could be an amazing film.”

Filming and producing dance films and documentaries is not new to Szporer. In 2001, he and his friend Marlene Millar co-founded the arts film production company Mouvement Perpétuel. The pair’s work ranges from 3D films showing human struggles using contemporary dance in Lost Action: Trace to Leaning On A Horse Asking For Directions, which incorporates BaGuaZhang martial arts and contemporary dance choreography to evoke empathy by watching how performers move and interact with one another.

Choreographer Crystal Pite and dancers Jermaine Spivey (front), Peter Chu, Anne Plamondon, Yannick Matthon and Eric Beauchesne (back, from left to right) rehearse on the set of Lost Action: Trace. (Photo by Anthony McLean. Courtesy of Philip Szporer.)

“We were interested in uncovering the landscape of the body,” Szporer said, regarding the way he and Millar go about filming their work. Their process begins with knowing the choreography to anticipate where the body will be in the space, and further convey a message in the captured movement. Szporer doesn’t describe filming a dance performance as formulaic, but there’s definitely emphasis on the “expressive quality the body can have” in stillness and in motion.

Before Szporer and Millar created Mouvement Perpétuel, they were Pew fellows at University of California in Los Angeles. “This allowed us to go deeply into the area of dance film,” Szporer said. Working with professionals in L.A. and being mentored by professionals from other countries was a great, immersive experience for Szporer. “It was great to be … in this academic environment,” he said. “It allowed us to question ‘how do we want to make films?’ And ‘what kind of films do we want to make?’”

Once Szporer returned to Montreal in the 90s, the pieces fell into place—he and Millar knew how to convey a story through a dance film, and networks in Canada like Bravo! were supporting short-form arts films. The crucial components—the skillset to make quality productions and the demand for dance films— were put in place for Szporer and Millar to build up their production company to what it is today, taking on international collaborations and local projects alike.

Philip Szporer and Marlene Millar, co-founders of Mouvement Perpétuel on the set of their film, Lost Action: Trace. (Photo by Anthony McLean. Courtesy of Philip Szporer.)

Early in his career as a dance commentator and filmmaker, Szporer never had to look too far from the city for fascinating shows and movements. The Montreal dance scene in the 80s was flourishing with local homegrown talent and material.

“Many people were starting out [in Montreal]: the Édouard Locks, the Ginette Laurins, the Marie Chouinards, … I was interested in what they were doing,” Szporer said. In addition to witnessing the then up-and-comers of the dance community, Szporer was intrigued by viewing people’s work in a unique, untraditional way. “You could go to performances in people’s lofts, you could see them in galleries,” he said. “It was inspiring to be in the midst of all that.”

Later, the larger, more well-known post-modern artists “migrated north,” to use Szporer’s words, from New York City. The post-modernists brought a different flair to Montreal’s existing arts scene. Szporer sums up the time perfectly: “You knew you were seeing something key to the development of the form.” Montreal was evolving into a dance hub, with external influences shaping the larger arts scene and homegrown talent creating an established dance community within the city.

Szporer also ventured into an area many dancers shy away from: talking and writing about dance to the general public. He never accepted the assumption that dancers and choreographers can only express themselves physically through movement.

“I am totally of the mind that there are a lot of [dancers] who are extraordinarily able to express themselves with words,” Szporer said. “I believe dancers and choreographers have something to share with people.” Words, especially those describing dance, captivated Szporer.

After working a few odd jobs, including as a “singing telegram,” he started working as a dance columnist on CBC radio during the 80s. This gig allowed Szporer to show listeners dance could be articulated in non-visual ways. “The big thing … you are speaking to many different kinds of people who are not necessarily understanding what you’re talking about, so you have to make it understandable and not sensationalize it,” he said. The radio dance column, alongside writing for other publications like Concordia’s own former newspaper, Thursday Report, plunged Szporer further into Montreal’s dance community.

Philip Szporer enjoys encouraging students to talk about different perceptions of dance . Photo by Ana Hernandez.

He still writes for several dance publications, like The Dance Current and Dance Magazine, where he reviews performances and breaks down Montreal’s evolving dance scene by detailing new studio openings, as well as chronicling the city’s dance trends past and present.

These skills, along with his undisputed passion for dance, come in handy as a part-time professor at Concordia. Unlike other faculty members, Szporer teaches four courses between two different faculties. He teaches Dance Traditions and Dancing Bodies in Popular Culture within the Faculty of Fine Arts, and teaches two classes at the Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability.

“[Teaching] wasn’t something I sought out to do—it came to me,” Szporer said as he remembered being approached in 2002 by Concordia’s contemporary dance department to teach the Dance Traditions course.

Although Szporer jokes about his teaching skills improving over the years, one can’t help but think he’s being modest. His newest class, Dancing Bodies in Popular Culture, which is available to non-fine arts students, is an embodiment of what Szporer has built his career on—talking about dance.

The Culture and Communication course he teaches at the Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability continues to foster Szporer’s passion of introducing and articulating arts and performances—this time in ways that are “grounded in ideas about the environment and ecology … and general notions of diversity.”

Ideas of diversity struck a chord with Szporer. “Diversity is so fundamental,” he said. “We all have to get on board with developing language surrounding these ideas.” He was thrilled when he was offered another course, which he decided to turn into into a film course: The Future in Film: Ecocide and Dystopias.

CRU (SoulStep), an episode of a series on urban dance, directed and produced by Philip Szporer and Marlene Millar, will air on Télé-Québec’s Fabrique culturelle. (Photo by Jules de Niverville. Courtesy of Philip Szporer.)

In class, Szporer stands away from the podium, centred in front of the large screen behind him, and turns the class into an active discussion where everyone can comment and reflect on elements of dance. Last week’s contentious question: Is striptease considered dance? “The dialogue that happens within the class is fascinating because it’s … a different kind of conversation that begins [when] people ask different questions from within the [dance] profession and without,” he explained.

Perhaps that’s the most enjoyable part of teaching at Concordia for Szporer—the notion of putting forth an idea and being met with positivity and encouragement on the other end. It’s liberating and motivating to be at an institution where there’s always room to grow, he said. Szporer especially enjoys being able to teach students from varied disciplines to be “comfortable with knowing that you are in a big world with lots of richness you can learn from.”


Bringing improvisation to the classical music world

Part-time music vocal instructor Irene Feher brings out the musicality in all her students

As I prepare my recorder for the interview I’m about to have with part-time music professor Irene Feher, she takes a seat at the grand piano in the room. We’re in a music class in the MB building. “I’ll be comfortable sitting here,” she says, as her fingertips glide across the piano keys. The lights above her illuminate her body, which sits tall and straight at the piano bench. She begins to improvise a few piano chords while humming.

A few bars later, she is singing a series of oohs and ahs. There’s no method to how she’s doing it—it is free, it is random. But there is a power—a meaning, a feeling—in the jibberish. I knew by the goosebumps running down my arm, and the wide-eyed gaze I had listening to the combination of sounds. And that, Feher would say, is the art of improvisation in music.

Improvisation wasn’t a big part of Feher’s life until a few years ago. But coincidentally, her late aunt, Annie Brooks, used to improvise all the time when she was young.

“Annie used to spontaneously break out into song,” Feher said. “And it’s funny because I feel the importance of it more now than I did when I was experiencing it in the moment. She could sing and improvise… It was just astonishing to listen to the breadth of her expression, and the colours she would put into her voice.” She was one of Feher’s early musical influences.

“Music has just been in my life for as long as I can remember. It’s kind of a clichéd statement that people make, that you don’t choose a music career—the music chooses you,” said Feher.

Originally untrained vocally, she learned to sing through being in bands. In the 80s, Feher performed regularly and went on tour, singing a lot of dance and rock music. She had a popular music background, but the now mezzo-soprano had a limited range at the time. “[I was] singing a lot of guy stuff, you know the very deep black velvet type singing,” she said, mimicking a deep voice. “But I had so much guts. I just went for it.”

Ultimately, she found the bar scene too tiring and unstable. In 1990, Feher began taking vocal lessons with classical music teacher Huguette Tourangeau, to help expand her range and improve her voice. Through Tourangeau, she discovered the world of classical music.

Classical music simply spoke to Feher. “I remember Huguette telling me, ‘you have a classical soul,’” said Feher.

Five years later, Feher made the courageous choice of going back to school at 30—to study music at Concordia. Her decision was met with disapproval from her father, who thought she should do something more practical, like an office job. However, Feher strongly felt she needed to pursue music.

“I knew I wasn’t going to have a big classical music career, I started way too late. But I knew whatever the outcome would be, I’d be much happier,” she said.

“I was probably one of the few 30-somethings who would be getting up in the morning saying ‘I’m going to school, oh my God!’ I felt like a kid,” she said with a big, bright smile. “I couldn’t wait to get to class. Concordia was just this place that allowed me to foster my passion, and not feel judged.”

She noted one of her professors, Beverly McGuire, as someone who had great influence on her, because they came from similar backgrounds—in popular music. “A lot of the people who go straight into classical training either have parents who are classical performers, or they’ve been exposed to [classical] music all their lives, or they’ve been studying from a very young age… I didn’t have that,” she explained. “My hero at the time was Barbra Streisand.”

She now works alongside many of the professors who taught her, including McGuire. Feher began teaching at Concordia in 2009. 

Currently, Feher teaches one music course at Concordia called Private Study – Classical and Contemporary Voice, which is offered at various levels. She sees students individually for vocal lessons.

Irene Feher is a part-time vocal teacher at Concordia. Photo by Frederic Muckle.

“It’s been a wonderful experience, because I see students from all kinds of different backgrounds, many of them having backgrounds resembling my own,” she said. She explained some students may be singer-songwriters, some may be actors wanting to learn music, some may have been playing gigs all their lives—they’re all unique.

She has learned a lot about her students over the years. “I’ve learned to listen to every student as an individual. By listening better, I’m trying to allow them to be the best individuals they can be. It’s not about making a bunch of cookie-cutter singers,” she said. “It’s about having these individuals bring what they already have to the table, and making that grow. It’s the diversity of the Concordia students that makes it a very exciting atmosphere.”

Within the part-time faculty union, Private Study teachers at Feher’s level of seniority can teach a maximum of 12 students. This semester, Feher has 10 students. Feher explained part-time Private Study teachers are paid on an hourly basis, but only for the time spent in the classroom. Feher said, however, there is a lot of work that goes on outside lessons, such as emailing students, preparing schedules, learning the pieces the students will be singing, among other tasks.

“I think there is less understanding university-wide of what goes on to make those lessons successful—what has to go on outside of those lessons,” she said. “If I were to offer a suggestion, I think all Private Study teachers should meet, and a consensus can be agreed upon as to an average number of hours that are actually put into class preparation, and that could be mandated into the contract.”

However, Feher said there are blessings to being a part-time professor. “When you’re part-time faculty, you can still lead that whole other part of your life, which is that of an artist. I’m giving improvisation workshops, concerts, involved in some interesting research and I’m singing. So that’s the blessing.”

Prior to teaching at Concordia, Feher spent a lot of time at McGill, as she completed both her graduate and doctorate degrees in Voice Performance and Pedagogy, at The Schulich School of Music.

“McGill just opened up my eyes. It was a whole other experience because I really got the view of what formal classic training was,” she said, explaining it was also a bit of an intimidating experience. “I felt like an imposter. I felt like I didn’t belong there. Because I didn’t have that [classical] background. Because I didn’t start music at a young age.” Regardless, she said she loved her experience at McGill.

During her doctoral studies, she discovered the world of vocal science—vocology—a relatively new field about science and habilitation of the voice, through her voice teacher, professor Winston Purdy. At McGill, she was awarded the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) fellowship for her research on the use of visual feedback to instruct lyric diction. She travelled to the UK to present her work.

While she was fascinated by the scientific aspects of the voice, Feher was itching to tap into her creative side again once she completed her doctoral degree. But, a big shift occurred in her musical life—she felt stumped by her own voice. When she would get up on stage to sing, or try to sing at all, she had difficulty—anxiety, tension and restrain. She said it got to a point where even hearing other singers perform stressed her out.

“I loved my music, and I loved teaching, but there was a joy and a soulfulness that was missing for me. A part of me was not there,” she explained. “I think a part of that was my wanting so much to fit into that [classical music] expectation—and I placed the expectation on myself—of wanting to fit in and be a classical musician, because I had such respect for classical musicians.”

Feher took a short break from performing to overcome her vocal difficulties and tension. She turned to body work—yoga, meditation and the Feldenkrais Method—a type of exercise therapy aimed at improving flexibility, posture and reducing pain and tension.

In 2013, she came back to the musical world, in a new and exciting way. She went to her first session at Music For People, a non-profit organization with the goal to revitalize music-making through the art of improvisation. Feher said Music For People was an opportunity for her to go back to the basics of what music was.

“My world was rocked,” she said. “All of a sudden something had broken open. It was what I was looking for.” The biggest lesson she learned from Music For People: there are no wrong notes.

“When I improvised, I was hitting notes that I hadn’t hit in years, in fact not at all in my classical singing,” she said. “Then when I’d go back and do the classical exercises, I couldn’t do the notes… I realized the inspiration was coming from inside of me… How I feel in my body when I make music is so different now.”

She is currently part of the organization’s four-year musician leadership program, where she leads and coordinates group sessions. Upon her graduation this fall, she will be a certified Music For People facilitator.

What Feher learned at Music For People helped her as a music teacher, and she includes improvisation-based exercises in her lessons now. “The training is not only improvisation, but in facilitation. Learning how to facilitate changed my teaching. Because it wasn’t about me imparting information. It was about me enabling and bringing out the genius in the students,” she said. Feher is hoping university music programs will start integrating improvisation into formal music study.

Along with vocal challenges, Feher also openly discussed a visual challenge she has faced from birth—congenital cataracts—the clouding of the eye lens, which results in impaired vision. When she was young, she was operated on to have the lenses removed from her eyes. She is legally blind, but has low vision—which is usually described as partial sight.

“That limited me to many jobs. I can’t drive, for example. I have to enlarge text by 300 per cent. I have certain challenges,” she said. “But, in many ways, not being able to take the safe route allowed me to take the brave route. I went for what I wanted to do.”

She felt it was important for her to touch upon her visual impairment, as many students she meets face challenges, too. Her advice: look for that one thing in your life that you love to do, that you can do for hours and hours, and do it. For Feher, that is music.

“Yeah, it takes me three times longer to read something than the average person. But when I discovered that I had my little place in the sun, that I could sing a song in front of a group of people, that I could stand up in front of a group of people and have them all making music out of nothing, then I realized—it doesn’t matter that people can read three times faster than me,” she said. “We all have our own individual talents. We often focus too much on what we can’t do, than what we can do.”

If there is one change she would like to see within the industry of music education, it’s for learning music to become more accessible, more mainstream. “I love virtuosity, don’t get me wrong. I have such appreciation for great artists,” she explained. “But I believe if we have more people learning through making music together, communal music-making, I believe we would connect more with each other. I believe very strongly in the power of music to connect people.”

Other than teaching at Concordia, Feher also teaches a class at McGill and conducts singing lessons in her home studio, Living Your Music. She has been teaching privately at home since 1993. She accepts students of all levels, ages and musical styles.

This semester, she has also been facilitating a series of free improvisation workshops at Concordia called “Collabra-dabra-tory,” which take place every second Monday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in MB. 8.135. They are open to all students. 

Watch our interview with Irene Feher here

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