“I love the way that teaching is like reading a poem or looking at a beautiful old book made by another person,” she tells me over our video call. “The poem will teach us, and the 30 people in the room will teach each other because we’ll work it out together.” In the autumn of 2004, Alexandra Gillespie joined the University of Toronto as an assistant professor specializing in medieval literature, manuscript studies, and the global history of book technologies. She brought a passion for cultivating collaboration and dialogue in her classrooms, an openness that has suffused all aspects of her work. Her teaching philosophy is simple: to allow the generative texts she and her students read do the guiding. She went on to become chair of the English and Drama Department and in July, was appointed as UTM principal and U of T’s newest vice president.
Like many kids who loved to read, books for Professor Gillespie were about being present in other worlds. This early interest in literature transpired into a deeper appreciation for the intricacies of human creativity and the reverberating connections of past creation to our lives today. Seeing evidence of how old works of art, specifically texts from the Middle Ages, propels future creativity — her own creativity — captivated her as a student. While meeting the medieval-era poet Geoffrey Chaucer through his poem Troilus and Criseyde as an undergraduate, she discovered that there was no end to what she nor anyone else could say about such prolific texts. She explains how they “will never stop speaking new things to me. How extraordinary that something seemingly very distanced turns out to be so interwoven” with our modern-day experiences.
One area of Gillespie’s current book project recaptures Chaucer’s exploration of epistemology through literary history and the enduring tradition of books as both a receptacle for theoretical ideas and a physical object. The contrast between abstract knowledge and concrete proof of that abstract knowledge is illuminated by her own work on the relationship between the qualitative forms of inquiry she poses vis-à-vis the empirical data she produces. Importantly, these questions about ways of knowing “occupy the space in which the sciences and the humanities intersect. On both sides and in our real lives, we’re in this post-truth era and what happens when what we know gets destabilized is a big problem for us right now.”
As director of U of T’s Old Books New Sciences lab for the past six years, Gillespie has built a research space that departs from the traditional, often solitary, model of humanities scholarship to promote a social environment for learning. The lab, which brings together Ph.D. students, postdoctoral fellows, and other humanist researchers, aims to study the history of the book from a variety of perspectives. Her students examine codicological and bibliographical topics and are increasingly focused on treating the book as a dynamic object with not only human histories but also natural, chemical, and ecological histories. The lab also looks at issues of preservation, shareability, and access to the digitization of cultural material as well as its ties to the same structures of privilege and economy that constrain the rest of our society.
I ask Professor Gillespie if being principal has really sunken in yet, and she nods. “It was all kind of like musical chairs,” she says of the transition back in May when her appointment was first announced. “I had to hit the ground running because of the pandemic, and I actually feel like I’ve been doing it for quite a long time now.” With Professor Dan White stepping in as interim chair of the English and Drama Department, Gillespie assumed the responsibilities of her new role promptly, succeeding Acting Principal and Professor Emeritus Ian Orchard. Although she begins at a challenging juncture, she says the “job is a very rewarding one to step into at a time like this because it’s a position from which I feel like I can do some things to help. I can keep an institution moving in the positive direction that has been set by those who came before me.”
Her priorities as a leader of our school are tri-fold: safety, excellence, and a commitment to the Indigenous community and the natural world in which we live. To get us safely and productively through the pandemic without losing sight of the education to achieve and the relationships to heal is both her immediate and long-term ambition. She emphasizes that the only way to ensure excellence and “a future-forward UTM is through equity, diversity, and inclusiveness in our research, teaching, and the way we run the university. That they are done in a way that is committed to principles of justice and equality for all people regardless of who they are, who they worship, who they love, or where they come from.”
Having studied at Oxford University in the 90’s, she was personally drawn to Canada and U of T for its embrace of multiculturalism. “I’m going to put it bluntly — I didn’t want to be in a place where the most elite institutions are all white,” she says. “I also taught [at Oxford] for five years and I had one student of colour out of hundreds of students. That just doesn’t make sense to me about the modern world.” Just as New Zealand, where she is from, takes pride in its growing diversity, she wanted to end up in a place that “celebrates inclusion and anti-racism. I’m not sure I had the word anti-racism in my vocabulary at that moment, but that was what I wanted.”
Yet when we looked around our campus back when it was swarming with students, seeing the diverse representation of racial backgrounds can easily lead to a sense of complacency, as if we have already fulfilled our global promise. “But promise is not the same as achievement,” Gillespie asserts. “We’re the obstacles in the way of these people and we know we live in a world where there is still plenty of systemic racism. We can’t expect that our colleagues, students, and community members of colour always have to be the ones trying to bang down the door — those of us with privilege in Canada, who identify as white, we’ve got to open the door. That’s our work.”
As the realization that fall has arrived settles in, we are left to reflect on how the pandemic has altered our lives during the past six months and how it will continue to shape our futures. Filled with both uncertainty and faith, many of us enter September with doubts and expectations of how virtual university will work. “We’re lucky that this pandemic has intersected at a moment where we have the technology that enables us to stay connected socially,” Gillespie says, “but it still doesn’t feel like enough.”
In addition to the underlying issues surrounding the imbalance of privilege that determines our access to these technologies, she underscores how a component of personal interaction is still central to academia. “What the pandemic is requiring we confront is when we need learning to be embodied and when we don’t. You have to encounter another mind that’s present with you in the moment and I think what some of our profs are doing online now is capturing new ways. But there are these extraordinary advantages to being with people and we need to figure out how to leverage them in the right way and at the right time.”
Even without the nature walks, occasional deer run-ins, and crowded lecture halls we’ve come to know and miss about UTM, this difficult moment too will pass. Professor Gillespie leaves with me words voiced by her prime minister and friend Jacinda Ardern: be kind to yourself and uplift others. “That’s certainly what gets me up every day — to do my yoga,” she says with a small laugh, gesturing at her workout attire. “To put my own oxygen mask on first so that I can get out there and try to do things to help other people.”