(February 3, 2012) -- Dr. Tara Hyland-Russell has always been interested in how stories impact people’s lives, both the stories they read and the ones they believe about themselves.
The St. Mary’s University College English professor once considered a career in social work, but her love of literature prevailed. She earned a Joint Honour Bachelor of Arts degree in English and interdisciplinary Social Development Studies at the University of Waterloo in 1996.
By the time she was writing her doctoral thesis on life writing and narrative therapy at the University of Calgary—about the same time she accepted a teaching position at St. Mary’s in 1999—she had developed a lifelong interest in applied literature.
“We all have stories that we believe about ourselves, or that others believe about our lives, that affect us in many ways,” Dr. Hyland-Russell said. “I am particularly intrigued by how these stories can affect the way we learn.”
Much of her academic research has focused on the use of literature to spur personal, social or political change. She is a leader in the exploration of how the lives of marginalised non-traditional adult learners can be transformed by studying the humanities at the university level.
St. Mary’s University College’s commitment to social justice, and its goal to teach from an interdisciplinary perspective, proved to be a perfect fit for Dr. Hyland-Russell.
Dr. Tara Hyland-Russell is faculty advisor to the St. Mary’s University College Literary Guild, a student club that recently produced the 10th anniversary edition of SightLines, a literary journal featuring the creative writing of students, staff and faculty. She also leads the All Sorts Writers Group, which meets at St. Mary's on the first Tuesday evening of the month.
She is leading 19 students in a travel study to Rome in May 2012, where she will teach Romantic and Victorian Authors in Rome in conjunction with renowned Art History Professor Dr. David Bershad, who will lead Art and Architecture of Rome. Dr. Bershad will guide students through the streets, churches and buildings of Rome, explaining their symbolic and artistic significance. Dr. Hyland-Russell is focusing on the place Rome and Florence hold as figurative and literal sites of literary development for major Romantic and Victorian authors. She is able to integrate her interest and expertise in fairytales and their authors by including works by Hans Christian Andersen (The Poet’s Bazaar; “The Ugly Duckling”) and Robert Browning (“The Pied Piper of Hamelin”) on the syllabus.
She is also past-president of the Association of Bibliotherapy and Applied Literature (ABAL), and an active member of CALA, the Canadian Applied Literature Association.
“I am a non-linear thinker and an interdisciplinary approach allows me to walk all around a problem,” she said. “Interdisciplinarity brings robustness to intellectual pursuits. And certain issues—especially social problems—cannot be adequately addressed by a single discipline.”
In 2003, Dr. Hyland-Russell helped establish Storefront 101, a program that offered humanities courses to people who would not otherwise be able to attend university.
Based on Earl Shorris’s New York-based Clemente Course in the Humanities, Storefront 101 harnessed the resources of St. Mary’s University College, Athabasca University, the University of Calgary, the City of Calgary and other agencies to offer courses to people whose lives were affected by poverty, addiction or violence.
Dr. Hyland-Russell taught a Storefront 101 literature course in 2005, an experience she says changed the way she teaches and the direction of her research.
“These were people whose life experiences were getting in the way of their learning,” she said. “These were students eager to learn and terrified at the same time. They taught me a lot about respecting one another and forming a community in a classroom situation.”
Working with Dr. Janet Groen of the University of Calgary, Dr. Hyland-Russell soon embarked on a federally-funded research project examining the effect of teaching the humanities to people “in the margins.” Many published articles and conference presentations have resulted, including three articles in 2011 and one forthcoming in 2012.
Storefront 101 (now called Humanities 101) was offered on the St. Mary’s University College campus in 2009-2010. Dr. Hyland-Russell is working to bring it back to St. Mary’s as a sustainable program in the near future.
“St. Mary’s is the perfect place to offer a program of this nature,” she said. “We are flexible enough to respond to students’ special needs, like making the registration process easier for them, for example. Our class sizes are small and diversity is well accepted here.”