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In practicum course, Vicki Whitmell taught students about working life

Submitted on Tuesday, January 25, 2022

For alumna Vicki Whitmell, who recently retired from her role as a sessional lecturer at the Faculty of Information, teaching the popular practicum course was a perfect fit for someone who saw herself as “a practitioner and not a theoretical person in any way.”

“I felt I could help the students get started and understand what happens once you step outside the academic world,” says Whitmell, who will also retire this June from her role as Legislative Librarian and Executive Director, Information and Technology Services Division at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, where she has worked for almost 20 years.

Before that, Whitmell worked in a special library, a university library and as executive director of the Canadian Library Association. All this meant she brought a broad experience base to teaching as well as a wide range of connections to her students.

Teaching a new generation of information professionals also kept Whitmell, who has been a sessional lecturer at UofT since 2003, in the loop. “You’d really get an idea of what was going on in the information world just by seeing the type of projects students did,” she said. “It kept me on my toes and really helped me to keep learning. I think it was great for the legislature as we offered a lot of [practicum] projects to student. I hope we gave as much back.”

Vicki Whitmell says she’s especially grateful to everyone who has sponsored a practicum student over the years.

The Information Professional Practicum course, which is open to advanced-level students, involves a project designed to be completed in 105 hours – the equivalent of three weeks of full-time work with the employer. Projects are mostly coordinated by Career Services, but some students do arrange their own practica. In pre-Covid days, students almost always worked on site. During the pandemic, they went mostly online.

Practicum classes are designed to focus on professional issues and workplace practices in different environments, and assignments are carefully structured to fit with the workplace. What started out as a course for archivists now places students from almost all the Master of Information concentrations. The aim is to foster sharing, to deepen knowledge through experience, and to promote a high standard of professional practice and conduct in information work. Many students even ended up being hired on permanently after successful placements.

Along with the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, employer partners include universities, libraries, governments, associations (including the Law Society of Ontario), and industry (including an automotive parts company).
For Whitmell, the end-of-term poster exhibitions of students’ work were always a highlight. Open to the Faculty of Information community, they often attracted 100 people including partners, students and alumni, who all wanted to get an idea of what the students had done. The exhibitions were notable not just for the quality of work but the variety and breadth of the projects, Whitmell said. “The partners were generally delighted with what the students have done for them.”

A poster from the Summer 2021 exhibition can be found below while the virtual exhibitions, held during the pandemic, can be viewed at the site Whitmell created.

After more than a decade of teaching the practicum course three times a year, as well as another course in special libraries, Whitmell, who has retired to her hometown north of the Muskokas, is ready to pass the baton to someone still in the workplace with new ideas. “I just thought it was time to make a complete change. It’s been a wonderful experience being part of the faculty and this course,” she said. “I’ll miss the students. I hired many of them over the years.”

The Our Digital World project poster is one of many displayed at the virtual exhibitions held during the pandemic.