Congratulations to Professor T.L. Cowan for receiving the prestigious 2021 Early Career Supervision Award. This new award recognizes pre-tenure faculty members, who over a period of up to six years, have demonstrated excellence in graduate supervision.
“We’ve heard time and again from our graduate students that availability, support, and engagement from a supervisor can change the whole course of a graduate career,” says Dr. Charmaine C. Williams, Acting Dean of the School of Graduate Studies. “We want to recognize and foster the innovative ideas and practices our early-career faculty members are bringing to their work.”
There are many things Dr. T.L Cowan loves about teaching, but her favourite thing might be watching a graduate student change their mind. “I love it when a student thinks they’re going to write about one thing and then changes direction,” says the Assistant Professor, who previously taught at The New School and Yale. “When students take on new ideas and grow and learn to think more ethically and more relationally—that’s the most rewarding thing.”
Thinking relationally and ethically are important tenets of teaching and scholarship for Professor Cowan, who holds a graduate faculty appointment in the Faculty of Information, and an undergraduate faculty appointment in the Department of Arts, Media and Culture at UTSC. A scholar of trans-feminist and queer media studies and performance studies, Dr. Cowan abides by the principles of engaged pedagogy — or “education as the practice of freedom”— as theorized by bell hooks and Paulo Freire. Rather than focusing on the acquisition of institutional knowledge, engaged pedagogy encourages a critical stance toward the power structures that shape social realities.
“My philosophy comes from approaching graduate degrees as though nothing is self-evident,” says Cowan in a phone conversation. “I try not to make any assumptions about what students know, what their milestone moments will be, or what they need from a supervisor. And I try to guide students not just through research, but through the professionalization of the degree, through granting structures and publication structures.”
That holistic approach to teaching comes from Cowan’s experience as a first-generation student raised in a low-income and non-academic environment. It took her ten years to finish her undergraduate degree and find her footing in academia; and, while she had excellent graduate mentors at the University of Alberta (where she completed her MA and PhD in the Department of English Literature & Film Studies), she did not have the benefit of intergenerational knowledge to draw on while navigating the institutional logics and perceived “common sense” milestones of an advanced degree.
Today, Cowan, whose students are primarily international, racialized, first-generation, trans, queer, or non-binary, works hard to recognize the many kinds of knowledge her students bring with them. “We have each found in Dr. Cowan a faculty member who sees our experiences and commitments not as obstacles to overcome, but as academic strengths to be cultivated,” says one student. “The radical importance of this work cannot be overstated.”
During the pandemic, Cowan has been trying to help her students stay focused and find a sense of community. From April to August of last year, she hosted a daily “One Good Hour” virtual co-working session for her students so they could feel connected and make academic progress. “It feels like holding a bubble space of focus,” she says, “so they can pay attention to what’s happening in their lives and the world around them and also focus on their work.”
Despite disruptions from COVID-19, four of her students have started and completed their qualifying exams over the past 12 months. That’s only one in a series of student successes, but for Cowan, it’s not just the big milestones that are worth celebrating.
“Over the course of the graduate degree, students do many things they thought they couldn’t do — like writing a proposal or working through multiple drafts of a chapter,” she says. “I like to build in many celebrations so they’re not just thinking about what they haven’t done, but also what they have done— and how much their thinking has grown.”
Two Early Career Supervision awards are given out annually, one in the Physical/Life Sciences, and one in the Humanities/Social Sciences. Each winner will receive a certificate of recognition from SGS and an SGS Travel Grant for one of their students. Professor Keith Pardee from the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy is also a recipient of this award.
By Gayatri Kumar