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Tim Harrison on academic bridging and becoming an English professor

by Ashifa Rajwani — Thursday, May 01, 2014

Tim Harrison on academic bridging and becoming an English professor

Tim Harrison. Photo: Jon Horvatin.

Tim Harrison is having an incredible year.

He recently accepted a job as a tenure-track assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago, a position he chose over three postdoctoral fellowships also offered.

The Milton Society of America honoured Harrison with the Albert C. Labriola Award for the best article published by a graduate student.

And to top things off, he just handed in his thesis exploring how writers from Montaigne to Milton expressed the feeling of being alive.

But this kind of success required big risk and heavy commitment. Harrison transitioned from international fashion professional to mature student to award-winning academic by working full-time at restaurants in Toronto and making the most of support offered by the University of Toronto's Academic Bridging Program.

The Academic Bridging Program is designed for people who have been away from formal education for some time and do not meet the university’s established requirements for direct entry admission. The course is intended to bridge the gap between a student’s prior education and the requirements of first year university courses in humanities and social sciences. 

We spoke to Harrison about his remarkable academic achievements and why he didn’t think he could get into U of T.

You came to the University in a pretty unconventional way. After completing high school, what did you do?

I did very poorly in high school, and spent a number of years working in international fashion and the service industry in Milan, Athens, Capetown, Shanghai and Amsterdam. After meeting my Dutch wife in South Africa and subsequently having my immigration bid to the Netherlands fall through, we moved to Toronto from Amsterdam on two days notice carrying two suitcases.

After you settled in Toronto, you decided you wanted to pursue post-secondary education?

Yes, I really wanted to go back to school, but my academic background was far too poor to get into U of T. The only way I could enter the University was through the Academic Bridging Program at Woodsworth College (this program acts as a testing ground for people who do not have the appropriate credentials).

It was a bit daunting to go back to school as a mature student, but my experience working abroad gave me confidence. After completing the Bridging Program I entered U of T as an undergraduate with the intention of doing an English specialist degree and took a full course load while working 40 hours a week in restaurants. It took me two years before I reached my goal of having my studies funded by scholarships, at which point I was able to devote my attention to my studies. I finished my undergrad degree as the top student in the University, and started a direct-entry Ph.D.

What were your initial thoughts of the Department of English?

U of T has a reputation for being big and impersonal, but I discovered a welcoming and friendly environment at the Department of English. When I asked for help, I received it; I also got a lot of encouragement. I found the department to be a nurturing environment. I am especially grateful to my wonderful supervisor, Elizabeth Harvey, and the other members of my supervisory committee, Lynne Magnusson, Paul Stevens, and Alex Gillespie.

Why did you choose to specialize in English?

When I was working abroad, I tried to write novels and really wanted to be a writer. But then I realized that I didn't really know anything about literature. And if I didn't know anything about literature, how could I even attempt to write it? So, at first I specialized in English in order to write better fiction, but I quickly discovered that I was far better at critically analyzing literature than I was at writing it. I also realized that I found the work of literary criticism immensely gratifying.

I started an English degree to become a novelist and finished to become a critic.

What advice do you have for students entering university?

It is important to do what you love. I came to U of T in hopes of enriching myself and I did. I loved the courses I took and I worked hard. I had the opportunity to learn new things, encounter different works, and gain cognitive skills. These are experiences that can only help you, no matter what you go on to do.