For June Larkin, retiring from Arts & Science’s Women & Gender Studies Institute (WGSI) after 30 years means she’ll have more time to immerse herself in everything the institute does.
“I'm going to try to be at even more of the events the institute offers because I'll have the time to do it,” says Larkin, who was an associate professor, teaching stream, at WGSI and in Critical Studies in Equity and Solidarity. She was also vice-principal of New College from 2007 to 2014 and 2017 to 2020 after coming to U of T in 1991 as a teaching assistant in the Scientific Perspectives of Sex and Gender course.
“I'm looking forward to growing intellectually even more when I retire because I can make that my focus. It's just been such an enriching experience so far and will continue to be so.”
Her impact will continue to be felt at WGSI through the June Larkin TA Award, which recognizes outstanding graduate student contributions to undergraduate teaching and mentorship demonstrated through creative approaches to teaching and student engagement. The award honours Larkin’s invaluable contributions to the training and mentoring of teaching assistants throughout her career.
Still, her departure creates a tremendous void at WGSI, says Michelle Murphy, a WGSI professor and one of Larkin’s former students.
“The beauty of WGSI in general is that it's an institute with such dedicated teachers. Among that crew, June is a superstar,” says Murphy, who started working with Larkin around 2001. “June immediately became an important colleague to me because I also work in gender and health, gender and science and reproductive justice, and she was teaching a lot of those courses. She was a mentor, and we developed a good relationship in terms of always thinking, ‘How can we build up these courses?’ She never stopped developing her curriculum, never stopped changing her courses and never stopped looking at ways to improve it.”
Particularly through the introductory courses she taught, Larkin was key in igniting and fostering passions in students, many of whom were fresh out of high school. For many — including Murphy — the experience had a lasting impact.
“Those courses have been super important for bringing in and turning people on to women and gender studies. Women and gender studies is not something high school students really encounter; they learn about it at university,” Murphy says.
Larkin earned her PhD from U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Besides teaching a range of WGSI courses, she served as its undergraduate coordinator from 1995 to 1997 and 1999 to 2008, acting director of what was then the women & gender studies program from 1997 to 1999 and director of the equity studies program from its launch in 1998 until 2018.
She’s seen — and helped drive — tremendous progress in the institute as new courses were introduced and the master’s and PhD programs were established.
Since 2001, Larkin has also coordinated the Gendering Adolescent AIDS Prevention (GAAP) project, which uses participatory approaches to working with young people in relation to sexuality, HIV prevention and AIDS awareness. Located at New College, with collaborators that include community groups and researchers from across U of T and beyond, the program helps create innovative, gender-sensitive HIV education programs that work for youth, often using arts-based approaches.
“The arts-based approach works well because it gives youth a variety of ways to express themselves,” Larkin explains. “This approach allows youth to talk about their experiences in ways they might not be comfortable with if they had to put their thoughts into writing or do a presentation. Often, work produced through the arts can come more from the heart.”
GAAP partners with WGSI to host an annual World AIDS Day event. Larkin enlists her students for the event, which features peer education, workshops and a performance by SExT: Sex Education by Theatre, a sexual health education performance group led by students for students — plus sexy cupcake decorating and other sex-positive activities. WGSI students also present research on sexual health and sexuality at the annual GAAP-organized Youth Sexual Health Research Symposium.
Larkin’s retirement offers an opportunity to reflect on her 30-year career. There’s a lot to be proud of; pressed to pick one thing, she fondly recalls WGSI becoming an independent unit as a pivotal moment that signaled even better things to come.
“When I think about the 50th anniversary of the institute, for 30 of those years I was part of it — and that's pretty cool,” she says. “I've grown so much through the connection to my colleagues, but I just have to give credit to the early faculty members — Kay Armatage, Kathryn Morgan, Mary Nyquist and Sylvia Van Kirk — who worked so hard and made great sacrifices to get the institute on the map. Not everybody was enthusiastic about women's studies in those days, so they had to sacrifice a lot.”
“June’s career and contributions are remarkable,” Murphy adds. “If only we were all such amazing teachers, but only some get to be absolute geniuses at it, and she’s one of them. I can’t overemphasize what an incredible teacher June is, and that's a very special thing.”