Political science team wins Northrop Frye Award for transforming curriculum

April 13, 2023 by Cynthia Macdonald - A&S News

For the first time in the new amalgamated "team" category, the Northrop Frye Award is being presented to the Department of Political Science’s curriculum steering committee.

The Northrop Frye Award was revised to offer three separate categories of awards: the team award and two individual awards – one for faculty and one for staff. Prior to the revision, teams were able to apply to the Northrop Frye Award under the faculty or staff categories.

The honour is one of the Awards of Excellence presented by the University of Toronto Alumni Association in collaboration with the University. The prestigious program dates back to 1921 and recognizes outstanding faculty, staff and students.

Comprising eight political science professors, the committee has been recognized for achieving a major renovation of the undergraduate program in political science.

“The Northrop Frye Award has been re-envisioned to recognize the powerful outcomes from collaborative team projects: when faculty and staff bring together their unique perspectives on student learning experiences the results can be transformative,” says Susan McCahan, vice provost, academic programs and vice-provost, innovations in undergraduate education. “This is certainly the case with the curriculum steering committee from the Department of Political Science. This distinguished group reconsidered the structure of their undergraduate program to affirm an ongoing commitment to principles of equity, diversity, inclusion and Indigenous sovereignty, and to make their program more diverse, flexible, creative and attractive to students.”

 The process was daunting at first but it offered us an invaluable opportunity to think in new ways about what the role of a political science education is today, and led us to ask a series of critical questions.

The impetus for the program’s overhaul began to take shape in 2016, in response to concerns including the courses were insufficiently reflective of growing diversity in both the University and world of politics at large. And to student feedback that indicated that the program was configured in a way that was perceived as cumbersome and inflexible.

In 2017, former department chair Antoinette Handley embarked on a major project to assess the curriculum and involve the cooperation of a select team of fellow professors.

Handley asked Lilach Gilady to chair the newly-created curriculum steering committee, aided by Dickson Eyoh. She then asked a representative group of their colleagues to serve on the committee: answering the call were Jonathan Craft, Ruth Marshall, Kanta Murali, Robert Vipond and Melissa Williams.  

“The process was daunting at first but it offered us an invaluable opportunity to think in new ways about what the role of a political science education is today, and led us to ask a series of critical questions,” says Handley, who in addition to her position as professor of political science is now vice-dean, graduate education in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

“How has the discipline changed over the last 25 years? How has the world around us, and how have our students changed? What are the skills that our students need now in order to make their way in the world as informed and engaged citizens? These deliberations were challenging because we didn’t always agree amongst ourselves. But the process of talking the issues through — among faculty as well as with our students and alumni — was incredibly useful and satisfying.”

The project’s results speak for themselves. Since the first phase of reforms was rolled out in 2020-21, overall undergraduate enrolment in political science courses has increased 19 per cent. And over the last two years, program enrolment in political science has increased 12 per cent.

“Undertaking a major overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum of a large department is not a small task,” says Dickson Eyoh, who as the co-winner of this year’s Vivek Goel Citizenship Award is also the first ever winner of two President’s Awards of Excellence in one year. “I am very proud of the colleagues with whom I share this award for devoting enormous amounts of time and energy to design a curriculum that offered the best undergraduate education in our discipline among peer institutions and for doing so through an open, deliberative process that ensured collective department ownership of the end product.”

In addition to paying tribute to his colleagues, Eyoh stresses the importance of student consultation in the curriculum reform process. “One of the most gratifying and humbling lessons we learned was that extensive consultation with students is imperative for curriculum renewal, regardless of program size. Students have a good sense, maybe better than faculty, of which aspects of the curriculum are ‘tired’ — to use a common term from student focus groups —  and what changes are needed to make the curriculum more responsive to the pressing challenges of the world they are growing in,” he says.

“More than ever before, the redesigned undergraduate program in political science is engaging students with exciting new approaches to the study of politics,” says Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science. “With diverse and original course offerings, combined with visionary learning methods, the program is now fully modern and responsive to changing times. An impressive increase in recent enrolments testifies to the many ways in which the curriculum steering committee has enhanced the student learning experience in their department. I congratulate the team on this well-deserved award.”

The winning curriculum steering committee plans to donate the prize money from the Northrop Frye Award to the Student Support Fund in the Department of Political Science.