A&S professor, current and former grad students find a 'COVID-minted silver lining'

Ronald W. Pruessen’s research and teaching focus primarily on 20th century international relations and U.S. foreign policy. He has served as the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy’s Director for International Partnerships & Research and is former chair of the Department of History in the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto.

The past 10 months have given all of us reasons for sadness and even mourning. If we’ve been lucky — and I have been — we’ve also had some silver lining moments.

2020 was rough — both in our personal lives (I haven’t hugged my grandkids in 10 months) and in our work (I have dusty memories of the Robarts stacks and coffee with students on the Sid Smith patio).

In early December, it looked like I’d add another loss to a long list when a “catch up” lunch with my past and present PhD students was heading to cancellation — as had been the case with a similar effort in the spring.

These lunches have been a tradition for well over a decade, aimed at giving those who had finished degrees and started careers a chance to check in with each other and to get to know those who arrived more recently in the Department of History’s graduate program. (One early member had dubbed the expanding group “SORPs” — Students of Ron Pruessen — and the name has stuck for an email listserv and group exchanges.)

For me, losing out on two 2020 lunches meant missing chances to pause and savour the joys of graduate teaching.

screengrab of online Zoom chat with Ronald W. Pruessen and 8 other people
First row: Ronald W. Pruessen, Professor Emeritus, Department of History; Erin Black, Executive Associate, York University Faculty Association (PhD 2009); Mairi MacDonald, Telecommunications regulatory consultant, now based in Saskatoon (PhD 2009). 
Second row:
Current History PhD student, Will McFadden, calling in from Saint John, NB; Jake Hogan, Teaching at Haidian Foreign Language Academy, Beijing (PhD 2019); Brandon King, Ottawa, Civil Servant (PhD 2014).
Third row: Matthieu Vallières, Sessional Lecturer, Department of History, University of Toronto (PhD 2020); Candace Sobers, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Carleton University (PhD 2014); Richard Pilkington, St. Helens, United Kingdom, who is about to review page proofs for
The West and the Birth of Bangladesh, to be published by University of British Columbia Press in 2021 (PhD 2016). 

Then the silver lining materialized.

Two former students suggested we try a virtual gathering — and some quick calculations revealed that we could even do something that had been prevented by distance in the past. By choosing a time carefully — 10 am Toronto time became the sweet spot — we were able to draw in those who’d moved far and wide over the years.

The Toronto area group went global.

We might miss the food and drink in Mother’s Dumplings or the sadly-departed Boulevard Café, but there was pleasure — and nourishment of another kind — in seeing friends who Zoomed in from England, Saint John and Ottawa (in one direction) through to Saskatchewan and China. (Jake Hogan, who is currently teaching at the Haidian Foreign Language Academy, won the prize for the long-distance connection, popping up on our computer screens at 11 pm Beijing time.)

Nine of us in this particular SORPs round (neatly fitted into the Zoom screen) talked about jobs, families, houses and apartments, and the challenges of the year of COVID.

We also smiled and laughed and felt good about the way we had erased thousands of kilometers to find a way to spend time together. The pandemic will one day subside — with some of us sharing lunches again — but in the meantime, the global virtual meetings have become a welcome new tradition: a COVID-minted silver lining.

Do you have your own COVID-minted silver lining to share? If so, please let us know at artsci.communications@utoronto.ca.