Professor Anne Urbancic is the first Professor to be featured in a mini-series of interviews with various staff and faculty members at Victoria College and UofT. In past years, she has been a member of the Department of Italian Studies; today, she is Victoria College’s Academic Programs Coordinator and the VicOne Program Coordinator. Admired by her students and colleagues alike, Professor Urbancic is a passionate educator who currently teaches courses on cultural spaces and their meanings in both the Frye and Pearson streams of VicOne, as well as a fourth-year seminar course. The Strand sat down with Professor Urbancic to chat about her journey in getting to Vic, the unique degree programs offered at the college, and why pencils are yellow.
The Strand: When did you come to UofT, and what were you doing before that point?
Anne Urbancic: I came to UofT a looong time ago. Do you want to know the year? Alright. I think it was 1972. I came because I wanted to study languages—I loved languages. And I was the first in my family ever, ever, ever, ever, from the beginning of time, who had ever gone to university. So it was really scary. But I knew that this was what I wanted to do.
I got a specialist in Italian and French, and then I thought, I love this so much, I want to go to grad school. The reason I stayed here was because the biggest and best department of Italian studies was here—outside of Italy. Eventually, I got my PhD, and I really found my passion in teaching. I think students… students sustain me. They motivate me, they challenge me. I love talking to students. I think they are intelligent, they’re bright. I just have so much fun in the classroom.
But eventually I got called over [to Semiotics], because my thesis was on a nineteenth-century Italian scholar who experimented with semiotic perspectives. In 1990, I joined the Semiotics program here at Vic, and was there for 15 years, until 2005, when the VicOne program was just new and they had realized that they needed a coordinator. I got hired to do that, and I’ve never looked back. Then, 3 years ago, when I decided to retire from the Faculty of Arts & Science, Vic said, “Oh, well, we need an Academic Programs Director.” So, I stayed, and now I’m totally Vic.
TS: As Academic Programs Coordinator, you oversee the variety of unique degree programs available at Vic. Why do you think a student should choose to enter a Vic-specific program rather than going to the broad, larger departments and programs?
AU: There’s nothing wrong with broad and larger departments. But, by taking a Vic program, you’re getting a class that’s smaller, good mentorship from the professor, and a community within the larger community that is Vic. UofT is also a community, but it’s a huge community. If you can enhance your undergraduate experience with a small program, it takes you so many more places, and it opens your mind to perspectives that maybe you would not see in programs that are siloed.
We have worked very hard to get professors who are interested in students, and who really want to do these programs. For many of these professors, the course is an ‘extra’—they do get paid, of course, but it takes away from their research. But they do it, because they love teaching. They do it because they believe in our students. Because they value the community.
A professor who needs to teach x-number of courses in a specific discipline doesn’t have time to start making all the connections. But these Vic programs do. That’s why they’re called things like Science & Society. You could become a doctor, but you also have this other perspective on how philosophy, empathy, and compassion fit in, or how history fits into medicine.
Material Culture, for example, takes siloed disciplines like anthropology, like sociology, like linguistics, then focuses on the smaller objects of our everyday life. Where did they come from? How did they develop? How do they belong in our lives? It’s interesting when you start thinking, why is this yellow? (She holds up the standard yellow pencil in front of her.) There is a reason. But it’s on Wikipedia, so you can look it up.
TS: Could you tell us?
AU: Yeah, sure! Pencils were originally made, or the good pencils, were made in China. And yellow was a colour that was considered to be royal [in China].
TS: And that colour is not going to mean the same thing here.
AU: Yeah! And most of them, the ones here, started out being made of lead, but they aren’t lead—they haven’t been lead for hundreds of years. They’re graphite. But people still call them lead pencils. So, y’know, these kinds of objects, our everyday objects, have a history, and they merit being reported and respected.
TS: If you could go back in time and take one of the Vic-specific programs, which one would you be most drawn to?
AU: Y’know, it depends. If I had gone back in time, my 1972 self would probably take something like Renaissance Studies. But only because my 1972 self didn’t know about Semiotics. I had to get to my thesis to understand that there was this new, interdisciplinary field out there, that took in all these aspects of linguistics and languages and history and anthropology and sociology, and made it into a cohesive whole.
TS: You are also the Coordinator of the VicOne Program, which offers the same sort of environment as Vic’s special degree programs. Personally, I can say that being able to sit in a room with only 24 other students and Kenneth Bartlett in my first semester of university, that was–
AU: And he’s having a ball! He’s really enjoying it. He’s someone who really cares, who really wants to see you flourish and to see you expand intellectually, as a person, to see your growth as a person. I would be hard-pressed to find a professor at Vic who doesn’t believe that. I mean, Vic is just that kind of a special place.
Now that doesn’t mean that everything is going to be rosy all the time. And that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to get a B, or a C, or if you don’t do your work, even a D. But it means that you will have a support system, and that support system honestly does care about you.
TS: A former student of the Frye Stream in VicOne wished to know which of the thinkers that you teach in Frye that you’re most drawn to.
AU: Well, isn’t that interesting—I don’t think there is one. I’m very, very lucky, because I chose the ones that I really like. It’s an eclectic group of people.
TS: You also teach a course with Summer Abroad that takes place in Siena and Venice.
AU: That’s a third-year course on food and foodways. It’s not a cooking course, but it’s a course on issues about food security, food insecurity, history, sociology, politics. My view is very much a semiotic one—I try to instill in people the idea of how important it is to consider what we’re eating, how we’re eating, where we’re eating, and to consider it on a wider cultural scale instead of just, “This is a hamburger. I probably shouldn’t be eating it.” If you’re aware of the impacts that that hamburger is having, it makes a different, more informed person. You have a different relationship with your food.
TS: Do you have a favourite Italian food dish, then?
AU: My background is Italian-Slovanian. My mother, during the Second World War, was a cook in an Italian family. So do I have a favourite? No. We had to eat everything that was put on the plate.
At this point in the interview, Professor Urbancic, in the characteristic fashion of a caring educator, turned the conversation to the degree aspirations of her interviewer. After a resulting conversation on Environmental Studies that led to the discussion of new fields like ecocriticism and eco-crimes, Professor Urbancic said:
This is why I love teaching. When I was in high school, even in university, your career was kind-of set out for you. If you left high school, you became a hairdresser, or a teacher, or if you went to university, you became a lawyer, or a doctor, or a nurse, or a social worker. But when I look at you guys—your jobs haven’t been invented yet. And you’re going to invent them. It sends a shiver up my spine. I’m thinking, “Oh my god, these people are so smart.”
You can find more information on the programs offered at Victoria College here. In addition to the VicOne and Vic One Hundred programs for first-year students, the college is home to seven unique degree programs: Creative Expression and Society, Education and Society, Literature and Critical Theory, Material Culture, Renaissance Studies, Science and Society, Semiotics, and Communications Studies.