University of Calgary

Q&A: Dennis Sumara

September 17, 2009

Q&A with new Faculty of Education Dean

Dennis Sumara
Dennis Sumara
Dennis Sumara’s parents were immigrants and understood the importance of education. Despite his reluctance to attend university, he enrolled and surprisingly, became tremendously engaged. He is the Faculty of Education’s new dean and started his position this fall.


Can you trace the origins of your interest in education?

My parents were immigrants to Canada post-World War II and, like many of their situation, understood the importance of education. To my parents’ dismay, I wasn’t convinced I would attend university. I enrolled at the University of Lethbridge the year after graduating from high school, believing that I’d attend for only one year.

To my surprise, I found the experience tremendously engaging. I was introduced to experts in fields of study I hadn’t even known existed — anthropology, psychology and sociology —none of which I’d studied in high school. It was fascinating to read books that helped me better understand my personal situation and experience through these theoretical and conceptual lenses.

Looking back, I realize that year was when I became fascinated by the practice of close reading — that is, the educational process that occurs when you study something very deeply, giving attention to the fine-grained details of the genre being studied. During my third year at the University of Lethbridge, I enrolled in a community-based course, working in a school for students with various learning challenges. I enjoyed that experience and, so, I decided to complete two degrees, a BA (English and Drama) and a BEd.

My first teaching position was in Taber, Alberta in 1980, where I taught junior-high English language arts for ten years. After ten years of teaching in Taber, I completed my Master’s of Education degree with a focus on effective whole-language teaching. I completed my PhD in curriculum studies at the University of Alberta. My dissertation focused on a study of the literary imagination and the curriculum.

You seem to have a great love for literature and for keeping it in the classroom.

I am fascinated by how engagement with literature — and not just print texts — can be very important places of learning, for individuals and for societies. We keep track of who we are through our literary texts. Some of these books are completely inscribed in our belief systems: consider Shakespeare’s works, for example. We know about these literary texts, even if we haven’t read them; there are so many metaphors and images from them that have become part of our everyday experience.

How does a Faculty of Education best prepare its graduating students for increasingly diverse classrooms?

Whether in K-12 or other contexts, classrooms have always been diverse and complex. All students arrive to the classroom with very different experiences.

That said, we still must understand the relationship between a few different types of diversity that are present in any learning environment. Experiential diversity and disciplinary diversity are related, but in education we think about them in different ways. Experiential diversity is created in Canada through our many languages, cultures, beliefs and traditions. In educational settings, we support a number of disciplines that inform our understanding of experiential diversity — sciences, languages, literacies, fine arts, social science and so on. As well, we have other areas of scholarship such as women’s and gender studies and cultural studies that have been very influential in showing us the links between those other disciplines.

Today’s teachers must have a strong initial teacher education to understand both experiential and disciplinary diversity. Interdisciplinary scholarship depends on these deep specializations — theoretical, methodological and disciplinary — which we then take forward into shared projects. Groups with deep specialization will always come up with more innovative responses to questions, problems and challenges than will more homogenous groups.

What do you see as your most exciting challenge(s) as you come into your new role as U of C Faculty of Education Dean?

Because of Education’s inherent interdisciplinarity, we are connected to a diversity of ideas and people through our interests in professional education and applied psychology. These connections are not always obvious or well enough supported, and that’s what one of our biggest challenges/opportunities will be as we move forward. We must focus on our strengths in professional and applied learning in education and psychology, acknowledge our assets of core disciplinary knowledge in education, and show how that knowledge both supports and is supported by research and teaching in other faculties.
Mostly, I’m looking forward to the challenges of thinking with members of our Faculty about how we will use advances in digital technology and social networking to transform how we conduct our research, archive our established and emerging knowledge, offer our undergraduate and graduate programs, and engage more productively with community. At the present time, we are trying to impose practices associated with earlier technologies on new and emerging ways of learning, using and creating knowledge. We need to understand that the new commonplaces of learning include but are not exclusive to the physical geography of the university. With our already-established research and teaching expertise, I believe the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary will become a world leader in creating and using digital media learning environments, particularly as these apply to our strengths in professional education and applied psychology.

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