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Book and Media Studies: where the city is part of the syllabus

(photo by @mushroom_525 #UofT via Facebook)

Toronto: it’s where you’ll find the headquarters of Canada’s national newspapers, television news producers, book publishers and magazines – and where you’ll find a public library system with one of the highest circulation rates in the world. 

It’s also where you’ll find the University of Toronto’s Book and Media Studies – one of the fastest-growing programs for undergraduates at U of T. And one that takes full advantage of the city’s ability to become part of the syllabus. 

“Toronto is the centre of anglo-Canadian communications media and I want to make use of this opportunity to bring my students closer to the media industry,” says author and journalist Michael Valpy

Valpy’s BMS course, The Newspaper in Canadian Society, examines the past, present and future of Canadian newspapers while transforming the undergraduate classroom in doing so. 

“The thing about the millennial generation is that it's post-institutional and non-deferential. They don't want distance between themselves and what's around them, and they don't want to be forced into someone else's conversation,” Valpy explains.  

“We're dealing with new paths that aren't blazed through the paths of textbooks or scholarly articles. John Cruickshank and Phillip Crawley (publishers of the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail respectively) are only a few blocks south of St. Mike's Carr Hall where I teach, and they both want to be understood by young people.” 

Valpy has taken students to the Globe and Mail and has brought the Toronto Star editor into the classroom. 

“I was excited about this class every week since it was different than most of my humanities classes, in that we had guest speakers – journalists, publishers, big names in media – who spoke to us about what it was really like to work where they do,” says Taylor Lecours, a BMS student and one of Valpy's former students. 

“They explained what their jobs entail, and answered our questions about specific issues that we, as undergraduates, were curious about. 

“It may sound cliché, but having these guest speakers come in really brought the textbook to life.”

photo of fisher libraryMark McGowan co-founded the BMS program 11 years ago. Today, he says, more than 1,000 students take BMS courses and the number of those pursuing either a major or minor in the program has grown from 19 to more than 350 students.

“U of T is the perfect home for book and media studies as it consistently ranks in the top 20 schools on the planet and the program itself excels because of U of T’s breadth in all the areas it covers,” McGowan. 

BMS students have access to the rare books and collections of one of the top three library systems in North America. (Pictured at right: Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library.)

And the St. Michael’s print room – which McGowan calls the “jewel of the crown in the program” because students can do hands-on work with printing materials – is just steps from their classroom doors. 

Just a few steps farther, a whole new set of resources opens up for BMS students to interrogate media in the real world, through internships and research trips.

“We have a reputation for academic excellence so it’s a no-brainer for those companies who want to partner with us. Sony Canada, Rogers and Novalis Publishing House have all worked with our students,” says McGowan. 

“The internships allow students to fuse classroom and workplace learning and are especially significant in humanities classes as they enable the students to appreciate the distinct toolset they receive in their classes. Their hands-on experiences remind the students that they are not locked into one way of learning one specific set of ideals.”

Each internship provides unique and interesting material for students to use when it comes time to write their research papers – current examples include production design, marketing and the contemporary return of vinyl. 

McGowan and three undergraduate students are working on the project “Finding the 1490” which follows the migration of 1490 migrants who left Ireland during the famine in 1847 and vanished upon arriving in Canada. McGowan and his students meet weekly to do research and will travel to Ireland in June to present their findings pertaining to the lives of these Irish immigrants.

“There are few programs like BMS that combine book history, print culture and mass media the way U of T is able to do through working with the iSchool and other courses on campus. The program trains young men and women to understand how media works; we teach media literacy and what students do with that varies. Some students work in journalism and as communications officers but all of our students graduate with a thorough understanding of the dynamics of human communication.” 

For Alex Wichert, an English and BMS student, one of the best things about the program is the way learning takes place. 

“I didn’t expect to be asked to come up to the front and act out a script, do yoga, or present my research through song, but it’s the way the learning is conducted in my classes that makes it rewarding.

“It’s not about just memorizing words and regurgitating them onto a page – it’s been about experiencing them. Being able to go to the rare book library and look through a book from 300 years ago, it’s that kind of thing that adds to the learning that happens in the classroom.” 

Hailey Parliament is a student at the University of Toronto.