Catherine Ross named to the Royal Society of Canada

Photo of Catherine RossCatherine Ross, former Dean of FIMS (2002-2007), has been named as a Fellow to the Royal Society of Canada. A renowned scholar in the reading experience and the reference interview, as well as the transitional Dean who largely oversaw the Faculty of Information & Media Studies (FIMS) through the early years of its creation, Ross is being recognized by the Society for major contributions to her field of study and to Canadian public life.

To get a sense of Ross’ impact on both the field of Library and Information Science and FIMS, it is, in fact, necessary to take the broad view. An interdisciplinary scholar with a knack for identifying relationships between things, Ross has spent her career finding connections between various concepts and moving between them like data packets zipping around the web. Along with her stint as FIMS Dean and her widely-read scholarship dealing with the reading experience and the reference interview, Ross has also co-authored three editions of the academic text Communicating Professionally, written an award-winning children’s book, appeared on a children’s television program, given presentations to teachers about teaching, taught countless university classes and supervised 10 doctoral students.

“That was very good practice for some of the stuff we needed to do when we created an interdisciplinary faculty,” Ross said of her wide-ranging activities. “Which is bring together people with different expertise.”

FIMS didn’t yet exist when Ross arrived in post-secondary education in 1967 as an undergraduate student intent on pursuing a degree in psychology. But an early positive experience in English 020 caused her to shift disciplines. After completing her undergraduate degree, followed by a Master of English degree at the University of Toronto, and a PhD in English at Western, Ross found herself squeezed out of teaching in the late 70’s due to a budget crunch that reduced the number of available positions. She was subsequently scooped up by what was then the School of Library & Information Science (SLIS) at Western in 1981 and later called the Graduate School of Library & Information Science (GSLIS).

“The Dean of the library school, Bill Cameron, was looking for somebody that would be able to be a part of his PhD program, which they had recently launched. They needed people with various interdisciplinary skills because he saw the PhD in Library and Information Science as itself being interdisciplinary,” said Ross.

As part of SLIS, Ross began drawing lines of connection between different disciplines, using her background and knowledge in English to teach courses that would be useful to budding librarians. She also developed the habit of trying things herself before assigning them. It was while she was teaching the LIS Research Methods course that she decided she had better know something about the technique of interviewing if she was going to ask her students to do it. Delving into the art of interviewing is what would ultimately pique Ross’s interest in many of the projects she later pursued.

“I thought, before I get students to do it, I should try this myself. So at breakfast one day, I asked a friend, ‘Would you mind if I just interview you about your reading?’” explained Ross.

“We had a great discussion that lasted an hour about her reading habits. And it was so interesting that it kind of triggered this whole research program that I’ve been doing, and am still doing, about avid readers. What is the experience of pleasure reading like for people that do it? As far as I know, there was very little work like that happening at the time.”

Over her career, with help from her graduate students, Ross has conducted over 300 interviews for various projects. Among them are Canadian author Alice Munro, playwright and poet James Reaney, as well as numerous children’s book authors, including Dennis Lee, Christie Harris and Jean Little. It was an interview with Paulette Bourgeois, author of Franklin in the Dark, which inspired Ross to start writing children’s books herself. Squares: Shapes in Math, Science and Nature, written in 1996, won the Science Writers of Canada Award, while Triangles was shortlisted in 1994. True to form, the works draw lines and makes connections between the different ways one can understand shapes, be they in math, language, geography, nature and more.

It was also in the mid-90’s that talk of a merger between GSLIS and the School of Journalism began among the Deans of the two schools and the Provost. Discussions centred on keeping the two graduate schools relevant in a period of intense technological change, as well as on the possibility of creating something new at Western that could respond to these societal shifts.

In 1996, the Graduate School of Library & Information Science merged with the School of Journalism and Part-time and Continuing Education to form what is now known as the Faculty of Information & Media Studies. While continuing education ultimately moved on to establish itself elsewhere, the fledgling new Faculty was given the mandate of establishing a new footprint on campus using an interdisciplinary model. Ross, who was serving as Acting Dean of Grad Studies at that time, was asked to act as the transitional Dean for the merger. She explained that then-President Paul Davenport, during a planning meeting, was clear about his expectations of the newly created faculty.

“He said, ‘We’re not interested in just having the same two faculties that were here before, just doing the same thing but calling it some merged name. We want you to do something new. We want the new faculty to have a presence on campus. We want an undergraduate program.’”

“So I wrote the documents and explained why the new faculty needed to be interdisciplinary and non-departmentalized, not be separate units functioning in separate silos. We had to bring together people with different disciplinary expertise be able to offer the opportunity for students to study a certain subject matter – the new information world as it’s evolving – as it relates to journalism, and library and information science, and media studies. We needed to be able to draw upon expertise from the study of law, from sociology, from psychology, from computer science, from geography, from women’s studies, from visual arts, and from music — all these different disciplines.”

Once the merger was complete, the Faculty’s first Dean, Manjunath Pendakur, served from 1998-2000. Following that, Ross stepped in again as Acting Dean to help FIMS move forward with its curriculum development and recruitment. With Associate Dean Gloria Leckie leading the effort, and Ross supporting, new undergraduate and graduate programs were established in critical media studies. In 2002, the “Acting” was dropped and Ross began a term as Dean of FIMS, holding the position until 2007.

The philosophical and practical decisions made in the early days before, during, and after the merger are the reason why FIMS is the only non-departmental Faculty on Western’s campus in 2018. Rather than having an LIS department, and a Journalism department, and a Media Studies department, FIMS instead has a roster of programs, and the flexibility for faculty members to teach across disciplines.

With the foundation put in place by Gloria Leckie, Ross, and many other vital contributors including Carole Farber, FIMS continues to strive towards interdisciplinarity today. The undergraduate program in Media, Information & Technoculture is currently home to over 1000 undergraduates and has thousands of alumni. The MA in Media Studies program has seen 85 students successfully defend their theses, while 36 students have completed the doctoral program. The LIS programs continue to graduate both MLIS students and doctoral students who have gone on to become successful faculty members and administrators in LIS faculties around the world. The journalism program recently evolved into the Master of Media & Communication program, incorporating professional communications. Both of the former schools, together with Media Studies, now contribute their expertise to the undergraduate program, as well as to more recent program additions in Health Information Science and Popular Music & Culture. Both these newer programs are jointly administered with the Faculty of Health Science and the Don Wright Faculty of Music, respectively.

After completing her term as Dean, Ross took a year-long study leave. She then returned to teach and supervise before retiring from teaching in 2010. Ross continues to write and publish today. Most recently she was first author for Reading Still Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries, and Community. Co-authored with FIMS faculty members Lynne McKechnie and Paulette Rothbauer, the book was released in early 2018, and builds on a previous publication from 2006.

Asked what she felt her most significant contributions are to her field and society, Ross considered the question for a moment.

“I think that one thing that I’ve been very privileged to be part of was building FIMS. It’s not very often that you get to invent a new Faculty. You’re often hired to carry on something that was already happening. But we were able to create something totally new, and there was an excitement about it, as people put it together, and we hired new people, and new programs were being developed. That was a gift that I felt very lucky to be a part of,” answered Ross.

“That was one side of it. The other side of it, I’d say, in terms of where my research has made the biggest impact is in reading studies. Which in turn has had some impact on readers’ advisory in libraries.”

Ross hopes that her research into the experience of reading and the importance of those experiences has helped to change the way that libraries think about leisure reading.

“There’s been a whole history in libraries of privileging information, privileging non-fiction, and it’s just been since maybe the ‘80s that people have realized the role and important value of reading fiction and reading for pleasure,” she said. “I think the battle over putting series books in libraries has been won. Up until the turn of this century, some librarians were still attacking series books as pernicious, mind-weakening, and likely to unfit children for real reading. Nobody’s arguing that anymore.”

As for being named a Royal Society of Canada Fellow in recognition of her many accomplishments and contributions to her field and to Canadian society, Ross is humble.

“I feel very honoured. Surprised and honoured.”

Ross will travel to Halifax on November 16, 2018 to be inducted into the Royal Society of Canada. After that, it doesn’t sound like she’s ready to put down her pen any time soon. Not while there is writing to be done, issues to be explored and connections to be discovered. Her perspective remains steady.

“Just keep on doing what you enjoy doing.”