Academic Dean: Opening the door to dialogue


I have had the opportunity to speak with some 20 faculty and staff in recent weeks at two meet-and-greets. These occasions have provided exciting and welcome opportunities to re-connect with the Dawson community. Before I go into further detail about these events, it might be useful to introduce myself, how I first came to Dawson and what has brought me back as Academic Dean.

My training is in psychology and neuroscience, and the early part of my career focused on research, first in Sweden and then at the University of British Columbia. While pursuing that research, I realized that, as much as one can understand technology and the workings of the brain, teaching offered a better and more direct way of empowering people and making changes in the world.

Bitten by the teaching bug
I came to Montreal and began teaching in psychology at Concordia in 2009: three courses with a total of about 300-400 students each semester. During that experience, the teaching bug truly bit me. Shortly afterwards, I moved over to Dawson, teaching in the evening.

The students were great, bringing lots of energy and many different experiences to class. But their needs were equally large, pushing me to think about how I was teaching so that I could really engage students in meaningful ways with the material.

When a teacher in the day division took an extended leave, I was given the opportunity to teach in the daytime. My first course was in the classroom where the CoLab is now. It was an acoustical nightmare with its high two-story ceiling.

When the teacher I was replacing came back from leave, it became apparent that I would not have a teaching load. But I still wanted to stay at Dawson. Taking advantage of an opening in what was then the Office of Instructional Development (now the Office of Academic Development), I moved into that service, first as a pedagogical counsellor and then as assistant dean.

That experience provided a rewarding way to work with inspired and engaged teachers who were exploring innovative pedagogies and ideas, but who needed some institutional support to help accomplish their goals.

As much as I enjoyed working at Dawson, I knew that I still needed to broaden and deepen my learning. In 2016, when the opportunity arose to direct Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL), I moved back down the street. I stayed there five years, expanding my professional and managerial experience and acquiring new perspectives on professional development in teaching.

Returning to Dawson
Earlier this year, the challenges and issues document for the new academic dean at Dawson set out interesting and exciting possibilities. Some of the issues were staples for an institution like Dawson, but there was also room to bring vision and values, which I found very appealing.

I feel honoured that Dawson considered me the right person to take on the leadership role of Academic Dean. On a more personal level, I am so happy to be back at Dawson because I missed the community, the vibrancy and enthusiasm of students, teachers and staff, and the opportunity for casual encounters in the halls of this sprawling building.

And so, here I am, the new Academic Dean. Over the past decade, I have learned to rely on talking and listening to people, to learn about their ideas and concerns. These discussions have helped to shape my thinking and my actions, helping to eliminate blind spots from my awareness.

Reconnecting with the community
The meet-and-greets with the Dawson community serve a similar purpose, but do so much more. They provide me with a way to re-connect with Dawson people whom I have not seen for five years, as well as to forge connections with teachers and staff who have recently joined the College.

After some of the imposed isolation of the pandemic, these events also provide a way for people to interact and express themselves in person, on a human level. It is wonderful to have these conversations where concerns and criticisms can be voiced, but also where some big, important issues can be talked about and addressed openly.

Making Dawson the best it can be
In an institution as large as Dawson, it is easy for communication to be truncated, distorted or misdirected, which makes it all the more important to have forums where necessary dialogue can take place. As Academic Dean, I want to make sure that the community understands what the academic leadership is doing and why it is doing it. My hope is that by listening and discussing, I will help make Dawson the best it can be for learning, teaching and working.

What is interesting about the two meet-and-greets that have been held up to now, is that the issues which have been raised are not really new. Complex and challenging issues were broached, such as working conditions in Continuing Education and the College’s vision for Indigenous education. On both those fronts, progress has been made over the past five or six years, but it is also very clear that more work is needed.

It is comforting to know that the College’s leadership is keenly aware of the major issues affecting Dawson. Although what is also very clear is that the community has not been made aware of what leadership is doing to address some of these pressing issues. All the issues raised to date are on our work plan and we are moving forward to resolve them.

The online teaching project
An interesting illustration of how these events can help improve understanding concerns the College’s pilot project for on-line teaching in the winter semester. I was able to explain that Dawson has no vision or plan to move instruction on-line so that it can increase revenues or class sizes.

The academic leadership shares many of the concerns about how on-line instruction can be misused, which is why the pilot project seeks to gather more facts about what teachers are interested in doing on-line and what constitute exemplars of on-line learning activities.

This information will help the College as a whole establish where it wants to go and how best to get there so that the student experience is improved. My explanation helped people who had misgivings about the on-line project, or were opposed to it, gain a better understanding of what the College is trying to do. It also opened the door for me to meet other groups in the College and further explain Dawson’s position.

In a different vein, I also learned of the disappointment that can arise when teachers invest themselves heavily in a project and never receive any recognition or acknowledgement from the College. Dawson runs on the enthusiasm, energy and ideas of its people, and it needs to do everything possible to preserve and feed that energy.

Teaching awards are not the only way to recognize teachers; there is much more that can be done. I learned about a group of math teachers who had been running summer camps to help kids develop their math skills. What an amazing contribution! No one had thanked them or recognized them.

For that matter, professionals and support staff also have a profound impact on the educational experiences of students and on the success of the College’s mission. These contributions also need to be celebrated.

I look forward to meeting some of you at the next meet-and-greets, which will take place in the CoLab, 3F.43, on Wednesday, November 10, 4:00-5:30 p.m., and Thursday, November 18, 10:30-12:00. People who are interested in participating are asked to register at

-Submitted by by Robert Cassidy, Academic Dean of Dawson College

Last Modified: November 3, 2021