“We shouldn’t be shy in saying that we are interested in excellence. That excellence is academic excellence. So in some ways, it doesn’t matter who you are or who your parents are. It’s if you value that academic excellence then we’re here for you.”
Life in Ireland
The Vice-Provost offices in Front Square surpass expectations. Imposing from the outside, the interior of West Theatre blends into modern sophistication. Dr Chris Morash, the newly appointed Vice-Provost and Chief Academic Officer, greets me warmly with a faint Canadian twang and invites me to sit. He speaks in a relaxed and enthusiastic manner and I notice that he is wearing Kermit the Frog socks.
Originally, from Nova Scotia, Dr Morash came to Trinity in 1985 to pursue an M. Phil in Irish Famine Literature. It was a “very odd time to come to Ireland” he recalls; “it wasn’t a very happy time in Ireland, the economy was in a bad way, the conflict in the North was still ongoing. The debates in the field that I was interested in, Irish literature and culture, were really fierce and sometimes very personal. There was a real sense at the time that there was something at stake.”
He jokingly compares himself to David Bowie’s character in The Man that fell to Earth “I arrived fully formed in the middle of it.” He continued to do a PhD under Dr Terence Brown, a gigantic figure in Anglo-Irish literary criticism. “Still when I write anything my imaginary audience is Terence, I can hear his voice say “Well can you really say that?” and he’ll be there with me forever. That supervisor-postgrad relationship is something that forms you for life.”
Upon completion of his studies in 1990, academic jobs in Ireland were scarce. He thanks “dumb luck” for landing a teaching job in NUI Maynooth “I originally thought that I would have to go back to Canada. And then completely out of the blue I get a call from Maynooth offering me a job. My wife worked there at the time in a different part of the university. It was pure luck. So I’ve always believed in dumb luck ever since really.”
The Ebb and Flow of Trinity
In January 2014, Dr Morash made a prodigal return to Trinity through Seamus Heaney Professorship for Irish Writing. He fully intends to continue teaching undergraduates as Vice-Provost, “The other title of the Vice-Provost is Chief Academic Officer, which means ultimate responsibility for the teaching that goes on in the university. In order for me to do that I feel occasionally I have to look students in the whites of their eyes and remind myself what that’s all about.”
He admits that there can be a tendency for administrative staff to become out of touch with the daily teaching of the university: “There can be a danger when you get into the administrative side of university life you can drift away from that reality of what it is to be in a classroom. So that when people are talking about teaching conditions, classrooms, technologies and class sizes it’s worth having that there in front of me. I love teaching, I wouldn’t want to give it up. So I’m being plain selfish – I love it too much.”
The “cultural density” of Ireland is what draws Chris Morash here “Because it’s relatively small it’s possible here to see how things connect. It’s possible to see here how something like theatre connects to politics, connects to the economy, religion, the wider society. I think that’s because everything is so tightly knit. Word of mouth allows things to happen.”
This contrasts completely with Canada in his view “A lot of what happens in Canada is determined by geography. The fact that the country is so vast, with large patches of under population, means that something really exciting might happen in Halifax, Saskatoon or Vancouver but those things have very little to do with one another.”
Ireland, for him, is a place where “the scale of things was imaginable. Not manageable but imaginable.” He connects this national cultural density to the “core of the vortex” that is Trinity. “Even geographically if you look at the city, so much flows through Trinity. One of the things that I find fascinating about Trinity is that the optics of the architecture are all walls and gates. It’s incredibly porous. The city flows in and out through it.” However does this flow extend to accessibility into the student body?
Dr Morash sees great potential in children of migrants to Ireland; “It’s those children whose parents moved here in the early 2000’s that are now 17, 18 getting to university age. That’s going to be a real challenge to universities, and a good challenge. Because if you look internationally it’s the children of first generation immigrants that are quite often some of the highest achievers that there are. You’d see that in Canada and the U.S. for instance. It’s a pattern, and there’s good reason for it as well. Their parents that made a journey somewhere didn’t do it because it was easy, it was bloody difficult in some cases. They made that journey for a better life and they’re determined that their children will have a better life than they had. So the value that they place on education is extremely high in many cases. That’s replicated around the world. That’s going to be a feature in Irish education that we need to embrace.”
Refugees, in his opinion, are part of the same issue “We shouldn’t be shy in saying that we are interested in excellence. That excellence is academic excellence. So in some ways, it doesn’t matter who you are or who your parents are. It’s if you value that academic excellence then we’re here for you.”
Reimagining the curriculum
Moreover, Trinity has had a “paradigm shift” in the last decade and a half moving towards an “international” outlook. “When we’re benchmarking ourselves we do so in relation to universities in Australia, Germany or America. Which I think is different from most Irish universities in the sector. They all tend to look at one another and we prefer to look at ourselves in the international frame.”
As Vice-Provost and Chief Academic Officer, Dr Morash is also chair to the Trinity Education Project, he explains the premise of the project in simple terms: “It’s about reimagining the curriculum. We want to maintain the integrity of disciplines but at the same time all students to take a broader perspective of things. The chance to take modules outside of other core disciples, to move from one area to the other more easily.” The structure of disciplines is to be “a support not a barrier”, building in fluidity between departments and a final year capstone project (already in place in some courses).
Dr Morash acknowledges that streamlining and expanding the curriculum will not be easy, “The way that the curriculum works now has grown up over a lot of years. That’s the make it better piece, there’s also the make it work piece. The timetable at the moment just about gets sorted out every year. There are rules about progression from one year to another that vary from programme to programme, school to school, and department to department. A student may pass the year in one department but not in another with similar sets of marks. We’re trying to iron that out as well so that the entire system will run more smoothly. And then once things run more smoothly, it’s easier to move from one piece to the next.”
He chuckles fondly when asked about working with the Provost, Patrick Prendergast, who apparently has “a great sense of humour”.
The mix of engineering and English backgrounds seem to be working for them thus far; “It’s been really interesting to work with someone who thinks in those engineering terms who thinks in terms of thinking of a problem in its component parts and thinking of how those component parts relate to each other. Whereas I tend to think of thing more in terms of narratives and people.” From Nova Scotia to Trinity, Dr Morash’s narrative so far talks of great things to come.