At St. Mary’s University, our community of faculty, staff and executive leadership strive to prepare our students to live with integrity, compassion and confidence. In this new spotlight series, we will profile and celebrate some of the many people who underpin and represent the vision, mission and values of St. Mary’s.
This month, we will be looking at Dr. Jocelyn Williams, a respected long-serving Associate Faculty member who is known and loved by our students for her passion for literature and is currently serving as our Interim Dean of Arts and Sciences.
Raised by English teachers who were raised by English teachers, it’s safe to say that Dr. Williams passion for English runs in the family. In fact, her grandmother was in Acadia University’s first program to graduate women in 1929 and completed her undergraduate English degree with Margaret Atwood’s father.
“Nearly a century later, how could I not teach a whole class on Maggy’s poetry and fireproof (literally) prose? It’s corny, but literature has expanded borders and saved my life,” explains Dr. Williams.
Following in generations of footsteps, Dr. Williams completed her undergraduate degree studying English Literature at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia and less than a year later, earned her Master’s at the University of Toronto. Driven by a passion for education, she finished her PhD shortly after at Memorial University in Newfoundland.
After receiving her doctorate, Dr. Williams taught at various universities on the East Coast before landing what she considered to be her “dream job” at St. Mary’s 16 years ago. Reflecting on her initial interview process, Dr. Williams remembers when she was interviewed at StMU in 2005. “Dr. Norman Knowles asked me what I’d learned from books, and I replied, ‘Everything’,” she recalls.
“I grew up in a tiny fishing community in Cape Breton: books had me meeting people long before I studied language in Menton, France.” Ever since she read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in the eighth grade, she has maintained a strong belief that “there is no story that is not true.”
Moving across the country and trading the ocean for the prairies, Dr. Williams and her family quickly settled into life in Alberta. She then taught full-time at St. Mary’s until 2018, when she became Chair of Humanities and split her responsibilities between the classroom and administration.
Then in the spring of 2022, a new opportunity was presented – there was an opening for Interim Dean of Arts and Sciences at St. Mary’s. Ready to take this next step in her career, Dr. Williams applied and after a vigorous interview process, landed the role. Her position as Chair of Humanities was taken over by her trusted colleague, Duncan Maclean, and her time teaching in the classroom was put on pause.
Since becoming Interim Dean earlier this year, Dr. Williams has worked on bringing stability by being a steady, positive voice who champions work equity and the inherent value of the Liberal Arts. She also works at belting out hymns every Wednesday at Mass – but that’s a story for another time!
When outlining her goals for the remainder of the academic year, she is specifically working on returning confidence to the community by having a clear process and procedure safeguarding St. Mary’s. “I want people to know they can find answers and that they are understood; their hard work is recognized,” adds Dr. Williams.
As Interim Dean, Dr. Williams is driven by her passion for education and the Liberal Arts. She has always fundamentally believed that a Liberal Arts education encourages students to research and learn across disciplines, history, and cultures. The result of this education? Students are able to understand citizenship and then apply core skills—critical thinking, research methods, and responsible communication.
Dr. Williams further explains the inherent value of a Liberal Arts education with a literary example, “I seem to rely on Mary Shelley a lot, but in Frankenstein, in 1818, she quoted Volney in The Ruins (1791) and asked if people were so virtuous and magnificent yet so base. Through him, Mary Shelley asked why we decline in order to speculate on how we can ascend,” states Dr. Williams. “Mary wouldn’t have framed that question if she wasn’t a Liberal Arts student, nor would Volney, nor would I.”
Dr. Williams explains that as a passionate leader in the role of Interim Dean, she can “appreciate the opportunity to serve more broadly. As a professor, I serve students; as Chair, I serve the Humanities faculty. Now, as Interim Dean, I serve more students and more faculty.”
As she helps to lead both the Arts & Sciences Faculty and student community, Dr. Williams is better able to represent and advocate for everyone’s interests to senior executives at the university. These are interests which she has a strong grasp on, as Dr. Williams explains “I’ve been at St. Mary’s for almost two decades, so I’m immersed in the culture and invested in the future.”
This strong background in both teaching hands-on in the classroom and advocating for her faculty members as Area Chair was what made Dr. Williams such an ideal candidate for Interim Dean and has helped to guide her in this leadership role.
“As our Interim Dean, Dr. Williams has brought an incredible amount of institutional knowledge from her time as a Professor at StMU. In addition, her passion for our mission as a Liberal Arts university and her sharp focus on teaching and enhancing the student experience made her an obvious and strong choice to lead us through this ongoing transitional period,” explains Dr. Matthew Clay, Assistant Professor of Chemistry. “Her previous role as Area Chair also means she has plenty of experience working with faculty and bringing people together.”
“Dr. Williams has been an excellent fit for Interim Dean – she’s organized and always focuses on the right things. She cares about faculty and students and is remarkably positive in the face of a very challenging job. I also appreciate that she is attempting, in spite of all this, to maintain a reasonable work/life balance. We all need to be reminded of this so it’s good to have a role model,” adds Dr. Mary Ann McLean, Associate Professor, Biology.
Having been with St. Mary’s for nearly two decades and watching the university grow, Dr. Williams takes pride in how the institution continues to offer a welcoming space for every kind of learner. “Our degrees are every bit as recognized as their matches at other institutions, but students graduating with them from St. Mary’s feel differently on their academic journey: they have easier access to closer and individualized support.”
Dr. Williams explains the unique advantage offered by a St. Mary’s education, which is firmly rooted in the Catholic intellectual tradition, as “students have a confidence from being known more differently and deeply by our close community of students and professors. A big education like the one we offer is made accessible in a small classroom.”
Her ongoing goal as Interim Dean has been to clear obstacles. “If students want clearer messages from the school, we can do that. Perhaps faculty want to know more about budget and contracts; that’s reasonable,” says Dr. Williams. Along with continuing to clarify lines of communication, she is also working to feature more Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives at StMU.
“Right now, I’m working with Finance and Human Resources to secure full-time hires to decolonize the institution, to ensure that more students will see themselves represented in the classroom and course content and the hard work of the once under-represented will be properly compensated,” notes Dr. Williams.
As she continues to work toward reaching these defined goals, Dr. Williams reflects on how she has truly enjoyed taking on this new challenge of being Dean and has found the experience so far to be “humbling.” Still, in this position, Dr. Williams is not far removed from her love for literature.
Reflecting on this love, Dr. Williams recalls how she decided to pursue teaching because her brain “fires best” when exchanging ideas about language and books with others. In addition, she believes she is the most generous, inclusive, and curious when speaking with students – and our students certainly agree.
“When introduced to her for the first time, no matter who the student is, Dr. Williams has always been warm and welcoming. It’s truly been a pleasure to have Dr. Williams as Interim Dean,” explains Laura Fraser, SLC President.
“All majors, regardless of how they feel about English, enjoyed her classes as she ensures learning becomes more than just an experience; it becomes a critical skill,” Laura elaborates. “Dr. Williams has always been one of the student Body’s favorite professors. She manages to make every topic she talks about interesting and inspiring,”
“She cares about everyone here; she would never turn away a student whether you need academic help or to just rant for 20 minutes, she’s there and will welcome you with a smile,” continues Christian Meyers, SLC Vice-President, External.
“Every student I’ve talked to who has met her has felt welcome and I truly don’t think there is a better person for the position of Dean. Dr. Williams is one of the kindest and most caring people I have met since coming to St. Mary’s and I am beyond grateful for everything she has done for the students at this school,” Christian continues.
Even after teaching at St. Mary’s for nearly two decades, Dr. Williams remains in awe at the quality and drive of our students, and considers one of the best parts of being a professor at StMU to be “our community of students and the way they ground me to engage wholly.” In addition, she adds, “they convince me of the meaningful work we’re doing, and that has so much value when there’s this swirl of questionable content all around us.”
Although Dr. Williams has missed being in the classroom with her students, she wants to make sure they know that she’s still “making playlists and triple-check marking great lines, so I’m here—in the same office—protecting your rights and investing in your education. Students are encouraged to visit me and I’ll remind them who they are and who they are going to be.”