Special Section: Metro Learning Curve

‘Ultimately I just want them to give a damn about something’


Courtesy Arne Kislenko

Beloved professor Dr. Arne Kislenko mugs for the camera during a recent trip to the Scottish islands. He was named the top lecturer in the province as part of a TVOntario competition.

He’s not an easy marker, he hates apathy in his classroom, and he does have a little bit of a potty mouth. But Dr. Arne Kislenko is not only one of Ryerson’s most beloved professors — he is also Ontario’s best lecturer.

He won that title in last year’s TVOntario Big Ideas competition. Kislenko was chosen over nine other finalists, including professors from University of Toronto, York University and Ottawa’s Carleton University, by viewers who graded the lecturers via phone or Internet.

“Next to being a rock star — which I haven’t given up on yet — I have the greatest job in the world,” he says.

Kislenko began his teaching career by necessity as a graduate assistant in 1990. “To be honest, I started pretty much only because I was in grad school and the job as a (teaching assistant) came with the turf.”

From 1993 to 2001 he was a contract professor at both Ryerson and U of T before finally joining the tenure track faculty at Ryerson in 2001, and becoming an adjunct professor at U of T in 2002.

Kislenko first became interested in history, the subject he teaches, at the age of seven.

“When I used to watch TV and see aboriginals,” he says, “I remember thinking that the way they were portrayed (couldn’t) be right.”

This passion for questioning things, and not accepting things at face value is what Kislenko tries to instill in his students. He knows that history classes usually have the reputation of being boring.

But if you were to sit in on one of his classes — assuming you could get a seat — you’d find hundreds of students listening intently to the captivating professor speak.

Kislenko humbly credits his popularity on campus to the material he teaches. “How could you make things like the world wars, Cold War conflict, revolution, terrorism, and massive social, political, technological change boring?” he wonders.

He also differs from other professors in that he speaks to his students, rather than over them: “If you make it all intellectual‚ and purposely talk over someone’s head you will lose the audience and very likely make it boring anyhow.”

He says the key is to “humanize history by making students understand that the people participating in the events we discuss were just that — people, very much like themselves.”

And he admits that he can a bit threatening, too. “I take disinterest, particularly in really dramatic topics like the loss of life in the world wars, not so much as a personal insult but rather as disrespect to the millions who suffered and died. Then I have no problem prodding students a bit harder.

“Ultimately I just want them to give a damn about something. I hate apathy — especially about the massive issues I teach.”

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