August 1, 2013
Susan Mumm believes the role of the university – every university – is to give people the opportunity to transform their lives. The new dean of Queen’s Faculty of Arts and Science and history professor says it doesn’t matter whether you are a 17th-century commoner at Oxford or a student of political science at Queen’s in the 21st century.
“It’s about opportunity and transformation. The university gives people the chance to become more than they otherwise would have been able to become.”
Academia has certainly had that effect on Dr. Mumm, who grew up on a sheep farm in Saskatchewan believing she wouldn’t attend university, because it wasn’t something anyone in her family was doing. Her mind was changed when she accompanied a friend taking a night class in economics at the University of Saskatchewan to the campus bookstore.
“The bookstore was teeming with students, and listening to them talk I thought, ‘They don’t sound any smarter than me. I can probably do this,’” says Dr. Mumm. “I just decided right there that university probably was for people like me.”
She fell into history, because the queues for psychology were too long, she says, laughing. (Registration wasn’t online at that time). And it ended up being a crucial turning point: in her first lecture, on the condition of women in 19th-century Britain, she fell in love with history.
“It’s a fantastic discipline. It combines being a detective with being an analyst. You spend a lot of time searching for clues and little snippets of the past, what people did, and how they thought, and then you try to find patterns in the evidence so you have a story to tell. And history has a good healthy wallop of gossip in it, too. There’s this basic human story running through it all, like a thread of gold, and it remains interesting forever,” says Dr. Mumm, whose research focus is on Victorian Britain and women’s groups during that time.
Since that first class at the University of Saskatchewan, Dr. Mumm has been crisscrossing the globe, pursuing her doctorate at the University of Sussex, in the United Kingdom, before taking teaching positions at York University and The Open University. She then landed at Mount Saint Vincent University in Nova Scotia as dean of arts and science and most recently as pro vice-chancellor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University in New Zealand.
Her new role, as dean at Queen’s, is an exciting next step in her academic evolution. When asked ‘why Queen’s?’ she responds candidly: “It’s just such a bloody good university.”
Queen’s also seems to have done the impossible trick of combining the traditional values of a university education and a contemporary focus, she says. “It isn’t archaic. It’s future-focused but it hasn’t abandoned the traditional values.”
Moving back to Canada also felt like the right move for Dr. Mumm, despite her dislike for snow-shovelling and her love of the flora and fauna of New Zealand. There is always a pull back to your native land, she says, and once her four cats and partner arrive from overseas, it will take her no time to get settled.