Critical Friend

Two people dressed in business casual chatting outside.

“The critical friend is a powerful idea because it contains an inherent tension. Friends bring a high degree of unconditional regard. … Critics are, at first sight at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure. Perhaps the critical friend comes close to what might be regarded as the ‘true friendship’ – a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique.” (MacBeath and Jardine, 1998)

I generally relate the idea of a critical friend to the process of writing, probably because this was the first realm in which the need for a critical friend was introduced to me. However, a critical friend is a concept that works in many other areas including professional development. When asked through the OntarioExtend Daily Extend #oext172 to recommend a node in my network to the #ExtendWest group, I thought of my critical friend, Patrick Redko. Patrick is a fellow faculty at St. Clair College who teaches in the Interior Design program.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

A critical friend is different from a mentor or a colleague, in my opinion and frankly, hard to find. Here’s my idea of a critical friend:

A critical friend is a peer. Someone in the trenches, doing similar work, having similar challenges but far enough away from your immediate work to offer a different perspective.

A critical friend is trustworthy. Someone who will not share details of your work, struggles or failings with others in a way that could harm you.

A critical friend is genuinely interested in your success. Someone who wants you to do well and grow and will celebrate your achievements; someone who recognizes that your achievements do not diminish their own.

A critical friend is willing to challenge you. Someone who is willing to point out flaws, to question your thinking and decisions and to debate different points of view, for your betterment, for the thrill of intellectual discourse and because there is value in the process for both of you.

A critical friend is willing to invest time and energy in you. Someone who is willing to take the time to listen to you, to review your work, and to provide thoughtful feedback.

Having a critical friend and/or being a critical friend is not for the faint of heart; it is not easy to receive or give criticism. However, I highly recommend looking for one for it will be a professional relationship unlike any other.



I don’t teach

Irene Stewart standing before a class of students.

That’s right, it is confession time. I don’t teach. At least not in the way most think about teaching at the post-secondary level. I have no answer for you when you ask me: So, what do you teach? This will make some of the activities in my professional development project with Ontario Extend a bit challenging as I will need to extend in my own way but I believe that still fits the overarching goals.

So, what do I do? I am a member of the faculty of St. Clair College in Ontario. Faculty at colleges in Ontario are defined by the CAAT collective agreement as professor, counsellor, and librarian. I have been a Retention Coordinator for over 10 years and in that time I have been categorized as a counsellor, then a professor, then a counsellor again. I don’t quite fit in either category. I, along with a 2nd Retention Coordinator, am responsible for Tutoring Services at all three St. Clair campuses. I am responsible for the theory and practical portions of tutor training and for the ongoing observation and guidance of tutors throughout the semester.  I am like their in-class teacher, lab teacher, and placement supervisor all rolled into one and perhaps preceptor is the best term to apply to my role. My partner and I precept 100 tutors across the college during Fall and Winter and about half that through the Spring/Summer.

That is half my job. The other half of my time is spent responding to gaps in services and programs through direct involvement or advising on potential solutions.

Here is an example. In the past few years, we have had an increase in International Student enrollment. Because there was a need, I created and presented a number of different workshops and seminars for International students on writing, APA, study skills, group work, presentation skills, college level reading, academic integrity, etc. I also helped to develop and implement tutoring services to serve International Student needs in ESL including walk in and conversation club services. These workshops are presented outside of class as voluntary activities and in-class upon faculty request. I developed a workshop on college culture in the Fall for a specific program to address issues encountered in and out of class.

It went like this, I was meeting with the Manager of Student Services at the Chatham Campus. A faculty member interrupted to talk about issues their class was having and boom, gap girl is tapped in. Gap girl is me, by the way. I modified some of my existing material, added some new insight and came up with a workshop that would benefit both domestic and International students on college culture. I did the workshop and it helped.

Fast forward to December and I am called into a meeting with managers from Marketing, Student Services and International Student services to present the workshop. I walk them through the workshop as I can’t really present it because the learning activities and discussions don’t work without the students. They love it and ask, can we turn this into a 3 minute video for Orientation. Ummm…. no. I agree to do the workshop, without the learning activities and discussion, before a group of students to be video taped. I can’t strip is down into 10 minutes and I have to tell you, I hated it because it was 27 minutes of me talking. All the fun stuff of interacting with the students and energy that comes with that experience was gone. There was no opportunity to modify the content or delivery on the fly based on the students in front of me. I also had to change the way I dress and go to hair and make up which just made it worse.

After the taping, someone else decided what to cut and what to keep and came up with 10 minutes of video. I think they cut out some of the good stuff. At January orientation, it was shown to the incoming students as a whole group. For the Spring/Summer, it was used in small groups as part of the Faculty sessions with program groups and included opportunities for discussion.


Please don’t misunderstand. I think the video editing, addition of pictures and other video clips was masterfully done. I hope students and faculty are finding this video helpful. I certainly have had students stop me in the hall since Spring Orientation to say – hey, you are that lady! But this is not what I consider teaching.

I love my job, I have the flexibility to do many interesting things that other faculty are not able to do. And I can fill the gap between what I do and the Extend modules and apply the activities in a way that will help me grow professionally and improve what I do for students and the college. I just hope that some of what I share will be helpful to other in our fabulous ExtendWest cohort.

Bonus Sunday Review

Picture of words in different sizes

What are the themes that emerge from my first ten posts about Extend West. To find out, I tried a couple of different word cloud generators. I will not mention any yet as I have yet to find one the I can confidently recommend but this screenshot does demonstrate that so far… this is ABOUT EXTEND. I can confidentially state that my first exploration into extending with the Daily Extend has required me to stretch and bend in terms of my thinking about learning and teaching and technology.


Changing my mind about Twitter

Twitter – I don’t know what to make of you! I have had an account since 2009 and sent maybe a dozen tweets in six years. I posted twice in 2012, twice in 2013. And once in 2016. The text of the post was: “It has been 40 months since my last tweet, don’t worry, you have not missed anything ;)” I didn’t get it and didn’t care to. When a tweet becomes news and what other people tweet about it becomes more news, it just seemed like a lot of reality TV style nonsense.

But there were a few things last year that I cared about and was asked to tweet about so, fine, I have an account and I can do that. I tweeted about vaping, tutoring services, and the Ontario Faculty strike. And then Ontario Extend came around and as professional development, I decided to join Extend West cohort. That was before I found out that I would have to tweet things. Ugh. But I have an open mind. So try I do and tweet I do and …. I begin to see a purpose, I begin to meet some like-minded people who respond to and follow me and I respond to and follow them. And it becomes more interesting and more like a community. I am starting to get it.

Steven Brust


I am checking my notifications to see if anyone new from the Extend West Cohort has followed me and I notice that STEVEN BRUST liked my tweet about Curation! Only three likes but one was from my favorite author. I quietly follow a few celebrities: Steven Brust (of course), Joshua Malina, George Takei and Emergency Kittens. I appreciate thoughtful social commentary and kittens.  But this was a little bit of a thrill. Steven Brust has seen a picture of my Taltos books and like it. There are people in my twitterville and that is pretty cool!




Wooden blue chair on a beach

I am joining Ontario Extend, an initiative from ecampus Ontario. This is an project that looks to build teaching and learning skills in educators in the realms of technology and online learning…. I think. Well, that is what the website said anyways.

Specifically, I am joining ExtendWest and the opening event is in about two weeks. To prepare, I am opening up a bit of interweb landscape to play with, my own little sandbox, if you will. So far, I have a chair to rest in set up. Extending like stretching can be uncomfortable. I don’t yet know what I am getting into with this project but I am giving myself permission now to dabble, to rest, to wiggle my toes in the sand and enjoy the experience without expectation.

“Nourishing yourself in a way that helps you blossom in the direction you want to go is attainable, and you are worth the effort.” — Deborah Day