1971 was an exciting year; the gates to Walt Disney World opened for the first time, Apollo 14 landed on the moon, and the floppy disk was released by IBM. For uOttawa Professor Geraldine (Gerry) Arbach, it was the year that she first set foot on the uOttawa campus as a part-time professor at the Faculty of Arts for the Centre for Second Language Learning (now known as the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute or “OLBI” for short) – a position that she still holds today, 50 years later.
“I feel like I was a born teacher. I love what I do and I care about my students,” says Arbach, who still recalls how hot it was during her first summer in Simard Hall.
As she nears octogenarian status, Professor Arbach has lost none of her passion. The many testimonials from former students, TAs, and colleagues confirm that she has guided countless people to success.
A long and brilliant career
Professor Arbach was in her early 20s when she began her teaching career. Right after she was awarded a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she began teaching French before starting graduate studies at Stanford University.
In 1970, she and her husband, Daoud Arbach, moved to Canada, where she pursued her career at several local educational institutions, including the former Immaculate Conception High School in Gatineau (Hull at the time), the CÉGEP de l'Outaouais, the Université du Québec en Outaouais, and the University of Ottawa, where she taught for the OLBI, the Department of English, and the School of Translation and Interpretation.
She admits that she never imagined enjoying such a lengthy teaching career.
“What keeps me going is that I think I’m giving them something valuable,” she says. “I feel like I have to, and I want to, give back something for the good luck I’ve had in my life. I have a good life and it’s my responsibility to give back.”
Caring and empathy never go out of style
Obviously, life at university in 2021 is far different from the campus experience of 50 years ago. For a teacher who often goes by the name of Gerry, even in the classroom, this has meant adopting a teaching style that students enjoy and that adjusts to suit the times.
“It used to be that teaching focussed on professors imparting knowledge to students who would passively absorb this knowledge,” she says. “Today, this is not at all what happens. Teaching now focusses on students, and my role is to guide them as they develop their skills.”
It goes without saying that such a drastic paradigm shift takes a great deal of humility and openness.
“I do not consider myself different from my students; I am not on a pedestal. I like chatting with the class, sometimes telling jokes and sharing my experiences. I also have a lot to learn from them,” she adds.
Those around her know they can be candid with her. She likes to say that she can wear many hats: teacher, respected elder, confidante, and even aunty!
And does Professor Arbach intend to retire any time soon? “So long as I can teach, I will continue to do so,” she says.