Wandering around the Arthur A. Wishart Library brings back memories for Dr. Shay Sweeney. While the library has undergone a transformation since he graduated seven years ago, he can still pinpoint the very desk he spent the majority of his undergraduate days at, reading, researching, and writing essays. He can still remember the location of the history stacks and point to books he borrowed on loan.
It was in the library that Sweeney began his academic career, which helped him to undergo a transformative experience from budding undergraduate student with a thirst for knowledge, to a historian, wielding a PhD and a suit.
“This is where it all began,” he says, sitting upstairs in the library. “It doesn’t look like it did when I was a student, but this is where I spent most of my time. I wasn’t really interested in student life. I was here for school and to learn primarily.”
Sweeney earned his Honours Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science from Algoma U in 2010. He credits Algoma for giving him a solid foundation in political theory, preparing him well for graduate school. “On the political science side of it, I got exposed to a lot of theory that was really helpful. Once you go away to grad school, theory becomes kind of significant and a lot of students had no exposure to it. They had just taken ‘in the dirt’ kinds of history courses. So when they were asked what Marx was talking about for example, they had no idea. But I had been steeped in theory for three or four years because that’s what Algoma really focused on. When I started my master’s, it was a really pleasant surprise having that solid foundational learning that others didn’t.”
By 2011, Sweeney had earned his Master of Arts in History from McMaster University. He wrote his research paper on the Canadian Liberation Movement, a Maoist group from the late 1960s and 1970s.
From there, Sweeney took a much needed year off before beginning his doctorate in history from McMaster. Sweeney earned the prestigious Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS) and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) scholarship to help fund his studies, in addition to scholarships provided by McMaster. He also got to teach a course in his fourth year. His dissertation, titled “Holding Open the Door of Healing, An Administrative, Architectural, and Social History of Civic Hospitals: Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver, 1880 – 1980”, focused on four case studies in Canadian history. “I produced four different case studies on Canadian hospitals, the Toronto General, Winnipeg General, Calgary General, and Vancouver General, and wrote a history on how they were built, why they were built, and how the spatial experiences for different people differed… You’re ability to move through a hospital changes if you’re a patient, a doctor, a nurse, a man, or a woman, for example. The physical dimensions are fixed but the social experiences are malleable.”
He is currently working on turning his 380-page dissertation into a book with McGill-Queen’s Press.
It was while away at McMaster University that Sweeney came to fully appreciate the full extent of his undergraduate days. “I had really positive experiences at Algoma. But it wasn’t until I was working on my master’s that I saw Algoma very differently. I had always wanted Algoma to be bigger when I was a student. But if that happened, I wouldn’t have had the access to professors or the small class sizes, which turned out to be more important. It took me being away from Algoma to really see the full benefits of this school and how lucky I was as an undergrad.”
Being able to form relationships with professors was key to his success. In Political Science, Sweeney became close with Professors Don Jackson and Terry Ross, and Dr. Tom McDowell. During his master’s, Sweeney was in communication with both Ross and Jackson. Ross was familiar with the Canadian Liberation Movement and provided him with primary research, which helped inform his thesis.
While at Algoma, Sweeney was also mentored by Dr. Warren Johnston in the History department. “Warren is actually in the acknowledgements in my dissertation. Warren had a really big impact on my education. Prior to taking courses with Warren, I wasn’t caring too much about my work. I was getting it done but wasn’t really putting a lot of heart into it. The first time I took one of his courses, he destroyed my paper,” he says with a laugh. “I was doing great in all of my other courses so I thought it was just a fluke. The same thing happened next semester… So because of him, I reoriented my entire academic life. It was hard but really worthwhile. Warren was there every step of the way. He helped me improve my writing and my research. He leant me his books, he made himself available. He told me that I could go to his office hours and just talk to him for hours and hours. He was extremely supportive and I owe him a lot.”
Throughout his graduate days, Sweeney kept in close contact with Johnston.
After earning his PhD, Sweeney taught a medical history survey course for Trent University at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). He is hopeful to one day land a tenured position at a university, preferably Algoma U.
Today, Sweeney is working alongside Dr. Michael DiSanto on the George Whalley project in the basement of the Wishart Library. He’s keeping a close eye on the desk he once studied at, wondering who will be the next undergraduate to sit there and begin his or her academic journey, following the same trajectory as Sweeney.