Arne Kislenko: past, present and future

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Photography by Tyler Webb.

[A]rne Kislenko, by his own admission, does not suffer fools and has no tolerance for the sub-par. Almost bald and always gesticulating, he delivers lectures with all the force of nature, stopping very rarely, caught in his own rhythm. You can leave if history doesn’t interest you, if all the romance, tragedy and bitter irony of our past is but incidental to your day, your grade. He will fail you if you are not up to his scratch, and he will yell at you if he thinks you deserve it. Arne Kislenko, by his own admission, will not suffer a fool, but you will suffer him – and not just because he is one of the most awarded professors Ryerson offers.

“I’m not a great intellectual, I’ll tell you that… but I’d like to think I’m good at teaching,” says Kislenko with characteristic candour. It might be safe to say that he is indeed good at teaching, if last year’s 3M National Teaching Fellowship or 2005’s “Best Lecturer” title from TV Ontario means anything at all. Recently appointed as the director of the undergraduate history program at Ryerson, Kislenko is also known for hosting a National Geographic series examining the lives of first-century folk in what is now the Middle East. It’s all very grand for someone who confesses to being, at various times, a “shmuck from Hamilton,” “technologically useless,” a “used car salesman” and a ”notorious hard-ass.”

Kislenko’s reputation for being difficult, however, is inconsequential when compared to the calibre of his lectures. From a student’s point of view, three hours fly by as Kislenko deconstructs detailed maps, painstakingly sourced historical images and even his own black-and-white photographs of historical sites like the graves of Word War II’s fallen in France. The material is staggering, and the past is often bloody and sorrowful, and so Kislenko’s job is fairly clear to him. He wants to move you with the sheer, sobering force of all the years that have come before us.

“The mortal enemy for me in everything I do is apathy. It’s not so much ignorance; ignorance you can sometimes combat by education, but apathy is really hard to beat.” Kislenko speaks, at all times, clearly and with conviction, and his brown eyes do not waver in their gaze. He talks about how he is here to “motivate, stimulate and educate,” he talks about how he might occasionally lecture students too aggressively, but most of all, he talks about his students. “I hope they respect that I care about their education,” says Kislenko, and the faintest smile plays around his eyes. Many do – some of the students he has worked with and taught he now has genuine friendships with.

Perhaps it might be easy to write Kislenko off as a charged, comprehensive lecturer, but then again that doesn’t do justice to the genuine gratitude he has for his students at Ryerson. “Ryerson students are willing to tolerate an ass like me,” says Kislenko, almost as if he knows what some of the raised eyebrows in his classes mean. “They don’t suffer from the arrogance or shyness that inhibits classes.”

“They understand,” says Kislenko of his Ryersonians, “once you poke them a few times. They’re unbelievably gifted people, and they’re just as talented, in many cases more talented than your Oxford pedigree. And that speaks volumes of our students, that they manage this balance between curiosity, fun and being engaged and motivated in their academic pursuits. It’s unbelievable, it really is. ”

The proof is in the proverbial pudding – one of the programs that Kislenko facilitates, the International Issues Discussion (IID) series, was the brainchild of two Ryerson students. The IID series functions loosely in the mode of a lecture-forum, where guest speakers from disciplines of history, political science diplomacy and the intelligence industry field questions about contemporary issues from interested and invested students. In what he describes as “classic Ryerson,” Kislenko recalls being approached by business students Gunjan Sondhi and Leila Hoda in 2005 to set up a “bunch of talks” along with his colleague, Dr. Dale Carl. Seven years later, the series is in full bloom and the winter semester’s IID chapter is already in the works.

Currently, he is gearing up for his lecture in the Ryerson chapter of TEDTalks happening this Sunday. A continual educator, there is a strong undercurrent of humility in the way Kislenko speaks of his “great privilege to teach,” and with close to 20 years of teaching history at Ryerson, he is a naturally poised to speak on education standards and engagement beyond classes and lecture halls. But for Kislenko, who was wooed away from his previous job with law enforcement by his sheer interest in history, there is always a reason to look back even as he deals with his commitments of the present.

Even as he teaches and inspires, Kislenko is also is researching his own father who fought in World War II. Immediately, as Kislenko talks of how his father was “tortured [and] twisted” by the grand mal chaos of the Second World War, echoes of Kislenko’s voice from his own lectures recur. The way he talks about how the World Wars continue to reach out to us today; the way he continually lambasts the idea that what’s in the past is actually passed, separate from the now.

Today, Kislenko talks with relative composure of his father and of his own interest in finding out about his father’s role in World War II, a search that has taken him from his Aunt Nina to official Finnish records. As with all things that war touches, there is pain and there are more questions than even the possibility of answers, but more than anything else there is, in his own words, “proof positive of the intimacy of history.” Kislenko started researching about his father when he was in his own undergraduate years, and however long it takes, he intends to follow his research to whichever conclusion it reveals. There is no other way.

With one foot planted firmly in the present and one reaching ever into the past, Kislenko’s eyes are, meanwhile, trained on the future, and the future’s name is Katya. Just months into his first experience of fatherhood, Kislenko is perhaps now softer than he used to be, and he does cuss significantly less, but in a newly and dearly beloved daughter he sees again some humanity, the same call for history and understanding that motivates him to teach. And just as in Katya there is the future, in Kislenko there is again a strengthened resolve to educate, in much the same way as he does at Ryerson – to engage, to provoke questions, and to change your outlook on life.

“I don’t expect everyone to know or care everyday about Sudan, for example, but if you’re unmoved by some of the stuff that we, as an academic community, bring…if something here in your four years of evolution doesn’t grab hold of you and shake you a little bit, and make you upset outraged, curious… what are we doing?”