Category Archives: Devon Black

Programming Note

An open book, with a four-colour pen resting between the pages

Photo by Richard Rosalion (sobriquet.net), licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial – Share Alike license.

Hi folks!

A quick programming update: For the next month or so, we’ll have a slightly reduced number of posts going up, and they’re more likely to be from regular contributors than the one-time submissions that we post when we get them.

This is because I, too, am a student, and right now I’m in get-everything-done crunch time for my summer semester classes. Believe me, I would much prefer to be editing all the lovely things that come in here; unfortunately, I need to pass my courses, which means studying lots of civil procedure rules and evidence law.

Caitlin will continue to put together our weekly round-ups of education news, and I’ll do my best to make sure you’ve got quality uni(di)versity reading material while I take breaks from figuring out what factors courts apply during substantive review of administrative tribunal decisions (whee!).

Take care!

– Devon

De-Lurking Day!

Hey folks!

uni(di)versity has been up and running for almost two and a half months now. We’ve had visitors from nearly 70 countries, and we’ve been privileged to host some amazing writing from some fantastic contributors.

Caitlin and I, your friendly behind-the-scenes blog-runners, are especially lucky. We get to chat with our brilliant contributors on a regular basis, solicit new writing, and read the emails folks send in. But we want to get to know you, our marvelous readers, a little bit better.

Therefore, we’re declaring today to be our first-ever De-Lurking Day! Come hang out in the comments and let us know a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you find us? What’s a fun fact about you?

See y’all in the comments!

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The classes we love and the classes we hate

While it’s easy to talk about the bad side of our education systems, I think it’s worth talking about some of the ways that classes can be awesome and empowering.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had some great classes in my post-secondary education – sometimes thanks to professors, sometimes thanks to classmates, sometimes thanks to the material. What’s really striking to me is how different those classes are from the classes I hate attending. It’s like they’re barely part of the same process – the only similarity is that they both take place in a classroom.

So what makes for an excellent class?

A prof that respects students

It’s brutally obvious when a prof doesn’t give a crap about what students have to contribute to a course. These are the profs who stand at the front and lecture, with no interest in class discussion and no effort to make the material accessible. The approach, at its worst, is sink or swim – figure it out without my help, or don’t figure it out at all.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are profs who don’t just want to teach students, but also want to learn from them. These are professors who ask questions that aren’t about the facts of the material, but instead are about opinions, interpretations, or understandings. They facilitate class discussions and encourage engagement; they love to hear about creative approaches; and if they hear an argument they haven’t thought of before, they hear it out rather than dismissing it out of hand.

These professors teach students like people, rather than – in the actual words of an actual university administrator at an actual school I attended – “income generating units”. Amazingly, I’d rather learn from someone who respects me than from someone who treats me and my classmates like a waste of time.

A prof that makes learning accessible

You know that prof who seems to have no ability to control class discussion? Where students will just interrupt the lecture, spout irrelevancies, and give wrong answers, while the prof’s response is to just sit back and watch?

That sucks. Not just because it’s a waste of everyone else’s time, but because it makes the material less accessible even for the people who want to be there. People who aren’t interested in jumping into aggressive discussions are frustrated when the conversation strays so far off topic that they might as well be in another class. It’s harder to focus on the material when class structure gets thrown to the wind whenever that dude at the back wants to bring up his irrelevant job experience that he thinks makes him an expert.

A class requires leadership on the part of the instructor, because in the vast majority of circumstances, students in a classroom environment can’t teach themselves as effectively on their own. Without that leadership, it becomes a fight for students to wade through the mess of the classroom proceedings to get at the knowledge the material contains. It’s exhausting, and miserable, and makes the whole class an unpleasant place to be.

Supportive classmates

One of my favourite classes from last fall was a class with a brutally dense textbook, tough material, and a prof who stood at the front of the room and lectured without stopping for an hour and a half. I skipped classes out of boredom and – I’ll be honest – I was that student professors hate, sitting in the back of the class screwing around on Facebook.

And yet.

I was lucky enough to be taking the class with a few other highly motivated friends who were just as bewildered by the material as I was. After a few classes, we sat down and reviewed our notes to make sure we’d actually understood the lecture. Before the exam, we had some epic group study sessions where we went through the cases – some 200 of which we had to memorize before the closed-book final exam – to make sure we understood and remembered them.

Some of the only cases I remember from fall semester were in that class, because it seems that turning the main point of the case into a terrible pun and giggling over it with friends is sometimes the best way to learn.

Sometimes it’s the smallest things that make a class empowering. As much as we like to talk broad theory about critically approaching normative material, sometimes the real activism comes from professors who take the time to listen and classmates who help you learn.

With only three items, my list of what makes for an excellent class is hardly exhaustive. If y’all have any other examples of ways that profs or classmates made a class unexpectedly excellent, shout it out in the comments!

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A Professional Miseducation

The last professional event I went to through school was a law firm meet-and-greet. The event was coordinated by my school’s Law Careers Office, and was supposed to provide an opportunity for us to inform ourselves about potential career options once we as-yet-unformed lawyers moved out into the wider world.

In order to attend this event, I needed to own at least one set of professional clothes. Picking those clothes, of course, involves all sorts of unspoken rules: how they ought to fit, what fabrics look too cheap for the occasion, how to match colours and prints, what shoes go with which belt. As a woman, I got to deal with the added questions of whether or not to wear make-up – and if yes, how much? Should I wear jewelry? Would wearing a pant suit with my short hair lead to assumptions about me, my abilities, and my interests?

Then there are the secrets of behaviour. What is the ideal level of firmness for a handshake – and does that expectation change by gender? It’s a wine and cheese event – should I eat, or drink? How dangerous is it to do both at the same time? Is it pretentious if I have my own business cards? What questions should I ask? How much should I know about the approximately 25 firms that are here?

Trying to fathom the answers to these questions sometimes feels like trying to reason my way into understanding a language I don’t yet speak. I say that knowing that I’m lucky – I had the advantage of growing up with professional parents, who modeled business-appropriate behaviour to me and who will walk me through stressed-out phone conversations when I call in a panic, worried that I’ll never be able to get a legal job because I refuse to wear high heels. This kind of school-sponsored event is something I have experience with, and yet I still get anxious trying to navigate it. My law school tries to give students the tools to find their way through this professional maze, but sometimes in my frustration I have to wonder why they bother. What benefit does this kind of deliberate inauthenticity have for either students or potential employers?

It’s events like this that conspire to make the post-secondary educational experience so alienating for so many. Even for those of us who grew up in situations of relative privilege, it can be incredibly difficult to navigate the unspoken rules of education. How formal should emails to professors be? How do you dress for a faculty-sponsored social event? What is “networking” and how the hell do you do it?

Education should, ideally, provide us with tools to help us better understand the world, but sometimes the world we’re meant to examine in class has little to no bearing on the world we experience ourselves. That disconnect is difficult to cope with, especially on those oh-so-special occasions when a professor or fellow classmate tries to explain how our day-to-day life is insufficiently real, representative, or relevant for that particular class discussion.

Trying to resolve that tension is why Caitlin and I decided to put this blog together. We know we’re not the only people out there struggling to reconcile our education with the wider world. We also know that sometimes the best – or only – way to cope is by creating a community of our own where we can work through these struggles together.

And so, we created this blog. We’ve got brilliant friends around the world working these issues out, and we figured their brilliance should be shared. We also want to be a space for brilliant thoughts regarding education from people we haven’t met yet – and what better place to meet strangers than the internet?

For now, this is a grand experiment; we’re not quite sure how it’s going to turn out. We hope that, regardless, you’ll come along for the ride. No doubt we’ll learn some good stuff on the way.

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Want to write for an exciting new blog?

Hey, you. Yes, you!

Ever sat in a class listening to a prof drone on and on about old white
dudes without questioning a pedagogy that privileges Western, male voices?
Ever seethed in silence while a fellow student ignores marginalized
populations in class discussions? Ever felt like you don’t quite fit the
expectations of your post-secondary community because of your gender
expression, class, ethnicity, dis/ability, or other aspect of your identity?

If so, we want you to write for us! We are Devon Black and Caitlin
Williscroft, co-founders of the soon-to-be-launched uni(di)versity – a
blog about privilege and oppression in post-secondary education.

We want to create a space for discussion and criticism of how universities
operate now, and how we can make them better. We want to hear about
classes, student government, extra-curriculars, and everything to do with
student life. Most importantly, we want to be a space for people to be loud
when their educational communities tell them to keep quiet!

This is a big project, and we can’t do this on our own – which is why we’re
reaching out to you. Send us a pitch, and we’ll do our best to give you the
biggest soapbox we can.

What do you want to write about? In what areas has your experience made you
an expert? Do you want to write for us just once, or once a week, or
somewhere in between?

Send your answers to unidiversityblog@gmail.com. We want to do our best to
facilitate a conversation, not impose our own ideas – that’s the machine
we’re raging against! Get in touch before April 1st to help us shape this
project from the ground up. (And of course, we’ll continue to take pitches
and suggestions after the launch date!)

We’re also sure that while you read this, you thought “I know someone who
would be perfect for this!” We’d love for you to send this invitation on to
them, too!

We can’t wait to get started on this, and we hope you’re just as
excited. Get in touch, spread the word, and keep an eye out for our launch!

Devon & Caitlin
uni(di)versity co-founders
unidiversityblog@gmail.com
unidiversityblog.wordpress.com