Tag Archives: Education

Welcoming Non-Binary Gender in the Learning Environment

What does it mean to include non-binary gender in the learning environment? It’s a question without easy answers, because of the constant presence of the gender binary in social spaces. Gender segregated bathrooms (with no non-binary option!) are one of the most obvious binary-enforcers, but statements like the ubiquitous “men and women” also contribute. There is a constant undercurrent of binarization, made more visible in moments like this, when we see the public clamouring to know the gender of the new royal baby (we know the baby’s assigned sex, and we know how the baby will be socialized and conditioned as a result of that assigned sex, but I would argue that we don’t actually know the baby’s gender yet and we won’t for a while!).

I recently presented a talk on non-binary gender in digital humanities at the Digital Humanities 2013 conference. Part of my presentation, co-created with Milena Radzikowska and Stan Ruecker, focused on welcoming non-binary gender into the digital humanities learning environment.

The gender binary, and the call for the inclusion of non-binary gender, is a significant concern in the digital humanities, where scholars are working to digitize and encode data sets and collections of humanities information, including literary collections in projects such as Orlando. This question of tagging, encoding, sorting and designing databases is a complex and challenging one. The question of welcoming non-binary gender into the learning environment – in front of the screen rather than in the code behind it – is a little bit easier.

Here are six steps towards gender inclusivity in the learning environment, a space that encompasses the physical classroom, the extra-curricular physical space of office hours and chance meetings, the digital spaces where students and professors interact – Blackboard, Zotero, Twitter, etc. – as well as transactional spaces such as assignments and tests.

This list is not comprehensive, and I would love to engage all parts of the academic body in this ongoing discussion. Join the twitter conversation with hashtag #NonBinaryDH or comment here. This post will be cross-posted over at SexTexts, my own academic blog.

1 – Challenge assumptions of gender in your learning environment by disclosing your preferred gender pronouns in classroom introductions and online bios.

Not only does this challenge the assumption of binary gender, it sets an example and opens the door for discussions of both gender identity and the validity of preferred gender pronouns. This applies to cisgender individuals as much (or more!) than to trans* or non-binary individuals because it makes it clear that even if a person is cisgender, they have a preferred gender pronoun – it’s just invisible that this is a preference because it is assumed to be the “natural” order of things. Cisgender identity is often invisible because it is the default. This invisibility means that every other gender performance is othered, and making cisgender identity visible contributes to an inclusive environment where every individual has a legitimate gender identity and preferred pronouns, and nobody is othered. By stating your preferred gender pronouns up front, you set the stage in the learning environment for gender to be questioned and critiqued.

2 – Ask your colleagues their preferred gender pronouns.

Not only will this create a safe space for trans* and non-binary individuals to be visible and acknowledged, it also gives cisgender individuals an opportunity to reflect on their gender identity and also to be visible and acknowledged.

3 – Use gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language in the learning environment.

Gender-neutral language, such as speaking about “people” rather than “men and women” allows non-binary listeners to see ourselves reflected. Gender-inclusive language, such as “men, women and everyone else” allows everyone to see us. Gender-inclusive language is bulkier and can be jarring, but that slight discomfort has the potential to open up space for conversation and reflection on the fact that gender is a spectrum, and does not fit into the binary model.

4 – Discuss gendered material in terms of being “masculine” or “feminine” rather than being “men’s” or “women’s.”

It is sometimes easier to grasp the concept of masculinity and femininity existing on a spectrum, a stepping stone towards understanding that gender itself exists on a spectrum (men, women, and others). Images of butch women and femme men are a common staple in our media culture. These images often conflate sexual orientation with gender, problematically representing all butch women as lesbians, and all femme men as gay. (While we’re busy breaking binaries, let’s remember that bisexuality is a real thing!) However, this spectrum of gender performance does provide an opening for us to begin speaking about gender identity as also being on a spectrum. Simple linguistic changes that challenge the binary in bite-size pieces can provide space for non-binary individuals in learning environments that otherwise would rarely discuss the topic of gender. (This point came up in a discussion about design classes, for example.)

5 – Recognize, and talk about, the differences between sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The conflation of sex and gender is pervasive and reinforces the gender binary. In many areas it is impossible to change your ID as a trans* person unless you can prove that you’ve had SRS (sex reassignment surgery). In this situation, non-binary gender is erased and although trans* identities are validated, it is only binary trans* identities that are acceptable or even visible. Gender identity is distinct from biological sex, which is also not a clear-cut binary. The male/female binary is complicated by chromosomal variances and the reality of intersex, which is much more common than we often believe. According to Mira Hird in Gender’s nature: Intersexuality, transsexualism and the ‘sex’/’gender’ binary, “one in every 100 births shows some morphological ‘anomaly’, which is observable enough in one in every 1000 births to initiate questions about a child’s sex” (Hird 350).

Further, gender identity is separate from sexual orientation, which again exists on a spectrum rather than sitting comfortably as a gay/straight binary. Recognizing these differences and challenging our own habitual mashing up of unrelated identity categories goes a long way to normalizing non-binary gender and allowing non-binary individuals (as well as binary cis and trans* individuals!) to see the wide range of possibilities open to them.

When sex is conflated with gender, non-binary individuals have few options, because there is no culturally acknowledged template for non-binary sex despite the frequency of intersex – our bodies become policed into sex categories that are then assumed to dictate our gender and our gender becomes difficult to perform because our bodies don’t conform. When sexual orientation is conflated with gender, non-binary individuals again see few options for themselves (especially when bisexuality or other non-monosexual orientations remain invisible). Sex, sexual orientation and gender – three separate, distinct, interrelated but not interdependent categories!

6 – Include non-binary authors in curriculums and reading lists.

This is a challenging prospect because non-binary gender is so often invisible. However, anthologies such as Mattilda (a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore)’s Nobody Passes (2006, Seal Press), and Nestle, Howell and Wilchin’s GenderQueer (2002, Alyson Books), as well as Kate Bornstein’s books, Jiz Lee’s blog (NSFW) and their contributions to various anthologies (including The Feminist Porn Book), and dozens of chapters scattered throughout anthologies dealing with gender, sexuality, and various other feminist issues. It takes a bit of digging, but there is a wealth of material being produced by the non-binary community. Canadian singer-songwriter Rae Spoon is non-binary, and has put out multiple albums and a book. There are also a wide range of blogs and twitter accounts run by non-binary individuals, offering insight into the community and our identities and struggles. Including non-binary authors provides an opportunity to normalize gender-neutral pronouns such as Jiz Lee’s use of “they,” and also demonstrates that being non-binary does not mean being excluded from cultural production. The work that we do has value.

Hird, Mira J. “Gender’s nature: Intersexuality, transsexualism and the ‘sex’/’gender’ binary.” Feminist Theory 1.3 (2000): 347-364. Tandfonline.com. Web.

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International students need international universities

As a veteran of two intercontinental exchanges and one semi-permanent move to Sweden to pursue my master’s degree, I’ve lived and breathed the international student experience. Skipping class, living in a foreign country, the international social life, pubs, clubs and travelling – you almost forget that suddenly you’re a student under the umbrella of a foreign university institution, and that a lot about your experience and life abroad is affected by that organisation.

Lately, I’ve witnessed young adults only a couple years younger than myself with no international experience getting thrown into the wilderness of coping, adapting and living the less glorified parts of  the international student life.

Your time on exchange can very well turn out to be the time during which you learn about exclusion, being the constant outsider, and having your identity turned upside down. You’re on your own for the first time in a foreign land, forced to make a life from scratch, and this is overwhelming. That’s without even touching on cultural and language barriers.

The thing most students don’t realize until they arrive is that a lot depends on the university and the culture of inclusion and support it can build for internationals. Unfortunately, it’s no secret that universities have difficulties integrating us in a meaningful way. Ignore the beautiful smiling students on their brochures; the isolation of internationals is widespread and unmistakable.

The struggle tends to be threefold: institutional, linguistic and cultural. How do you integrate a transient, diverse and temporary number of individuals into a university on a rolling basis?

First, universities need to realize that it is in their interest to invest in international students. Universities around the world are experiencing an increase in student mobility, whether through temporary exchange programs or more permanent students seeking their entire degree in a different country. This student mobility is an opportunity to bring in revenue and compensate, in part, for austerity policies targeting education. Universities must prepare themselves to hear and react to international student needs, and adjust regulations and institutional culture to remain competitive.

Sweden is an interesting case. For one thing, an astounding number of Swedes speak impeccable English. As an Anglophone in a world where English is such a widely-spoken language, you’d think this lead easy and swift integration into Swedish student life. Master’s level classes may very well be in English, but when it comes to student rights, all documentation in the public sector in Sweden – which includes universities – must be in Swedish. Student unions have independently decided to conduct meetings in English if there’s just one non-Swede there (and there almost always is). But, when working with the administration, translated documents are rare, if they exist at all, limiting international student involvement and representation.

The cultural element is trickier, but it’s not impossible to manage. Setting up an international information desk or club, however, doesn’t cut it. These are often young people leaving their home for an extended period of time for the first time without a support system. But, more and more, students travel, experience other cultures, and come to understand the sense of being an outsider. This can have an impact on cultural integration on campus.

From my years in the international student community, I realized that it’s a culture in itself, and it’s spreading with every exchange, international degree or internship, new group of friends, and – often – new job. More and more young people recognize and identify with an “international culture.” The spread of international experiences is expected to continue, and with it, I hope this international culture will, too.

As much as global interconnectivity and exchange is facilitated by globalization and other factors, there remain, for students studying abroad, shadows of isolation and exclusion. Young internationals under the wing of a new university deserve support from their host institution. There’s nothing to be done about some negative aspects of living away from home, but if trends continue, universities will have to face facts: they have a role to play in making life easier for international students.

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Communicating for social change

Social change comes, not simply through personal change, but also through persuasion. An important part of influencing the world around oneself is to communicate ideas and to influence the people who surround us. Feminism, Marxism, and the enlightenment era values of equality that drove the civil and gay rights movements – those ideas gave us all the tools and the frameworks to understand our lives and our social context in new and revolutionary ways.

However, with the example of feminism, it was not enough for the idea that women are equal to men to be sparked in one mind. No, that is not enough to create a world-changing social movement. That idea had to be born in the minds of many, spoken by the mouths of many, and heard, challenged, and accepted by answering minds before a philosophy and a movement could be born.

Communication is an important thing.

A disabled individual, like me, might change their social environment by explaining the difficulties that they encounter to key individuals around them: teachers, classmates, family, and friends. While one might not always find a receptive mind, most people, when approached respectfully, will do their best to accommodate. In all but the most unreceptive environments, one can use this approach to create an community of support.

In extreme contrast, one might talk solely to others encountering the same difficulties, about how those difficulties are not accommodated, about how the needs of the group are unmet, without bringing others into the conversation – or while outright disregarding the opinions of those outside the group. Since they do not share in our difficulties, the assumption might be, they are obviously ill-equipped to discuss the subject and therefore have nothing of import to say.

Much as existing power-structures limit the participation of marginalized groups in mainstream social dialogue, to the detriment of our social progress, the same voices privileged in the mainstream are occasionally heavily delegitimized where the language of social justice reigns. This has a certain well-they-started-it playground logic, but it is largely counter-productive and has many problematic elements, such as the creation of a social hierarchy where status is linked to the degree of disenfranchisement in the dominant culture. This may further discourage communication with the dominant dialogue by demonizing it, rather than engaging with it.

When we arbitrarily limit who can have a voice and who can participate in a dialogue, then we simultaneously limit the scope of the effect we can have on society with our discourse. We limit the power of our words. Assuming that a white, cisgendered man can neither understand privilege nor communicate meaningfully on how privilege affects everyone throughout society is demeaning to that individual’s status as a rational being, but it also cripples communication. The dialogue of social change becomes insular, a one-sided conversation with no purpose, held solely to convince ourselves of the guilt of those who oppose us and our own personal righteousness.

We are speaking, but there is no one there to listen.

Just because a person is currently ignorant of the tools and frameworks of ideas like feminism, does not mean that they are unreceptive to those ideas or that they can never come to understand them. That is why excluding men from discussions of feminism, why excluding heterosexuals and the cisgendered from discussions of sexuality and gender, why excluding those who are currently abled and healthy from discussions of disability and mental illness is so problematic: because they could be great allies in the search for an equal society, and because they need to be part of this conversation too.

Young men need the tools of feminism just as young women do: they need to understand how patriarchal gender norms limit their self-expression and encourage damaging behaviour. Straight men and women need the encouragement to accept the full range of sexuality, desires, and bodies that is discussed in queer studies. White individuals need to understand the full impact of institutional racism and how it permeates the lives of everyone in our society, so that we may all enter into a meaningful dialogue about race, instead of the silent war of hidden hostilities in which we often find ourselves.

All affected parties must be at the table before a discussion can be had and an agreement reached.

We live in a divided time. In North America, politics are increasingly polarized, with both “sides” watching each other mistrustfully over a middle-ground that has been burned and razed. This is not a time to cut off communication, but we have become more and more reluctant to engage with those who disagree or who simply have not previously been receptive.

So do not structure the dialogue of social change to exclude the privileged. Structure it to teach them, to include them, to engage them. Bring them into the conversation. Certainly, we need not have these discussions with every Tom, Dick, Sally, and Thoth the Enlightened that crosses our path – heaven knows I wouldn’t have the energy. But when you do find yourself in such a conversation, please do not say, “You’re a part of (privileged class), so you wouldn’t understand.”

That’s not starting a conversation, that’s ending it.

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Finding a place for students with invisible disabilities

More than 4 million Canadians are disabled; about half of those people live with invisible disabilities.

The term invisible disability is an umbrella term which encompasses all disabilities that affect the ability of a person to live their life, but show no physical or visible sign.  Among the conditions that are classified as invisible disabilities are chronic pain, dyslexia, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Most universities have centres that offer support and services to disabled students, and the University of Ottawa is no exception. Both the Student Academic Success Services (SASS) and the Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD) operate on campus and provide services to students with disabilities.  While I did not make use of these services during my undergrad, the CSD has some pretty fantastic resources and programs, especially if you’re looking to expand your understanding of disability.

SASS assists students based on their needs, which are determined through a formal process that requires medical notes detailing the nature and limitations of the disability and asks for recommendations for accommodation.  Programs like this one are often centered on physical disabilities, leaving students who have invisible disabilities alienated.  In the case of mental health issues, it is not always possible to provide a diagnosis and evaluation of a student’s limitations and needs, because they may fluctuate constantly and can be difficult to diagnose.

The fact that many students who have invisible disabilities conceal their disabilities in order to pass as a non-disabled student contributes to their alienation in post-secondary institutions.  When you consider the intense pressures and expectations placed on university students to complete the requisite amount of work, to maintain good grades, to cultivate a social life, to find a partner and so on, be sure to think of the additional barriers placed on students with invisible disabilities as well.

Another major issue facing students who have invisible disabilities is the perception that their disability is not legitimate or real.  The expectations and increased stress levels placed on students creates a mentality that you have to be strong enough, smart enough, and capable enough to succeed in university.  This mentality makes it difficult to ask for assistance, especially when that assistance comes in the form of “extra help” or “special attention” and can leave you with the feeling that you are somehow inferior to students who can succeed without assistance.  We need a solution that can break down accessibility barriers without singling out students with disabilities as less capable or somehow separate from their peers.

During my undergrad degree, one of the ways my anxiety and depression affected my classroom experience was through course evaluation structures.  Both anxiety attacks and depressive episodes can make it difficult to attend classes, and even when I was able to do readings, borrow lecture notes and maintain my grades, the loss of up to 20 per cent of my final grade for class participation took its toll on my marks.

The stress of final exams can lead to increased stress levels and panic attacks for some students, and the inability to attend class can cause students who would otherwise be succeeding to get lower grades, fail courses and, in some cases, drop out of school entirely.

Introducing alternative or more flexible course evaluation structures is one way to accommodate students with invisible disabilities without singling them out as special or less capable as their peers.  A flexible course evaluation structure might entail a professor providing two or three slightly different options for evaluation.  For example, the professor might provide an option where the exam grade is worth less with an additional assignment, or where participation is worth less and a major paper is worth more.

There are many ways that invisible disabilities can add stress, barriers and complications to the lives of students living with them. While there has been an increase in discussion about disabilities on campuses, there needs to be a more active discourse about invisible disabilities and how they affect the learning experiences and lives of students.

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Weekly Round-Up: June 14, 2013

Happy Friday, everyone, and welcome to the Weekly Round-Up!

If you’ve got stories or links that you think ought to be shared for next week, you can email us at unidiversityblog@gmail.com, or tweet us @uni_di_versity.

Start your weekend off right with an unexpected chart about Sweden: despite post-secondary education being free there, average student debt in Sweden is almost as high as it is in the US. But despite the high debt load, Swedish students are still getting a head-start on starting adult life independent of their parents. Go read the article – Sweden, as usual, will blow your mind.

Centre Forum isn’t mincing words in its report on universities: apparently, in the UK, getting into postgraduate education is like getting membership in an exclusive golf club. A wildly insufficient student loan structure means that postgraduate degrees end up limited to those students who can afford to pay fees up front.

As Amy noted in her post this week, overhead costs are pushing some universities to increase the amount of online education on offer. On the one hand, this may help make education more accessible; on the other hand, putting more courses online could end up shrinking and homogenizing the academic community.

Here’s an article that will make you feel great, then ragey, then pretty good again. The communications director for the company that provides a standardized application to over 400 US schools announced a new initiative to reduce discrimination against undocumented university applicants. Except that the policy isn’t happening, and the communications director who made the announcement isn’t actually the communications director. But it’s still awesome? (It’s complicated, just go read it.)

Lastly, I am a total podcast fiend. I listen to at least 1-2 hours of podcasts every day, so when I tell you that this is one of the best episodes of any podcast I have ever heard, I promise you can trust me. “This American Life” sent reporters into a Chicago high school for five months, and tell the story of how the students, teachers, and administration cope with gun violence, gangs, and trying to teach kids when there just aren’t enough resources to go around.

That’s it for this week! Enjoy your weekend, and we’ll see y’all back on Monday!

 

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Students need more than Kraft Dinner protests

On Monday, May 27th 2013, students at the University of Ottawa rallied at a meeting of the University’s Board of Governors to protest proposed tuition fee increases. The Board was slated to vote on a motion to raise tuition fees three per cent each year for the next four years. The multi-year proposal is an unprecedented approach, in lieu of an annual debate on tuition hikes.

Approximately seventy-five students were in attendance at the meeting, boxes of Kraft Dinner in hand. The proposal was taken off the table in response to this strong student presence.

Kraft Dinner is not only a staple of the student diet, but also of the student tuition fee protest in Canada. I recall one protest in particular, during my first year at the University of Ottawa. It was an exciting year for the lower tuition movement. The February 7 Student Day of Action saw thousands of students on Parliament Hill, protesting against tuition fee hikes. I felt inspired.

Sadly, the reality of the past seven years is that not much has changed. In fact, when considering the cost of post-secondary education, the situation is worsening. There are fewer scholarships, fewer research grants, less government funding for universities, escalating tuition fees, and higher student unemployment. Meanwhile, universities are teeming with students, and administrators are earning more money than ever.

Since I started university in 2006, tuition fees for my political science program at the University of Ottawa have risen from $4,364 to $6,341 in 2012. During the same period, fees for law school have risen even more dramatically. My future earning potential and my ability to pay back my students loans hasn’t risen that much – though perhaps my cost-of-living has.

Having served on the University of Ottawa Board of Governors from 2009 to 2011, I know precisely what university administrators will tell you:

Universities are receiving less funding from federal and provincial governments, but they are mandated to accept more students every year. The costs of maintaining quality levels of education are escalating, particularly when it comes to infrastructure, and students are their steadiest and surest source of income.

Besides, a degree is guarantee of future earnings! Win-win.

Anyway, we didn’t raise fees to the full 5 per cent per year that the government allows – never mind that 4.5 per cent hikes seem pretty darn close.

Of course, there’s some truth to this. However, I want to know what universities are doing to save costs. What are they doing to cut their overhead?* What are they doing to raise funds aside from hiking tuition? Why are university presidents supporting government efforts to raise or remove the cap on tuition fees? And why aren’t they lobbying the provincial and federal governments alongside students for more funding?

If you ask, you won’t get any answers. At least when I was around, the Board’s response was always that “our hands are tied.”

Universities and students should not be at odds like this.

The trouble for students is that we do not have a coherent or effective student movement when it comes to tuition fees and funding for post-secondary education. We are a long way away from universal post-secondary education, and I am conflicted as to its feasibility in Canada. However, I do believe the cost of post-secondary education in Canada as it stands is far too great.

An effective student movement for lower fees needs to fight its case on multiple fronts, with a sophisticated policy approach.

Some issues I’m particularly concerned with:

  • Colleges and universities should work in partnership with their student advocates.
  • Universities should not be forced to increase enrollment. The argument that universities must respond to “demand” for degrees is ludicrous and just another aspect of the commodification of education. Rather, admissions standards for university should be elevated to recognize the the skills and background required to receive credentials in a particular field. (Though university class should remain accessible to the general public). Admission should be based on merit, not user-fee entitlements.
  • Secondary education is sorely lacking. Improving curricula and consistently providing quality education at the secondary school level is key to ensuring universities accept qualified and capable students who want and will benefit from a degree, while also emphasizing the importance of colleges and trade schools.
  • There is a mythology that a university degree is necessary for employment in the modern Canadian job market. Degree inflation is a real problem. Meanwhile, many university degree holders find themselves in college after-the-fact to obtain the hard skills necessary for their desired careers.

The organizations that speak for student are silent. They are hardly present in policy debates, elections, or public discourse. A day of action every year (or every other year) is not enough, and lobby days on Parliament Hill are only valuable if your organization is already well-regarded. Students themselves are disenchanted. Those currently enrolled are too distracted trying pay bills and study to act, or are short-sightedly disregarding those who come up after them.

I believe in the importance of a student union that speaks for all students in Canada and in each province, one that lobbies for greater funding and support for students. Unfortunately, the Canadian Federation of Students, the largest such union, has been running a losing campaign for over a decade, resting on the laurels gained from their successes in the 1990s.

It’s time to shake more than a box of KD at the problem. We need a creative, new approach to resolve the issues underlying the barriers to post-secondary education, the decline of Canadian universities, and the impact on students’ futures.

I do not know what the answers are to achieving this ambitious goal, but I know it’s a goal worth fighting for.

*Note: there’s been some discussion at uOttawa and other universities that the answer to the issue of overhead is online course and degrees: virtual university. I am opposed to moving towards this model. Nothing compares to being in a classroom, to physical presence. And to buy and sell degrees online with minimal effort on the part of universities and students, I believe, will only further degrade the quality of education and the further bolster its commodification.

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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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Questions in the Interest of Progress

I have been a university student for seven years now. I pride myself on the fact that I did most of my learning outside the classroom. (If we’re honest with ourselves, I’m sure we would all say the same). A lot of that “informal” education came from the jobs I had in my field. But more than that, I learned through student activism and volunteer work — from my colleagues, really, and our collective efforts. It’s not any course in women’s studies — I didn’t take any! — that brought me to feminism. It was those other wonderful experiences and relationships.

I just finished my first year of law school. Happy to be here, and happy with the decision to go to the school that I did — one that prides itself on its commitment to principles of social justice, even though it sometimes falls short of them.

Confronting privilege is nothing new for me. I’m a racial minority woman going to school in Ottawa, for crying out loud! At the same time, I’m in a position of privilege by virtue of that. Yet, as this year has shown, the extent to which some people have not yet had their privilege challenged never ceases to amaze me.

Yes, it’s law school. It’s disproportionately upper middle-class, and brings in a certain “kind” of individual. Still, it’s unnerving the number of highly-educated, well-traveled, seemingly well-rounded people who fail to think twice before complaining that there are more women than men in law school; that affirmative action is reverse discrimination; that listening to a panel of female professors is alienating; that there is no such thing as a poverty cycle in Canada; that whenever the issue of sexual assault comes up in class they, as men, feel victimized; that they’re sick of looking at courses from an aboriginal law perspective; that they’re unconcerned by racism, unless it’s toward a close personal friend; and that the law cannot and should not be a remedy for racial discrimination, because status quo, yo.

Let me say, I’m an open-minded person. I don’t just mean a “progressive” person. I’m also eager to debate and engage people with differing views. However, the reality is that bringing about the kinder, feminist, collectively-oriented, direct democracy I envision will require changing political culture, changing people’s thinking issue by issue and as a whole.

To the point: How do we get more people (especially young people) on board with progressive social change? If all these well-educated, interesting people, who have had every opportunity to be exposed to progressive ideas in so-called liberal arts programs, can unwittingly believe such problematic things, is there hope in reaching out to them?

I like my classmates. Few are malicious. Many are simply oblivious, but to my mind that’s just as harmful, especially given the authority our society grants those with law degrees, formally or informally.

So how do we effectively reach out to people with these viewpoints? Is there a point at which someone is a lost cause? I hope not!

It can be exhausting, feeling like you’re always on the defensive with a simple ultimate objective of creating a more accepting community. It’s easy to say “well, that’s not my job”, or “why should I have to take on so much when my classmates are blissful ignorant and working towards better grades because of it?” (I know, I’ve said it!)

The simple answer is, because that’s what got you here. Someone at some point took the time to reach out to you. A blogger, an author, a classmate, an activist, a professor – as difficult as it may be, it’s on you (us!) to pay it forward and work on reaching out to our classmates.

Two more years of law friendships certainly will not mean everyone will share my political views (how boring would that be!), but it should mean that they will respect them, and be critical and sensitive in theirs. I’m willing to take on that challenge, because a few uncomfortable conversations are better than biting your tongue and feeling marginalized.

If anyone calls you out on it, just say you’re “networking”. These discussions will surely pay off in your future career – and in theirs.

My hope for this blog space is to write about the best methods for doing outreach on campus. I’m of the “more flies with honey” school, and looking to inspire more genuine dialogue along those lines.

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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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