Grad union protests U of T telling students to teach themselves

CUPE 3902, the Union representing all of U of T’s teaching assistants and well as sessional lecturers, has filed three official grievances with the university, challenging what it calls the use of undergraduates as “cheap labour.”

The grievances stemmed from CUPE’s investigation of a complaint last November against UTSC’s “Introduction to Psychology” course, taught by professor Steve Joordens, which used a peer grading program called Peerscholar. While examining the complaint, CUPE came across the University of Toronto Peer Tutoring club and the Economics Study Centre, both of whom promote and coordinate free services by undergraduate peer tutors and mentors.

CUPE called for all students engaged in peer tutoring, grading or mentoring to be professionally trained and paid for their services. But many U of T professors and students encourage undergraduates to tutor each other with little or no compensation, both to supplement funded TA support and promote engaged education

Undergraduate enrolment and class sizes grow every year. Even the recent influx of graduate students available for TA jobs, not enough funding exists to hire them.

“We just want [students] to get the proper help,” said Dr. Iain Martel, CUPE Grievance Officer. “U of T is finding ways of teaching without actually spending any money, which deteriorates the quality of education,” added Martel.

Others have joined CUPE in arguing that relying on peer tutoring and peer grading reduces the quality expected of a U of T education. “We need to regain that quality,” said David Scrivener, the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s VP external.

UTSU came out in support of CUPE’s grievance. The two unions have been strong partners in the past, and both lobby for more government funding of post-secondary education. Both CUPE and UTSU said that U of T needs to correct its funding priorities. The school, they say, needs to stop skimping and focus on increasing the number of tutorials and office hours, and accessibility of TAs.

The tutoring clubs were founded by professors who “clearly recognised that students weren’t getting the help that they needed,” according to Martel. He contended that these clubs should hire students under CUPE guidelines. Instead, he said, students are being “bribed with resume points and letters of recommendation” to voluntarily tutor their peers.

Muhammad Talal Latif, president of UTPT, was not aware of CUPE’s grievance when he spoke with The Varsity. He emphasized that the club’s service was academic support and one-on-one qualified tutoring Each UTPT tutor must officially apply and interview for a tutor position, and is selected by a panel of UTPT executives. Talal said the services provided by his club complement those given by TAs.

Joordens stood by his experience in the Peerscholar program, saying that Peerscholar neither reduces the quality of education nor saves the University money, as many TAs are involved in the grading process and oversee the program.

“CUPE is putting TA reputation ahead of the education of thousands of students,” says Joordens. “if we can’t use Peerscholar we will be punishing students for years to come.” Higher education should not be a “chip” traded by CUPE for something else.

Joordens is currently preparing a research paper, soon to be published, on the reliability and fairness of the Peerscholar marking process, which he has claimed measures up to TA standards. If students feel that their paper was graded unfairly they have the right to ask for it to be remarked by a TA, but fewer than 2 per cent ever do, according to Joordens.

Most TAs, Joorden contended, hate marking work, and Peerscholar is superior to the traditional marking method. Thus, he said, if more TAs are free of the “chore” of marking, they may spend their hours supporting undergraduate students in other ways, such as leading study groups or class discussions.

U of T Professors and undergraduate students, who are in support of clubs such as UTPT and the Economics Study Centre, along with those who are part of the Peerscholar program at PSYA01, are looking for an honest and fair solution to the issue raised by CUPE 3902. “If the issue really is about peer tutoring, there will be a rational solution,” said Joordens.

Third dime’s a charm, hopes a critic with CFs in his sights

Gregory would tell you to be persistent. After twice trying to force the Canadian Federation of Students to admit to mismanagement, Gregory has called on CFS national chairperson Amanda Aziz to accept a motion condemning her organization’s executive board.

The 38-point motion, largely authored by Gregory, moves to censure CFS’s national decisionmaking board and impose strict limitations on its powers to grant “extraordinary loans.”

Last year, Gregory was influential in unseating seven student council executives at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, where he was a student. Now working for the Kwantlen Student Association at Kwantlen University College on BC’s lower mainland, Gregory is spearheading an attack on CFS, of which KSA is a member.

KSA has twice tried to force a vote at CFS’s National General Meeting to censure the federation’s national executive board over a series of unsecured or shoddily documented loans amounting to over $600,000, handed out by CFS and CFS’s British Columbia wing in 2005 to prop up an ailing and mismanaged member union.

The Douglas Students’ Union of BC’s Douglas College, failed to conduct audits of its finances during 2002-2005. BC’s College and Institute Act requires unions to have accounting specialists check their books annually and inform their members of the results. Because of this, Douglas College’s Board of Governors cut off DSU’s funding, effectively paralyzing the union.

CFS-BC and CFS-National’s Services division lent the union a total of $614,000 to pay its health and dental dues, without proper documentation.

DSU commissioned a forensic audit of its finances but later criticized the audit. “The auditor failed to interview key DSU board members, including the individuals who served as the DSU treasurer and board chair during the time the auditor focused on the review,” said DSU finance and services coordinator Joey Hansen.

The audit strongly chastised Hansen over DSU’s disorganized books and Hansen’s role in a loan of $20,000 granted by DSU to Hansen’s girlfriend Christa Peters.

PETA picks U of T in nationwide vegan vote

When it comes to alternative food options, it’s quality, not quantity that matters. At least, that’s the message from PETA, who declared the University of Toronto Canada’s most vegetarian- friendly campus on the strength of a few delectable but hard-to-find meals served here.

Representatives from PETA2, the university and college wing of the avid animal rights group, will visit New College next week to serve up the award-winning dishes and talk with students.

PETA2 held an online poll in which approximately 10,000 votes were cast. Voters (presumed to be students) chose their favourite dishes from a short list of food options offered at 10 schools, which PETA compiled using student recommendations and talks with the schools’ administration.

Out of 10 nominees, U of T topped the list of vegetarian-friendly schools in Canada, beating out Mc- Master, UBC, the University of Victoria, and Trent.

“At every meal, [U of T] is proving that keeping fit, trim, and healthy. And helping animals at the same time—has never been easier,” said Dab Shannon, the assistant director for PETA2.

A PETA2 press release praised U of T for its efforts to meet the challenge of providing vegetarian options to a student population of more than 63,000. They especially applauded the work of the student group U of T Coalition for Animal Rights and the Environment. UTCARE helps offer vegan lasagna, rosemary vegetable ragout, and tofu cacciatore on campus.

U of T’s vegetarian food options are found at various college cafeterias, supplied by Aramark. Student initiatives are also doing their part in creating a vegetarian and environmentfriendly atmosphere on campus.

The Hot Yam, a vegan restaurant run out of the International Student Center every Wednesday, serves up a healthy, animal-free lunch. The Hot Yam is a haven for the vegan and ecologically-conscious: many students bring their own dishes and Tupperware. The eatery revived vegetarianism at the ISC after the sudden shutdown of Radical Roots last May. Radical Roots operated at midday five days a week. It closed amid outcry from its volunteer staff that administrators had conspired to oust them from their space. They had planned to greatly expand Radical Roots’ capacity and hours of operation, The Varsity reported at the time.

Its spiritual heir, the Hot Yam, provides a weekly alternative to those looking beyond the nearest cafeteria.

Running out of self-control

Attempting to achieve more than one goal at once—be it losing weight, studying for exams, quitting smoking, or hitting the gym—may not be a good idea. These tasks require self-control, an essential but limited resource.

A new study led by Dr. Michael Inzlicht, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, explores how exercising self-control for too long depletes the brain. Forty students from the Scarborough campus were divided into two groups and asked to perform two unrelated tasks involving self-control. For the first task, both groups were shown the same two movie clips depicting animals in distress or close to death. One group was asked to suppress their emotions while the other group was instructed only to watch the clips.

Shortly following the movie, the participants were asked to perform the ‘Stroop task’: the words red and green were displayed in either red or green font. Participants were told to identify the font colour, not to read the word itself. For both tasks, all participants wore an electrode cap to record their brain activity (EEG or electroencephalographic recording).

The study found that participants who suppressed their emotions during the first task performed poorly during the second task. Additionally, this poor performance corresponded to decreased brain activity in the cingular cortex, the part of the brain that monitors a person’s intention to achieve a goal.

Inzlicht explained, “If you have already used self-control in a previous task, then the cingular cortex gets tired. For example, if you then try to eat a french fry it won’t tell you not to.” Inzlicht continued, “When you work out a muscle it becomes tired. It will be tired and you won’t be able to function as you did beforehand.” When the cortex is worn-out, it cannot function as usual, depleting a person’s self-control over, for example, eating that french fry.

Inzlicht offered a take-home message for students. “If you’re studying for an exam (for example) and you’re a smoker, it wouldn’t be the best idea for you to try to quit smoking during exam period. It is difficult to stop smoking because it requires a level of self-control, as does studying. Self-control is limited, so when we use self-control to stop smoking it will be hard to study for our exams.”

His research study, entitled “Running on Empty: Neural Signals for Self-Control Failure” appeared in the November 2007 issue of Psychological Science.

The study expands on previous knowledge that self-control is a limited and essential resource. Experiments similar to the one preformed by Inzlicht determined that tasks requiring intentional and controlled actions exhaust this central resource. But it was not known what brain processes were involved or that the cingular cortex is always active and, therefore, gets tired.

Further research may look into the psychological level of self-control. For example, a person who manages to achieve their goals is likely to possess intrinsic motivation. Or, it may look more closely at the cingular cortex of the brain with respect to dopamine. It has been previously determined that the cortex is responsive to this chemical, a hormone that is often associated with feelings of enjoyment and motivation.

Pay attention to the things that matter and don’t waste that limited self-control on pointless goals. Maybe quitting smoking would be a good start—but wait until January, perhaps.

How well does U of T cater to students with special diets like vegetarian, Halal, or nut-free?

From left to right

Grady Johnson, 4th year Economics and Political Science

I mean, you can be a vegetarian on campus if you want to have salad everyday, but in my experience the selection’s pretty limited. It’s not like you can have a tofu dish or anything. I have much more faith in student-run things like Diabolo’s or the Hot Yam in the International Student Center than the franchises.

Taina Wong , 4th year English and Political Science

There’s a lot of franchise stuff—U of T doesn’t really specialize in anything for students. People with allergies to things like nuts—there’s nothing really specialized for them on campus. Student run things [like Diabolo’s and the Hot Yam] seem to be much more sensitive to these kinds of needs.

Baharak Zarbafian, ’07 Commerce alumni

I think they can do better. There’s only one vegan place on campus. It’s unfair to those who have class at St. Mike’s or Vic because it’s a 20-minute walk across campus. When Ramadan happened, restaurants closed at 7:00 p.m. even though fasts ended at 7:30 p.m. If you live on campus and have a meal plan, then for an entire month you can’t really eat on residence and you can’t use your money.

Chia: More than just a growing fad

Recently U of T researchers discovered that eating a certain variety of grains similar to the variety found in Chia Pets significantly reduces the risk of heart disease in individuals with Type 2 diabetes.

In a research study by U of T nutritional science professor Vladimir Vuksan, he discovered while working with researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital that the inclusion of the whole-wheat grain chia in diets helped lower blood pressure. The white seed variant, trademarked under the name Salba, also proved useful in reducing the formation of blood clots and minor inflammation throughout the body.

All the individuals involved in the study were being treated for Type 2 diabetes as these patients are at higher risk for heart disease.

Vuksan sees this whole grain addressing the link between these two conditions: “Salba seems to possess important cardio-protective properties in Type 2 diabetes [patients] by reducing conventional and emerging heart disease risk factors that are associated with diabetes,” he told the U of T Bulletin. Vuksan further described the findings as good news to those advocating an increase of whole grain consumption as part of a healthy diet.

Vuksan’s study, the results of which are to be published in the November issue of Diabetes Care, was one of the first clinical trials looking at the benefits of whole grains in their ability to protect individuals at high risk of getting heart disease.

Whole grain food products have long been found to be an important aspect in preventing diseases such as diabetes and various heart conditions. However, a majority of grains eaten today are heavily refined and therefore lack much needed omega-3 fatty acids and insoluble fibre. Since chia seeds are unrefined, they have important nutrients along with calcium, iron, and a high level of anti-oxidants. Omega-3 has been cited as especially helpful in reducing the risk of heart disease and improving circulation. This medical claim was even given “qualified” status by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2004 following much convincing research.

Chia Salba (Salvia hispanica) is actually an ancient grain. Its cultivation originated in Central America, a staple food of the Aztec culture. In the 16th century, Jesuits noted how corn and beans were the only food other than chia considered more critical to Aztec culture. In fact, nobility and the priesthood were often paid tribute with the gift of chia seeds.

In terms of food applications, chia can be ground into flour and used in the same way as wheat flour to make baked goods. Chia sprouts can be eaten in salad in the same way as bean sprouts.

While the white-seed variety called Salba is currently grown in Peru, a country with ideal climatic conditions for the crop, the grain’s status in pop culture has long since existed.

The seed is actually the key component behind Chia Pets, the iconic clay figures that sprout when watered. Popular in the ’80s and ‘90s they were developed by Joseph Enterprises Inc. in San Francisco, California and quickly became a fad, helped along by a memorable if somewhat annoying advertising jingle (ch-chchia!). The variety of shapes even include characters like Shrek, Mr. T and Homer Simpson.

It should be noted that the species of seeds used in Chia Pets (Salvia columbariae) is slightly different from the edible version used in Vuksan’s study (salvia hispanica). The seed’s name actually comes from “chian” the Aztec word for “oily” – which would explain for the grain’s high amount of omega-3.

So, while chia is great for your health, it doesn’t mean you should start chomping your Chia Pet now in the hopes of avoiding coronary disease. Adding more whole grain foods to your diet is probably a better— and tastier—solution. Buying salba futures might not be a bad idea, either.

We shouldn’t have to fight for our education

Last week, in an extraordinary display of protest, university students took over Montreal’s streets, highways, and public buildings, and even occupied the Quebec premier’s Sherbrooke riding office. The students, who were eventually dispersed by pepper spray and tasers, were protesting the $50 per semester rise in tuition fees that the province has imposed upon its students, an increase made worse by an accompanying $100 million cut to bursaries. The fee hike and bursary cut was surprising news in a province that has long boasted the lowest tuition fees in Canada. It’s no wonder that Montreal students are fighting tooth and nail against the fee increase. More than 100 were arrested.

Judging by the results (or rather, the lack thereof) of the National Day of Action rally that Ontario post-secondary students held on a bitterly cold February day earlier this year, many might think that these mass protests and the resulting injuries and arrests are not worth the trouble. Despite our best efforst, a whole generation of students will likely be trapped in debt and financial misery in order to fund an education that should be a right, not a privilege, in a wealthy country like Canada. Yet students in most provinces are contending with ever-increasing fees and shrinking financial aid every year. And now Quebec, which was previously held up as a model for accessible education, is now following suit.

It is ironic that in Canada, where future economic growth is highly dependant on a knowledgeable and technically skilled workforce, higher education has been made into an inaccessible dream for so many. Countless studies have proven that a college or university grad will make $1 million more in their lifetime than a high school grad. A higher education ensures more productivity in a knowledge-based economy, which leads to a higher income, which in turn leads to a higher standard of living for Canadian citizens, ultimately fueling further economic growth. Yet policy makers who increase tuition fees while simultaneously slashing student aid seem not to recognize this close relation between economic growth and accessible higher education.

Little wonder that Montreal students have walked out of their classes (in midterm season too!) in the hopes that someone up there will take note of their plight. If students do not take serious action en masse that gains the sympathy of the general public and the media, then policy- makers will believe their unjust policies against students are being quietly accepted. This sets a dangerous precedent for further cuts to financial aid and tuition fee increases in the future, without any worry about repercussions from students and their supporters.

It is unfortunate that in a democratic society, where politicians can only remain in power so long as their policies satisfy voters, students have to shout as loud as they can, risking violence, arrest and injury in order to get policy-makers to pay attention to their needs.

Side-stepping the great stem cell debate

Once or twice a year, a major scientific breakthrough appears on the front page of the major newspapers. Not coincidentally, this story is usually controversial. Travelling through the messy intersection of science and society is hazardous— collisions between moralizers and proponents of progress are common, the wreckage likely to be ugly.

For once, the tidings from the world of science are refreshingly distinct from the norm. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin- Madison announced that they genetically modified regular skin cells to closely resemble embryonic stem cells. The incredible part is that they did so without destroying an embryo or using egg human cells. In one swift move, the entire stem cell debate may have become a moot point.

Heat from the religious right in the United States—led by their uncharismatic mega-leader George Bush— has increased since the end of the Clinton years. Numerous vetoes on bills for federal funding for stem cell research and increasing money for private stem cell research have fueled the slow-burn ethical debate. Bush repeatedly denied researchers the permission to destroy already made human embryos from fertility clinics. In one corner of the ring, pro-life groups backed by the supposed word of God. In the other, scientists pursuing what could very well be the most important breakthrough in medicine: harnessing the power of stem cells to cure diseases.

This new discovery may lead to a cancellation of the bout. With embryos no longer being destroyed, the Catholic Church and other faiths will have no reason to oppose stem cell research. Where there is no body, there is no crime.

Before this latest breakthrough, a technique called “therapeutic cloning” was used to create specialized stem cells from normal cells. The process requires that the cells be grown inside an embryo, which is destroyed after the stem cells are retrieved. The destruction of that potential life irked religious groups and led to religions (including the politically potent Catholic Church) adopting anti-stem cell research stances.

Using a mix of four different genes, the two research teams involved in the work, from the U.S. and Japan, forced regular skin cells to show characteristics similar to embryonic stem cells. Termed pluripotent stem cells, embryo-derived stem cells have the unique ability to specialize and transform into any of the over 200 cells types present in the human body. The first initial divisions of an embryo are these cells: they have to be adaptable to create the multitude of complex structures in the human body.

An analogy made by Dr. Robert Lanza is particularly apt. He describes the research as figuring out how to make gold from lead. For modern- day alchemists toiling in cellular research labs across the world, this discovery is the Holy Grail.

With groundbreaking research, there are always caveats. In this case, the research is by no means certain in its conclusions. It is a baby step in the long road to potentially using stem cells to fight the variety of diseases that plague the Earth. The two teams needed to use a retrovirus to transport genes to their proper locations. Manipulating a cell’s DNA this way could lead to the development of cancer—a case of one step forward and two steps back. So while these cells are not yet used to treat disease, they represent a monumental step forward in the realm of science, perhaps comparable to something like Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Perhaps most incredible is how simple it is to replicate this new research. James Thomson, a stem cell research pioneer from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, put the idea in certain terms: “Thousands of labs in the United States can do this, basically tomorrow.”

The study from Kyoto University headed by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka appears in Cell magazine. The American research, led by Junying Yu, is published in Science magazine. The replication of similar results by both teams is an extremely positive sign that research is headed in the right direction.

The typical hyperbole of major newspaperss claims that we are on the cusp of a great new age for medicine can be forgiven. Results of this magnitude and importance are heralding an important fact: scientific research is clearing the moral and ethical hurdles in its path and uncovering new ground at a breakneck pace. Scientists are raising their beakers the world over. There is much joy in this birth announcement—these new findings will make stem cell research an infinitely easier pursuit and we are all the better for it.