If they had 10 million dollars

“I’d create a couple permanent forest fire behaviour field research sites in Canada’s boreal forest and start several experimental burning programs. Add wildfire monitoring equipment (infrared cameras, etc.), helicopter time and about a decades worth of grad students and post-docs and I think forest fire science would be in great shape.”

Mike Wotton, Faculty of Forestry

“This would be like winning the robot lottery! My group would use the funds to aggressively develop and implement more intelligent robotic helpers to assist people in the areas of elderly/hospital care, emergency-response, exploration and security. These robots can help improve our quality of life and assist with dangerous and/or stressful tasks in ways never imagined before.”

Goldie Nejat, Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering

“I would use it to establish a network of atmospheric observatories across Canada. These would be equipped with state-of-the art equipment for studying the issues of air quality, climate change, and ozone depletion. I would start with a major expansion of the capabilities of the University of Toronto Atmospheric Observatory.”

Kimberly Strong, Department of Physics

“To extend my research on the diversity and evolutionary history of tapeworms that parasitize sharks and rays, I would purchase equipment (e.g., microscopes, DNA sequencer), conduct surveys to reveal marine diversity and tapeworm life cycles, and endow undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral research at the Royal Ontario Museum.”

Claire Healy, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

“The big dream: Use it as seed funding to attract donors to build a new building for the excellent researchers we have in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology, who are currently spread across two buildings, including the dated (and dilapidated) Ramsay Wright Building.”

Malcolm Campbell, Department of Cell & Systems Biology

“That’s easy! I would use it for a clinical trial. My dream is to see if low glycemic index foods would prevent type 2 diabetes and heart disease—that would probably cost more like $30 to $40 million but $10 million would be a good start!”

Tom Wolever, Department of Nutritional Sciences

The Same Thing Twice

If asked to pinpoint the glory days of the student movement, one might refer to the politically charged 1960s and 1970s as a particularly high point, when student groups were a vocal, and integral, faction of the era’s prevailing youth movement. Things have changed, with a greater sense of disjuncture and apathy taking hold of the student psyche. In Ontario, we can’t even hold claim to a united student movement.

It is probably fair to assume that the average University of Toronto student has never heard of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. OUSA is comprised of member groups from seven Ontario universities, but U of T isn’t one of them.

Since its formation in November 1992, media outlets have depicted relations between OUSA and the Canadian Federation of Students—to which the various U of T student unions do belong—as strained at best, combative at worst, and uneasy in general. When I launched into researching this article, I didn’t expect to find the story of a disjointed student movement whose two groups have more in common than anyone—including the parties themselves—may fully realize.

The saga begins nearly two decades ago, when all Ontario student groups fell under the jurisdiction of a branch of the CFS called the Ontario Federation of Students (now CFS-Ontario). Then came war.

“One of the inciting events at the local and national level was the first Gulf War,” explains Paris Meilleur, who served as OUSA’s president during the 2006-2007 academic year. “There was a sense that both the provincial and federal student organizations that existed at the time were taking positions on international affairs and a series of issues that weren’t directly related to the experience of students on campus.”

In the events that followed, members from various student groups approached the OFS to table a discussion about raising tuition. In their criticisms of OUSA, members of the CFS consider this a turning point in the establishment of a fundamentally divergent, and flawed, approach. As Meilleur concedes, “It’s not something I agree with, but it’s something that they were interested in having a discussion about.” At any rate, the moment proved vital: when the OFS halted the conversation, the dissenting student organizations started their own group, a proto-OUSA, in protest.

According to Meilleur, the permanence of the initial splinter group was neither intentional nor anticipated. “There was full expectation that the processes would change and that there would once again be a united student movement,” she says. “But that never happened.”

In 1994, two years after this informal alliance established itself, the group became federated. OUSA was officially born. As Meilleur describes it, “Different people will tell you different things about why [the groups] remained separate. I think you could argue that at a certain point personalities began to take over, relationships weakened, and there was sort of a strengthening of OUSA. There was a sense that this was more than just about one issue, but a different kind of approach to politics.”

This difference in approach is radical. While OUSA rarely opts to take part in such traditional forms of protest as demonstrations or rallies, the CFS logo has become analogous to images of tuition fees protests and “calls to action.” What the CFS views as its grassroots approach to student issues has been an ongoing source of criticism from outside organizations and media, especially since the Federation positions itself as an activist group rather than a governing body.

CFS-Ontario chairperson Shelley Melanson is cautious when confronted with such allegations. “It’s probably irresponsible to suggest that we’re bureaucrats because it would suggest that there’s this massive administration behind the CFS,” she says, choosing her words carefully. Though Melanson is the mouthpiece for CFS member-students in the province, she hardly speaks with the sort of loose cannon abandon one might expect from a student group whose most recognizable feature is arguably their opinionated fervor. She’s all business, peppering her phrases with “quite frankly” where another person might say, “um.”

I am surprised when Melanson does not jump to defend against the accusation that the CFS is a group of “student activists.” She seems more comfortable with the idea of portraying the Federation as a mobilized student movement than an administrative unit.

UTSU VP external Dave Scrivener, who serves as liaison between CFS-Ontario and the University of Toronto division of the Federation, is also leery of formalized designations. The morning after I speak with him about the university’s role in the CFS, he sends me a polite email requesting that I not refer to the CFS as a student “government.” This, he informs me, would paint an entirely skewed picture of that which the Federation—and, by association, the University of Toronto Students’ Union—seeks to accomplish. While I agree to abide by this request, I am admittedly taken off guard. If the CFS and its member-groups don’t govern, what exactly do they do?

Scrivener breaks it down. “At a U of T level we mainly focus on Governing Council and administrative bodies with lobbying, but we also participate and work on some more externally-focused lobbying, and sometimes, if we think it’s useful or necessary, we might take it to the Federation and see if other student unions across the province also want to work on a similar campaign.” He goes on to explain that that all campaigns involving the CFS are ones that a student union, or people involved in a student union, brought forward in a meeting. When he cites the current Drop Fees campaign as a prominent example, I realize the distinction: student groups do not view themselves as governing bodies, but as task forces who work in cooperation with governing bodies in order to pursue their own agendas. As Shelley Melanson describes it, they are simply “nothing more than students across the province who have decided to work collectively to advocate for post-secondary education issues.”

The approach of the CFS, within Ontario and throughout Canada, has three pillars: research, lobbying, and mobilization. It is that third and final component that most markedly separates the tactics of the CFS from those of OUSA.

At the core, OUSA views itself as a lobby organization. “I would argue that the approach of OUSA is that working with government, no matter who that government is, is always the best approach,” says Meilleur. “[OUSA believes] that it’s never appropriate to burn bridges and that it’s really appropriate to try to engage with decision-makers at their level. So that means, yes, having idealistic proposals, but also having ones that are really practical, and implementable, and pragmatic. There is a real focus on building relationships with government, with other stakeholder groups, building legitimacy within a sector.”

Through OUSA, student involvement in the decision-making process occurs through a streamlined approach built into the organization’s system of operation. As OUSA executive director Howie Bender explains, the organization’s goals are based upon a combination of research and student input. “We have a board composed of one member from every campus, so it’s one school, one vote on our board,” says Bender. “We also have a general assembly that gets together twice a year that sets the direction for the organization.” The general assembly, Bender explains, is the group’s highest decision-making unit. For every 3,000 students a member-campus counts in its student body, that campus is entitled to one assembly delegate. It is within the context of the general assembly that students are given the opportunity to discuss policy, direction of lobbying, and campus issues that fall within the realm of OUSA’s core targets: accessibility, affordability, accountability, and quality. According to Bender, the discussions that take place in the general assembly will provide direction for the board which, in conjunction with the executive office, will pursue the interests of what students have asked for.

The CFS also views itself as a member-driven student lobby group and cites similar targets. The CFS, however, integrates the role of what Dave Scrivener describes as “campus mobilization” into the process. This is where student marches, rallies, and sit-ins come into play. “I don’t know how effective lobbying can really be in changing a government’s mind if you’re just showing up in a suit and tie every couple of months to give a position paper,” says Scrivener, who explains that, through the mobilization process, “you’re actually forced to take [issues] back to your membership. It allows and empowers the average person who’s on campus to get involved in a campaign.” This, says Scrivener, is the fundamental advantage of the CFS approach, and, by association, OUSA’s major flaw.

When asked for a response to this criticism, current OUSA president Trevor Mayoh is unflinchingly frank. “I think in certain ways [the criticism] is fair, to be perfectly honest. I am the chief advocate and representative of the organization. I am a student. But I don’t spend my entire year on campuses meeting with students and telling them about the issues. I don’t. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think it’s the best use of anybody’s time.” Mayoh explains that OUSA gets its direction from its steering committee. The committee members are then charged with the task of “empowering, advocating, informing, and soliciting information from fellow students.” As Mayoh puts it, “We get our direction from students. Our steering committee members, not the organization, are charged with empowering, advocating, informing, and soliciting information from students. The organization is then charged with taking up [the students’] direction and what [the students] want to see, and then putting that in operation.”

Despite differences in methods and rhetoric, it is difficult to pinpoint a strong divergence between OUSA’s goals and those of the CFS. Says Shelley Melanson: “I think that fundamentally, all students want to see a high quality, properly publicly funded post-secondary education system, and I think that it’s in the best interest of students to work collectively together to win those goals.”

Mayoh concurs. “We definitely do have different strategies and I’m not saying one is more right than the other, they’re just very different. We ultimately do have the same goal: we’re both advocating for a better higher education system in the province.”

Comparing the two groups’ victories proves as challenging as trying to distinguish between their separate goals. Point by point, their official statements read almost identically. When asked for examples of recent keystone accomplishments, members from both groups cited the 2004-2006 tuition freeze and the 2001 tuition cap as fruits of their respective group’s labours.

“We both did contribute to the system,” admits Mayoh. “I think by [the CFS] having the grassroots model and getting students involved and politicians actually being able to see that students care and aren’t apathetic, along with our having students on the inside, in Queen’s Park, meeting with [politicians] and giving them actual policy recommendations, is useful.” Mayoh concedes that the methods of the CFS and OUSA are complementary to one another, “whether we realize and like it or not.”

Melanson acknowledges that, ideally, the two groups would be reunited as a single, cohesive student movement. “I think that we’re most effective when our voices are united and we’re working together. No one’s going to deny that we’ve had difficulties here in Ontario. No one will deny that we’ve faced tuition fees increases. But, quite frankly, in this province the student movement isn’t united. Where we are united, we’ve been able to win victories and sustain them for a number of years.” When I ask Melanson if she thinks this ever will happen, she is somewhat optimistic: “I think that eventually we will see a united student movement, but that’s going to require students wanting to come together and work through democratic structures to provide the kind of advocacy that our students need.”

Realistically, it seems as though this kind of reunification can only occur if both member groups are willing to compromise. At this point, however, both OUSA and the CFS are strictly abiding by their own terms.

“Study-what-you-want” Studies

For first-year students unfamiliar with fields of study other than the old-guard standards (English, History, and Political Science), interdisciplinary programs are the unknown entities of the course calendar. They are in essence, degrees comprised of courses in multiple disciplines, and allow students the freedom to choose a more unique path on the road to their undergraduate degree.

It’s often claimed that U of T treats students like numbers, shuffling us in and out of large programs that make us feel anonymous. Even worse, these programs are full of frustrating prerequisites and course requirements that often turn what should be an enlightening academic experience into a four-year series of hurdles.

Many students feel confined to large programs because they get the most press, but the university’s multitude of interdisciplinary programs proves that other, more progressive options exist—you just have to look a little harder in the course calendar to find them.

In many cases, students stumble into interdisciplinary programs once they realize that the specific courses they’re most interested in fall under a certain lesser known area of study.

This was the case for second-year student Rachel Lissner, who says that her major “was originally Middle Eastern Studies and Politics, and I realized that all the classes I was taking [fell under] Jewish Studies. I like the fact that there are no strict requirements—I don’t have to take particular classes to be a major or a minor. It’s something I’m generally interested in, and it’s flexible.”

The very nature of interdisciplinary studies implies taking courses across numerous disciplines, and the breadth of available classes is the primary draw.

“I’ve switched my major three times,” says fourth-year Canadian Studies student Alixandra Gould. “So I’ve taken courses in a lot of different departments. I chose Canadian Studies because it would allow me to combine courses from many disciplines. So it’s good for people like me who don’t have a streamlined, very specific area of study that they’re interested in.”

Smaller class sizes are another aspect of the programs’ appeal. Many of the classes are seminars capped at approximately 25 students, so by the time they hit their upper years, students can expect to see a number of familiar faces.

Not only that, Lissner confirms that the Jewish Studies program offers what most students believe is a myth: professors who know their students by name.

“They’ve started the Centre for Jewish Studies, and it’s all this one professor, Hindy Najman. She’s amazing—she comes to events, and she contacts students to talk about [the program]. And Professor [Adam] Cohen, who runs the art club, helped me [to organize] my plans to study abroad.”

Lissner stresses the value that certain professors can have when they dedicate themselves to such a specific field of study, and such a small group of students. “If they weren’t there, I’d feel like it was a totally different program,” she says.

However, given that they offer students an innovative educational experience, interdisciplinary programs face unique challenges. Fourth-year student Chloe Richer describes the difficulties faced by Urban Studies students when attempting to create a social atmosphere. “There are only 150 students in the program, and with such a small number, you’re less likely to get a lot of students to come out. We had a sustainability forum in January that we [put on] with the Civil Engineers Club. We had a ton of engineers, and barely any Urban Studies students.”

Gould suggests that the very nature of the programs’ setup forces students to be transient. “I don’t really feel a sense of a cohesive student body in the program, maybe even less so because it’s interdisciplinary and students can take courses in so many different departments. It’s not really a home of its own.”

The university has attempted to provide a home by hosting small interdisciplinary programs at individual colleges, presumably for administrative purposes. The programs are listed under a college in the course calendar, which makes them appear less accessible, despite the fact that anyone can take them.

And for all their charms, even small interdisciplinary programs can’t escape the maze of bureaucracy that terrorizes students into keeping silent when faced with an academic issue.

“There’s a myth among these smaller programs that they’re more accessible,” says Gould. “U of T has this reputation for being this huge institution where it’s impossible to talk to someone in the Political Science department because it’s so huge, and the belief is that smaller programs aren’t like that. I found that that’s not actually the case. I’ve had more trouble reaching people at the Canadian Studies department than any other department at U of T. It’s like there’s a man behind the curtain. I’d like to just walk into his office, but you can’t get to this person, and there are all these people in the way who prevent you from doing it. So that’s a little weird—and stressful.”

While nearly everyone feels lost at some point in their undergrad life, it’s much easier to feel like a castaway in a large program. At this age, we’re all a little selfish, and the U of T you want is, in all probability, not the same sparkling ideal shared by the dude sitting next to you in POL103.

Interdisciplinary programs, while still very much a part of the whole, offer students a progressive alternative that best suits individual academic desires. They’re a rare opportunity to explore what might otherwise be unavailable options. And increased choice is always something worth looking into.

Walk On

The flaneur, as conjured by the French poet and decadent Charles Baudelaire, is the consummate pedestrian, a perfect idler, and passionate spectator. As one who strolls the streets, drinking in the city, driven by wanderlust, and utterly stress-free, the flaneur sounds like the exact opposite of the 50,000 students who bounce purposefully from Bloor to College, from Spadina to Bay. The buzzing St. George campus, a microcosm of Toronto, reflects the city’s potential and its challenges: a large and diverse population who know little about each other, keep to ourselves, and feel lost outside our own neighbourhoods, should we venture out at all. We have places to be and papers to write. We do not have time to, as Baudelaire put it, “set up house in the middle of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.”

Landing at U of T is like going down the rabbit-hole into Wonderland, if you get over the initial disorientation. The vast campus is a headache to navigate for newcomers, and unnecessarily so. Recall your first days here, or the number of times puzzled visitors have stopped you for directions, only to find you’ve never heard of “79 St. George Street, Part A.” The U of T website does offer a searchable campus map, along with a map of where to find food, though at press time the wireless hotspot map is down. If you know where you have to be beforehand, do your homework, and keep your nose to the campus map, you’re usually set.

That kind of painstaking preparation doesn’t make for adventure, or for a welcoming atmosphere. As a public space within the city, U of T should be accessible to students and civilians alike. A few small additions can go a long way: posts that point the way to major hubs, as they do at UTSC; street furniture to take advantage of wide open spaces; more big maps on street corners; signage to guide pedestrians to buildings whose locations don’t match their street address.

By upper year, most students can get from A to B. “I’ve discovered shortcuts,” says Rachel Anderson, who has worked as a patroller for three years, closing buildings, and ushering out dawdlers. Her walkabouts have made the campus a lot smaller: “When I was in first year, it was such a mission to get from Sid Smith to Vic.”

A taller order is feeling like you belong on campus—all of campus. We learn by going where we have to go: to lectures, labs, and tutorials, to the hallways and classrooms we know. It’s easy to stick to paths forged by necessity, to find watering holes nearby and to defend them. The walls sheltering the Munk Centre from the rest of campus might be forbidding to outsiders, but they provide a cocoon for the tight-knit community of grad students who live there. Faculty and college lounges encourage the small-town vibe that more intimate universities foster, where everybody knows your name.

A home base, whether by academic department or college affiliation, is essential to putting down roots on campus. But if students stop there, we never get to experience the advantages of a big school that bleeds into downtown. The university, like the city itself, provides space for people to commingle, says Frank Cunningham, a philosophy professor and a senior advisor at U of T’s Cities Centre. “Anonymous recreation,” he says, “allows people to spend time with others who aren’t necessarily their family and friends.”

Ideally, public space allows citizens of all stripes to socialize and exchange ideas. In practice, our centuries-old campus doesn’t exactly offer equitable access. For students with a disability, confusion is compounded. Joeita Gupta, who has a visual impairment, says she has trouble making her way around poorly lit buildings, especially when there is no Braille on anything. “Not many places are wheelchair accessible—general accessibility is quite a problem,” she says, adding wryly, “it’s difficult to get to theAccessibility Office at Robarts. It took me a couple of tries.”

While construction shows visible effort—build more wheelchair ramps, build a new student centre—Gupta says the U of T administration’s attitude needs fixing up, too. “How campus space gets to be used, and who pays for the campus space, reflects on the priorities of the university administration,” she says, citing the Centre for High Performance Sport, an elite training facility that will be built on Devonshire Place, as an example of misguided priorities. Gupta is an exec of the Association of Part-Time Students, whose office will be demolished to make way for CHiPS. “Should the university be making a commitment to high-performance sport or its students?” she asks.

As undergrad enrolment skyrockets, U of T is running out of real estate. For students’ day-to-day lives, overcrowding has never been more apparent, especially for those who stick to their quarters. Cunningham, who has been a prof here since 1967, never felt uncomfortable anywhere on campus. “I could count on having a lot in common with people I ran into,” he says. “Any two profs any place in the world are going to have an enormous amount in common. We can grouse over deans and presidents.”

Students also have something in common, but that ensconced feeling can take a long time to develop. “The first two years are extremely overwhelming. You don’t know where you’re going all the time and almost intimidated to go anywhere else but where you have to go,” says Sarah Patton, now in her fourth year studying Geography and Urban Studies. Sarah adds she wouldn’t imagine going to a library other than Robarts, or another college café, because she doesn’t officially “belong” there. More greenery and hangout areas for commuters, she says, would give her a greater sense of belonging.

It helps to have the keys to your own little piece of U of T. Gayathri Naganathan, president of the Tamil Students’ Association, spends a good chunk of time at the club’s office in the Sussex Club House at 21 Sussex Ave., which hosts over 50 student groups. Late Wednesday evening last week, she and a dozen others were holed up there, prepping for the next day’s rally. “The office is always accessible even when other campus buildings are closed, and it’s a welcoming and familiar environment,” says Naganathan. “I feel at home in certain parts of campus, but this was a feeling that I’ve had to cultivate over the last couple years. It has more to do with the people I spend time with than the space itself.”

According to Cunningham, it’s easy to feel comfortable here, provided you have an at-ease mindset. “If you approach the campus like tourists approach trips, it will never become familiar to you,” he says. “Public places are places where you should be able to go without any particular purpose.”

Upper-year Urban Studies students I interviewed also brought up the prospect of places that don’t serve a direct function. “More neutral places, in buildings that aren’t specific to colleges or faculties, might encourage more blending,” says Stephanie Valente.

“The space at U of T, because it’s so busy, is heavily programmed,” Benjamin Sulky adds.

“So much space is crowded,” Isabel Ritchie chimes in. “The cafeteria feels busy, people are moving in and out […] What we need are generic spaces with some sort of appeal for people, flexible spaces that still can draw people in.”

As for enticing students to areas that aren’t “neutral,” Ben says, “It’s hard to see top-down changes. It comes down to what students do.”

Cunningham points to time as the major limiting factor for belonging at St. George Campus. “No matter how attractive public spaces are made, you’re not going to have people making use of them if they don’t have leisure time.” Spare time is tough to come by for jet-set commuters, and campus-dwellers cite the rez effect: life’s necessities are a stone’s throw away, so there’s no reason to wander, to poke into weird nooks and crannies. But campus exploration doesn’t have to take hours on end. It starts with something as small as stepping inside a building you pass by every day, or taking the long way to class, if you’re so inclined. The street furniture proposals on the next two pages offer a few ideas for the kind of space U of T can become.

Having a pedestrian-friendly campus means more than showing how to get from A to B—though that would be a good start. What we need is a space that is open, accessible, and encourages our intellectual wanderings.

Read on.

The Ties That Bind

I once had a dream. Well, I had many.

I was a commuting student, trying to find my place at a sprawling university where I knew nobody. In those dark days, I would find myself sitting on a packed train twice a day amongst burnt-out middle managers, with lots of time to think.

Shouldn’t I be able to go online, post a random thought, get it reviewed by peers in computer science, learn about its possible environmental impact from a prof in the Engineering faculty, only to be told by a grizzled Rotman alumnus that the idea could never make any money?

Wasn’t this the promise of the Internet?

Nobody would dispute that U of T has an acute case of lethargy. Our commuting culture and lack of student space make it hard to meet people, and in surveys measuring campus community involvement, we consistently rank near the bottom. What people disagree about is how to use the Internet as a solution.

In university, almost anywhere you go, March is election season. Amid promises of lowering fees and solutions to global warming, this year’s U of T Student Union campaigns tackled how online tools can be used to increase the sense of community on campus.

“What we’re about is promoting community,” said Jason Marin who unsuccessfully run against the “Demand Access” incumbent UTSU slate. For Marin, an effective student union website is vital, and he had plans for bulking it up with relevant information and community features.

The incumbents didn’t disagree. Sandy Hudson, who just won a second term as UTSU president, plans to make the site a big focus of next year’s efforts. Among her plans: creating U of T versions of Wikipedia and Craigslist. She argues that they will let students “find out more about what’s going on and know a little more about the community.”

The university administration is also forging ahead with its own solutions.

The recently created Ulife portal aims to connect students with events and groups that are active on campus. Part of the initiative is a new blog called UpbeaT. Its mission is to inspire undergraduates to “put down their textbooks now, and then and explore the wider world of U of T’s St. George Campus.”

But it’s sometimes hard to get students to come out of their shells.

“People seem to be reading it, but no one wants to comment!” contributing blogger Liesl* admits.

While blogs have had a big impact on many other communities, it remains to be seen whether they can make a difference in connecting the student body at U of T. Facebook, by comparison, is the juggernaut that can’t be ignored.

Jeffrey Pinto-Lobo is an executive on the Cinema Studies Student Union, a group you might know from the ubiquitous “Free Films on Campus” events. “Facebook has had a huge impact on the CINSSU community,” he argues. With under $100 spent on actual advertising and heavy promotion on Facebook, the attendance at the group’s events has at least doubled. Pinto-Lobo is especially proud of the number of students from outside the Cinema Studies program who have been attending.

Facebook has also impacted residence communities. “You definitely had to take initiative to visit other houses or go drop by events. For those people who aren’t naturally social and outgoing, this can be a bit difficult,” Bianca Filoteo, a recent University College graduate tells me.

Instead of thinking about technology as a way of creating new communities, it seems that online platforms like Facebook serve as a catalyst, speeding up the random interactions that people might make over time in real life.

But when there is little community at all, do these tools have much of a chance at making an impact?

Maybe my friend was on to something when he complained, “U of T is a lost cause. If you want community, go to Queen’s.”

Or Laurier.

“Our school is renowned for our community spirit and extracurricular involvement,” says recent grad Dan Hocking. At school, Hocking was heavily involved in campus politics; he now does social media and online consulting and likes to describe himself as a “fire-starter.”

He kindly offered some thoughts while packing his bags for South by Southwest Interactive, a conference in Austin, Texas that has spawned many of today’s most popular social sites.

“Facebook definitely changed the way we all interacted. It pervaded everything,” he tells me. In the hyper-socialized campus, Facebook amplifies the social-networking equivalent of noise—some of the most active Facebook groups at Laurier were about inside jokes and fake political causes.

Dan tells of an event he created called “Retro Rewind.” He blitzed the social networks and the turnout was huge. He suspects that in spite of the noise, people either never liked it,or moved on to something that was getting more attention.

“It started with FB, and died a really quiet, sad death.”

But the idea of Facebook as a catalyst is certainly the case at Laurier too. Dan describes how the Laurier science fiction club was able to grow to the point where it splintered into many subgroups. Facebook allowed people who shared the same interest in the topic to find each other.

“I still suspect that these people would’ve found their niches; it just would’ve taken a little longer for them to do so.”

It’s clear that online tools can accelerate traditional social interactions but was my naive dream of a campus-wide online community ever feasible? When I mentioned it to my editor, she promptly suggested I check out myocad.com, an online forum for students at the Ontario College of Art and Design.

At even a quick glance, it’s obvious that the site is for arts students, by arts students. The main menu is composed of a row of abstract symbols, conventional typefaces are banished, and comments take the form of comic book talk bubbles.

Myocad.com allows students to post and critique each other’s work, rate professors, and discuss all things OCAD.

It seems like a true utopia-on-the-web, except for one problem: the once-active forum has been virtually abandoned (this in spite of the site’s subtitle of “Still kicking”). The first post that I notice when I visit the site asks people to share memories from “when myocad was the shit.” Various people chime in with their stories.

I biked down to OCAD’s student centre on McCaul Street to get the scoop.

“It’s hard to casually stumble on an online community,” Lindsay Denise tells me. She’s the Finance Director of the OCAD Student Union.

Like at U of T, most OCAD students commute to class. In addition, a shortage of campus space, OCAD’s highly specialized programs, and intensive workload make it difficult to meet people outside the classroom. Is this why the site died?

“There has to be a really good reason for people to be attracted to an online space,” says Denise. When the people who were originally part of the community start graduating, it’s hard to ensure sustainability. A commenter on myocad.com had a simpler explanation: “Facebook pretty much replaced it.”

Another student union exec, who joined OCAD later than Denise, piped in that she had not even heard of the site until recently.

But after perhaps one-too-many of my reverent questions about myocad.com, Lindsay interrupts to clarify that the site’s heyday doesn’t represent OCAD’s glory days.

“I think we have lost something now that it’s not active, but nothing can replace an actual physical manifestation of community.”

Regardless of whether a similar platform could ever function for U of T as a whole, many smaller communities on campus have strong online components.

The Computer Science department hosts forums that serve as discussion boards for most undergraduate courses. But there is also space for announcements and general discussions where people from all areas of the department connect.

A recent conversation on why there are so few women in the program has pulled in current students, profs, and alumni. Many differing opinions are offered, from the nuanced to those that you could only ever see online. “Sitting in front of a computer has a negative effect on [girls’] skin,” is one example. BIOME is another forum, this one for life science communities. People come for the course notes and often stay for the conversations.

But even on these forums, most of the activity is dominated by a small number of active participants.

“Only keeners use BIOME,” a friend in life sciences admitted to me. She just used it to get the course notes.

Asked whether myocad.com was an online platform for the whole school, Lindsay Denise replies, “I don’t know if it ever was.”

Liesl*, the UpbeaT blogger, observes that for various reasons, many people may never cash in on the potential of online communities.

“If a person is busy, they’re busy. They may have access to all the information they need to be drawn in, but still be unable to actually engage in it.”

University College veterans have a secret term describing the number of people who can be reasonably expected to get involved: “the UC 250”—or “UC 150,” if one feels particularly cynical. UC has over 4,000 students.

This isn’t to say that because only a fraction of students get involved, online communities accomplish nothing.

Dan Patricio is a marketing student at Ryerson with a passion for building communities. His site says that “we need to talk” so I shot him an email saying just that. The next day, we met for coffee.

“I was a lost person [when I started] university. I wondered where the intelligent people were.”

Over time, he realized that instead of restricting himself to connecting with people in his geographical vicinity, the power of the web allowed him to go beyond campus.

He acted on this revelation, organizing a series of informal meet-ups with young people who shared similar interests. Virtually all the promotion has been done using online tools.

Patricio connected me with another friend of his from Ryerson, who also created a community beyond the borders of campus. Rob Fraser is a nursing student and the founder of nursingideas.ca, a blog that’s quickly becoming one of the strongest voices in the nursing world.

About once per week, Fraser interviews an experienced practitioner, student, or professor with questions ranging from the philosophy of nursing to ideas on how to reduce a hospital’s carbon footprint. He kindly gave up a precious morning break to tell me his story.

“The fun part about building this community is that you don’t have to rally the people that are geographically close by,” he says.

Fraser describes how he can track visitors from as far away as Singapore and Iran who are watching his videos. The resulting emails and comments are what he values most.

“Each one is an obvious sign that someone has been reached and compelled to say something.”

Patricio and Fraser both agree that without the Internet, connecting with similar people would be a time-consuming and mostly accidental process.

For Patricio, it’s all about linking up with people who can rally behind common values.

“Without barriers to communication, it doesn’t matter program or what school you’re from—it’s about building a tribe.”

For those seeking to build communities, is the model of going outside of campus the way to go? Jeffrey Pinto-Lobo of the CINSSU argues that online platforms allow for the creation of a group of people who are passionate about film, regardless of whether they are students.

“Since our Facebook group is one of the largest Toronto-based film groups, we attract organizations from around Toronto that would like organize a co-promotional event.”

The lesson seems to be that the key to online community building is more about connecting people with shared values than my original fantasy of an online home for a campus-wide community that might not even exist in real life.

Regardless, Daniel Patricio argues that the important thing is to go out and start the conversations.

For the last few decades, only the privileged have had the ability to broadcast; the Internet has flipped this around.

“We’ve been conditioned to believe that our voices don’t matter. Now we all have the ability to broadcast.”

*Last name omitted at student’s request (updated, January 11, 2015).

Designer’s statement: Wasted Space—Hart House Circle

There are too many spaces on campus that aren’t used to their full potential. Sadly, these types of spaces are found all over campus. Arbitrarily placed benches sit unoccupied while other surfaces—grass, concrete, wood, stone—anything that will support a body, laptop, and three or four textbooks becomes unintentional street furniture.

We have a dream to recycle the abundance of “space waste” into functional, attractive places for students to sit, study, talk, eat, sleep, procrastinate—whatever the day calls for. With such a high concentration of intelligent, creative, and inspired people, the University of Toronto deserves spaces that will encourage a positive and lively intellectual and social community.

While the university invests millions of dollars into grand architectural improvements that often come at a cost to students, what can be done with minimal resources, economizing on material and money while capitalizing on space that is already ours?

Our proposal is for a neglected hillside space on the east side of Hart House Circle, a space that so many students pass by daily and few ever touch (except maybe to throw their trash at). We envision a long bench, carved into the hillside and recovered with a layer of grass. Combining the form of a traditional bench with the liberating sensation of running your fingers through the lawn on a sunny summer day, this will provide a shady space for the academic and general community that passes through this public space.

We wanted this piece of furniture to be entirely environmentally friendly and comfortable, something out of the ordinary but also evoking the familiar. The simple gesture of reshaping the slope of this hill can re-activate an underused, under-loved space, and allow it to become part of the vibrant outdoor environment around Hart House from which it is currently excluded.

Designer’s statement: SPERAS—King’s College Circle

I don’t have any specific concerns with the current street furniture at U of T, although I do have some utopian ideas on how street furniture can change the way people interact with the campus.

The first thing that interested me was open-ended use of street furniture. I personally find it less appealing to use designed space or furniture when there is instruction on how to properly use it. It’s always more fun to explore and find your own way. I think if street furniture on campus was more adaptable and flexible to students’ needs—for whatever the occasion—it could instigate more interaction with the campus space and with each other.

SPERAS was a concept developed by our group, combining “spectacle” with the term “rasa,” an emotion in an audience inspired by art.

My intent was to explore the role of street furniture as a form of stage prop that would encourage actors to expand the stage space. With SPERAS, street furniture becomes a socio-political stage that facilitates performances and dances as protest on campus.

The second thing I was interested in was everyday student needs. We students have a very peculiar way of going about our everyday—like how I huddle with my laptop by the electrical plugs in a cafe for hours, and then run around the campus like crazy trying to figure out the fastest way to my next class. Street furniture can use this “nature” of being a student; good design can fulfill these needs and promote interaction at the same time.

These were some of the thoughts that drove my studio project addressing King’s College Circle. Ultimately, I wanted to design street furniture so that when students used it, they would see the campus in a whole new way. I wanted it to be open-ended use (and the class project was to design for student activism) but I also wanted to create a pause in students’ daily pattern to create more interaction.

Anarchist U

My growing ennui with university started concidentially with the beginning of my tenure as Editor In Chief of The Varsity. Of course, I used to go to class, but I don’t do that anymore. I also used to hand in assignments, know my T.A.s’ first names, and buy the course books more than 48 hours before a final exam. I’ve been at U of T for (god, can it be?) five years now, with one credit to go in a seemingly endless journey towards graduation. But when finishing school at the absolute worst time to graduate in recent history, what does my degree mean as an experience and of itself?

As number 993863574, a cog among 60,000—U of T’s looming fear of individualism has created a discontent in students once qualified by novelist David Foster Wallace as a “stomach-level sadness.” Student apathy is of course the hot-button on every admin’s lips, from UTSU execs (welcome, President Hudson), to registrar talking heads, to David Naylor himself. But what are we so damn apathetic about? “Obviously, many of our experiences in a regular school setting are experiences of hierarchy and submission to authority,” reflects visual artist Luis Jacob, a Semiotics graduate and founder of the Anarchist Free University. “One basic idea around the Free University is that ‘we are all students, we are all teachers,’ which means that we all have something to learn from one another, and we each have something to offer to others. The Free University runs according to anarchist ideas of equality and mutuality, as well as offering courses whose content deals with anarchist ideas of history.”

In response to his activist work with both the Anarchist Collective in 1998 (who met at an “Active Resistance” gathering that summer), and legendary “Who’s Emma” bookstore in Kensington Market, Jacob (alongside other community members) helped found an education system in which everyone could teach each other about issues of political agency and power. Instead of sinking hundreds into textbooks, and trying to learn in Con Hall classes crammed well into the thousands, Jacob’s university is free, open to the public, and discussion-based, with no recommended reading, grades, or assignments. Anyone can attend a lecture at Anarchist U, with 10-week courses taught by regular Torontonians, as opposed to tenure-track professors.

We’ve all heard the stories about friends at liberal arts colleges on the East Coast, studying what they want to study, in pass/fail environments with less pressure than the average undergrad here faces just by checking out a book at Robarts Library. But what Jacob’s model offers is an opposition within the superstructure itself. He came out of U of T and created a university of its own accord. Could AFU be a model to restructure the experience of learning for learning’s sake?

At the Toronto Free Gallery at Bloor and Lansdowne, a crowd of 20 gathers for the second instalment of Christian Whitall’s course, “Money Is All Around Us.” Making notes about the evils of consumerism on a laminated calendar taped to the wall, Whitall tries to facilitate a discussion about the nature of cash as an economic good. “What good is money except for doing lines of cocaine with rolled up dollar bills?” muses one greying pupil in a denim button-up shirt. A radical in tattered loafers interrupts to explain the transition of money from gold to dollars (“’Cause money doesn’t have to just be one thing…it can be like, loads of shit”), but stops halfway when he realizes he can’t articulate what he’s thinking. Thirty minutes later he rudely interrupts another speaker to continue his point.

Though the crowd of community members ranges from the baby-faced and shy, to the elderly and extroverted, I could’ve held the same sort of anti-capital convo while patrolling a Phish concert. Whitall wants us to identify why consumer objects hold power and status for capital gain, and what it is about society that requires any product to regulate itself, but the class seems stuck on the fact that inmates use cigarettes to barter sexual favours in the prison system. While I’m all for learning on equal footing, this lecture represents the worst of any university tutorial: uninformed, nonsensical, and a waste of time. It’s like that idiotic guy in your Contemporary Fiction class took over your entire lecture—and what’s worse, no one’s cutting him off. Is this really a model of progressive education?

Jacob warns me, “Anarchism is based on participation. Nothing happens if you don’t get involved; on the other hand, if you get deeply involved, it becomes a deeply meaningful thing for you. This applies in a collective project like the Free University, as it does in a regular school like U of T.” “My experiences at U of T were fairly normal. But what stands out as most memorable for me were those classes where my fellow students and I organized reading groups to help us get through the material we were studying in class. These groups led to a much deeper understanding of what we were reading, as well as profound friendships with people who otherwise would have been simply ‘classmates.’”

Any administrator will tell you that U of T can’t afford the small seminar classes that are liberal arts colleges’ bread and butter. And if self-directed exploration won’t get you into grad school, what’s the point? What U of T students must do is learn how to teach each other—regardless of GPAs, job prospects, or professor recommendations. For my first three years of university, I helped program free Friday films as part of the Cinema Studies’ Course Student Union. It was there that I got my real film education, discussing Hitchcockian shot scales and the novelty of Michael Hanneke narration with my friends. Through my peers enthusiasm and knowledge of film, I found myself wanting to learn more. I felt involved. I felt committed. And more importantly, I showed up, got involved, and learned—just as I’ve done after two years of editing The Varsity.

U of T as a hegemonic system doesn’t have get under your skin. We’re here to learn, but we’re also here for those necessary life experiences that don’t qualify under a bell curve. The ideal university allows for big dreams and qualitative education. It allows for space and rupture, to allow the individual to figure the framework to govern their own lives, just as effectively as the institution itself.