Can we trust our textbooks?

U of T professors discuss how Indigenous stories have been written over and forgotten

Can we trust our textbooks?

We grow up using textbooks. We grow up believing they’re authoritative sources of knowledge because, from a young age, they’re ingrained into our educational curricula. But we don’t grow up learning that textbooks can carry biases too.

Even the oldest archival resources are subjective, as the information they give is mediated by the perspective of the people writing them. This is especially true of historical representations of Indigeneity. Canada’s reputation as the Great Nice North rests on a whitewashed and a settler-constructed conception of history that both erases and stereotypes Indigenous peoples. False narratives have been replicated in academic resources over hundreds of years, and they continue to be presented as fact to this day.

Each semester, professors at U of T have to decide what material to incorporate into their lessons, which also means deciding what information to exclude. Crowds of students flock to the U of T Bookstore for textbooks. But how can students be sure that they are making worthwhile investments? How can students and professors find reliable resources for learning and teaching?

The Varsity interviewed Brenda Wastasecoot and Tania Aguila-Way about how they choose academic sources and the role they believe that textbooks should have at U of T.

On going beyond books

Wastasecoot is a writer, artist, and assistant professor at U of T’s Centre for Indigenous Studies, and is of Cree and Ininu descent. She spoke to The Varsity about textbook representations of Indigenous history and the importance of making space for conversation and collaborative learning.

“Indigenous people have [always] been invisible in these textbooks,” she said. “I remember textbooks from when I was young, it was maybe one tiny chapter of the whole book… We were like an anomaly.” Wastasecoot was a university student by the time she “learned what really happened.”

In these small chapters, Indigenous history was constructed to portray colonizers in a favourable light. But despite their inaccuracy, these racist settler narratives came to be the dominant ones.

“You don’t tell people that you ripped [Indigenous peoples] off, and threw most of them off, and [that settlers are] on stolen land,” she said.

But textbooks are slowly improving, Wastasecoot said, as more accurate information about Indigenous history is made available. Wastasecoot uses books to plan her courses; they are important to the way she teaches. The physicality of a book is an important space that accurate Indigenous history should occupy.

“For myself, I like to have something in my hand that I can leaf through… [and say,] ‘See, it’s written here!’”

Still, she believes books are best used in combination with other sources. She uses books for information like the history and background of Indigenous peoples. For more current information, Wastasecoot turns to more accessible and easily updated resources on the internet.

Social media, for example, can provide a platform for a more diverse body of voices to be heard, especially ones that are often silenced or decontextualized in dominant media. Sparking these conversations also integrates Indigenous communities into current social conversations, which is important when a lot of existing literature treats Indigenous issues as purely historical. 

An example Wastasecoot highlighted about the internet’s relevance was the outpouring of information on social media about the Wet’suwet’en people and their protests when armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers entered unceded Wet’suwet’en territory on February 6 to arrest and remove people protesting the development of a Coastal GasLink pipeline there.

“You can read about it right away,” she said.

The internet also houses great historical resources, such as the University of Saskatchewan’s Indigenous Studies Portal, which includes over 65,000 electronic resources, including archival documents and photographs.

However, Wastasecoot’s students remain one of her main sources of inspiration as a professor. She spoke highly of their creativity and ability to find good articles and sources for their papers. “Students are amazing,” she said. “Some of the things they find [are] really right on to what I want to include in… next year’s course.”

Where books may fall short, Wastasecoot encourages her students to use other methods to excavate forgotten or covered-up stories of Indigenous peoples. This includes the many stories about Indigenous heroes and history. 

Wastasecoot celebrates these successes in her class, in which her students examine the contributions of 30 Indigenous leaders across history, all the way back to nineteenth century Plains Cree Chief Big Bear and up to now, with the likes of Murray Sinclair and Tina Keeper.

Wastasecoot also prioritizes creative and collaborative work as another access point into Indigenous history. Her students complete a project about the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which reported on the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women and girls, including sexual violence.

Working in groups, her students choose a woman from the list on the CBC website, and create creative pieces in their honour. Within these groups, they’re given total creative freedom on how they want to present their pieces.

“Because it’s such a heavy topic to look at,” Wastasecoot said. “I just wanted to get them in there and looking at it in a way that was meaningful to them, so that they could make sense of it themselves.”

She and her students have also taken a walking tour of UTSG that was focused on showing the campus’ Indigenous history.

“What’s under the sidewalk, you know?” she said. “[The students] really loved that. It’s just amazing how much has been covered over… and forgotten. It’s good to know what we’re standing on.”

Choosing which stories to read

Aguila-Way is an assistant professor with U of T’s Department of English, and she is currently teaching ENG252 — Introduction to Canadian Literature. In an email to The Varsity, she broke down the factors that go into structuring her class and achieving her goal of disrupting the dominant settler narratives of Canadian history.

Since ENG252 is an introductory course, Aguila-Way aims to expose students to a diverse body of texts. But she also hopes to historicize and contextualize these texts for her students, “giving them a clear understanding of the historical forces that have shaped the Canadian literary canon.”

“This requires that I teach not just a variety of literary genres, but also the variety of literatures that exist in Canada, including Indigenous literatures, Black Canadian literature, and Asian Canadian literature, to name a few,” she wrote.

Aguila-Way has had success using textbooks and anthologies to achieve her goal, in part because “they compile readings that students might have difficulty accessing otherwise.”

Anthologies, which assemble works by various authors, are particularly beneficial in English courses because of the “paratextual materials” within them, including headnotes, writer biographies, historical documents, photographs, and more.

“[These] can help students understand the cultural and historical contexts of the anthologized texts,” she wrote.

She has opted to assign a variety of primary and secondary sources, including books, novels, poetry, and plays, many of which she has made available to students on Quercus.

Cost is another major consideration for her. “There are some excellent Canadian literature anthologies that I have used in past courses and would be happy to use in my classroom again,” she wrote. “However, a good anthology can cost upwards of $100 and I feel uneasy assigning such a costly text for a course that only lasts one semester.”

At its core, though, Aguila-Way’s class is based on a balance between introducing students to dominant narratives and chronologies, and simultaneously disrupting them. This includes teaching and contrasting settlement narratives from canonical and emerging authors with stories from writers of different races and backgrounds.

“In my module on settlement narratives I teach what is probably the most famous Canadian emigration manual – Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush alongside Mary Ann Shadd’s A Plea for Emigration, a nineteenth century emigration manual that was directed specifically at Black people who were considering emigrating to Canada to escape persecution under the Fugitive Slave Act in the United States,” she wrote.

Teaching Shadd and Moodie’s emigration manuals side-by-side allows her to show students that the experience of settlement is heterogeneous, and “could vary greatly depending on one’s race, class, and gender.” It also disrupts the narrative that multicultural and multi-ethnic writing is a recent phenomenon in Canadian literature.

“The history of racialized writing in Canada is as old as the country itself (and far older if we include Indigenous literatures within this category),” she wrote.

In her class, she opens the semester with Indigenous texts by authors like Thomas King and Brian Maracle. They both directly address Indigeneity and Indigenous literature as existing outside of colonial and settler narratives.

The history of Canadian colonization acts as both a basis and a contrast to everything else students read. But she also hopes to expose students to Indigenous literature as a vast and diverse genre, beyond the scope of colonial influence. She highlighted the Truth and Reconciliation era as a major turning point for professors. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established by the federal government in 2008, and uncovered the harsh abuse that took place in residential schools against Indigenous children.

“I’ve noticed that, even in this post-Truth and Reconciliation moment during which many Professors are trying to decolonize their syllabi and include Indigenous writings and perspectives in our courses, there is a persistent tendency to think about Indigenous literatures only in relation to colonialism,” she wrote.

“To me, this kind of framing elides the expressions of resilience, defiance, and cultural resurgence that characterize a lot of contemporary Indigenous writing,” she added. “Thus, in my course, I’ve tried to include texts by Indigenous authors whose work not only challenges colonial renderings of history, but also affirms the resilience of Indigenous peoples.”

When asked if textbooks should be used at U of T, given their biases, Aguila-Way wrote that they should be. However, she also acknowledges that certain textbooks, such as anthologies, can sometimes carry the implication that the writers they represent are the most important and thus ‘worthy’ of being anthologized. 

To combat this idea, she frequently supplements anthologized texts with materials by lesser-known or emerging writers.

The huge range of subjects and sub-subjects in English alone makes it a challenge to choose which stories should be highlighted. Still, she offers a strategy for professors to “encourage a diversity of thought” among their students.

“Reference existing critical debates surrounding the literary texts we are teaching,” she wrote. “Acknowledging these debates not only serves to remind students that there are multiple ways of interpreting a literary text, but it also helps introduce them to the wide array of critical approaches.”

On the future and limitations of textbooks

Wastasecoot and Aguila-Way demonstrated that textbooks and historical resources can be used effectively in their teaching, but they also emphasized the importance of interacting with a diverse range of sources. Textbooks can be a great starting point for further research, and serve as wonderful points of access to topics that are otherwise difficult to discover. But they should not be the only point of contact you have with a subject.

When The Varsity asked Wastasecoot how students at U of T can expand their understanding of Indigenous history that has been excluded in textbooks, she implored people to educate themselves.

“You can Google this stuff,” she said. “It’s right at your fingertips… There [are] many Indigenous authors now, right? There are many more nowadays. And there are many Indigenist authors… people who are not Indigenous but know the story and can be allies.”

She also stressed the importance of connection with other people, to learn and teach together.

“I always allow people to come and audit [my] course,” she said. “I think it’s important to have at least one seat available to somebody, maybe not a student… They just don’t know where to start, so they just start there.”

“And no question is a stupid question to me, because… you’ve just got to be able to ask. You’ve got to feel safe enough to ask,” she added.

One way to create safety is to have these discussions outside of the classroom. Whether it’s a book club or a movie night, “it’s really important to get people talking.”

When I think about all of the history we have left to uproot and re-examine critically, I think about a passage in King’s A Coyote Columbus Story. Coyote, a trickster figure, tells the narrator that she is going to a party for Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of America and the Indigenous peoples who live there. The narrator tells Coyote that Columbus made no such discovery.

“Oh no, says Coyote. I read it in a book… It was a history book. Big red one. All about how Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue looking for America and the Indians.”

“Sit down,” replies the narrator. “Have some tea. We’re going to have to do this story right. We’re going to have to do this story now.”

What scholarships are available for Black students in STEM at U of T?

Pharmacy, medicine, and social work faculties among aid providers

What scholarships are available for Black students in STEM at U of T?

What scholarships are available for Black students in STEM at the University of Toronto? The Varsity has surveyed awards available for students across many departments and fields, which are listed below.

Media offices across different U of T departments have contributed research to this article.

Tri-campus scholarships:

The Winkelman Admission Scholarship is an admission award for students who “identify as Black (African-Canadian, Caribbean-Canadian or Afro-Caribbean heritage)” and have “demonstrated academic merit.”

The Dr. Anderson Abbott Award is for current domestic students, and “is awarded to a black student in any program of study on the basis of academic achievement, financial need and contribution to the black community.”

The Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students Black Student Bursary of $1,000 is “awarded based on financial need to Black students enrolled in undergraduate programs on a part-time basis,” with preference given to those who mostly study on a part-time basis.

The Black Business and Professional Association Scholarships are available to Black-Canadian students who are under 30. Students “must demonstrate high academic achievement and contribution to the Black community [and] be in financial need.”

Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work:

The Dr. Daniel G. Hill Sr. Scholarship is an award of annual income “to be awarded on the basis of financial need to a student enrolled in the [Master of Social Work] program, with consideration given to recruitment, incentives, support and retention of Black students.”

The Beverly & Emerson Mascoll Graduate Scholarship is an award of annual income “with consideration given to a Black Canadian Resident/Citizen, who is a student in the [Master of Social Work] program, and who demonstrates financial need and good performance.”

Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy:

The Afro-Canadian Scholarship recognizes “a deserving black student (African-Canadian, Caribbean-Canadian, or Afro-Caribbean heritage) entering Year 1 of the undergraduate program at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy” who demonstrates financial need and community or volunteer work.

Faculty of Medicine:

The Dr. Robert William Hudson Memorial Award is for students who have “demonstrated interest in endocrinology,” with “preference given to Black or Indigenous students.”

The Dr. John Douglas Graham Salmon Award for Black Medical Students is “awarded to [a] black student in any year of the MD program” who demonstrates financial need.

School of Graduate Studies (SGS):

The SGS Fellowships and Bursaries for Black and/or Indigenous Students are for full-time domestic and international graduate students who identify as Black or Indigenous, and demonstrate “one or both… financial need [or] academic merit.”

How chaos theory captures the dance of planets

U of T undergraduate and Princeton fellow publish astronomy research on planetary motion

How chaos theory captures the dance of planets

You probably don’t go about your day thinking about how our solar system works and the probability of its collapse.

In fact, if you are anything like me, when you do think about our galay you likely recall pretty images of space, or astronauts from movies. However, what many people might not realize is that our solar system is borderline unstable — there is a small theoretical chance that Mercury will collide with either the Sun or Venus.

Because dynamics, which is the study of how forces influence motion, is so chaotic, astrophysicists will never be able to predict when this will happen, or even if it will happen at all.

The good news is that it could be possible to estimate the probability of distribution against all other possible outcomes in our system. This is exactly what the research paper by Naireen Hussain, a fourth-year engineering science undergraduate student majoring in robotics at the University of Toronto, and Dr. Daniel Tamayo, a Lyman Spitzer Sr. fellow and Sagan fellow at Princeton University’s Department of Astrophysical Sciences focuses on.

The paper is available on arXiv, and is pending peer review. It revolves around the relation between chaos, or unpredictable behaviour, and multi-planetary systems.

The process of discovery

Hussain and Tamayo worked together during Hussain’s second and third years of undergraduate studies, while Tamayo was at U of T’s Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics. After Tamayo left U of T, the pair worked on the project through Skype and email, and completed it over last summer.

The topic was not an easy one to research. In addition to being centred around an ambitious idea of predicting how long orbital configurations will survive, what they wanted to explore was “whether that question is even well defined in the first place,” according to Tamayo.

One of the hardest parts of the research process was actually figuring out the initial planet configuration. Another big obstacle, Hussain said to The Varsity, was finding a “substantial data set that doesn’t take too long to generate and still is able to give you valid results,” so they had to play around with various orbital configurations.

A surprise, even for the researchers

At the end of the research process, Hussain admitted, the pair was pleasantly surprised with the results. “What we went into was to see if [it] was even possible to do this, so we were quite satisfied when we realized that [it has actually] come to a consistent distribution,” she said.

She believes that this research will make an impact on other physicists studying the topic because they can now “use [their] stability analysis to strain the orbital parameters.”

Though the probability of Mercury colliding with either the Sun or Venus is less than one per cent, it is still a possibility. But since we cannot predict when the collision might happen, even with our modern-day technology and all the information available to us, the only thing we can do is look at all the possible outcomes and estimate their distribution probabilities.

The study by Hussain and Tamayo plays a significant role in this achievement by advancing research on the relationship between chaos and planetary systems.

TAs speak out about U of T grading deflation allegations

On being caught in the crosshairs, student misperceptions, and institutional pressure

TAs speak out about U of T grading deflation allegations

A Twitter post has recently reignited a longrunning debate in the university: grade deflation and inflation. The tweet featured a screenshot of a message that an instructor sent to students, announcing that their grades would now be capped at a certain level for the sake of “countering the issue of grade inflation.” The post was retweeted more than 500 times and was also posted on Facebook, where it further drew agitated comments from the student body.

Melissa Hill, Executive Director in the Faculty of Communications and Public Affairs at U of T, recently wrote to The Varsity claiming that the email was a miscommunication, and that the assignment would not be capped. Yet this very much runs against the tone of the original message.

Grade inflation is when many students score a disproportionate amount of A and B grades. Whereas, grade deflation is when students are purposely marked harsher — meaning that the students who performed above average might still score in the C range. In this sense, marks have less to do with student performance and more to do with the university’s grading policy.

The Varsity spoke to a wide range of students, teaching assistants (TAs), and a union representative for TAs when reporting this issue.

It should be noted that some graduate students and TAs told The Varsity that they didn’t believe grade deflation occurred in their departments.

Others acknowledged the practice but were unwilling to speak about it, ultimately raising the question of how pervasive and far-reaching this issue is.

A student’s perspective on the issue

Based on comments from Twitter and Facebook about grade deflation at U of T, it is clear that many undergraduate students are highly dissatisfied with these practices.

Maddie Diab, a fourth-year student studying international relations, was one of the many who commented on one of the posts, and spoke with The Varsity regarding the practice.

She recounted one instance when she followed her TA’s critiques to improve her work, and still only achieved a 70. On her insistence, the TA reread the paper and accepted that it was good, but he still refused to change the grade, saying that he probably had just read her paper after reading one that got a 90.

“I understand that because it was a big class, there were a lot of people who were naturally going to be better than me,” Diab said. “But… I never feel like I’m graded independently of other people… It’s not arbitrary, but the whole thing’s relative, and it’s really frustrating.”

Ultimately, she felt like her grade was dependent on how other students did, as opposed to the quality of her work and the expectations outlined in a rubric.

Diab acknowledged that what she said is anecdotal, and that her experiences are primarily rooted in the humanities and social science departments. However, she still felt that the issue of grade deflation and inflation is widespread.

She also reflected on how this has affected students’ mental health. For herself and her peers, it is highly demotivating to put your all into an assignment and then receive a grade that is much lower than you expected.

“It literally happens to every one of us — that we all feel our grades are being deflated,” she said. “I just feel like there is a huge battle of ‘We need better mental health services’… and then there was this battle about ‘We need to stop capping grades.’ And I think people didn’t realize or weren’t able to verbalize how connected they are.”

However, Diab does not blame the TAs — they have their own instructions to follow. Instead, she blames the university as a whole. For her, the solution is for instructors to follow rubrics and grading schemes that clearly indicate a score for each skill demonstrated — such as clarity of argument and writing ability.

“I never thought it was the TA’s fault,” she said. “People were putting a lot of blame on the TAs, and it’s their job. You got to do what you got to do.”

TAs speak out about their experiences

The Varsity heard from TAs who have seen evidence of grade deflation and inflation at U of T. The two TAs who currently work for the university spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal.

One TA who spoke to The Varsity on the condition of anonymity is a graduate student in the biology department and an advocate for mental health. She said that there is pressure for her to maintain a class average — students who are either too high or too low are pushed closer to that average.

“The sense that I got is that the university enforces an average for all the courses, so you can’t have too many As,” she said.

In one instance, she was told that she had given too many A grades, so she had to change the way she was marking. In another instance, she was instructed to give higher grades even though the students were not doing the work.

She noted that not being able to be clear about the grading policy, and being pressured to give students grades that they may not deserve, quickly becomes stressful. She has discussed this issue with her peers, and for them it seems that this is the way it has always been. This is a source of frustration for some TAs, as many of them plan to devote their lives to being educators, but they also see the anxiety that the grades bring about in students.

“As a TA, you notice the [undergraduate students], how stressed out they are,” she said. “That they are affected not just by this, but in general by the environment of the university and how we define success.”

She also spoke about the impact that grades have on student mental health. She feels that although the university is making steps toward better mental health initiatives for students, it could always do more. In addition to improving the wait times at health and wellness centres, she believes that the university needs to deal with its problems of grade deflation and inflation. Thus, there must be systematic improvement to U of T’s system.

She has also seen the pressure on students to achieve the marks they need for future goals, such as admission to graduate schools, something that has dramatically affected their attitudes toward education. She describes their attitudes as apathetic toward learning, as all of their focus is on grades.

“I don’t think that should be the role that the university is playing,” she said. “It’s supposed to be about teaching and learning and developing good humans for society. By just putting so much focus on grades… it’s just creating a bad environment for learning.”

“How are you going to learn if you’re that stressed out?”

Another graduate student from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology who also wished to remain anonymous wrote to The Varsity about her time as a TA for first- and second-year courses. “For the first year [introductory] biology course, the TAs [received] specific instructions to maintain assignment averages around 70%,” she wrote. “This came from the TA coordinator.”

TAs are aware that they need to maintain a specific overall average, and this “can be quite restricting when assigning grades to individual students.” She found that her overall averages were “initially a lot lower than the specified average,” so she had to be more lenient when giving marks.

“I know students are aware of grade capping overall, but from personal experience most bell-curves are expected to raise averages rather [than] reduce them, so it might be a positive and sometimes stress-reducing factor,” she wrote.

However, she recognized that this is not the case with all TA and student experiences, and emphasized the impacts of grade capping on student mental health.

“There are so many external, non-academic pressures that undergrads deal with, and adding grade capping/inflation to the list is often unbearable,” she wrote. “There [are] a lot more students struggling with mental health than we are aware of, and it is important to consider how grade capping might affect their wellbeing.”

Priyanka Sharma, a former TA of an undergraduate criminology course, also wrote to The Varsity about her experience grading. She is a former graduate student at the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies at U of T, and she also completed her undergraduate degree at U of T.

“We were not asked to mark on a curve,” she wrote. “I would mark based off of a rubric given by the professor. However, my experience is an anomaly and the credit goes to the empathy and fairness of my professor.”

From her time as an undergraduate and graduate student at U of T, she got the impression that the “bell curve is an open secret.”

“There definitely seems to be a tacit recognition of an ‘informal but formalized’ grading curve for undergraduate classes at U of T — especially for classes with greater enrolment,” she wrote.

“Each TA has a different experience of how that plays out during marking,” she explained. “Most often, the TA is following [direction] from the professor, and it is most likely [that] the professor is following direction from the department or faculty. I think I was lucky and unique… not to have such directives imposed [on] my marking as [a] TA.”

When The Varsity reached out to Media Relations for comment and interviews with TA coordinators or faculty representatives, they directed us to the comments they made in our recent article about grade deflation at U of T.

The potential violation of students’ rights

Kate Brennan, member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3092 and Vice Chair of Unit 1, which represents almost 8,000 TAs and course instructors, spoke to The Varsity about the injustice against students that the tweet potentially illuminated.

She remarked that from her general experience as an educator, whenever she hears something about grades being too low or too high, it is potentially an institutional problem.

“That means that there was something poorly done with the instruction or with the design of the assessment,” she said. “That’s maybe what happened here.”

Brennan also stressed that the directives that were mentioned in the tweet would not have come from the TA, who would not be in a position to authorize any such action. Instead, they would have come from the course instructor, who bears overall responsibility for the course.

“The faculty member instructor holds disproportionate weight within the classroom and within the potential for that graduate student educator’s future career,” she said. “There are many, many, many Unit 1 members, myself included, who worry about facing retribution in some way if we upset a faculty member or, in trying to act fairly toward our students, come under the ire of a faculty member.”

Brennan expressed that, as an outside perspective on the matter, she believes that the incident relayed in the tweet may be a violation of U of T’s policy on marking.

“What should be happening now is an investigation into what really happened with that incident to make sure it’s not happening again, and to make sure that kind of problem isn’t allowed to systemically spread,” she said.

“In a classroom, students have rights and educators have rights,” she stressed. “And those are not at odds with each other; they actually complement each other. In addition to one’s rights, there also is accountability, and that extends both ways.”

Brennan detailed that one way educators are accountable to students is that they have to lay out all assignments and the marking scale in a syllabus at the beginning of the term. Under the most recent report, published in 2012 by the Governing Council about grading policies at U of T, the University Assessment and Grading Practices Policy, this grading criteria cannot be changed on a whim.

Rather, under Part B, Section 1.3, the report explains, “For both undergraduate and graduate courses, after the methods of evaluation have been made known, the instructor may not change them or their relative weight without the consent of a simple majority of students attending the class, provided the vote is announced no later than in the previous class.”

Brennan believes that in the instance the tweet highlights, students’ rights have been violated, since the form of assessment was changed.

“If there are ways in which students are not being treated fairly in this regard, then the university, I think, owes it to them and owes it to all students to make it fair,” she said. “Educators need to be accountable to students, too.”

Disclosure: Abdus Shuman is a TA in the Political Science department, as well as a Mobilization Officer for the Political Action Committee for CUPE.

Editor’s note (February 10, 3:31 pm): The Varsity mistakenly published an outdated version of this article that did not match the print version. The Varsity regrets the error. 

Opinion: Are professors openly ideologically biased? If not, they should be

They won’t harm the learning environment by discussing their personal beliefs

Opinion: Are professors openly ideologically biased? If not, they should be

A couple of points regarding ideologies, of which I hope there can be no disagreement: first, the deeper your commitment to your opinion, the harder it is for you to recognize that opinions exist. The opinions you hold are facts; your opponents’ are dangerous emotional bias. Second, your ideology is always the underrepresented one, and your enemies’ control the world. We all like to fancy our perspectives as marginalized. That’s why there are still problems, after all — because we aren’t in charge.

These points come to mind whenever students, or certain professors, complain about ideological biases at universities. For every person who rages that academia is infected by radical leftists with Marxist or feminist agendas who don’t understand the ‘real world,’ someone else rants that academics are all too old, privileged, and male to be in touch with the ‘real world’ outside of their ivory tower. The implication is not merely that our enemies are everywhere, but that they’re in power, and using that power for no good.

Rather than debating which way the supposed bias faces, we could ask instead: is it even a problem? Should academics not be opinionated?

My first-year political science professor told the class that if his teaching worked, we shouldn’t be able to determine his politics. This is a noble aim, but it’s not infallible.

For example, let’s imagine a professor who believes in laissez-faire economics. They think the invisible hand of the market is the warmest hand to hold and have read every rebuttal to Marx ever written. Yet they wish to teach their students both perspectives equally and select literature they consider representative of each side.

Here, already, is a problem: if they have given more years to studying free-market literature than Marxist literature, they will have a far greater selection of anti-Marxist material to draw from. They know the foundational texts of the ideology they oppose, but how much do they know beyond that?

Even if they sincerely seek to give both equal attention, the odds are against them before the lecture even begins. It does little harm to students for them to disclose their beliefs. In fact, there are more insidious issues if they claim impartiality, but their lessons quietly favour particular viewpoints.

Of course, revealing one’s own opinion is not the same as being biased, but we tend to call opinions “bias” when they contradict our own. If someone in a position of authority espouses a point with which we agree, we may not recognize it as a subjective opinion at all, but simply a fact.

If a professor announced, “capitalism is broken,” “the Illuminati controls our government,” “crime is worsened by inequality,” “the illuminati should control our government but they don’t,” or “the Illuminati broke capitalism,” this would register to some students as a troubling intrusion of personal politics, and to others as clearly observable truths which need no explanation.

While it seems straightforward to tell professors to keep personal opinions out of lectures, it’s not so simple for them to do so. The deeper your research, the more likely you are to encounter topics on which there is debate, even amongst authorities.

We want our lecturers to be passionate and exceptionally knowledgeable about their subjects. It’s difficult to imagine someone dedicating their life to learning about something, and emerging with no strong opinions.

If their subject interacts in any way with human society — which subjects tend to do — some of those opinions are going to be political. So, let’s hear them. If anyone’s going to lecture us about politics, why not the people to whom we already pay large amounts of money to for their knowledge?

Good teaching forces us to confront our own biases. If we already knew everything we wanted to know about the world, we wouldn’t come to university. Learning from a professor who regularly says things you disagree with will ultimately be a greater learning opportunity than learning from one who confirms everything you already believe. Some of my most fulfilling moments at U of T have come after a professor said something that I opposed entirely, and I had to turn the statement over in my head for a long time. Even if I ended up holding firm to that initial opposition, I came to have a stronger grasp of my own opinion and why I stand by it. Working in a university requires you to know a thing or two, unlike working in government — which requires you to be an illuminatus.

Your professor might not successfully convert you to communism, but you won’t have many opportunities in life to have a reasoned debate with a well-informed opponent whose job it is to encourage you to share your thoughts — cherish them whilst you have them. We’re in school to be challenged; no one expects you to follow blindly. And if you feel like your professor is trying to indoctrinate you, they must not be doing a very good job of it.

Jacob Harron is a fourth-year English student at Victoria College. He is an Associate Senior Copy Editor.

Opinion: Grade deflation is an unfair and discouraging practice

Following exposed class email about keeping average down, students are rightly outraged

Opinion: Grade deflation is an unfair and discouraging practice

Grade deflation is a practice that many students never truly come to understand, especially considering how its implementation varies from class to class. Consequently, this confusion has exaggerated an environment of instability and fear for students regarding grades. 

A very recent and public example of grade deflation took place during the 2019 fall semester, as an email sent to CRI390 — Topics in Criminology and Sociolegal Studies students circulated on social media. In it, a professor addressed a change to the marking scheme for a final reading assignment as a result of higher-than-expected marks on the class midterm.

They conveyed that the criminology department expected them to keep the course average  between 75–78 per cent, so as to not appear to be involved in grade inflation. The instructor then went on to say that since everyone in the class did well on the midterm, they felt it necessary to cap marking on a following assignment, to “systematically account” for this lapse in proportional grading. 

The email said that the instructor felt the need to let everyone know about the grade deflation in case they were “discouraged” or thought that their lower grade meant that there was a decline in the quality of their work.

This final statement can be interpreted as evidence that student work is not solely being graded on the basis of quality, but also in relation to the department’s regulations for proportional grading — otherwise known as grading on a bell curve. The professor’s conclusion acknowledges the potential negative and demotivating effects of this change.

Intentionally lowering grades is extremely discouraging to students. Being told that a class has done ‘too well’ and that grades must now be stifled complicates understandings of fair evaluation and fair treatment in the classroom. Education should be an area of life where students are encouraged to thrive through the support of their instructors.

It is important to note that a few days after this email went viral, the instructor reversed this change, reinstating the previous marking rubric. This was likely, in my opinion, due to the uproar it caused on social media, but nothing has been confirmed.

The official reason for this kind of grade deflation is unclear, with little information readily available. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is done to preserve the university’s prestigious status as an academically competitive institution.

From Reddit to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, there has been an enormous amount of student concern regarding these grading practices. Many feel as though grade deflation is unjust because of the disregard for the actual quality of one’s work. Students on these platforms are angry at this practice since it implies that classes do not want students to thrive, and instead that they will go out of their way to do the opposite.    

It is important to stress that this practice does not necessarily occur in every single course at U of T, and that instructors are not to blame in every case. As seen in the viral email, professors must follow the practices that their superiors dictate. Concerns should be directed toward them, and through these channels students must demand transparency and fairness in grading.

Sonia Uppal is a third-year Equity Studies student at St. Michael’s College.

Opinion: Hit the off button and pull out a notebook: laptop bans help professors help you

Professors should be allowed to set their own rules in lectures and tutorials

Opinion: Hit the off button and pull out a notebook: laptop bans help professors help you

When I look around during my history lecture, I see that most students are typing notes on their laptops. Or at least they’re pretending to type notes. It’s guaranteed that at least someone will be watching a game of soccer, playing a video game, scrolling through Facebook, or working on a chemistry assignment.

These mindless distractions are usually funny to see. After all, these students are compromising their own academic success by not paying attention in lecture. However, distracted students are probably less funny to the professors, some of which have been teaching for years as experts in their fields. I can imagine that it is beyond frustrating to have students brush off their effort and experience so easily.

This is not to say that students don’t have a strong case when they say that they know best when it comes to their own learning. By the time we’re in university, we’ve gone through a dozen or more years of school. That’s enough time to learn and revise our own study habits. Learning is a highly personalized process, and while I prefer to take handwritten notes, another student might benefit from the efficiency of typing.

The laptop ban — re-introduced to U of T discourse through a 2016 opinion piece penned by two political science professors for The Globe and Mail — aimed to prohibit the use of electronic devices in lectures, tutorials, and seminars. This ban has mostly been discussed in the context of effectiveness and equity. In fact, if anyone wants an analysis of the research conducted on the effect of laptops in the classroom, The Varsity has already published a number of news and opinion pieces that outline the different arguments for and against the ban.

Personally, I do not believe that this debate is about the positive or negative effects of technology in the classroom. If that were the case, we would be arguing about whether U of T should ban the use of all technology in the classroom. Instead, I’m going to build a case for why individual professors should have the right to decide to ban technology in their classrooms.

While students consider a range of factors when choosing a university, many would probably agree that central to their decision is the quality of the program and the reputation of the school. Both of these rely in some part on the university’s ability to acquire adequate resources, which includes a teaching staff of experts, able to teach in a comprehensive manner. The University of Toronto provides its students with well-organized courses, thrilling opportunities, and libraries full of information.

One of the greatest advantages it has is that it hires reputable and thoughtful professors. That’s why students are encouraged to go to office hours and engage in department activities. The university encourages you to benefit from the experience and understanding of your teachers. In many cases, your professors have been teaching the same course for years. They understand the tools that are necessary to be successful in that class and in that program.

A professor in a computer science class probably won’t ban laptops, because they’re essential to learning. But an English professor might decide that the retention and analysis that is often required when writing handwritten notes is a good way to develop and practice necessary skills. In fact, this sentiment is echoed in the opinion piece that started this whole mess. The political science professors who wrote it wanted their students to focus on the lecture so they could learn how to analyze the complex texts and concepts they were faced with.

Many of us still ask for advice from our professors and teaching assistants. We trust that they have the expertise necessary to excel in our chosen profession. While it is good to understand your own learning habits, to pick and choose the advice we want from professors would be to potentially ignore something that could help us. After all, turning off your laptop for a few hours is a pretty low price to pay for a good mark.

Marta Anielska is a first-year Humanities student at University College.

Analysis shows number of students receiving OSAP increased under Wynne government

Marked increase in grants over loans from 2013–2018, decreased domestic enrollment

Analysis shows number of students receiving OSAP increased under Wynne government

According to an analysis by The Varsity, undergraduate domestic students at U of T received increasing amounts of support from the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) from 2013–2018. Over 62 per cent of domestic students in 2017–2018 received over $150 million in loans and $180 million in grants from the province. At the same time, domestic enrollment had slowly curbed by about 1,365 students since 2013.

In particular, the Mississauga and Scarborough campuses had higher percentages of undergraduate domestic students that received financial aid, with 65 per cent and 77 per cent, respectively, of students receiving financial aid in 2017–2018.

What is OSAP?

Established in 1966 as the Province of Ontario Student Award Program, OSAP is administered by Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities (MCU) to assist students in paying for tuition, school-related fees, and other costs associated with attending a postsecondary institution. Canadian citizens, permanent residents, or protected persons residing in Ontario can apply for OSAP.

Under former Premier Kathleen Wynne and her Liberal government, OSAP was reformed to provide “free tuition” — or grants equaling to around the average undergraduate tuition cost — to students with a household income of $50,000 or less. The changes began to take effect in September 2017, and radically redesigned the financial assistance program so that students would receive base funding calculated from the student’s family income and additional needs-based funding, depending on financial need.

In 2019, the Progressive Conservative government, led by Premier Doug Ford, announced another round of reformations to OSAP, including the elimination of the six-month interest-free grace period for loan repayments, a shift from student reliance on grants to loans, and the decreasing of grants and loans provided to students with a household income of over $50,000.

The announcement came with an additional 10 per cent cut to domestic tuition — which is regulated by the province — saving an average domestic first-year Arts & Science undergraduate student $678 per year.

Increased reliance on grants

The Varsity’s analysis, conducted using U of T’s available data on OSAP loan rates and domestic undergraduate population, shows a marked increase in grants for 2017, the year the Wynne government’s changes went into effect.

The number of OSAP recipients among undergraduate students increased by 3,580 over the five-year timeframe — during which loans steadily decreased and were made up with grants until 2017–2018, when grants overtook loans as the main source of financial assistance for students. From $43 million in 2013 to $180 million in 2017, a higher proportion of student grants was given to a decreasing number of students — from 48,753 in 2013 to 47,370 in 2017.

Besides first-hand accounts, it’s unclear how the Ford government’s emphasis on loans-based financial assistance will affect students at U of T as OSAP shifts from the Wynne system to the Ford system.

Domestic enrollment is set through targets agreed upon between the province and the university in their triennial Strategic Mandate Agreement. A previous Varsity analysis of international student tuition found that the university has been increasingly relying on tuition fees from international students. In 2019, international student tuition fees constituted 30 per cent of the university’s revenue — nearly a billion dollars — more than the 25 and 24 per cent that provincial grants and domestic tuition provided, respectively.