Checking in with the Comment columnists

The section’s regular writers briefly reflect on the fall 2018 semester and what’s yet to come in the spring 2019 semester

Checking in with the Comment columnists

It’s been a great first semester as the UTM Affairs Columnist for The Varsity. In my first contribution, I focused on the topic of free speech in the context of controversial opinions at university campuses. I continued with the topic of hate speech surrounding the disturbingly popular Mississauga mayoral candidate, Kevin Johnston. My last column shifted to UTM student politics, specifically in light of the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union’s executive salary increase.

This coming semester, I look forward to continuing to discuss topics as they relate to both UTM and the Mississauga community as a whole. I believe that it’s important to have such conversations because it impacts the way we as university students think and act. Universities are spaces of personal growth and exposure to new ideas, and I hope that my columns illuminate fresh debates to this end!

— Sharmeen Abedi, UTM Affairs Columnist

While I took the student life column to be an important avenue to challenge the university administration, I underestimated the opportunities it provides to shine a light on the positive impacts made by students. From rescuing books from dumpsters to writing new course proposals, U of T students did a lot in the fall term to rectify troubling situations and improve campus life for everyone.

In 2019, I’d love to hear from more students about the issues that are affecting them on campus. I also want to continue to use this platform to applaud various student efforts. Ultimately, I’ve realized how much our lives as students fall at the crux of larger social issues. Where we live, what kind of living we make, how we get to class, even who teaches us — these are all embedded in a political context. In examining these issues, students have unique perspectives and stories to tell. It takes work to get to the heart of these stories, but student issues are worth paying attention to.

So that’s what I pledge to do in 2019: pay attention. Being in touch with students is critical to my ability to weigh in on student life. I can’t claim to represent every student, but I hope that in breaking down issues for my column, I can also break down barriers on campus. Inclusion has been an overarching theme for me, whether through my columns on sign language or clique culture. By paying attention to the challenges and triumphs of inclusion at U of T, I hope to generate worthwhile reading material for students and, if I’m really ambitious, even change on campus.

— Amelia Eaton, Student Life Columnist

As the UTSC Affairs Columnist, my contributions in 2018 have focused on the basic needs of students, whether it’s adequate housing or food safety, and the responsibility of those who represent us to provide for those needs.

Heading into 2019, I intend to continue to tackle issues that concern students at UTSC, like study spaces and commuting, as well as student government in the form of the SCSU. I will also try my best to cover other areas of student interest, like campus events. While there are many issues that are specific to UTSC that have yet to be covered, I hope to write columns on topics that generate interest for all three campuses. Ultimately, I look forward to continuing my role and writing columns that prove to be enjoyable reads for everyone.

— Michael Phoon, UTSC Affairs Columnist

Through the fall semester, I’ve covered reconciliation, student government, and student participation. It’s become clear to me that, as with every organization, student government will at some point make mistakes and fall short of its potential. This means that fair and well-intentioned evaluations of our representatives will always be necessary and useful, both in terms of what decisions are made and how they are made.

However, a particular problem that I have found is the lack of broad student participation on campus. This includes formal actions, such as voting, and the much broader choice to participate in public ‘discussions.’ My article on conservatism was an attempt to understand the absence of a given group and its negative implications. I hope I can do similar deep-dives in the future.

Above all, I have and will continue to be careful about not being an armchair critic. I should be very open about my lack of practical experience and knowledge in the day-to-day workings of student government. While my columns steer toward what is ‘wrong’ with a given topic, I want to do so with a full understanding of the context and possibilities of the situation. For this reason, I want to more extensively reach out to groups of those actively involved.

As for the ‘solutions’ that I propose, I don’t intend for these to be binding, full-proof answers to complex problems. Instead, they are my individual contributions to what I hope will be broader discussions that may be otherwise antithetical.

— Sam Routley, UTSG Campus Politics Columnist

For many of us, 2018 was a difficult year, whether in terms of political regression or further environmental degradation. Despite this, we continue to speak and propel our perspectives into this mess of a world with the hopes that others might listen, take pause, and understand our point of view for a moment.

Working with this publication so far has helped me to refine my writing and voice, to understand better how to reach others with my perspectives, and how to get them to listen. I firmly believe that language has the ability to alter the world by shifting others’ thoughts and beliefs, and in this time of turmoil, we have a duty to use the powerful weapon of language to try and change the world in positive and productive ways. Through writing this column, I have been fine-tuning my use of language and I hope to continue to improve my abilities in the coming semester.

In the future, I would like to further diversify the subjects that I write about. I began writing this column with a focus on the explicitly political, thinking that in these areas a critical or dissenting voice is most needed. For my last piece though, I shifted focus slightly and discussed an issue related to Indigenous languages. I found it more fulfilling, and perhaps more necessary, to discuss an issue that many people were not so aware of. For this semester, I would like to continue to bring awareness to essential issues or subjects that are not immediately visible to a given reader.

To uplift forgotten perspectives and to bring to light erased knowledge is the power of language and the duty of the writer.

— Meera Ulysses, Current Affairs Columnist

The push for ASL education is a good sign

UTSC's sign language course should be generalized to all of U of T

The push for ASL education is a good sign

If you’re looking to take a language course at U of T, you have over 40 options — including Aramaic, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, and Ancient Greek. But despite being an institution that promises “boundless” education, U of T does not currently offer an American Sign Language (ASL) course at its St. George and Mississauga campuses — and that needs to change.

Thankfully, there is already a push to introduce ASL courses at UTSG. The Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) has been working on an ASL course proposal since July, based on the recommendation of Michael Junior Samakayi, a Deaf student and founder of the U of T ASL Club. Since then, ASSU has worked with University of Toronto Students’ Union Vice-President University Affairs Josh Grondin, the Society for Linguistics Undergraduate Students, and the Equity Studies Students’ Union to develop the project.

When Samakayi and I first met, I had no knowledge of sign language. After he taught me how to finger spell my name and some basic signs, I was determined to learn more on my own.

Some internet research informed me that ASL is not simply English translated into individual signs, but a complex and vibrant language with its own grammar structure. I knew I needed to take a course to at least properly understand the language, let alone become proficient in it, but there was no course for me to take to do so.

Of course, the importance of an ASL course at U of T is far greater than for satiating my personal interest, but I’m not the only one with this interest. Samakayi told me via email that he was inspired to push for ASL courses at U of T because most of the people to whom he teaches sign language are eager to learn more, but are not given the opportunity.

U of T students want to learn sign language. This is indicated by the interest in the ASL club founded by Samakayi, which has over 500 likes on Facebook. Despite such eagerness, U of T is lagging behind other Canadian universities, including Ryerson University, York University, Carleton University, and the University of British Columbia when it comes to offering ASL courses.

UTSC introduced an ASL course to its linguistics department in 2007, led by Professor Rena Helms-Park. She told me over email that all the positive feedback she has received on the course and the number of students “waiting anxiously” to get in makes her confident that the ASL course offered at UTSC has “incalculable value” to the students.

She expanded on the professional opportunities that the course has offered students, including being “the first step towards getting professional qualifications in audiology or speech pathology,” as well as obtaining volunteer positions in hospitals, clinics, and schools.

“One of our graduates, Ricky Chow, is now at Sunnybrook Hospital conducting research on cochlear implants, especially in connection with hearing Cantonese tones,” said Helms-Park. She added that “in many other situations, the ASL course is one of the repertoire of courses that count as relevant for admission to various programs in the rehabilitative sciences.”

Students from UTSG and UTM are missing out on these opportunities without an ASL course on their calendars. As Samakayi pointed out, any U of T graduate who works with the public would benefit from ASL courses, as they “will eventually encounter a Deaf person who uses ASL.”

While universities offer students unique access to languages and cultures that are otherwise marginalized by mainstream society, they also serve as the arbiters of which cultures are considered worthy of study and which are not.

When universities fail to offer sign language classes, they inadvertently contribute to a system that undervalues and ultimately erases Deaf culture. In turn, this perpetuates widespread ignorance that has, for too long, resulted in the mistreatment of Deaf people. The Canadian Association of the Deaf believes that the human rights of Deaf people are violated in Canada because of “systemic discrimination, inappropriate priorities, and simple ignorance.”

Deaf culture encapsulates much more than just ASL, but learning sign language is deemed as a necessary first step toward breaking down the barriers between Deaf and hearing students. According to ASSU executive Joshua Bowman, a recognized ASL course at U of T would allow students to “build bridges where there are currently walls.”

Samakayi agreed, as “sign language helps to bridge the gap between the Deaf community and hearing community.” He added that, as a Deaf student at a hearing university, when other students “know some basic ASL, it makes [him] feel the sense of [belonging] to the University student life.”

Ultimately, introducing a sign language course would put substantive backing behind the university’s promise of accessibility. “It’s not enough to throw the word accessibility onto a button,” said Bowman. “Our university needs to throw their support behind American Sign Language and accessibility as a whole.”

By giving students at all three campuses an opportunity to learn sign language, U of T can provide students with the tools to create a more accessible campus and world. For example, with the introduction of ASL to UTSC, a group of graduates created the organization Hear2Speak to improve accessibility in developing countries, as well as in Canada.

The chances of ASL being introduced at UTSG look promising. In the beginning of October, ASSU met with Dean of Arts and Science David Cameron and the Faculty of Arts & Science administration to introduce the course proposal and receive input. According to Bowman, the feedback from the dean was positive and the administration is now assisting in the process of collecting information.

In the meantime, Samakayi suggests liking the U of T ASL Club on Facebook to learn more about sign language, because “it’s important we keep the culture alive until the University recognizes it as a credit.”

The development of an ASL course proposal is progress in itself. Accessibility remains an issue on campus, but students working together to create meaningful solutions is certainly a good sign.

Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society, and Law student at Woodsworth College. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.