Opinion: Black students aren’t dropping out of schools — they’re being pushed out

Systemic racial inequities at play with educational outcomes

Opinion: Black students aren’t dropping out of schools — they’re being pushed out

“Nobody likes or enjoys oppression; nobody wants to be excluded; nobody wants to be marginalized,” said Dr. George Dei, a U of T scholar at the Department of Social Justice Education, who has been recognized for his pioneering research in anti-racism education and inclusive schooling.

“So when that happens to you, you must know how you feel because everyone knows that. Everybody wants to be acknowledged, validated, legitimized. But also, people want to do that on their own terms — they don’t want somebody else to do it,” he told The Varsity.

Why is it so difficult to have a conversation about race and education? The short answer Dei would tell you is that talking about race inevitably brings up uncomfortable conversations about current and historical oppression and racism.

What is going on in our schools?

2017 report from York University compared the high school and postsecondary statistics for Black students in the GTA with their other racialized and white peers. From 2006–2011, the Toronto District School Board documented that 69 per cent of Black students graduated and 20 per cent of Black students dropped out. In comparison, 84 per cent of white students graduated and 87 per cent of other racialized students graduated.

As for dropout rates, only 11 per cent of white students and nine per cent of racialized students dropped out of high schools. From that same cohort, only 25 per cent of Black students were confirmed in Ontario universities compared to 60 per cent for other racialized students and 47 per cent for white students. Additionally, 43 per cent of Black students did not even apply for postsecondary education — this percentage is almost equal to the number of confirmed Black students for Ontario universities and colleges combined.

Systemic issues at play

Dei argues that the problem here extends much further than what statistical analysis can offer, and requires critical analysis not only of the low postsecondary enrollment numbers, but of the experiences in school. From the Eurocentric texts that we study in schools, which focus on North American or European culture and largely exclude others, to the lack of proportional racial representation in faculty and student bodies, getting into university is only part of the problem — getting through university is a different challenge altogether.

Toronto is home to the only Africentric school in Canada. Named the Africentric Alternative School, this is an elementary school that opened in 2009 that aims to provide Black students with better educational support through customized curricula, representation, and community building efforts. Dei considers the most important takeaway from the Africentric school to be the need to “centre peoples’ culture and history in their learning,” because history doesn’t just happen. People actively make history by taking action, and it took decades of activism and change to get society to where it is today.

What are the consequences?

By overlooking cultural differences, we create an educational environment that inhibits students’ abilities to not only have a voice, but also to make their voice heard. Nobody wants to enter a hostile space that does not value their contributions. Representation matters because students need to know that the people they identify with are part of the educational and decision-making processes. Representation matters because students need to know they belong.

Progress is not made by individuals alone: progress is made by communities. While the importance of recognizing the different struggles that different groups face cannot be stressed enough, you can’t “expect the racialized body to teach you about race,” noted Dei.

As students, our individual successes are bound to the relationships that we have with our peers. Just like how our peers contribute to our success, we help promote theirs as well.

Of course, a person’s education is impacted by many factors, including their support networks, their home situations, their financial limits, and their mental health. Dei noted this by saying that “we are in a better place than we used to be.”

Regardless of the efforts that have been made, we cannot risk complacency. The reality is that there is still much more that must be done to create a welcoming environment for many of our peers. Access remains inequitable. Education is one of the basic pillars of society and no one should be pushed out because of their identity.

How do we move forward? 

Issues surrounding race and education, such as the high dropout rate of Black students in Toronto, are easy to brush under the rug of a ‘colourblind’ system or get shrugged off in everyday conversation because, “well, it’s not my area of expertise,” said Dei.

These excuses are problematic not only because they ignore the inequities that these students face, but also because those that use them negate their responsibility to educate themselves on racial issues. By opting out of these conversations, we become complicit in covering up the racial injustices that dominate our education systems.

The terms we use to discuss race and education also play an integral role in the division of responsibility, when we do engage in these conversations. Terms such as ‘drop out’ frame the issue so that Black students themselves are blamed for their poor educational experiences. Dei prefers using language such as ‘student disengagement’ and ‘push out’ for a more holistic understanding of the problem. Individual students will have different circumstances, but ultimately, there are systemic inequities that cannot be ignored.

The importance of this conversation cannot be reduced to one month out of the year. While there are many academics like Dei researching the issue, it is not enough to rely on these efforts alone to push the movement forward.

When Black History Month ends, it is our duty to ensure that this conversation does not get tucked away until next February. Our education system is both oppressive and exclusive, but we shouldn’t have to wait for someone else to tell us that. As students, we have the opportunity to support our peers and build up the kind of community that is necessary to advocate for progress. Whether it’s through supporting more Africentric schools or educating ourselves, we should all make noise to disrupt the status quo that perpetuates marginalization.

Beverly Teng is a third-year Environmental Science and Philosophy student at University College.

Department of Computer Science creates graduate scholarship in memory of Iranian plane crash victims

Second fund to honour U of T community members lost during the tragedy

Department of Computer Science creates graduate scholarship in memory of Iranian plane crash victims

On January 30, U of T’s Department of Computer Science announced its plan to launch the Beiruti and Saleheh Memorial Fund — an endowed scholarship for international students seeking graduate degrees in computer science. The fund was established to honour the memory of Mohammad Amin Beiruti and Mohammad Saleheh, PhD students in computer science who were killed in the recent crash of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 in Iran. This is the second scholarship that U of T will establish in the name of the crash victims.

The flight’s 176 passengers and crew were killed on January 8 when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard mistook the plane for an enemy aircraft and shot it down, according to Iranian officials. The incident happened amidst heightened tensions between Iran and the US, following the assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani. Eight members of the U of T community — six of whom were students — were among the victims of the crash, part of the 138 passengers connecting to Canada.

The department is asking for donations to help set up the fund, which will be awarded in perpetuity. It will be matching donations up to $50,000 at a one-to-one rate.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of two vibrant members of our computer science community,” said Marsha Chechik, Interim Chair of the Department of Computer Science, in a statement posted to the Faculty of Arts & Science webpage. “By establishing this fund we hope to honour the impact Mohammad Amin Beiruti and Mohammad Saleheh made on the department and support future international graduate students [pursuing] education in computer science.”

On its donations page, the Department of Computer Science also honours Zahra Hassani, who was returning to Toronto to begin graduate studies at U of T. Hassani and Saleheh were married.

Beiruti was described as “an innovator, with a natural ability for deep thinking” in a press release from the department. As a teaching assistant and mentor at U of T, he was committed to supporting undergraduate students. Through his research in theoretical modelling and system analysis and design, Beiruti sought to make meaningful contributions to technology, as he believed “that the more technology improved, the better the world would be.” He had travelled to Iran that winter to spend time with his family following the death of his grandmother.

Saleheh had been an avid programmer since elementary school, where he designed his first video game for a Commodore 64 home computer. He was an instructor at Sharif University and created an online course in Farsi to teach web programming — a course which is still used by thousands each year. He is remembered as “an outstanding scientist and a top-rate engineer,” who made the most out of his short time at U of T by collaborating with Samsung and AT&T, and publishing multiple peer-reviewed papers.

Hassani was a physics graduate from Sharif University who was about to begin her studies at U of T. She was described as “caring, devoted to her friends and family, spiritual, and [having] a unique perspective where she enjoyed life to its fullest.”  Hassani and Saleheh are remembered as a “great couple.”

The Beiruti and Saleheh Memorial Fund is now the second memorial scholarship to be created at U of T in honour of the victims of flight PS752. On January 15, U of T announced that it would establish the Iranian Student Memorial Scholarship Fund, which will provide needs-based scholarships to students from Iran or any student interested in pursuing Iranian studies at U of T.

Vice-President Advancement David Palmer, one of the co-creators of the Iranian Student Memorial Scholarship Fund, said to U of T News that the aim of this scholarship was to “ensure that the names of those we lost will not be forgotten.” He went on to say that “these students and scholars were among the very brightest of their generation. We hope that this scholarship will allow their memory to serve as an inspiration for generations to come.”

A myriad of masks: the weight of U of T’s imposter syndrome

Feeling like a nobody in a big place

A myriad of masks: the weight of U of T’s imposter syndrome

As students at the University of Toronto, we have each earned our place here. With our unique backgrounds, stories, and experiences, we all unite in having had our hard work validated and rewarded with an acceptance letter to the top university in Canada, and one of the top public universities in the world.

So why do so many of us feel alone and out of place here?

Imposter syndrome, the feeling that you’re inadequate and do not belong or deserve to be somewhere, is numbing. It is a phenomenon that plagues our minds and leads us to not only question our abilities and achievements, but our worth. I believe that much of the imposter syndrome felt by students, myself included, stems from the academic environment and standards cultivated and enforced by the university.

Being accepted into this school warrants a certain level of high academic achievement and many of us who were accustomed to such scholastic success during our days in secondary school have experienced a shock when coming here.

Furthermore, this sense of imposter syndrome has been compounded by the general reluctance of students to speak out about their mental health struggles.

I want to help dismantle this stigma however I can, and I believe that this process begins with sharing my own personal and emotional story. After all, my story is one chapter of many.

A personal story of vulnerability

I never for a moment thought that I would experience imposter syndrome, but this assumption was completely shattered during my first semester at U of T in the fall of 2018. That isn’t to say that I didn’t expect the transition into university to be somewhat challenging — I did, but only to a certain degree.

I knew that transitioning from a small town on the west coast to the concrete jungle of Toronto would be like night and day. High school teachers had warned me to expect a somewhat dramatic dip in grades.

What I failed to prepare for, however, was the realization that I was wholly unhappy with the subject I was studying.

Rather than listen to my instincts, which were telling me to change my program, I began to live a lie. I desperately tried to convince myself that I enjoyed the material in life sciences. In reality, I felt suffocated and lost; the idea of following this program and eventual career path made the future look dreary, and this same outlook eventually began to seep into my daily life.

Nonetheless, I continued with the classes, labs, and total unhappiness. Unsurprisingly, my lack of passion for the subject resulted in a complete lack of motivation which led to poor grades. My days became a blur of internal struggle, which continued to build with the pressure that I felt to stay in my program and make my family happy. I felt so out of place, and yet had to continue to put on an elaborate performance.

It didn’t help that I lived in a Living Learning Community in residence during my first year which was focused on the program that I had grown to despise. I remember after every big test, everyone would huddle together in the common room or in the hallways and compare how they thought they did, and the process would repeat once grades actually became available. I feared the shame I would feel if my peers in residence found out how poorly I was doing in school.

At the time, I thought that I didn’t deserve to be at U of T. I felt like a failure. I felt like I had left my family back home and came all the way to Toronto just to hate my program and destroy my GPA. Looking back, I realize that this imposter syndrome was so intense not because I didn’t belong at U of T, but because I didn’t belong in that specific program.

At the time, I thought my failures stemmed from stupidity.

I have been no stranger to trauma and adversity in my life, but I can honestly say that my first semester at U of T was the closest I have ever felt to depression. In the past, I would find comfort and healing by centring my sense of self around my accomplishments, both academic and extracurricular. However, at the time I found myself in a place where that coping mechanism was no longer possible.

How could I possibly find healing from reflecting on my accomplishments when suddenly there were none to celebrate? I went from being independent and excited to start leading my own life, to desperately missing my family and any remnants of a time before university.

I began isolating myself from those around me and overthinking what I mistakenly perceived as their secret judgements. I had no motivation to even attend class, as simply looking at the program content was enough to stir my anxiety. Despite being a big advocate for mental health, I didn’t pursue any help for myself. I was too ashamed to turn to peers, too embarrassed to approach residence and campus resources, and too scared to confide in my parents. I smiled, made jokes, and tried to repress the distaste for myself and my situation that was slowly brewing within.

I felt that I was not worthy of calling myself a student at this university. Pair that with my high school friends’ accomplishments in their academic careers at smaller universities and I felt like a shadow to their success. Suddenly, the friends I learned and grew alongside were leaving me in the dust and there was nothing I could do about it — or so I thought.

It took a lot of internal deliberation, but I finally realized that I needed to break free from the imposter syndrome that was slowly consuming my happiness and sense of self. I dropped all of the classes I was lined up to take in second semester and replaced them with classes that actually sounded appealing and interesting to me.

For the first time, I listened to myself and it made all the difference.

I’m now studying geography and planning, with a specialist in human geography and double minors in urban studies and geographic information systems. While the jump to a completely different subject area was admittedly terrifying, I finally began to look forward to class again. I had a renewed sense of hope and felt I had made the first major step toward inner-peace and self-satisfaction.

It has been exactly one year since I made the switch and I have absolutely no regrets. I’ve had the opportunity of making so many wonderful, strong connections with peers, professors, and even myself as a result of being true to who I am and following the path of study that I was meant to be in. I stopped being governed by the fearful voice in my head and instead began listening to the hopefulness in my heart. For this, my life has truly changed.

The internal transformation I’ve experienced has allowed me to increase my capacity for involvement in extracurriculars, and it has helped me find a healthy work-life balance. In fact, I’ve managed to find success in both school and my personal life while managing two jobs, extracurricular projects, and on-and-off-campus leadership positions — and I know others can too.

We’re in this together

A number of students shared their experiences with imposter syndrome on the condition of some form of anonymity. Varun, a second-year student studying computer science, wanted only his first name to be published. Sara, a second-year student studying social sciences, requested an alias be used.

“I just don’t feel comfortable, partly because of imposter syndrome,” Sara wrote to me. “I’ve made myself to be a completely different person in real life and when that’s published with my name [I] don’t have the mental strength to talk about it in person.”

Varun spoke about how his sense of imposter syndrome has begun to invade his life. “I first began to feel imposter syndrome when I started to hear all about the stress and difficulty of U of T computer science. I continuously doubted myself and second guessed every single thing I did because I thought that I clearly didn’t belong in a place as challenging as this university,” he said.

The rigid structure at U of T sometimes felt unforgiving to Sara as well. In terms of personal growth, she felt mired and lost in the large campus — especially when coming from a small high school.

“It felt suffocating, [to be honest.] A constant identity crisis,” she wrote. “No one prepares you for this. There’s already traditions and… expectations in place and on top of trying to figure yourself out and what you want [out of university and your degree,] you also [somehow] have to figure out how you fit in a school that already has identities.”

“[The imposter syndrome] would often really consume my thoughts and I’d barely be able to concentrate, which would make me stop paying attention in class, which only caused more problems,” Varun said.

Counteracting imposter syndrome is no easy feat. However, there are small steps that we can all take — steps that I have taken too — to show ourselves our own sense of self-worth.

Other than being in a program I enjoy, I’ve found that being involved either on or off campus in some capacity has helped me. By contributing to an initiative or community group with goals bigger than just your own, it is easier for you to develop more confidence through a sense of purpose. I believe that a stronger sense of self is absolutely vital for countering imposter syndrome, because the syndrome itself is rooted in feelings of inadequacy. By building self-confidence through means unrelated to academic achievement, resiliency is fostered in a way that can lessen the impact of unexpected personal struggles.

Becoming involved in extracurricular activities has led me to become closer friends with many former acquaintances. Building your personal network on campus is a great way to feel like you have a place amongst your peers and you really belong here.

However, I understand that finding like-minded people, building a friendship, and actually maintaining that bond can be quite difficult on a campus as big as ours, and it can be especially challenging for commuter students, who make up a significant portion of our student population.

“[Imposter syndrome] is built into our culture as U of T students at this point, and the university always has a role to play in making a campus culture that is nurturing, proactive, and supportive,” Varun said. “Work has definitely been done, and there are multiple support networks, but there’s still no feeling of community on campus; all there is is competition, and that needs to be worked on.”

That’s why getting involved in groups that meet regularly — especially those on campus — can be a great opportunity for creating those connections and forming those bonds. It’s about planting our own roots in this seemingly vast and impenetrable institution.

“As weird as it sounds, the only thing that got me out of imposter syndrome was owning it,” Varun said. “I owned the fact that I didn’t feel good enough, and I used that as motivation to work as hard as I possibly could. I can quite confidently say that now I feel like I truly belong here, and that I try [to help] my friends feel the same way too.”

Alternatively, you can also find ways to build confidence by pursuing professional opportunities — whether that’s by finding employment, connecting with a mentor in your desired industry, or attending events and conferences on campus and in the city more generally. It can be so easy to get caught up in academics and student life without realizing that there is a whole other aspect to life.

“[Imposter syndrome is] definitely something [I’m] still dealing with, but what helped me was not letting it consume me,” Sara wrote. “That sounds easy but it really [wasn’t;] it took at least a year. I finally slowly put myself out there… [and] joined events such as Frosh to see if there were other people who shared my views and had similar interests. And to my surprise, there were.”

I know so many people, especially those in programs such as computer science or engineering, who become completely engulfed in their degrees to the point where it becomes unhealthy and mentally damaging. Many students feel as though their time at U of T is “all or nothing,” and that these years will either make or break their futures.

But that’s not the case. Although you’ve definitely heard this before, let me just say it one more time so you can remember: failures are an unavoidable part of life. Life goes on. And in the end, we will all be okay.

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.

Opinion: Laptop bans ignore the reality of choice in the modern age

Universities are places of great autonomy — laptop bans simply do not work

Opinion: Laptop bans ignore the reality of choice in the modern age

In September 2016, two U of T political science professors, Ryan Balot and Clifford Orwin, jointly introduced a laptop ban into their classrooms — and announced it to the world through an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail. This ban would see course lectures and discussion sections under their instruction rid themselves of electronic device usage.

The ban, and more particularly its accompanying piece, generated fervent discussion. In a Varsity survey just weeks after the implementation of the ban, students generally disapproved of the policy. While course instructors are still able to implement these policies or similar ones in their classrooms at their own discretion, the professors have since eased the strictness of such policies.

A particular point of students’ criticism was aimed at its unintentional effect on students with disabilities, who have accessibility needs. An exemption from the ban for such students was agreed upon by the professors authoring the opinion piece, but nevertheless, this exemption would nevertheless inadvertently publicize students’ disabilities to classmates. Though not a restriction, the Accessibility Services webpage now reads, “[laptop bans are] discouraged because it reveals a student’s disability to the rest of the class.”

In 2017, a study conducted across the US found that only four per cent of students do not have access to either a laptop or desktop computer, and a significant proportion of that minority owns a portable tablet or smartphone.

By proportion alone, it is amiss to enforce electronic-free spaces for larger classes — it is a practice that is suited only to very small and specialized seminars.

Plenty of studies cement the possibility that note-taking on laptops as opposed to by hand can lower a student’s performance. Though the study does not make an explicit conclusion, it instead attributes the drop in results to multitasking on a device — that is, getting distracted by things like your Facebook feed. A significant portion of other studies produce similar claims in which laptop usage, one way or another, detracts from your learning quality.

The impact of these studies, however, has declined over the years, as the number of students that are being educated and formally trained under official curricula that recommend — or mandate, as mine did — the use of computer technologies over physical and paper materials is growing. Learning to use a word processor in place of a ballpoint pen was part of my first information and communications technology lesson — 14 years ago when computers still took floppy disks and shared the same ugly shade of beige as the classroom walls.

And as much as marks can count for everything, it is a genuinely hard ask to produce an entire semester of notes — that I will have to deign to rewrite and bind together to read in one go — in a notebook, as opposed to a MacBook when folders and scroll functions exist.

Now, some points against the ban are intuitive, and the most prominent one I’ve seen is that laptops and screen devices can be distracting to a student’s learning in the same manner that second-hand smoke sucks for passers-by. That is, that they not only affect the student taking the notes, but the environment as a whole.

I’m inclined to believe it because you really can’t disagree. When possible, my note-taking is sparse and I tend to just listen, but I’ll always locate myself at the back of the class if I do have my laptop out. Should my screen light up, and colours flash as I switch tabs with a barely conscious swipe on my trackpad, that’s only a glance and five seconds to regain focus for the eagle-eyed student behind me.

At the end of the day, universities can be freeing. It’s in your hands whether or not you want to climb out of bed and go to class in the morning. Professors should not have to cater their classes to make sure everyone’s got two thumbs up, but they should not be giving anyone more reasons to choose not to come.

Laptop bans are based on meaningful data and good principles, but they simply run afoul of the unspoken rule of university life — that class isn’t mandatory if the student says it isn’t.

You accept the syllabus as it stands on the first week of class and it’s on you if you can’t meet deadlines. But you cannot seriously be expected to conform to a laptop ban — not when a subject is dedicated in formalized curricula to learning how to use one, as mine was, and not when it’s stressed to you as a career skill. Not if you’re working shifts in-between classes and can’t afford any more time to redress your notes, and not if your laptop goes where you go more than your notebook does.

I do feel for the professors who want these policies in their classes, because I understand the principle behind it. But at the end of the day, you are teaching to people who have the capacity to choose for themselves. Don’t give them another reason not to pick your class.

Andre Fajardo is a fourth-year Political Science and Philosophy student at Innis College.

Editor’s Note (February 5, 4:38): This article has been changed to correct Ryan Balot’s first name.

A guide to picking the right life science program for you

Global Society for Genetics and Genome Biology holds event to help first-year students decide on field

A guide to picking the right life science program for you

As second semester rolls in and spring approaches, many first-year life sciences students are starting to consider which program of study they will pursue next year. This is often a time of stress and confusion for students who may not know exactly what they want to study, or even how to start their search.

Fortunately, some University of Toronto student groups are offering their time and wisdom to help first years navigate the multiple programs offered in the life sciences.

The Global Society for Genetics and Genome Biology (GSGGB) hosted a “How to choose a life science [program of study]” event at New College on January 13. Members of the GSGGB offered their guidance and support to keen first-year students — representing the programs of molecular genetics and microbiology, fundamental genetics, bioinformatics and computational biology, ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB), and more.

Students had the opportunity to discuss programs, enrollment requirements, and even research opportunities with the upper-year students, who were eager to share their experiences in their respective programs.

What’s the difference between type 1, 2, and 3 programs?

The Faculty of Arts & Science offers 21 specialist programs, 20 majors, and six minors in the life sciences. Most specialist programs, alongside some majors, such as molecular genetics and microbiology, are known for their competitiveness. These are type 3 programs, which have limited spots available, require minimum grades in certain prerequisite first-year courses, and supplemental information — such as a personal statement or audition.

Type 2 programs also require minimum grades in prerequisite courses, but typically have more available spots and lower grade requirements. The neuroscience major is an example one popular type 2 program.

However, many students don’t realize that a lot of life science majors and minors are type 1 programs, which do not require any specific courses or grades for enrollment. Common type 1 majors include as global health, EEB, and fundamental genetics, in addition to some lesser-known majors such as animal physiology, or environment and health. As long as a student is on course to obtaining four full-course equivalents by the end of this school year, they will be admitted to any type 1 program.

Where can students learn more about programs of study?

To learn more about programs of study, first-year students are encouraged to visit the program toolkit section of Sidney Smith Commons’ website. There, they will find a comprehensive list of all programs offered by the Faculty of Arts & Science, how to apply to each, and important dates. This year, enrollment begins on March 1.

Students should also consider meeting with their college’s academic advisors, who can provide guidance regarding program enrollment and degree planning.

Student groups like the GSGGB are also a useful resource for first-year students, who may at times be daunted by the prospect of approaching professors or older students for advice.

Events like “How to choose a life science [program of study]” provide students with the opportunity to chat in a casual, stress-free environment, while receiving advice from people who were once in their same position.

GSGGB Affairs Leader Aisha Faruqui wrote to The Varsity that “there are plenty of life sci clubs like GSGGB that would love to help out” puzzled first-year students, and that students should feel free to reach out.

“We’ve all had moments in undergrad where we have felt lost or uncertain about our future,” she noted, so students should never feel alone in their experiences.

U of T offers its students plenty of resources when it comes to academic planning and discovery. Students will have many opportunities to explore interesting fields in the life sciences and to shape their career paths.

Faruqui reflected, “Don’t stress out about choosing your program, and don’t worry about not getting into your desired program after first year!”

You can make it work out in the end.