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What it means to be Out at School

U of T professor turns research project into play for Pride Month

What it means to be <i>Out at School</i>

The Nexus Lounge, located on the 12th floor of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) building, is intimate in size but offers breathtaking views of downtown Toronto. The room is encircled by large glass windows, which allow the sun to linger over the stage set in the middle of the space. In this setting, the stage itself feels closed off from the outside world, yet simultaneously above it.

At the Lounge, I recently viewed U of T Professor Tara Goldstein’s latest “performed ethnography,” titled Out at School and put on as part of Toronto Pride celebrations. According to promotional materials, Out at School is “a verbatim theatre piece based on interviews with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) families about their experiences in Ontario elementary and secondary schools.” 

The play took place on a hot Saturday evening in June, in the middle of Pride Month, and highlighted the narratives of 37 families interviewed by Goldstein’s team. This research project took the experiences of these families and wove them together into dramatized production, resulting in a story of hope.

When I first entered, the room was humming with the noise of multiple conversations amongst the various families, friends, and peers who had just finished watching the afternoon performance of the show. I was immediately struck by a feeling of familiarity and welcomeness ⁠— it felt as though I had stepped into a family gathering. Professor Goldstein and her partner tended to a table of refreshments and chatted with attendees, and I was immediately greeted with hugs and multiple offers to grab a snack. 

Following the show, I inevitably realized that this was exactly how Out at School is supposed to make you feel: as though you belong. And although I did not know many of the people in the room, I noticed that the audience was largely composed of large groups of families and friends of the performers, which made the show all the more intimate. 

Goldstein and her team successfully built a safe and positive space for all, regardless of background, and invited the audience to simply listen to what her research had to say. What really fascinated me was how this play was a product of the intersection between scholarship and creativity: a product of Goldstein’s own academic pursuits but expressed in a way that is easily digestible by anybody. As simply put in the program for the play, this was “where theatre meets research.”

This was an intentional and tactful choice. As Goldstein told me, the play “is what we call a verbatim play because we only use the words [from] the interviews [with LGBTQ+ families].” They, of course, edit and thematize the interviews in the process of adding music and images. Nevertheless, she explained that “Every single one of those words [was] spoken by one of our families.”

In highlighting the voices of real Ontario students and families, this play offered a refreshing addition to Toronto Pride ⁠— one made all the more political in light of Doug Ford’s cutbacks to the Ontario education budget and changes to the sex education curriculum.  

When they introduced the play, the directors explained that it was a “relaxed performance.” This was an apt description. It felt like listening to a friend talk rather than a staged event: there were no microphones, and the stage was empty, save for chairs arranged in a semicircle and a slide show behind the cast that displayed original artwork for each scene. This also made each scene feel like a support group.

Performers sharing their stories on stage. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIAR WELLS

I was fond of this idea because it reflected how personal the stories in the play really were, and emphasized that verbatim accounts were being used. Furthermore, the use of direct quotes from the interviews conducted in Goldstein’s research project powerfully conveyed the honesty and personality in the stories shared onstage. 

Out at School highlights the shortcomings of the Ontario education system in supporting LGBTQ+ students and families in a meaningful way. In an interview after the show, Goldstein explained how her research particularly reflects this. “We heard a lot of parents talk about making strategic decisions of when to come out or not,” she told me. “To be out means you can talk very directly with the school system about how to support your family. On the other hand, if you think you’re going to be rejected you may choose not to come out.” 

This means that the choice to come or not depends heavily on the school culture, which in turn is fostered by the educators and the curriculum they teach. For example, Goldstein explained, “We’ve had some students talk about how during elementary school everybody knew they came from a family with two mums, but when they changed to high school they would wait and see if there was a social cue that made it safe for them to talk about their family.” 

The stories I had the opportunity to hear were not just about hardship and pain, but resilience and advocacy. Although this kind of advocacy might work in small ways, the minute changes made can come together to make a real difference in the lives of many in the community. This is the message that Goldstein not only tries to convey in her writing, but also incorporates in her own way of teaching here at U of T. 

As she told me, “When you’re working with teachers, if you do this work with one teacher, you could have an impact, if they’re in elementary school, on 30 [students] and families, and if they are a secondary school teacher you could have an impact on 150 to 200 students and family lives.” She explained that although schools constitute the locus of her activism, she also wants “the issues to be talked about outside of schools and [her] own classroom.”

After all, she told me, that desire to reach a wider community informed their decision to stage the research project as a play, and is why they are considering putting the play on in Ontario schools. 

This demonstrates how the changes Goldstein and other LGBTQ+ advocates hope to see must begin with smaller, localized communities. Furthermore, safe spaces need to be a reflection of the population around us. From there, larger-scale reforms can be staged to make schools more comfortable places for everyone.

This is the kind of change Goldstein witnessed while teaching at U of T. When asked about the connections between the play and the university, she recalled the multiple progressive changes that have taken place at U of T in recent years. “I have watched the growth of the sexual diversity program at the U of T from the very beginning,” she told me.

“As the program grew and students started to join [it], they were the ones who advocated for more resources.” She smiled. “A number of people here today are looking out the windows of OISE, and noticed the Pride flag and the trans flag flying at Varsity Stadium; that meant a lot to people because they hadn’t realized U of T would celebrate Pride in that way ⁠— big and proud.”

“Big and proud” is the message of hope echoed at the very end of the play. Movingly, each member of the production stood up and said what they hope to see change in the future. A desire for change has been expressed in many different ways during the past few months, given the actions of the Ford government. With budget cuts that threaten the current education system, Goldstein highlighted the 2012 Accepting Schools Act as something more hopeful.

As she explained, “Despite Doug Ford’s ideas about curriculum, we still have the 2012 [Accepting] Schools Act, which requires all schools and all teachers to keep all kids safe.” Goldstein paused, then continued. “If that’s going to happen, we have to talk about LGBTQ+ lives.”

Disclosure: Hemrajani is a St. Michael’s College Director for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). 

Editor’s Note (July 30, 1:00 pm): This article has been updated to disclose the author’s affiliation with the UTSU. 

A different age

The stories and experiences of mature U of T students

A different age

It took me a while to decide to go back to university for a second degree. It wasn’t the exams or the countless hours of studying that made me hesitate. The financial cost, of course, had to be weighed in and managed, but what really made me nervous was wondering how I would feel about being an older student among mostly 20-year-olds.

After speaking to a few other mature students, whose ages ranged from the mid 30s to the early 70s, I realized that worrying about how to fit in among much younger peers is a common concern. But all the students I spoke with had come to terms with it, and were all happy that they decided to come back to school.

Mohsina, an undergraduate student in English and Film at UTSC, had one year of university-level education from Dubai when she came to Canada. Because of the difference in the education systems, she had to spend a year completing her high school education before her academic credits from abroad could be transferred. She says that she was initially hesitant about going back to school it wasn’t until her mom came to Canada, seven years after Mohsina, that she actually took the step.

“My mom came here in… 2012 and she was like ‘why don’t you finish your studies?… Come on, at least try.’”

Mohsina went to an adult high school and discovered that there were “so many students like me… I didn’t feel odd over there… But then when [my mom] started pushing me for university, I was like, that’s a whole different game… [but] then I realized it’s not that bad.”

Still, it took her a while to get used to university life. When she realized that some of her professors were around her age, Mohsina started to have doubts. She recalls asking herself, “they’re already done, what am I doing?”

This affected her studies because it made her “hesitant to study properly the first semester, and [she] wasn’t getting good grades.” She often felt like she didn’t belong, like she was behind. But in her second semester she started going to office hours. There Mohsina met a professor who boosted her confidence. “She told me there were professors here who started teaching in their 50s… and I think because of her I gained my confidence back.”

Another English student, Marlene, has taken classes since she retired seven years ago. “I am amazed by the brilliance of the young students in my midst,” she says. “They are always welcoming. It is especially comforting when group assignments are required… they always manage to include me.”

Mature student Marlene Colmer. PHOTO COURTESY OF MARLENE COLMER.

She recalls one course where a group assignment was an essential part. “I was concerned about being accepted into a group. After all I am 50 years older than many of the students.” She was relieved to discover how welcoming the other students were; she was able to make friends among the younger students. She especially noted a 19-year-old student who was so excited to have befriended Marlene that she called her boyfriend abroad to tell him she had a new friend who was 70 years old.  

Nancy, a student who is double majoring in Music & Culture and English, said that she enjoys being an older student. Speaking on starting university, she says that “I owned it, I let everybody know how old I was. But I also acted… like we were on the same level.”

She says that the key for her has been that she always “saw them as equals, but I owned my age so at times I would step back. If I was concerned about one of my younger classmates, or if I thought I could say something about my life experience that would help them, then I’d bring that in.”

She noticed that this is an attitude that many of her younger peer students seemed to appreciate. “Some of the young people, they’re the ones who come to me, they want my friendship, right? And I value that.”

Mature student Nancy Dutra. PHOTO COURTESY OF NANCY DUTRA.

She thinks that a reason for this trend is that she takes note of students’ strengths and “[makes] a point of telling them, so when they need help either with an assignment or something in life, they come to me for advice, but then we can also joke… so in that moment, I’m the older person who’s like a mom or an aunt figure to them but at the same time I’m just like their friend.”

English professor Daniel Scott Tysdal has his own experience of being a mature student. He used the first three months of a sabbatical to complete an intensive master’s program in film at Ryerson University.

“I was super shy about it,” he says. “Among colleagues, among friends, among family. I just thought I have a career and I have a life and I have this path and it just seemed… people would think I was silly.”

Mature student and Professor Scott Tysdal. PHOTO COURTESY OF SCOTT TYSDAL.

Then when he did tell his friends and family, he found that most were supportive. Even at the department, his colleagues thought that it could be a great development also for the program that he teaches.

Still, coming to Ryerson, he felt self-conscious. “I was shyer than I was expecting to be, and I was much more self-conscious than I was expecting to be. Just that way when you imagine someone is looking at you and really no one even noticed that you’re there.”

Sometimes he would also feel self-conscious about his comfort levels when using certain technology, compared to some of his younger peers. “The instructor is showing it up on his screen and everyone’s moving along… and he’s a good teacher because he’s teaching at the level that really the most people in the class were at, but [I’m] still trying to find my files, right?”

But then he asked his classmates for help. One particular peer student ”basically just abandoned his assignment and sat with me and then… coached me along and helped me with that and it was really good because then he gave me more confidence.”

When I asked professor Tysdal why he wanted to do this program, he says “I always loved movies and writing movies, and then in grade eight graduation I got a video camera so I started making videos… I thought I was going to make… great horror movies, that was my dream.”

As an undergrad, he struggled with mental health problems and wasn’t able to pursue a major in film, but ended up focusing on poetry.

“It was always in the back of my head… I would still love to try something to do with film. I felt like, what am I going to regret when I’m… 70 or 80, what will be that thing that I’m [thinking] I wish I had done.”

For Nancy, it was a bit different. “I always knew what I wanted to do, but none of the majors fit exactly, and so I ended up working and I enjoyed the things I was doing. But then when I had my first child, I found that I couldn’t continue performing music, that’s what I had done for a number of years, because it meant late nights and then early mornings with my child, and I just couldn’t do it… So what I did was I started looking into programs.”

Marlene, on the other hand, has mainly focused her life on family and a career as a teacher, but discovered she wanted to continue educating herself. She initially started taking evening classes to improve her teaching skills.

“Then in the 80s I met a former high school friend who was taking university courses and she encouraged me to take night courses with her.” Eventually, Marlene had to give up the night courses because of other commitments.

Things changed, though, when she retired from work. “I have had the honour of having the love and support of a wonderful husband and remarkable mother-in-law all through my career. Before my mother-in-law died at age 96, I promised her that when I retired I would return to university. I retired in June 2012 at age 65, and I returned to the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto in September 2012.”

When asked what she likes best about studying, Nancy says “just having the opportunity to listen to music, to explore music, to talk about music… It was hard in the beginning because I had been out of school for so long. But I worked hard and eventually with time it just became part of my new life.”

“I’m surprised by how much I love speaking with my professors. I thought I would be intimidated, but I’m not.”

In her first year, Nancy didn’t speak much with the professors. “I really was just acclimatizing to the student experience. But in my second year I started to ask questions even in the larger classes. It really was just about the work so once I got over that initial… culture shock of being in school… if I wanted to learn something I just put up my hand and asked the question.”

She also found that the other students around her were helpful. “Especially in my first year, I would just ask the young people around me how things worked. I didn’t even know how basic things worked in the school… so I really just asked people. I said ‘sorry, this might be an embarrassing question, but how does ‘x’ work?’”

After her undergraduate degree, Nancy plans to continue on to grad school. “I like it so much. I don’t want to stop the conversations with the professors. I’m learning and, yeah, I’m a nerd.”

Mohsina also plans to go on to grad school. Mohsina advises any prospective mature students to “definitely… go for it. It doesn’t matter if you’re old or not.”

Professor Tysdal reasons similarly. “I don’t think you’re going to regret it… For me, I don’t think I could have regretted it because it worked a way I couldn’t even have dreamed it would, it was perfect. I now teach things I learned there and I make things I learned there. But the other thing that could have happened is I could have done it and [discovered] this is not for me… But at least then I would have known that… Otherwise you can just go on wondering and then suddenly maybe it’s too late. I would say definitely, I don’t think you can regret it.”

Summarizing her university experience, Marlene says, “I love learning. I love meeting and encouraging students. I love the fact that I am old enough to be the mother of any of the professors I have met.” She adds, “People my age ask me what my goals are. These courses are too late to add to a pay scale and I don’t care about a certificate. I do care about challenging myself and continuing to learn as long as I am able.”

In Photos: The Rally for Education

Thousands converged on Queen's Park to protest cuts to education

In Photos: The Rally for Education

“We have a fight on our hands”

Two teachers on what the Rally for Education meant

“We have a fight on our hands”

On April 6, thousands of people crowded the lawns of Queen’s Park. Union flags swung above the crowd while kids dodged through protesters’ legs, dragging cardboard signs behind them.

Jointly organized by five Ontario teachers’ unions, the Rally for Education was held to protest the Ford government’s proposed cuts to education funding. Teachers, students, and concerned citizens shook signs and fists at the Ontario Legislative Building, which loomed over those gathered in its shadow.

Under the government’s new plan, 3,475 full-time teaching positions would disappear, with 1,558 positions this coming school year alone. Doug Ford further plans to increase the average class sizes of both elementary and high schools, as well as introduce mandatory online classes for secondary students. The government also proposed sweeping changes to funding for students with autism, which would drastically reduce their overall support.

Teachers, already underpaid and overworked, are infuriated. But not out of concern for their jobs or their workloads. Overwhelmingly, they’re worried about their students and what these cuts will mean for their quality of education.

To get a better sense of what this means, I asked two Ottawa-based middle school teachers: Lori-Ann Zylstra and Cindy May, who’ve both worked in education for over two decades.

Cindy is my mom, and Lori-Ann is her sister, my aunt. They’re both represented by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and teach in rural schools outside of Ottawa. They woke up at 4:30 am to catch the bus to Toronto for the rally and went back that same afternoon.

Lori-Ann, Cindy, and the author

“I went to the protest today because I felt it was really important to stand and be counted,” Lori-Ann told me. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding among the general public simply because they’re not teachers. When people hear 28 kids as a class size, for example, they don’t realize that that’s an average.”

Cindy nodded. “I have huge concerns about the impact of the cuts on the classroom. And what it’s actually going to mean, face to face, day to day with the students,” she added.

Classes are already dangerously large, they explained, and increasing them further will have significant negative effects on students. On rare occasions when a number of students are not in class, Cindy told me, “students who are remaining will almost always say, ‘Wow, this is so nice, we have so much time to talk about things and do things.’”

They’re also concerned about the impact the funding cuts will have on students with autism. “Doug Ford presents it like some new thing that there will be students with autism in the classroom,” Lori-Ann said, but “it is already common for me to have one or more students who are on the autism spectrum in my class.”

 She’s received no special training in how to better teach children with unique needs, but there is usually extra funding to provide specialized support. But “what [Ford] is going to do is take it all away and fund them with the same amount as a kid who isn’t on the spectrum,” she explained. This will transfer sole responsibility of their care to already-overburdened teachers.

While Lori-Ann told me that she wouldn’t mind taking on those responsibilities, she explained that “the problem is that it is already challenging to adequately service the the academic and social and emotional needs in my classroom.”

“The government claims… cuts are about fiscal responsibility,” Cindy continued. “If this is what all these changes and cuts are supposed to be about, then let’s get to the real meaning of that. Let’s address the mental health needs of our students, the social determinants of their health, development needs and so on. What are we doing now to address those?” She shook her head.

Both Cindy and Lori-Ann were also deeply concerned about what mandatory online courses for high school students might mean. “Unless you are a student who is very self-directed with lots of initiative, you aren’t going to succeed in online-only courses,” Lori-Ann explained. Furthermore, “the strong possibility is that there’s going to be private companies administering these courses,” which would effectively “move us toward the two-tier educational system,” she said.

A two-tier educational system would look something like this: children from wealthy families would be sent to high quality private schools, whereas children from poorer families would be effectively ghettoized into lower quality public schools. “And I think this is just Doug Ford’s first step into privatizing education. He’s trying to Americanize it.” Lori-Ann warned. “And we see where that’s gotten the Americans,” Cindy added.

If this worries you, take action. Cindy and Lori-Ann both hoped everyday people would engage critically with the government’s rhetoric and “just ask teachers questions, ask [them] what [they’re] so upset about.” Members of the public are also welcome to join teachers in the #RedForEd campaign, wherein supporters wear red shirts every Friday in solidarity with teachers and education workers. But most importantly, show up! “Anytime that there’s any sort of rally or protest, everyone is welcome,” Lori-Ann smiled.

“This was just the first step, I’m certain, in a series of movements and initiatives that teachers are going to take,” she said.

“In my 25 years of teaching, I’ve never seen anything like [these cuts],” Cindy said. “We have a fight on our hands. And as teachers we need to be prepared to step up and fight for our students education.” We all do.

Thousands protest Ford’s proposed education cuts at Queen’s Park

Massive crowd voiced anger over class sizes, dismantling autism program

Thousands protest Ford’s proposed education cuts at Queen’s Park

Thousands of teachers, students, and parents from all over Ontario gathered at Queen’s Park on April 6 to protest against proposed changes to education by the provincial government, with many coming from as far as Sudbury and Thunder Bay in more than 150 buses.

The rally was organized by five different teachers’ unions: the Elementary Teachers’ Federation Ontario, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario.

Premier Doug Ford’s decisions to increase average high school class sizes from 22 to 28, introduce mandatory online courses for students to obtain a secondary-school diploma, and cut at least 3,475 teaching jobs across the province were among the issues protested.

These cuts could lead to class sizes of up to 40 students, the cancellation of various electives, and dismantling effects for the Ontario autism program.

The protesters packed the streets with banners at 12:00 pm, chanting “Shut it down!”, “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts,” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Doug Ford’s gotta go!”

Ontario New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath spoke at the rally, condemning Ford and the education cuts.

“We have an education system that is really hanging by the thread, and we have a premier who is about to cut that thread,” Horwath said. “We are here to say no.”

Annalisa Crudo-Perri, President of the Ontario Association for Parents in Catholic Education Toronto also took to the stage. “Education is an investment in our child’s futures,” Crudo-Perri said.

“It must not become a deficit reduction exercise that will compromise their opportunity to seek higher postsecondary education.”

OSSTF President Harvey Bischof also spoke at the rally, saying, “Our message is simple: our education system needs investment, not cuts.”

He also believes that the Ford government is “starving the system” to allow for the privatization of the education system.

Other speakers at the event included AEFO Ontario President Rémi Sabourin, Ontario School Board Council of Unions President Laura Walton, CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn, Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff; and Ontario Federation Labour President Chris Buckley.

“The premier, of course, will continue to threaten us and intimidate us, tell his lies, we will take none of it,” Yussuff exclaimed to the crowd.

Minister of Education Lisa Thompson echoed a previous comment from Ford, who called teachers’ unions “thugs,” and said in a statement the day before the rally that unions have not been focused on student success, adding that the government would not be “distracted by union tactics.”


Equitable education starts from the bottom

Combatting the weight of inaccessibility in our public school system

Equitable education starts from the bottom

Following Premier Doug Ford’s recent announcements of changes to the tuition, funding, and student fees frameworks for domestic postsecondary students, there has been considerable concern raised about the reduced accessibility of universities and colleges.

The discussion about equitable education, however, must start from the bottom. Namely, whether all students in the public school system even have access to decent education, prior to attending university or college, in the first place. This is a significant question with which educators continue to grapple today.

The socioeconomic factor

Consider that students from a low socioeconomic area are more likely to attend the schools within their neighbourhood, as opposed to a higher socioeconomic area, which have more funding available to them. Whereas schools in the former area are not able to raise the funds they need to cover all resources necessary for students’ learning, schools in the latter area are able to hold fundraisers to support requests that are not met by the government.

Ultimately, funding affects performance. Globe and Mail reporters Caroline Alphonso and Tavia Grant examined the results of Education Quality and Accountability Office scores and confirmed a correlation between test scores and the location of students’ schools. They found that low-income students are more likely to fail standardized reading, writing, and math tests because their schools are unable to provide the necessary programs to support students, and students are less likely to have support at home due to their parents’ low socioeconomic status.

In Ontario, the Learning Opportunities Grant (LOG) was introduced in 1998 to support schools with high proportions of low-income students by funding intervention and guidance programs, withdrawals for individual support, and parental and community engagement programs. However, over the years, funding has declined.

Initially, 100 per cent of the funding from the LOG was allocated to school boards according to the percentage of at-risk students from low socioeconomic areas. But by 2018, the proportion had decreased to 47 per cent.

People for Education, an independent, non-partisan Canadian organization created to support and revolutionize public education, recommends that the Ontario government develop a new Equity in Education Grant. The grant would support programs in schools to help mitigate socioeconomic factors affecting students’ learning.

The long-term concern is that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds who are not supported by the system are less likely to attend postsecondary institutions. As a recent report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario on gaps in postsecondary education participation concluded, close to 45 per cent of Canadian-born students living in lower-income neighbourhoods do not pursue postsecondary education.

The percentage is lower among students from high-income neighbourhoods. Evidently, this gap must be closed if students of all income backgrounds are to have equal opportunities in our education system.

The minority experience

Education materials used in classrooms to support students’ learning does not adequately reflect the backgrounds and experiences of all students, given Canada’s image as a multicultural society. For example, science textbooks used by students generally display images of European people to illustrate human anatomy, and reading often provides context and ideas. Students from minority backgrounds do not see themselves in the material they learn. Textbooks also often present a stereotypical and incorrect understanding of ethnic minorities and Indigenous peoples.

To address this, educators should draw from a pool of knowledge that reflects the diverse range of cultures that are present in our society. For example, they could discuss knowledge and perspectives from Indigenous peoples regarding science and medicine.

Educators can also bring in experts from various cultures to help students grasp a globally-informed worldview. For instance, when learning about Eid or Rosh Hashanah, people from related cultures can be brought into the classroom to introduce authentic sources of knowledge.

Ultimately, educators should aim to challenge the biases and stereotypes present in curricula through discussion and critical thinking — not perpetuate them. Many of these issues of representation continue in postsecondary education, where minority students do not relate to presentations of knowledge in their classrooms. For instance, images of bodies in North American medical textbooks tend to underrepresent skin tones.

Performance over learning

Barriers do not only exist in the form of class or race. Too often, outcomes in the form of test scores are considered more important than the actual process of understanding key concepts. Due to the wide range of learning styles and abilities present in a classroom, teachers must be able to support all students as holistically as possible.

A proven teaching strategy is to use inquiry-based learning, which revolves around student observations. This includes solving problems or finding answers to questions through open-ended investigations. It is important to have lessons based on inquiry and to focus on processes that nurture students’ critical thinking and reasoning skills.

U of T should take leadership

If we are to accept that Canada is a multicultural society, equity is not a matter of just recognizing the diverse backgrounds and abilities of students, but incorporating and learning from all that diversity has to offer. University students should understand diversity through the lens of equity — that no one who is different should be left behind, but rather, supported.

By eliminating barriers within the public school system, the number and diversity of students entering postsecondary education will inevitably improve. The more educated and skilled youth are, the more society, in turn, will benefit. Governments and school boards must recognize this reality as they craft educational policy.

U of T is in a unique position to lead change in the context of equitable education. It claims to be a world-renowned, research-driven institution and would benefit from a move toward using diverse learning materials that support students in making connections with their learning.

The university should also broaden the ‘how’ of learning and reform the field of education so that students are prepared for the real world. The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in particular has conducted research on poverty and education, and the impact of various interventions in reducing educational inequality as well as increasing students’ access to higher education. U of T should centre OISE as a leader in the development of support systems to help mitigate the effects of inequity that students face in the public education system.

Ateeqa Arain is a first-year Master of Education student at OISE.

An unwelcome shadow

How imposter syndrome impacts U of T students

An unwelcome shadow

It’s that special time of the year. The leaves are falling, the air is cold, and everyone is freaking out about the future. What tests are we all taking? What grad schools are we going to? Who passed the LSAT, the MCAT, the GRE, or any of the other acronyms that I don’t know? But the real challenge is going to come later this year, when we watch as our peers are accepted to dream schools and dream jobs, and we realize that, in comparison, we’ve done nothing.

I’m a fourth-year student. Despite having gone through three full years of courses here at U of T, I find myself still in fear that someone will discover the truth: I don’t belong here. I’m not smart enough, I don’t work hard enough, and I don’t deserve it. I’m surrounded by people who are planning extraordinary things, from grad school to enviable jobs, people who can speak multiple languages or balance multiple jobs, all while remaining here and being a good student.

I realize that, logically, this doesn’t make any sense. I did not trick anyone into accepting me, nor did I trick professors and teaching assistants into passing me. I didn’t trick the clubs I’ve been a part of into letting me work with them, and I didn’t trick The Varsity into letting me write for them. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling like everything I have is unearned.

Like a lot of students, I suffer from what’s called imposter syndrome. According to Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, who first identified the concept in 1978, the term ‘imposter syndrome’ is used “to designate an internal experience of intellectual phoniness that appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.” In other words, despite someone having a record of achievement, they feel like they have not earned any of it properly and that they do not deserve it, which causes them to live with the fear that someone will discover the truth.

It makes sense that this would be especially prevalent among women. Oftentimes, women are taught to earn their accomplishments, while men are taught that success is their birthright. To see evidence of this you do not need to look further than the recent hearing for the US Supreme Court Judge and alleged rapist Brett Kavanaugh. Commenters have noted that his demeanour and the demeanour of the Republican senators trying to put him in office were characteristic of pure entitlement. It was as though he believed that he deserved his spot on the court by virtue of his wealth, race, and gender, as if even questioning his place on the court was tantamount to a partisan witch hunt, an absurd political action undertaken due to desperation. Indeed, the president even apologized to him. To quote comedian John Oliver, “That surly tone [during questioning] was emblematic of Kavanaugh’s demeanour throughout the hearing. Not the tone of a man who hopes to one day have the honour of serving on the Supreme Court, but the tone of someone who feels entitled to be on it.”

In fact, when I asked the people around me if they had ever felt a kind of imposter syndrome, most of the responses came from women, especially queer women and women of colour.

Victoria, for example, thinks that this is related to feelings of not belonging and alienation from traditionally segmented institutions among marginalized people. As she put it, “This also means folks in marginalized social positions likely experience it more and more intensely because there is already limited space for us in all sorts of fields, and we are met more often with suspicion of our ability to accomplish what needs to be done. Even the most confident person will start to experience self-doubt if they feel as if the entire world is pushing back against them all the time.”

CJ* has felt imposter syndrome all their life, but it became heightened upon entering university. They described feeling like everyone around them deserved to have accomplishments, while they did not. But rather than providing a motivation to allow them to work harder, the effect on CJ’s academic life and mental health is destructive: “I tend to worry more than actually work or study a lot, and I feel my productivity could be so much better if I wasn’t so busy worrying that I’m going to mess up and that everyone will figure out I’m not good enough.”

Beth* also described this cycle of feeling inadequate. “The anxiety of it really just makes it impossible to work. It was a vicious cycle. I would feel in over my head, so I’d shut down and fall behind, and then when I’d go to class I’d feel like a phony who didn’t belong. And then it would repeat.”

That cycle is clearly detrimental to confidence and self-worth. Maria described often doubting her own intelligence, certain that her merits shouldn’t have been enough to get her accepted to university. She also worries that she chose an easy major and wouldn’t have been successful otherwise. As a side note, I don’t think there are any easy majors. While some may be perceived as easier, in actual practice, academic struggles are universal to everyone, no matter the program.

Of course, this is all made worse by the pressures of attending U of T. The acceptance letter to U of T lures many of us into believing that we are academically superior in some way, only to have that superiority snatched away from us once we realize that everyone got the same letter. It can be easy to only see the accomplishments of your peers without realizing that they could be struggling as well. And even if they aren’t, even if you lived in a world where everyone around you achieved things that you could only dream of, and succeeded where you failed, exactly how productive would it be to compare yourself to them? Consider the famous lines from Mean Girls, during the mathletes competition filmed in Con Hall, when Cady realizes that “calling someone fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter.” The inverse is also true. Recognizing the accomplishments of others does not make you inferior. I know it’s hard to think of that in this hyper-competitive environment, with fewer and fewer jobs and places in grad school, where the expectations placed on us only increase, but at the end of the day, we cannot control any of those external factors.

So what do we do? I suggest we follow the advice of The Chronicle of Higher Education, which recommends that we compare ourselves to our own progress. “Focus on what you have accomplished in and of itself, not as compared to what you had hoped to accomplish… Reframing your narrative as one of concrete accomplishments shifts your focus to the presence of labor and achievement, and away from the absence of ‘more.’ Once you do that, work on the story you tell others about yourself.”

For example, in first year, I felt intimidated by even the smallest amounts of readings and the shortest of essays. Now, I can breeze through them, if not with ease than with more understanding and clarity. Getting a lower-than-expected grade on an assignment would have once easily sent me into a tailspin then. Now, however, I am able to move past that and try to improve.

In fact, it was Beth’s ability to move past her imposter syndrome that allowed her to work more productively and improve her confidence, not to mention that it helped her keep up with her workload. Victoria found that challenging herself in a creative writing course to try to push past her insecurities, along with seeking advice from peers and talking to her professor about mental health, had a great effect and she was able to write “several short stories and some poetry for the first time in years and met most of [her] deadlines.”

Of course, improvement and progress don’t happen overnight, and in order to get to a place where you feel proficient, you have to start somewhere below perfection, which can exacerbate the whole issue. As YouTuber Nathan Zed put it in a 2016 video, “The thing is, the only way you can be amazing at something is if you practice. But I don’t want to be at that first level where I’m trash at it. I just hate feeling like the most unqualified person in the room.” That feeling is all too relatable, but as Zed also points out, the assumption that everyone secretly dislikes you and your work is more an issue of paranoia than anything else.

This is something that Maria has struggled with. She worries that her classmates are all far above her, despite performing consistently well in university. But the certainty of judgment and inadequacy forces Maria to keep quiet in class in the fear that she will be exposed.

None of this is to say that we should all swing in the opposite direction and put ourselves on a pedestal above those around us. What’s easy for you can often be torture for another, and what you’d see as a disappointing grade might be the height of someone else’s academic career. It doesn’t mean that any of us are inherently smarter or work any harder. Maybe we have mental illnesses or physical illnesses preventing us from working, families to care for, or jobs to get through. Or maybe people are just different and work differently. And, as a bonus, if we offer this type of generosity to others, we can more easily offer it to ourselves.

The Chronicle of Higher Education also offers another piece of advice, “Think about how you cede authority.” In other words, consider why you feel unqualified to make certain arguments in papers or in seminars. All revelations and discoveries come from people mulling them over, and all those people were, at one point, wholly ignorant about the topic. When you’re doing work as an undergraduate, nobody expects you to be below or above that level. If someone is asking a question and you think you may have the answer, go with your instinct. Be prepared to find that you could be wrong but don’t hold back and prevent something new from being said. Either way, you’ll be that much closer to learning the answer. This kind of confidence is invaluable, and it rests in knowing that you understand enough to be part of the conversation.

This last piece of advice has been especially relevant to me as I’ve been writing this. What makes me so qualified to tell everyone how to feel about themselves, especially after I’ve just admitted that I don’t always get past the point of comparing myself to others? Well, it’s just that. I can talk about this because I’ve experienced it. And I’ve researched it. And I’ve asked other people about it. So, I probably don’t have all the answers, but I’ve worked hard enough and thought enough about it that I can be a part of the discussion. And so can you.

*Names have been changed at the individual’s request.

In defence of the humanities

Examining how the scientific-right's vilification of "grievance studies" is flawed

In defence of the humanities

Last month, Areo magazine published a year-long project, dubbed Sokal Squared, that sought to expose the humanities as unscientific, devoid of truth, radical, and outlandish.

A team of three academics, who have previously defended and supported militant-atheist, anti-feminist, socially right-wing libertarians, crafted 20 deliberately absurd papers to be published in, what they term, “grievance studies.” These are fields that study social injustice and cultural theory: women’s studies, gender studies, and critical theory, to name a few.

Over the course of a year, they managed to get seven of these papers published in peer-reviewed academic journals. One paper that discusses how dog parks are “rape-condoning spaces” gained special recognition in Gender, Place, and Colour.

All these papers are, of course, ridiculous and should not have been published. While the intention was to show that these so-called ‘grievance studies’ are lacking academic rigour and truth, the project does more to highlight the ideology of the ‘scientific-right’  those who believe that ‘non-scientific’ fields deserve less respect. They believe that the humanities and social sciences are fields that uniquely allow nonsense to be published.

Nowadays, when discussing the humanities, many of those in the scientific-right are quick to jump to labels like ‘postmodernism,’ ‘relativistic,’ and ‘radical left.’ There is no doubt that these associations have gained recent popularity through their constant employment by controversial U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson.

The political objective of the scientific-right is to eradicate alternative methodological approaches to understanding the world, such as postmodernism and critical theory. But the scientific-right overlooks how the sciences are just as, if not more, susceptible to the fallibilities of the disciplines they decry.

Three years ago, three Massachusetts Institute of Technology students crafted an artificial intelligence called SCIgen to generate ostensibly legitimate, but actually nonsensical, computer science papers. This resulted in the publication of 120 nonsensical papers in highly respectable scientific journals, many of which were peer-reviewed.

This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon. In 2010, Cyril Labbé revealed that he had utilized his own program, HAL, to generate 100 false papers in, once again, well-regarded, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Add to that the fact that foundational theories in many scientific disciplines are plagued by the replicability crisis, leading to the possibility that the tremendous amount of work that is dependent upon these theories could be completely meaningless.

This is not to attack the scientific-right in the same manner in which they attack the humanities. Rather, it is a call to recognize that while both the sciences and the humanities are fallible disciplines, neither should be entirely discounted.

Each discipline has separate intellectual objectives, and should be respected accordingly. The aim of the humanities is not to exclusively investigate matters that are scientific or mathematical in nature. Rather, they are often concerned with matters intrinsic to humanity and culture.

Furthermore, the very arguments that the scientific-right uses to demean the humanities — such as lacking in truth — almost always employ notions developed in the humanities themselves. For instance, when students associate the sciences with figuring out what the ‘truth’ is, they fail to understand that the very notion of truth is developed and investigated within the humanities, not the sciences.

A core investigation in philosophy, which is a branch of the humanities, is the question of what defines truth, whether it is: correspondence to the real world; coherence among a set of held beliefs; or agreement among professionals in ideal conditions. Perhaps it has no definition at all.

Similarly, publications by Thomas Kuhn in the 1970s garnered a new outlook on the history of science: a picture of scientific practice as being influenced by socioeconomic and cultural factors. His arguments laid the groundwork for a re-examination of how scientists conduct science, and whether they are truly partaking in an objective, value-free discipline, independent of anything that is investigated within the humanities.

Additionally, the ‘grievance studies’ are critical for providing inquiries into the normative questions that plague the sciences. An example of such a question is whether we ought to pursue lines of inquiry and regard them as ‘truth,’ when the consequences of such a discovery could lead to widespread human suffering.

Possible examples may be investigations into ‘race realism,’ genetic enhancement, and nuclear energy. All these inquiries could lead to extremely disastrous effects for states and, potentially, for the world. Inquiries into ‘grievance studies’ allow us to examine the social conditions under which scientific investigation operates  a crucial, morally necessary survey that influences and shapes the sciences.

The very fact that a year was wasted on such a project is an embarrassment to the academics who have endorsed it. At most, they shed light on the issues plaguing academic journals in general and should be framed as such, rather than seeking to delegitimize specific disciplines for political reasons.

Sokal Squared shows how out of touch those on the scientific-right are. It is time that they recognize the importance of the humanities, both in relation to the sciences and in their own right.

Gavin Foster is a third-year Philosophy and History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at Trinity College.