UTSG: General Game Night
What it means to be Out at School
U of T professor turns research project into play for Pride Month
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.
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.
Graduate Students’ Union investigating OISE elections
Executives report on mental health advocacy, freeze honoraria in anticipation of funding cuts
An investigatory committee was commissioned by the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) to evaluate the integrity of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Graduate Students’ Association (OISE GSA) elections, during a UTGSU General Council meeting on April 23.
The committee’s mandate is to assess whether the OISE GSA violated its constitution, following the alleged firing of its Chief Returning Officer (CRO), according to a GSU member at the meeting. The CRO is responsible for overseeing elections.
Five council members volunteered to join the committee, which is authorized to assess the possible constitutional violation until June 1.
According to a UTGSU representative who spoke at the meeting, the committee lacks the power to compel testimony through subpoena. However, it does have the ability to interview witnesses willing to testify, review meeting minutes of the OISE GSA, and present an assessment to the Council on whether the OISE GSA violated its constitution.
In an email to The Varsity, the OISE GSA Executive wrote that they “never had doubts about the integrity of following the elections process as outlined by [their] Constitution.”
The Executive noted that their elections had not begun by the time of the General Council meeting when these allegations of election fraud were brought forward, and that they are following regulations set by its Constitution to “re-set the Elections process.”
The UTGSU Executive Committee verified that the committee was struck before having a chance to “invite and receive a statement by the [OISE GSA] Executive and Council,” but also wrote that it believed it would be “inappropriate for the UTGSU Executive to ask the OISE GSA for a statement prior to the striking of the committee, as this would have constituted the beginning of an investigation.”
UTGSU executives also report on advocacy work towards expanding mental health services
External Commissioner Cristina Jaimungal also reported on work by the executive team on responding to U of T’s mental health crisis.
Jaimungal spoke on the launch of the first webpage specific for U of T graduate students to access mental health resources, which has received 5,000 visits so far. She also reported on the addition of a graduate-specific accessibility counselor at the School of Graduate Studies, as well as the expansion of a bursary to allow part-time professional students access to U of T gyms over the summer.
UTGSU executives further vote to freeze honoraria increases, following cuts due to Student Choice Initiative
Finance Commissioner Branden Rizzuto also introduced a motion drafted by the executives to freeze their own honoraria.
Rizzuto explained that the executive honoraria has been tied to a CUPE 3902, Unit 1 Collective Agreement, which has caused the executive honoraria to rise with increases of Teaching Assistant wages. CUPE 3902 is a union for U of T education workers.
The honoraria were slated to increase by two per cent the following year. However, in anticipation of funding cuts to the UTGSU as a result of the Ontario government’s Student Choice Initiative, the executives introduced the motion to cancel the raise and freeze their honoraria.
The motion passed in a vote by members of the General Council.
Equitable education starts from the bottom
Combatting the weight of inaccessibility in our public school system
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.
Op-ed: Understanding what is at stake
Shedding light on the world’s first scholarship in antipsychiatry
On October 7, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) announced the creation of a radically new scholarship — the Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry. This scholarship is for OISE students conducting theses in the area of antipsychiatry, with the author matching up to $50,000 of donations by others. Following the announcement came an article in The Varsity on the scholarship, which, let me suggest, was sadly amiss.
What is wrong with the article? It makes Scientology ‘the issue.’ Who cares whether Scientology praises — or for that matter, disparages — the emergence of this scholarship? In such framing, it prioritizes sensationalism over significance. Moreover, it creates serious misimpressions about antipsychiatry.
A question in the interest of remedying that: exactly what is antipsychiatry? It is a field of study and a movement. As a field of study, it advances foundational critiques of psychiatry. As a movement, it is dedicated to abolition and the creation of more respectful, helpful ways of approaching societal differences and human distress. Below are some myths and facts intended to shed light on the subject.
Myth: Antipsychiatry theorists deny that people can become seriously disoriented and troubled.
Fact: Antipsychiatry theorists are extremely clear that such difficulties exist. What we contend, rather, is that what are labelled ‘mental diseases’ are not in fact medical disorders. That is, we have different explanations for what is happening — ones that include, but are not limited to, issues of social control.
Myth: Antipsychiatry theorists are ‘anti-science.’
Fact: Antipsychiatry theorists are pro-science and as such, oppose the ‘facade’ of science. Indeed, one of our central objections is precisely that the claims of psychiatry lack scientific and medical validity.
Myth: Major antipsychiatry positions such as ending forced treatment are extreme and something that no reputable body would ever support.
Fact: Besides the fact that ‘reputable’ and ‘extreme’ are judgement calls and that we are talking about fundamental human rights here, an organization no less ‘reputable’ than the United Nations (UN) has issued a prohibition against forced psychiatric ‘treatment,’ as per the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. If the UN takes this position, how can it be extreme?
Myth: Antipsychiatry people are overwhelmingly involved with Scientology.
Fact: Almost none are — claiming or insinuating otherwise is a discrediting tactic. Surely instead, as academics, we should be dealing with facts, evidence, and logic.
Myth: Antipsychiatry is based on ignorance.
Fact: Pursued by folk who are leading scholars, antipsychiatry is a highly recognized field of inquiry, with courses offered in sociology, disability studies, adult education, and numerous other areas. Correspondingly, as researchers, antipsychiatry scholars knowledgeably draw on highly credible research methodologies, such as scientific meta-analysis, ethnography, critical discourse analysis, and institutional ethnography.
This brings us to the scholarship itself. What makes this scholarship significant is that it constitutes a historical breakthrough; it represents a triumph for academic freedom. With vested interests, such as the multinational pharmaceutics significantly dictating what is studied and rewarded at universities, the successful launching of this scholarship is a veritable coup.
This scholarship is likewise important from the more limited vantage point of student equity. The sad reality is that without it, students pursuing studies in this area have far less of a chance of receiving a scholarship than their peers.
On a different level, it helps realize the university’s commitment to anti-oppression. In this regard, psychiatric survivors are oppressed not just by the world at large, but precisely by groups theorized as helpers. The particularly targeted include women, people of colour, the LGBTQ community, and the poor — and as such, antipsychiatry yields an exciting opportunity for intersectional anti-oppression analysis.
On a more substantive level, the scholarship is positioned to advance research sorely needed by the world. Some significant facts here: not a single bona fide illness or indicator thereof — for example, no edema — has been shown to underlie any ‘mental illness.’ Ultimately, only biology can determine what is a disease.
Contrary to standard depictions, psychiatric drugs do not correct but rather cause chemical imbalances; by the same token, they do not redress but create disorders. This is according to the research of multiple scholars, including Breggin (1991), Colbert (2001), Burstow (2015), and Whitaker (2010). Moreover, with the rampant spread of psychiatric ‘treatment,’ the world is now facing a virtual epidemic of ‘iatrogenic’ or doctor-caused disease — hence, the emergence of this scholarship could not be more timely.
That being said, let me ask the reader: are you in favour of honest science and discovery? Do you want to go where the evidence points? Do you prioritize the search for truth over moneyed interests? Do you believe in academic freedom? Are basic human rights a concern for you? Would you like to see inquiry which stands squarely on the side of the oppressed? Would you like to help ensure that future generations are not brain-damaged in the name of help?
If most of your answers are ‘yes’, consider joining us in popularizing this scholarship and helping it grow.
Finally, in ending, I leave you with this instructive quote from Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you — then you win.”
Dr. Bonnie Burstow is an Associate Professor at OISE, an activist, a feminist therapist, and the author of the book Psychiatry and the Business of Madness (2015).