by Girish Daswani
In late March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic forced us to pause, to stay indoors more and to switch to online learning – the university was no longer “home” and institutional home-making practices were restricted to the Internet. Instead, the inside of our homes overlapped with the virtual space of the university. I taught the rest of my classes from my home. Statements of solidarity were shared and “We’re all in this together” became a popular slogan. But many of us quickly realized that “we” were not in this together. Just like with physical distancing, the responsibility to adapt and to respond fell on individuals differently. Many students did not have the ability to physically distance in the same way. Statements of solidarity were often not enough and financial assistance was not always accessible to all. In the summer, some colleagues and myself conducted an online survey for UTSC and UofT St. George faculty and students on how they experienced the emergency transition to online learning. Some of the initial results indicated (1) “that the shift to online learning…had a disproportionately negative impact on equity seeking groups;” (2) that “[a]lmost half of the respondents took on additional care responsibilities due to the pandemic” and (3) that online learning was experienced as an inferior educational practice (Chan, Daswani, Hird-Younger, Hunter, Way 2020). We raised critical questions about the university’s reluctance to collect data: “…especially with a focus on equity seeking groups who seem more adversely affected by the recent shift to online learning” and more “comprehensive race-based data.” As another recent study by UTSC faculty Mark Hunter and his students highlighted:
“Black students are more likely than others to associate leaving with negative experiences with faculty and staff.”
While UTSC has responded to this in its Campus Curriculum Review, forthcoming boardroom discussions beg an important question: Will this institutional work will resemble real change?
The months that followed have continued to raise new challenges and the trope of a more caring University has taken shape. Recently (November 20, 2020) a public message from UofT President Meric Gertler included the words:
“If we’re concerned that someone may be struggling, let’s ask how they’re doing and listen to what they have to say. As we have seen in so many ways throughout the year, kindness and empathy can be incredibly powerful, even transformative”.
This trope of the caring university and its optics is appealing, but like “diversity”, it needs to be taken with a measure of caution. Before we can learn to care, many things have to be (un-)learnt first. In October 2020, several UofT faculty and students participated in a Scholars Strike that lasted two days. Scholars Strike Canada was organized in line with the scholars strike in the U.S., “in its call for racial justice, an end to anti-Black police violence and it adds a specific focus on anti-Indigenous, colonial violence.” Some of us took these two days to not work – not teach, not write emails, not attend meetings and not respond to administrative duties. We were asked to pause together. To think and feel together. This was an important halt to the rhythm of our expected work routines and those who attended were there to learn, to listen to these public teach-ins from activists and scholars. Not once was “diversity” mentioned in the list of demands on the Canada Scholars Strike website. Instead, it started with the words:
“Statements of solidarity, while important, are not enough. We must commit ourselves as scholars, artists, writers, poets, designers and researchers to actively ending all forms of racist, carceral, institutional and systemic forms of violence.”
This made me reflect on the University and it’s in/ability to truly respond to the changing expectations and needs of faculty and students. It made me think about my students’ research and how it pointed to a similar observation: That the university’s statements of care and commitment toward diversity and equity did less for students than it did for the University’s brand and self-image.
On day two of the Scholars Strike, UofT Professor Rinaldo Walcott spoke about Canadian higher education and its participation in the logics of violence. The academy in Canada, instead of being a site of resistance and struggle, replicates a model of the neoliberal university. Reflecting on his own academic trajectory, he spoke about how (by the end of the 1990s), Canadian universities were “Americanizing” under the rubric of “Internationalization” and how this process allowed the Canadian academy to perpetuate Whiteness and to reproduce elite-ness (including through the Canada Research Chair program). Since the 2008 economic crisis, and even more so recently, universities have become “hedge funds”. Echoing Ahmed’s notion of the “non-performative”, Walcott spoke about how “equity, diversity and inclusion” initiatives have become a “form of silencing” and ultimately a way for the university to manage us and “curtail our wildest dreams of what the university can and could be”. As academics, we are implicated and disciplined to replicate this politics. To not do so, to resist, has its costs. I had to pause throughout the two days. Take breaks in between panels and let the information and insights sink in. There was so much to sit with. There was so much to (un-)learn. Sitting in and with these teach-ins was important for me – not just for reflection’s sake, but for the reason of sitting with my discomfort. It made me realize that the University also needed to pause, to sit with itself, and to un-learn. Goodwill and diversity-talk are not going to solve our historically entrenched problems. To reiterate what Walcott said: “What price are we willing to pay to change this?”