Reflections on classes and recent research – Mark Hunter

GGRC50 Geographies of Education, my third-year class, has taught me a lot about UTSC students who are often celebrated as being ‘diverse’ but also have important similarities: they tend to live quite near to campus, work long hours for pay, and be racialized and of immigrant backgrounds. The course normally requires students to write an autoethnography, using educational theory to understand their lives, but last Fall we developed a more collective project that centred on asking “Why do students drop out of UTSC?” This involved students undertaking an interview with someone who has dropped out or was thinking of dropping out of UTSC and pooling some of the material. Among other findings the study highlighted not only the relatively high number of Black students who drop out of UTSC but that Black students are more likely than others to associate leaving with negative experiences with faculty and staff. Like the equity and online survey (below) it shows how the university’s failure to collect race-based data works to hide systemic forces at work. The report now forms part of readings I use for this year’s C50 class, and it also found its way into UTSC’s Campus Curriculum Review planned for 2020/21, which is giving specific attention to representation of Indigenous ways of knowing and racialized perspectives.       

In the Spring/Summer I was also involved in a University World survey on equity and online learning. We found that the emergency move to online learning was disproportionately detrimental to disadvantaged groups, including Black students. The survey was planned in the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic and with an awareness that universities had long pushed online education as a ‘spatial fix’ to boost enrolments. The flexibility of online education undoubtedly works for some students. But are we seeing a double movement (in Polyanian terms) now that so many people, from elementary school children to university faculty, have experienced the brave new Zoom world? Are the forces that tending to digitize and commoditize education countered by a fresh ground swell in favor of what we now call the ‘in-person’—a seemingly innocuous but in fact quite radical adjective? It could be that myth of online learning as being equal or better to in-person teaching has been exposed so widely now that no matter how many consultants spin the facts (and the e-learning world is big business as my former PhD student Beyhan Farhadi shows), this medium is now inseparably associated with distressing times and poor-quality education. Personally, I have found that many of the skills we cultivate as instructors—for instance being able to diagnose student dynamics and give informal advice and encouragement just before or after class—are harder to use in an online setting. That said, I do love the simplicity of launching breakout rooms in Zoom!

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