A Stumble Down Memory Lane

My unofficial anti-graduation photo courtesy of Cry School Yearbook:

I often think of a quote I came across by Pico Iyer in Room Magazine that began with “we travel most when we stumble.” The writer expanded on the phrase, saying her best travel experiences were the ones that were unplanned, unexpected and even uncomfortable at times. I couldn’t help but think of my own stumbling (and falling) this year. It hurt. It felt painful. There were moments when I was brought to depths of darkness I never knew existed within me. The journey was tough and uncontrollable. Luckily, when I stumbled, I had many crutches to help support me so I could continue my journey: family, friends, students, even professors. Who knew I could survive? I certainly didn’t feel I could in my worst moments.

My final post isn’t a warning to prepare for the worst but to prepare for the unexpected. What I am saying is if you think life is going to unfold in an order like A-B-C-D-etc, etc, you’re dead wrong (or an extremely boring person). Life is more like A-B-X-T-C-Y-Y-WHY?!?-O-K. Life is about the stumbles, the different paths you notice when you decide to take a risk and shoot off of the main road. I’d say U of T is a pretty mainstream road to head down as an undergraduate. It’s a road that many of us feel safe being on because we believe it will lead us to bigger and better things. In fact, a lot of students I know don’t want to leave U of T after four years because they feel so secure here. I think we all go through university at our own unique paces; some of us speed through U of T on cruise control as we listen to GPS voices telling us exactly what to do while others struggle to keep up with the pack. A few of us even want to fast track, racing towards the finish line, wherever that may be. We all envision final destinations, the dreamland of the future but there will be bumps, crashes and breakdowns along the way. That’s life.

During my own drive down the U of T highway, I’ve bypassed undergraduates who have crashed and burned, hit by disappointment and devastation over things that at the time, seemed major. One conversation in particular stands out in my mind. It happened last school year when I was walking through Queen’s Park with a fellow classmate and asked him what he was planning to do after graduation. He told me that after spending a year studying abroad at Oxford, he fell in love with the school (who wouldn’t?) and was applying to their incredibly competitive English Masters Programme. To increase his chances of getting into Oxford, he told me that he was applying to two different strands in the English programme.

“Where else have you applied?” I asked him.

“Nowhere else,” he said.

“Isn’t that a little risky?” I asked, sounding like an insurance salesman.

“It’s Oxford or nothing,” he retorted. And that was that.

I suppose I felt a little shocked by his attitude and that his future, his world, revolved around one school. In his mind, he was on a one-way road to Oxford. No turning back.

The thing is, he didn’t get accepted into Oxford. But I think that rejection was probably the best thing that ever happened to him. Yes, rejection can hurt in any situation and I’m sure he thought his ABC life plans were ruined but I think he became a stronger and more openminded person. Now he’s at another school in England and miraculously has a girlfriend. There are ups to the downs in life. Truly.

I think my favourite moments in life have been the ones where I have looked around and thought to myself, how did I get here?  The times when I’m pinching myself because I’ve realized that a month prior, I had no idea that I would be doing whatever I was doing in that moment. Those are my favourite times in life that I freeze in my mind while I continue to move forward. I’ve had a few of them while I’ve been studying at U of T. I live for those moments.

As many of the bloggers this year get ready to graduate, I’m being left in the dust because I dropped a credit requirement I needed for my degree. As I hit the button on ROSI to officially withdrawal from the course, I knew my decision to drop probably meant summer school or returning to school next year for a victory lap. It wasn’t something I was anticipating and I don’t know where it will lead me, but I kind of love that uncertainty.

I just want to extend my thanks to the readers of this blog, especially those who felt compelled to speak up and comment. Whether you’re continuing down the U of T route or are switching gears and graduating, I hope everyone has a safe and happy journey to wherever they want to be.

Erin

1, 2, 3, 4. My four-person seminar class

My favourite class this semester has been the severely underpopulated one. There are four students and one professor, so it’s actually a five-person class but four sounds so much more impressive like The Beatles, or ABBA, or ABS 496! And to be honest, in most classes, there are only four people in attendance because one person will usually not show up.

The first day of class the professor seemed pleased by the turn out which, at the time, was three students (one joined later and I’m guessing she wasn’t waitlisted on ROSI) and said that the class structure and style would be similar to a post-grad seminar. I’m happy that U of T didn’t cancel the course due to low enrolment because it has been one of the most memorable classes I’ve ever taken.

Since the class is so small, we’re completely mobile and have started a tradition of going outside for class. To actually move from the confines of a windowless prison-style classroom to sit outside in the glorious sun is amazing. Our classroom has been all over campus and sitting outside isn’t distracting but enhances the learning experience. Once we were sitting on benches in the courtyard of Knox College and a woman passing by shouted, “I’ve never seen a group of people work so hard! Right on!” Our class giggled and then predictably, went back to work.

Another aspect I love about being in such a small class is that it’s not intimidating to speak in front of classmates. Like Jennifer, I’m an introvert and speaking up in class for participation marks has never been something I enjoyed. Since we often remove ourselves from a cold classroom setting and drink coffee while we discuss and analyze our readings, everyone feels more at ease. I’ve also made the class laugh. Once for five minutes straight! I won’t reveal the unintentional joke I told but I’ve always felt that after that extremely long laugh at my expense, we’ve all been able to let our guards down and truly open up to one another.

It’s also a highly personal atmosphere. Yes, I realize I’ve only had to memorize the names of three people in my class but in some large classes, I honestly wouldn’t be able to name three students. My classmates and I have all exchanged one another’s phone numbers and will text each other if we’re running late. We even find ourselves texting one another after class about the readings we’ve discussed or something that was said in class that tickled our fancy. Everyone shares notes with one another and even though class is finished, we all wait for the last one (usually me) to pack up and head over to First Nations House together, still talking about what we learned.

Reviewing all of my blog posts this year, I realize how much I reflect on not feeling a sense of community in the classroom. ABS496 was different from the beginning. I know I have an advantage because the class is so ridiculously small, but I want everyone to know that it is possible to create a positive, healthy, respectful and community-based space for yourself in an undergraduate class. Next week is our last seminar, and at the risk of sounding sentimental, I’m really going to miss the coffee, conversation and especially, the friends I’ve made.

Erin

 

Note to Self: Why I Don’t Mind Sharing My Notes

“Hi there. I’ve been away the last couple of classes. I was wondering, can you send me your notes?”

We’ve all been there (if we’ve been regular attendees at school). You know who I’m talking about (maybe you are the person I am talking about), the stranger who asks you for your notes point blank. This scenario has come up in lifeatuoft meetings, where a clear division has been made between those of us willing to donate their notes and those of us who outright refuse. I’ve found myself a target for notes because I am a typist. People can clearly see what I’m doing on my laptop and figure it’s easier to get notes emailed than spend time photocopying and trying to decipher a stranger’s penmanship.

To be honest, I’ve always been more than willing to hand over my notes. Most of the time. The few exceptions to this policy is when a classmate sends out a mass email to the entire class begging for notes because they were sick (although some people admit they were on an extended vacation).

The only other time I flat-out ignored a person’s request for my notes was when a student copied my first and last name from the attendance sheet, stuck @utoronto.ca behind it and sent me an e-mail the night before a test requesting my notes. Drumroll, please:

Erin,

I am writing under the spirit of familiarity and so I hope this missive isn’t unsettling or alarming. Speaking plainly, I need your help, in the form of notes from class. I attended every lecture and owing to my strong memory, I thought I could remember the key  points made but I overlooked the issue of capacity: with other classes warranting attention, the torrent of information has proven too much for my brain to ensnare completely. And so I make this application. If I’ve offended your sensibilities I apologize.

Sincerely,

STRANGER WHO I HAVE NEVER TALKED TO IN CLASS AND COPIED MY NAME FROM THE ATTENDANCE SHEET

Although I found this student’s impression of Mr. Darcy absolutely hilarious (and his refusal to admit he was exceptionally lazy), the request seriously came out of nowhere. I actually recognized the name of the student (because he would make general comments in class that didn’t relate to the readings) and recalled that he never lifted a pen or pencil to paper. I decided, he didn’t deserve my notes the night before a test. Amazingly, when I saw him the next day he totally denied sending me the e-mail the previous night!

But besides that one time, I’ve always surrendered my notes to students on the condition that they aren’t allowed to e-mail them to other students. After all, I consider my notes intellectual property and I don’t want to get penalized for an academic offence if someone copies directly from them. I made this rule when a student actually traded my notes with another classmate.  I also sometimes make students do a teeny bit of self reflection when they ask me for my notes because I’ve noticed that my peers don’t even bother introducing themselves or asking me what my name is. Yes, I realize students don’t want to be my bffs but I find the whole “I’m only acknowledging your presence because I want your notes” approach slightly robotic. Also, I’m not trying to pull a power trip but create a little community here.

After someone asks me point blank for notes, I usually ask, “So…what’s your name again?” Most of the time, the student will recognize how rude he or she sounds. If you’re going to ask someone for something, have the decency to introduce yourself and maybe show a little interest in getting the person’s name.

The one thing I don’t ask, is why a student has missed class. It’s not that I don’t care, I just don’t think it’s any of my business. I remember before an exam, a notoriously absent student who I sent notes to, plopped down beside me. I asked her how she was doing and she told me she was “coping”. With a teary smile, she not only thanked me for my notes but was particularly grateful that I never asked why she was away so much. She then revealed the reason why she missed so many classes; over the winter break, her boyfriend was killed in a car crash. One can guess the emotional exhaustion that comes from explaining and re-explaining an absence and tragedy several times to peers and professors. She also told me our professor asked her if she was able to get notes from a student and she mentioned my name, and made a comment about my generosity. The professor actually agreed with her.

I’m not saying you should give and expect recognition in return but I think simple acts of kindness don’t go unnoticed. You also never know when you’ll be in that situation. Imagine if, for some reason, you miss the first weeks of school because of something you couldn’t predict and you are in a classroom without a single recognizable face. It’s not your fault you were never able to strategically make a “note buddy” at the beginning of the semester. Now imagine, someone is nice enough to give you their notes, free of charge, suspision and hassle. I’d certainly be thankful to receive that sort of support in a time of need.

I understand that university breeds competitiveness and that we all want to end up on top, but I don’t think I’m willing to play the game in a vicious or selfish way. I always feel better knowing that I beat out the best which means helping the “competition”, whether it’s in the form of notes or extending myself in another capacity. I truly think we are only as good as those around us. And I’m not speaking in terms of marks, but as people.

Erin

 

 

Undergraduate Research Grant Advice

Last semester, a group of students fell in love with the English seminar course “Cook the Books”. If you’re a regular reader, you might remember me blogging about some memorable class adventures and mishaps. We were so enthusiastic and passionate about how the course connected literature and food that we decided that we wanted to publish a cookbook that documented our learning journey. The project has come to be known as Cook This Book.

Late last semester, our team applied for an Undergraduate Arts and Science Research Grant. And got it. Now, we’re trying to balance school with publishing a cookbook, something we’ve never done before. It’s been challenging. Many of the people on the team are in their final year of study, applying to grad school, working either full-time or part-time and studying full-time or part-time. Although we were stoked to actually get money and support from the University of Toronto (keep an eye out for these opportunities by scanning department newsletters), there is a certain amount of pressure that comes along with such endowments. Basically, we have to come up with something impressive to show the school at the end of the school year that is fast approaching like a steam train in a black and white film from the silent era. Wait, that’s me tied to the tracks in this imaginary movie happening inside my head! I’m screaming for help! Only you can’t hear me!

I’m so thankful for lifeatuoft because I have a voice on here. I promise this won’t be a post where I have a complete breakdown due to stress. In fact, I’m going to give you tips on how to avoid getting into a similar undergraduate research grant situation that I am in.

Apply sooner rather than later. Our team applied close to the application deadline, mostly because we came up with the idea late during the fall semester (I mean, we had to experience most of the course to actually propose a cookbook that would document it). If you have a kernel of an idea that you want to propose (even as far away as next year), meet with a faculty member as early as possible to get their feedback. Waiting and writing an application close to a deadline is a lot of pressure. Let it sit in your head over the summer.

We made unrealistic deadlines. After we received the grant, our group met up and started making schedules. Soon, Winter Break passed. And now Reading Week has become a distant memory (oh, Belize, how I miss thee!). Now it’s crunch time. Not only to write material for the cookbook but essays, tests, exams, random assignments, presentations. Looking back, we were unfocused with our goals. It’s impossible to change the past but I wish we made more realistic deadlines because we’ve squeezed all of the work into a very condensed period of time.

Dedication should be rewarded. I’ve noticed at meetings there are some individuals who show up and do the work while others have decided to take a break, focus on school and come back at the end to contribute (and get credit) to the project. This doesn’t seem very fair to the people who have stuck by the project during the entire semester. If you are working with a team of students, it’s really not fair to pick and choose when and what you want to do, like swooping in during April to suddenly pick up where you left off early in the semester. If you’re getting credit for the project, you should stay committed to it through thick and thin. Trust me, we all have breaking points and want to quit, but it’s really not fair to the team if you decide to take a vacation when they need you the most. Our team is reviewing the roles and credit people are going to get when the cookbook is actually published as some members have really shown consistent dedication throughout the semester.

As we come to a close this semester, I really recommend you start thinking about potential research grant ideas over the summer and possible faculty members who can write you a reference letter. Do not wait last minute to get a start on an undergraduate research grant! Be aggressive in the summer and fall because the winter semester will manage to eat you up and spit you out!

Also, if you want to get involved in the cookbook, we’re looking for photographers, layout designers and illustrators. Check out our blog for more details and apply!

Erin 

 

 

Academic Idol: Taiaiake Alfred

It’s not often that I turn into a super fan and become tongue-tied but that happened when Kahnawake Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred came to U of T. My professor, Cheryl Suzack, with the help and support of the Aboriginal Studies program, brought Alfred in to speak to the U of T community about reconciliation and Indigenous sovereignty. As one of my professors told our class, “He’s probably the most well-known Indigenous academic in North America.”

Dr. Alfred speaking at the Multi-Faith Centre.

I’ve studied Alfred every year for the past three years. I consider his book “Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto” a work that has probably had one of the most significant impacts on my learning about Aboriginal studies at U of T.

This book also made me feel intimidated by Alfred, not only because of his intellect and experience but his voice. If you’ve ever come into contact with this book, you’ll notice his writing style is strong and unrelenting, which I first misread as over aggressively masculine and hostile. I remember when I bought “Peace, Power, Righteousness”, I flipped to the back cover where there is a small author photo of Alfred with a buzz cut, army green t-shirt and arms (that look like he can bench press my weight doubled) folded over his chest. Not exactly the author photo I was expecting. I thought he looked like he was from the military (he actually served in the US Marine Corps) that added to the severe image of him I had while I was reading the manifesto. I mean, it’s pretty rare to come into contact with an academic who looks like he can run circles not only intellectually but physically around students (how many profs have you had who look like they could compete in a triathlon?).

Who I saw and heard at the Multi-Faith Centre was not the same Taiaiake Alfred I read. I’m afraid I judged (and read) a book by its cover. I’m also guilty of expecting the person to sound like the book he wrote. I guess that’s what I love about U of T, when the school brings scholars we’ve studied to come and talk to us (and yes, I understand this statement and recognize the school will never bring in Plato). Reading work can be such a one dimensional experience so when we are given the chance to actually interact with academics we admire, it adds to how we will read and interpret their work in the future.

After speaking, Alfred was mobbed by fans (including me). Before he signed my book, I heard an acquaintance of mine ask him about his move into writing fiction.

“It’s not actually ‘fiction’ because what I’m writing is true,” he responded. He also said that he was writing fiction for his mother and wife because they don’t interact with his academic work. It’s moments like these that dramatically transform my perception of professors, when they mention family and make themselves more human and relatable.

No matter how tough the book or person may come across on paper, there’s always a person we don’t get to see or hear until we actually get to see and hear them. I feel so fortunate to meet one of my academic idols, because now that I’ve heard him speak both on and off stage, I admire him as an academic, and a person, even more.

Erin

 

A fan photo with Alfred…he’s probably 6″5!

I Belize in Student Exchanges

Dear lifeatuoft readers (I still feel like I’m writing postcards),

Over Reading Week, I had the opportunity to participate in a Human Biology and Aboriginal Studies student exchange in Belize; ten students coming from different interests and fields of study, one supervising professor and a service learning component that created both tension and teamwork over the eight days we spent in San Jose Succotz and Hopkins. On the second last day, when we stepped into a beach house in Hopkins that the ten of us would be sharing (two males, eight females and one bathroom), one student sarcastically remarked, “It’s like stepping into the Real World.”

To be honest, most of the tension came from the service learning component of the exchange, not from living in close “Real World” quarters. Students were expected to collect data from local primary and secondary schools and assess how healthy or unhealthy the diet of youth was in the small village of San Jose Succotz.  If you aren’t familiar with the term “service learning”, it’s a method of teaching and learning where, after a formal lecture, students participate in community service related to the teachings they received. U of T is now embracing this model that encourages students to think outside of the traditional academic box (and books) and talk to people and build relationships with a specific community.

In San Jose Succotz, students were expected to find out what healthy (local fruits and homemade food) and unhealthy (name brand soda, chips, cookies) foods school children were eating. In Belize, health problems like diabetes, heart and cardiovascular diseases and hypertension due to poor diet is affecting the population. We were told to survey what the children were eating and analyze the garbage we collected in a schoolyard/football field to understand the local youths’ diet.

The service learning and research component of our exchange was organized by an outside organization and students immediately felt conflicted by what we were expected to do (enter schools as cultural outsiders, talk to children about food and make judgments based on surveys we didn’t create or agree with). The first question I asked the Belize-based organization that headed the exchange was, “Were the parents of children who will be surveyed notified about our presence in the school?” The answer was no and the organizer explained that Belizean research standards were different from those in Canada. Many students, particularly those in Aboriginal Studies, were vocal about how uncomfortable we felt by entering a school with children without parental consent. It just felt wrong. Period. We didn’t have criminal background checks before going on the trip (and interacting with children) and in Aboriginal Studies, students must consult with the Ethics Board before interviewing and collecting information from communities. These are strict methodology procedures practiced at U of T that we respect and were not acknowledged during the exchange. Additionally, Indigenous  data collection that values oral storytelling and creating a relationship with the “subjects” was usurped by quantitative research methods. The result was a division between some of the Human Biology and Aboriginal Studies students which wasn’t uncomfortable but noticeable.

Personally, I felt uncomfortable that we would be making judgments about food and health without having a strong background in nutrition.  I was more interested in the cultural aspect of the exchange, particularly learning about different Indigenous communities, relationships between the many ethnic and Indigenous groups and youth empowerment. Although I recognized that a service learning component was part of the trip (we collected garbage like candy wrappers and water and juice sacks from a schoolyard/football field and analyzed the contents), all of the students critiqued how inaccurate the results would be as they would clearly not reflect the diet of the school children (everyone in the village uses the football field that is located in the heart of the village, not just school children).

Despite disagreements in methodology and practices used by the Belizean-based (and North American founded) organization, the experience was eyeopening and I am grateful for being chosen to take part in the exchange. I was mostly proud to be in the presence of passionate students, particularly two who recognized that what we were doing was not only inaccurate but felt wrong and protested about the ethics by not participating in the survey. In terms of learning and self-discovery that I took away from this exchange, I realized that I should listen to my gut more often. If something doesn’t feel right, chances are, it’s not right.

Of course, there were amazing moments throughout that I’ll never forget. We made jewelry out of coke bottle caps with youth leaders, touched and tickled the wooden bars of a Marimba (a musical instrument like a xylophone) that is going to be played in front of Prince Harry next week, played Garifuna hand drums on the porch of the beach house, woke up to roosters at the crack of dawn, watched the sunrise and sunset in Hopkins and most importantly, heard lectures by various community leaders and intellectuals involved in sustainability, Indigenous community building and education and environmental activism.

One of my favourite memories was when our group decided to visit the first lecturer, Maya scholar Dr Filiberto Penados, at his home located on a small mountain of the village. Although he probably wasn’t expecting the entire group to visit him, we managed to squeezed onto his porch and listened to him talk about a school he founded that incorporates Indigenous knowledge and practices that helps build its students self esteem and connection to culture.

This is Dr. Penados’ porch where he gave an impromptu talk about Indigenous learning. It was probably one of the most memorable informal lectures I’ve heard.

Although I think learning can take place anywhere, leaving a St. George classroom and sitting on a professor’s porch in Belize was a treat that I’ll never forget. I hope you enjoy some of the snapshots from my learning experience in Belize (I’m not posting images of our field work with children in schools though) and I encourage students to take advantage of student exchanges because you never know what you might learn about a different country and culture, and most importantly, about yourself.

Erin

FYI: We didn’t stay in a beach house the entire trip but small hostel-like cabins complete with outhouses. Tarantulas were guests in our living spaces.

The handcranked ferry ride over the river to Xuanantunich.

The Maya site Xunantunich.

Canoeing down the Macal River. We crashed. Seriously.

A sampling of Belizean dishes.

I ate about a dozen burritos over eight days.

 

Hammering coke bottle caps to make recycled jewelry with a local community youth leader.

Some much deserve r&r on our second last day in Hopkins. We needed it after six days straight of field work and lectures. And yes, I did get a sunburn on my backside after forgetting to reapply my sunscreen.

Am I the Indian You Had In Mind?

At least twice a year, I reread Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories, which is an academic staple for students in my field, Aboriginal Studies. I’ve noticed every year, students tend to reference and gravitate towards the story “I’m Not the Indian You Had in Mind”. In this particular story, King, who identifies (at least on his book covers) as Cherokee and Greek, writes about his identity and how non-Native people have painfully racist expectations about what a Native person should look like (buckskin, feathers, the noble savage who lives on a reserve stereotype) based on popular culture.

About once a month, whenever I tell a stranger or classmate I am enrolled in the Aboriginal Studies program, they often respond, “Are you Native?” or “What band are you from?” or “Where up North do you live?”

Maybe it’s because I have an ambiguous look and straight, dark hair. Or maybe my penchant for vintage wool Pendleton bags (which I started wearing long before they became overpriced items associated with Opening Ceremony) act as a signifier (I honestly feel uncomfortable carrying the bags around school now). But I wonder, am I the Indian you had in mind?

The truth about my story is, I’m not Native. Not that I have ever pretended to be something that I am not. In fact, I come from a stock of the most notorious colonizers in Europe and Asia. But I find myself perplexed whenever someone asks me if I am Native after they have discovered what I study at U of T. It’s as though strangers have to justify to themselves why I am in this field of study. And to be honest, I find it a racist (and predictable) question. Everyone who has asked me this question has been White, including a professor abroad. In fact, I’ve actually never had a Native student ask me if I was Native. I can imagine why.

Native (and please excuse my use of this pan-Indigenous term I’ve been abusing throughout this piece) students are constantly scrutinized and judged unfairly on campus. Many people assume that Native students automatically get a free education (this is so untrue) based on the “fact” that they know one friend who is something like 1% Native or six degrees separated from Pocahontas, has a status card and gets major discounts and freebies (I’ve heard this popular tale told over and over again by non-Natives). Although some Native students get full funding for school from their bands, there are many who only get partial funding and some get none at all because there simply isn’t enough money around for their community to financially support them. Another issue is that when any discussion regarding Aboriginal peoples, culture, history or problems are being talked about in class, the non-Native professor and students will automatically look to the (lone) Native student with the expectation he or she have something to say about the topic of discussion. One Native Ph.D. student came into a class and briefly talked about how her actions were constantly misread in a university classroom. If the professor talked about residential schools and she got up to go to the washroom, other students would interpret her as the angry Native student leaving the class because she became upset or was protesting. My intention is to not speak for Native students on here because they can speak for themselves. I’m merely trying to point out how visible minorities and Native people on campus are categorized and stereotyped by others, which can be both exhausting, offensive and annoying.

I asked my light-skinned friends in African Studies and East Asian Studies if they are ever asked if they are African or East Asian (in the most general terms) once they tell someone their field of study. The answer is no. Most likely because they don’t “look” the part. They never have to justify why they are sitting in a particular class, people just grant them the status that they are interested in that particular field without question. When someone says they are studying biology, do we automatically follow up with the question, “Do you come from a family of biologists?”. From my recollection, the only time when students have ever voluntarily supplied information to me about their parents, it has been in the context of “my mommy/daddy is a doctor/lawyer”. But I wonder, am I not entitled to simply have an interest in Aboriginal studies without question? I think before you ask someone to declare their background after they told you their field of study, ask yourself why you are asking them in the first place and why does their heritage matter to you so much. It shouldn’t.

I guess the funny part is that I am also enrolled in the English program. And guess what? My mother’s side of the family is English. In fact, my great-grandparents had English accents and read English books! Yet, have I ever been asked once during my entire study at U of T if I was English? Never.

So now you know the truth about my story. What’s yours?

Erin

Celebrating Aboriginal Awareness Week and the Indigenous Writers Gathering at U of T

One of my favourite times of the school year is Aboriginal Awareness Week. It sort of feels like a holiday soiree happening between classes, when surprises, feasts and fun are around every corner at First Nations House. On Tuesday, I stepped into a soap stone carving workshop. A fellow classmate couldn’t hide her enthusiasm when she saw me. “This is SO much fun!” She said, rubbing the stone Inukshuk she was working on for the last hour. I was amazed to see what students and community members were creating out of soap stone. Can you spot a buffalo, bear and walrus?

That’s a caribou antler that will be made into a sculpture.

Although a lot of events have already happened (Indigenous activist Jessica Yee speaking about youth leadership, an Aboriginal Reiki workshop and Elder teachings) there is still a lot happening today and Friday. For budding writers, a lot of the events may be of particular interest to you. Also, as you scroll through the events, I recommend you listen to some Buffy Sainte Marie (if this was my personal blog, I would have written about her by now, guaranteed):

Thursday Feb 9

10:30 am – Journalism and the preservation of our stories in the electronic age with Waubgeshig Rice, Wab Kinew and Muskrat Magazine Publisher Rebeka Tabobongung. I’ve seen Waubgeshig Rice read from his novel, Midnight Sweatlodge and he has a booming and powerful voice that makes everything he reads and talks about sound alive. I’ve also watched Wab Kinew interview one of my idols, Buffy Sainte Marie and he can hold his own against the legendary singer and songwriter. Both Rice and Kinew work for CBC, so if you want to see some seasoned pros talk about Indigeneity issues and journalism, this promises to be a worthwhile event.

12:30 pm – Poetry and politics with Lee Maracle and Ryan Red Corn of the 1491s. I personally recommend attending this event as I’ve had the pleasure of being taught by Maracle at U of T. Maracle’s class was unforgettable because of her amazing storytelling ability. She’s a writer who can actually tell stories orally, not just on paper. I’ve gone to the International Festival of Authors on several occasions and have been horrified when I’ve heard internationally-acclaimed writers actually speak. If you want to be blown away, I recommend you check this event out.

Friday Feb 10 (I know you may not want to come to school on a Friday but I promise, it will be worth it)

10 am – Breakfast with the writers

12 pm –  Traditional storytelling and mythmaking with Daniel Heath Justice and Waubgeshig Rice. Justice is actually a professor of mine this year and I’ve noticed one of his strengths as a teacher is being able to make complicated huge ideas (such as traditional storytelling and mythmaking) a little less intimidating and accessible. I’m sure this will be a dynamic discussion for those interested in storytelling and oral tradition.

2 pm – Developing and utilizing writing groups with Bren Kolson and Lee Maracle. Creating a sense of community and a supportive place to work on your art is important. Students often talk about a lack of connection between one another at such a large institution like U of T, therefore a workshop that discusses the benefits of writing groups may inspire you to start up a small writing community and meet other individuals craving to connect.

4 pm – Writing for performance with the 1491′s Dallas Goldtooth and Ryan Red Corn and writer/performer AmberLee Kolson. I’m not entirely sure what to expect but my professor pumped the 1491s, a comedy sketch group “based in the wooded ghettos of Minnesota and buffalo grass of Oklahoma”.

Oh, wait. And the best part of these events is that they are all FREE! I hope you’ll be able to drop by First Nations House and check out the remaining events celebrating Aboriginal Awareness Week.

Erin 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Double Double: Why two professors are better than one

This year, something amazing has happened in three of my courses. My teachers have multiplied, meaning, I’ve had a number of classes with co-professors/instructors. Yes, two for the price of one. This seems highly unusual and has never happened to me before. In some cases, the co-instructors do not have a Ph.D. but their background and long history of working and living in the specific field the course is focused on makes their knowledge invaluable. Personally, I love when some of my teachers come from non-academic backgrounds. It reminds me of the rich and fulfilling world outside of academia that I sometimes lose touch with as I plough through endless readings and march back and forth between classes. Instructors from outside of the confines of university bring with them the prospect that there is life beyond these books and walls.

That's supposed to be a double double heart, not an advertisement for Tim Hortons' "lattes"!

For starters, you’ll probably end up bonding with one over the other. It’s like a toddler who has shown favouritism towards one parent. You’ll just naturally gravitate towards one, want to go to their office hours and if you need to approach them, you’ll end up giving way more eye contact to the person you most identify with. This is natural. Everyone has favourites.

Also, I’m not sure if you’ve ever been in a class and wondered if the professor would act or lecture differently if a colleague was in the room watching him or her speak.  I won’t lie. Once I sat in a classroom two days a week and watched a professor unenthusiastically read his lectures. I was actually shocked the stale lectures weren’t memorized because they sounded at least 30 years old and recycled every year. I remember how the professor would finally look up from his lecture notes when he was finished speaking and cooly ask what our opinion of the novel was, followed mockingly by a comment that our answer “couldn’t be wrong because we were simply stating our opinions”. He asked this question without fail every week. But what he really failed in doing was inspiring interesting dialogue among classmates.

Sitting in my desk, I often wondered, would this professor talk to his peers this way? If he was at a conference with his colleagues, would he crack a smile when he spoke? Would he speak with more passion and actually change the intonation in his voice? Wouldn’t he feel ashamed if his colleagues heard him speak to students in such a degrading manner? When another person in a position of power is present in the room, dynamics change which is the benefit of having two teachers, instead of one, present in the classroom. Whether or not they realize it, the two instructors are observing one another and taking note of their teaching methods which I think is a plus. I’ve heard stories about students who have felt insulted or offended by something a professor has said to the class. These students felt intimidated and did not want to jeopardize their marks by confronting the professor. I feel like if another professor was present they might be able to challenge the offender without consequences.

I also just like to watch how instructors and professors interact with one another. I’ve noticed in every class how they always sit together, side by side. They become magnets, inseparable BFFs. Sometimes, they talk in hushed tones to one another as though they are speaking a secret language only professors can understand while students do group work. They’ll joke and laugh. They seem to telepathically communicate through eye contact when they separate. They listen attentively to one another. They act polite and wait their turn to speak. And although they may not agree with everything the other person has said, I’ve never seen an emotionally-charged dispute or meltdown happen between two instructors (whereas I’ve seen this happen on several occasions between students who are clearly not listening very carefully to one another). Co-instructors show respect, not only for one another but students as well.

If only everyone in the classroom could joke and laugh and truly listen to one another and politely wait to speak. I feel like co-instructors are teaching us a hidden lesson that might not be the one we were expecting to hear or see that day. But the lesson is there. If you are lucky enough to have two instructors teach a course, pay attention. They are teaching us a coded language full of signs of respect. How to act towards one another. Treat one another. Listen to one another.

This sounds like a lecture but is not meant to be one. And although I love reciprocation and feedback from readers, I definitely won’t ask, “What did you think of my post? You can’t be wrong because you’re simply stating your opinion.” I just want you to know that hearing your opinion is always a treat and I appreciate any feedback.

And before I forget: I actually have a class taught by two professors that was cancelled this week! So it is a myth in thinking that a class taught by two people will never be cancelled because one will always be around. Oh, the odds.

Erin

 

 

To be sick, or not to be sick, that is the question

Last week, I was sick. Upon coming home from school, I walked to my bed and passed out. Physically-deficient and mentally-drained, my poor health was legitimized by a doctor’s note saying that I would not be back until this week. I needed to rest. Sleep. Drink fluids. Take vitamins. Curl up into those overpriced Marimekko sheets that I really shouldn’t have bought and sleep for hours, nights, even days. REST!!!

Who wouldn't want to fall asleep in this Finnish bedding set? Apparently, me.

 

Yet I panicked. Particularly about two classes. One seminar course I am in has three students (I am included in this number). If I am absent, it’s pretty obvious. Not to mention that I made a pact with the two students to always go to class otherwise things could get awkward. Another course, Inuktitut, is a language class. If I miss one three-hour lesson I will be severely behind and then I really won’t know what anyone is saying (this is already a minor problem when I actually attend class).

 

I decided to drag myself to school. Be an active participant. Listen (although my hearing was a little off). Try to speak Inuktitut (in a nasal accent). Take notes (bad ones because of the blurry eyesight). I actually ended up sitting beside another student who was recovering from something else in Inuktitut. We shared the tissue box. Either way, I would have felt bad going or not going to school. Since my illness was not contagious, I didn’t feel like I was going to make my classmates sick although I think because my immune system was down I caught something new. I also feel like I wouldn’t have slept if I stayed home but would have been awake in bed obsessed with what I was missing.

 

This is the second time I have been ill this winter and my greatest fear is that my professors won’t believe me when I say I am sick (which is why I always get a pricey doctor’s note). Isn’t that terrible? But it’s true. I’m always paranoid that I might come across as a lazy student who can’t be bothered to roll out of bed and make a bad impression on faculty. So I usually push myself to do things I shouldn’t be doing to save face. A sad looking, exhausted face with sore eyes that can’t stay open. But face, nonetheless.

 

This year I am constantly surprised by how supportive and understanding my professors have been whenever I’ve confided or relayed any personal information about myself. When I told the professor who teaches the three person seminar that I was not feeling very well, she told me to not worry about missing a class. Since I’ve had her before, she knows that I have a solid work ethic and I don’t use excuses in order to get out of class or work.

 

I wish I listened to my body instead of guilty conscience (you can still walk, you aren’t that sick!) and overactive imagination (my professors will think I am skipping class because I am lazy!) because by Friday, after attending nearly all of my classes, I felt extremely horrible and was miserable at my father’s birthday.

 

If you have any concerns about missing school because you are not well, I really encourage students to contact their Registrar’s office. Also, get a sick note, if possible, from your doctor. And don’t be afraid of letting your professor know that you are not well and may not come to class. Professors get ill, too, because they are only human. I guess being sick reminds me that I am only human, too.

Erin