Discuss: A Globalizing Institution, A Changing Student Body

UTSC is exploring new ways to engage with its globally connected students

Patricia Landolt and Ju Hui Judy Han

"Students have this richness in their lives that we really need to engage with."

Students at UTSC lead global lives. Many are first- or second-generation immigrants with ties to a number of places in the world. Others have travelled or lived abroad, and they too stay connected to these places and moments.

Department of Sociology Chair Patricia Landolt and Ju Hui Judy Han, assistant professor in the Department of Human Geography, discuss how the diversity of students’ global experiences enrich the classroom, and what new opportunities are created in the process.

Patricia Landolt: Students have this richness in their lives that we really need to engage with. Many are young, suburban, and live in Scarborough. This is the first identity they present in the classroom, but then you learn that their lives are rich with global experiences. Putting these things together has meant that the curriculum needs to take the local and the global seriously. We’ve made changes to the curriculum in sociology—for instance, through a new course called Immigrant Scarborough—and we’re thinking about how we can engage the students’ global lives and migration histories, and bring them into the classroom.

Ju Hui Judy Han: In geography and city studies courses, too, we try to use Toronto and especially Scarborough as a living laboratory for the study of socio-spatial change. We can create a more empowering learning environment by connecting processes of global transformation with the changing social and cultural geography of the local communities.

In a recent class I asked students to write about their travel experiences.  Many students wrote about travelling locally in the province or to the United States, but many of them also talked about travelling to the birthplaces of their parents, or visiting cousins they grew up with but hadn’t seen in a long time. These travel stories were so compelling that I recruited a group of students to work on an online publication. This was the start of On the Move: an undergraduate journal of creative geographies.

PL: I find one issue is that teaching in “multicultural Canada” makes it difficult to get students to think about race, racialization and ethnicity in more critical ways. There’s a layer of  “We’re supposed to be thinking positively about multiculturalism.” Getting to the more critical versions of how their parents experienced racism, or that they work in factories even though they have professional degrees—this takes a lot of relationship building.

JH: That’s very true! Critical self-reflection can be overwhelming and it takes courage to rock the boat. Critique should not be confused with dismissal or drawing foregone conclusions. I think that as teachers, we have a responsibility to present the tools for critical inquiry but be open to the outcome.

PL: So the question is, how do you engage in discussion with students who don’t want to be too critical about this kind of dual life? I think one way is by using the language of the diaspora—rethinking citizenship as transnational, for instance, by complicating family structures to include long distance relationships people maintain on Facebook or Skype. Of course, the challenge is to emphasize the importance of critique without simply denouncing something.

JH: And the thing about working with a diverse group of students is that I don’t always know where they are coming from.
There was a particularly revealing moment in class when we discussed the Japanese American and Japanese Canadian internment experience during World War II. A surprising number of students had never learned before that the Canadian government had displaced citizens and incarcerated them. They were shocked and outraged. But even more surprisingly, some of the most critical students in class had a very lukewarm response. One student said to the whole class, “I don’t really understand what the big deal is. It’s a lot better than the refugee camps that I grew up in, and none of us got any reparations.”
Wow. It was humbling. When the historical injustice or inequality we discuss in the classroom pale in comparison to the depth of the students’ own experiences, it’s very humbling.

PL: These moments really capture the diversity of what the global can mean. How do we respect them all and bring them into classroom discussion?
We also need to remember that many UTSC students have grown up together and actually know a lot about each other. In some ways, they already have an intimate knowledge of cultural hybridity and global transformations.

JH: That reminds me, I was surprised when an Afghani student came to me during office hours, and professed her love of K-pop, Korean pop music. It turns out some of her best friends were Korean, and she had high school teachers who were Korean. There’s so much that they already know, and of course there’s a lot to critically examine and perhaps unlearn.

PL: That really captures the idea that the global exists in the local, and that we live in the midst of ongoing processes of transformation and hybridization.

JH: And that we are all implicated in this messy, messy world.