If there is one thing that we, as participants in postsecondary learning environments understand, it is the power of precedents. As students, we attend convocations, frosh week, lectures and seminars, watching and learning from those who have gone before us. Educators work to impart time-tested learning techniques to fresh 18 year olds, hoping that they will steep themselves in a lineage of intellectual thought and, perhaps, add something to that legacy. Together, we create models of the world we want to see, and hope that graduates enact it out there, somewhere.
Sadly, our impulse to follow tradition is a double-edged sword. By tacitly placing our trust in the way our classrooms typically operate and by reinforcing traditional learning patterns, we consent to the politics, or power relations, of those spaces, and we replay these patterns elsewhere.
Often, the invisible lesson students learn is passivity – a consistent pattern of disengagement and detachment from the world around us. We learn to be silent and keep still, to forgo asking questions so as not to disturb the status quo of the classroom. In classes that are explicitly political in content, both students and faculty often acknowledge that the classroom is a political space; yet little seems to change. In classes that aren’t nominally political, neither professors nor students broach the topic. The students who benefit from these precedents continue to do so while those on the margins stay there, because the status quo – inside academia and out – is warped.
The status quo is one that accepts that 18- to 24-year-olds in Canada will vote half as often as people who are aged 65 to 74, where youth un- and under-employment is rife and where tuition fees are spiraling upwards. It is also a status-quo where structural oppressions – racism and sexism being two of many – still put qualified individuals at a disadvantage in the workplace and the academy.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2006 (the last time the Employment Equity Data Report contained group profiles), Black university graduates were more than twice as likely to be unemployed as graduates who were not a visible minority, had an earnings gap of 23 percent even though they were just as likely to be qualified, and were consistently underrepresented in managerial, professional and skilled jobs. Women, despite being in the majority of those with a bachelor’s degree, were far less likely to attain a graduate degree, with 46.5 percent getting a master’s and 31.6 percent getting a PhD. The boardroom is no better – only 14.5 percent of directors of FP500 companies are women, according to the Conference Board of Canada. This is not to mention the lived experiences of micro-aggressions, violence and silencing that frame many marginalized people’s experiences on a day-to-day basis in Canada, or to begin to touch on the legacy of (ongoing) colonialism within First Nations communities.
There is a naïve belief that the classroom space is detached from the oppressions and silences of the real world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only do we bring that baggage with us, we also learn how to tokenize and to silence others in lecture halls as much as we do at home, among friends and family.
The complicated, sometimes painful, experiences of marginalized people in postsecondary institutions are rarely acknowledged by anyone, least of all by those who purport to be collecting information on student engagement. These university surveys, routinely thrown at all students to bolster their institution’s sense of pride and prestige, reinforce the invisible message that the student experience is not made for those of us who don’t subscribe to any norm that a survey might implicitly present.
A call to end structural inequity would be pointless in this venue. There is room, however, for all who are invested in the health of our postsecondary institutions to move beyond our current paradigm. The first step is acknowledging that everything we do as part of the academy is political. By accepting that, we discard a misplaced sense of neutrality or objectivity, allowing us to start making decisions about which precedents we want to accept and which ones we want to discard. That decision-making process is partly about determining our aims for postsecondary institutions. It will be a long and arduous discussion, but one that is worth having.
I doubt that such a wide-scale conversation is likely to start any time soon, despite the best efforts of many activists, educators, organizers and students. Nevertheless, within classrooms, talking about how to make the classroom more equitable could be a catalyst for wider change. Even in courses that have no explicitly political content, having the political dimensions of the classroom directly addressed by a professor could make a world of difference for those of us who suffer the status quo in silence.
This is the sixth installment of our series Student Voices written by the 10 Canadian postsecondary students who were named 2014 3M National Student Fellows, awarded by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada.