What we can do in a short time

After five years, I’m on my way out. Here’s what I’ve seen—and am still seeing

The first Sunday I spent in the Medium office, then–features editor Amir Ahmed said he was going to a nearby Thai joint for lunch and offered me a ride. I was a little nervous, not knowing anyone there, but I joined him. If I remember right, he bought my $10 takeout, and while we waited, he sat down with me and told me about the paper. I asked vaguely if there could be such a thing as a history of random items column called “How did that get here?” To my surprise, he was game. So I started writing.

That was five years ago. I had just started second year, rosy-cheeked, not interested in much more than taking whatever courses looked interesting.

A lot has changed since then.

Both my perspective on how things go at a university and many real qualities of the place have changed. This is hardly the UTM I knew when I first came, for both reasons. The shape of it has altered dramatically. I know it well enough even to pick out the subtle infrastructure changes, paving and streetlights and signage. Soon there will be no North. Even the names have changed; my year will be one of the last to call Davis “South”. And though I don’t like to contemplate it, some of my favourite people here are hovering on the brink of retirement.

Politically some things remain the same. Some people have been in UTMSU seven years or more. Slogans never change, campaigns never change, team colours never change. Not substantially. Last year while putting together our retrospective magazine, I saw that confirmed on a massive scale over the last 40 years. And it seems like some things will always remain the same.

Maybe not always, though. I was astonished to hear that Brighter won the downtown union elections. None of their executive candidates are current execs, which is unheard of. When I spoke to incoming VP internal Ryan Gomes, who was sipping a Booster Juice in the Meeting Place while his rival candidates kept stopping passersby towards the end of voting hours, I joked that he would never win an election this way. He needed to be breaking the Elections Procedure Code, going door to door, putting up posters in residences, writing on chalkboards, all of which he said Change was doing. He laughed and said no, they wanted to run a clean campaign. And they sent the incumbents packing.

This is new. I hope next year’s Medium keeps an eye out for the unusual situations that will arise from a political environment built around an exec team that normally has a different heritage and opinion about how UTSU should be run. And all the while they’ll be coping with the need to establish a new board structure to avoid what could be serious consequences for the union.

Meanwhile, my perspective on our university has deepened and shifted as well. One former editor recalls a letter from a student who chided him: “You shouldn’t question what the administration is doing.” I think the strike has changed everyone’s mind about that who still believed it. Rarely do we get such high-profile adversaries circling each other on a battlefield covered by every major Toronto news outlet and have the opportunity to judge the goings-on here as they appear to the wider world. And some surprising things were done.

The strike unbalanced the university. Their reaction was conservative, careful. And I hope everyone sees that the eventual solution is a compromise. I know one too many undergrads, particularly first-years, who will be glad to learn that they can have as many CR/NCR courses as they like, as well as late withdrawals (without refunds for the vaporized class time, at least as far as we’ve heard). They’re excited because it’s hard to give up a treat and ask for real nutrition. Not giving out grades because of a lack of graders is a diminished education.

Yes, you don’t have to suffer for lost marks you couldn’t earn while your TAs were out blocking the entrances. But for some students, this represents lost weeks of hard work. For some who need a GPA boost after a bad first few years and who might have been poised to recoup their average partway through the semester, it represents lost opportunities. For those applying to competitive grad programs, it represents a lack of proof of their capability. Sure, the university will send a letter with each transcript explaining the circumstances. But it will still be a void where other applicants will have a number.

Most importantly, your chance to be taught and have your personal learning evaluated has been eroded. And though the university is doing what it can to help you cope, its basic position is still that a semester without its final third is still a semester.

We learn by being taught. I owe more than I know to the many people who helped me out in my time here. These include the aforementioned Amir, still a trusted friend; Alain Latour, who first hired me, a wide-eyed youngster; Saaliha Malik, who began the work of uprooting from the paper the longstanding elements that held it back; Michael Di Leo, the single biggest force of positive change in years, whose hand touched every facet of the company and reformed it; Stefanie Marotta, whose conception of what journalism should be is still the bedrock of our own; and Larissa Ho, who shared so much of it with me.

What amazes me when I think about it is that these are all students. All of this drama is played out on an essentially student-owned field—yes, despite who controls the money, who controls the campaign materials, who controls whether we have tutorials. All of this apparatus is here because we are. We can be a disorganized, lazy bunch sometimes, but we can also be an impassioned, energetic, informed force. We are here because we are in the process of being changed; and if we change what we find here too, we will have done well.


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