Dean Young speaks about how the law school is operating during the pandemic
Donna Young, the dean of Ryerson University’s Faculty of Law, spoke with the Ryersonian about how the new law school has been doing during the pandemic. Currently located on the fourth floor of the Podium, the Faculty of Law started classes in September 2020. In the early days of the pandemic, the school offered a unique classroom experience that gave students the option to attend classes either in-person or virtually.
Since then, the school has had to adapt its teaching methods, like the rest of the university. While having to grapple with the changing nature of the pandemic, the law school was presented with the additional challenge of being a new faculty at the university — responsible for executing a curriculum for a professional program that is the first of its kind at Ryerson.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
How would you say the law school has adapted to the pandemic?
We have adapted to the pandemic in ways that everyone has. We were able to offer two classes in-person last semester, but those were both in-person and remote. They had to be transformed into fully remote in November when the City of Toronto had new lockdown procedures. We were able, in the fall, to make some of our spaces in the law school available to students, but they didn’t get a lot of use. Because of the course of the pandemic, it would have been difficult for students to have to follow all of the protocols, which required face masks and social distancing, while trying to have most of their classes online…It was miraculous how well it worked out but it’s subpar. It’s not the way that we’re going to move forward. So I’m really looking forward to getting back on campus and meeting all of our students, faculty, and staff.
How did the hybrid in person and virtual classes work?
We had two classes; one was in torts and one was in property, with two different instructors. They used a large lecture hall in TRSM that would have held 500 students normally, but we reduced it to 50 students. Of the 58 students in the class, between 10 and 20 students showed up for class and they were socially distant. So there was a massive lecture hall with very few students in it and that worked quite well. Both professors were teaching to the students in front of them and then to students on Zoom (via livestream). This was a model that was seen in other universities. I would say it’s not the ideal model but I think the professors and students thought that it worked out relatively well under the circumstances.
Why was the decision to do that made in the first place? Why not just go straight to virtual?
This is very early on in the pandemic when things were very unclear. We didn’t know what the pandemic was going to look like in September, but we did survey our students and it was something like 75 per cent of our students wanted to come to campus. That was understandable. This is the very first set of students, they wanted to build a community and a culture, they wanted to meet all of us, they wanted to meet each other. So with that survey, we planned for as many on campus activities as possible, under the circumstances. We spent months making sure that we could hire enough security, hire enough personnel and get the rooms available to accommodate students on campus.
It wasn’t as difficult for the law school to be able to offer that as it was for other faculties (given that the law school had only 150 students). The number of courses that we offered was determined by the faculty who were willing to be on campus and we did everything we could to facilitate that. The decision was made partly through surveying the students to see what their interest was and surveying the faculty to see if they were able to come to campus. And what we got at the end of that process were two classes on campus.
How are you ensuring that students are getting the education they need given these circumstances?
The faculty are in touch with the students and the students are really engaged. The faculty are doing their courses, some of them synchronously, some of them asynchronously. They are holding regular office hours and they are engaging with the students in different ways. We have an incredible administrative team in student services checking in with the students to make sure they’re on track going through what they need to do. And then the other thing is that the students themselves have organized themselves to provide support.
We have a really strong Ryerson law student society that is acting as the liaison between the student body and the faculty, and they’re giving us feedback. We have a lot of communication back and forth to make sure that things are on track. The other thing, of course, is that our faculty is amazing. It would be better if we were doing this in person, but we’re doing a really good job and we’ve been getting some very good feedback.
How would you say the school has been alleviating stress from students?
(Student support staff) do weekly check-ins and drop-ins which they make available to all of the students. The administration staff has been providing weekly updates that remind students that there are health and wellness services available for them through counselling support and other programs at the university. Our staff has put together a mentorship program for our students with upper level law students. There are biweekly check-ins with the student government. There is online support for any student who might be struggling. The students also have been reaching out directly to members of the administration. It’s a bit of an open door policy, they can always reach out to us, and then sometimes depending on what it is, we respond as a team or individually and are able to get them the help that they need.
What are the plans for the school in the future?
Right now we’re working really hard on putting together the curriculum for the second and the third year, making sure that we’re mapping out the IPC (integrated practice curriculum) components, just making sure that we’re checking the boxes for what it is that we must do.
The other thing that we’re doing is we are focusing on three different areas in terms of research initiatives, centres, and think tanks. One is a racial justice initiative, a law and tech initiative, and an Aboriginal and Indigenous law initiative. These initiatives will be concentrated areas in the law school to distinguish Ryerson and our expertise in terms of research, integrating these ideas into our curriculum, and bringing in visiting scholars who can enhance our programs.
In terms of clinical offerings, we’ve put together a proposal for graduate programs. We hope by the year after next, we will have the ability to offer graduate programs. We’re internationalizing our school. We also are going to be working on student programs so that our students can go elsewhere, participate in programs internationally. We’re planning clinical programs and community outreach programs. We have a lot to offer. We’re hiring faculty. We are looking for permanent space for the law school. Where we are now is transitional, so we’ve already started looking for a permanent space and we’re making plans for that.