The course uses experiential learning to enhance student engagement and gain a better understanding of the city
It’s the first day of summer classes on the Ryerson Campus and one of Ryerson’s most popular courses, The Geography of Toronto (GEO 793) is taking place. Unlike other courses, students are instructed to meet at the Allan Gardens Conservatory on their first day.
As with most introductions to new courses, students expect an overview of the syllabus with a brief lecture about the course content. However, this course’s syllabus functions much differently. Rather than listening to a three-hour lecture where students take notes on a set of PowerPoint slides, these students go on a tour around the City of Toronto.
On that day last summer, during their first lesson at Allan Gardens, students got a chance to participate in a smudging ceremony hosted by singer, artist and activist Aqua Nibii Waawaaskone. Nibii Waawaaskone who is Anishinaabe Kwe, taught students about her traditional drumming and singing, regaling them with stories related to her Indigenous ancestry and the colonization that took place on the grounds they were standing on.
PhD candidate Amber Grant who is a sessional Geography instructor at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson and the creator of the walking tours says it was important to have Nibii Waawaaskone as her first guest in order for students to understand where the geography of Toronto stems from.
“When we start talking about the geography of Toronto, and what the city of Toronto is, you have to start with that Indigenous perspective,” says Grant.
GEO 793 is the Department of Geography and Environment Studies’s most popular course, according to Dave Atkinson, chair of the department. He says there are nine different sections for the class this term amounting to an average of 1,000 students per term.
The course began in 2008 when it was created by now retired faculty member, Michael Doucet. But it began to grow in popularity when sessional instructor Valentina Capurri started instructing in 2010, Atkinson says. That popularity jumped again in 2018 when Grant changed the syllabus and since then the interest hasn’t stopped, he says.
“Students start to realize with geography that it’s not just about making maps, that geography is really about space and place and how we interact with that space in place, and then how we affect it, and it affects us,” says Aktinson.
Grant had only taught the course once when she “reinvented” the syllabus in the spring and summer of 2018. She received funding from the Community-Engaged Learning and Teaching office at Ryerson to bring speakers into the class and take students on field trips to give them more of that “real world” experience and “community-led” perspective.
Given the networks she made throughout her career, Grant says she felt she wouldn’t be able to do the course justice without including voices that reflect the social and political climate of Toronto today. That includes teaching students about the parts of the city that often get neglected, she says, like homelessness and sex work and the housing crisis.
“Considering how diverse Toronto is, it was important and necessary to integrate different perspectives, ideas, and experiences,” says Grant. “This included the experiences of Black and Indigenous community leaders, folks who have experienced homelessness, sex workers, politicians, community health-workers, activists, and urban planners.”.
Along with Nibii Waawaaskone, Grant brought in two other guest guides for the walking tours last semester. She says she wanted to have three individuals who had all experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.
Anthony Schofield is a street outreach worker who is another guide for the course. Schofield, who was homeless for 18 years, applies his lived experiences as well as the experiences of people he’s met through his various teaching jobs and outreach work.
“I was taking people on a two-and-half hour tour… without exploiting any of the people because I know the people, and I’m proud of the people,” says Schofield. He says he would show people how institutions like the Salvation Army or the Good Shepherd Ministries were not enough to meet the needs of the homeless.
Ryerson Alumni, Piradeep Nalvarunendrarasah explained his eye-opening experience with the city’s decision to implement metal dividers in between bench seats. This so-called cosmetic change had a bigger impact on his understanding of homelsessness in the city than he realized.
“I remember in class, we learned about benches in Toronto and how they would put these metal rods in between them so that homeless people couldn’t sleep on them,” says Nalvarunendrarasah. He also mentions how important it was for him to see the effects of these changes in person rather than seeing pictures of a bench or reading about it in a textbook.
According to Eric Cox, author of Experiential Learning and Learning Styles, learning happens as a result of transactions between a person and their environment. New interactions with the world and their individual experiences help modify old concepts about the world.
GEO 793 also gives an opportunity for students to see perspectives outside their campus surroundings. Ryerson Alumni, Aleksander Maksimoski says one of his tours involved taking a walk around Sherbourne and Gerrard Streets to understand the area of community housing that is not very visible from the downtown core.
Maksimoski says he learned about the importance of safe injection sites and about different economic classes. He also learned that community members would often seek help from people they were close to, rather than police officers, if they encountered any issues or problems.
“Because I was very immersed in just academics, I didn’t really think about what was happening (around me) and how the environment is changing, or the impact of urbanization on these people,” says Maksimoski. “I got to realize things that I didn’t (know) before.”
Near the end of the course last semester, Grant had her class attend a panel discussion with Kristyn Wang-Tam, the Toronto Centre city councillor, in addition to city developers at the University of Toronto to discuss the changes being made to the The Local Planning Appeal Tribunal.
Grant says that having different voices for the class solidifies that it is a shared space. She believes it is important to make sure everyone feels they can contribute to the class’ teachings.
Ryerson alumnus Christina Polera says when she looks back at the course, she recalls her experiences walking around the city much more than she remembers what was being taught during lectures.
“I couldn’t tell you exactly what was on the exam or what the PowerPoints had, but I definitely remember the experiences of (the tours) and that, I think, is what made it so memorable,” she says.
Students who want to take the course can do so by registering on Ryerson’s Administrative Management Self Service (RAMSS) during their scheduled course enrollment and those taking the course during the spring and summer semester can also register through the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education.