Porosity: The capacity to absorb. Having interstices into and through which material can pass. Could this be a university value?

It is not the rigorous stuff that carries academic and curricular value in universities. It is not fun enough for students if it is only promoted as a social good. It is not tangible enough to be community outreach. It is definitely not the eager, aspirational, go-getting sort of thing that makes it onto a university capital campaign priority list. But all of this should be rethought.

Ideas for the World

In a program called Ideas for the World at Victoria College at the University of Toronto, we take a crack at making the walls of the university a bit more porous. The program has 10 sections, all of which are designed around meals. Lunch groups have a cap of 25 students who meet with a different faculty member, public figure, or professional every week for an open discussion led by the guest. Sections have included: Art, architecture and building culture; Culture and conflict in the media; Science in society; Environment and economics; Religion in the public sphere; and The purpose, power and politics of the university.

Weekly topics include such things as what forms our views of scientific doubt and scientific risk, and how the media can influence which wars we think are just. Students consider whether forced quarantine is sometimes socially necessary (for instance with new drug-resistant strains of TB); whether Muslim prayer should be allowed in public schools; whether or how evidence-based medicine represents a shift from traditional paradigms of diagnosing and treating patients. They ask how religion is involved in forming public opinion around international policy (especially in the U.S.); how science, morality, and the law intertwine around the issue of HIV status disclosure; how architecture and power relate; and how the media can sometimes influence people to believe things, even against the evidence. And in the section that considers the university itself (led by our own President, Philosophy Professor Paul Gooch, with various guest speakers) themes have included: why academic freedom is so important; the issue of donors influencing curricular decisions; how the government influences how universities function; and the (not-surprisingly heated) question of who sets priorities for universities and on what basis.

The pool of speakers includes artists, architects, lawyers, doctors, nurses, politicians, epidemiologists, theologians, environmentalists, university presidents and provosts, faculty and administrators, scientists, journalists, ethicists, urban planners, and activists. The students boast a complete mishmash of disciplines, backgrounds, years of study, and non-academic interests.

Invitation to the discussion, the flow of conversation, and the disciplinary boundaries are definitely porous.

On Tuesday evenings the program gets even more porous, welcoming thirty undergraduate mentors and thirty recruits from community centres, shelters, learning centres, churches and food banks. In the fall they take Humanities for Humanity (H4H), which has been running for eight years, and is now a shared venture between Victoria and Trinity Colleges.1 In the spring a new group rolls in for the Theatre for Thought (T4T) program, started three years ago at Victoria College as part of Ideas for The World. In H4H, faculty and other speakers give lectures on the history of humanities, including works from the so-called canon, but also works from outside and critical of it. In T4T, mini-lectures on theatrical works precede performances of selections from the plays (put on by student volunteers with a volunteer staff director).

At the beginning of each term, community members show up at the ivy-rimmed entrance to the college, and are greeted by students. Many look daunted and hesitant, but they come in.They sit down and tentatively listen to introductory remarks about why education is liberating, the importance of sometimes re-thinking long-held beliefs, and the benefits of collaborative and critical learning. They get a sampling from the program’s faculty advisor of the topics they’ll cover for the term, ranging, for example, from Plato’s Apology, to Adam Smith, Machiavelli, Las Casas, Hobbes, Darwin, Marx, De Beauvoir, Fanon, and Dionne Brand. Or theatre ranging from Greek tragedy, Roman comedy, and Medieval and Renaissance theatre through to modern and contemporary plays like Sartre’s No Exit, Thompson Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, and Moisés Kaufman’s Laramie Project. They’re told it will cover a wide swath of material including difficult, challenging topics. Some are very excited, and most are interested but quiet (so far) and not outwardly convinced they can do it (yet).

The students, on the other hand, have come to help people. They want to be mentors, and are ready to facilitate discussions. Most of them are also a bit unsure, but at least the environment is familiar. They can’t resist the social compulsion to sit in a clump on one side of the room, despite previous instructions to mingle. The community members (with a few notably bold exceptions) sit on the other side. It’s like a bad high school dance. Everyone wants to be there but only a few have it in them to get the party started. Then fairly quickly, the group gels.

After each lecture, breakout groups, including mentors and community participants equally dispersed among them, discuss the material. The mentor-led discussion evolves into genuine conversation pretty quickly, and a few weeks in it is difficult to tell mentors apart from the participants. The real-life knowledge of the community participants puts into context the academic experience of the students. And the academic knowledge of the students puts into context the real-life experience of the participants. In some healthy way, the community members become surer of themselves while the undergraduates become less so. There is great respect. And the learning is as reciprocal as it gets.

In one lecture, a prominent politician came in to give a lecture on Hobbes’ Leviathan. He explained the Hobbesian position that it is necessary for the general population to give up certain liberties and invest authority in their leaders in order to maintain security and peace for the whole society. In some typical university classrooms, this might just be recorded on clicking laptops. Or better yet, a good debate would ensue and discussions about authority, democracy, rights and privilege would unfold.

In this particular class, however, it went haywire. One community member told the politician to go to hell (actually, she used the F-word). She said she’d been disempowered her whole life, so putting more power in some government agent’s hands would just take more out of hers. Compelling, and slightly uncomfortable. Then an undergrad student mentor said that might be fine for some kinds of freedoms, like driving without a seatbelt, but that some freedoms are inalienable so can’t be taken or given away. Giving up freedom is the first step to tyranny. Interesting. Then a recent immigrant stood up and said he had just come from a war-torn country. “If you had seen people you loved murdered and raped you would give up almost anything for peace.” Everyone was speechless.

Our lecturer was Bob Rae, and he deftly and respectfully weighed in, saying that everyone was likely right, which is why it was such an important discussion. From that point on, the conversation moved fluidly and intelligently through difficult academic material with a constant eye on what serious realities and personal experiences lay in the balance. And it was a very typical night for the program.

Reciprocity between the city and the university

The university has often been criticized for being an ivory tower of elitism, moral detachment, or abstruse impracticality. Universities do, though, have many terrific programs that reach out to people in the community who might not otherwise be on an academic trajectory. At the U of T we have terrific bridging programs, transitional year programs, and others like the Let’s Talk Science initiative, and there are many impressive programs at other institutions as well.2 The question I want to raise here is how these programs can reach out to the community around us, and also bolster the things we value at the university and address some of the internal ‘crises’ of our institutions. Can academic outreach be reciprocal?

What do universities seem publicly and typically to value? Of course, academic research and teaching are at the top of the list, as well they should be. We also hear about pushing boundaries, being globally connected, the importance of co-curricular involvement, and the centrality of student experience. We understand the importance of curricular breadth and the need to embrace demographic diversity. We know that multicultural experience enhances student creativity, success, and engagement—we urge and often fund students to go abroad to experience something unfamiliar. Leadership and innovation are the stuff of institutional fundraising campaigns, and talk of learning outcomes is so pervasive that we might begin to think that utility is more important than thought.

We are also now drenched in discussions of the problems at universities. The ‘crisis’ has been variously attributed to the serious rise in the prevalence (or visibility) of mental health problems in the student body,3 burgeoning class size, and student apathy. The publish or perish imperative for faculty may also be the malefactor. Or possibly government cutbacks, technocratic and/or bureaucratic anti-intellectualism, the shrinking income gap between university and high school grads, the fear of underemployment of graduates or the devaluation (and underfunding) of humanities and liberal arts. Then there’s the clamour for the almighty GPA and its attendant unhealthy competition. There is a widely held blanket view that universities have been corporatized, and that students are simply entitled career-shoppers who have disengaged from serious study, and faculty have consequently recoiled from the classroom and retreated to research. And sadly, there’s no shortage of testimony or data saying that all of this is leaving students lonely, alienated, and feeling hopeless.

Perhaps there is no real crisis, or perhaps there are so many crises that we should just stop using that language. In any case, there seem to be some serious grounds for concern.

We know that universities can’t be everything to everyone. But if we really process even part of the inventory of so-called crises, it’s difficult to deny that we need to look for some creative solutions. The National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE)—which many of us can hardly bear to hear mentioned one more time—does have useful data. It would be difficult for it not to, given that over 1500 institutions in the U.S. and Canada have participated and that millions of students have been surveyed.

Even with a healthy dose of skepticism about surveys (and especially the reporting of their results), it is difficult to deny that students would learn more, and arguably learn better, if they had some of the experiences that contribute to engagement. Those include more varied and meaningful student-faculty interaction; a high level of academic challenge; more opportunities to experience diversity and meet with people from different cultural backgrounds; building quality relationships with other students; and having a campus environment where students can have academic and social relationships and conversations outside of the classroom.

The fact that droves of students are saying that they wish they had more faculty contact isn’t trivial. They’re not asking for more movies in the lecture hall or pedagogy with jokes or to have kegs in the residence halls. They’re asking for academic contact, which is great. That brings us to the question of the faculty themselves. The lore is that professors have become disenchanted with students whom they perceive to be overly entitled and dismissive. I don’t entirely buy it. I don’t believe they have become disenchanted. If anything, they lament the apathy of students, and keep trying. Ideas for the World features very accomplished faculty members who have enthusiastically volunteered their services year after year, and who have now ushered over 500 students through the program. We need to bring faculty and students together outside the classroom.

And when a significant majority of students say they feel very lonely, overwhelmed and anxious, almost 40 per cent say they feel so depressed it is difficult to function, and over nine per cent of students are saying they have seriously considered committing suicide (and all of that is not just over the course of their lives, but experienced within the past academic year), we have to ask why. We have a responsibility to do what we can to promote healthy campuses. We have to help students not to feel constantly evaluated and wildly stressed out. And we need to do what we can not to isolate them and make them feel like numbers. We need to create more social academic opportunities.

‘Fixing’ it all is probably impossible, but the Ideas for the World program is an effort to create pockets where we can continue to address these challenges. Student mental health is concretely tended to, professors are unfettered by learning outcomes, and students do not feel isolated. Frank discussion happens, and students meet people from different social, cultural and economic backgrounds. No one is at the mercy of the almighty GPA and everyone can have a social academic experience. The outside world comes in.

Our small lunch discussions bring in professionals from all around and even beyond the university, and address a broad set of disciplines that might not otherwise find a voice at the university. This is a very immediate and relatively easy way of making the university more porous. It brings the city inside and pulls our students’ thoughts outside to the concrete realities of the city.

The evening discussions involve all of the above plus community members. While not a study abroad experience, these discussions involve very real and diverse perspectives. Our faculty advisor, Professor John Duncan, wrote an article on this phenomenon in the Autumn 2008 issue of Mindful, pointing out that “when non-academics, members of the community, many of whom are objects of our theories in one way or another, are invited to the discussion, our fall into posturing is disrupted.” It isn’t possible to learn at arm’s length in these programs.

At lunch we bring in speakers from the city; at dinner we bring in listeners from the city. Our students learn from all of our visitors, and our visitors gain a great deal from having been here.

Of course, we don’t presume to have touched on all the ‘crises’ of the modern university, much less make a huge dent in the host of issues we face in higher education. Ideas for the World has, however, proven to be an interesting pocket of experience, blending social, academic, and community elements rather seamlessly and to everyone’s advantage. It is convivial learning that connects students to faculty in a way that enriches the experience of both, and at the same time brings the university to its neighbourhood and its neighbours to the university. It allows students to dwell for a while on academic topics that resonate with them, and be intellectually curious without grading, ranking, or having to commit. It also fosters kindness and respect. It makes people feel connected. It’s not a typical classroom, but it is still a class. It’s not a social gathering, and yet it is. It’s not a community outreach project, but it does reach out. And it is pretty inspiring. Student and community members alike have said it stands out as one of the best things they have ever done, and every professor and speaker who has been involved has said they would like to come back.

Porosity doesn’t just refer to how much stuff outside can be absorbed. It is also about the empty spaces inside that can be filled. We can let the city in, and let others experience the university. The city, and everything it has to offer, can fill in some of the voids we cite when we speak of our university crises. AM

Kelley Castle is the Dean of Students at Victoria University in the University of Toronto.
1. Humanities for Humanity (H4H) started at Trinity College as a joint initiative between the Office of the Dean of Students and the Ethics, Society and Law (ES&L) program. Since 2009, Victoria College launched Ideas for the World which has included H4H, while adding lunchtime programs and Theatre for Thought.
2. One example with which I’m particularly enamored is University of British Columbia’s “Bridge Through Sport” program.  It has been running for over ten years, and uses sport as a way of appealing to First Nations and Aboriginal youth, branching out into math, science, and writing. It involves UBC undergraduate students in the process.  Of particular note is that it uses sport as a sort of a leveler in the program, and that student volunteers tout it as a “learning exchange” where they learn as much as they teach.  See: ubyssey.ca/sports/ubc-rec-building-bridges-694 for a nice student article on this.
3. We now have Canada-wide reports from the National College Health Assessment (NCHA), compiled from the first data set large enough to be reliable in Canada (the U.S. data goes back to 2008 and is the largest known assessment of health in university students ever conducted. 32 post-secondary institutions agreed to pool data from 34,039 students. Alarmingly: 89.3% felt overwhelmed; 63.9% felt very lonely; 56.5% felt overwhelming anxiety; 37.5% felt so depressed it was difficult to function; 9.5% seriously considered suicide; 6.6% intentionally hurt or injured themselves; and 1.3 attempted suicide. For the complete reports see: http://www.achancha.org.