November 2012 – blogUT

“This is exercise four. You need to write the capital of Canada.”

“Oh,” says the grade 9 I’m tutoring, “what’s that?”

A thousand readings and lectures flash through my mind – the roots of oppression, the colonization of the Americas, the myriad sociological, psychological, philosophical reasons a 14-year-old born in Canada would not know its capital.

“Ottawa,” I tell her. “The capital city of Canada is Ottawa. That’s where the Prime Minister lives.”

As she writes the answer on her worksheet and moves on to exercise five – identifying the Great Lakes on a map of the country – I reflect on the past sessions I’ve spent volunteering, for a few hours a week, at a high-risk high school in North York. The program, co-ordinated by the Center for Community Partnerships on campus, has been challenging and rewarding. Challenging because it demands waking up at six-thirty and working with thirty high-energy kids with smartphones and iPods and serious attitude for three straight hours on a Monday; rewarding because it lets me put school work and anxiety out of my head, at least for a little while. There are times, like when students in grade 9 ask about something they should have learned in grade 2, that academic notions creep back into my head and the students become subjects of thought. Mostly, though, they’re distracted, disrespectful, delightful nuisances.

The University of Toronto has a reputation for placing academics above social lives, extra-curriculars, and athletics; a reputation consistently upheld by its bookish students. This is nothing new, of course – UTians figured this out decades ago, and have been blogging about it since.* The problem is, we constantly frame it in the context of stress or of fun, and rarely consider the other possible side-effects of getting swallowed up by an undergraduate program.

One such side-effect is the theorization, abstraction, and lesssonification of our universes that comes from studying them. In the Humanities, at least, post-modernism is so heavily concerned with developing new terminologies and frameworks that it’s way too easy to see real, concrete things as avatars of their academic subjects. The screen you’re looking at – is it a computer monitor or a product of a neo-colonial system of exploitation? You see what I’m getting at – it happens every time you stop talking and start discoursing or dialoguing.

We need a balance. We need to offset the abstract world of our studies by entering the real world and realizing that, however meaningful an application of Standpoint Theory may be at the time, it’s not going to shade in those Great Lakes any quicker. The merit of the TDSB Tutors in Schools program and those like it – and there are many – is that the experiences are so real and so engaging that they offer perspective where it is otherwise absent. In doing so, they allow us to reflect with some degree of clarity on our own lives, academic or otherwise.

I highly recommend them.

*I might need a fact check on that…

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