Inclusion at the centre of curriculum review working circle

Two people walking on a trail

Alexa Battler

U of T Scarborough is in the midst of a campus-wide curriculum review focused on knowledges and perspectives of Indigenous, Black and racialized peoples from around the world.

A team of students, staff and faculty are assessing both the curriculum and academic supports as part of the campus’ commitment to inclusion, equity, decolonization and anti-racism. Launched last fall, the review is working to create an action plan and series of recommendations by the summer. 

“None of us are under any illusion that this work is suddenly going to be done in July,” says Katherine Larson, vice-dean of teaching, learning and undergraduate programs. “This is ongoing work. It’s work that never stops. And the process is building on work that was already underway.”

Larson is convening the working circle leading the review. Its 27 members reflect a range of academic disciplines, campus initiatives, and communities directly impacted by inequity and racism. 

“You can't separate your own identity from things like this,” says Nadia Rosemond, assistant dean of co-curricular programs and student leadership. “Being a Black woman and knowing some of the things I wish I had as a student, that contributes to the process.”

In January, four sub-circles were formed to concentrate on the review’s different priorities. Rosemond is co-leading a sub-circle focused on campus listening and engagement. Their work includes gathering individual experiences with curriculum, teaching and learning at U of T Scarborough. 

“Sometimes it might feel for students like they’re shouting into the void, but behind the scenes we're actually following through and examining,” Rosemond says. “We heard you and we're beginning the process.”

Feedback will inform the group as they assess supports and resources for departments, to help them integrate an equity approach in courses and programs. 

Another sub-circle is reviewing the curricular and pedagogical landscape at U of T Scarborough and across Turtle Island, to get a sense of what the institution offers and what it could grow to include. 

"We're trying to be in tune with other leading universities prioritizing work in the areas of inclusion and Indigeneity, to see what models we can learn from and adapt," says Olashile Adeyoyin, a fourth-year International Development Studies student and member of the landscape review sub-circle.  

Their scope extends beyond classrooms to the network of people, services and resources that shape teaching and learning on the campus, such as academic advising, accessibility and experiential learning opportunities.

“We’re looking for what content and offerings those folks have prepared and if that meets needs of students from all backgrounds,” Adeyoyin says. "I'm grateful the university is taking action to work on its mandate of inclusive excellence, because education is more than grooming for good grades or securing careers after school."

Equity in the sciences

Though it does not guarantee an inclusive approach, some fields are more likely to incorporate Black, Indigenous and racialized perspectives in course content. STEM fields may be different stories. 

The solution is in both content and teaching methods, says Aarthi Ashok, Rosemond’s sub-circle co-convener and professor, teaching stream in the Department of Biological Sciences. 

“Science courses often draw on classical experiments that are not representative of the contributions of all scientists,” says Ashok, who is also the department’s associate chair of teaching and undergraduate affairs. “We need to showcase the many faces today that contribute to science.” 

That need extends to those teaching the class, Ashok adds. Students should see their experiences and backgrounds reflected in faculty, including Black and Indigenous scholars and educators.

“Indigenous ways of knowing and Indigenous peoples have been systematically excluded from post-secondary and most other settings in Canadian society,” says Randy Lundy, member of the listening and conversation sub-circle and assistant professor, teaching stream in the Department of English. “The erasure of any knowledge is antithetical to the ideals of educational institutions.”

Lundy, who teaches creative writing, Indigenous literatures and oral traditions, similarly hopes the review will inspire change not only in what courses include, but in how they are taught. 

“If you pour liquid into a container, that liquid necessarily takes on the shape of the vessel,” he says. “Hence, we need to think not only about including and welcoming Indigenous knowledges and peoples, but also about transforming the environment in ways that facilitate the flourishing of those knowledges and peoples.”

The circle process

The review is structured around the circle process, an approach to dialogue facilitation that draws on Indigenous practices. Participants sit in a circle and communicate only while holding a talking piece–a visible acknowledgement of the need to listen and honor the person speaking. 

“One thing I have heard various Indigenous people say over the years is that circles can always expand,” Lundy says. “In other words, there is always room for more people, more voices. So, from the beginning the focus is on inclusivity; it’s a built-in function of the process.” 

In the online space, the circle is now a grid of squares and Zoom’s “raise hand” function is used when someone wants to speak. But Larson keeps the group’s talking piece beside her at every meeting: a rock she and her daughter found along Lake Ontario.

“For me, the rock was a symbol of the capacity to change seemingly unchangeable things,” she says, “Just like water's ability to reshape rock.”

The circle has wrestled with what it means to gather virtually, and how to collect meaningful data remotely. It’s a precarious balance of combatting Zoom fatigue while creating spaces where those from historically marginalized groups feel safe to share their experiences. 

While the environment presents challenges, it also illuminates the need for change. In the context of the campus  strategic plan, a pandemic highlighting challenges to equity and renewed calls for change following Black Lives Matter protests, Larson says the urgency of tangible action is clear.  

“We’re in a moment where there's a collective institutional openness to the importance of this work and the learning and unlearning that needs to be undertaken,” Larson says. “And that's rare.” 

The shift online has also created new insight into issues of inclusion and accessibility and may make it possible for more people to engage with the review. Virtual meetings, for example, give students more flexibility to attend even if work or other commitments prevent them from physically being on campus.

Larson adds that the pandemic has shown it's possible to achieve things she never thought could be done online. Among them, the ability “to create community and connection in unexpected ways.”