Good advice for us all

I read the Life @ U of T blog regularly – interesting stories, great tips about campus life – but I found Sarah’s post this week particularly moving. It was a genuine “I’ve been there!” kind of feeling. Because yes, I’ve been there.

My undergraduate degree took a rather long time (I will, at long last, convocate this November) so I have experienced the university classroom from a number of vantage points. My first round (1988-1991), I barely, if ever, spoke in class or tutorial. I was terrified. Didn’t think I had anything of merit to offer, worried that I would say something so off-base that I would look ridiculous. When I returned as a mature student in 2008, I made a conscious effort to change this situation. I still wasn’t comfortable speaking (even if I was older than some instructors and most of my fellow students, I could still be intimidated) but I forced myself to and – as Sarah points out – it did get easier. And I did learn that I could survive any potential embarrassment.

Grand Opening: CTSI, Robarts Library Reference Services and new student study areas

It started with a need for new student spaces. After conducting focus groups, surveys and consultations with students, we knew U of T students wanted study spaces with natural light, comfortable seating, access to computers and wireless networks, and conveniently located to other resources (e.g. books). Thanks to a generous donation by Russell and Katherine Morrison (who have already made significant contributions to St. George campus in the past decade – including Morrison Hall residence at University College), we now have a beautiful new space for study and collaboration for students – and for CTSI and Robarts Library Reference Services, too. On October 2nd, U of T Libraries and CTSI officially opened our newly renovated space that also includes study areas and a computer lab for students.

Mr. Russell Morrison

As the university has changed, Robarts Library has followed suit. Students’ needs change as the community diversifies, technologies evolve and academia grows to encompass more views, more areas of study and, quite simply, more students. These latest renovations reflect that need but as Cheryl Misak, Vice-President and Provost, said, “Of course, this new space is also about teaching.”

We now have two computer labs and the Blackburn Room for training, workshops and events (we included photos of these new spaces in a previous post). All of these rooms have been in full use since the end of August (when CTSI held their Back-to-School workshop series) and staff, instructors and students have all given them high marks. The spaces are flexible (easy to move furniture around to suit workshop needs) and technology is available and accessible (not to mention functional). On the CTSI side, we now have two new rooms for meetings and consultations and a collaboration space for staff to meet, schedule and plan upcoming events and projects.

The architect firm Gow Hastings – as well as everyone else involved in the design and coordination of these renovations – did a marvellous job listening to all our concerns, and our wish list, so that we can all – staff and students alike – enjoy a comfortable and welcoming work environment. And the sunlight, let’s not forget the sunlight! This new space also provides more opportunities for CTSI and Reference Services Librarians to cross paths. Not only is it nice to know your neighbours, we’ve already started a number of projects together simply because we run into each other in the hall and start a conversation. Let the collaborations continue!

The next step – hopefully not too far down the road – is the Robarts Common, a student centre scheduled to be built at the north-west end of the library. The hallway to the centre will extend right from our new space. According to Chief Librarian Larry Alford, “The new five-storey pavilion will become a new face of Robarts, opening up the west side of the building to the street, bring a flood of natural light to the lower floors and making the overall environment more inviting, accessible and productive for students.”

Phrase that describes your favourite learning space

Who supports your learning?This post also appears in the U of T Libraries’ Noteworthy magazine.

Well, there’s a map for that….

We discovered this map (“Origins of First-Year Undergraduates at U of T”) on President Naylor’s blog. It is wonderfully addictive! There is one student from Iceland. 303 students from Vancouver. Two students from Senegal. Two students from Bermuda. Not only am I reminded of the diversity of people and cultures who attend the University of Toronto, I also get a quick refresher course on geography. Bermuda, for instance, is a lot farther north than I thought.

First-Year Students Map

Click on image to go to interactive map


My Life is Average (Part 3): How Did I Choose?

by Tian-Yuan Zhao (Music & Electrical and Computer Engineering)

This year, CTSI has worked with students to explore their perspective on learning at UofT. This blog post is the third in a series showcasing a student’s view of UofT, continuing with why he chose his major.

Often times I’ve been asked, “Tian, why did you choose engineering?” and “Why did you choose to go to the University of Toronto”. There are many reasons:

  1. My father had recommended it to me
  2. I was very unsure as to what I wanted to do, but with much deliberation, I heeded his advice since I believed that it embodied both my technical and creative sides of my personality
  3. Economic stability after graduation
  4. I wanted to escape the harsh, cold and bitter winters of “Winnterpeg”, but in actuality, I wanted to escape what truly put the “plain” in the “Plains” of Winnipeg’s sleepiness to the vivacious global city of Toronto
  5. As parents want the best for their children, I want the best for my future, therefore knowing U of T Engineering is ranked number 1 in Canada, I knew I had to be here.

The thing is, I was very foolish, since I hadn’t given my career path much thought, I jumped into electrical/computer engineering without knowing what I was getting myself into. I soon found myself bitter because I hated programming, circuits and anything and everything to do with engineering altogether. I even began asking myself “why did I choose engineering?” I came into university with no plan and that was what bit me in the behind. It wasn’t even the course load that made me hate engineering, it was just material itself. I had no passion for it and that’s what made my first year so very difficult.

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My Life is Average (Part 2): Finding Harmony

by Tian-Yuan Zhao (Music & Electrical and Computer Engineering)

This year, CTSI has worked with students to explore their perspective on learning at UofT. This blog post is the second in a series showcasing a student’s view of UofT, continuing with how co-curricular activities have shaped his experience.

Ever since I started university, I knew I had to get involved in extra-curricular activities, for I wanted to gain an enriching, well-rounded, balanced, wholesome and holistic experience. But, I also wanted to differentiate myself, since I didn’t just want to be defined by my student number, rather my achievements, actions and activities. I’ve always had the philosophy that diversity only makes you stronger, but upon entering university, I made the mistake of being too extreme. I attended too many events, joined too many clubs (or rather, mailing lists) and made friends here and there. I was in a simple phrase – all over the place.

My first year was both full of much excitement and entropy (or chaos). It was both a terrible first year and a terrific one. I did things I never thought I would but at the same time, regretted not focusing too much on my studies. I lived in Chestnut for my first year and you would think living on residence would be a perfect place to make new friends, gain a support network and feel safe right? Well I had made the unfortunate mistake of not taking advantage of that opportunity; instead I ended up becoming quite the bitter person for my first year. I had no idea as to how that happened, but it just did. I even joined a Christian fellowship (UTMCCF) and still, it didn’t work. I soon learned the lesson the hard way and therefore ended up choosing to commit only to AIESEC. (mention of previous article)

Tales of Harmonia is a choir that I started last school year in April when I had concluded my choral experience with the Hart House Chorus. I founded it because I felt a pit of emptiness in my stomach at the end of performing Mozart’s Mass with the Hart House Orchestra and all the wonderful classical, folk, and less-than-contemporary music. It wasn’t that I detested that style of music, but rather, I felt it needed more variety. When I initially joined the Hart House Chorus, I had the expectation from the name, that the music would be quite general, but soon found myself singing many songs I had already sung back in high school and feeling this dread of deadness. As much as I enjoyed songs celebrating the coming spring, a trip to the Hart House Farm, and another trip to the University of Western Ontario to perform at the Intervarsity Choral Festival, I found myself wanting to showcase music in all its splendour, majesty, glory, grandeur and beauty.

Therefore, I ended up establishing Tales of Harmonia, the first ever all-inclusive choir on campus, where you’d find home to both sacred and secular, a cappella and accompanied, Occidental and Oriental music, amongst many others. And ever since its inception way back in April, it has been an upward climb that would eventually lead us from rehearsing at the Quiet Room of the Multifaith Centre (see the irony there?) to holding our world premiere and year end concert with much success at the Knox College Chapel.

The choir has been a huge blessing in my life for I’ve once again, met some of the most amazing people ever, people with an equal passion for music and its many potentials, learned much about my leadership, and gained/improved on skills that I never thought I had and could obtain so directly.

“My Life is Average”: A Student’s Perspective

“My Life is Average”
by Tian-Yuan Zhao (Music & Electrical and Computer Engineering)

This year, CTSI has worked with students to explore their perspective on learning at UofT. This blog post is the first in a series showcasing a student’s view of UofT, beginning with what brought him to study at UofT.

There exists an internet meme called MLIA which stands for My Life is Average, but if you were to have ever met me, you would know that my life is far from average.

I was born in Lanzhou, Gansu, China (People’s Republic of) in the fifth day of the fifth month – 1992, moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada when I was 5 years old with my parents, grew up there for most my life – having a forgettable elementary experience, forsaken junior high experience and an unforgettable high school experience, then arriving in Toronto, Ontario, Canada at the age of 18. Which, by the way, I must point out that I went to the same high school as Marshall McLuhan, a famous alumnus of the University of Toronto – “Boundless Vision: Media Prophet ”. Anyway, I’m currently here at the U of T majoring in electrical/computer engineering and minoring in music history and culture. I have an intense and immense love for the arts, as I started playing piano when I was 8 years old, around the same time; I also took up drawing lessons, wrote a lot of fanfiction (fictional stories based on a fandom or more), sang in many choirs in high school, and performed at talent shows, etc. But, equally, I have a deep appreciation for the sciences and mathematics, as I’ve proven to be quite proficient in both. And finally, at around 8 years old, I converted to Christianity.

I chose to attend the University of Toronto for the following reasons: 1) it’s ranked number 1 for Applied Science and Engineering in all of Canada, 2) it’s within the top 20 for the same subject in all of the world, 3) I’ve grown rather tiresome of living in Winnipeg for 14 years of my life consecutively, which leads me to say 4) Toronto’s an alpha global city, which makes it an extremely dynamic place to explore yourself, 5) I wanted a change of pace, scenery and life, 6) I wanted an adventure, 7) living by myself would have been both a challenge and a thrill, 6) the close proximity of Toronto to other major cities in Canada makes it a very transportation friendly place to be, 9) the University of Toronto has Industrial Engineering, whereas the University of Manitoba doesn’t, and 10) the University of Toronto would have been a great launching pad for me to pursue a career outside of not only Winnipeg but Canada.

Ever since my journey here in Toronto began, I can say with all honesty that I don’t regret this choice at all. The strong emphasis on leadership, hyper international atmosphere, and sheer depth and breadth of what this city and university can offer is in simply… Boundless!

Office Hours and Talking to Professors

In conjunction with Student Life, CTSI has been working on a series of videos for students visiting instructors during office hours. On the Student Life side, these videos are a part of their Talking to Your Professors campaign that offers tips and strategies for students who feel shy or uncomfortable (or overwhelmed) about approaching faculty. This information is practical and covers a variety of methods of interaction, including before and after class, social media and email etiquette.

For CTSI, these videos figure into our work on Student-Faculty Interaction. Over the past year, we have highlighted instructors who have found innovative ways to engage with their undergraduate students in our Focus on Faculty profiles and provided resources on effective practices and supporting student faculty interaction. We decided to approach our first topic – office hours and talking to profs – from different angles, starting with some humour…

The video was written and directed by Tyler Blacquiere (who also acts as Christopher Strong), a fourth year U of T student who was working in our office on a work study contract.  We decided that a public service announcement spoof was a great approach to the video – and something that we hadn’t seen before – and Tyler ran with it (even demonstrating a great deal of dedication to the project by watching Sally Struthers commercials in search of material).  All of the faculty members who participated (Barbara Murck, Mark Kingwell, Keren Rice, Shafique Varani and Mike Reid, who jumped in at the last minute to help us out) were generous with their time and are on-camera naturals. We’re still considering whether or not we should release a blooper reel. A lot of very funny stuff was left on the ‘cutting room floor’. (That phrase has little meaning in the digital age but it captures what I mean.)

Our next step was to interview undergraduates and explore some real world scenarios regarding visiting instructors during office hours. We wanted to show positive and negative experiences that students have had with instructors and any advice that they might offer to fellow students. We have a number of these videos prepared and ready to launch but here’s just a taste to whet your appetite.



Thank Your Teacher Today

Do you have a favourite teacher? The one (or maybe more than one) who made the difference in your education? Perhaps it was a different approach to teaching (my grade six teacher, Mr. Zettle, helped me see that learning could be an adventure. He was enthusiastic about every subject and taught us integers by turning the lesson into a murder-mystery. Eight did it, by the way), or opening the door to new materials and ideas (a high school English teacher, Mr. Jonker, asked us to bring in a song and analyze it. Now, I’m not saying that listening to someone’s  analysis of  a Bob Seger song-Night Moves, I believe-was illuminating but we did learn to critically defend our choices. I can’t remember what song I brought in, although a safe bet would be Bruce Springsteen, probably Thunder Road. I would like to blame it on the 80s and living in a small town but that would be wrong. Also, it was the first time that I heard Robyn Hitchcock and that changed my life in a different way). Or a teacher or professor who gave you a wake up call (as Dr. Blanchard did in my 2nd year by reminding us of the importance of coming prepared for tutorials-that we were all in this together).

Carol Rolheiser, Director, CTSI, remembers a high school biology teacher who encouraged her to study science in university. They reconnected years later when she received a surprise fax after her name appeared the Faculty of Education Alumni Magazine.

Yes, it was my high school biology teacher – whom I had not been in touch with for 36 years! I eagerly called him and shared with him the influence he had been in my becoming a teacher. I let him know that the model he had set for me many years ago had helped shape my career. Even though it took 36 years for Dr. Nichol to get feedback from this student, I know it meant the world to him because he told me so.  We continue to maintain our correspondence and share our respective love of learning.

The THANK YOUR TEACHER campaign is an initiative started by the 2011 3M National Teaching Fellows, in conjunction with the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). Throughout this week, ads will appear in Canadian newspapers of 3M winners (please see Nick Mount‘s entry below) thanking teachers who have encouraged, challenged and inspired them. The goal of the campaign is not to simply highlight stories from award winning teachers but to hear from YOU. Much of the media of late has focused on the negative when discussing teaching, whether K-12 or higher ed, and this is an opportunity to remind, and remember, all those times and all those people who have had a positive influence on our lives.

Submit your story to THANK YOUR TEACHER

UpbeaT: Yes, learning can be fun!

When was the last time you visited a farmer’s market? Or mixed up sugar with salt when you were baking a cake? Or made peanut butter from scratch? For one class at UofT, all these things have already been transformed into learning experiences.

UofT Student Life blogger Erin, with UpbeaT, shows us a fun side of her student learning experience with a twopart story on what it’s like to be a learner in ENG 434HF, or “Cook the Books: Modern Food Literature”. Or as she puts it, it’s “the English class where students cook.”

Combining readings from food-themed fiction with a weekly group cooking activity (like accidentally burning peanut butter) might seem pretty offbeat, but this class is already being tested on their teamwork skills and increasing their awareness about their relationship with food. Erin’s report shows how unexpected learning environments can be surprisingly valuable:

My point is that making an effort to learn outside of the classroom or lab is important. If you’re ever given a chance to go on a field trip, even if you won’t be rewarded with an extra per cent for your efforts (and swear you could hear a rooster crow as you got up), go. While Cook the Books is a particularly special and progressive course because we are literally learning in a kitchen, not strictly in a fluorescent-lit classroom with desks from the 1980s located in a basement (we learn there too), I’m glad I had the opportunity to discover another classroom at the Wychwood Barns Farmers’ Market. (Upbeat, “The Fruits of our Labour”)

Would you want to take your students to the Farmer’s Market? What creative possibilities do you imagine for your future assignments and field trips?

TA Day 2011

TA Day 2011 was held on Sept. 1st. It was the perfect way to kickoff the month of September and the back to school season at U of T.

As a trainer with the TATP, I find that TA day is an interesting opportunity to meet returning and new TAs. While TAs are often very excited about the upcoming semester, they always have a lot on the go in the month of September. Many TA day attendees are new to the U of T and they can be settling into a new department, new city, or even be new to Canada. Luckily, TA day is a good place to gather teaching tips and also to find out informally about important stuff like the student housing service or TIFF.

This year the programming for TA day featured an array of presentations and workshops for both first-time and experienced TAs. A keynote address was provided by Prof. Mark Kingwell, from Philosophy on the topic of How To Be A Great TA Without Losing Your Mind, Your Soul, or Your Lunch. Presentations were also made by award winning TAs from U of T, and Dr. Tanya Lewis, Director of Academic Success and Accessibility Services, CUPE 3902 and CTSI staff. Throughout the day, new TAs discussed issues like ‘the first class’ and ‘grading.’ Returning and experienced TAs had the opportunity consider new challenges like designing their own courses.

If you attended (or wish you attended) TA day, we hope to see you out at the fall workshop series.