January 20, 2023

Yesterday marked my first day of class at the school formerly known as Ryerson, now named — in the inimitable wisdom of its board — Toronto Metropolitan University (a fellow instructor remarked, “It took them a year to come up with that?”)

Whatever the name, duty called, and so I gamely packed my battered copy of The Elements of Style (a book I am pretty sure I have never convinced a single student to consult, let alone purchase) in my satchel, and set off on the 506 Dundas Streetcar. The Dundas car trundled east through grey Toronto (it’s the greyest and mildest winter I can remember). We crossed Chinatown, and then downtown, and then I alighted at Church Street. Every time I visit this part of town it feels more crowded; cranes clogged the skyline around me as I walked up the street. The roar of construction, ever-present in Toronto, feels a bit more deafening here. I stopped at Metro to buy some clementines and apples for the students; a guy ahead of me stooped just in front of the supermarket door, picked up a tiny cigarette butt from the pavement, lit it, and sucked mightily; a reminder that there are lots of marginal people in this part of Toronto.

After years of teaching in the Rogers Communications Centre, I learned the other day that The School of Journalism has assigned me Room EPH 103, in a building on Gerrard Street that I had never visited. I looked up the person whose name graces said hall; turns out Eric Palin served as Director of Electric and Electronic Technology and Radio and Television Arts at the Ryerson Polytechnical Institute until 1958.

The 100-level rooms in EPH are in the basement. I found several students clustered at the locked door of room 103. I did not know whom to call about that, so I left my satchel and the bag of fruit with the students and went back to the RCC, where a young woman gave me a phone number to call, and eventually a friendly security guard met me at the door and let us into the classroom.

Being in the basement, it lacks windows; “I am getting a bit prison vibes,” I conceded. An old television set hung from one wall, with lots of wires hanging off it a bit like vines in the jungle, and I saw that I could play a DVD, or even a VHS tape, should the need arise. These machines would have impressed Eric Palin.

The desks and chairs, a bit mismatched, all stood in groups of two, facing the front (the journalism classrooms I have seen always have the desks in a U-shape). Without comment, my students filed in and sat down. As I fiddled with the projection equipment (there is also a projector and a screen that one can raise and lower), I asked a student to hand out pens and index cards, and asked students to write a few lines about what they needed to make this a safe space for learning.

Then I asked students about themselves, and revealing what I’d learned about them online (one young woman is an accomplished soccer player; another once played the glockenspeil; a third had volunteered at a house for refugees).

The exercise seemed to draw us together. I paused. “It’s sort of weird, all the desks facing the front,” I said. “Do you guys want to rearrange them?”

“Yes!” students said, and embarked on the project with gusto. Within three minutes we’d built a credible “U” shape of desks, so that we could look at one another. It felt a lot better.