And a word on academics

31 12 2012

Oh wait, before you go off thinking that I spent the entirely of my exchange travelling and engaging in various social activities, let me say a few words about AUC and my courses. 

Amsterdam University College (AUC) is a joint institution created by the University of Amsterdam and VU University, providing an interdisciplinary liberal arts and sciences curriculum. It was founded in 2009 and has about 700 students. Aside from having almost double our population, AUC is fairly comparable to Quest – core curriculum, interdisciplinary, small classes (25 students in this case), residential campus and a highly international student body. A main difference is its location in the “global city” of Amsterdam, which has a population of nearly a million people, whereas Squamish is only about 15,000. With the city center only 15 minutes away by bike, Amsterdam was very accessible, and I would go to the center almost daily for errands or to meet friends at a café. 

Additionally, in contrast to Quest’s block program, AUC operates on a regular semester system, meaning students take four (but in my case, five) courses at once. Overall, based on my experience in the social sciences (this might differ for different faculties), I felt that the academic rigour was less intense than Quest’s, even during midterms and finals. Also, there seemed to be a lower level of student engagement, which I think is in part due to the semester system; it is difficult to fully immerse yourself in one class when you have three or four other classes on your mind. Further, although it varies by class, there was less emphasis on classroom participation.

However, I did appreciate having a life outside of school. At AUC, I felt that I had more personal time for social activities, volunteering and an outside job. But, perhaps this speaks partially to my goals and priorities for my exchange – to have a cultural experience in addition to an academic one. 

Here’s a bit of a review on my individual courses:

1. Basic Research Methods and Statistics – Fairly standard and textbook orientated, but sometimes fun in the way that math sometimes is, especially when you haven’t done it in a while. Excel can also be fun, or at least make you feel all powerful. This course also re-introduced me to the concept of the exam, something that has been wonderfully absent from my life for most of my undergraduate career. At Quest, assessment mostly consists of papers and presentations. 

2. Intro to Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the bane of my Wednesday mornings, as I would sit for 3 to 4 hours in front of not one, but two monitors, baffled by the intricacies of impossible software. While my subjective memory portrays this experience as me banging my head against the keyboard, I did learn a few things and certainly an appreciation for the power of GIS technology. Further, I also completed a cool final project on the deforestation occurring on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation in the Parc de la Verendrye Wildlife Reserve in Quebec. 

3. History of National Civil Rights Movements – Truly a great course, taught by an incredible Venezulan anthropologist. We started with the American Civil Rights Movement, then proceeded to learn about social movement theory (resource mobilization, collective identity, framing, and political processes and opportunities). In the final phase of the course, we looked at gay liberation, feminism, and alter-globalization. For this class, I wrote my final paper on collective identity of the transnational peasants’ movement and La Via Campesina. 

4. Community and Society in a Globalized World – Finally, a long-overdue anthropology course. We spent the first half of the course discussing globalization and how it influences people’s lifeworlds – specifically, in terms of migration and transnational life, global circulation of goods and cultural globalization. But the fun really began in the second part when we conducted our own fieldwork. Together with a Catalan exchange student, I studied the role of a particular Catalan restaurant/bar on the Catalan community in Amsterdam. Specifically, we looked at how the bar owners facilitated migrant clustering and the development of migrant social networks. This topic was particularly relevant in light of Catalonia’s recent mass protests and election in favour of independence from Spain. And the Catalan cuisine that we had on our numerous field visits was a nice bonus!

5. And last, but not least, my wild card course – From Dada to Hell’s Kitchen. What was that about? A little bit crazy and kooky, best described by “the weirder the better”. It centred around the theme of performance art, but really there were few boundaries. Sophia created a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere where we could get to know each other and allow creativity to flourish. Lots of fun classroom activities and a series of live performance that I could have never imagined doing. 


Little boxes

20 04 2011

In the absence of time to properly reflect, here is a video that encapsulates my current mental and emotional state. Caroline, a friend, member of the first ever-graduating class and one of the first people I met at Quest, performed this a week or so ago on campus. Maybe it was just my overactive perceptions filter at play, but I found it very relevant. So here it is. And expect a backlog of reflections coming in over the summer, when I have time to properly synthesize my thoughts and ideas. As of late, my learning curve has been steeper than what I can keep up with. Another week or so and I’ll be able to relax, unwind, slow down and be the confused, spontaneous 19-year old that I really am. Until then, I’ll just listen to Pete Seeger and embrace the chaos of planning Dancing Bear Music Festival, finishing my Question plan, and above all, taking care of myself and the people who I love most. Talk about perspective! I wish I had this much clarity and rationality all the time!

Wisdom from Quest faculty and staff

16 03 2011

Thus far, I have met with many faculty and staff members to discuss and organize my ideas. In the two months prior to Question block, I spoke to many faculty members to varying degrees to organize my ideas as well as brainstorm potential directions. (Check out our faculty bios here..they are pretty spectacular!) In addition, I have also shared some of my preliminary ideas with a few former colleagues and personal contacts. I have deliberately cast this wide net in order to make sure I am gaining diverse perspectives from a range of academic fields as well as personal backgrounds. I feel very fortunate that the faculty is so accessible to students as these meetings (both formal and informal) have been incredibly helpful as I try to find an academic focus of my own.

Most recently, I scheduled meetings with Andre, Jim, Court, Steve as well as a second meeting with Eric. I went into this second round of meetings with much more focus than my preliminary sessions, and was even able to propose possible Questions, such as “How can we facilitate collaboration effectively?”

  1. Focus – What is an appropriate balance between breadth and depth? How can my Question be broad enough to encompass a wide range of curricular and co-curricular interests and to provide adequate flexibility and freedom during my Concentration years? However, my Question needs to be narrow enough to offer sufficient academic focus and direction?
  2. Integration – How can I acquire a well-rounded education that integrates concepts from different disciplines in a meaningful, multidisciplinary way? To what extent is it possible or even desirable to pursue both arts and sciences with equal rigour?

My goals for these meetings were to:

  • Gain perspective on the importance of focus and integration when forming a Question.
  • Receive constructive feedback on the wording of my Question
  • Identify some relevant sources of information that would aid further independent research, such as search words, topics, disciplines and possible readings

During these meetings, I gained a lot of insight about some possible areas that I would like to further explore as well as some specific courses that might be relevant to my anticipated academic journey. I was pleasantly surprised by the meaningful links I was able to identify between seemingly different fields, all occurring within the scope of my Question. For example, Court identified parallels between natural resource management and human resource management. Furthermore, population models used in the life sciences could inform human population models. On the other hand, Andre and Jim highlighted the importance of first defining the terms that I am using, such as management and collaboration, to make sure I mean what I am saying, after all definitions can be subjective. In addition, Andre suggested that I also define the anti-theses of these terms. Rather than strictly thinking about the motivations for collective action, he suggested it might also be useful to look at individualism.

Also, out of pure coincidence, I also began talking to Steve, our new international admission counselor. I described the nature of my Question, and then asked about his academic background. As it turns out, he has an Honours degree in Sociology, a discipline that Eric had directed me to during our meeting a day earlier. Sociology is defined as “the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society.” Steven has also worked in varying capacities within the field of institutional organization. According to Steven, I am destined for a career in human resources. I have fully processed that notion quite yet, but I’ve accepted it for now. Similarly, I learned that Vanessa, our university librarian, is currently undertaking graduate studies in leadership. She is currently writing a strategic plan for the library, which serves both her responsibilities for work as well as one of her courses. Coincidentally, I plan on writing a strategic plan for the Quest Students’ Representative Council (SRC) as experiential learning over the summer, so she will be an incredible resource. Melanie has also been extremely helpful in the past couple months as I attempt to integrate both my curricular and co-curricular activities. Once again, I am completely intrigued by the professional and personal backgrounds of the staff and faculty at Quest, and their willingness to take time out of their daily work to exchange ideas with students.

Also, Eric proposed a few more possible Questions: i) “What is the role of collaboration in political and social organization?”, or more broadly, ii) “How do institutions transform themselves?” Alternatively, in consideration of David’s suggestion, I could merge the two to read, “What is the role of collaboration in institutional transformation?” As you can tell, each of these versions has a slightly different focus. I’ll keep all three for now.

My next step is to start the next round of research, based on the keywords that I received. A long day in the library for me, but luckily, I am so interested and excited about my Question that it won’t even really feel like work. I was hesitant and overwhelmed at first, but I think I’m going to like this whole Question thing after all.

More than an indecisive decision

2 02 2010

The weekend before last, I had the priviledge of attending a national undergraduate on interdisciplinary education at McMaster in Hamilton. Although I must claim it was primarily due to the convenience of being within affordable proximity that I was able to attend as a delegate from Quest, I was nonetheless pleased to have such an opportunity. So, students from Arts & Sciences programs across the country gathered for a weekend to talk about our place in academia and to address common challenges in attempt to move forward.

“Interdisciplinary” seems to be the latest buzzword in education, much like “organic” is on supermarket shelves. And in the same way, it’s likely overused and sometimes slightly ambiguous. I guess you can work out the etymology to derive “between disciplines”, but “interdisciplinary” seems to also be the umbrella term that also encompasses “multidisciplinary” (= many) and “transdisciplinary” (= across). Although it might be a little too philosophical for some, in the working group I participated in, we started by establishing a definition for a “discipline”; “an organizational structure driven by a set of epistemological values that give rise to specific content, ways of thinking, interactions, language and methodology.”

The shift towards interdisciplinary learning is an important one, especially in light of our societal climate. Much of higher education is carried out in “silos”, each separate from the others. As a result, knowledge becomes highly specialized. Yet, our greatest challenges in the world are rarely restricted to one field of study, so they are left unresolved. But, when we cross disciplines, we strive to strike a balance between breadth and depth. The aim of interdisciplinary education is to produce more well-rounded graduates who will be able to look at an issue through a multitude of perspectives, becoming that much closer to finding its solution. I was once guilty of choosing such a broad program because I was undecided about what I was interested in and wanted to try everything. Although this has some merit, I now realize that it can be a decision in itself, rather than means to a more specific end.

With undergraduates, alumni and faculty from the Arts & Science programs at Guelph, McGill and most predominantly McMaster, as well as the Integrated Science programs at UBC and McMaster (new this year), Knowledge Integration at Waterloo, and of course, Quest University, we weren’t short of things to talk about. As we discovered over the course of the weekend, the way each program works is as diverse as the number of programs. At McGill, for example, there is only one required Art/Sci course and the program simply allows them to take courses in either faculty, and come out with a double major. As you might have noticed, I didn’t include a link which primarily reflects how obscure Arts Sci program info is on the McGill website. MacMaster falls at the other end of the spectrum. With its program almost 30 years old, Arts Sci at Mac has become one of the most prestigous (and best funded per capita) programs, with the highest average entrance grades and a supplementary application (that I , in fact, began completing myself). Quest might be the only school that surpasses McMaster  due to the fact, it ONLY offers an arts and sciences program. The others fall somewhere in between with varying numbers of mandatory classes/electives and a diverse array of teaching methods. But fairly consistently, these programs tend to be new (within the past 10 years) and on the leading edge of innovative instruction within universities. Take a look at McMaster’s new Integrated Sciences (or “iSci” as they call it unfortunately despite way too many things being already branded i(something)) or Knowledge Integration at Waterloo, or Quest as I’ve already talked about at great lengths. Classes tend to be smaller and students receive more attention from faculty, while tuition is often the same. So, does this mean that students in other programs (read larger classes) are subsidizing the education of Arts Sci students? Are these programs even self-sustaining? They must be. Why else would so many universities be moving in this direction. There must be increasing demand. Will more universities continue to start similar programs? Or will current programs get bigger? Is this possible without sacrificing the integrated and interdisciplinary nature of the programs?

I’m do not these answers which is okay because I’m getting used to having more questions than answers. But I do hope that interdisciplinary learning continues to catch on at every level of education. We have an infinite mass of information available, so instead of temporarily memorizing content or producing generic papers, we need to develop a different set of skills – critical and creative thinking, the ability to make connections and effectively communication. New alternatives are emerging, and prospective students need to be aware of their options. As I can personally attest, these interdisciplinary programs are rarely promoted by high school guidance counsellors. Maybe they don’t need promoting because they accept so few students, but students have a right to know their options and greater demand might just drive the post secondary market towards astonishing new frontiers.