Petitioning for change: student activism and agency

Credit: THE BROCK PRESS/Brittany Brooks

Credit: THE BROCK PRESS/Brittany Brooks

On November 11, Michael Angaran posted a petition to change.org which asked the Brock CHYS Department to “Change CHYS 2P15 for Next Semester”. This petition is a result of student’s concerns in regards to the course organization and work load.

Since the original posting of the petition, it has gained the support of 550 signing individuals who agree that there are organisational flaws within the required course Child and Youth Studies (CHYS) 2P15.

The course is a required credit at the second-year level for students majoring in CHYS, or enrolled in a Concurrent Education program. The course, Principles of Service-Learning Practicum, requires 18 blocks of service, at local elementary schools and community organizations that provide support to children throughout the Niagara Region in order for students to observe and participate with a supervising teacher in actual classrooms.  The course requires weekly placements, roughly lasting for three hours each.

In general, student’s complaints do not involve the community service aspect, but instead the assignments and required journaling as required for the course.

Angaran, a second-year Con-Ed student majoring in History, states that many individuals enrolled in the course share concerns in regards to the structure of the course, as well as the workload, which is largely outlined in the online petition.

Angaran states, “One of the goals of the course is to further develop students’ autonomy and professional capacity which is not occurring due to the influence of modules over placements.  The excessive amount of work is not reasonable for those in CHYS and/or Concurrent Education who have to take four to five other courses.”

One of the other core issues surrounding the course is that it requires the bi-weekly submission of assignments and practicum involvement over the full course of the school year, despite the course being valued at half a credit.

“It is the first time it is offered online and frankly it isn’t working” said Angaran. “The grievances we have created and the petition that corresponds with it clearly outlines the issues with the course and defines some of our goals. I put it up at 3:00 p.m. and within an hour of putting it up, we had 100 signatures.”

Some students are frustrated that, because of the transition online, many aspects of the course seem unorganized, from a fluid marking scheme to expectations and a workload that are neither sustainable nor beneficial. This year’s online class also particularly contrasts the same course that was offered in the 2013/2014 school year, which provided similar service components. However, it had a diminished workload; while it lasted the same amount of time, it consisted of only three smaller assignments and a handful of inperson lectures.

As a result of student concerns, and the process of these issues being brought up to both the professor and the CHYS Department, there will be visible progress in terms of future changes to the course’s organization.

“Professor Zinga is making some adjustments to the course based on face-to-face meetings with students and student input through Sakai, recognizing concerns about workload”, stated Rebecca Raby, Chair of and Professor in CHYS. “That said, there is a thoughtful pedagogical logic behind the organization of the course. Students are expected to reflect on their placement experiences in relation to the three ‘banks’ of study in Child and Youth Studies: development, exceptionalities and socio-cultural issues, so it is fairly intensive. This is also the first year that we have been running the course on-line. We routinely evaluate changes we have made to course structure and delivery, so we will be talking more about CHYS 2P15 in our Undergraduate Program Committee to determine whether we need to make any broader, structural changes to the course design.”

Comments from students on the effectiveness and content of the course are always welcomed by professors and departments in order to make meaningful changes which validate student agency.

“The first and best thing a student can do is go to the professor”, stated Raby. “Sometimes students are shy about approaching a professor to talk critically about things that are happening in the course, but this is by far the most direct and professional way to address an issue. If students then feel that their concerns have not been addressed, then they should talk to the Chair, who will discuss the situation with the professor, and may suggest a meeting involving the Chair, the professor, and the student(s). If students are still unhappy, then the next step would be to address concerns with the Associate Dean of their faculty. Another option is that they can consult the BUSU Ombuds officer.”

Of course, while there are also institutional safeguards that allow students a voice in rating their experiences with both professors and course content, direct action is always more meaningful like discussing changes with the individual professor are often more effective.  “Course evaluations are one valuable way that we can get a good sense of what is working in a course, and what might not be working quite as well,” stated Raby.

“Course evaluations are primarily read by the professor and taken into consideration when revising the course. The quantitative information is also reported to the department Chair and to the Dean of Social Sciences. The course evaluations also play a role in more formal evaluations of professors, e.g. when we are up for tenure and/or promotion, or in the end of term evaluation of stipend instructors and teaching assistants.”

While the survey may have prompted a conversation about possible changes to the course, the course’s Professor, Dawn Zinga, is not specifically addressing the petition.

“It is important to note that the change.org petition is not being addressed as it includes a substantial number of people who are not in the course including individuals who are outside the province and the country,” stated Zinga. “It also includes unprofessional content. Concerns that students have brought up through proper channels such as during office hours, in Sakai, e-mail communications, and during face-to-face meetings are being addressed. I always monitor the courses that I am teaching and make adjustments if necessary. There are some changes that will help address workload that will be provided to the students via an anonymous Sakai survey so that each student can have a voice in the changes that may be implemented.”

Earlier this week, Angaran as well as another student enrolled in the course met with the instructor.

“There was very constructive and critical dialogue between myself, a peer and the instructor. [Zinga] was understanding of the concerns and was keen on providing the best education and experience for students; and she realized that addressing some of the issues is the first step in the process,” stated Angaran”

As of Nov. 20, Angaran has declared on change.org that the petition was a “victory” and that “Change is in the process”. The petition can be found at goo.gl/U2BU5F

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