The Ivory Tower of Academia


My inner critic has been loud of late. “This presentation isn’t good enough, you should have done more readings, you are going to submit that?” It’s easy to let my mind run away with itself. Only coming back to myself as I run screaming through the woods of my mind.

I intellectually understand that my work is not meant to be the same as others. That different does not equate with worse. That just because I don’t use ‘praxis’ doesn’t mean I don’t do it. There are so many things I love about academia. I love learning. I love sharing what I have learned. I love writing. I don’t love the comparison that can sometimes accompany it. I don’t love the way academia can obscure and complicate ideas. I don’t love the exclusion.

When I first entered university several years ago, I had dreams of enlightenment and learning for the sake of learning. This is sadly, not what the university system produces. The system is focussed on producing regregetators not thinkers. I am lucky to be a program that values critical thinking but balancing that with the overwhelming pressure to be ‘academic’ is, well, overwhelming.

So what can be done about this? I can continue to try to write in plain language and to try to make what I am learning accessible. I understand that language matters. That academic jargon can fit in with academic work which is sometimes useful but I want to move beyond this. I love what I have been learning about research, about ways to enhance and challenge what we understand as knowledge. But if I cannot share this with a non academic audience, then what’s the point? I don’t want to be involved in creating knowledge which can’t be accessed. Despite what some academics might think plain language is not dumbing down your work. Plain language doesn’t make your research soft. It adds value. If academia is to survive and encourage people to learn for the sake of learning, not just a well paying job, then we need to ditch the jargon and overly complicated phrases.

It seems so lonely in the academic ivory tower. I feel like an outsider. I want to invite others in. There is safety in numbers.

Huronia Regional Centre: The Doors Close Again

The sky was dark and overcast during our drive to Huronia Regional Centre. Behind us ominous dark clouds rolled in, made even darker by the brilliant reds and oranges of the trees along the highway. It was the quintessential fall day.

We had applied as ‘researchers and scholars’ to view artifacts that were being stored at Huronia. I had naively thought I would know what to expect as I had been on a tour with survivors in July. I would walk in and a bubbly headset wearing purple shirted staff would greet me and offer muffins. This did not happen. There was an air of authoritarianism to the visit. We were checked in and were about to be escorted to the artifacts room, when a survivor asked they could join our group. A brisk young woman with a purple shirt flatly refused as the survivor had not submitted the proper forms in the proper manner at the proper time. There was no budging. Later I learned how truly revolting that refusal was. During her period of incarceration, the survivor had been forced to sew straight jackets and had wanted to see the paper patterns that had been saved.

A metal shelf hold stacks of paper patterns to make straight jackets

Patterns for straight jackets at Huronia Regional Centre

Even the idea of having researchers or scholars access material instead of, or including survivors is repugnant. Nothing has changed. Survivor knowledge and rights are still being denied. Why shouldn’t everyone who was forcibly incarcerated at Huronia be able to access artifacts? What is most disgusting, is the number of artifacts that belong to survivors; clothes with names on them, awards, artwork and photographs. These were surrounded by the items survivors never had access to during the imprisionment, beautiful silver cutlery, educational materials featuring happy families, ornate furniture and ceramic dishes. Interspersed where items that survivors would have been all to familiar with; hard, wooden examination tables, pill bottles, needles, sewing machines, child sized straight jackets, cage cribs, and farm implements for forced labour.

Child sized staight jacket.

Child sized straight jackets at Huronia Regional Centre.

A series of 1950s style cards and text about teaching emotions to children. The cards feature happy families.

Book series teaching emotions featuring happy families.

A cage crib.

A cage crib.

Our group struck up a conversation with the purple shirted man supervising our visit. He had worked at Huronia. Someone asked what he thought of the closure. He told us a story about meeting some survivors in a store in Orillia, the survivors all came to him and asked when Huronia would be open again so they could go home. Now, I do understand how during years of incarceration a person could begin to equate their prison with home. What else would anyone expect children to do? To use that story, however, to justify years of employment at, what literarily was a unlawful prison for people who were disabled, indicates a sadly common mindset that despite the closing of Huronia has not changed: people labelled with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities need care and control, their opinions are not valuable, their rights are subordinate to those of non disabled people.

During the visit, a survivor said that Huronia stole her past. Until she came to pride, there was no way to answer ‘where do you come from’ or ‘what’s your family history’? It was through telling her story that this transformation occurred. This weekend visit marks the last of the visitations stipulated under the class action law suit. The doors once again close on Huronia. But we need to support survivors to keep the history alive by continuing to tell their stories. Huronia is closed, but we must not forget.

Social Justice Week At Ryerson

the flyer for the events for social justice week

Like many Ryerson students and alumni who don’t live near campus or who work during the day, I wasn’t able to make it to as many Social Justice week events as I would have liked, but what I did experience was profound.

I attended the entire day of workshops, lectures and performances on Thursday, October 9. This day was hosted by the School of Social Work and the School of Disability Studies. In the morning, I attended skills workshop entitled, New Media and Innovative Organizing. There were three panelists for this workshop. One focused on writing and narrative as a form of activism, another on digital story telling and the third on photographic voice as a research method. I think sometimes, activists get stuck on one kind of organizing and while I have seen the power and usefulness of marches and demonstrations, there is something so beautiful and subversive about using art as a way to speak back to the dominate narrative. however, this is not to say that it is easier. Issues with funding, research methodologies, soft vs. hard research and ways in which each panelist had dealt with these issues were discussed.

In the afternoon there were issues tables to discuss ways to practically start organizing. I attended a table hosted by some former members of the Social Work Anti-Oppression Coalition. These students organized when they were in the program to change the program and to work on unpacking their privilege. It was exceptionally powerful and sad to hear that this coalition no longer exists. The main speaker for this table discussion stated that the main reason for the success of the group was because they came from a place of love. This resonated with me. Winnie Ng, the holder of the CAW-Sam Gidin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy who organizes social justice week has said the same. I was lucky enough to be able to take Leadership for Social Action with her a couple of summer’s ago, in which she stated that social change starts with the heart, then moves to the hand. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha said the same recently at a poetry slam; loving is a revolutionary act.

The final event of the day was a dance performance by Spirit Synott, an internationally renowned dancer and a group of Ryerson dance students. The performance, titled Dare, was beautiful and well choreographed considering the group collectively created the piece in a week. Sprit, who uses a wheelchair and the dancers highlighted the barriers faced by those who use mobility devices. This was highlighted even more by the fact that Spirit and the group could not rehearse at the dance studios as they are inaccessible. I hope recordings of this performance is viewed by the president of Ryerson University and changes are made to the inaccessible nature of our campus. Beyond that, I hope that everyone who attended social justice week, takes something away and collectively we work to make our campus a welcoming space for all bodies.

The alkaline diet and cancer

I’ve been working at a juice bar for the last month and it’s been pretty awesome to be around people who are just as passionate about health and nutrition as me. But as inspiring as it is to be in an environment that encourages healthy living, it’s also frustrating because of how little my coworkers – and the customers – know about the science behind food and the body. Lately, there’s been talk about the alkaline diet, which suggests that blood pH – the level of acidity or alkalinity in the blood – is influenced by what we eat, and a more alkaline diet can protect the body from cancer.

The alkaline diet promotes the avoidance of foods that are thought to produce harmful acid in the body, including meat, dairy, refined sugar, alcohol and processed foods. Eating foods that are more alkaline, like fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, are believed to protect against blood pH from becoming acidic, which can harm tissues, cells, and fluids.

The pH scale ranges from zero (being the most acidic) to 14 (being the most alkaline). Our blood falls at a neutral level between 7.35 and 7.45. If the pH strays from its target – potentially from muscle breakdown, hormonal changes, or lack of oxygen – our body will immediately adapt and return blood pH to its steady level. These essential adaptations include breathing more rapidly, urinating frequently, urinating less, and releasing neutralizing substances, like hemoglobin and bicarbonate, to prevent blood pH from becoming too acidic. Ultimately, it’s the body’s doing – not the doings of food – that regulates pH levels.

Cancer is scary, and the scariest part of it is that even the healthiest people are diagnosed with it. I have talked to a few juice bar regulars who live by the alkaline diet because they believe drinking green juice can protect against – and even cure – cancer. Science has shown that cancer cells create – and thrive in – an acidic environment in the body. It would make sense that if those conditions could be neutralized – by making it more alkaline – the cancer cells would be destroyed. Unfortunately, food can’t promote an environment like this and an alkaline diet doesn’t cure or protect against cancer.

Following an alkaline diet has an upside because it encourages the consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. Most of us don’t get enough of these amazing foods, which deliver vitamins, minerals, and fibre to the body to keep it healthy. But the alkaline diet is restrictive, and avoiding meat and dairy can lead to negative health outcomes if the individual doesn’t properly supplement their diet with comparable alternatives, like tempeh, tofu, and plant-based milk beverages.

Cancer is a multifactorial disease, which means that many factors – rather than just one – contribute to its development. To protect against cancer, take many approaches to your health, including physical activity, wearing sunscreen, annual check-ups with the doctor, and eating a balanced  – not restrictive – diet.

Tips for Writing an Academic CV

depicts a CV on a desk with a pair of glasses and a pen

Most of us have a resume, that handy little document where our life is written out in terms of employment and most of us have a good idea of what should be included. An academic CV is another story. If you are applying for grad school or want to demonstrate your involvement in research projects or are applying for certain awards you will need one. I got some great advice when I started compiling mine; ‘it’s never too early to start, you’ve done more than you realize.’ With that sage advice in mind, here are some other tips to help you get started.


There is no one correct way to format your academic CV. It is important it make sure that whatever format you use, it needs to be clear and readable. So don’t mix categories and keep things in reverse chronological order. Most templates start with education, followed by work experience. As you may not have research experience you can add sections for awards, professional memberships, conferences attended and skills. Here are a couple of websites to give you some idea about formatting, and

2. Value the experience you do have

So looking over these templates, you might be feeling discouraged. Chances are you haven’t been published by an academic journal (yet), however, perhaps you have been published in Ryerson Today or a local paper. You may not have presented at a conference, but perhaps you have attended them. Include this information. However, keep in mind that you don’t want to overload your academic CV with information.

3. Length

Which brings us to the topic of length. Unless you have a string of publications to your name, your CV should between one to two pages. After you have the basics, you can plump it up if you need to. However, remember as wonderful as your CV will be, it will probably only be skimmed by the reader so it needs to be clear and concise.

4. Proofread

Like any CV or resume, it’s important, vital really, to make sure that you have someone proofread it. Ask your proofreader to also comment on your fonts and the your organization of your CV. You want to make sure that it is clear at first glance, as a second read might not happen.

5. Share

One of the best ways to evaluate your academic CV is to share with it others who already have one. Find a professor, RA, TA, GA or sessional instructor who is willing to help you with this. Chances are they did they same thing when they first began writing their academic CV.

Good luck!

Alcohol consumption and cancer

Alcohol. I love it. And, fellow Ryerson students, I know you love it too. More than ever, drinking has become an integral part of youth culture and a common activity during social gatherings. As the days grow longer and that gloriously hot summer sun beams down on us from a cloudless sky, we are more inclined to crack open a cold one, suck back a mason jar of sangria, or sip on a glass of wine to cool down and relax.

But, like many wonderful things in life, alcohol is not that good for our bodies. In April, Cancer Care Ontario released a new report outlining a correlation between alcohol consumption and cancer, and it mentions that our demographic – those between the ages of 19 and 29 – has the highest prevalence of excessive drinking. The report also reveals that only one-third of Canadians are aware of these links, which is why it is important to raise awareness about it in the Ryerson Community.

Ethanol, the component in all alcohol, is a known human carcinogen and is believed to cause damage to our DNA. It also acts as a solvent that breaks down our cell walls, which allows for other carcinogens to penetrate into them and cause genetic damage. The cancers associated with alcohol consumption include those of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus.

I know what you are thinking, readers: I’ll just switch up my tequila for vodka and I am in the clear. Unfortunately, the CCO report states that is not the type of alcohol that matters, but rather the amount you drink. The latest recommendation on alcohol consumption, established by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Canada Research, reveals there is “no established ‘safe limit’” to prevent an increased risk of cancer.

WHAT?! NO SAFE LIMIT?! I know, right? I kinda died too.

Seeing as the summer pretty much equates to a frosted mug of beer, this is not a feasible recommendation for the majority of people. But fret not, my beloved patio-goers and Bellwoods dwellers, there are secondary recommendations you can follow that let you enjoy your tall cans in the safest way possible. Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines recommend females 19+ consume no more than 10 drinks per week (1-2 drinks per day), and males of the same age demographic stick to 15 drinks per week (2-3 drinks per day).

But, there’s a catch – we have to be mindful of what a standard drink means. A 12 oz. bottle of beer (5% alcohol) is 341mL; 1.5oz. of hard booze (40% alcohol) measures 43mL; and 5 oz. (142mL) is one glass of wine (12% alcohol).

As well, the aforementioned guidelines also encourage us to plan non-drinking days throughout the week to avoid developing a habit.

As young folks, we rarely think of the future of our health because we focus enjoying the moment. But it is the habits we acquire in our younger years that impact our later years. Cancer can take decades to form before it shows itself. This means that a cancer diagnosis in midlife may have been the result of various habits in our younger years.

I am not telling you to stop drinking, but rather I am spreading the good word and empowering you to make a healthy choice. Have a few drinks, enjoy those drinks and have fun with friends, but know your limit, adhere to the guidelines as much as possible, and be safe.


Why Disability Studies?

it reads "disability in the academy"

I am often asked, “why are you taking Disability Studies?” Or more frequently, “what kind of job are you going to get with that degree?” I understand these questions, I mean it’s not as if I am getting a business degree or becoming an engineer where the job avenues are more evident. Maybe that’s the problem; everyone is assuming that a degree should lead to better employment right out of the gate. Whereas, I believe the purpose of a degree should be to help me to perceive the world in a new way. This is not to say that I don’t see career opportunities opening up with a Disability Studies degree, rather, that obvious employment isn’t necessarily the main reason for learning.

In a way Disability Studies feels like a home coming for me. All of us, every single one, have disability in our lives whether we realize it or not. A grandparent with dementia, a sibling with a developmental disability, an uncle who uses a wheelchair, a friend experiencing mental health. Our society separates us from disability, as if disability isn’t natural. But take a second at look at your life. Disability is there.

I took a course last year in which we were asked to place ourselves into different modes and models of research. The ultimate point being to teach us that we cannot separate ourselves from the world we live in or research about. I think Disability operates in a similar fashion. I don’t believe we can separate ourselves from Disability. Nor should we want to. Disability and notions of (dis)ableism effect us all. Even if we currently live without a personal disability, the ever fluid nature of disability and limitations of the ‘mythic norm’ will one day catch up with us.

In our society we accept and proclaim certain ways of knowing as valid; certain forms of knowledge are considered better than others. For years, (and still to this day) feminist scholars and writers have been arguing that women have a different way of perceiving the world. So it is for Disability Studies scholars.

It seems like we are stuck in a rut. Scared to admit that other ways of perceiving the world could actually enlarge our view rather than shrink it. Scared to admit that the mythic norm, that sword of Damocles, will one day (or already has) fall and cast us in the role of other.

I have a favourite quotation by Rumi, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” I believe that changing my perceptions, furthering my knowledge and understanding, changing myself, is one way to change the world. So, to answer those ever present questions posed by those who cannot understand why I am taking Disability Studies; I have a job (several actually), I will probably have many different careers in my lifetime, but I believe learning is valuable for its own sake not just for a pay cheque.

Placement Diary Closure

languageI am finishing up the end of my fourth year placement. There are a few loose ends to tie up such as changes to the coding of the dataset for the study I have been working on all year. The study is about community access to school and municipal space. Once the coding is done and I have written my share of the research methods, it goes together with the qualitative data to become a real published study that will be peer reviewed. The idea of peer review is intimidating. The purpose of qualitative data is characterize rather than quantify information or in some interpretations to put a human face to the story you are telling with the research.

Many question the validity of qualitative data, the validity (or credibility) and reliability (replicability) of quantitative research. In this society we like cold, hard facts because we see them as absolute truths. They are not of course and anyone who has stopped for a moment to consider some of the things that have been done in the name of scientific “advance” will surely see. Many in fact will say that it is only through qualitative data that a deep and meaningful study be made. Still others will say that specifically grounded theory research (in other words that which is built from within the population group itself) is the only way to tell the true story-literally in the words of the people whom it concerns.

This all said, there are as many or possibly more places to make an error in the collection, cleaning, coding and presentation of qualitative date. When you combine this with someone (like me) who has very little feet on the ground experience with research, you have a higher possibility of error. Despite this, I have been charged with the task of doing this part of the study and am greatly honoured that my supervisor felt I was up to the task. I have been fortunate in both my placements to have supervisors who were extremely flexible with the way in which I did my work and very generous in terms of the material they let me explore. After all, they are responsible for the output of those working under them so I am truly honoured.

The nature of a process has a way of information itself too. As this placement has unfolded, my first hand experience with the material (that of being a user trying to access public space) has also grown. This is an entirely separate story but suffice it to say, as I began to code the data, the stories sounded very familiar and the themes were easier to pick out. This might be serendipitous but it may also have created another possibility for error. It  has certainly created a need for constant checking and re-checking of my reflexivity (locating who I am in the process of research).

Now that my placement is wrapping up, I am both concerned and excited to see how the information will be received. I have had one great evaluation and am told that another is to follow so I’m not so I am not worried about the, well quantified, view of my work. It is, however, really important to me that the data that I present more than just an acceptable summary of responses on a survey. This data represents people’s stories, their everyday experience that informs programs that can impact lives of children, seniors and all others in their communities. I hope it is worthy of consideration and above all meaningful to someone.

Placement Diary Part 2

I am now five-eighths of the way through my placement at Social Planning Toronto. It feels like I just got here yesterday yet I have learned so much. Working a placement in both the third and fourth years into my already busy life has been a challenge to say the least. I have been able to achieve it with a lot of flexibility and understanding from my family who bear the brunt of my absences since I also work full time.  The other huge contributing factor though has been the incredible patience and support I have received from both of my placement supervisors. As a result, I have been able to cover an amazing amount of material and be exposed to a wide range of settings from front line work to research to policy development. I feel the sacrifice has been well worth it and now that I’m down to the last couple of months, I really want to make sure I do work that will make an impact. I will be working on policy piece on Student Nutrition Programs (blog post to follow), a survey to educators about the impact of funding cuts on school programs and the coding and report writing of a Community Use of Space study.

In my third year, I did my placement in the perinatal group at the Queen West Community Health Centre so my work was front line with some of the city’smost marginalized people: homeless pregnant women. I loved the work and really wanted to continue with another service centre placement but, with my goal being a Masters of Education, it was important to get the research experience. I could not have been luckier. I landed a placement with Social Planning Toronto, a very progressive activist-orientated research and planning organization with an education wing. As if that wasn’t miracle enough, they are very supportive of my scheduling needs. My supervisor tends to work the later hours in the day that match up with my timing perfectly and I have had the opportunity to really explore a variety of paths in research and advocacy.

Next week, we will begin the coding of qualitative data from a survey we are working on that will be peer reviewed and published in the spring. The very notion of math terrifies me so I am quite astounded at how excited I am to sink my teeth into the data. I am also somewhat terrified that the work will go on public record but it presents me with a great challenge and I do truly believe that challenges are the key to retaining one’s vitality.

So for anyone else who is struggling with the notion of accommodating third and fourth year field placements, I would just like to say that it is all very worthwhile. More than the academic curriculum, it will be the placement experiences that will stay with me as I move on to graduate school and beyond. Social work is about people’s stories and there is simply no way to get that from a book so unless you already work in the field, the placement is the place to get that. If you approach it with energy and enthusiasm, you will be repaid tenfold.  I will let you know how I make out with the math though.


Canadian Association of Planning Students Conference

There are an amazing number of student run organizations and groups that host workshops, conferences, and lectures related to their professions. I’ve had the privilege of attending and now working with an organization with a long history, The Canadian Association of Planning Students, or CAPS.

This group has been active for over 25 years and operates in a unique fashion. The group has never been registered as an association and has no official governing or operational structure. Each year, the board is primarily comprised of the past year’s student executive and the current year’s executive. While this could prove a messy arrangement, students of planning are a resilient and organized bunch, and CAPS has held a conference each year since its inception in 1984.

CAPS provides Canadian students of planning a venue to share their research, network with other students from across the nation and discuss planning issues and initiatives. There is a strong focus on student research and presentations, and draws large crowds with well established and popular keynote speakers. In 2011, the University of Waterloo hosted the conference, featuring hit speakers such as  Thomas Homer Dixon and Craig Applegath.

Conference events are being offered in BOTH official languages!

This year, Canadian planning students are invited to hear a great lineup speakers and participate in workshops and panels led by some heavy hitters in the planning profession.  The theme is “Idencities”, focusing on urban identities. I am very excited to participate in this conference, especially the student panel led by Michael Gordon, MCIP, RPP (Vice President of the Canadian Institute of Planners) on the topic of social media and planning. This is of particular interest to me, as the Canadian Institute of Planners’ (CIP) Student Representative because I am in the thick of executing a social media initiative using Twitter (follow me @abbyplans !) to engage the CIP Student membership and students of planning. I am hoping that this panel can reveal new ways to use new media and engage people across generations.

The conference is always informative and fun, and I meet an incredible number of people to add to my professional network. I meet students that share my research interests, recruiters that are excited to employ me, and participate in an event that is worth much more than the nominal registration fee.


If you have interest in planning, the CAPS conference, or want to know more about the profession, check out these links: