By Denise Paglinawan
Current and incoming Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) executives are calling for an improved and expanded equity training program for teaching staff, following the recent dismissal of a Ryerson teaching assistant (TA) who made anti-Semitic comments and students complaining about a sessional lecturer’s controversial Facebook comments.
Last month, the university fired Ayman Elkasrawy, a TA in the engineering and architectural science faculty, due to anti-Semitic comments he made during a mosque prayer.
Students also made complaints about controversial Facebook comments posted by engineering sessional lecturer Brian Petz. The comments were regarding Petz’s political views on immigration and religious communities.
While newly-hired teaching staff are required to attend the equity training during the faculty orientation in their first year of employment, it’s not a requirement for unionized and existing instructors and TAs.
Camryn Harlick, incoming RSU vice-president equity and current coordinator at RyePride, said the RSU’s equity centres have received many complaints about Ryerson’s teaching staff. They said students are “feeling extremely triggered” in their classes due to teachers expressing prejudices like transphobia.
“[Students complain about] professors using the wrong name in class, not using the right pronouns and saying there are only two genders,” Harlick said.
They said this can negatively affect students’ academic performance, mental health and make them feel uncomfortable coming to class or asking for help.
Equity trainings are hosted by Ryerson’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) during faculty orientation. The EDI office assists the university’s departments and faculties to introduce these values into classrooms and work environments.
According to Ryerson’s vice-provost faculty affairs Saeed Zolfaghari, the Learning & Teaching Conference, where the new staff will receive their training, will be held on May 18.
EDI’s training sessions engage participants in identifying personal assumptions, biases, worldviews, understanding the impact of EDI on the Ryerson community and identifying intersections of what makes up the spaces where people live, work and study.
Current RSU vice-president equity Tamara Jones said teaching staff who need training are usually those who don’t attend—old staff that aren’t required to go. She also said there’s a lot of resistance to the word “mandatory,” as it’s up to the individual’s discretion if they want to attend the training.
Harlick said all professors and TAs should undergo mandatory equity training and that it should be student-led in partnership with the EDI office.
These trainings give teaching staff “free anti-oppression therapy” and help them understand how to become better educators, Harlick said.
“If these trainings could be student-led, in partnership with EDI, it [would be] students who are talking about knowledge from their own experiences,” they said. “So this would not look like a cis student talking about what trans students need, for example.”
Eric Kam, the director of the Learning & Teaching Office, said he is currently in the process of receiving proposals on student engagement difficulties. “We expect to receive several proposals on EDI-related issues that are relevant to fostering inclusive classrooms.”
The EDI office, along with the Learning & Teaching Office, will also periodically lead workshops or special sessions for the annual Learning & Teaching Conference, according to Ryerson’s vice-provost equity Denise O’Neil Green.
York University has a similar training program—Respect, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (REDI)—which is offered throughout the year. Participants who attend the training sessions receive a certificate of completion.
Harlick said as incoming RSU vice-president equity, they would continue conversations with the EDI office about making equity trainings mandatory. “I think lobbying with the university is something that I would love to work on and see if there is any possibility [of this happening] at all.”