UPDATE: Former instructor of “Homelessness in Canadian Society” concerned about course’s delivery

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By Kiernan Green

Pascal Murphy, a renowned instructor of 11 years for Ryerson’s Homelessness in Canadian Society (CINT908) course before it’s cancellation in April, said that changes made to the course’s new curriculum have removed what previously “re-humanized” people experiencing homelessness.

With a combined 17 years of experience teaching CINT908, Murphy and colleagues of the course were fully prepared to deliver five completely enrolled sections of the course “live-online,” meaning synchronously, come May 4. 

On April 28, “in the 11th hour,” Murphy said the administration of the G. Raymond Chang School for Continuing Education cancelled the course, despite its success at the end of the previous winter term and earlier approval for live-online delivery from the university. Since the course was cancelled, Murphy’s contract to teach in the spring was also rendered invalid, he said.

“We wanted to continue to run the course in the spring and summer semester but, like a number of courses, it turned out to be very challenging to do this in a short time frame,” said Hepburn in a Ryerson Today article published Sept. 29. “Until now, we didn’t have an online version of the course,” said Chang School academic coordinator Amy Clements-Cortes in the same article.

“The question ‘Why?’ is baffling,” said Murphy. “The pandemic made all of the things that we teach about worse: Homelessness got worse…More people died in May in B.C. from a tainted drug supply than from COVID-19. Racialization, as we’ve seen [got worse]. And they cancel a class that deals with all of those issues.”

Following a petition for the course to be reinstated signed by over 6,300 people, CINT908 became available for the fall 2020 semester, but with a different instructor. The petition has yet to receive a response from Ryerson, according to the petition’s author Emily Wright.

Murphy said he was never made aware of a posting for the instructor position despite having taught the course since 2009. 

Further, the course is being delivered entirely through pre-recorded lectures rather than live-online, which limits the lecture engagement that had been intrinsic to the course in previous years.

According to Murphy, Ryerson administration said he could not see the written communication students would receive regarding the course’s transition. His appeals to Ryerson provosts Jen McMillen and Michael Benarroch and president Mohamed Lachemi, received no response either. 

Chang School disagrees with synchronous course structure

Murphy said the live-online iteration of CINT908 was approved well in advance of May and the start of the spring/summer term. Shortly before, Murphy was granted an online teaching certificate from Ryerson’s digital education strategies team, signed by Hepburn himself.

In an email to The Eye after this article’s publication, the Chang School maintained that “the course was never approved for ‘live-online’ delivery” due to concerns around the structure of the course. According to the school the course would be delivered as a one-week intensive “over five consecutive days with over eight consecutive hours of Zoom attendance per day.” While the in-person spring course had run in this intensive format in previous years, the online version was not approved.

“The Interdisciplinary Studies (C/INT) curriculum committee, composed of the Associate Dean of the Faculty of Community Services (FCS), Associate Dean of Arts, and the FCS Teaching Chair, provided the team feedback but they did not commit to making changes that would address these concerns,” the Chang School wrote. “Because no appropriate solution for the course was found in time for the spring session, those course sections were cancelled in order to invest in a fully online version of the course.”

In a follow-up email to The Eye, Murphy maintained that him and his colleagues responded to these concerns and “made adaptations where appropriate.” However, they made it clear to the school before accepting the offer to teach in the spring that they “would only be interested if [they] were able to teach live-online (synchronous).”

Murphy said that teaching the course live-online was fundamental to delivering the most authentic conversations with people experiencing homelessness. 

“It is generally accepted…That people experiencing homelessness are, quite honestly, dehumanized,” said Murphy. “This is what supports the injustice that we call homelessness, and has been supporting this injustice for decades.”

In a live conversation, guest speakers “tell you their story as they connect with you on a personal level; as they show their passion, their courage, their resilience,” said Murphy. “The amount of re-humanization that takes place in our classroom is extraordinary.”

What’s more, considering the course’s heavy content, “we are being irresponsible to bring up issues of trauma and not then be there for our students as they work through that trauma,” said Murphy.

Wright, who has been a guest speaker in CINT908, said that re-humanizing people experiencing homelessness is essential for students from all programs who will eventually interact with them or the systemic issue of homelessness itself.

Roughly one week before spring classes began, the administration indicated that the course must be taught asynchronously, Murphy wrote in the follow-up email.

Murphy presented several studies to Hepburn which found live-online course delivery superior to pre-recorded delivery at providing a sense of belonging and cognitive stimulation among students. He also suggested the university consult students. “The response from the administration was that students would not be consulted,” said Murphy.

On April 27, Murphy said he was asked by the Chang School to confirm whether or not he was “prepared to engage in the re-design that will require the approval of the school or…insisting on fully synchronous delivery as has been described in the course outline.” In his response, Murphy asserted that he was ready to teach the course and believed that he had “provided a program that is reasonable, valuable and will respect the educational needs of students, including those who are impacted by the covid-19 pandemic.”

“I also believe that it is not unreasonable for the university to provide me the academic freedom to delivery a course in a way that I know is respectful to the students and the subject matter,” he added in his email to the Chang School.

The next day, Murphy was informed that the course had been cancelled and his contract was terminated. According to his email, he didn’t find out that the course had been redesigned until the end of June, when his colleague found the class listed for enrolment in the fall 2020 semester. Although he had taught the course for the last 11 years, Murphy was not involved in the redesign nor offered the teaching position.

According to the Chang School, “when the decision was made to develop the fully online version, the school consulted with the relevant faculty and decided the best approach would be to work with members of that faculty to develop this course.” Since Murphy is “not a member of the partner faculty,” he was not involved in the development of the fall 2020 course, they continued.

“This is the normal approach to such developments,” the Chang School wrote.

In the follow-up email, Murphy said he wishes this “all could have been avoided” and the Chang School “would have been clear from start that they only wanted asynchronous teaching.”

“[Ryerson] needs to justify their barring of not only our individual teaching, but our method of teaching that includes [live-online] engagement,” Murphy said. “If you say that students are at the heart of what you do, and we have thousands of students who say that they want this course reinstated [as live-online], they deserve a comprehensive answer.”

“To count out students really upsets me…I find it really quite disrespectful,” said Murphy.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) penned a letter to Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi on July 2 asking for clarification on the sudden cancelation CINT908. Ryerson has not responded to that letter at the time of publication.

Along with flagging suspicion for the cancellation of the course in April, the letter references a separate incident in the fall 2019 term: Murphy was asked by Ryerson to justify using graphic images to illustrate the pervasiveness of racism in popular culture and suggested he not use the images in the future.

“If there is evidence that the decision to cancel the course was in retaliation (to the fall 2019 incident) or motivated by the legitimate pedagogical or content choices of [Pascal Murphy], then there may well be a violation of academic freedom,” wrote CAUT executive director David Robinson in an email to The Eye. A violation of academic freedom could result in a full investigation from the CAUT or potential legal measures against Ryerson, said Robinson.

The course community

For the last eight years, Emily Wright was the first face you’d see walking into Murphy’s lecture hall. Nine years ago she was his student. Not long before that, Wright was experiencing homelessness herself.

“Taking that course…I was very [empowered] because now it was putting terminology to my experience that I had never really heard before,” said Wright. From the political to societal barriers set up against people experiencing homelessness, “there’s so much more to [the issue] than just my understanding and experience of being there,” she said.

With every passing year that Wright speaks to her experiences with homelessness as a guest speaker, “I seem to lose this layer of shame that I don’t necessarily even know I have,” she said. “I come out feeling lighter.”

People experiencing homelessness are routinely ignored. But when someone guest speaks in Murphy’s course, “you can hear a pin drop,” he said. “That’s the kind of empowerment that truly can save someone’s life.” 

A majority of Murphy’s guest lecturers were former students of the course who’ve experienced homelessness or its effects on family and loved ones, said Murphy. According to a 2019 survey from Homeless Hub, four per cent of Canadian post-secondary students experience homelessness in some form.

“It’s been so powerful for a number of my former students to be about to go into an environment where they are supported in sharing the worst trauma of their lives, and they come out of that feeling a lot more empowered,” said Murphy.

Tenured professors Julie James and Johanne Jean-Pierre are the instructors for this fall semester’s pre-recorded iteration of the CINT908 course. Neither responded to The Eye for comment in time for publication. Their expertise lies in youth social work and sociology according to their Ryerson bios, but neither have homelessness listed in their academic biographies or research interests.

Murphy said he hasn’t met either of the course’s new instructors, but that he finds their lack of academic experience with homelessness “alarming.” If they didn’t have the consideration to privilege the voices of those with lived experience, “I think it’s really quite problematic,” he said.

Wright said she would consider continuing to be a guest speaker if the new professor’s curriculum fit with her lived experience. Pre-recording her story for the course is a separate matter, she said.

“It’s my story…I don’t know how the professors, or the university, are going to use that pre-recorded lecture,” said Wright. She said she was concerned that a pre-recorded video could be circulated by students and eventually reach her current employer.

Wright’s story had once been altered while working with a nonprofit. “They basically changed my name and published my story on their website, changing details to make it even more sad,” she said. “If I want to make a memoir or write my story down, I want to have the rights to my story.”

Content prepared by tenured Ryerson faculty members—such as a pre-recorded lecture including Wright’s experiences with homelessness—would generally be the intellectual property of that tenured faculty member, stated Ryerson’s office of the vice-provost, faculty affairs in an email to The Eye.

Murphy said he’s been “humbled” by the fight for his class after 11 years teaching over 100 courses for what he counted as 3,624 students.

“Where else do you get 6,000 or more people now trying to save one course?” he asked. “I am a better person for having met my students. If this is truly the end of my teaching—at least at Ryerson­—I’m very thankful for it, and it’s because of my students and because of my guest speakers.” Murphy had paid out-of-pocket for his guest speakers—some of whom were still experiencing homelessness—after Ryerson stopped granting an allowance, said Wright.

“I’m actually quite heartbroken that other students won’t get this opportunity,” said Murphy. “At least that isn’t what Ryerson is allowing.”

With files from Kashish Hura

This story has been updated to include comment from the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, as well as Pascal Murphy’s response.

CORRECTIONS: A previous version of this article stated in the headline that Pascal Murphy was fired. The following version stated that he was barred from teaching it. This article has been updated to reflect that, while Murphy’s contract was rendered invalid and he was not invited to develop the new course, Ryerson maintains they did not explicitly prevent him from returning to teach the course. This article has also been amended as a previous version misspelled Emily Wright’s surname. The Eyeopener regrets these errors.

Comments

  1. I guess lectured in this class for 14 years. I got to share my experience, advocate for decriminalization of sex work, homelessness, and every single semester I was contacted by students whom told me that hearing my story had such a profound impact on them. I carry stories from students that they had never felt comfortable sharing with anyone else.

    Ryersons cancellation of this class was 100% unfounded and unsurprising.

    1. Thank you Evan!
      Thank you Murphy!
      Let’s find another outlet for this important work.

  2. Ryerson is and always has been a piece of shit institution to me. Pascal n Sarah ❤️

  3. I was a guest speaker for many years. It was a very helpful experience for myself as well as the students. As my only experience with University, I never graduated high school, it allowed me a sense of dignity denied me by society. ascal and colleagues, as well as his students, treated us with such respect and dignity that society as a whole does not This made a big difference in my life in particular allowed me some attempt overcome emotion issues myself and gain some sense of self worth as it was obvious the effect we had on the students on their endeavors to better society. Truly the way this has unfolded shows the lack of understanding by the University to the level of ignorance, bigotry and self importance or superiority. Instead of being a place for betterment of society and attitudes

    1. Well said Peter!
      Here’s hoping Murphy can get funding elsewhere to continue this important work.

  4. I’m so heartbroken to hear this news. My biggest regret is not keeping in contact with Sarah, who taught me this course two years ago. Pascal and Sarah are such wonderful, inspiring people and it’s such a shame that Ryerson doesn’t see that.

  5. As a student in the Social Justice and Peace program at King’s University College in London Ontario with a special interest in homelessness, I find this heartbreaking. This course was one way to shed light on the stigmatization and oppression of some of our most vulnerable. citizens. Out of sight out of mind.

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