By Petra Dreiser, Reprinted from the UofT Faculty of Arts & Science website
On November 18, Daniel Munro will likely feel the same elation and relief as thousands of other University of Toronto students that day: they are graduating. In Munro’s case, with a PhD in philosophy, earned through years of coursework and a dissertation titled “Imagining the Actual,” supervised by Professor Jennifer Nagel. Munro was, in fact, the first student to defend his thesis in (masked) person at the School of Graduate Studies following pandemic lockdowns — and he did so masterfully.
Laser-focused as he may have been on completing this final step of his graduate career, Munro in the summer of 2021 still found time for another adventure: together with fellow philosophy doctoral student Zach Weinstein, Munro taught a summer course at University in the Community (UitC), a free-of-charge, adult, liberal arts/civic engagement outreach program in Toronto that offers courses in the humanities to people whose life circumstances may have limited their access to higher education.
The idea to step outside traditional modes of teaching first came to the two friends in the professional development seminar that forms part of their graduate program: both were looking for ways to see their field of study applied to everyday people’s lives, for alternative “ways of approaching and sharing philosophy,” as Weinstein put it.
University in the Community
UitC, founded in 2003 as an initiative of the Workers’ Educational Association of Canada, “aims to foster informative, stimulating conversations that respect participating students’ diverse backgrounds, education, and opinions,” in the words of its current coordinator, Joanne Mackay-Bennett. It seemed like the perfect fit.
“From the beginning, Joanne and UitC welcomed us with enthusiasm and openness,” Munro says; “it felt inspiring.”
To accommodate their busy schedules, the two philosophers suggested teaching a four-week summer course instead of a full semester and pitched three topic options to their future students. After a year of pandemic and political turmoil, the approximately 30 students, ranging in age from 16 to 80-something and hailing from a wide range of professional and geographical backgrounds, knew what they wanted to talk about: “The Role of Emotions in the World.”
Munro and Weinstein felt excitement at the opportunity, but also a bit of trepidation: the course they had designed — focusing, after an introduction, on emotions in politics, emotions in science/knowledge acquisition, and emotions in personal relationships — depended heavily on active discussion. How would that work on Zoom? How would they manage to co-teach, something they had never done? Would students find the short, popular philosophy texts they had chosen engaging?
They need not have worried. “Students took everything we threw at them and ran with it,” Weinstein enthuses. Students talked, listened, and, over time, began using the philosophical tools their teachers had introduced to them to think about their lives and re-assess past experiences. “It was really exciting,” Munro says.
In fact, the only genuine problem in class became time-management — sessions regularly went over by twenty minutes and, according to Mackay-Bennett, continued on long afterwards, in phone calls, emails, or text exchanges.
Ralyma Marquez, a medical doctor who practiced palliative care in Venezuela and just completed her secondary English credits at City Adult Learning Centre, described the course as “a gift,” leaving her reflecting on how emotions “intervene in everything we do and decide,” even in realms we might not consider “emotional.” Ebrahim Mohamud, a 16-year-old high school student, praised his instructors’ deftness at “accommodating students at all levels,” and said the course “served as a catalyst for my life-long endeavour to investigate the realm of philosophy.” Another student, the community advocate Robert Thoen, even called into a class to participate in the debate from his sickbed in Mount Sinai Hospital (he has since recovered fully).
Both Weinstein and Munro came away from the experience motivated and “just happy. During a really stressful time in my life, this course proved the bright spot of the week,” claims Munro.
The UitC course also changed them as teachers and thinkers: Munro has learned that the abstraction and thought experiments so beloved by philosophers have their limits, and that starting with people’s lived experience can enrich discussion and understanding. The classes left Weinstein feeling freshly grounded in his discipline, seeing that it could and did have impact beyond the halls of academia, encouraging community by stimulating thoughtful conversation.
In this way, a project like UitC highlights the strong and reciprocal relationships between the university and the surrounding community — both learn from and broaden each other’s perspectives.
Would the two philosophers do it again? “It’s definitely on the horizon,” says Weinstein, though no concrete plans exist just yet. He wants to concentrate on finishing his dissertation project, while Munro will spend his first months as a newly minted PhD doing postdoctoral work at U of T.
Either way, they agree: every graduate student, if they can find the time, should endeavor to teach at UitC or an organization like it. “It’s valuable, enriching, and — we cannot stress this enough — just plain fun!”