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Success story looking for happy ending: Is community-engaged learning in peril at McGill?

Empty classroom

My classroom, empty.

This is at least how I found it to be at 2:36 PM on October 2, 2018—day 1 of my students’ “research partnerships,” for lack of a groovier word, (and I have searched some!) with a community-based organization working for social change.

In its current form, the capstone course for students majoring in Gender, Sexuality, Feminist and Social Justice Studies, GSFS 400, is a relatively new class offered at the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist studies (IGSF) at McGill. It was designed as such in 2017 by the unforgettable Mary Bunch, now assistant professor in Cinema and Media Arts at York, and in the Fall 2018 it was adapted—with a littl’ extra music—by the musicologist currently on faculty at IGSF… yours truly. Inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and bell hooks’ description of a liberatory feminist praxis as “action and reflection upon the world in order to transform it,” (Freire in hooks 1994, 112), GSFS 400 builds on the principles of collaboration, partnership, and critical praxis to support interdisciplinary teams of student researchers in the development of a research project that responds to needs defined by a community-based organization working for social change. The research partnerships had been initiated or reactivated the summer before thanks in large part to McGill’s Experiential Community-Engaged Learning & Research (ExCELR) program, hosted at the Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) office (beware, more on SEDE below). And after nearly a month of readings, in-class discussions, and guest lectures on the risks and benefits of university-community partnerships, feminist research ethics and design, and how to build respectful research relations, for the first time that day my students were free to meet here or to be where the organisation needed them to be. No need to come to class, I wrote on my syllabus, (although you can—I will be here). 

Luckily for my soon-to-burst empty nest syndrome, at 2:40 PM or so, my all-star team of indigenous feminism critics walked in with a carboard box full of surveys that had been done some time ago with service-users at Quebec Native Women (QNW). No one was quite sure whether or not the answers to the surveys been catalogued and compiled, let alone analyzed and turned into recommendations, grants proposals, or policy changes. That, they did: “data collected from question 11” eventually lead to a fantastic resource handbook aimed at two-spirit service-users at QNW. All the way upstairs in IGSF’s classic “pink office,” my #TeamWorkMakesTheDreamWork team was plotting on ways to write a Canada-wide report on best practices for emergency night shelters in order to help Montreal-based organisation Chez Doris turn their recent 1,000,000$ donation into an emergency night shelter for women. Soon, the Fab Four that partnered with AIDS Community Care Montreal also came in with—and I recall this distinctly—a willingness to make the research truly transformative that, I was soon learn, would be as strong as a chain that truly has no weaker link.

The team that was partnering with Femmes* en Musique didn’t make it to class that day; they were working on their literature review for a project on gender-, sexuality-, race-, and age-based discrimination in Quebec’s music industry that would turn out to have a wide media appeal (a press conference is to take place at the end of March). The team that worked at the Laboratory for Urban Culture (LUC), an organisation that provides free after school arts programs to kids in the underprivileged neighbourhood of Little Burgundy, didn’t show up either; they found out quickly enough that the Community Youth Arts Network online platform that the LUC had imagined (C.Y.A.N! They had quipped the catchy acronym already!) would have to be scaled “down” to nine hours a week of volunteering with kids without which the programs could not even take place, as well as recommendations for a five-year sustainability plan. A gem amongst gems, the team that partnered with Project 10, an organization that supports and provides services to queer and questioning youth, was likely benefitting that day from the invaluable guidance provided by the superstar coordinator there, regarding how to collect and edit impact stories (#myP10story) as part of their funding & outreach efforts.

Over the following two months, I followed the progress of my students’ research projects through bi-weekly meet-ups, large-group debriefs and workshops, meeting agendas that I could access online, individual self-reflexive journaling, and several installments of research reports that included, among others, ethical considerations, methodology, and an extensive literature review.

Most students were very forward, particularly in their researcher diaries, about how challenging they found the course to be. Many were confronted for the very first time with the emotional labor involved in actually doing social justice work rather than arguing for “theory-from-the-ground-up” in a term paper. Some found teamwork dynamics to be particularly taxing (though not the #TeamWorkMakesTheDreamWork team, to be sure). Others faced ethical dilemmas with their organisation that made them doubt, at least for a time, their actual commitment to feminist goals. Unanimously, my students found the bridge between theory and practice to be one that was a lot more difficult to build than to critically endorse.

Another student-researcher, Corinne Bulger, initially found it difficult to reconcile indigenous feminist scholarship and praxis as a Canadian settler doing research in an indigenous-led organization. “There were times when I felt frustrated or worried about my positionality as a white researcher working with an Indigenous community partner,” she wrote:

“I have felt both my academic focuses, of gender and Indigenous studies, have formalized my ongoing knowledges of ethics and ensuring not to take up space in certain contexts, which at times has left me immobile in moving forward with a research question, project, or even comment out of fear of being inequitable or insensitive. I think this class positively pushed me out of my comfort zones and challenged me to be a more forward researcher and student. I believe that being more forward in my research and study practices is something I need to work on, as I have often found myself being passive or feeling a lack of expertise during my undergrad. Through this course, support from my team, and working with our community partner, I have been encouraged to be more aware of this and challenge myself in the future. Overall, this project has been a wonderful learning experience. I am so grateful for the academic skills it has taught me, as well as the positive relationships I gained with my peers and our community partner.”

Surprisingly, most of my GSFS 400 students—most of whom were in their final year of undergrad—also celebrated their newfound appreciation of teamwork! Student-researcher Elsie Chan described her teammates as “great sources of solidarity, community, and strength,” and spoke of how proud she felt about having “met the goals that I have set up for myself,” “got[ten] outside of my comfort zone,” “challenged myself to do things that I usually try to avoid. . . I am no longer as scared of trying new things,” she concluded, “and cannot wait for what comes next in the future!”

Now, what a success story, you might be thinking; students rising up to the challenges offered by their capstone course and flying out of their undergraduate nests with hope for the future! What a happy ending.

Well, not quite—or, not yet. The recent announcement of the restructuring of SEDE, and in particular the relocation to Enrolment Services of Community Engagement Coordinator Anurag Dhir—who has been building and sustaining university-community partnerships for years—is a harsh blow to community-based learning initiatives at McGill. When I stepped into this course assignment late last summer, I could rely on SEDE to “hop onboard” in 4 out of the 6 partnerships that my students participated in. Beyond the particular circumstances of this course, SEDE creates sustainable community links that allow the university to circumvent the contingencies related to individual faculty members’ particular expertise, availability (maternity leaves, sabbaticals), and familiarity with specific university regulations, including those of McGill’s Research and Ethics Board. Simply put, long-term partnerships are beyond the scope of a single prof. This office is a critical life support for community-engaged education at McGill.

Corinne Bulger was categorical in her assessment of the benefits of university-community partnerships for the whole ecosystem: “I believe that the most positive impact we made was through helping bridge a relationship between Quebec Native Women and McGill. A relationship that will offer beautiful opportunities and resource-sharing in the future. I hope this is something that is sustainable and continuous for future semesters between the two parties.”

And so do I.

McGill has identified community-based learning as a priority. But without an institutional structure responsible for sustaining university-community partnerships beyond single-semester courses, community-engaged learning simply cannot thrive at McGill.

At its best, community-based research does not simply produce new statistical data or reveal how structures of discrimination channel certain lives towards the margins of the citizenry. It does what great music always does (says the musicologist): transport us to another world, compel us to imagine a new social order, and in turn shape that alternative lifeworld. In other words, (actually, the words of another music-and-social-justice scholar, George Lipsitz), “in the process of struggle, scholar-activists develop new ways of knowing as well as new ways of being. . . [in order] to become the kinds of people who can create institutions, practices, beliefs, and social relations capable of generating a more just world” (Lipsitz 2008).

A worthy priority indeed.


hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York, Routledge, 1994.

Lipsitz, George. “Breaking the Chains and Steering the Ship: How Activism Can Help Change Teaching and Scholarship.” In Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship, edited by Charles R. Hale, pp. 88-112. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008.

Student quotations used with permission.

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Vanessa Blais-Tremblay holds a PhD in Musicology and a specialization in Gender and Women's Studies from @McGillU. She has worked as faculty lecturer at the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, and at the Schulich School of Music. She is also a professional violinist. @Vannybt

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