Shauna Brail, Urban Studies Program
New Toronto condominiums, old New York City tenements and Robarts Library’s recycling bay: these are three things that seem like uncommon places for students to explore, but for Shauna Brail’s Urban Studies students, they are a part of their regular classroom.
Brail, Director of Experiential Learning and Senior Lecturer at the Urban Studies Program in Innis College, began incorporating field trip events into her courses in 2006, first with INI 437Y, Experiential Learning in Toronto and the GTA, which typically enrols about 20 students. She wanted to supplement the service component of the course (INI 437Y also includes an internship placement) by bringing her lectures outside the classroom and taking advantage of opportunities both near and far. Her basic requirements for a field trip opportunity are that it be easily accessible to campus and that it can be completed in the 2 hour window of class time. She also asks students to try to free their schedules immediately before and after class so there is room to flex if necessary. To schedule a trip, she contacts a community office or organization to arrange the visit, and set up a tour of the area. On every trip, students are given tasks to complete that set up discussion about urban patterns the areas exemplify. Each area is specifically chosen to match one of the four themes in the course.
“A city can change so dramatically,” Brail finds, and she likes to take advantage of local opportunities to help her students identify the signs of change and development. Popular Toronto neighbourhoods INI 437Y cohorts have returned to are Regent Park, Parkdale, Chinatown, and King and Spadina. When visiting Regent Park in 2006-7, they attended the groundbreaking of the first market-value condominium in the area. Recent development in Toronto also provided context to a visit to 401 Richmond St, a 400,000 sq. ft. historical factory building that has been restored slowly as a low-profit enterprise, and now houses artists, designers and professional tenants, in an area now filled with new condominiums. In one year, a student request to visit a club prompted a daytime visit to an entertainment district venue, one week before it closed to make room for retail. Brail has also received funding through the Faculty of Arts and Science Internationalized Course Module initiative. With the funds she has been able to take INI 437Y to New York City over February Reading Break, for opportunities like walking tours of Harlem and visits to the New York City Tenement Museum.
While it is certainly easier to travel with a small group, Brail firmly believes “you don’t need the 10-person seminar” to make trips work. In her 100-person course, INI235, Introduction to Urban Studies, she offers a “treasure hunt” in their own backyard. Four-person teams complete tasks on campus to take qualitative and quantitative observations and learn basic research skills. The treasure hunt builds the community of the course early on, Brail says: “part of the goal is I want them to get to know each other, to have a friend.” Along the way, students get a foothold on foundational research skills necessary for the course. They also learn about campus infrastructure by investigating the recycling processes in Robarts Library, or counting the number of coffee outlets and their locations.
Brail sees her field trips as an extension of her teaching that allow her to do things she could not do in a classroom. In addition, it pushes her own course design and keeps herself motivated. “I like to be the conduit between these places and the students,” she says. She also gets to know her students better, and enjoys seeing them rise to the responsibility that is required of them. While Brail finds it important to maintain a sense of appropriate boundaries during the trips, the relaxed interactions have broadened her conversations with students into mentoring and reflections on their own experiences and backgrounds. The positive response has spread by word of mouth that has helped the courses grow to capacity, with waiting lists every year. “Students love it. And they tell their friends. And they want to take your course. And nobody ever said it was a waste to go on a trip.”
Brail’s key piece of advice to fellow faculty wanting to offer field trips is to remain flexible, and establish an open dialogue with students during the course. She feels that as a course leader, she must be willing and able to make changes when the course requires it. She also finds structuring assignments during trips is key, so that everything is tied to the course objectives. But, Brail also finds she has been lucky with circumstances like weather (her biggest fear), and in finding contacts at her field sites, “people have been very open.” When she returns to her class next year, she looks forward to the challenges of finding new field sites, because it keeps her thinking: “You have to see yourself as a scholar outside and inside of the class.”