York open for Jewish holidays

For the first time in more than a generation, York University will not cancel classes for Jewish holidays this fall – but will hold a fall reading week instead for all students after Thanksgiving, reported the Toronto Star Sept. 15.

Long believed to be the only public university in North America that suspended lectures for two days on Rosh Hashanah and one day on Yom Kippur, York officials say the new timetable was not prompted by charges the practice was unfair to students of other faiths. Rather, they say it is meant to help incoming teens adjust to the heavier workload of higher learning and offer the same breather in first semester that spring break brings in February.

"It’s the first time Jewish students will have to miss classes on the high holidays, but we’ll just have to make sure we can work around it with our professors," said business student Matan Hazanov, 20, president of the Jewish student group Hillel at York. "York policy allows students of any faith to arrange a switch of an academic deadline that conflicts with their religious holiday."

Far from shutting down campus from Oct. 13 to 16, York will offer free undergraduate workshops on research, leadership and learning skills, plus sessions for senior students on how to apply for jobs and grad school.

"In a way, it’s meant as a sort of reality check, a chance to get caught up with the work they thought they wouldn’t need help with before they knew what it was like to have five courses with large reading lists," said Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt, associate vice-president, academic learning initiatives, at York.

The University of Toronto has also dropped a week of classes from its arts and science timetables this fall on the downtown campus so it can introduce two days of break this November, plus two extra days between the end of class and the start of December exams. Trent University in Peterborough and Laurentian University in Sudbury have had a fall reading week for several years.

York began cancelling classes on Jewish holidays in 1974 as a way to respect religious freedom for those whose holy days were not enshrined by law. But with the growing diversity of York’s student body, David Noble, a social science professor in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, accused York of violating the Ontario Human Rights Code by playing religious favourites.

York changed its practice last year before the Ontario Human Rights Commission made a ruling, saying it was changing its timetable in part because of growing diversity but also to give students time to catch up with their work.

Noble filed a complaint with the commission claiming to have suffered reprisal over the issue, and that hearing takes place this week.

Cogito, ergo Latin: A dead language lives again for undergrads

The Latin language may be dead, but rigor mortis has yet to set in, reported The Globe and Mail Sept. 15. The language of Julius Caesar is finding renewed life among members of the Twitter generation, who are helping shake off Latin’s long association with tweedy scholars and soporific high-school classes. As a result, Latin is enjoying a marked, if modest, revival.

Enrolment in college- and university-level Latin is up across the country, according to the Classical Association of Canada. York University, which doubled its number of introductory Latin courses a few years ago, is starting a course next year to train high-school Latin teachers.

Educators say the ancient language is getting a boost from glamorous modern allies – Hollywood blockbusters such as Gladiator and Troy, and the popular HBO television series “Rome”. (That Angelina Jolie has a Latin tattoo below her navel doesn’t hurt.)

"Latin is a bit sexy now, after the movies and TV series," says Jonathan Edmondson, chair of the Department of History in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and president of the Classical Association of Canada. "It has shed its slightly fusty image. And there’s an awareness now that there are different ways of presenting Latin that are more interesting than it used to be."

York student blossomed in Arrowsmith program

Eight years ago, Sheri Godda was a frightened, frustrated 10-year-old about to begin an unusual program for her learning disabilities, reported the Toronto Star Sept. 15. After years of struggling in school, the Grade 5 student was placed in the Arrowsmith Program, aimed at strengthening weak areas of the brain through repetitive cognitive exercises.

To participate, she had to leave her neighbourhood school. She had to travel by bus. And she didn’t know anyone at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic School, one of a handful of schools in the Catholic board to offer Arrowsmith.

"It was very tough," says Godda, now 18, but she says it changed her life.

In June, the girl who once lacked self-confidence, felt lost in class and couldn’t grasp basic math or spelling, graduated as an Ontario Scholar from Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts, where she blossomed as a vocal performer. Last week, she started first year in York University’s theatre program.

"It makes me want to cry thinking back to where I was," says Godda. "Without Arrowsmith I wouldn’t have been able to get where I am."

The program, aimed at children with multiple learning disorders, has sparked skepticism and controversy since it was created by Barbara Arrowsmith Young of Toronto 30 years ago. That’s because it’s a radical departure from traditional special education programs, which provide accommodations and teach kids to work around their disorders, for example, providing laptops for those with poor handwriting or calculators for basic math.

Annuities good options, but changes essential

You gotta love Moshe Milevsky, wrote the Tribune-Review of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Sept. 14. The author of Are You a Stock or a Bond? and finance professor at York’s Schulich School of Business knows what those saving and investing for retirement need and want. They need "personal pensions" or what others often refer to as annuities.

But they don’t need the kind of annuities insurers are peddling today. Instead, they need new, improved versions that benefit not just insurers and those who sell such products but consumers as well. Writing in a recent issue of Research Magazine, a trade publication for financial advisers, Milevsky said insurers must change at least five things before annuities become good for all parties involved. Here’s a snapshot of the changes he proposed:

1. If you don’t have a traditional pension fund, start an annuity that provides some form of lifetime income guarantee.
2. Build a full menu of global and passive equity-fund sub-accounts.
3. Disentangle living and death benefits.
4. Sell stand-alone protection against up and down markets.
5. Build consortiums of insurance companies that syndicate the guarantee.

Adventure seekers raise money

Three young men from Mississauga are going to spend their Christmas holidays driving through 16 African countries in a beat-up old car – all to raise money for causes in Africa, reported The Mississauga News Sept. 14. Dubbing themselves Idiots Without Borders in jest, the trio is the only Canadian contingent participating in the 30-team 2009 Africa Rally set to begin Dec. 13.

Wasib Mohammad, Faisal Khan, an MBA student at York’s Schulich School of Business, and Rubendra Sidhu will ship Sidhu’s 19-year-old Honda Accord across the Atlantic, start their journey in London and expect to end up in Kribi, Cameroon, in about 16 days. At journey’s end, they hope to raise at least £1,000 for the official charities of the rally.

Both the rally’s official charities, Send a Cow, which runs sustainable agricultural programs in nine African countries to help small-scale farmers overcome poverty and malnutrition, and The Rainforest Foundation, which tackles deforestation in many countries around the world, will direct donations from this year’s event to their efforts in Cameroon.

The Africa Rally is organized by The Adventurists, a UK-based organization that proclaims that it is "hell bent on saving the world as well as making it less boring."

On air

  • Robert Drummond, political science professor in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, discussed the upcoming byelection in the Toronto riding of St. Paul’s, on CBC Radio’s “Metro Morning” Sept. 14. 
  • Political scientist Fred Fletcher, University professor emeritus in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, discussed the possibility of a fall election, on CFTR’s 680News in Toronto Sept. 14. The interview was also aired on 600 CKAT Radio “News” in North Bay. 
  • Joel Lexchin, a health policy professor in York’s Faculty of Health, discussed the Canadian Cancer Society’s advocacy of a nationwide plan for catastrophic drug coverage, on CBC Radio’s “Here & Now” in Toronto Sept. 14. The interview was also aired on CBC regional programs in Thunder Bay and Charlottetown.