Offices may be closed, but workplace experiences for York University students are still thriving during COVID-19, said Danielle Robinson, an associate professor at York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD) and director of the University’s Capstone Network.
“This is the right time for experiential education,” said Robinson. “Students can get a really rich work experience doing project-based placements.”
Robinson is seeing it happen this summer with dance and theatre students in her online graduate placement course, Dance 5212, a course developed with backing from York’s Academic Initiative Fund. Rather than reporting to a workplace, the students who are part of a community of change makers driven by passion for dance, are each working remotely on projects they have proposed to various cultural and community organizations.
“Each student has chosen to do something connected to their research or professional aspirations,” Robinson said. “In collaborating with these organizations on projects, they are propelling themselves along their career paths. These students are also way more independent and are receiving much more mentorship than they would in a standard placement.”
Rimah Jabr, a Palestinian first-year PhD student in theatre and performance studies, conducts research into spatiality in theatre under surveillance and how that influences set design. She had planned to be part of AMPD’s annual Summer Institute, but its cancellation turned her toward Robinson’s course instead.
For her placement, she has turned to Toronto’s Why Not Theatre. Its director, Ravi Jain, helped to introduce her to the local theatre community when she arrived in Toronto in 2015 and commissioned a monologue from her the following year, so she inquired about working with the company online.
As a result, Jabr is creating a series of podcasts about the participants in Why Not’s ThisGen 2020 Fellowship, a program that pairs exceptional artists with both a Canadian and an international mentor to help them progress in their craft. The fellowship focuses on Black, Indigenous or Persons of Colour (BIPOC) who are female-identifying.
“I didn’t know anything about audio, but Danielle gave me some York contacts to help, and for the placement, I’ll be creating a 10-minute podcast,” she said. “By the end of September, I plan to create a series of profiles of mentor-mentee pairs with an introductory episode and a closing.
“It’s still tricky to shift from theatre to online work, but I like the fact that it’s something I’ve never tried before. It’s joyful to learn new things, and I’m really enjoying having the freedom to design things the way I like and choose the people to work with.”
Kira Meyers-Guiden, another first-year PhD student in theatre and performance studies, is undertaking a very different project for her placement. A solo performer, she is interested in learning more about doing community outreach and “how to use art and community-centred work as a form of social action.”
Although many organizations were not functioning at full capacity due to the pandemic, Meyers-Guiden located a 2SLGBTQ+ community organization that was willing to work with her on a remote placement.
“I feel really grateful and lucky that I found this place,” she said.
It took some discussion to see what kind of project would meet the needs of both Meyers-Guiden and the organization.
“I did some research first, and we came up with the project together. I had to hear what they needed and explain what I could bring before we could determine what the best fit was for us,” said Meyers-Guiden.
She will be creating a knowledge exchange among people who can speak about the experience of gender independence in children from birth to age six. It will take that form of a panel, but Meyers-Guiden is still deciding if it will become a video or a podcast.
“My objective is to learn how to collaborate with the community to create social change,” she said. “I know how to do it for myself in my own work, using my personal experiences, but this is a great way for me to take a step back and act as a facilitator, rather than focusing on my own perspective.”
In addition to the placement project, the class meets with Robinson remotely at the start, in the middle of the term and again at the end so that “the students feel part of a supportive community of learners,” Robinson said.
There is also a reading list, a reflective blog, an online course forum and a final reflection project.
Robinson is delighted to see how successful the remote, project-based placements are turning out to be.
“The students are having a great experience,” she said. “I was worried that no one would be able to find a placement, but they are all doing things they are really excited about.
“I feel like I have stumbled upon an EE innovation people need to know about. Project-based placements could be an exciting new direction and have value for many different disciplines.
“Because the placements are remote – and they can be done for organizations anywhere in the world – students have more autonomy, choice and leadership opportunities than if they were working in someone’s office. The placements happening now are actually going better than before COVID-19.”
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus