Faculty of Graduate Studies looks towards the next 60 years 

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Graduate students in physics apply machine learning to predict the dark matter halos for a population of galaxies and to see the glowing cells in a mouse’s brain.

Health equity master of arts students challenge their preconceived notions of allyship as they apprentice themselves to Indigenous and racialized community organizations – harvesting sweet water (maple sap), protesting pipelines and supporting birth workers – as part of their experiential education component of graduate coursework.

Alice MacLachlan
Alice MacLachlan

A graduate student designer learns to engage with user communities as part of human-centred design, inspired in part by her family’s care for a grandparent with dementia.

Black research professors from across York University provide mentorship and training to Black graduate students, as part of the Faculty of Graduate Studies’ commitment to identifying and dismantling the barriers facing racialized and underrepresented populations in graduate research and education.

The stories in this month’s Innovatus give us a glimpse into the new faces and new pathways of graduate education at York University – exemplifying both our 60-year tradition of engaged, progressive teaching and learning, and our enthusiastic embrace of new frameworks, new methodologies and new challenges, as we look to the future. 

York’s Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) was established in September 1963 and opened its doors to York’s first graduate cohort of just 11 students one year later, in 1964. This academic year, we celebrate our 60th anniversary and, with it, a remarkable history of meaningful and challenging graduate research and pedagogy. 

York was the first university in Canada to offer a PhD in women’s studies and the first to accept doctoral dissertations written in an Indigenous language. Knowledge creation for a better world has always been at the heart of what we do. 

We continue to lead both in our commitment to engaged research and in the values at the core of York as a university: excellence, equity, access, sustainability, diversity and decolonization among them. These values guide the research that is conceived and created in collaboration between students and supervisors and – equally – the inclusive approach to graduate education and research that shapes that research, with an emphasis on engagement, collaboration, depth of thought, expanded conceptual horizons and broken boundaries. 

As we look forward to the next 60 years of graduate education at York, we face multiple challenges and possibilities, ranging from the need to decolonize how we conceive of intellectual property and authorial autonomy to the rapidly changing technological landscape of artificial intelligence and machine learning. We are adapting to these, as we rise to meet the needs of a changing graduate student population whose devotion to research and professional development is matched by other commitments – to their families, their communities and the world we share. The challenges and possibilities presented are vast and, as we face them, I am encouraged by the incredible innovations and new pedagogies already emerging in graduate studies: in the stories collected in this issue, and in other initiatives, from experiential education, like the Cross-Campus Capstone Classroom for graduate students, to professional development, such as our new Scholarly Skills brown bag workshop series, to best practices in supervisory relationships and pedagogies, as collected by the FGS Supervisory Support Hub.  

The task of FGS has always been knowledge creation as a collaborative enterprise. I invite you to read these stories and come join us to see where that enterprise takes us next. 


Alice MacLachlan
Dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies

Faculty, course directors and staff are invited to share their experiences in teaching, learning, internationalization and the student experience through the Innovatus story form, which is available at tl.apps01.yorku.ca/machform/view.php?id=16573.

In this issue:

Graduate physics professor shares machine learning knowledge with academic community
Joel Zylberberg, an associate professor in the Department of Physics at York, is expanding education on machine learning to graduate students in science across the province.

Graduate students see health equity in practice
Experiential education opportunities give graduate students studying health equity an opportunity to learn directly from those experiencing inequity.

Grad course teaches inclusive, human-centred design research
Inclusive, human-centred design methods have a big impact on product design and accessiblity needs, says grad student Rupsha Mutsuddi.

Professors help racialized grad students navigate academy
Roundtable discussions held by the Faculty of Graduate Studies have led to work that reduces isolation and builds community for racialized students.

Graduate physics professor shares machine learning knowledge with academic community 

innovation research digital AI network
innovation research digital AI network

By Elaine Smith 

With the recent advances in machine learning techniques, Joel Zylberberg, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at York University, decided it would be useful to science students to understand these methods, so he developed a graduate course to share his knowledge. 

Joel Zylberberg, physics professor who teaches Deep Learning for Physicists
Joel Zylberberg, physics professor who teaches Deep Learning for Physicists.

His course, Deep Learning for Physicists, made its debut in 2021 and was repeated in 2022. Its positive reception encouraged Zylberberg to think more broadly, and this year he is offering the course through the Fields Institute to graduate students from the 12 Ontario universities that are members of the institute. 

“I like the idea of having more downstream impact from my teaching, working with a class of 35 rather than five,” Zylberberg said. “The applications are pretty diverse; students are working with everything from space science to quantum mechanics. I get to interact with all of this fun science through a set of methods that I know pretty well.” 

He noted that the core machine learning ideas date back to the 1980s and 1990s, “but more sophisticated hardware now allows us to make models on a different scale.” 

“Machine learning methods have come to dominate a lot of quantitative work and I wanted to give graduate students a strong foundation,” he continued. “Computer science students may have done a course or two in machine learning, but there’s no undergraduate course available for natural science students. Most of the students who enrol in the course have a pretty sophisticated mathematics background with solid undergraduate training in calculus. About half of them now have some prior machine learning experience and come to the course to learn to think about this topic in a more systematic way.” 

The first half of the course is devoted to understanding the theory of why systems are built in a particular way and how they work; the second half of the course focuses on applying the theory. The assignments require students to make various machine learning applications and their final project asks them to solve a scientific problem using the course methods.

Jordan Krywonos, York PhD student in cosmology and teaching assistant for the course. PHOTO CREDIT: Gabriela Secara, Perimeter Institute
Jordan Krywonos, York PhD student in cosmology and teaching assistant for the course. Photo: Gabriela Secara, Perimeter Institute.

Jordan Krywonos, a York PhD student in cosmology, took the course last year and now serves as a teaching assistant for the course.  

“My supervisor had an idea for a project that involved machine learning, but neither of us had experience with these methods,” said Krywonos, who is based at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ont. “It was a good opportunity to have expert guidance in how to solve any machine learning problems we encountered.” 

She applied machine learning to her work in predicting the dark matter halos for a population of galaxies, a project Krywonos scaled up afterward. 

“I continue to use the course techniques for this ongoing project,” she said. “I’m trying various machine learning algorithms to see which one has the best performance.” 

In another example, one of the graduate students in Zylberberg’s lab found a way to use machine learning to see glowing cells in a mouse’s brain more clearly by using a model that removed much of the data noise from the measuring device, improving the signal-to-noise ratio by a factor of 20. 

During the course, Zylberberg has the class review research papers together so they can analyze the machine learning applications employed in each study. For Krywonos, it has been helpful, since machine learning is being used more frequently in cosmology today. 

“When I read through a research paper now, I can understand and analyze it better,” she said. 

This year’s class is being taught in hyflex fashion: all of the students, whether at York or at other universities, have the option of coming to class in-person or joining via Zoom. The online option allows students across Ontario to enrol in a valuable course to which they wouldn’t have access otherwise, while the in-person option provides students with the opportunity to enjoy a traditional classroom setting. No matter which option they choose, Zylberberg aims to provide them with an equitable experience.  

“We’ve gotten a lot of practice using hybrid formats over the last few years, given the pandemic,” Zylberberg said. 

The final few sessions of the class are devoted to a mini-conference where the students present their projects, honing skills that will be useful in the workplace. 

“Scientists need to be able to communicate what they are doing and why,” Zylberberg said. “It’s a broadly useful skill in academic research, as well as in industry where one might be selling a product or pitching a new venture to investors.”  

Cheryl van Daalen Smith, FGS associate dean, academic said, “With its relevant subject matter, its accessible delivery mode and its broad reach, Deep Learning for Physicists is an example of the innovative graduate courses that the Faculty of Graduate Studies is proud to offer.”  

Graduate students see health equity in practice 

Black Creek Farm FEATURED image

By Elaine Smith 

While working toward a master’s degree in health equity, Erin Flanagan’s experiential education (EE) opportunity in the Human Rights & Health Equity graduate course offered by Jessica Vorstermans was a factor in her decision to pursue her passion for health policy and equity in the PhD program at York University. 

In addition to teaching relevant theory, Vorstermans, an assistant professor of critical disability studies, requires students in her course to engage with small organizations that are doing grassroots work. She also brings in speakers from such organizations to share their work experiences with the class.

Graduate students, professor and members of SweetGrass Roots Collective gathering sweet water at Black Creek Community Farm. L-R: Olivia, Jessica, Star, Kashfa, Sana and Jennifer
Graduate students, professor and members of SweetGrass Roots Collective gathering sweet water at Black Creek Community Farm. Pictured, left to right: Olivia, Jessica, Star, Kashfa, Sana and Jennifer.

“I want the students to engage with the people doing that work on the ground and understand what that looks like,” said Vorstermans. “We talk about community engagement in research and intersectionality, and I think it’s important for students to experience that and have time to think, reflect and debrief as part of their academic training, since they’ll likely be working in policy and different systems of care.  

“The idea is for them to be close to the people who are experiencing the policies, theories and concepts my students are learning about: those who experience inequity.” 

The organizations that provide Vorstermans’ students an opportunity for EE include: the Sweetgrass Roots Collective, an Indigenous collective that works to re-indigenize urban spaces, doing land- and place-based education, earthwork, arts and storytelling, to plant and steward land at Black Creek Community Farm, which is next door to York’s Keele Campus; Community Peacemaker Teams, an advocacy organization that describes itself as building partnerships to transform violence and aggression; and the Ocama Collective, “a community-directed group of birth workers of colour, living and working in Tkaronto [Toronto], who are dedicated to the reclamation of traditional and holistic childbearing and birthing practices amongst IBPIC folx” (sic).  

“Learning from people experientially is powerful,” said Vorstermans, and both Flanagan and recent student Humairaa Karodia agree.

Humairaa Karodia
Humairaa Karodia

“The group project was the highlight of the course, because it allowed me to immerse myself into the real world,” said Flanagan. “We were doing research with a purpose, so we could see it come to fruition, see the end result and see that it made an impact.” 

Flanagan and the four other students on her team worked with the Indigenous Wet’suwet’en people of British Columbia who have been protesting plans made by large corporations to build pipelines on their lands – projects that don’t have the tribe’s consent. 

“We worked as an ally to support the Indigenous community with their protest, document it and ensure it got proper coverage in the media,” said Flanagan. “We provided the story from the perspective of the Indigenous community and we helped gather information so we could support the protest, researching the amount of money the RCMP was spending on the protest, including blockades and arrests of Indigenous people. We tried to find numbers so we could provide a clear look at how much public money goes into this. 

“There were a lot of nuances, and we filed a freedom of information request, going through that whole process. We built skills around how to find information people try to conceal. It brought to light what is transparent and what is not.” 

Their experience also caused team members to consider their own privilege, something they all discussed. 

“We talked about how to form a genuine allyship and avoid tropes of the white saviour,” she said. “It helped us stay grounded. We were constantly asking questions, since we had no lived experience with the issue.”

Master’s student Erin Flanagan and her classmates at Black Creek Community Farm, visiting with the members of the SweetGrass Roots Collective.
Master’s student Erin Flanagan and her classmates at Black Creek Community Farm, visiting with the members of the SweetGrass Roots Collective.

Karodia, a master’s student in health policy and equity, chose to work with the Sweetgrass Roots Collective to harvest sweet water because she remembers childhood trips to maple syrup farms and was also eager to give back to the Indigenous community during a time of reconciliation. 

“This was deconstructing what I knew about maple syrup,” she said, referring to sweet water, also known as sap. “And after all the years of hurt inflicted on the Indigenous Peoples, they still welcome settlers with open arms, asking us to come learn from them and join them. Forming these spaces allows us to see the common ground we all hold. Under the scope of human rights, this type of bonding, trust, and collaboration humanizes one another and we begin to feel like we are one body and obliged to protect one another.” 

Karodia found many similarities between Indigenous Peoples and Muslims in Canada, including adherence to a lunar calendar and promoting gratitude and sustainable living. 

“The way they hold their natural spaces and respect every living creature is very similar to Islam, and the West has discriminated and looked down on Islam in the same way they have on Indigenous practices and beliefs,” she said. “When we talk about agency, we think about protests and demonstrations, but bringing awareness can also be through intimate spaces like this, about bolstering your community together. Even the smallest action, such as boiling sweet water and canning it so it can go to Indigenous people throughout the province, makes a difference.” 

After their EE opportunities, the teams each presented a concept they learned during their work and related it to their classroom learning. Their presentations fostered thought-provoking discussion that Flanagan found “very rewarding.” 

“This practical experience was so refreshing,” she said. “It was the first time I’d done research in a group setting and the team dynamic was really enjoyable. We build some concrete skills that we could put on a resume. It was great that Professor Vorstermans offered us this opportunity.” 

For her part, Vorstermans says students’ graduate work “focuses a lot on theory. When you put that together with work on the ground, you realize that things can be complicated and difficult.  

“As the students move into expert mode as researchers, they need to know that their learning should be directed by those experiencing harms, injustices and oppression,” she said. “Listening is an important skill.” 

Grad course teaches inclusive, human-centred design research 

partnership collaboration agreement business

By Elaine Smith 

After completing an advanced diploma in design, designer Rupsha Mutsuddi took her education a step further by pursuing a master’s degree in design at York University. The graduate course that influenced her most has been GS/DESN5104 M – User-centred Design Research Methods and its exploration of inclusive, human-centred design, taught by Shital Desai, an assistant professor and York Research Chair in Accessible Interaction Design. 

“It has had a big impact on me, and I am planning to continue on to pursue a PhD that focuses on this approach,” said Mutsuddi, who will graduate in the spring and focuses on doing research and design using a health-care lens. “It’s unlike anything I’d come across before in my design education.”

Shital Desai
Shital Desai

Desai taught the research methods course in 2023 and uses inclusive, human-centred design methods in her own accessibility research. Inclusive design places users and their context at the centre of the development process so the designer can create products that are responsive to their needs. It requires the researcher to engage with the user community to determine what their needs are before proceeding with a design, and Desai believes this approach is something all design students should understand before joining the workforce. 

“My objective is to introduce students to various user-centred design methods,” said Desai. “It means creating an empathetic connection with people. It’s more than just doing a survey and an interview. You need to listen to people’s stories and have the desire to develop a connection. You need to understand your population. It takes time and effort.” 

Mutsuddi can attest to the patience required. She is interested in design for people with dementia, an interest that sprang from watching her own family care for her grandfather, who suffered from dementia before passing away more than a decade ago.  

“You get the best results [from people with dementia] when you are discussing an issue as part of a conversation around the context of people’s everyday lives,” Mutsuddi said. “It’s a method called contextual inquiry. If you’re interested in designing more accessible technology, you ask people to describe the technology they use in their daily lives, whether it’s a coffee maker or a transit app on their phones. Then, you can see the features they like. 

“Human-centred design involves the community and users from the beginning of the process to the end, compared to usability testing, which asks people to test a product once it’s developed. You want to understand their needs from the very beginning.” 

Desai has found that post-COVID, students aren’t comfortable talking to people, but human-centred design requires engagement. She has them do relevant exercises in class, such as interviewing each other as a way to develop empathy for classmates. She also teaches them about other ways to get people to open up, such as playing games together to get insight into their choices and start them talking. One of her students, she noted, collected relevant images and news stories to show the interviewees as a way of getting them to discuss their own experiences.  

In doing human-centred design research, understanding the power balance is very important, as is taking cultural considerations into account, said Desai. 

“Often, people are not open to talking about their vulnerabilities, so you need to develop empathy first, otherwise there’s a power imbalance. You have to understand ways or methods to distribute power or you won’t get information that is reliable and relevant to your design. And [consumer] behaviours may be different depending on cultures, such as with the cars we buy and drive.” 

One thing seems clear: understanding inclusive, human-centred design can only benefit Desai’s students as they look toward the job market. LinkedIn, the social media site used for networking and job hunting, calls it “an emerging field,” and the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. notes, “Over the last decade, there have been increasing examples of the use of [human-centred] design thinking for global health.” 

“I see it in a lot of job postings and my colleagues tell me that it’s important for them, too, because industry sees value in it,” said Mutsuddi. “It’s bigger in Europe and Australia, but it’s just emerging in Canada and we need to catch up. I believe it will become more of a focus not just in the design industry but in other industries.” 

Luckily, all of Desai’s students will be well prepared. 

Professors help racialized grad students navigate academy 

Two Black women sitting on a couch in conversation

By Elaine Smith 

In a desire to commit, in material ways, to York University’s Decolonizing, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (DEDI) Strategy, the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) held several roundtable discussions at its Faculty Council. From these discussions, a motion to infuse a commitment to DEDI into the standing committees of FGS council was passed. 

The roundtables revealed lived experience of Black graduate student isolation and a pressing need for mentorship and community building. FGS hosted several conversations with Black graduate faculty, folding in Black graduate students to co-create a plan to address isolation and lack of community. It culminated in a Fall 2023 community gathering

The Faculty’s work to reduce isolation and build community reflects an earlier FGS commitment to “partner with various programs at York and in the broader community to identify and dismantle the barriers that arise serially and increase over time to disadvantage and dissuade Black students from pursuing graduate studies, especially doctoral studies, in every discipline.”

Professor Mohamed Sesay,co-ordinator of the African Studies Program, presenting Zakirah Allain with the Esiri Dafiewhare award in African Studies in 2023.
Professor Mohamed Sesay presenting Zakirah Allain with the Esiri Dafiewhare award in African Studies in 2023.
Jude Kong
Professor Jude Kong engages in his passion for mathematics.

Mentorship is a valuable way of assisting Black and racialized students in overcoming barriers to pursuing and thriving in graduate scholarship, offering students personal insights and support. Mohamed Sesay and Jude Kong, two Black professors who teach courses and supervise graduate students, shared their thoughts with Innovatus on their own approaches to mentoring racialized students. 

Sesay, an assistant professor of African studies and a native of Sierra Leone, views the barriers as an institutional challenge arising from their history. He realizes that universities were designed for immigrants who arrived here from 18th- or 19th-century Europe, making it clear to him that those from other cultures may find additional challenges in adjusting. He makes a conscious effort to serve as a mentor for graduate students from racialized backgrounds; eight of his 10 current graduate students are racialized. 

“Institutions of higher education in western countries weren’t created for people like me,” said Sesay. “As a result, the structures, the rules and expectations, the standards and requirements were not put in place to accommodate graduate students like me or to help us thrive in the same way as non-racialized students. 

“In order to do well, there are other issues for us that arise from the structures in place that someone who isn’t racialized may not be able to identify. People may not realize that many racialized students have grown up somewhere else, so they aren’t exposed to the same experiences as those who grew up in Canada. They come with a history that is different and it requires an effort to feel as if they belong to this space.” 

Sesay said programs are opening space and incorporating decolonization, equity, diversity and inclusion, but “there is still a long way to go. If there were no issues with equality, we wouldn’t need DEDI. 

“It’s not as if we’re compromising our standards,” he continued. “We expect racialized students to meet the same rigorous academic standards and expect them to be critical and creative thinkers, but we can’t be insensitive to other issues they’re dealing with, or they may not be able to fully realize their potential.” 

In teaching and supervising racialized graduate students, Sesay takes the need to support them seriously and devotes time to connecting with them. 

“I show understanding and empathy and try to share the challenges that I went through myself,” Sesay said. “I’m ready to talk with them and explore what they need to do to overcome challenges. I make myself available and, sometimes, that means talking about issues beyond research that impact academic excellence.  

“I’m open to them, not dismissive. Canada is multicultural, but racialized minorities face difficulties trying to make this their home. I want to show them through my experience that it is possible for them to achieve excellence. There’s no straight roadmap or manual, but you can share understanding; you try to support them in navigating this space and boost their confidence.” 

Kong, an assistant professor of mathematics and founding director of the Africa-Canada Artificial Intelligence & Data Innovation Consortium, bases his approach to mentoring racialized students on his personal experience growing up poor in rural Cameroon. 

Without the emotional support from his family and financial support from the women in his community, he feels he would never have been able to attend secondary school, let alone realize that greater opportunities existed. He tries to recreate this sense of familial support with his graduate students; all four of his postdoctoral Fellows (two of whom are Black) and four of his five graduate students (four of whom are Black) are from racialized backgrounds. 

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Kong. “You may grow up only being exposed to certain things; if you’re not aware of research, you won’t think about it; it’s not the typical subject of conversation around the dinner table. Most people choose their careers based on the signals picked up by their subconscious memories during their formative years – what is discussed at their dinner table and what they see around them. For Black students whose parents, uncles, guardians and ancestors were not exposed to these opportunities, it’s a different situation. The Black community needs more assistance to understand what the options are.” 

In the classroom, as well as in the research context, “I strive to create a sense of family where students are confident in voicing their opinions, just as they would at home. It’s a judgment-free zone where they can admit that they didn’t know something or ask for assistance without the fear of being judged,” said Kong. 

Kong also believes that building the students’ confidence is important, since, at a young age, they may have absorbed subconscious messages telling them that they don’t belong or can’t measure up to people from other races when it comes to fields like mathematics. He works to create an environment that is supportive, rather than competitive, because everyone has different talents. 

“Keeping them moving forward and allowing them to see that they can handle the work is crucial,” he said. “We’re adding more data points to their experience until they reach that tipping point where they feel comfortable. 

“I had nobody I could look up to growing up, but I had a community and allies who helped me go to school and housed me during my college days. My doctoral and postdoctoral supervisor were real advocates, and here at York, people like President Rhonda Lenton and Provost Lisa Philipps have created a structure and space to allow me to succeed. I want to help people like me who have no pathway. I want to show people who have nothing that here is someone from nowhere who has succeeded.” 

He added, “York University is about giving opportunities to those who otherwise wouldn’t have it. I call it Canada’s historically Black university.” 

York’s Framework on Anti-Black Racism states, “Going forward, we will be responsible and accountable to the diverse constituencies of our community including Black community members, recognizing that bringing about systemic change is everyone’s responsibility.” 

Both Sesay and Kong are role models in accepting that responsibility.   

Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies sheds light on new projects, global opportunities

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In this issue of Innovatus, you will read stories about how the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) is responding to the needs of our students with innovative new projects and programs to help them succeed in a rapidly changing world.

Dean J.J. McMurty
Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies Dean J.J. McMurty.

One such program is our 12 U Math waiver pilot class. After the COVID-19 lockdowns, it became clear that some students needed to catch up in math fundamentals. This prompted the development of the pilot class to help address the numeracy shortfall experienced by many incoming LA&PS students.   

We also know that students want paid work experience in opportunities related to their field of study; this is one of the reasons paid co-op placements will replace internships and be available for all LA&PS programs starting September 2024.  

And now, more than ever, we know global leaders need a global perspective. We’ve reactivated our fleet of summer abroad opportunities, offering seven study abroad courses in 2024.  

Finally, educators across universities are all grappling with artificial intelligence (AI). Learn more in this issue about how we are dealing with both the drawbacks and benefits of AI. 

Thank you to our entire LA&PS community for all the work you have put into making our teaching and pedagogy so great.  

I hope you enjoy learning more about some of the ways we are helping our staff, students and faculty.  

J.J. McMurtry
Dean, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies 

Faculty, course directors and staff are invited to share their experiences in teaching, learning, internationalization and the student experience through the Innovatus story form, which is available at tl.apps01.yorku.ca/machform/view.php?id=16573.

In this issue:

LA&PS study abroad program evolves, expands its offerings
Students in LA&PS have opportunities – at home and abroad – to engage in global citizenship and learning.

Summer course opens door for students missing numeracy skills
A pilot program created to close the gap on math skills is adding up to success for students in LA&PS.

LA&PS opens conversation about academic honesty and artificial intelligence
A recent event to educate students about generative artificial intelligence, and the University’s policies, sparked meaningful discussions about the changing landscape of education.

It’s co-op programs, not internships, for liberal arts and professional studies students
The introduction of an optional paid co-op program will allow students to participate in work-integrated learning earlier in the educational journey.

LA&PS study abroad program evolves, expands its offerings

Map plane travel international world

By Elaine Smith  

The slate of summer study abroad courses offered by the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) at York University is as popular as it was pre-pandemic and features new courses, as well as old favourites. In fact, its success has the Faculty looking toward a domestic version.  

Katie Gribbons
Katie Gribbons

“The program is back in full force with seven courses, and students are really excited to travel again,” said Katie Gribbons, study abroad co-ordinator for LA&PS.  

In 2024, three popular intermediate language courses – language and culture in China, Italy and Spain – will be reactivated, as well as three others: Anthropology Through the Visual in Lisbon; Greece: A Modern History in Athens; and the Politics of Youth and Old Age in Seoul. In addition, a new course joins the roster, Romantics en Route: Contexts of Literary Production in England. 

MJ Maciel Jorge
MJ Maciel Jorge

“We don’t offer the same courses every year,” said MJ Maciel Jorge, associate dean, global and community engagement for LA&PS. “The goal is to offer a variety of courses that engage students in global issues and provide an immersive experience they wouldn’t get otherwise. We work with instructors to promote attractive, value-added experiences and meaningful student learning. Our study abroad courses are very student-centric, with learning outcomes that provide added value and an opportunity to think globally.” 

LA&PS organizes the program itself. Gribbons works closely with York International (YI) so that LA&PS processes and policies are closely aligned with those YI co-ordinates. She works with faculty who are proposing summer abroad courses, shepherding them through the proposal stage, evaluations, review, the formal curriculum process and approval. Gribbons also works with study abroad partner institutions and organizations to arrange accommodations, activities and day trips. She promotes the program and recruits students, too.  

“We take a concierge approach to studying abroad that is tailored to student needs,” said Maciel Jorge. “In addition to being with an instructor they know while abroad, they are in contact with Katie, with whom they’ve been working for months. All of our students also get some financial support from LA&PS.”  

Both Maciel Jorge and Gribbons are happy to see the current interest in the courses, because many of the students enrolling are those who were constrained by the pandemic and have never travelled on their own. Gribbons said culture shock among the students is not uncommon but, luckily, the professors are incredibly supportive and are comfortable with the location, which helps the students adjust, too.

“Katie works with the students to build their confidence and stretch their comfort zone,” said Maciel Jorge. “They get to experience and learn from global perspectives and in doing so students are able to acquire intercultural skills and reflect on the value of global citizenship.

“Each year of the program, we learn valuable lessons and we are able to fine-tune our policies and processes for an enhanced experience for faculty and students.” 

Gribbons noted that LA&PS conducts pre-departure surveys and post-trip surveys to learn about the students’ experiences.  

“The top skills they gain are confidence and independence,” she said. “For many, it’s the first time they are travelling without their parents; it may be their first airline ride and first passport. They’re so nervous beforehand, but when they come back, they wish the trip was longer. They’ve been able to navigate a new place and learned to be resilient and resourceful.”  

This month, LA&PS is launching a community of practice around studying abroad, targeting both instructors scheduled to teach in summer of 2024, but also colleagues considering the 2025 experience.  

“We want to bring together all our colleagues who teach abroad or are interested in proposing courses for deep reflection on a student-centred approach,” said Maciel Jorge. “We will share best practices and look at how to continue providing tailored resources. We’ll also be revamping our website to include a variety of tools for students and faculty.” 

A potential domestic study away program is being discussed, and the Faculty is hoping to run a pilot program in 2024.   

“This is very meaningful to the Faculty and the University as a whole,” said Maciel Jorge. “It will give our students an opportunity to learn about global issues from a national perspective. Global citizenship starts at home. We plan to work with historically marginalized, immigrant and Indigenous communities on issues that often go unnoticed. We want to see how we can advance the University’s mission of decolonization, equity, diversity, and inclusion and our commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. So much of what we do domestically, such as water management and sustainable economics, for example, is of a global nature. 

“Either domestically or abroad, the benefits for students are immense. Learning about new ways of being and seeing the world makes one take notice of one’s own place in it, a collective human experience. We gain a notion of empathy and connectedness to the world at large from these global interactions.”  

Those interested can learn more about the LA&PS Summer Study Abroad Program by visiting the website.     

LA&PS opens conversation about academic honesty and artificial intelligence 


By Elaine Smith 

With generative artificial intelligence (AI) top of mind for many members of the York community these days, the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) decided that Academic Honesty/Integrity Month was a perfect opportunity to discuss the topic with students. 

LA&PS held a tabling event at Vari Hall on Oct. 24 to educate students about generative AI, address the current parameters for using it in courses and build digital literacy around these emerging tools. They also posed scenarios involving AI so students could consider what is appropriate in various contexts. Approximately 150 students stopped to talk with faculty and staff on hand. 

“We’re really thinking about being proactive and connecting with students around academic honesty and AI in more engaging ways,” said Mary Chaktsiris, a historian and associate director of teaching innovation and academic honesty for LA&PS. “We hope that as a result of this event, students will reach out to instructors to talk about generative AI and connect with available supports at York.”

Students at Vari Hall learn more about academic integrity in the context of artificial intelligence.
Students at at tabling event in Vari Hall learn more about academic integrity in the context of artificial intelligence.

Chaktsiris and the LA&PS academic honesty team co-led the Vari Hall event with Stevie Bell, head of McLaughlin College and an associate professor with the Writing Department. They had support from Michelle Smith, a learning innovation specialist, and academic honesty co-ordinators Namki Kang and Angelica McManus. Neil Buckley, associate dean of teaching and learning, and knowledgeable representatives from the Writing Centre, Peer-Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) and Student Numeracy Assistance Centre (SNACK) instructional teams were also on hand to converse with students. 

“We wanted students to get the facts about academic honesty and give them some guidance regarding AI now that the York Senate’s Academic Standards, Curriculum and Pedagogy (ASCP) Committee has given a policy clarification,” said Buckley. “It was an opportunity to inform students about this, because every student experiences AI in different contexts, and this is a domain that will be growing and growing.” 

ASCP states that “Students across York are not authorized to use text-, image-, code- or video-generating tools when completing their academic work unless explicitly permitted by a specific instructor in a particular course.” As part of a regular review process, a newly revised Senate Policy on Academic Honesty is expected to be announced in coming months. 

Bell noted, “In my experience with academic honesty since I began teaching writing in 2002, I’ve never found a student who wanted to cheat; they want to find out how to do things correctly. 

“So, we brought the conversation to Vari Hall. We wanted this event to be an inviting space for students to discuss AI openly, because the landscape is shifting. In some courses, professors suggest that students use it to do specific tasks, while in other courses, it’s a no-go zone. We wanted students to know how to talk to their professors about it. From talking to students in the Writing Department, I know they are very confused about if, when and how to use AI, so this was very generative for all.”

Students at a tabling event in Vari Hall.
Students at a tabling event in Vari Hall.

Students had a variety of concerns to share at Vari Hall. Some wanted to talk specifically about academic honesty, but others wanted to discuss generative AI more specifically. Faculty, too, are exploring AI, Buckley noted. For example, the Teaching Commons has a community of practice dedicated to discussing AI and how it is being used across campus and recently held a Summit on Generative AI in Higher Education. With the use of AI expected to grow exponentially in the workplace, understanding how to use generative AI will be essential. 

“AI is already a tool in the workplace,” Bell said. “If you look at job postings on the Indeed site, for example, many of them request experience in using generative AI technology productively. As a result, in the Writing Centre, we’re looking at building digital literacies. Students need to understand generative AI’s incentives and motivations to tell you what you want to hear, and they need to learn to fact check. 

“The questions can become very nuanced. For instance, are you giving away a company’s proprietary information if you use it?” 

The success of the Vari Hall event inspired the LA&PS team and they would like to see the conversation continue. Bell has begun holding ongoing workshops at the Writing Centre with a student focus; the first one drew 75 people, including teaching assistants.  

“From a pedagogical perspective, connection and conversation are important parts of navigating the emergent aspects of AI,” Chaktsiris said. “More connections with students will be important to building digital literacies and helping navigate the shifting contexts of generative AI. A focus on connection and support also leans into more inclusive pedagogical practice. I hope there are more touch points for us to discuss AI and academic honesty more generally.” 

Students who have questions can turn to available LA&PS resources such as the Writing Centre, PASS, SNACK, peer mentors, academic advising and academic honesty co-ordinators to discuss generative AI and academic honesty in more detail.

It’s co-op programs, not internships, for liberal arts and professional studies students

A man shaking a woman's hand at a meeting or interview

By Elaine Smith 

Beginning in September 2024, students in all programs in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) at York University will have the option to choose to enrol in a paid co-op program as they pursue their education.

Previously, said Neil Buckley, associate dean of teaching and learning for LA&PS, the Faculty had internships associated with its programs, but internships in general aren’t well-defined; some are for credit, some are paid and some are voluntary, leaving students and employers confused. 

“With the transition from an optional internship to an optional co-op program, people will understand that the co-op is a paid work-integrated learning (WIL) experience that is related to a student’s area of studies,” Buckley said. “It will help us to better communicate this opportunity to students and allow them to communicate with future employers exactly what their WIL means.”

Fahima Elsani
Fahimeh Ehsani

Fahimeh Ehsani, manager of employer engagement for LA&PS, said the Faculty wants to ensure that students are compensated for their work, and the change to co-op programs addresses any confusion, because co-op programs are traditionally paid work terms. 

“When students are choosing York, they will know that they can contribute toward their tuition, which makes a difference,” Ehsani said. “It was immediately obvious to us at this fall’s Ontario Universities Fair. One of the main questions parents asked was, ‘Do you have a co-op option?’ We are hoping that it will bring us more prospective students.” 

Buckley said that a 2020 report written by the C.D. Howe Institute supports the value of co-op programs, noting that Canadian university graduates from such programs are significantly more likely to get a first job that is closely related to their field of study, and three years afterward they have significantly better incomes than those students who don’t participate. In addition, regardless of their employment status, three years after graduation they have significantly lower debt levels than non-co-op students. 

The introduction of an optional co-op system will allow students to participate in WIL earlier in their educational career, beginning in the second year, rather than the third or fourth. They will have the opportunity for more work terms, experience and remuneration before leaving university as a result and more opportunity to apply what they have learned in the classroom, ultimately making them more competitive in the workplace. 

“Co-operative Education & Work-Integrated Learning Canada also says that it’s essential for students to have a study term between each work placement so they have time to reflect on what they’ve learned,” Buckley said. “We incorporate reflection into the co-op process so that students can integrate workplace experience and practise with the theory they learn in the classroom; it’s completing the loop.” 

Ehsani views co-ops as valuable in helping students decide what type of work suits them. 

“Co-ops open their eyes to multiple career paths,” she said. “They can also help students land full-time jobs. They are often offered jobs by co-op employers; it makes their recruitment easier to hire a known candidate who does good work. For students, this can be a relief, because finding jobs is extremely stressful. 

“In any case, successful co-op placements demonstrate that they have skills and are ready to learn, employers are ready to mentor and train them.” 

Before students begin their co-op terms, LA&PS’s co-op team prepares them with some non-credit training, addressing soft skills, resume preparation and what to expect in the workplace. 

“Our students compete with those from other schools, so support from our team is valuable,” Ehsani said.  

Ehsani is busy working with various other Faculties and the Career Centre to bring recruiters to campus and will work with employers to get feedback about how the program could be improved or which other courses might augment a student’s career potential. 

“Many students are just in a hurry to finish their degrees, but they may end up behind,” says Buckley. “Experience on their resumes is often worth the extra year or two until graduation, especially since that experience is paid. We are excited for this transition and looking forward to welcoming all LA&PS students to our optional co-op program next fall.” 

Summer course opens door for students missing numeracy skills 

Students from LAPS

By Elaine Smith 

The Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) at York University has created a new summer course to assist students without Grade 12 math skills to acquire the knowledge they need to enter math-dependent university programs in the fall. 

In the summer of 2023, LA&PS introduced a pilot, Mathematics for Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, a 12U Math waiver class, to help address the numeracy shortfall experienced by many incoming students. The non-degree, online synchronous course was open to all incoming students required to complete a 12U Math course to meet their condition for admission, or to any York University undergraduate students required to complete a mathematics pre-requisite for an eligible program – such as economics and bachelor of commerce. Thanks to the success of the course, LA&PS plans to offer it again in Summer 2024. 

Robert McKeown
Robert McKeown

“We wanted to make sure these students had the math they needed to learn more advanced topics once they arrived at York, such as linear algebra and calculus,” said Robert McKeown, an assistant professor (teaching stream) of economics, who helped create the curriculum alongside members of the LA&PS Numeracy Steering Committee. McKeown also played a pivotal role in overseeing the development of the instructors’ weekly lessons and assessment components for the course.  

The course ran twice a week for 12 weeks. It covered polynomial functions and some probability and statistics, and was structured like a standard university course with two tests and a final, along with asynchronous class activities.

Mona Frial Brown
Mona Frial Brown

Mona Frial-Brown, director of student success for LA&PS, said the course has been a few years in the making, first proposed by LA&PS academic advisors and Sean Kheraj, the former vice-dean and associate dean of programs. It provides a pathway for LA&PS students, so they aren’t required to return to high school to obtain the necessary skills. Previously, students were able to take a relevant course at the School of Continuing Studies, but it no longer exists. 

“Sean wanted us to think about a non-credit option that was equivalent to an advanced functions course,” said Frial-Brown, who also credits former associate dean Anita Lam and the LA&PS Numeracy Steering Committee, who created the Student Numeracy Assistance Centre at Keele (SNACK). “Numeracy is closely linked to student success, and this initiative is focused on improving access. It was a collaborative effort, and being a part of it from start to finish was a rewarding experience.” 

The collaboration drew on the skills of a variety of people and teams. The LA&PS recruitment and academic advising teams were involved in promoting the course to students. York’s recruitment and admissions team were involved in developing offer letters and explaining to applicants that acceptance was conditional on passing the course. Once the curriculum was created, Marc Anderson, a learning technology support specialist from eLearning Services, built the content in eClass. SNACK peer tutors got involved in assisting the students who took the pilot class. Maggie Quirt, the current associate dean of programs at LA&PS, also had a hand. 

“It’s a baby I delivered this summer,” Frial-Brown added with a laugh. “In addition, it’s not just a course; it marks the beginning of a non-degree framework for the Faculty. We might consider other non-degree courses, so we wanted to carefully plan this pilot program and create a structure for the non-degree landscape. We consulted with colleagues across the University, including the Faculty of Health, where non-degree courses are already offered, and established a framework for enrolment, admissions and course payment. Many factors were at play.”

Neil Bucklkey
Neil Bucklkey

Neil Buckley, current associate dean of teaching and learning for LA&PS, who was involved with the Numeracy Steering Committee throughout the development and launch of the class, added, “There is a huge move in education for micro-credentials, some for credit and some not. This was a great opportunity for LA&PS to pilot test a non-academic course.” 

The class drew 61 students, almost half of them international students. This meant breaking the class into two sections to make it accessible from various time zones. One class met online in the mornings; the other in the evenings. All but one of the students passed the class.  

“At the end of the semester, we are planning to assess the success of the participants to see how well they performed in their courses compared to students who took the course in high school and see if success varies according to discipline,” said Buckley. 

The team will also follow them through the next few years to determine if the course has an impact on retention. 

“This course opens the door to a larger, more diverse group of students,” Buckley said. “It helps us achieve access and equity. We pride ourselves on being student-centric, and this offers students flexibility.” 

Frial-Brown is equally enthusiastic. 

“I’m truly proud of this project,” she said. “It was a genuine collaborative effort aimed at achieving a common goal, which was to provide access to our students. We’ve witnessed its successful development with thanks to everyone involved and with the backing of senior leadership.”