Sorry, South End readers. Just acclimating you to the return of the students.

1. I’m that teacher

It’s the beginning of another school year, which means handwringing about “coddled” students, the audacity of trigger warnings, and the general ways Youtube videos and social media are ruining university education.

I guess I’m that teacher people talk about when they complain about how university education isn’t hazing students enough, or being tough enough on them, or expecting them to suck it up hard enough. I talk to my students about mental health. I speak with them about anxiety and depression. I tell them that mental health challenges are common in young people, and even though they may feel that they are alone and isolated, they are not the only student struggling. I urge them to seek help as soon as they can, and that although depression can make it difficult to reach out, there are supports available. I let them know they can come to me, and I tell them about the importance of self care throughout the semester.

I tell them about accommodations, and how they are available for a wide range of learning challenges. Too many students go through university not knowing that there are supports available for them because they have an idea that accommodations are only for what they imagine a learning disability looks like. Unlike the articles that see accommodations as an inconvenience or an outrage or an interruption of the course, I want my students to be able to provide me with their best thinking and best work. If that requires a note taker, or extra time on tests, or that they have to record lectures, or that they need to leave the room sometimes, or that we need to be mindful of their anxiety, then I want them to use those things so that I can read their best paper, or exam, or get the best out of them in the classroom.

Image from jeanmcpheephd.com
Image from jeanmcpheephd.com

I give trigger warnings — I teach courses like “Crime” and “Deviance” where we talk about interpersonal violence, and sexual assault, and prisons, and missing and murdered Indigenous women, and mental health, and violence against Trans women. Giving trigger warnings doesn’t mean my students get to just not learn anything and that they are being “coddled,” it means that I recognize that talking about these topics can be difficult and that students should be aware of the content of course material. I don’t give them before every sentence or whatever ridiculous scenario people might imagine. We talk about it at the beginning of the course and I talk to students about approaching me if they have concerns about material. It doesn’t mean I don’t teach about these things and that we just look at kitties all day instead, or that some apocryphal story about how we can’t talk about the blackboard system because black is racist or something is a reality for how we actually teach.

I tell my classes to never assume that anyone in the classroom isn’t dealing with the issues we talk about — being in university doesn’t mean we don’t have family in prison, or can’t be a victim of crime, or can’t be dealing with mental illness. It certainly doesn’t mean we can’t have been sexually assaulted.

Having compassion for students and recognizing that sometimes a class topic or discussion may not be right for them at that time, and that it is better to not sit through a lecture on sexual assault if you are still dealing with trauma and doing so will, yes, trigger you, is not compromising education and allowing millennials to be soft and unprepared for the real world  — it is recognizing that education isn’t supposed to be some death march where we ask students to tough it out and see how much they can take and demand that they suffer in appropriate ways. I’m not sure why learning is equated in so many of these complaints with hazing, as though if we acknowledge our students have lives and emotions and experiences beyond the classroom, the university will fall down.

Oh no! Academic accommodations! (Image from uc.utoronto.ca)
Oh no! Academic accommodations! (Image from uc.utoronto.ca)

I talk to my students about bias and power. I tell them upfront that there are ideas I feel strongly about, but that they should critique them and they should never feel compelled to agree. I tell them I do a lot of work with prisoners, and my position on crime and prison is influenced by that work. I tell them that my position is informed by research and by experiences, and that they should also feel empowered to explore the literature to back up their own perspectives. I encourage class discussion and I encourage students to self-reflect and to value their experience and knowledge as a foundation for learning. I don’t expect students to leave their lives outside the classroom, and I don’t think being a student is a one-dimensional identity. I also recognize I can and do learn from my students, and that some of the most valuable experiences in the classroom are when we are all mutually engaged in exploration.

And we also read in my classes. We think critically. We write essays. Acknowledging that mental health is a serious issue among young people and their education should take that into account and offer them tools to manage it does not equate to “dumbing down” the classroom. And yes, because it is important to understand how media and current events and social media shape the world, we do horrifying things like talk about Twitter, or watch YouTube videos in class, or do assignments based around social media. We often integrate different types of learning into the classroom — along with readings and critical writing, we also might learn in the community, or create a campus awareness campaign around crime on campus, or track our own neighbourhood in the news.

It doesn’t somehow kill education if I’m not wearing an academic gown and stalking back and forth in front of the classroom declaiming as though I speak the word of God. Students can think rigorously and also learn in ways that are relevant to the world they live in. We can learn to write and also use social media. We can read and also have hands-on learning. We can respect students and challenge them, care for them and push them, all at the same time.

This looks like real learning! Image from sandersofoxford.com
This looks like real learning! Image from sandersofoxford.com

And it’s important that we talk about mental health, or that there are many kinds of learning, or that students shouldn’t feel alienated or discouraged in the university classroom. We need to talk about building mutually respectful learning environments, and anti-oppressive education, and how to collaborate with our students in the classroom.

University isn’t just for one idea of a student — it has to be for people from different backgrounds and communities. University is for students who are the first in their family to graduate high school. It is for students who experience depression. It is for Indigenous students and Black students. It is for refugees and immigrants and people for whom English is a second or third or fifth language. It is for people who have lived in poverty and students who are single mothers and students working two jobs and students struggling with chronic illness or disability. It is for students using the food bank. It is for students transitioning and students who have been kicked out of their homes for coming out.

It is also for students who are middle class, and white men, and students who are successful in traditional learning models, and students who have and never will get anything less than an A+. But it is not only for them, and recognizing this and broadening the way we educate is not “dumbing down” or “coddling” students, it is actually challenging them and ourselves to think in transformative ways.


I tell my students that my courses are not difficult in the sense that I will expect them to memorize facts or write long exams full of trick questions, or never have an emotion. They are difficult because I ask them to think critically about ideas they may have held their whole life without examining them. I ask them to think in ways about society that are often completely new to them and that challenge their assumptions and beliefs. They don’t have to agree with me, but they are asked to think about why they believe what they believe, and to do research and reading, and to think about their own viewpoints and perspectives and learn to back them up. This is the most important work of our classrooms: when we teach students how to have the tools to think and write critically about the world. And if doing that is supported by learning accommodations, or acknowledging that sometimes material is difficult emotionally, or watching a video, or valuing experiential learning, then I will offer them those supports.

So I suppose I’m that teacher who inspires handwringing about how the university isn’t what it used to be, and how seemingly undeserving students are being allowed to be successful, and how students are living in a “politically correct” “safe space” bubble. But since the university isn’t supposed to be for me either — a Black female professor — I’m okay with it changing. Don’t tell us education is the key to success and then complain when people try to get an education and say that education is only for a small percentage of people who fit one mold. It’s because I know that education is valuable and that critical tools are the weapon of the oppressed that I will always advocate for teaching and learning that is accessible to everyone. We aren’t dumbing down the university, we’re opening it up.

Representation of perception of teaching in accessible ways.
Representation of perception of teaching in accessible ways.

2. Waterville

I’m not sure what to think yet about the violence at the youth facility in Waterville.

Image from cbc.ca
Image from cbc.ca

Obviously, because we are talking about a youth facility, information is rightfully going to be difficult to access.

My first feeling is that the word “riot” is a loaded word. A riot suggests irrational violence. When you hear there was a “riot” in a youth facility, the image is of violent criminals just running wild. I am always critical of the word “riot” because it is used so often against marginalized people. Black people are always “rioting” rather than protesting. Calling something a “riot” automatically judges it – even though we know little about the reasons for what happened at Waterville, when we say it was a riot, we are already coming down on the side that the youth must have just been rampaging animals, and that there couldn’t possibly be a motivating factor.

None of that is to say any of the staff deserve violence, or that reading about the staff being beaten isn’t terrible. And the possible implication that the violence was particularly directed at female staff is disturbing. But when we look at the history of prison “riots” they rarely occur just because people are uncontrollably violent. Prison riots most often are a response to serious issues in the institution – often prisoners are resisting oppression, or have been pushed too far, or are undergoing dehumanizing conditions. I can’t say if that happened in this case because I don’t know, but automatically assuming that people in locked facilities just riot because they are criminals isn’t generally the case. We often assume once people are locked up that if they act in violent ways it’s because it’s just in their nature, but violence in facilities is usually a response to something. It has a reason and a cause. It’s not just people being animals.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Attica riots. A new book recently came out about the riots which looks at the role of prison conditions and the complicity of the state in escalating the violence. The deliberate lies told about the events at Attica fuelled punitive corrections policies towards prisoners. Yesterday, prisoners in 24 states went on strike to protest conditions today that remain similar to those that prompted the uprising.

Image from critical resistance.org
Image from critical resistance.org

In the United States, violence has erupted largely at private youth facilities. The privatization of prisons which has led to the loss of programs, inadequate food and recreation, and the stockpiling of youth for profit, has sparked various incidents of violence in recent years. These outbursts are a direct result of political decisions to see prisons as a profit generator. In turn, when violence breaks out in response to unliveable conditions, lawmakers create harsher laws and more restrictive detention.

Nova Scotia is increasingly embracing restorative justice, particularly for youth. These strategies are more effective than incarceration: We know that if a youth is incarcerated, they are highly likely to end up in prison as an adult. People will often see youth policies as “soft on crime,” and the violence in Waterville may well motivate people to push for harsher laws for youth, more incarceration, and more emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation. This would be the wrong thing to do and will do nothing to actually address and prevent youth crime or violence.

We also know that Indigenous and Black youth are highly over-incarcerated in youth facilities. In general, Indigenous and Black inmates at all levels of detention often have the least access to programs and privileges, are the most harshly treated, are subject to more institutional discipline, and are classified as higher risk. We don’t need harsher youth laws and more detention, we need to continue to confront the reasons why youth are incarcerated, and to recognize that policies within institutions, including youth detention, often perpetuate injustice. More punitive youth laws will always affect racialized people the most, and will only perpetuate disproportionate imprisonment and criminalization.

As this incident also reveals, the safety of staff is impacted by the way facilities are run. Making sure there are good programs and supports, access to counsellors, activities and recreation, and a fair system of grievances and oversight aren’t about “coddling” (that word again) youth inmates, they’re about creating facilities that are safe for staff as well.

No staff should go to work and experience this violence. This is obviously unacceptable. But the response shouldn’t be locking down the facility further, or removing programs that help integrate youth back into their communities, or keeping them in their cells longer, or cutting access to recreation, or creating worse conditions for imprisonment. Staff often do great work relating to the youth, helping to counsel them, and building trust. If the response is to separate staff, to place them behind a bubble, or to limit interaction, that is more damaging to youth who become institutionalized in a harsh environment.

There’s obviously going to be a lot of commentary about Waterville, and a lot of it will be centred on questioning whether youth laws are “too soft.” The worst response would be placing young offenders into adult prisons, or giving young people long sentences, or deciding that youth can’t be rehabilitated. Protecting staff and punishing youth are two different things though, and we need to keep that in mind. We also should keep in mind that violence isn’t just evil or unmotivated or just what criminals do, and that inquiring into the causes and being willing to confront problems in how institutions run and in policy is ultimately more productive than demonizing and criminalizing youth.

3. BMO & Clyde

There was a bank robbery in Bedford.

Image from cbc.ca
Image from cbc.ca

The idea of a “bank robber” and the reporting around it is always interesting. There isn’t really a difference between knocking over a gas station cash register and robbing a bank, but bank robbery comes with a romantic history that makes it “different” from other robberies and more fascinating to people. Movies like Bonnie & Clyde or Oceans 11 (okay, a vault) build off the idea of the bank robber as either an outlaw who resists social conformity, or the suave gentleman thief who pulls off daring heists.

Portrait of American bank robbers and lovers Clyde Barrow (1909 - 1934) and Bonnie Parker (1911 -1934), popularly known as Bonnie and Clyde, circa 1933. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Portrait of American bank robbers and lovers Clyde Barrow (1909 – 1934) and Bonnie Parker (1911 -1934), popularly known as Bonnie and Clyde, circa 1933. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Bank robbers were particularly popular in the Great Depression, and were seen as striking a blow for working people against the banks. From From Jerry Clark and Ed Palattella:

An element of romance accompanies bank robberies in general. Especially as banks grew larger and, as in the Great Depression, developed a reputation for being unfair or unscrupulous, many would view bank robbery as a victimless crime, particularly in cases where no one was hurt. How could a regular citizen in America, unemployed and alienated and partial, perhaps, to some kind of popular revolt, not cheer for a Jesse James, a John Dillinger, or a Pretty Boy Floyd? Perhaps no other crime in America owes so much of its allure to the media – first the newspapers and popular magazines, and then the movies and television. 

In Canada, Roger Caron, a bank robber and author of the popular prison autobiography Go Boy! also contribute to the mythology of the bank robber. It’s an interesting phenomenon because it demonstrates the ways in which rhetoric about crime and criminality is uneven: people will be intrigued by someone who knocks over banks, and it will generate a great deal of media coverage, but an addict who holds up a convenience store is seen differently. It’s the same kind of thing you see when people glorify the Hell’s Angels, but see Black gangs as more criminal, violent, and threatening. Bank robbers are imagined to be more intelligent, unlike those other thieves who just smash and grab.

The very existence of the idea of a bank robber as a special kind of crime actually shows us how much crime and our ideas of it are socially constructed. In an age of austerity, where bankers have stolen trillions and got away with it, bank robbers are ripe to re-up as folk heroes. It’s interesting though, that the same robbery at a Walmart is just a violent person with a gun who needs to be put away.


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El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. John Taylor Gatto tells us with his books what the school system is and does and for whose advantage, and everyone should read him. I guess starting with the short but trenchant The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher.

  2. El articulates very well what being a superb teacher is. She clarifies what her objectives are for EVERY STUDENT, and she does more than just talk about ACCOMMODATING students; she does accommodate! When a teacher takes the time and gives all students the opportunity to reveal then she/he is enabling all students. It is one thing to say that you are this sort of teacher and it is another thing to deliver. El delivers!

    Most resonant with me, a retired teacher, is this comment:

    “They don’t have to agree with me, but they are asked to think about why they believe what they believe and to do research and reading, and to think about their own viewpoints and perspectives and learn to back them up. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT WORK OF OUR CLASSROOMS.”

  3. Your piece on education and how you teach your students is wonderful, El. I think your students are privileged to have you for a teacher. No, it’s not dumbing down and it’s not coddling. It’s recognizing the reality of people’s lives and responding in the best possible way.

    I hope many people will read this and share it. Thanks so much and have a great year!

  4. “…education isn’t supposed to be some death march where we ask students to tough it out and see how much they can take and demand that they suffer in appropriate ways.”

    But it IS.

    Mine was from around Grade 3 to the end of a Science degree. We were constantly yelled at, put down, hit (in primary and secondary school) to teach us respect for authority I suppose. By the end I was so sick and tired of the whole experience that when I was invited to my university graduation I told them I wasn’t interested and to roll up my degree and stick it….in the mail. Maybe the social sciences treat their students the way you describe, but in my experience 4 decades ago the hard sciences certainly did not. My daughter’s experience a year or two back in the sciences suggests little has changed.

    Education as a death march…you really have a gift for words El!