By RON FANFAIR
The scholarly research work of university students is normally only seen by their university professors. Last Saturday, however, undergraduate students at three Toronto universities came together at a unique conference to highlight, discuss and celebrate the work and ideas of students interested in the Caribbean.
Papers for the conference, Diaspora Voices, New Directions: Studying the Caribbean in Toronto, were solicited mainly from University of Toronto (U of T) students who have written on a Caribbean subject for any university course.
“This is great because it creates a space where undergraduate students from whatever discipline can study the Caribbean and present their work,” said St. Lucian-born U of T fourth-year criminology student and aspiring lawyer, Latania Christie, whose presentation was titled, Colonial Legacies: Pigmentocracy, Mental Slavery and Skin Bleaching in the Caribbean.
“As undergrads, you don’t get an opportunity to present your work unless it’s to a professor and that’s very subjective. This forum gives us an opportunity to openly talk about the Caribbean and just really foster good scholarship and healthy conversations.”
Christie, fourth-year history and political science student, Sharifa Khan, whose paper addressed cultural assimilation and the Indian experience in Jamaica, and final-year Caribbean studies and French student, Lenore Butcher, who explored lessons from the Cuban Revolution, were the conference’s student organizers. Khan and Butcher were both born in Jamaica.
“This forum provides us with a chance to speak in front of our peers and also showcase our work,” said Butcher, who also plans to attend law school. “It’s such a wonderful opportunity when you consider that it’s only Master’s and Doctoral students that get to do what we are doing here today in this unique setting.”
The conference was conceived by Dr. Melanie Newton, an associate professor in the U of T history department whose research specialization is in the social history of the Anglophone Caribbean. U of T associate professor, Dr. Alissa Trotz, who is also the director of the university’s Caribbean research program, helped execute the inter-disciplinary conference.
“Though this event was Melanie’s brainchild, it was the undergraduate students who got excited and ran with the idea,” Trotz, who also teaches in the women and gender studies department, said. “It offers Caribbean students, and those who don’t have a direct connection to the region, a taste of what it would be like to present and publish their work and to get them excited about the whole journey.
“It’s just not about what happens in the classroom, but it’s also about sharing their knowledge with other students and the general public…I was blown away by the quality of some of the presentations today and the fact that the students were well prepared. This has gone beyond my expectations.”
In addition to U of T students, the conference was open to participants from York University, Ryerson University and activists.
“We wanted to get all the students together to reflect on what they have learned, let them know about the kinds of information they can exchange and also get them to try to build a supportive community so that they can really enhance what Caribbean studies should mean in all of these universities,” Trotz said. “The hope is for this to be an annual event held at other universities here where undergrads can share resources and lobby universities to get more recognition for very important work.”
Other presenters included Jan Anderson and Iman Khan of York University and Christine Randle, the managing director of the Jamaican-based publishing house, Ian Randle, who addressed the challenges of publishing in a time of crisis.
Founded in 1991, the family-run business was the first commercial publishing outfit in the English-speaking Caribbean to produce scholarly and academic books. It’s also the leader in best-selling books related to history, politics, sociology and gender studies.
“The tough economic times are affecting publishing houses like any other business,” Randle said. “I am, however, here to make the point that we are not stifling our publishing program at all. In fact, we are continuing to roll out our programs and enlighten people whenever we get the opportunity about the scope and the range of what we do.”
The one-day student symposium took place at the U of T’s Koffler Institute building.