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Associate Professors Receive Accolades for Innovative Research and Teaching Methods, and Contributions to Global Learning

April 08, 2021

Associate professor Dr. Leila M. Farah is the recipient of the 2021 Dean's Research Award for her outstanding scholarly, research and creative activities (SRC) achievements in the past year. She has done extensive and innovative research on historical and contemporary architecture; she has received a number of recognitions for her work and has fostered links between Ryerson University and leading French researchers. In 2019, Dr. Farah received the prestigious distinction of Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques de la République française. 

Her research explores the interconnectedness of architecture, urban planning and ecology - topical issues that have come to the forefront, especially during Covid as social determinants of health have predicted efficacies of public policy infrastructure and subsequently the health and wellbeing of those who live in cities. Architects taking part and contributing our own research  to  these important discussions will be key to advancing not just architectural scholarship for our current time and space, but towards building an integrative and multi-disciplinary approach to the practice of community building.

Tell us a little about your research:

My research focuses on urban ecology, inclusive and healthy cities and design. I am interested in various scales and aspects of architecture, urban design and landscape architecture and have also been exploring their relationship to foodways and the provisioning of cities.

What got you interested and what keeps you going?

I find the intersection between food and architecture fascinating as it connects to a wide range of dimensions like culture, society, economics and the environment. I got interested in this area when I joined McGill University and explored the revitalization and conversion of non-green spaces into hubs for urban agriculture.

Thinking through this during Covid-19, what do you see are the issues of salience your research addresses?

The pandemic has disrupted and changed our lives. The challenge will be to learn from the emerging knowledge, opportunities and necessitated innovations and inform how we rethink our models of spatial interaction with food from ecological, social, healthy and viable perspectives.

What do you see as the issues of importance to architectural research and education that will be important in the coming years?

Like a famous physicist said “prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future”, but some drivers will be important, including social and inclusive ones, the rising demand for equitable housing, the health of our environment, the increasing role of technology in visualizing, constructing and monitoring spaces, as well as the decolonization of the discipline, and a move away from grand gestures and statements towards more resilient alternatives.

Associate professor Vincent Hui is the recipient of the 2021 Dean's Teaching Award for his innovative approach to student learning. Despite the challenges brought on by virtual teaching, finding new and innovative ways to deliver the curriculum and seeing the exceptional work students continue to deliver, despite the constraints, has been one of many highlights of the past year. Teaching in a post-secondary setting is both challenging and rewarding. It takes a tremendous amount of planning, research, and passion for curriculum delivery and years of practice to master, but it also has the most impact on student learning. No matter the subject, a dedicated teacher has the ability to inspire and engage students to produce their own innovative work.

Tell us a little about your teaching philosophy and how you approach it.

In the past I used to outline my teaching philosophy as through a framework I created called the “Five P’s of Pedagogy” that examine course content through the perspective of Professors, Projects, the Profession, students’ Peers, and their own Personal development. This has been fairly successful for me and I have been fortunate to disseminate it around the world; it also gets used as a PDF fileresource by early faculty at Ryerson through the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. Recently I have found it easier to look at those more like general commandments that fail to address faculty as individuals with unique experiences and backgrounds. A “Golden Rule” for teaching philosophies is essentially to teach how I would have wanted to have been taught. Though I had some great teachers in the past, my responsibility is to make knowledge relevant and clearly make its application engaging to students.

How would you describe teaching an architectural science course, in a non virtual setting?

In a word: enlightening. Whether in a studio or a course, I find that in preparing assignments and lectures, I inevitably discover new developments or precedents that I learn from and look forward to sharing with my students. In a non-virtual setting I have also learned an incredible amount from students as their in-class questions and responses really illustrate where their interests are, what gaps exist between my teaching and their learning goals, and their comfort in communicating their ideas. This is best exemplified in our studio reviews. For a student to demonstrate their knowledge synthesis in a design, ask questions specifically engaging the multifaceted issues at hand without any apprehension, and to quickly sketch or model these ideas on demand is quite an enlightening experience for me as an educator that I think many of us in the studio took for granted prior to the pandemic. 

How have things changed in the time of Covid beyond the obvious?

Aside from the myriad of adjustments to online dissemination, collaboration, and production that have allowed all of us to continue operating, I think we have seen significant changes to the way we teach and learn.

On the positive side, most educators are able to capitalize on time and space restrictions using online management tools (from recorded lectures/reviews to greater multimedia and online content integration) as well as bring resources (including guest reviewers and authorities from around the world) into the classroom. Similarly, students have been consistently working on content to readily share with their instructors and peers while also becoming more engaged and aware of what their peers are up to.

Unfortunately, there are some unforeseen challenges and negative issues that have emerged during the pandemic. Across the globe, issues ranging from increased academic integrity violations, inconsistent work-from-home computing resources, and shifts in facilities-related courses (such as labs, studios, and practicums) have come about during the pandemic. Within our Department, beyond obvious issues related to the lack of studio space and workshop facilities, several areas of concern have emerged. Mental health issues have only been amplified with the isolation. Though our faculty are empathetic, the university provides a range of support services to students in need, from mentors and peer networking to faculty and professional counsellors. If our students need help, they should feel comfortable reaching out to someone. The digital divide has also put many students who were unable to develop digital strengths have disproportionately had difficulties adjusting to the current virtual pedagogical paradigm. Within DAS we have been fortunate to have such an incredible IT staff that has offered one on one sessions to help students and faculty alike on these matters. Another challenge that has emerged during the pandemic is the mandated accessibility of our sedentary lives. Aside from the inherent problems with nearly all interactions through a screen, faculty and students alike are spending more and more time online and witnessing it encroach into our personal time.

How are you prepping and teaching now to still maintain the impact of in person education?

I have been teaching every term since the pandemic began and have found that taking advantage of features from online resources and tools are essential to maintaining the pedagogical impact we had prior to the pandemic.

The bare minimum would include videos and articles, but from my pandemic teaching experience, the positive responses have come from bringing different reviewers/guests into courses (such as having leading epidemiologists come in to speak during a pandemic studio) as well as creating a platform for ongoing feedback (such as a studio blog). Outside of content delivery and development, I have also found that assessing students’ skills and interests against course content beforehand allows us to create appropriate assessments. For example, as second year studio coordinator, I knew that those students were comfortable working with digital modeling and simulation which allowed me to get buy-in from my teaching colleagues that animations would be a deliverable for submissions. While an animation does not necessarily involve the same thinking or skill sets involved with digital fabrication tools commonly used in that studio, it proved to be an engaging medium for students to develop their awareness of their designs in a different way.

At the start of all the courses I have taught during the pandemic I make it a point to meet each of the students to ensure they can express their goals, challenges, and plans for the future. This worked extremely well in smaller courses however it does require a bit of coordination and commitment if done for larger courses (e.g. the entire second year studio). This investment in preparation was quite beneficial. As an instructor, this serves as an assessment of how I might want to pivot the course assessments, delivery, or even what resources/guests I can bring into the course. For students I gather that it is a reassurance that they are not completely isolated and that there is a comfort in engaging the instructor and course. This rapport with students is obviously easier to develop in person, but during the pandemic this has been a reasonably successful method of maintain the same educational impact and relationship I have with my students.

What practices have worked that you are thinking of keeping once in-person classes resume?

While I admittedly miss working in 325 Church with the hubbub of student/faculty activity, there are a few practices from the pandemic era that I would like to continue in order to reinforce communication and provide more robust and relevant content.

Recorded Reviews/Lectures: Online reviews and lectures might not be for everyone, however recording and having them on file for students who might wish to review content just makes sense in some cases. During a review, students often are too focused on defending themselves or dwell on the negative as opposed to taking in the constructive feedback so a replay might be worthwhile to maintain progress. For some students, language challenges or learning style differences would make video review quite a helpful resource.

Online Sharing: Whether it is on a virtual whiteboard or blog, I think that a shared platform for students to share their work is good for studio work. Though it is not the same as a conventional pin-up in the studio, this tool allows students to keep record of their work from past reviews to demonstrate design development while also allowing peers to see what their colleagues are producing.

Guest Reviewers: During the pandemic, everyone was confined to their homes yet that also made them available for short guest presentations and reviews. Whether drawing upon international authorities on subjects into a lecture or having a noted architect take a few hours to review student work, courses now have the ability to draw upon people’s familiarity with online conferencing tools to bring in a greater range of perspectives into the classroom.

Associate professor and RAIC Fellow Yew-Thong Leong is the recipient of the 2021 AVP International's Global Learning Award for his significant contributions to global learning at Ryerson. Through travel exchange programs like KulTour (spanning United States, Germany, France, Italy, and Denmark) and Frankfurt Studio (with the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences), associate professor Leong has ensured travel remains accessible to students facing financial, language, and demographic (cultural/religious) barriers over the last 15 years. The programs not only offer diverse perspectives on the built environment but also expose students to the globalizing AEC industry more broadly by introducing them to international precedents and construction practices.

From overseeing architectural collaborations with German universities to independently running design studios and international architecture field trips in Europe and North America, Professor Leong has been a significant force behind the international experience generations of students have received during their studies at Ryerson University.

Vincent Hui

Stata Centre MIT (Cambridge, MA) by Sana Kadri

Is there a moment in the recent past that you think really demonstrates the strength of this program?

I think the strength of the programs lies in the attention paid to cultural barriers some of us may overlook, such as gender, culture, and religion. The programs promote autonomy and openness, which empowers students, and provides them with the opportunity to relate to architectural sites as a scholar as opposed to something culturally or religiously polarizing. The lasting impact students experience as they witness their education coming to life isn't something that takes place in the classroom. This experiential learning opportunity is comparative to other professional programs which involve labs or onsite learning, and is just as essential--the phenomenology of space (the multi-sensory aspect, materiality of architecture) is integral to architectural education.

What do you think is unique about our global learning program?

KulTour is a ten-day program, consciously designed with financial, gender, cultural, and religious barriers in mind, and so is completely distinct from any other student travel program in Canada. The program has a minimal financial footprint and covers four to five buildings a day, which is great value for students. A significant amount of research is done beforehand; a lot of personalized energy and investment goes into ensuring that concerns on the part of students and parents are addressed.

Drawing on my own experiences as a newcomer to Canada, I wanted to ensure this global travel option would be affordable to new Canadians. Frankfurt studio is also accessible, as it is supervised and taught entirely in English, even though students are embedded in a foreign country for a month.  It offers two full credits with nine hours of studio, and three hours of lecture time. 

Travel should never be elite.

Yew-Thong Leong

2014 KulTour: Denmark by Marcus Parisi

What do you see for the future of KulTour and Frankfurt studio? How do you see the programs growing and changing?

Various faculty members (such as Farnaz Sadeghpour, Ian Macburnie, Vincent HuiMarco Polo, and John Cirka) have participated and/or run these programs seamlessly, in no small part due to the relationships which have been cultivated over the years with institutions overseas. These relationships will allow the program to continue to flourish and grow as a long-term sustainable option for many of our students.

Do you see yourself running partnerships or studios abroad in other cities around the world? If so, where?

I would like to take students to non-western countries, such as Southeast Asia (specifically, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia). Malaysia is my birthplace, and very different culturally speaking from China, which is another travel-based studio offered by my colleague Zaiyi Liao. Malaysia is a bit of a melting pot in terms of diversity, culinary fusion, and language which I think is wonderful. Travel is integral to recognizing the value of equity, diversity, and inclusion when it comes to the architectural field.