Here’s how undergraduate students searched for and secured positions in McMaster research labs
McMaster University is known for its expansive graduate and undergraduate research and innovation opportunities. Considered Canada’s most research-intensive institution, McMaster’s thriving research labs attract students with a variety of interests and backgrounds.
Research experience allows one to develop relationships with mentors, explore career or graduate education pathways and develop confidence in lab environments among several other transferable skills. However, with the undergraduate population growing each year, available research positions can feel hard to find.
“It was very much a game of chance. Realistically, no one from my year had any previous lab experience due to COVID-19, so it more came down to who showed the most interest in what that professor was studying,” said Lynn Hussayn, a third year psychology, neuroscience and behaviour student.
Hussayn worked as a summer research student in an epilepsy research lab at the University of Toronto. Like many students, Hussayn faced difficulty finding a research position at McMaster.
“The biggest piece of advice I would give [other students] is to search for things that you enjoy and actually have questions about. Research is meant to answer questions, so the best way of being at the forefront of something you’re interested in doing is to seek out people who are already doing it,” said Hussayn.
Jack Rosenbaum, a third year biology psychology student, also shared his own strategies for reaching out to labs from his experience as a research student in the McMaster PNB Dukas lab. He explained how he targeted his emails to graduate students from labs he was interested in instead of professors, as he thought they would be more likely to respond, which proved to be an effective strategy.
Rosenbaum also emphasized the importance of seeking out research projects that you connect with.
“If you’re really passionate about something and you show interest in a professor’s work, then I think you have a pretty good chance in working and volunteering in their lab down the road. But if you’re just doing it for your resume, I feel like professors can see through that,” said Rosenbaum.
Sarah Arnold, a third-year chemical and biomedical engineering student and the co-president of the McMaster Society for Engineering Research (Mac SER), explained how resources available through student services, such as resume and cover letter editing, are accessible and effective methods of upping your application game. Along with these services, Arnold noted Mac SER also offers helpful guidance on finding research positions.
“Throughout the year we did a bunch of different events that are aimed towards essentially helping students find [research] positions. We have different recordings on our YouTube channel of past events we’ve done where we go over in detail how we approach professors and how you can breach the idea of research,” said Arnold.
Arnold suggested using these available resources to ensure emails are formatted professionally and to make sure all documents are organized and concise. Arnold also acknowledged searching for a research position can be competitive and difficult regardless of the amount of effort you put in.
“One tip I usually give to people starting off this process is don’t be too hard on yourself. Similar to applying to competitive programs at university, or specific scholarships; it won’t always work out, and that’s okay,” said Arnold.
Arnold emphasized the importance of recognizing the paths we are on are unique and while we should continue to seek out guidance and insight from others, every individual experience is distinctive. Finding a balance in this dichotomy is key to getting involved with research you find meaningful while also fostering independence as an undergraduate student.
“It became more than just a hot dog stand on campus,” said Jim Bontaine, owner of the McMaster Willy Dog stand and several other locations around Hamilton.
“To this day I still find it surreal to have become, well, an institution within an institution.”
This fall marks 12 years of the Willy Dog stand on campus, and with this milestone comes exciting news that Bontaine will be expanding his services into a fixed restaurant location in Westdale.
Every student and staff member at McMaster knows the iconic red and yellow cart located outside the Student Centre. The Willy Dog stand has always been open to provide delicious hot dogs and sausages to the McMaster community, whether it’s during a crazy and chaotic Welcome Week, after a brutally long night class, or simply during your lunch break when you need a mid-day pick me up.
The Willy Dog stand first opened in November of 2003 after a former McMaster hot dog vendor closed up shop.
“Right away we had a lot of business, but what I found out was [the vendors] that had been here before, everybody loved them… I knew right away that I had some big shoes to fill,” said Bontaine.
Bontaine has since filled those shoes, and has become a staple in the McMaster community. In the 12 years he’s been here, he has gone on to win the Best Hot Dog Vendor in North America in 2014, and came in second place in 2015. He has spent time taking part in charity events on campus, donating annually to bursary programs and Charity Ball fundraisers.
He initially got started after an old friend introduced him to the vendor business. “Willy Dog was started by a friend of mine who I grew up with. He had been involved with a few business ventures, and at one point he decided to start a hot dog cart. His name was Will, so he came up with Willy Dog,” said Bontaine.
"To this day I still find it surreal to have become, well, an institution within an institution."- Jim Bontaine, Owner, Willy Dog
“I was working elsewhere and helped him whenever I could as far as dealing with his business, setting up new franchises, going to franchise shows… He had been bugging me to get into it. I tried it a few times, I knew about the business… my boss at the time wouldn’t give me time off to try [vending], so I quit a sales job I had for five years and started this.”
Bontaine’s initial set-up involved a primary cart on Dundurn as well as working the bars late at night.
“When I started, business was great in the summer, but by the time October rolled around, I wasn’t earning enough to make a living.” In an effort to expand his business, Bontaine used his sales background to setup more shops and daytime locations throughout Hamilton. After doing this for 8 years, he opened his spot on campus.
Bontaine has always been involved in the food industry. As a teenager, he spent time working at his parents’ trailer park in Cayuga running the snack bar.
“Growing up with my parents owning a trailer park and running the snack bar, it was a sort of natural direction,” he said.
When Bontaine first setup shop on campus, it crossed his mind to open a storefront, but time constrictions already associated with running multiple stands made him put this on hold.
Twelve years later and Bontaine is now opening up that shop close to the intersection of King West and Paradise North in Westdale. The store will be called Great Tastes Only and will offer takeout and delivery items including fresh ground beef burgers, fresh cut fries, a variety of poutines, specialty sandwiches, salads and of course, willy dogs and sausages. The restaurant is predicted to open by the end of this coming July, and will also be setup to accept meal plans and student cards as a form of payment.
The new location will have a different moniker, but the name Willy Dog won’t be lost. The stand on campus will still be fully operating as well as a few other locations around the city. Bontaine’s friend who initially coined the name is no longer in touch with the new franchises, and Bontaine is ready to develop a style of his own.
“I’ve always loved the Pontiac GTO cars… since I was on the drag strip in Cayuga in my youth. I decided to try to see what I could come up with name-wise to use the GTO acronym, and that’s when I came up with ‘Great Tastes Only’.”
Bontaine is one of a few street vendors looking to setup a permanent home, with both Hamilton’s Gorilla Cheese and Southern Smoke looking at locations on Ottawa North. The food truck and stand industry can be a lucrative one, but with it comes a lot of red tape surrounding health and safety issues as well as challenges with cooking space and storage. Brick and mortar shops allow vendors to create a more diverse menu with more freedom.
Bontaine has run a catering business out of Hamilton for the last few years, and has a loyal following not just from there, but from his many stands as well. He is currently in the process of hiring a chef to help make his dreams a reality, and would also like to develop a food truck that he has already purchased.
It’s been a busy 20 years running the Willy Dog stands, and Bontaine hopes that the new restaurant as well as some new staff members will help lighten the load and change his style of work.
“I have Scott coming on board who is going to look after the Mac location. It needs more than I’m going to be able to give anymore because of the expansion, and I don’t want to lose that personal touch,” he said.
Scott Bennett will be overseeing the cart. He has always had a passion for street vending and a daughter who recently graduated from Mac has made him well acquainted with our campus community.
“Almost every occasion I’ve been working—Canada day, Victoria day, you name it, I’ve been working, and it’s taken me away from my family. Especially now that I have grandchildren it’s all about trying to oversee it now and spend more time with my family,” said Bontaine.
Playing more of a management role, Bontaine is ready to take on a different approach to vending. Westdale will be his new main location, but McMaster will always be part of his business.
“I owe the success on campus to the support I’ve had over the years. I enjoy the interaction with students and faculty, it’s something that I think is a great privilege.”
As the sun hits your slitted eyes and lifts you out of a dream you had very much been enjoying, your espresso machine suddenly sputters to life and has a cup ready before you’ve even brushed your teeth. After your daily dose of caffeine, you head to the gym where the calories you burn are kept track of without any work on your part. Finally, a custom motion gesture relieves your curiosity as to what song is playing at the supermarket by activating your smartphone’s Shazam app in a matter of seconds.
These are just some of the features the Kiwi Move sports in a promotional YouTube video released in early January.
But Ashley Beattie believes that the brief clip just skims the surface of the device’s capabilities.
The 32 year-old DeGroote alumnus envisions a bright future for the miniscule piece of wearable technology that his startup, Kiwi Wearables, recently displayed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
The small trapezoid shaped product drew rapturous acclaim from PC Magazine, who dubbed it the “most underrated product” shown at the renowned event that hosted industry heavyweights like Sony, LG and Samsung.
Upon completing his Bachelor of Commerce at McMaster in 2004, Beattie took on a sales position at a large consumer technology company. Looking to freshen up his skillset and try a different route, Beattie attained his MBA through DeGroote’s accelerated program in 2007 before joining the Canadian Naval Reserve. Moving up the ranks — as well as to cities like Toronto, Ottawa, and Quebec City — Beattie obtained a position as projects manager.
After finishing one of his contracts, Beattie launched a social network strategy company that admittedly “didn’t really work out.”
The reason the startup tanked was Beattie’s inability to code. To remedy that, Beattie enrolled himself in an intensive course at Toronto’s Bitmaker Labs in the summer of 2012.
“It was a challenge. You’re coding a lot. But if you write ten thousand lines of code, you’re good. It’s like that ten thousand hours rule, you may not be excellent but you’ll definitely be able to do it,” he said.
One thing led to another and he found himself participating in a hackathon competition called AngelHack in Toronto with a group of four others last year. In a marathon nineteen-hour session, they created a device that could warn its wearers of an oncoming heart attack.
Beattie says the group recognized the chemistry they shared and quickly came together outside the competition as Kiwi Wearables. Their natural first step was to try and improve their AngelHack device, but they quickly ran into a wall when they realized a medical gadget like theirs would have to clear a lot of regulations before it could hit the market.
They quickly scrapped that plan and focussed their attention on producing a more broadly useable piece of wearable technology.
Weighing one ounce and barely wider than a die, the Kiwi Move fits that bill to a tee. Though miniscule, the device packs a punch. With 2GB of storage, it is filled with six sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, barometer, thermometer). To connect to the Internet and smartphones, the Kiwi Move boasts Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The battery life is also impressive, clocking in at five days.
Beattie says the current Kiwi Move available for pre-order on their site has gone through as many as five or six different iterations. In this regard, he says input from industry peers and consumers alike has been invaluable.
To illustrate his point, Beattie pulls out his iPhone on which he has stored some photos of the previous models. He laughingly points out an early mock-up, which resembles a clunky computer mouse, and another that looks like a cigarette lighter.
“We still had to ask people whether they liked these designs or not. You’ll get lucky sometimes by building the right thing for the right person, but that doesn’t always happen. You’re best off going onto the street and asking people what they think.”
Although they happily took advice, Beattie says the design elements were limited by their goal of creating an unobtrusive device.
“Our theory was to make it as small as possible so that you could fit it onto your collar, and also wear it inconspicuously because no one wants to be wearing a big gangly thing.”
In response to fragmented opinions from consumers as to how they would like to use the device, the Kiwi Wearables team developed a unique foundation for the initial six apps that shall come with the Move: Insights, Gestures, Sound, Lock, and Move.
Revolving around the notion of “when/do” the device will respond to certain triggers with a reaction.
For instance: when you leave your house, the device can be triggered to keep track of the amount of steps you take until you return.
The initial capabilities may seem mundane enough, but the fact that they are all contained within one device is ground breaking.
“It is up to us and the developer community to fill in that ‘do’ side because the ‘when’ is prefixed to being device-centric…Then it can become something you could use for anything,” said Beattie.
From the very get-go of their July launch, the apps shall be available for both iOS and Android.
Beattie stressed the importance of the Move being compatible with both Apple and Google devices.
“The developer community is divided between each…if you make [the app] as widespread as possible, you can satisfy a really large number of people. While there are intricacies to both which makes it harder or easier to do either, it’s in your best interests to at least have it in your plan to be able to support both.”
Asked if he and his team envisioned a target demographic when building the Move, Beattie said, “When we first started marketing our product, we thought our ideal customer was between twenty-five and thirty-five, technologically-adept, and an early-adopting kind of person. And that has largely persisted.” But Beattie also added that while the demographic may remain small, they all have various uses for the device.
As the July launch steadily approaches, Beattie says that while he and his team aren’t setting their sights too far ahead, their line of work puts a premium on looking to the future.
“Every startup will have a challenge. You have always got to be delivering in the present and also working on the thing that people want in a year. Otherwise, what’s going to happen is that you will grown your company and because there are other companies doing what you’re doing, you will take a stumble. You have to constantly innovate.”
Though the July launch has their full attention, Beattie also added they were building a set of functionalities that will help developers build more apps than is standard to avoid being eclipsed by other companies.
Beattie also added they have no plans of taking off from their Toronto headquarters to California, citing the burgeoning ecosystem developing around wearable technology in the GTA.
“The GTA is where you want to be for wearables out of anywhere else in the world. In Toronto, there are six amazing wearable technology companies and we all play off each other. As our tide rises in Toronto, there’ll be people who will be coming here because the cost of living in Silicone Valley is hideous.”
Beattie was lavish in his praise of the students that Canada is producing.
“You have Waterloo, U of T, and don’t discount McMaster who has produced a lot of grads who have done some amazing things. There is so much talent in this area that if you’re leaving [for the Valley] you’re not doing it because there isn’t potential here.”
To those hesitant to take the jump into the entrepreneurial waters, Beattie offers a piece of wisdom: “Startups aren’t always, fun but they’re always exciting.”
Winter tends to elicit mixed feelings. As temperatures drop and snow falls, some people love to bundle up and walk in the brisk cold. To many others, winter is a miserable few months. Regardless of which part of the spectrum people fall on, there is the general consensus that winter road and sidewalk conditions make it difficult to enjoy this season.
While walking to school you slip at least five times, you’re frozen by the time you arrive, and getting to classes seems to take a lot longer than you remembered. Getting around in the winter is usually a pain for everyone. On a scale of one to ten, most fall close to the “love skiing, skating, and sledding but for the love of God, winter, go away” side.
But for many, winter has some serious challenges that come from needing a mobility device. When the pathways and roads of McMaster are icy, slippery, or wet, many people with crutches, canes, walker, and wheelchairs face a whole new campus.
Second-year student named Sophie Geffros uses a manual wheelchair to get around campus and finds that in wintertime, she’s spending a lot more time commuting between buildings.
“The furthest I have to go from is MDCL to ABB. In the summer it takes me around seven or eight minutes but in the winter, I find that it takes me around 15.”
In -38 C, where exposed skin can freeze in three to five minutes, 15 minutes in the cold can seem like eternity.
Even getting to campus is a struggle if you have a mobility device and take the bus. In extreme cold weather, sometimes the automatic ramp on the buses don’t work, making it inaccessible for that day.
“I miss significantly more class in the winter,” said Geffros, “Even after I make it to campus sometimes I realize that it’s not working. I have three classes back to back to back in Health Sciences, TSH and MDCL, and 10 minutes is not enough time. I either have to leave class early or get to class late.”
The Student Accessibility Services office at McMaster helps students with any special needs including medical issues, physical impairments, mental health issues and learning difficulties.
“I think the main issue is that SAS is primarily designed to deal with students with learning difficulties and they do a good job accommodating academically but when you faced with mobility impairments, and you say that you need this thing, they don’t have much practice with providing people with help in that way,” said Geffros.
SAS does help with services such as note-taking and extension leniency but unfortunately, it doesn’t always help when someone is already on campus. Even students without mobility impairments have experienced difficulties walking across some parts of campus that are extremely icy and have not been salted or opening doors that have small banks of snow in front of them.
“There’s a huge problem with where they put the snow once they shovelled it off stairs and sidewalks. First it takes them a long time to get it off the sidewalk, then once they’ve gotten it off… they cover the smooth bit of the curve which is where, if you use a mobility device, you need to go down on the curb on and you can’t because it’s covered by a chunk of ice,” said Geffros.
“There should be more areas that are treated as constantly as others since small paths are just as important as large streets,” says Jamie Lai, the Abilities Coordinator for MSU Diversity.
These conditions are not only annoying to navigate around, but they can also be dangerous. Third-year student Georgy Dhanjal uses a power wheelchair to get around campus and says that getting to classes increases from three to five minutes to eight to 10 minutes in the wintertime. Although he can navigate on top of snow more easily than he could with a manual chair, the icy conditions on campus still make it a hassle.
“Mac does a great job at making sure that ice/snow is removed from ramps such as the one behind BSB or right by MUSC, and that is great for everyone. However I do have an issue with how the school goes about its open/close policy in terms of hazardous conditions, such as the day in which the ground was extremely icy,” said Dhanjal
“The low temperature is something we can bundle up for, and as Canadians it is expected, however when something so simple as getting from point A to B becomes dangerous, that’s where I draw the line,” he continued
Getting from point A to B on a reasonably sized campus should be simple, but when the conditions of campus are subpar, it becomes an issue of safety rather than convenience. For Geffros, unclear pathways can cause physical injury while trying to navigate through the ice and snow.
“The actual pavement is very poorly maintained, especially in the quad. There are big chunks of cracked pavement. In the summer you can navigate around but in the winter you can’t see it, and it looks icy but clear but then you go flying out of your chair. Quite a few times I have actually gone flying, landed on my face, books everywhere, sometimes my wheelchair has rolled away,” she said.
On extremely cold days, most of us are concerned about getting to warmth as quickly as possible, but there is the added pressure of having to navigate around potential hazards.
“I have seen some people in their wheelchairs going against traffic because sidewalks and pathways are inaccessible,” says Lai. “There’s a large emphasis on people who require wheelchairs, and there are also people who use walking aids and who are visually impaired who need their paths to be clear so that they don’t risk injury. Those who use walking aids, even temporarily, can find that even though they never get stuck in the snow, they sometimes have to rely on other people to get around,” Lai continued.
“I had crutches in the fall and found that some of the automatic door buttons don’t actually work and I’d have to find a way to manoeuvre. I can’t imagine having to do that outside in freezing temperatures,” said fourth-year student Hans Loewig.
At times, it just isn’t possible to get through campus without a little help. Dhanjal encourages students to get in touch with services like SAS that can help them in the winter.
“I think that those who begrudgingly attempt to navigate campus during the winter time, and do not know of these services too well, may seem uncomfortable asking for help. The truth is that these services are great sources for assistance, and I definitely recommend seeking their assistance when necessary,” says Dhanjal.
Friendly students are also an option to help if you find yourself stuck in the snow.
“Fellow students are the best when it comes to assistance. If my chair tires get stuck in the snow, or if perhaps I need a push to get across some ice, there is always someone I can count on at this school, stranger or not,” says Dhanjal.
Since most people are busy trying to get to their destination as fast as they can, it can help if more people are alert to their surroundings.
“Last week I was constantly stuck in the snow, I had to flag people down to help me, otherwise I would’ve just stayed there,” said Geffros.
Winter is great for a lot of things, like hot chocolate, hockey, and candy canes, but it really is the worst for making your way around. Some people can walk over that crack in the ice, or step over the snow bank, but for others, getting across campus can be a frustrating and time consuming feat. Take the extra time to help someone whose chair is stuck in the snow or guide someone with a visual impairment around the icy parts of the sidewalk.
Photo by Eliza Pope / Assistant Photo Editor
By: Amanda Watkins
Classy. Creative. Underrated.
These are the things reality TV is not.
It’s harsh, I know, and even though it’s the truth, I admit to spending a decent number of hours a week parked in front of the TV yelling at the stars of TLC with my housemates.
Endless public service announcements and parental chats have warned us not to believe everything we see on TV, but for some reason, this depiction of “real life” is still deemed to be believable. What tunes us into reality television and what makes us stick around for more?
Maybe it’s because life is more exciting when it’s injected with sparks of adventure and humour at ideal moments, perfectly scripted to balance a person’s needs and wants. Reality television: it’s real life, complete with real writers, a real landscape, and a mostly real cast- minus a few cosmetic surgeries here and there. And knowing all of this, what still leads us to believe that reality TV can be our reality?
Nobody wants to be a loser...unless it’s The Biggest
It sucks to lose. Be it a coin toss or the lottery, it can be difficult to accept the fact that often, everyday life features various scenarios that involve a dissatisfaction with the outcome. This being said, one of the most enticing characteristics of reality shows is the win/lose aspect: there is always someone you can root for after winning and someone you can berate and belittle after losing. Most people do not want to see themselves as losers, making it liberating to see another person place last- especially when they’re on a television show being broadcast to millions of other people. It’s a relief to know that somebody is suffering more than you.
When our candidate of choice wins on American Idol, or the single lady we love to hate on The Bachelor gets voted off, the satisfaction of being right leads to a rewarding feeling and a temporary boost in our serotonin levels, similar to when we do surprisingly well on an assignment or exam.
So You Think You Can Be Judgemental?
The power to be opinionated is what developed the social structure of our society, and it is this same force that drives people to tune in to scripted real life television.
“The reason for watching different shows is something different for everyone,” explained Christine Quail, professor in the department of Communications Studies and Multimedia, whose recent studies on reality television involved the decoding of audience behaviour in relation to the show So You Think You Can Dance Canada.
“Some people watch because they enjoy dance... or to pull for a certain person... but some audience members were more interested in seeing the ‘joke’ performers,” she continued.
Although some viewers tune in for the genuine reason of enjoying the exhibition of a personal hobby or interest, one aspect of reality TV that reels in the masses is the open invitation to judge and critique performers in the comfort of your own home. It’s nice to feel like an expert and be able to comment on truly quality performances as well as the less than noteworthy but still humorous to witness.
The William Hungs of the world provide entertainment as well as an outlet for viewers to release their need to be at the top of the food chain. By having someone to comment on, spectators are able to take part in gossipy activities that do not result in negative whiplash in their personal lives. They are able to freely comment on the goings on of the show without directly hurting or affecting the person.
The Amazing Escape
“What a lot of people do not realize is that these are actual people- you can’t really ‘escape’ by watching something real,” explained Quail when approaching the topic of escapism and reality TV.
Instead of calling reality TV an ‘escape’ from daily life, it can be better defined as a fantasy world. It is non-committal, requires little thought processing, and fulfills our desires to feel like winners and freely express our opinions and power without judgement. We can live vicariously through the adventurously dramatic lives of the Kardashians and be distracted by the shenanigans of Amish settlers breaking free in New York City. It’s a warm and cozy distraction that allows us to mindlessly indulge in the mistakes of others and fantasize about a lifestyle that is so carefree, scripted and easy to follow as those of the reality stars being broadcast into our homes. The stars of reality TV appear to living the dream. And what better fantasy is there to dream of than that of life itself?
Artwork in key public space at McMaster does not reflect the current student body.
McMaster was a historically upper-class, white institution and this continues to be reflected in the key symbolic public spaces on campus like Council Chambers and Convocation Hall.
But McMaster’s student body is now fully inclusive of both male and female students of different racialized backgrounds, religious beliefs and abilities. Having students, faculty and staff from diverse experiences enriches critical discourse at our institution—but artwork in key public space predominantly represents the homogeneity of McMaster’s past.
The lack of diversity in McMaster’s most important public space is incongruous with our institution’s values and may be alienating to some students.
McMaster has a history of diversity to be proud of. It was among the first universities in Canada to welcome women, when an initiative led by William McMaster’s wife resulted in the creation of the Moulton Ladies’ College as an arms-length academic department of an otherwise male university in 1888. McMaster became fully mixed with the move to Hamilton from Toronto in 1930.
Since then, McMaster has become increasingly diverse. The latest University Factbook says faculty currently represent 70 countries and international students represent 92 countries. No other metrics of diversity are published, but the roster of student clubs demonstrates the diverse cultural affiliations of the student body.
Specific aspects of diversity are recognized as an asset in the Strategic Mandate Agreement that McMaster signed with the province of Ontario. McMaster’s SMA highlights our retention of aboriginal, first-generation and students with disability as areas of institutional strength.
Given this commitment to diversity, the degree to which McMaster’s predominantly Caucasian, upper-class history past continues to dominate public space on campus is surprising. Particularly in ceremonial and prominent areas of campus like Convocation Hall and Gilmour Hall’s Council Chambers, portraits of university administrators loom over the halls.
Professor Jane Aronson, the Chair of the President’s Advisory Council on Building an Inclusive Community (PACBIC) says the Council has tangentially examined public space, but mostly in terms of physical space rather than art.
“We often worry about what looks like public space on campus actually doesn’t offer space or resources to some students,” said Aronson.
“One thing we’ve addressed is working with indigenous communities and, for example, access to rooms where they can do smudging ceremonies—sometimes the design of space, sometimes the physical plan or the lack of space quantitatively or the ill design of space. Its effects aren’t random”
Aronson agrees that images, even within campus promotional material like the first-year lookbook, have in the past represented a stereotypical student that may not resonate with the current student body.
“While you don’t want to get tokenistic about having some greater diversity in that portrait, you have got to do something about it.”
The issue of representation in public space is not unique to McMaster, Hertford College at Oxford University recently addressed this issue with a special exhibition.
The college replaced the 21 portraits of men in their largest public space with an array of portraits of former female students from different generations and career paths. The display was meant to not only emphasize the importance of the anniversary of welcoming female students to the college, but also broaden what success looks like and what they are proud of.
“All institutions find it difficult not to just pick out people that are in some way celebrities or very rich or very senior in certain public roles, they’re people that you know, are very impressive but they’ve achieved in a very narrow sense of the word,” explained Emma Smith of Oxford University, who organized the project.
“We wanted to show that we are proud of these different things people have done with their lives… we’re not just proud of people that are wealthy and might give back to the college or who have been promoted or become famous or whatever.”
The display is currently planned to last for a year, but the administration is now discussing what will happen next.
She said this type of initiative can be viewed as more than a political statement, but also an artistic one.
“Maybe don’t just think about it in sort of a political or ideological statement but an artistic statement as well, many people feel that the old institutionalized style of portrait isn’t very welcoming,” said Smith.
A Canadian institution, King’s College in Halifax, is also trying to display more diversity, but rather than removing the current portraits, they are simply adding new ones.
“Putting these pictures up isn't about cutting men out, lessening their accomplishments, or even chastising the institution, it's about ensuring that our spaces on campus tell the story of who we are, and that recognizes the people that have made our school what it is today,” said Clare Barrowman, a third-year student at King’s involved in the project.
“Women have been part of that narrative and continue to be. It's important that female students don't just hear that, but see it and feel it.”
A major challenge with implementing this type of project in any of McMaster’s key public space is that there is no single entity which decides how public space is used and what part of McMaster’s history should be commemorated.
A PACBIC working group could hypothetically be created to recommend ways to increases diversity in artwork, but any initiative would have to be cautious and respectful of the important role of the figures from McMaster’s past.
“There are huge ironies because PACBIC meets in Council Chambers, of course the institution has the history the institution has, but sometimes that makes for the most bizarre sort of counterpoint. I think it would probably take an occasion to legitimate the removing, to make that possible because so many people would experience that as dishonoring the people that have gone before,” said Aronson.
In fact, the very nature of donor-driven statues and pieces of art on campus means that a strategic vision would be difficult.
But student input suggests imagery in public space is worth addressing.
For example, through student consultation in designing the Mills library learning commons, Vivian Lewis, the McMaster librarian found that students not only notice what is on the walls, but it also affects their learning.
“The one big criticism [students] had is that there are these giant white wall with nothing on it and they said please, please, please put some art on the wall and make it student art.”
The feedback was so overwhelmingly positive that they also sought student art for the Lyons New Media Centre and the Mills stairwell, which now features 5-foot by 6-foot self-portraits of McMaster art students.
“In terms of why [we wanted student art] was to meet the students’ need for the aesthetic part of learning… we recognized from talking to students that the aesthetic actually matters a great deal,” said Lewis.
As a research-focused, student-centred institution, it’s time to reflect on what our most important public space says about what we, as an institution, value.