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UTSC students using Toronto mayoral race as “election laboratory”

(photo by Dominic Ali)

It has all the ingredients of a political thriller or a slapstick comedy: controversial mayoral debates, aggressive attacks ads, last-minute candidate switcheroos. 

And for 20 lucky University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) undergraduates, the political mud-slinging and shenanigans of the city's 2014 municipal election campaign are also proving to be a fascinating learning experience.

“I tell my students that anything can happen,” says Zack Taylor, assistant professor with UTSC’s department of human geography. “And it has.”

After joining UTSC in 2012, Taylor noticed that many university students are curious about the machinery behind political elections and wanted to add to their knowledge. “But what’s interesting is that they didn’t know how to learn more.”

Taylor’s solution is the inaugural “Seminar in Selected Issues in City Studies: Toronto Municipal Election.” (Unfortunately for the rest of us, the class is fully enrolled and students are already hard at work undertaking groundbreaking research into what really makes local politics work.)

“I want the students to think of this class as an election lab,” says Taylor. “Collectively, it’s like a science experiment. We’re trying to learn as much as we can about a Toronto election.”

Taylor’s students are examining different aspects of the mayoral race. The professor hopes that through their analyses the students will develop a lens that they can apply to different issues in the future.

Early on in the mayoral campaign, students submitted research proposals. One group of students is looking at media coverage of the election, especially how newspapers cover the candidates and issues in different ways, and how gender and race are treated. 

Another group is assessing how social media is being used for campaigning and will analyze the twitter feed and social media presence of the candidates. “This is an area that some people have looked at in American campaigns, but I haven’t seen a lot of literature on any level in Canada,” says Taylor. “I think they’ll say something new and original with that.”

Toronto’s new mayor will likely be announced during the seventh week of classes, so the students are facing deadline pressure to complete their research and studies in real time.

In keeping with the initiative, instead of finishing up the class with an essay or exam, Taylor’s trying something different. The class will culminate in two sessions where students will explain their findings as if they were at an academic conference. They’ll present their work and bring in guests to ask questions and comment on their research.

One added benefit, says Taylor, is that since several international students are taking the course, discussions about these issues get everyone involved in learning about the Canadian political process. 

The learning isn’t just for the students – Taylor’s benefitting, too. “It’s been very interesting for me to talk to people about elections when they may come from places where they don’t have these things.”

(Read more on the class blog.)

(Listen to Taylor discuss the class in the U of T News podcast.)

Dominic Ali writes about cities for U of T News.