Universities to add more originality to projects



TANNIS TOOHEY/torstar news service


Tok Olaleye created a photoblogging website for his master’s thesis at Ryerson University. The focus of the site was getting pictures of life in Ibadan, Nigeria.


Photos of life in the West African country connect photoblogger Tok Olaleye to student and now quasi-hip-hop artist Chris Cachia and to Rubber Band Media, a group of artists whose music video of The Bicycles has been viewed more than 1,200 times on YouTube.

The common thread: Olaleye, Cachia and members of Rubber Band Media have each completed these projects as part of a university degree.

Whether it’s a four-year undergrad program or two-year Master’s degree, multimedia projects such as these are part of a growing university trend that mixes theory with creativity.

“I think there is this movement within Canada of tearing down the boundaries” of what is accepted in academics, says Jennifer Brayton, a sociology professor at Ryerson University.

Brayton supervised Cachia for his Master’s thesis on Canadian identity in hip-hop.

Although more practical projects have long been a tradition at community colleges, they are just beginning to gather steam at universities. It’s an idea that fits with Ryerson’s history as a polytechnic but one that’s still a bit foreign.

Cachia wrote, produced and recorded the hip-hop CD to complete his Master’s degree in the joint Culture and Communications program through Ryerson and York Universities.

But make no mistake. University education is not moving away from academic pursuits to fun and games.

“With a project like Chris’s, it demonstrates that you can integrate the personal and the academic and produce knowledge in a non-traditional way,” says Brayton.

Cachia’s music accompanied an 80-page thesis paper rooted in theories about Canadian culture, hip-hop and self-identity.

Perhaps in today’s tech-savvy society it is easier to relate to Olaleye’s efforts to bring everyday images of life in Nigeria to people around the world. Starvation and disease aren’t the only realities of Africa, says the 25-year-old, who also completed his Master’s in the joint Culture and Communications program.

Olaleye travelled to his former home, the city of Ibadan, Nigeria for his project. The result is Picturing Nigeria, a photoblogging website (www.picturingnigeria.com) that encourages contributors to add photos that represent what the city means to them.

In his thesis paper, Olaleye discusses the power and rise of digital photography.

Cachia and Olaleye have more to show for their education than a 100-page paper only a handful of people will read.

“The production of knowledge doesn’t have to be ... the production of paper knowledge,” says Brayton.

When she brought Cachia into her undergrad class to talk about doing a Master’s degree she says many students said they’d consider going to grad school if they could have the freedom to be as creative as he was. The five Ryerson new media undergraduates comprising Rubber Band Media were keen on getting the most out of the $20,000-plus cost of their education. They didn’t want to graduate without portfolios so they took advantage of the program’s equipment with the goal of getting ahead in their careers.

Brent Quigley, Dylan Taylor and Damir Badjari, all 21, along with Alon Isocianu, 22, and Alice Phieu, 23, are using the final year of the four-year program to complete projects, such as CD designs and music videos, for local indie bands.

The projects will count toward their credits for graduation.

Working on real-life projects is an approach Cachia, Olaleye and Rubber Band Media appreciate. And they believe it will catch on at other universities.

“If I had done a 50-page thesis, I could take that to companies and there would be a lot of talk about what I think I can do. But now I can take this portfolio to a company and say, `Here’s what I’ve been doing,’” says Quigley.