UTSC Teaching Award recipient and urbanist Ahmed Allahwala encourages students to bring their experiences of city living into the classroom – and to engage in the community

Teaching Award recipient Ahmed Allahwala

As a student at the Free University of Berlin, UTSC professor Ahmed Allahwala initially aspired to be a journalist. Then he stumbled upon an urban theory course that would change his life. Allahwala – associate professor, teaching stream, and associate chair, City Studies in the Department of Human Geography – helped develop the City Studies program at UTSC. Allahwala is a recipient of a 2020 UTSC Teaching Award, in the Associate and Full Professor category. Below, he talks about his passion for community-engaged learning and all things urban.
What is your teaching approach in the classroom?
I try to bring the city into academic engagement in the classroom. One of the pillars of my teaching philosophy is: I really draw on difference as a key characteristic of the urban. I call this the pedagogy in and of the city.
I also draw on the diversity in the classroom, which is highly reflective of our city. That’s one of the beauties of teaching in an environment like Toronto. I encourage students to draw on their personal experience living in the city to contribute to class discussion and enrich their coursework.
Can you give an example of how you encourage students to draw on their experiences?
Almost all of the students who show up on Monday morning to my urban planning lecture have commuted – often for an hour or two – to campus. They will all have an experience of it being rather challenging, even on a regular day. So we might talk about “transit captives,” meaning folks in the city who rely on public transit because they cannot afford private automobiles. This is a simple example of where we can bring in personal, everyday experiences of being a city resident to develop theory around urban infrastructure, urban politics and urban resources. That’s where the experiential comes in; how experiences are a source of knowledge production and theory development.
You have engaged in experiential learning in your Cities Studies courses for a long time. Why is it so central to your teaching?
I am a believer of experiential education and, more specifically, community-engaged learning. This ties back to my teaching philosophy of pedagogy in and of the city.
It can be very productive to bring the lived experience into the classroom, but you can push beyond the space of the classroom to think of higher education in relation to the communities that surround the campus. I would argue that extending the university beyond the campus makes the physical, cultural and epistemic boundaries between the academy and the community more permeable.
Practically, this translates into finding and creating spaces where we can value learning and teaching from, and with, partners who are normally outside of the university. To learn from, and with, people whose insights may not be considered scholarly. That’s really where I think the magic of critical and community-engaged learning lies.
What was one of your favourite experiential learning opportunities?
The one closest to my heart is my third-year course called “Urban Communities and Neighbourhood Case Study: East Scarborough.” I work with students in collaboration with a community partner on a community-based participatory research project.
Perhaps the most successful initiative that emerged was having East Scarborough officially recognized as a youth-friendly community by Play Works, a provincial umbrella organization of youth-serving groups. We worked for over three years – with three consecutive cohorts of students – on compiling the 1,000-page application.
For our community partners in East Scarborough, this youth-friendly recognition was never meant to be an end in itself; they wanted to create opportunities and structures for youth engagement. And one of the beauties of this project is that a youth group called LIFT – Let’s Inspire for Today – emerged. This group makes sure that youth voices are heard in community planning.
This initiative was a great learning experience for students, and I could also say to the community partner, “We did it and we did it together with you.” Everybody had their objectives met.
For three years, up until recently, you served as special advisor to the dean on experiential education. How would you describe your role?
One important dimension of my work was the institutional coordination of experiential learning activities, both at UTSC and in the tri-campus ecosystem. There’s really interesting, meaningful work happening in experiential learning in a lot of different pockets at UTSC, but having spaces to come together, to learn from one another and know who’s doing what allows us to engage with partners in a more coordinated fashion. A partner receives one phone call from the University of Toronto Scarborough, not five.
The second aspect would be incentivizing, nurturing and supporting experiential activities by a growing number of wonderful colleagues interested and dedicated to experiential learning. I was fortunate to have sufficient resources from the dean to do this kind of incentivizing.
How would you describe the experiential learning experience at UTSC?
If you look at the broader higher education landscape, community engagement is a hot topic. Many universities across North America are saying that they’re creating new programs that engage with outside partners. I think UTSC really stands out for its commitment to meaningfully, respectfully and reciprocally engaged community partners. Community development and engagement is not a fashion for us. We have fully embraced it and we’ve also nurtured it over the years with the appropriate level of institutional resources. Much credit goes to the director of community development and engagement Kimberley Tull and her team.
There is now a policy push to increase experiential learning. But it’s really important to listen very carefully to what partners are saying so that we avoid bulldozing into communities saying, “Find places for our students because all of our students now need to have these experiences.” I think at UTSC we’ve really embraced the careful work of community development.
How did you become an urbanist?
When I was in high school I wanted to become a high school teacher, but then I changed my mind and I wanted to become a journalist. I enrolled in media and communication studies at the Free University of Berlin in the mid-’90s.
 I then stumbled upon a senior seminar that centred on the city and theories of communication of the city. It immediately spoke to me. We read classic urban theory text like Georg Simmel and Richard Sennett.
I’m from a relatively small town in Western Germany and after graduating from high school I wanted to live in a big city so I lived in Madrid and then in Berlin. I was drawn to the big city but I was never academically interested in the city. That one seminar was a turning point in my life, and it opened up urban theory to me.
Every course that I took after that was connected to the city. I worked it into literally every subject – from media and communication to political science. Even in Spanish literature, my minor, my oral examination was on contemporary urban literature.
I became an urbanist because it spoke to me. Urban theory allowed me to understand society in a very meaningful and insightful way. I applied for PhD programs with a focus on urban politics and urban theory. Then I was in the academic trajectory. And it goes full circle because I wanted to become a teacher all along.
What does this Teaching Award mean to you?
I hope that this award is a point of departure for new collaborations and projects. I’d love to work with colleagues in Arts, Culture and Media and explore how applied theatre can be used for communicating community issues. Also, I love maps. I’m a geographer but I’m not a mapmaker. It would be a dream for me if, again, I could partner with Arts, Culture and Media so that we could combine the urban research piece with producing beautifully designed and community-generated maps and visuals.
What have you learned from your students?
I’m continuously amazed by the critical insights that students have based on their lives and rich biographies – and also the generosity that they show in terms of sharing their insights and experiences with me. I really see my role as channelling that and bringing that into dialogue with the experiences of others and my own to advance knowledge.
I continuously learn from my students because they are willing to share what moves them, what affects them and how they are in the world. That is really what makes, rejuvenates and stimulates my passion in teaching. - Stacey Gibson