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Learning for learning’s sake

What happens when classroom rules go out and innovation swoops in

The font of the Alternative University Project’s manifesto is utterly disorienting. Exclamation points, oversize letters, italics switching to bold, and wording jumping from side to side. It’s scattered, loud, written in different voices, and it’s devastatingly beautiful. Much like the creation of the Alternative University Project, the manifesto is a hodge-podge of varying interest, feelings, and thoughts, yet all of its creators are – quite literally – on the same page.

Conceived during a side conversation at the Redpath reserves desk, and born one night in an apartment on Mont Royal, the Alternative University Project has matured into an eighty-plus person initiative, geared toward creating a communal learning environment. The classes are free, taught by anyone wishing to facilitate discussion, and range in topics from “Knitting” to “Studies in Post-Capitalist Futures.”

The project’s organic formation stems from a larger student geist. The strike of McGill non-academic workers’ union, the presence of riot police on McGill’s campus, Concordia’s cuts to student representation on the Board of Governors, and the Quebec students’ long-running protest against tuition hikes: said events have undeniably created a highly political, and frustrated, sentiment on our university campuses.

“[The project] has managed to keep a strong excitement, passion, and just joy for what we’re doing. I’m letting myself feel really angry about what isn’t going on. Something is fundamentally wrong with the current university system and we have created this because we want something else for ourselves,” said Galen Macdonald, a McGill Urban Systems student and one of the co-founders of the project.

Working under a consensus-based model of dialogue, creating the project was as much a lesson as the classes themselves. Anna Pringle, a McGill Cultural Studies student and project co-founder, felt that the creation of the project “was reflective of the learning process itself. We are constantly, creating, changing, reflecting, and transforming. It’s been chaotic, as the project is always in flux.”

With so many professors and students coming out of the woodwork to contribute, fluidity, adaptability, and optimism, as well as an understood level of respect amongst those involved, have fueled the initiative. As Matt May, a McGill Sociology student described, “the underlying factor is the level of respect we have for one another. We negotiate things amongst one another, we all understand we are working towards this together.”

Although it was a student idea, professors are an integral part of the group’s success. Cultural Studies professors such as Ara Osterweil, Alanna Thain, Derek Nystrom, and Ned Schantz are teaching courses on top of their own lectures, with others opting to do single lectures.

With classes being held in cafes, lofts, basements, and spaces in Concordia and McGill buildings, Montreal seems the perfect setting for such an initiative. McGill Cultural Studies student Tim Beeler noted, “Being at McGill, you can go to this school for four years and literally have the most superficial relationship with the community. A university doesn’t have to be a place with gates around it. It doesn’t have to be four years. You bring what you are as an individual. It just happens that we’re here and there is this exciting atmosphere.”

The ethos of this project is the free exchange of ideas. Free in creativity, free in self-expression, and free in cost. Macdonald encapsulated the project with a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”

An idea a day keeps oppressive learning structures away.

More information about the Alternative University Project can be found at