Throughout the academic careers of Trent students, there are few weeks more important than orientation.
For many, their first taste of higher education is the raucous, over-the-top, and overwhelming screams, hollers, and chants of college led Introductory Seminar Week.
However, for eight years, from 2004-2012, Introductory Seminar Week (ISW) was one of two orientation weeks at Trent University, the other being the student planned and student run DisOrientation, which provided first-year and upper-year students with an alternate perspective on student life, higher education, and the Trent community.
DisOrientation week, or DisO as it was affectionately called, was started in 2004 by a collective of independent student groups whose goals were to provide incoming students with access to progressive programming and to introduce them to the political aspects of university life.
Based out of Sadleir House at the former Peter Robinson College, the concept for DisOrientation was born out of the prolonged institutional conflict that surrounded the university’s 1999 decision to try to close Trent’s two downtown colleges.
“The original idea was that DisO could be a way to ‘disorient’ students out of the official line of the Trent administration,” explains Matthew Davidson, co-ordinator for OPIRG Peterborough, one of the founding groups of DisO.
“The week would bring them into the culture of resisting the privatization and the neoliberal structure of the university.”
While DisO was in large part created as a response to unpopular actions of the administration, the week was also cast as an alternative to the perceived hypocrisy of the usual ISW festivities.
“To have the official ISW be so apolitical, so ‘rah-rah college spirit!’ but not talking about the actual significance of the college system within Trent…” remarks Davidson. “DisOrientation was an opportunity to bring that narrative into the conversation and build off of it.”
For eight years, the Dis-O co-ordinators and the affiliated groups worked together to run grassroots programming that challenged corporatization of higher education and attempted to grow the culture of social and political justice within Trent University.
Popular events, such as the community vegan barbeques, radical film screenings, and anti-oppression workshops, were initially well attended as students sought to broaden their educational experiences and learn more about the issues facing their campus and community.
However, the changing of the guard within the Trent administration, marked by the 2009 departure of controversial president Bonnie Patterson and the hiring of the more conciliatory Steven Franklin, signalled a broader culture change within the within the student body.
With students no longer viewing the administration as a primary antagonist on campus, student activism dwindled as those who had cut their teeth in the struggles to save PRC and Traill College gradually moved on from Trent.
“There’s been a complete turn around in the student body politic” says ki, who attended DisO in its early years and now works as Co-ordinator at the Centre for Gender and Social Justice.
“Part of it is due to how successful the administration was at changing the university.”
For the organizers of DisO, this new political reality on campus was exacerbated by the fact that by the late 2000s several of the week’s founding groups were mired in political turmoil.
OPIRG, which was at one point the primary organizer of DisO, pulled out of the event in 2010 due to inter-organizational tensions. That left much of the planning and co-ordination to the smaller groups.
By 2012, the co-ordination of DisO was in disarray and there was widespread uncertainty over whether or not the week would be able to be held.
Responding to these concerns, the Trent Central Student Association, under the leadership of then-president Brea Hutchinson and vice-president Tessa Nasca planned a series of political and social-justice based programs under the banner of ALT-O that was intended to compensate for the absence of alternative orientation programming during September.
However, due to a miscommunication, ALT-O and DisO were in fact both run that year, which sowed confusion amongst students over which programming was run by whom and whether the two alternative week were connected or separate.
When the dust finally settled after that tumultuous September, DisOrientation was in shambles.
As for ALT-O, which Nasca and Hutchinson had said would become annual TCSA event, the new executive elected the following spring decided to concentrate its energy and resources on the more traditional Welcome Back Week events.
The result was that whereas in 2012 there were two alternative orientation weeks, by 2013 there were none.
Now, two years removed from the final DisO, first-year students are more-or-less left to stumble upon the counter-culture of Trent themselves.
While there are exciting events being run by individual groups throughout the month of September, such as OPIRG’s Free Vegan Barbeque, the TCSA’s annual Clubs and Groups Day, and the Trent Queer Collective’s Queerientation, there is no longer a unified alternative orientation program at Trent that deliberately challenges ISW and the broader narratives of frosh culture on campus.
Just as significantly, at a time when the university administration is implementing a dramatic restructuring of Trent’s traditional college system, there is no co-ordinated effort from student organizations to resist these changes and promulgate the university’s original collegiate vision.
Finally, at a time when student activism is arguably at its lowest point in Trent’s fifty year history, there is no longer the solidarity and co-operation amongst grassroots student and community organizations that earned Trent its reputation as a school with a vibrantly political student body.
In terms of whether or not students will see DisOrientation make a comeback within the next few years, ki says that this will depend on whether there is still an appetite for alternative programming within the student body and, more importantly, whether or not the groups can once again band together to pull it off.
However, given all that’s occurred at Trent over the past several years, from the construction of the private residence, to the increasing professionalization of academic programming, to the continuing centralization and bureaucratization of key university services, I say its high time someone brought a little disorientation back to Symons Campus.