Convocation ‘20: Anne Thomas

Countering Ageism in Higher Education

Donna McKinnon - 02 June 2020

Anne Thomas is completing her MA in Gender and Social Justice the same year she will collect her Canada Pension. Returning to school while raising a family and running several businesses (and maintaining a sense of humour!) is remarkable enough, but Anne will also be the first graduate of the GSJ program to work on actual policy as her capping project.

While her encounters with ageism as a mature student were discouraging, they were also the catalyst for change. Finding the “ideal” graduate program that would provide the academic tools necessary to affect that change, Anne set out to make the University of Alberta caregiver policy as beneficial as possible to the largest number of future students, particularly non-traditional students who face obstacles to higher education.

The project, which consists of the proposed policy and the rationale behind it, is complete and will be referred to as a draft until it is accepted and finally, enacted. For these phases, Anne will work with the Office of Student Life. Beyond that, however, Anne will continue to look for new ways to identify and address the social inequities related to ageing, deepening her commitment to making the invisible, visible.

What drew you to the area of your study?

Being an undergraduate over fifty is a wearisome space in a place that marks you as an oddity even at thirty! During my undergraduate degree, I was frustrated that my educational cohort regarded me as a threat to their performance in comparative evaluations, and as someone handicapped by the practices of an engaged student. I was tired of my own invisibility in the eyes of the instructors who were blinded by the steady stream of newly qualified voters in front of them. A blindness where professors regularly do not see you, even though you are sitting in the front row. Lectures would begin with phrases such as ‘this was written before you were born,’ except that I could vote a decade before that date! Or maybe they do see you, but no additional support or consideration in the face of the many obligations to my family.

I was an academically ambitious mature full-time student with two jobs, and the lone responsibility for two children, my position was no longer an individualized personal experience, but had become a “political category”. Using the frames of insider and outsider, I committed to activism and praxis against marginalization and invisibility within the post-secondary institution, and the recently launched Gender and Social Justice graduate program in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies was the ideal choice.

I started an MA from space marked by ageism, but the category of age in itself does not offer sufficient nuance, as social locations are “shaped by additional factors such as class background, gender, ethnicity and disability”. Co-constituted and consolidated, the imbricated systems of sexism, racism, ageism, compulsory heterosexuality and able-bodiedness reproduce each other.

In order to properly address the capstone project, which is to write a student caregiver policy for the University of Alberta drawn from the values outlined in the Strategic Plan for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity, I would have to consider that the ‘normal’, or idealized student is constructed by implied reference to who the ideal is not.

Central to the feminist challenge in my praxis project is the structure of the family. Rooted in the separate spheres of public and private lives, the home and family is the foundational building block of economic structures; the alpha factor that can act as the linchpin of a political economy. Polis, or public life where the big bangs of economic development reverberate in oikos, and felt in the pulses of life-making.

Great economic accelerations are diffused into mere velocitization experienced in family life. While the exhaustions of work are seen to be soothed, they become so by the cheapened, by the unpaid work of women, as labour productivity is hinged on bodies put to work at their continued devaluation. Domestic labour, child care, emotional labour, uterine labours, the labour of lactation, none of these come into measurable value unless performed in paid service. At the centre of oikos, there is man, solely able to move from each interrelated sphere. The privatized zone of nonfreedom includes sexuality, reproduction and the care of children - all matters judged inconsequential are typically rendered invisible. While not visible on the caregiver policy, it is in recognition of this gendered labour that the capping project is meaningful to me.

What is the most remarkable thing you learned while you were a student?

That I have blind spots big enough to hide an 18-wheeler! It was in Michelle Meagher’s Gender and Social Justice 500 class that I understood a hermeneutical gap as chrononormativity [the way in which our experiences follow patterns over time in conformity with normative frameworks]. My anachronistic experience with post-secondary education allowed me to see how chrononormative my assumptions had been about the timing of family formation for others. In other words, I saw my own ageism. This was central to me contacting the Office of Student Life to offer to work on a student caregiver policy with them.

Did you face any significant challenges, and if so, how did you deal with it?

I alternated between drinking and gratitude; one helped more than the other.

How did you manage the challenges of navigating student life under COVID-19 restrictions and remote learning?

The University of Alberta is really high on my gratitude list for the remarkable job and consistently empathetic responses made under rapidly changing conditions. It was only at the end of the semester that I could see how much the UA did so quickly. I raise a mortar board to the University’s leadership.

What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you started?

Stress is a fact of life, but it should never become a way of life.

What’s next for you?

An interesting question in the times of Covid-19, particularly when one collects their parchment in the same year as their Canada pension. The novel coronavirus may strengthen the political will to change the conditions under which many older citizens live. My first full time job at 16 was in an extended care facility, the last I hope will make a change in the same arena.


The Future is Arts! This story is part of a series celebrating our graduates. Please join us for a virtual convocation, Friday, June 12, at 10 a.m. MST. at Registration is not required.