Read your collective agreement…
August 27th, 2010


Read your collective agreement. As a new semester approaches that should be everyone’s motto—that is, everyone who is captured by the new collective agreement signed this summer by the University and the Teaching Assistants’ Union of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Graduate assistants, graduate teaching assistants, and graduate research assistants are covered by this agreement. Our graduate school office phones are starting to ring off their hooks as inquiring minds are demanding answers to questions pretty clearly spelled out in the official document. Apparently the TAUMUN cell phone is ringing a lot, too. It’s easier to dial than to read, I guess. Fortunately, if a phone rings in the forest there is a TAUMUN representative to hear it. Unfortunately, the union does not have an office yet (er, what’s up with that? Any other union people around to outfit the office?).

The first couple of years of any collective agreement are generally unstable ones, as all parties involved attempt to interpret and apply—or sometimes apply and then interpret—the clauses in the document. This is proving to be the case again.

TA unions are a commonplace in this country and so Memorial is just catching up to the trend. It’s safe to say that such unions usually end up being endorsed by their constituents after an extended period of dissatisfaction and frustration with current labour practices, not to mention pay rates. In a complex workplace like a university, it is foolish to think that every graduate student is performing the same duties in every department or program, but that doesn’t mean there ought not to be fair and acceptable standards governing all work.

Collective agreements certainly help standardize uneven language usage. As mentioned, graduate assistants, graduate teaching assistants, and graduate research assistants are covered by this agreement, but the document helpfully smoothes out these functional distinctions by referring to the group as a whole as Graduate Assistants–GAs. For years no one at the university could tell the difference between a GA, a TA, or an RA. While we might have agreed that none of these was a BA, we did not have a handle on who was getting hired or paid for what, or how to regulate the activities these hires performed. Moreover, one could always question what was really employment. I know of some GAs in the past who did nothing more than file papers for their prof supervisors for a few hours every week; others who worked like pack horses in labs; others who spent all their time in archives, digging for esoteric material; still others who did and were advised to do nothing—zero, sweet nothing. Things–like the weather in August–were pretty uneven.

Nothing clarifies the workforce quite so much as contract language, and so at least everyone now will be marking from the same page—so to speak. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t wrinkles in both interpretation and application. Arguably, the most disagreeable area and the chief source of complaint has been hiring. Without a sound policy or considered in-writing guidelines, many academic units have often relied on habit or familiarity, and in the worst cases favouritism, to guide their selection of GAs. Reportedly, some are still going about their business in that old-fashioned way. Meaning well is no more acceptable in appointing favoured students to work contracts than it is in taking a decade to finish a master’s thesis.

What really appeals to me about the new TAUMUN-MUN agreement is that assistantships will henceforth be formally determined on the basis of need. Doctoral students receiving $20,000 or less per annum in total funding and Master’s students receiving $16,500 or less per annum in total funding get first crack as assistantships, as I believe they should. Consider what it might be like to be pocketing $20,000 or $16,500 a year in a town whose property values have spiked higher than Lindsay Lohan’s legal fees. Can’t be easy trying to pay the heat and face your supervisor every morning.

It’s new world order. I am counting on a healthier state of the union.  Let’s get this party started.

Tomorrow never dies. Actually, that’s not true..
August 19th, 2010


Tomorrow never dies. Actually, that’s not true. If you recognize that short statement as the title of a 1997 James Bond film, starring Pierce Brosnan, you win this trivia round. Tomorrow is dying, after all. Anyone who follows news in the entertainment world knows that MGM, the studio that has owned the whole James Bond franchise, has been in huge financial trouble for some time, and production of the 23rd 007 film has shut down—“indefinitely.” Daniel Craig, hunky dimple-chinned, current go-to double agent, is also busy whoring himself out for the next big thing, the Stig Larsson franchise (Girl with the Dragon TattooWho Played with FireWho Kicked the Hornets’ Nest). At the very least it means the end of Craig, Daniel Craig, as the guy with a license to kill.

Indeed, it might just be the end of a phenom. I call attention to this show biz news because a bunch of shrewd graduate students in Communications at Cleveland State and Kent State in Ohio have recently published the martini-dry titled “Shaken and Stirred: A Content Analysis of Women’s Portrayals in James Bond Films.” Apparently the 8 or so graduate student authors  watched almost all of the 22 Bond films—including the dreadful, aforementioned Tomorrow Never Dies—and came up with some dandy findings. Would it surprise you to know that 88 percent of “major female characters” engaged in some form of sexual activity with James Bond? That 1 percent attempted to kill Bond before engaging in sexual activity, or that 1 percent attempted to kill Bond during sexual activity? The stats crawl on in this fashion…with a stunning obviousness.

I don’t think you need to be pursuing a PhD in Communications or Film Studies to know that women serve a very limited purpose in the Bond narrative cycle. Certainly, they do not exist to domesticate the double agent who, by definition, just can’t be civilized that way, as another famous adventurer, Huck Finn, might have put it. Women help to glamourize the landscape, spice up the screen, and often heighten the intrigue, as Ursula Andrews et al have been doing for 22 films to date, but they sure aren’t there as equal partner in the crime-solving capers that drive the stories. After all, there’s a whole category for these women: Bond Girls. Some might argue there are exceptions—the Bond Girl in each of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale—but both end up dead, as most do anyway. Let’s face it, this universe isn’t big enough for Bond and a powerful, independent woman.

What the grad students’ article does stress, after drawing up its inventory of female characters and their limited functions, duplicitous roles, and gruesome deaths is that over the 22 films in the franchise not much really changes. Dr. No, the first film in the series, hit the screens in 1962, making the franchise an almost 50-year old business. Just think of the changes to women’s lives in 50 years, but yet the Bond girl has remained consistently vulnerable to violence and death—especially once she has been bedded by the guy with the allegedly best gun in town.

Perhaps, like all successful ventures that eventually splutter and fall (General Motors, the Soviet Union, the VCR, Elvis Presley…you get the idea), the Bond film franchise has lost touch with 21st viewers who fail to see the charms of ‘fifties stereotypes. Of course, the source material, author Ian Fleming’s novels, is deeply rooted in the Cold War ethos of the 20th mid-century, and Fleming’s handsome hero, devious villains, and the gorgeous women upon whom they all gaze, however briefly, belong to an entirely different set of cultural behaviours. The film franchise has advanced the Bond hero’s technology, of course, updated his fashion sense, and even made him a bit more of a complicated figure, dare I say it, a man of (some) feeling: witness Daniel Craig’s 2000s appeal as an introspective, dark-thinking type. But the role of women has remained unfailingly the same. Bond Girls show up, dressed, of course, to kill, and distract the hero just long enough to permit him to shower, but they are almost all fated to untimely exits. You can practically hear 007 shouting out “next…!” after the closing credits.

What’s the point? I have enjoyed many of the films in the series, and I fully appreciate the formulaic reassurance of the James Bond story. Repetition is a staple of all successful genres. I’ll always expect Superman to long for Lois and Batman to want to be alone. But it occurs to me after reading “Shaken and Stirred…” that MGM might have fared better if over the decades they had encouraged more character development, more life-affirming intelligence, less predictability for the Bond women. It’s enough already with the hello-goodbye-you’re toast pattern of courtship. I want to know what Bond would do with a really threatening situation–like marriage.

I envy the Ohio graduate students who undoubtedly turned a research project into an orgy of popcorn and diet coke™.  Why didn’t I think of that? Wonder what they are watching now? The emotionless content of Indiana Jones’ facial expressions? Shrek’s unchanging skin colour? Well, good for them. You only live, er, once….


Hark! Who goes there?….
August 12th, 2010
Hark! Who goes there?

Read this blog for the correct answer. I have complained in this space before about language that bugs me, especially increasingly incorrect English usage, and I know I will complain again. But here’s the situation that prompted today’s venting. Maybe some good will come out of this.

The other day a colleague—smart, lively, funny, charming, someone I consider a friend, not just another nice academic—was in my office, telling me a story. I was listening hard, amused by the details. But then she dropped the dreaded pronoun bomb and I suddenly started to feel nauseated, the bomb’s effects working on my breathing like plaster dust.  This is what she said (names changed to protect the guilty): “Well, then Susan dropped by with a gift for John and I, and we were so happy to see her.” (more…)

Why are these international grad students smiling?
August 5th, 2010


Why are these international grad students smiling?

They have just received certificates for having completed a series of summer workshops aimed at career development. They now know how to create a curriculum vitae, how to shape a professional résumé and cover letter as part of a job application, what kinds of things they should bear in mind while searching for employment, whether in or beyond the academy, how to behave—dress, talk, sit, smile—in a job interview, and how to create a professional portfolio. These might be the most valuable life and workplace skills they will learn at university. (more…)