As I wrote last week, I recently spent some time at….
June 25th, 2009


As I wrote last week, I recently spent some time at the University of Rioja in Logrono, a charming medieval city tucked into the northeast corner of Spain. My mission, to deliver a graduate course on contemporary Canadian literature and film, is now accomplished. The seminar was five days, 4 hours a day, but yet I feel as if I had been there and known the students a long time. That’s a very good feeling, indeed. It sure beats alienation, or the sense that everyone is looking at you as if you were from some unpleasant planet.


These students are the last of a generation to be studying without having to do a masters program in Spain. In a way, they see themselves as lucky for having escaped the new masters curriculum that will come into existence next year. Spain is part of the European Union, of course, and that means subscribing to the Bologna Accord. That now famous agreement aims at harmonizing the curricula across Europe, encouraging mobility and student exchange. And one of its dictates is the Europe-wide adoption of masters-level programs. No more studying without passing Go.


There has been much discussion in recent years about the Accord, pros and cons, but this aspect of student mobility is surely one of its most appealing characteristics. We are woefully slow to be thinking so purposefully about mobility in Canada. Student exchange is still a rarely exercised practice. It is more difficult to take a year of one’s program at another Canadian university than it is to walk the famous Camino de Santiago. We have so much to learn about breaking down the barriers between us. Perhaps we are too new a continent, certainly too new a country to have experienced the full measure of those barriers and their stultifying artificiality.


All but one of my students was Spanish, that country experiencing similar sorts of internationalizing initiatives as we are. The majority of graduate students still hail from Spain but the Bologna Accord is pushing them all over the map. One was from Romania. She had originally come to Spain to study through the Erasmus program, founded in 1987 to encourage mobility across Europe. Indeed, it has. She will likely end up living in Spain more permanently. I decry the lack of such a program in our country, but then education is not a national mandate and it’s hard to imagine the provinces coming together to support such an initiative. The loss is ours.


In any case, all the students were in the same boat – learning about Canadian literature and culture over the course of a week, watching Atom Egoyan and Mina Shum, reading Giller-prize winning novels, and slowly processing the world I come from through an imaginary version of it, through words and moving images – through fictions of nationhood and community. The novels explored aboriginal issues, the challenges of the North, Mennonite culture, and St. John’s itself. I chose as arbitrary but interesting a list of assignments as I could muster, hoping something more profound and meaningful than a mere superficial understanding of Canada might emerge after a week of close scrutiny. I sure like to think something like that happened.


Of course, part of the interest of being at another university in another country is discovering what issues dominate locally. To a person, the students told me immigration was the country’s biggest challenge, perhaps biggest social problem. It is not as if Spain were a homogeneous nation, but for the first time in a long time, its borders are being traversed by many peoples of different religions, colors, and nationalities. Getting off an Air Canada flight in Bilbao I was struck by the absence of official customs lines, or customs inspections of any kind. Imagine such a thing in either Canada or the United States, in a post 9/11 world?


And so we discussed immigration – legal and illegal — and all that it implied, and other aspects of changing, contemporary Spanish life. There, too, the push for bigger graduate programs is intense, and there, too, faculty and students are concerned about tuition fees, scholarship funding, and developing the right programs for a very uncertain economy. One theme persisted: none of the Spanish students could imagine living or working anywhere but Spain, but in view of the economy they didn’t know how that was going to be possible.


But such bright faces and so much promise! Teaching the course was far more rewarding and fruitful than I had ever hoped it would be, and I would do it again in a flash. Those students now occupy a special place in my memory bank, and I will wonder what they are up to for as long as I can keep such thoughts in my head. I hope they become mobile enough to visit St.  John’s and Memorial one of these days. They can then see for themselves that Canada really isn’t that cold, after all.



Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

One Response to “As I wrote last week, I recently spent some time at….”

  1. Miriam Simpson says:

    Could you tell us the books and films you used?

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