November 14th, 2013
I was in beautiful beautiful Montreal for six nights last week, before heading to Toronto for another four. Growing up in Montreal I was taught that Toronto was a far inferior city, devoid of edge, culture, and attitude. That might have been somewhat true then, but things have changed. Montreal is still more interesting in so many ways. Bars stay open late, the streets are always alive, the poutine is vastly superior, and the women are gorgeous. The Toronto of today, however, is larger, intensely diverse, architecturally interesting and confused, and rich with ethnic restaurants, neighbourhoods, and shops. Montreal is always welcoming—a city of views. Toronto is a nice place to visit—and it now hosts one of the most bizarre spectacles of modern-day politics, the Rob Ford show. Throughout my stay in both cities I was totally transfixed by the day-to-day unfolding of that strange, sad narrative—a mayor out of control, emptying his addled mind in real time, on air, with the world’s cameras pointed directly at his enormous head. As I write this, the story keeps rolling, the mayor still performing random acts of candor, shocking candor. It’s hard to know whether the guy actually lacks a filter or knows that not using one gets him more attention, which he obviously craves. I remain totally transfixed by the show, as do millions of people who are tuned in around the globe. It’s not every day you see a public figure flaming crazy before your very eyes.
Much more serious and sensible were the meetings I attended in both cities. In Montreal, about 250 of us from across the country participated in the 51st annual Canadian Association for Graduate Schools conference. Deans, admin staff and students gathered to talk trends, compare practices, share budget woes, and listen to keynote speakers advise and provoke. By all accounts it was a really fruitful conference, even including the town hall meeting between deans and students. The latter group, essentially representing themselves and no one specific organization, dominated the microphone with the familiar mantra: lower or no tuition. This is not a topic about which deans really have any control, but it’s not clear students always understand that. The problem is not so much what the almost all-male grad student reps said; it’s how they said it. You would think the deans in the room had no clue about graduate experience, or were indifferent to it. Give me a break. As moderator, I said that there wasn’t a dean in the room who didn’t wish s/he had more money to support students—indeed, we spend most of our time on the job defending and arguing the case for more graduate student support. But the self-assured tone of the students, the patronizing manner in which they one-by-one repeated their refrain and stated their case as victims, the whole attitude of superiority in their expression really undermined their cause. They might have wondered why very few deans got up to speak in the space of an hour and half. But we all knew why this was so. A little more respect and openness, a lot less self-righteous smugness would have gone a long way to opening up a dialogue. What graduate student wants to be told any of this—that they are suffering from youthful arrogance, or naiveté? To be fair, many of us could probably recognize, with wincing self-awareness, younger versions of ourselves in many of those comments. Come talk to us in ten years, when you have finished your programs and are well in stride in your jobs. Let’s compare memories then, with mutual respect and a deeper awareness of just how complicated human relations are. Anyhow, all of that was a kind of theatre, too—a chance to see some young men strut their stuff, more for each other than for deans, for sure. Some social behavior just has to live itself out. Thank goodness for experience which gives one the long view, helps perspective, softens some of the edges.
Then it was off to Toronto and Fordlandia, where the Conference Board of Canada was hosting a two-day summit on skills and postsecondary education. I had to go to that for lots of reasons, and was glad I did. Notwithstanding my comments in the preceding paragraphs, I would have liked to have heard from some grad students at that conference. The room was dominated by academic administrators and business leaders, all trying to come up with explanations for and descriptions of alleged skills shortages in this country. There was no deep consensus but there was a tendency to recognize that we aren’t training our students fully enough for the realities of the labour market, and that our institutions are woefully inflexible. Also true, Canadian businesses just don’t invest enough in training. But we really needed some graduate student voices to challenge us about a lot of stuff that was floating through the conference, and I would have welcomed some expressions of support for maintaining the commitment to the liberal arts as a necessary cornerstone of a well-rounded education. Too often, the noun skills is short-hand for applied learning, the kind that leads to making widgets or launching a start-up. Too often, the skills debate leaves out a lot of stuff universities are contributing to the health of the mind. Well, all this is really the beginning of a much needed national conversation about the topic, with more trips ahead to Toronto in store, I am sure.
Wonder if Rob Ford will still be in the Mayor’s chair by then…doubt it.