May 29th, 2014
The blogspot has been bare for almost a month. Just couldn’t be helped, really. I have been on the go, up in the air and down again and back for one work-related conference, meeting, festival, or all of the above. In view of the weather here in spring, and airline food notwithstanding, I have been more than happy to visit Tampa, Florida; San Diego, California; Toronto, ON; Cannes in the south of France; and even Niagara Falls. In all these places the sun has been shining, the flowers blooming, and the skies have been as blue as cornflowers. As I write this, I can discern a few yellow rays teasing the dusty blinds in my office, and so perhaps the winds are starting to blow a little more favourably. We don’t live here for the weather, that’s for sure.
I have learned a lot on these trips about what different parts of the world are up to but several themes persist. Universities everywhere are worried about funding, enrolments, and international recruitment. In my memory, funding has always been an issue. Perhaps things are more dire now, especially with the levelling off of registrations at the undergraduate levels and the ensuing panic, on some campuses, about how to balance the books. The enormous growth generated by the sixties on almost all North American campuses, for sure, now leaves many administrations with the challenge of how to sustain their physical plants. Cost-cutting and government stinginess now extend to program closures and the merging of academic units, making for some awkward scholarly partnerships. Necessity in these cases is not so much the mother as the dictator of invention.
At the annual congress of humanities and social sciences learned associations meetings at Brock, in St. Catharines, Ontario, there was a lot of talk about graduate students being ill prepared to face the reality of the workplace. I must have overheard at least half a dozen grad students in washrooms talking to each other about their hopes of securing positions at one university or another I always felt like staging an intervention, reminding them that half of all humanities PhDs drop out of their programs and only about 20% of those who complete their degrees actually end up in the academy. Someone is not telling these people how to be better prepared for non-academic jobs.
At Brock—a leafy but architecturally confused campus–I was lucky enough to attend a couple of terrific keynote addresses that buoyed me up and gave me hope for the future of critical thinking. Activist, lawyer, and Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, Cindy Blackstock, gave an astonishing talk that will stay with me—and others—for a long time. Speaking flawlessly without a note for a full hour, Blackstock moved confidently about the stage, gripping us in her sights. With passion and intellectual heft she surveyed the terrible Canadian history of our treatment of aboriginal children, moving us through the horrors of the late nineteenth century on up to and including the present. Tirelessly battling the Indian Act and its even more egregious applications, Blackstock gave us all hope that younger generations of Canadians would be more sympathetic to the harsh truths of aboriginal reality. That’s where her faith lies—not in me and you, but in the next generations who will, she believes, simply not take injustice so much for granted anymore. I hope she is right, and her optimistic conclusions made me wish that the young scholars who still believe they will be working at a university might turn to the kinds of socially good causes Blackstock framed for us. She put her PhD to good work, in spades.
Rubbing shoulders with colleagues across the country also reminded me not only of how lucky we are to have jobs doing what we love, but also how much more stable Memorial is than so many Ontario and western universities right now. I remember with dark unease the decades where we were not so assured. Best not to take anything for granted, ever.
The debacle at the University of Saskatchewan, where a dean was summarily fired for publicly disapproving of his bosses’ ‘transformation’ plans, was the subject of many Niagara-wine-liquefying receptions. Most of us had a ‘there but for fortune…’ theme on our lips, given how much we tend to complain about our respective administrations, even while being part of such. The dramatic matter at USask certainly informed many conversations about academic freedom, self-censorship, and the examples we are supposed to be setting for faculty and graduate students. To speak out or not—that is increasingly becoming the question. One colleague drew attention to the ‘silence of the deans.’ Gave me pause. Blackstock had insisted on what she called ‘challenging the normal.’ Indeed.
At the end of each Brock congress day I would return to my room in Niagara Falls where I was compelled to stay because of the hotel shortage in St Catharines. The silver lining was the view you see in the photo above—almost unreal in its postcard uber-naturalness. And on what Americans call Memorial Day weekend I was a lucky ninth-floor witness to a spectacular fireworks show from the US side of the Falls, as awesome as it gets.
Travel challenges the normal. That’s my new answer to the persistent question: don’t you get sick of it?