Monthly Archives: January 2015



Blog photo 11

What happens when you hear the phrase enrolment planning? Do your eyes glaze over and does your mind start to drift towards what’s in your fridge for dinner? I don’t blame you. But, like mammograms, paying parking tickets, and cleaning out your basement, at some point it’s just got to be done.

So it is that about eighty staff, faculty, students, and administrators from Memorial gathered last week to consider how to do it. We were aided by expert facilitator Lynn Morrissey from the Faculty of Business Administration where she teaches Communications. Almost everyone at MUN knows that Lynn is an advisor to the Enactus Memorial team which, for several years in a row now, has been able to boast first-class standing in international competitions. If Lynn can get a bunch of Memorial students from all over campus to shine so brilliantly in such an exacting competition how hard could it be to wrangle four score self-interested, willful individuals to agree on the best ways forward? A rhetorical question, of course.

But she did it. I know, I know, you’d think that the water we were drinking would have had to turn into wine for that to happen, but, by and large, consensus was reached. This had a lot to do with the careful thinking through by the planning team in the Provost’s office of how to frame the day’s conversation. AVPA Doreen Neville led that charge with her usual brio. When I hear the words “break-out groups” I usually want to run in the other direction, but this had to be one of the better, if not even the best, set of small group discussions.

Perhaps because we began with considering what we were all doing right and wrong regarding recruiting and retaining our undergraduate students, conversation was immediately lively. It’s relatively easy to identify what is working (powerful loyalty to MUN, small classrooms in some faculties, low tuition, strong support and advising culture, etc) and what isn’t (worrying demographic changes, infrastructure sucks, technology isn’t high performing or ubiquitous enough, narrow discipline-based pathways to degrees, too few course choices and cross-disciplinary flexibility, etc). I should add we focused exclusively on the undergraduate campus in St. John’s. Graduate studies and the campuses at Grenfell and the Marine Institute are proceeding with their own enrolment plans.

After a break we were encouraged to move around and sit at different tables, with newly configured groups. The second conversation focused on what we could do to make things better–that is, repair the problems and unblock the obstacles described earlier. This was actually fun. It gave us an opportunity to think big, but within the realm of possibility. In group workshop lingo, this is a “green field” or “blue sky” approach, depending on your colour or elemental preference. Although brainstorming at many different tables we were nonetheless all inching towards an agreement that we needed to shake up our undergraduate programming, and in particular speak to the hundreds, maybe thousands, of students who really aren’t sure of what knowledge path they want to pursue. Why confine these individuals to a nineteenth-century idea of the university, albeit some of that idea being pretty wise and helpful, when we should be offering flexibility, experimentation, and exploration? What of the student who wants a wide knowledge base, but is put into a discipline-coloured straightjacket from the word go? What about liberating that student from a restricted, prerequisite-determined minefield of potential failure?

Too radical for you? Really? Well, that’s where we were moving by the time lunch arrived, and so hold on to your cap and gown.

I grabbed my gluten-free tuna sandwich and soup and left for the office where duties awaited, but I was told the afternoon session continued in this manner, with growing excitement around a possible curriculum shake down. We won’t throw out the baby with the bathwater and I think it’s safe to say those traditional routes to a discipline-based degree will always apply (although, if I had my way…), but we will likely be proposing something new and completely different for all those drifting undeclared majors and anyone else out there, something along the lines of what one enthusiastic participant called the Bachelor of Everything. It’s a big bang theory that is probably way overdue.

Let’s see where we can go with this idea. It’s as old as “free school” models of the past and ongoing approaches to knowledge acquisition at many elite private colleges. Come on, it’s the twenty first century. Time to blow the dust off the chalkboard.

Such workshop sessions give me a lot of confidence. They are not always like this, but this one worked well. And we did all that without the benefit of a decent cup of coffee or tea. I hate to complain, but do we still have to drink our liquid stimulants from those brown plastic tub dispensers in the twenty first century? They make wine in a box look classy.

Enough said, we survived, and well!

Blog Jan19

I never thought I’d be relieved to get a D and not a D-. I am talking about the Conference Board of Canada’s recent report card on provincial PhD graduation rates. We—that is the province, and that is Memorial–are in good company, not that that’s an excuse. It’s merely cheap consolation. Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and PEI all get the D-. Shame on them. Quebec is the only province that gets a C, the highest grade, if you can believe it, in this large cold country. The comparison is with other OECD countries. Guess who comes out on top–consistently? Switzerland, France, Germany, and Sweden, countries with heavily subsidized tuition regimes and huge public investments in higher education. They all score As. You can ski in all of them, too, and so climate’s not the issue. To make matters worse, Canada ranks in second-to-last place among 16 peer countries. Only Japan beats us to the bottom. Sadly, Canada has been getting a D since 1998. Same goes for the USA, in case you were wondering. We should all be wearing dunce caps and standing in the corner, except every province would be fighting over whose corner, and who will pay for the dunce caps.

What does this consistently low rate of doctoral production mean? As the Conference Board puts it, “this indicator may reflect a low demand for advanced skills in the labour market.” It’s no secret that Canadian employers, unlike those of France or Germany, put less value on advanced degrees. This is true regardless of the familiar discourse of building a knowledge economy, and of foregrounding innovation in theory and practice. Who is not putting their money where their mouth is? I have heard it said many times at Conference Board of Canada summits and workshops that the private sector in this country simply doesn’t provide enough incentives for students to pursue advanced skills. The sector’s bar is low, and so students see no benefit—financially or morally—to aim higher. How many times have you heard it said that having a doctorate made one overqualified for the workplace. Isn’t there something structurally wrong with that?

That said, Memorial has been pushing to increase our doctoral cohort and we have been doing rather well at that, but we have a long way to go to catch up with Sweden or Switzerland where highly qualified personnel are normal, not exceptional or part of a small elite. Do they even have a concept of over qualification? I doubt it. Consider this: Just to match Australia, which has fewer 25-29 year-olds yet graduates way more PhDs than we do, Canada would need to be graduating about 3500 more of these annually.

I can’t see how the current general climate of austerity—that behemoth of a buzzword–is going to help us achieve a better grade. We would need more, not less, investment in postsecondary education and in new, creative, and innovative doctoral programs. We also need to encourage the private sector to recognize the value of a PhD, and to pay salaries commensurate with the degree. This is not always the case, and too many studies have shown that the salary difference between masters- and doctoral-qualified employees is not significant enough.

A hopeful turn in all this: I believe that Memorial’s Enrolment Plan is not only timely but it wisely recognizes the importance of recruiting and graduating a significantly higher number of PhDs. Bring them on. One hopes that we might be able to take pride in the report card of 2020. So far so good.

By the way, the photo above has nothing to do with anything. The tulips are on my kitchen table and they are as improbable in January as snow would be in July. How is it that they even exist at this time of year? I don’t care. They cheer me up, a burst of colour against the relentless chill of the season and a persistent reminder that almost anything is possible.




pen and sword
Sean MacEntee ,pen mightier than sword” ©2010. CC BY 2.0.

What struck me more than ever last week was how much we rely on knowledge of the social sciences and humanities to make sense of the world. With social media adding to the proliferation of opinion and commentary, rivers of text flowed across our screens, complicating and enriching our understanding of horrific world events. Knowledge of history, philosophy, religion, culture, psychology, sociology, politics, and the tropes of story-telling is essential to making sense of the senseless.

In the hours immediately following the nightmare of Paris, I turned from the repetitive imagery of television news reporting to the more animated and interactive computer screen, hungry not just for facts and figures but for context and explanation. Perhaps, more to the urgent point, I turned to a community of writers and readers from all over the world in active, intense conversation with one another. That community of friends and strangers whom I follow and friend, or who follow and friend me, dove swiftly into that river of text, tweeting aphorisms and provocations, and posting Facebook links to emerging articles, essays, and videos of relevant interest. As ever with social media, you could choose the links you wish to open, but you are especially inclined to do so if a smart friend or a well-known pundit makes a recommendation. When, say, a respected journalist posts a link with a “this is worth reading” exhortation then you can easily lose yourself on a trip through cyberspace.

The great achievement of social media is that it offers an astonishing and immediate diversity of opinion, from The Globe and Mail’s wicked witch of the Right, Margaret Wente, to the literary world’s most awarded atheist, Salman Rushdie, and everyone in between. When people say they don’t tweet or can’t get into it I scarcely know where to begin. It’s moments like this, horrible and life-shattering as they are, that one can find intellectual comfort and moral confidence in the human conversation flowing through and in social media. If you don’t get that then I can’t tell you what you’re missing.

I must have read at least thirty or forty articles and essays of different length in the last few days about, among other related topics, the history of immigration in modern France, Islam vs Islamism, terrorists, terrorism, secularism, religious fundamentalism, cartoons, satire, security, surveillance, burial practices, the Enlightenment, and, well, you get the drift…. We are all searching for ways to understand how young men could do what they did, so mechanically, brutally, purposefully. Facebook post after Facebook post would say, “this article makes you think.” Indeed, combing through dozens of these thoughtful pieces in no special order but in the familiar rhythm and casual stride of web browsing a reader starts to feel the weight of this bloody, complex, troubled world.

That’s a good thing, in my humble opinion.  We should be feeling that weight. It’s the necessary burden of global citizenship. The writing that has stayed with me so far, some of it contradictory and provocative, flows from the pens of people educated in history, philosophy, religion, culture…and so on, as listed at the outset. The journalists I return to are educated, reflective, and bold in their thinking about current events and confident in their knowledge of people and place.

The former president of the Social Sciences and a Humanities Research Council, Chad Gaffield, liked to say that before 9/11 no one paid much mind to a little known area of research called variously Mesopotamian or Persian Studies. But in the dust clouds of the Twin Towers the media were frantic to find experts who could comment on what had happened, and suddenly, literally overnight, scholars steeped in the ancient cultures of Syria, Iran, Kuwait, and Turkey were called upon to help us understand what had happened. Today, many universities have Arabic added to their language units and Mesopotamia is no longer a joke of a subject.

We need problems solved in science and medicine, engineering and technology. We need solid  bridges and ways of finding black boxes under the sea; we need flu shots and ways of surviving extreme weather. But in times like this, and, in fact, all the time, we need knowledge of people and society. If the pen isn’t mightier than the sword then we might as well shut it all down.


We are back at it, aren’t we? Hope everyone had a relaxing and restorative break. Two weeks is just about right. Enough time to sleep, read, and indulge a bit more, but any longer and most of us in these parts would have to enter a detox clinic. I don’t know what anti-social non-party people do in Newfoundland over Christmas but it takes work not to get too involved.

What did you do over the holidays, one asks. Besides connecting with friends and family, reading and thinking, it was a time for movie watching—catching up on Netflix and going to the theatres to see two terrific biopics about two different geeky geniuses, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. These two immaculately acted films honour men who have made a difference: Stephen Hawking for his insights into the origins of the universe and Alan Turing for having helped the Allies win WWII. Each film is pretty conventional as far as the art of filmmaking goes, but the strong performances by the stars carry the audiences along towards satisfying conclusions. Besides, I always love movies in which the protagonists are not only smart but seen to have been well educated. Both Hawking and Turing spent formative years at universities where their big brains were nurtured and their talents flourished. Each also studied at Cambridge—not shabby.

How did these well-educated men treat women? That’s another theme that interests me. The source material for Theory of Everything was actually Hawking’s first wife Jane’s memoir, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. Not surprisingly, then, the film offers a largely woman-centred perspective. The deliciously pretty Felicity Jones plays Jane Hawking with unwavering determination, standing by her man, even in the toughest of circumstances. The marriage ran its course, but the film, as does the memoir, stresses the undying mutual respect these two share. The Imitation Game is also based on literary source material, a biography of Turing that describes his engagement to colleague Joan Clarke in much less romantic terms than does the film. Supernaturally skinny Keira Knightley plays Joan with her usual awkward intensity, and so already you know the filmmakers are playing with the historical record. The relationship is doomed from the start because Turing is homosexual, but that doesn’t seem to bother good old Jane one bit. Even years after they go their separate ways she reappears in his life, offering comfort and closure and all that jazz.

I have no problems with this playing fast and loose with the facts. The bold strokes of Turing’s life are faithful to history and that’s finally what counts in a case like this. The pedant in me wants the audience to feel the force of Turing’s suffering in jolly old England, where homosexuality in the ‘fifties was illegal and treatment for it was chemical castration. So what if the film exaggerates Joan Clarke as a female companion, smart, loyal, and committed to his mind as she was? Indeed, in overstating her role in Turing’s life the film makes him look even more sympathetic. He was gay, but appreciated Joan’s talent and loved her in his own way. Nothing says Good Man louder than the respect of a Good Woman.

So it is that both films highlight the strength of character of their central male figures by positioning them next to good, forceful, devoted women. I like that about them.

Pardon the segue, but let me swerve here for a moment to consider the ongoing case of the dentistry students at Dalhousie. After a puzzling delay, petitions, public outcries, and a formal complaint signed by four professors, the university finally suspended the thirteen dentistry students who had crafted those odious misogynist Facebook postings in 2014 from clinical activities. The suspension will quell widespread frustration and rage for now, but Dalhousie asserts that “just process” must continue—that is “one that complies with the law, is consistent with university policies, and supports the rights of everyone involved.” Sure, and good luck with that and the outcomes.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the whole business. It stinks no matter how you look at it, a shameful episode and a public relations nightmare for Dal, to say the least. More to my point, just what kind of world do these students inhabit that they didn’t think twice about making those postings? I would love to know what they are thinking now, and whether or not their world has changed since then. In its well lawyered press release, Dal concludes with a rather high-minded statement:

We recognize that what has happened is not isolated to Dalhousie University. It is a complex societal issue about which our community cares deeply and in which we must fully engage. We take seriously our responsibility to create the space for this conversation in order to ensure a healthy, safe environment for all and we are developing strategies to address these issues.

Grammatically speaking, just what does the pronoun “it” refer to in the second sentence: “what has happened”? How’s that for intentional ambiguity? Why not give it a name? Misogyny will do, for starters. There are other nouns that fit, too. You would think a university press release would aim for clarity.

And so Dal’s problem is everyone’s problem, is it? You bet. But, education begins at home, and I’ll be most curious to see just how Dal goes at “engaging” such a “complex social issue.” Start by sending those gentlemen club members to a couple of good movies in which smart educated men are made even smarter by earning the respect of the women they admire.