Monthly Archives: September 2015


View from my hotel room in Singapore. That was just before the heavy haze blanketed the city, forcing school closures, keeping tourists out of the swimming pools, and generating a surge in the wearing of breathing masks. Who knew, but the haze sometimes blows in from neighbouring forests in Indonesia. The cab driver who took me into the city from the airport railed against Indonesia and the multinational paper mill robbers, he called them, who were deliberately clear cutting the forests to serve their greedy capitalists ends. He wanted them charged with endangering the atmosphere and harming the lives of people living in neighboring nations. After several days here I give him my full sympathy.

I am in Singapore for an annual global leaders summit sponsored by the Washington-based Council of Graduate Studies. Thirty five of us have been invited from all over the world to discuss a topic of current interest. This year the National University of Singapore is hosting us, and doing a fine job of it, unhealthy air notwithstanding. Our topic this year is Big Data: what is it, what are we doing with it, how is it helping or changing university research and teaching practices? I thought it would be a dreadfully tedious topic but the opposite has proven true. We have been talking pretty well non stop for days about Big Data, defining it, qualifying it, critiquing it, advocating for it, and recommending that our universities train our students in data literacy much more than we already are. I know, like any 21st century consumer, that every time I purchase a book from Amazon I become an object of a dense network of computational determinants, a target for a vast marketing enterprise aimed at urging me to like and purchase another book just like the one I already paid for. I know that if I order a product on one site very similar products will be flashed on screen to tempt me to buy them on an entirely different site. I know that every time I browse online I am submitting my tastes and tendencies to an automated patterning function, one that knows me like a book—a predictable read, so to speak. But here in Singapore I have learned a lot more than that.

Some of my colleagues are urging universities to ensure all our students are trained, across all disciplines, in data literacy. That would include learning computer code, another language of a kind. One colleague here argues that by 2018 there will be a huge Big Data knowledge deficit. Few of us have the capacity to do that kind of basic training right now, but I am hearing a vision of the future, and expertise in analytics is definitely part of it. Harnessing Big Data requires big computers and, in many cases, big research teams. Size, in this case, obviously matters. Collaboration is at the heart of much of this practice, arguably a beneficial effect of this revolutionary turn in research practice. But very few participants here are fully loaded to deliver Big Data programs, although a number have boasted about recent developments of professional masters programs with a focus on the subject.

Humanities scholar that I am, I tend to raise the challenge of where Big Data sits in our arts faculties, especially in our humanities departments. The turn to Big Data approaches to problem- solving shifts us towards machines and the behavioral patterns they describe (and predict), and away from the meaning-making activity humans perform. My colleagues here in Singapore agree with me but they keep insisting on the necessity of embedding Big Data skills in our curricula. Another colleague says that it’s all a mess and we don’t know what we are doing. Yet another laments we are shifting from a curiosity-driven to a data-driven approach to research, that is, going from raising a question and seeking the data to help answer it to aggregating data and then finding the question. Ultimately, we all still want our students to reflect on what they are doing, not merely to absorb the mountains of data they can harvest without thinking.

But it’s not an either/or option. We all agree that because Big Data practices are here, shaping our world in ways we often cannot see, it is our responsibility to understand those practices, not merely surrender to systems being done to us. It’s the human intervention in research, after all, that will or should make the best use of Big Data—for good, not for evil (or merely my shopping urges).







No, sorry, this blog is not about the bubbling matter regarding a student with a hearing disability and a professor who would not accommodate him by wearing a microphone. That is an ever-evolving set of issues attached to a twenty-year old history, a former agreement, a set of rights and legal, ethical, and moral concerns, and I am not ready to comment until things settle down a bit. Maybe next week, maybe not. But eventually.

This is about an emotional issue, all right, although not nearly of the same order. It’s about university rankings. Last week in Glasgow I participated on a panel on the subject, surrounded by four speakers whose business it is to produce rankings based on various criteria, such as research citations or student employability. I was the outlier on the panel, obviously more rankee than ranker, as I initially announced. It was a big week for the QS World University Rankings group who used the international education conference I was attending to launch their latest findings. They launched their activity in 2004 and it has grown since to acquire a fairly creditable reputation as one of the most reliable of their kind in an otherwise deeply flawed game of who’s-on-top.

The QS guy on the panel gave a short but helpful presentation on the week’s splash of world announcements (Harvard fell second to MIT’s first place status; McGill beat out UoT, and so on). The annual announcement of results is always controversial, for obvious reasons. Unless you’re in the top, say, two hundred, you are likely to feel cheated by the news. QS is trying to broaden their criteria, constantly tweaking their methodology to accommodate the regular litany of complaints hurled against them. To be fair, the QS guy admitted just how flawed the whole racket is, but he also did his best to persuade us that rankings were also a useful opportunity to locate one’s world reputation and make adjustments to institutional practices.

My own view is that while, yes, the methodology cannot help but be flawed world rankings are not only here to stay but they are increasing in influence. When the first more or less legit company did its first world ranking of universities in 2003 there was no competition. Shanghai Jiao Tong University started the whole thing rolling, pretty much commanding the field with its insistence on research citations and external funding metrics. Today, there are 16 other companies in the game, each vying to distinguish itself as the most credible or most in tune with the real life of university culture. It’s not hard to predict that the number of players vying for rankings supremacy will almost surely double again in a few years’ time.

And so imagine my surprise when, just having delivered my presentation on the stress that world rankings have on administrators (like me) and university resources (like Memorial’s), I checked my email to see the latest article from our student paper, The Muse, on this very subject. The title, “MUN scores conspicuously low on international university rankings,” sunk my heart. What timing, I thought, and what folly. I passed the article to my colleague who is one of the world’s experts on the whole rankings game, and he shook his head. He had just been speaking about how the media generally continue to distort the rankings, pronouncing success or failure out of context, and doing more harm than good. Here was the perfect example of his lecture, fresh off the screen. Memorial had ranked 601 on the global list. The article stressed that we were second to last “of all Canadian universities.” Wrong! Only 29 of 98 Canadian universities even made it to the rankings in the first place, and so there’s the first distortion. Moreover, we moved up much higher on the list this year, surely a trend in the right direction.

My wise colleague asked, “does the MUSE know there are 17,000 universities in the world? 602 isn’t such a bad place to be, when you consider those numbers!” Indeed. The article does observe that “the QS World University Rankings began in 2004 and assesses thousands of universities from around the world,” but it still casts Memorial in a rather unfavourable light. What’s up with that? Does the paper want to feed on self-loathing based on some false assumptions—and why would student reporters want to do that, anyway?

Is it too much to ask The Muse to offer a little more balance, a little less of the snarky tone to a piece like that? How about some responsible and objective context, more attention to the bigger picture in which Memorial is featured? The rankings racket is flawed enough without further misinterpretation and exaggeration. It’s not going away and so let’s do what we can with it—constructively, not beating ourselves up for no good reason.

And so to the picture above. Anyone who has visited Glasgow will recognize the Wellington Statue, with the traffic cone on its head, as one of the city’s most iconic images. Wikipedia says that a famous tourist guide included the monument to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington in its list of the “top 10 most bizarre monuments on Earth.” Apparently, “capping the statue with a traffic cone has become a traditional practice in the city, claimed to represent the humour of the local population.” Well, I laughed and laughed, not realizing at first that the traffic cone was more permanent joke and not just someone’s recent idea of a prank. It makes you want to shove a cone on Sir Winston Churchill’s bust in a nearby park, or stick it somewhere even more reverential.

I am feeling a bit irreverent about the whole rankings enterprise, sure—who wouldn’t?  But we ignore its influence—and misrepresentation—at our peril. Stick a cone on that.






The cab driver who took me into Glasgow from the airport noted I must be aware of three things:

  • Cars drive on opposite sides of the road.
  • Everything is more expensive here.
  • It always rains in Glasgow, always, even when it’s sunny.

I was quite aware of two of these but the third has proven true. No wonder rainbows appear frequently across the Clyde River, as you can see above—a wonderful hotel room view.

It’s time for the annual European Association for International Education meetings, and about 5,000 conference participants are descending on this Scottish city. While here, I am taking advantage of other meetings. Today, the Canadian High Commission hosted a pre-conference workshop, as it often does, for potential Canadian-Scottish university collaboration. Love listening to the sounds of Canadian and Scottish voices co-mingling all day. If I am not careful I will return home talking like Scottish doggerel poet William McGonagall.

No one here is talking about taking in Syrian refugees yet, but I suspect the topic will emerge. These are international education meetings, after all. With Memorial colleagues I have been trying to figure out what we can do as an institution. The president of the University of Alberta recently announced tuition and living expenses for ten eligible students. This gesture was, in turn, a response from the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) to respond helpfully. I am sure other Canadian universities are thinking of ways to do what they can. We can also waive tuition and do whatever it takes to accommodate those who are sponsored to enter Canada. We don’t have to stop at ten. Former Memorial Chancellor Rick Hiller is on record as saying Canada can accommodate 50,000 by Christmas. I don’t doubt the General’s faith in action, as he has proven what he can do before, but how much of an audience does he have? The whole issue has turned very political in the middle of a federal election campaign and I doubt the Conservatives want to jump to his invitation when they are honking on about security.

We have to do what we can, however modest. A number of faculty members and citizens have been getting behind official sponsorship, pooling people and financial contributions to raise the right government-mandated amount. Newfoundland might not be high on the list of preferred destinations but when you are running for your life you might not question haven in a welcoming town you’ve never heard of. The province, like the country, needs a lot more people. We should all be looking to help, accommodate, and retain those seeking a basic standard of free living.

A colleague well acquainted with the history of welcoming refugees to Newfoundland warns, wisely, of the emotional toll not only on those seeking asylum but on those who do the welcoming and nurturing. Many thousands of refugees have come through the province in the last few decades but not as many have lingered. Bigger ethnic communities in larger Canadian cities beckon, once refugees learn of them. Perhaps, equally or even more important are the limited employment options. If there is no opportunity to be integrated into the workforce there is little hope of keeping people in the province. All the population strategies in the world will be futile if they do not put employment plans first. Those who sponsor and get attached to the newcomers are often profoundly disappointed when they leave for Toronto or even other nations. It seems incomprehensible that they wouldn’t feel obliged to stay and give back to the community that sheltered them first.

That’s a natural reaction, of course, but running from horrible condition, bearing trauma and the recurring memory of fear and all the evil things one might have witnessed is not natural. We probably shouldn’t expect gratitude. We should just reach out and help. Just imagine, if possible, being in the same situation, risking life and limb to get to some semblance of freedom, even if that means camping out in a railroad station for weeks.

Let’s see what we can do. I know most of us are willing to try anything to help. Since I am away I haven’t had a chance to talk about this with student groups on campus, and so I am curious about what they might be thinking. Memorial can and should extend itself. It doesn’t take much to reflect on how lucky we are in almost everything.