Monthly Archives: October 2015

Blog41

I had lunch at Government House this week. It’s hard, and probably even rude, to be taking pictures in that grand mansion, but I was thinking of the blog and did what I did. There’s Honourary Doctorate Robert (Bob) Joy looking straight at me on the left. The lunch was in honour of him and the other awarded doctorates. Every convocation the Lt. Gov in office holds such a lunch, a lovely, ritualistic way for the province and Memorial to gesture toward distinguished figures who have made some sort of contribution to scholarship and/or to the province. Actor, writer (Dr.) Bob Joy needs no special mention, of course, but he has remained such a loyal Newfoundlander, even while gracing the sound stages of CSI or Hollywood, that it’s always good to be in his sunny presence. It seemed to be as much of a kick for him to be there as it was for the guests who honoured him.

It’s been a stretch of the ceremonial and ritualistic, to be sure. Last week we hosted three convocations, a long day of pomp and parchment, but also very satisfying to be launching all those graduates into the deep. It’s kind of a zen experience having to endure a day of ceremony without my iPhone—does me good. I think I have counted the number of lights on the ceiling of the Arts and Culture Centre several times. In my provostial robe I don’t have much to do except sit in the front row and try and look pretty, and so I often imagine how I would make a film of the event. I would open the movie with the ceremony and then focus on three different students, following their career and life paths, seeing what comes of them and the credentials they have earned. Maybe in my next life.

And so, as fall convocation passes, and as I emerge from one of the busiest weeks of my life, November and winter loom. We are midway through the semester now, with lots of promises to keep. Another civic ritual also looms on the horizon. We are heading into a provincial election, having just recovered from the surprising federal one, and so we are anticipating some public discussion around funding education. Nothing like an election to focus a topic. I have been wondering whether or not to help stage a public forum on funding for post-sec ed with political leaders, but perhaps I should be careful what I wish for. But this will be a time and an opportunity to hear what political leaders and wannabe leaders are thinking about their investment in Memorial, whether we like their messages or not. In my view, the best possible outcome of an election would be a government that is squarely, openly committed to keeping tuition low (how about non-existent?) and maintaining a sustainable investment in the institution—a government that recognizes our collapsing infrastructure and has a vision about rebuilding the campus to keep pace with 21st century teaching and research. If not, then what is the point? Memorial has been gathering good momentum for years, and the growing size of our graduate student cohort demonstrates that the hunger for a first-class institution is more intense than ever.  There are rumours of universities closing down in Nova Scotia because they can’t pay their bills, even while their tuition fees escalate. We are in a much better position than they are, or so I like to think.

As the only university in the province we need to be bold and progressive, offering obvious pathways for economic and social prosperity, while keeping an eye on how best to retain all those students from other parts of the world. I try and keep this imperative in view every single day. That’s my own little seasonal ritual.

 

 

 

Blog40

It’s autumn here, golden everywhere. It’s also extremely busy in the Provost’s office, so busy that two weeks of blogs have run away from me. I had them composed in my head but the words couldn’t find their way to the screen. Travel, meetings, the inevitable sudden rise of problems, distractions, and issues, teleconference calls, search committees, the preoccupation with a looming federal election, the 26th year of a film festival … it’s a blur, like the shot above taken from a moving car on the Eastport Peninsula last weekend.

I was in Halifax last week, at my first national meeting of the National Vice-Presidents Academic Council (NATVAC). We are a mixed bag of small, medium, and large universities in this country but there aren’t that many of us—just enough to fit around a large table in a Dalhousie University board room. I was a bit skeptical about the value of the conference, fearing it would be a whiney and self-indulgent exercise in complaining about whose got it worse where. But I was pleasantly surprised. The organizers did a terrific job of getting some provocative speakers and balancing their sessions with lots of good interactive time for the rest of us. That said, if you were parachuted in to listen to some of the discussion at one or two round table moments, you might wonder why any of us had pursued our jobs. Today’s post-secondary institutions are battling diminished support from provincial governments, demands of accountability, charges of “bloated administration” while being challenged by students to provide more and more services to create healthy campus cultures, disengagement from younger faculty who have been advised not to do too much service and just get on with their research, lack of confidence or support for performance reviews, a growing senior class of faculty who just won’t retire and make space for new generations of scholars, faculty unions that defend the most egregious and unconscionable behaviours of their members, and many other daily features of office that make problem-solving increasingly difficult. Are we having fun yet? Well, it’s all in a day’s work, wha?

Actually, a funny thing did happen when eminent literary star and controversial postmodern theorist Stanley Fish got up to speak at Dalhousie. For those blissfully outside the realm of literary studies, Fish is an often irritating, contradictory genius of ideas, an anti-foundationalist who gave us reader-response theory, a way of understanding the dynamic between a text and the person reading and interpreting that text. I won’t bore you now, but a quick Google search will reveal much about Fish’s checkered administrative past as well as his lengthy contributions to theories of reading, writing, and the meaning we wring from that experience. He’s been pretty major for a number of decades in my world.

And so Fish got up to speak after an earlier session to which he had listened quietly, respectfully.  Two professors from the University of Windsor delivered a really interesting presentation on the research and practice they have been involved in—all about creating a healthy campus in which sexual harassment and assault were not tolerated. Indeed, their model, known as “bystander intervention,” is so far proving to be an effective way of raising awareness on campus and, importantly, preventing sexual assault. What really got Fish’s attention, as I suspected it would, was their remark about having convinced their senior administration to hire a tenure-track faculty member devoted exclusively to serving in this intervention program, lecturing on the topic and teaching students about the bystander model.

Tenure-track, Fish, questioned as he adjusted his paper and cleared his throat at the podium. Is this the kind of “scholarship” we are now encouraging on campus? He was polite, but sincerely questioning what we were all up to. When universities turn from doing what they are supposed to, in his book–that is, working away at whatever research that interests us, whether it’s John Milton or nuclear physics or medieval French—then we have lost our way—having given, as he put it, the ball to the enemy in whose court it now sits.

For Fish, our turning away from pure scholarship, the raison d’etre of university life, to a culture of engagement in which we are constantly defending the relevance of what we do to those who don’t really care about any of it spells our doom. Why? Because we will never ever be able to develop a satisfactory metrics for the value of such work, and we will never ever be able to satisfy those who are demanding that we show how relevant we are. Better to ignore them, Fish says, tell them to forget about it, and just continue to do what we do and have always done—work away on our projects, write our books or plod away in our labs, teach students how to think, acquire discipline, and get passionate about the life of the mind, and forget all that other stuff in which we are sinking so much time and resources. It’s a lost cause otherwise.

If you know Fish’s work then none of that should be surprising, but I doubt he has spoken often to a group of university vice presidents, in this or any country, who belong to an entirely different campus culture from the one he is describing. And he knows it. I admit his argument is appealing in a nostalgic even rational way, but it’s not practical, realistic, or remotely close to the trends of the last twenty years or so. Public universities especially, as we are in Canada, are increasingly scrutinized by just about everyone to account for what we are doing, and how we are spending taxpayers’ money. I admit it would be nice at times to live in a world where governments and the public just left us alone, believing in the enterprise of higher education for its own sake and trusting us to continue to educate a highly intelligent citizenry. Piss off with the rest of it. Don’t tell us where to invest our funds, how to engage with anyone, and above all don’t tell us that anything we are doing at our desks or in the classroom has anything to do with serving democracy or improving the world. We are just doing what we are doing—making ourselves and the people we teach smarter. Got a problem with that?

Apparently.

Does that sound like the real world? Nope, not anymore. For better or worse, Fish’s vision of the university has long been replaced by an entirely different model, one that uses words like responsibility, public good, engagement, community, and, yes, even democracy. I hope he is wrong when he says we can never satisfy the demand to demonstrate the application of those words, and that therefore we are headed for catastrophe. Sometimes it’s good to hear a Stanley Fish speak to this possibility, however. Sure concentrates the mind—if not exactly the way Samuel Johnson once put it, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight.”