Monthly Archives: November 2015


China—I can get enough of it, but I do get excited each time I visit. There is just so much to wonder at, so much to try and understand. This week the air in Beijing is so polluted officials have warned people to stay indoors. Last week, when I was there, the sun never dared show up, but the air was relatively free of contaminates and I didn’t bother wearing my facemask. That’s a noun I don’t use in a sentence too often, surely. Shanghai, which you can see above, was just as grey, and the air was clammy, heavy, and even sinister, but the pollution levels were mercifully below alarm bell levels. That miraculously slender column of skyscraper you see above? That’s the Shanghai Tower, under construction, but soon to be the second highest building in the world at 128 floors, most of which will be as shrouded in smog, cloud, or both.

At the annual PhD Workshop, sponsored by the prestigious Chinese Scholarship Council, the brightest students in the land lined up to apply to Memorial. I traveled with the usual university suspects to harvest as many of those potential PhD candidates as possible, pitching our advantages in a highly competitive pool of recruiters. Our tables at the PhD fair were situated behind Laval, where, as happens each year, hordes of Chinese students congregated around their well-known recruiter who speaks Mandarin, as well as French and English, giving him the edge over many of us in the crowded hall. To our right, Melbourne, Australia, hosted a nonstop parade of hopeful, inquiring students. Whatever it is—high world rankings, a long history of welcoming international students, proximity to China—the lines around their table never diminished. You’d think they were giving away free tuition. The Canadian universities in attendance probably each interviewed roughly the same number of potential applicants, somewhere in the range of 150 over a couple of days in Beijing and an afternoon in Shanghai, to where, for the first time, the event extended.

Canada is attractive because Chinese parents consider us safe and affordable and our programs world worthy. But we are distant and cold, and so we have to pitch harder to their smart, skeptical children. Memorial’s low tuition is attractive, to be sure, but, honestly, a number of Chinese students looked at us as if we were pulling their legs, just could not take seriously the figures we were citing. In a room of competitors with annual tuition in the 20-30 thousand dollar range that was not surprising.

This year many of our interviewees wanted to participate in what they call joint programs. In fact, these are opportunities to be registered as visiting students. The Chinese Scholarship Council is pushing Chinese nationals to go abroad and study somewhere else for a semester or two, even for up to two years, as part of their PhD programs. This is a superb initiative but a hard sell for many of us. Our programs are highly structured and we are not in such a flexible groove that we can host nonregistered internationals in our courses or in our labs for that amount of time. But why not? If these students come fully funded, and are not draining resources from our home base envelopes, why shouldn’t we be welcoming them? As with many things, the Chinese are ahead of us, compelling their students to broaden their experience, learn from others, especially Westerners, and return with a deeper, richer sense of the world. This initiative combines on-the-ground academic and experiential learning and can’t help but improve the quality of one’s PhD. Dropping into China for only a week or so every year has greatly enriched my appreciation of the country and its cultural complexity, and helped deepen my appreciation for the culture shock Chinese students must experience when they visit us. At least they have the benefit of hanging around for a while and absorbing so much more than I ever could in their country in a week, no matter how many variations of noodles I devour. I wish we were more flexible, could be more welcoming of these keen visiting student scholars. Let’s host them for a few semesters, learn a few things.

I do wonder what Chinese students make, if anything, of the fuss surrounding our elections. Did the federal ballot boxes on campus last month inspire or confuse them? It is so obvious that China’s economy is operating today as ours does–as capitalism does—and that a middle class is rapidly emerging in the densely populated urban centres we visited. Millionaires are also sprouting as rapidly as KFC outlets in Beijing.  The roadways are crammed with expensive cars. High rises loom with bold architectural inventiveness. Just look at that Shanghai skyline! It’s breathtakingly 21st century. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine one is walking the streets of a one-party dictatorship. But as people strive to earn more and improve their situations they are profoundly distanced from any sort of democratic process, from political engagement on any level. And it is virtually impossible to know what sort of social or criminal justice system is in place. That’s all happening on some other stage, far from the official news or newspaper stories. I doubt anyone talks or gossips about political officials around the dinner table. How would one even know what to say?

Each year I visit the censoring of social media gets more intense. Wifi is ubiquitous but barriers far thicker than the Great Wall keep access to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram prohibitive. China is like but so much not like us, all the more reason to expose Chinese students to the differences. This year’s visit to the PhD fair will yield more brilliantly prepared Memorial doctoral candidates, no doubt, and possibly some shorter term visitors. We owe it to them and ourselves to make the most of a deeply privileged situation.



So I just came back from Ottawa, as seen above. I was in Toronto before that, am heading off to Beijing and Shanghai any moment. It’s like that—a swirl of meetings, appointments, panels, airline food, and networking. I travel light, catch up on the fly, email any chance I have, and tweet almost constantly to keep in the game. It’s a challenge, to be sure, and I look forward to not traveling as the year winds down, but for now it’s a heady, body-bruising business.

In Toronto for a board meeting, we were all distracted by violence in Paris. The world seems fragile, and Paris a lot closer to us than, say, Beirut, where trouble and violence also brew. Right or wrong, we react to events based on our affinities and biases. In the days since the horrible shootings, so much rage and ignorance have been spilling onto social media, out of the mouths of Republican candidates, and even off the tongues of many who should know better on the world stage or at university campuses. It is hard not to be discouraged by the call to close borders, mistrust Islam, and wreak vengeance on anyone Not Like Us. Punctuating the darkness are enlightened calls for reason, thoughtful essays and articles by philosophers and thinkers, some first-class journalists, who are appealing to our better natures. As with so much in our world today, no one seems to entertain ambiguity. Sides get taken, positions harden, and we are once again locked in some Manichean struggle for whatever passes for justice. Recall the mockery Prime Minister Justin Trudeau once faced from the previous PM when he said in the House of Commons that perhaps we should first try and understand the root causes of such violence, before merely seeking revenge or retribution. Today, in my view anyway, Trudeau’s comment is more prescient than ever. Not everyone believes that, but his hesitation before scrums of reporters in Turkey this week and his commitment to taking our fighter planes out of the skies over Iraq and Syria suggest that he still believes in another way to respond to horrific events.

From Toronto I went to Ottawa to attend the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. As a past president, I was invited to participate on a panel looking back to the challenges I then faced and ahead to the future for our community of learners and researchers. It was so much fun, so reinforcing, seeing old friends and colleagues, really a boost to one’s sense of purpose and belonging. In the cavernous halls of the National Arts Centre there was no hysteria, no savage or ugly thinking about the value of civilization, life, or education, no pernicious questioning of some other peoples’ right to exist. Indeed, plenary speaker Wab Kinew, associate vice president of Indigenous Affairs at the University of Winnipeg (but whom you likely know as a CBC host/voice, hip hop artist, and all-round rockin’ Onigaming First Nation performer), rallied us with a witty, impassioned challenge to embrace a current Canadian theme: reconciliation. Reflecting on the shameful and too-recent history of residential schooling, Kinew reminded us that Canada has a long dark legacy of very bad social practices carried out against his ancestors, and that the constructive—only–way forward was through reconciliation—a term more difficult to practice than might at first seem. Indeed, he urged us to make the Report on Truth and Reconciliation required reading for every single Canadian. Reconciliation is not on the lips of world leaders these days, not a concept or approach to bad history that many are willing to take on. In the wake of Paris and a world determined to relive ancient cycles of retribution, Wab Kinew’s exhortation to a different path moved us all. He didn’t have to talk about Paris. All he had to do was talk about Canada.

Well, I am off to China shortly—the land of censored social media and poor air. I don’t know what the Chinese word for reconciliation is…wonder if there is one. If technology and time allow it I will be blogging from there.


November, Edmonton: flat, big sky. How did I ever live there, I ask myself, so far from the sea, no topographical relief. I returned to Edmonton last week for the 3rd conference on skills and postsecondary education sponsored by the Conference Board of Canada. Memorial is a partner in an ambitious project aimed at diagnosing the so-called “skills gap.” The Harper Government (now that’s a phrase I hope not to use too many times again, E.V.E.R.) and in particular Jason Kenny started the discussion a few years ago in response to industry and the manufacturing sector that we were simply not preparing our graduates well enough for the workplace.

There are many sides to this somewhat political topic, one of which has led some to assert that we are producing too many PhDs in this country. That’s a bit of a joke when you consider we are punching way under our weight, with far fewer graduating PhDs per capita than the USA or the UK. Another side to this is that the PhDs we are producing do not, by and large, end up in the academy (about 30% or less end up teaching or researching at universities and colleges). That invites the question: where are they? One of the false assumptions, sometimes conveyed by the Conference Board itself, is that it is somehow a failure of our system if PhDs do not end up working permanently in universities. Why should that be the case? Surely, a society that trains people in such advanced degrees benefits when these highly skilled individuals enter the workforce, whether public service or industry or other options. I just do not see the downside.

Anyhow, the conference concentrated on, among other related topics, what changes might be needed in our post secondary education institutions to ensure that people were being educated/trained in order to serve Canada better. You could drive a truck through some of the discussions but there was a general sense that things aren’t exactly where they need to be to meet the 21st century knowledge economy. The Board intends to have a full and final report on this matter in a couple of years time, after more research and consultation, and a couple more of these gatherings. It should be interesting to see where all this goes with a Liberal government that, in these early days, is emailing much sweeter noises about research and education, and in investing in a more enlightened Canada. We’ll see.

One of the most notable features of the conference in Edmonton was the unmistakeable presence of aboriginal/First Nations interests. The last two conferences were challenged by aboriginal leaders who openly protested against the obvious white, southern emphasis, attitude, and focus of the agenda. This time we heard many other voices from aboriginal communities, both on panels and from the audience. It felt much more western, all around—far from the corporate slickness of Toronto where we have been meeting in the past. You got the sense that aboriginal reality was much closer to the ground in Edmonton, much more conspicuous and even urgent.

Most memorable among the many aboriginal speakers was Vincent Steinhauer, President of Blue Quills First Nations College. He gave a hell of a presentation—understated, elegant, dignified, and utterly moving. I don’t think I have ever been quite so quietly challenged as I was in those moments. Steinhauer accused us of not walking the walk, of giving a lot of lip service to thinking about his people’s culture, history, interests, and concerns, but not really doing much beyond tokenism. The academy, he insisted, was really an alienating institution, speaking an alien language. He put it all much more eloquently than I ever could, but it was powerful.

If I came away with anything after a few chilly days out west it was how much more we have to do to advance the aboriginal portfolio. True, we are working on an Arts Faculty minor in aboriginal studies, we have a wonderful asset in our relatively new aboriginal advisor, and we are creating a robust advisory group for her that will help set new directions. We are also focusing on possibilities in our Labrador Institute where so much potential lies. At least we are moving forward with some tangible goals. I have a strong feeling we will look and feel very different in a few years because of that commitment.