Monthly Archives: January 2016

Newfoundland from Space – Satellite Photo

Here we go again. We have a new provincial government and an old problem—that is, a whacking high provincial deficit and intense pressure to reduce it. Last year, Memorial endured a rather deep cut to its operations, but we managed to come through that excruciating exercise relatively whole. I say relatively because the plant is still falling apart and we can’t afford to repair a lot of our infrastructure, let alone build new stuff, but we are managing. At least, we did not have to cut programs or lay anyone off. We did feel we had to raise graduate tuition and residence fees, but delayed that pain for a year while we gave the community time to adjust. This year, the deficit is that much larger and the government resolve to deal with it apparently that much more serious.

And so here we are, in only a few days having to submit a proposal or two to government about what we can offer up. They want us to consider (cough cough) as much as a 30% hit over the next few years. You don’t need a higher degree in math to know how much that would burn the institution, likely leading to layoffs and all manner of program closures. No one wants that. What, then, as the famous author once posed, is to be done?

I love the job, but there have been some recent snowy bone-chilling mornings when I wondered what it would be like to not have to worry about any of this stuff. One reaches for perspective. I watched a CBC documentary called “Zero Gravity” the other night, all about the experience of being in space. The best parts were all those shots of the big blue earth through the spaceship portals. Talk about perspective. The articulate astronauts spoke of how profoundly that view has shaped their thoughts about the planet. From outer space we are a teeny tiny near-invisible race of people, self-absorbed and hell bent on destroying this already vulnerable planet. Chris Hadfield has made a post-orbital career speaking to that fact, albeit in an optimistic forward-looking guitar-accompanying way. When I am trudging through icy paths and grinding my teeth about our troubles I try hard to keep “Zero Gravity” in mind—that is, try to see Memorial’s problems through the spaceship portal, floating in the most peculiar way.

There isn’t that much time to consult but we are doing what we can in a short turnaround period. Directives have just gone out about reducing travel and discretionary funding across all campuses. Deans are being consulted and they in turn will speak to heads and directors. At least one special meeting of Senate Planning and Budget Committee has been scheduled. A joint university-government Steering Committee has been struck to discuss possible options. The Board of Regents meets next week, as originally scheduled, and that will no doubt be an interesting discussion. We need to protect the core business of the university above all—delivering our academic programs as effectively as we can and providing the best possible education to our students. Beyond this fundamental commitment, everything is up for grabs. No sacred cows, the Minister of Finance has boldly uttered. Easy for her to say, whaa?

Someone noted to me this morning that people just don’t get how serious a problem this is, how urgently the government has to improve its credit rating. I don’t know, maybe not yet. Perhaps it comes from feeling protected by a monolith, from years of humming along on oil revenues, even with last year’s budget crisis and this year’s noise about journal cancellations. Perhaps it comes from feeling as if it’s all someone else’s problem, someone else’s decision to which they can react. Ideally, we would all be sharing in the decisions, although I know I am dreaming in space colours. If there’s talk of tuition hikes (and there isn’t any of that to date) students will freak out (again); if there are cuts to programs things will look dire; if there are hiring freezes and/or layoffs morale will go the way of the dollar; if there is a hold on building or planning or repair work optimism will be crushed.

Ground control to Major Tom … take your protein pills and put your helmet on, commencing countdown, engines on, check ignition and may Government’s love be with you.





A friend of mine sent me an article the other day that’s making some rounds. It’s by a prof at UPEI who is quite upset by what he considers to be the utter denigration of university culture. This is an old and recurring story—the one about how we are all morally failing students who, in turn, are not really interested in learning. You know, the end of civilization as we know it, yada yada.

The piece is titled “Dear Parents: Everything You Need to Know About Your Son and Daughter’s University But Don’t.” The good professor chronicles for his imagined audience of parents a litany of woes that point to the deterioration of Canadian post-secondary institutions. These include: inflated grades; more than half of enrolled students have no interest in being there; arts and sciences do not matter anymore; academic freedom, enshrined in collective agreements, is a mask to hide bad faculty behavior; students do not read anymore and “can get an 80 without ever opening a book”; academic excellence has disappeared as a reality; too many instructors without PhDs are loud complainers who bully their departments into pandering to students; communications or PR offices are overstaffed and inflate reality in their stories about universities; “students” have become “customers”; online courses are replacing serious courses; the environment has become “contentless,” dominated by the appeal of entertainment; administration has grown in disproportionate measures; student services are draining our budgets; universities are allowing students to “become steadily less intelligent.”

Phew, that’s a mouthful, I know, but it’s all in there. I have merely captured the topic sentences of his paragraphs, but it is well worth reading the piece – easy to Google by title—for the intensity of its expression, the passion of its declarative sentences, and the sheer anger of its tone. It’s quite the rant, grounded in a firm and irrefutable belief that the world is going–no, has already gone–to hell in that proverbial handbasket.

It’s hard to disagree with some of what the professor says, but I cannot subscribe to his generalizing dismissal of the modern university. Technology has completely transformed our world and there is no use harkening back to a time when we relied solely on a printed book, chalk and a blackboard, not to mention a single master at the head of the classroom dispensing knowledge. The author has contempt for the phrase “student-centred learning,” and a small part of me gets that, but pedagogy ain’t what it used to be, and we have refreshed our ways of thinking about knowledge as a multi-directional dynamic, not a one-way one-source dispensary. Much research points to the value of involving students more directly in that dynamic; indeed, much solid research points to the value of online learning, too. Curricula should not be embedded in concrete either. As the world changes so should the nature of our inquiry of it.

For as long as I have worked at a university I have heard complaints from colleagues about the general decline of standards. There will always be those who believe that the world was in a more excellent place when they were being educated. I have sometimes been guilty of this thought myself, I admit, but I do not in my heart of hearts really believe it to be true. In the humanities and social sciences, and I am sure in engineering and science, as well, we teach students about the principle of change. We not only demonstrate its inevitability but we embrace its life-affirming principle. We have a hard time practicing it, however, and when we resist we tend to point to the sad degeneration of value. Why the contradiction? It’s comforting, perhaps, to hold on to some ideal of the past, a false ideal, I should think, because it serves our equally false sense of superiority over this or the next generation.

There are so many inspiring examples of today’s students making unique and startling contributions to the world that I find it hard to swallow the thesis that they—or we–are all dumber than ever. What bugs me most, however, is the professor’s indifference to the source of much of what he laments—that is the changing nature of university funding. With public money being increasingly withdrawn from university budgets, with pressure on the vocational, skills-centred discourse of “outcomes” and “economic benefits,” with a wider anti-intellectual culture informing the campaign platforms of elected officials, with a general skepticism about the value of a university education, which any CBC web-based comments section forum dishearteningly reveals, it should be no surprise that universities have had to adapt to survive. The picture is bigger than the professor’s letter to parents would indicate. Perhaps, the parents themselves should be shouldering some of that responsibility.






blog jan 11

Lake Superior State University in Michigan publishes an annual list of words that should be banished from the English language. Yeah, good luck with that. Empty or overused worse tend to stick around like bad odours and all the room air fresheners in the world won’t make them go away. The most one can hope for is that they will eventually date themselves and fall out of favour.

The list for 2015 includes the tired noun, “stakeholder,” which I thought had been banished years ago. Likewise “problematic”: that word sounds so 2005 to my ears. Others include “manspreading” and “price point.” Okay, I can let those ridiculous constructions go, too. Personally, I would love to see the word “impact” in all its hideous formations (impactful, to impact) consigned to the dustbin of history, as Orwell so memorably put it. No one with a university education should ever say impactful, not without being harshly disciplined.

Last year’s banished list included “takeaway,” “foodie,” “polar vortex,” and, unbelievably, “kale.” What’s wrong with kale? You can banish a word but you can’t banish a vegetable, or can you? My husband has banished kale from our kitchen, that’s true.

We got rid of “go forward” a while back, although I do hear vestiges of it every now and then. At least “on a go forward basis” has, I believe, been given a quiet burial. But so many new words start creeping into the language, taking up the space where once the banished ones lived. Consider “hashtag” and “selfie.” Consider “trigger.” I won’t go there, not in this blog, but surely the list for 2016 banished words will include these three. And I suppose everyone is going to be using “revenant” instead of the undead, now that Leonardo DiCaprio has a lock on that demon. Watch that one run its course.

It’s hard to speak plain English anymore, let alone with proper grammar.  I just heard a respected CBC reporter on the radio say something like the following: “This was a pressing matter for he and others….” Excuse me, for HE? Sure, people have completely abandoned the correct use of the first person pronoun, insisting on using false constructions like “my mother drove Dave and I to the store.” I despair when I hear this gross violation of proper English but I have come to expect it, even from my colleagues. When someone gets it right and uses the objective pronoun “me” I feel I ought to be giving them a badge. That’s how bad things have become in 2016. But that virus is likely starting to infect the third person pronoun, if the CBC reporter’s confident news reporting is any indication.

Over the Christmas break I indulged in the full ten hours of Making a Murderer, highly recommended Netflix time. I won’t offer any spoilers (now there’s a trendy word if there ever were one) but the documentary is set in the rural wilds of Wisconsin, where far too many people without any education whatsoever grunt phrases like “I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.” No one uses any trend words in Wisconsin. They hardly know how to use words at all. The series is a strong argument for the value of an education. Sure, the series indicts the American justice system. I tend to concentrate on the American education system, which clearly has something to answer for here.

University culture isn’t entirely without fault.  It’s often a source of the problem. I travel in administrative circles where far too many people use words that are consigned to the banish list. I am sure I unthinkingly and regularly commit a few offences myself. No one’s perfect. But we have an obligation to try and be.

I follow the sometimes humourous twitter account Sh** Acadmics say. A typical post:

I don’t complain about grading. I engage in explicit metacognitive reflection concerning the utility of summative evaluative feedback.

Banish us!