Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category

Wow, been like six months since I posted anything here. No excuse – just haven’t bothered.But writing today cause I am off to New York tomorrow to see my brother, who is an applied mathematics prof at Stonybrook. No, don’t ask me what an applied mathematics prof is, cause it’s way beyond me. It’s math plus physics plus chemistry, and involves lots of theory, from what I can tell. At least, that’s what I gather from the little I understand when he talks.

Anyway, Occupy Wall Street is in full swing, and we’re excited about checking that out. Meeting up with an old friend of Meg’s who is in the city at the same time as us, and we all figure a protest gathering is an appropriate place to reconnect. And Mica is excited about Central Park and fashion and cool shops and cafes, as a 13 year old girl is inclined to be. Mostly I’m just glad to have some time with my brother, who I don’t see nearly enough and who has been going through a rough time lately. (more…)


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More on the whole Jesus-theme today. Over the past few months I’ve read a couple of books dealing with the Jesus thing – Slavoj Zizek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf and Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution: two books coming out of radical secular political traditions that grapple with the meat and potatoes of faith in general and Christian faith in particular, and do so with insight and with respect, both of which are all too rare in leftist treatments of religion. I also picked up Eagleton’s critical annotation of the Gospels – his contributions being an introduction and notes of interpretation and commentary appended to the biblical text. And I’d highly recommend all of these, though for different folks and different reasons. (more…)

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Been spending a bit of time each day with the new book project at http://requiredreadings.ca

As I’ve posted here before, it’s a page on which Meg and I are putting together a list culturally-significant writings across genres – fiction, non-fiction, poetry and plays. It’s a hell of a lot of work – the list sits at around 700 texts currently, and we know we are missing a whole lot. More, though, the task now is to write brief posts on every single item – not summaries, necessarily, but a couple of paragraphs on why the text is important and how it is had a lasting impact on the general consciousness. They are pretty quick to do, but I am fast realizing that it’s gonna be a long long while before I have everything up to date and can just do ongoing maintenance. I got Tarzan of the Apes up today, following yesterday’s foray into Gregor Mendel’s Experiments on Plant Hybridization and Wednesday’s Romeo and Juliet. But with 11 books down and hundreds more to go, it’s clearly going to be a slog. (more…)

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I am a union staffer. I work for an organization, recognized under a legal code as a representative of workers’ interests. I am a negotiator, bargaining with management to write joint agreements. I am an advocate, campaigning for improved working conditions and higher wages. I am a politician, brokering deals, managing political support, selling policy. I am a counselor, offering advice and support, drying tears, referring to specialists. And I am a unionist, arguing with bosses, fighting discipline, seeking more money for less work against managers who seek more work for less money. I work in an environment of contradictions. But make no mistake about it – I work; I have a boss; and my job depends on my ability to serve the interests of that boss. (more…)

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I’ve been getting back to readings in political theory and analysis lately, feeling a little need for brain-food. Some Terry Eagleton, some Slavoj Zizek, debates around “The Common Insurrection” (which will form a post of its own in the days or weeks to come). It’s a welcome change of pace, I’m finding, and jazzing me up to perhaps even get a little writing done one of these days. The most recent book is The Idea of Communism, a collection of essays based on conference proceedings from a 2009 gathering in London which brought together many of the bright lights of contemporary radical thought to talk about, well, the idea of communism. (more…)

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Like everyone of us stumbling across this earth, most days I just live. I do what needs to be done, I entertain odd little thoughts and wonders and fantasies that meander in and out of my brain, and I make it to the next day without any real conscious thought about how I am and where I am and what I am in the world.

Then are the stand-out days – not because anything happens, really, but because I feel strong and capable and smart and desirable and generally all-round confident in my life and my value.

And, of course, the days of struggle – the days I feel vulnerable and insecure, ugly and weak, andcertain that everything I think is good must be only a trick of the light.

Sometimes it is hard to trust in our own value. Sometimes it is hard to believe that anyone else sees any good in us. Sometimes it feels like we are tolerated, allowed, put-up-with, and that any moment now all that we have will crumble when the people around us realize there’s something better, someone better.

We all have these days, and for each of us there are different aspects of our lives that are more often confident and others that are more often insecure. I’ve often thought about this in the context of the University, where I work. I’m a Union rep here, representing faculty in their employment struggles, alternating many times a day between legal advisor, counselor, confidante, strategist, organizer. But I’m also an academic myself at heart, having subjected myself to far more formal education than is good for anyone. And I notice each and every day how the whole institution of the University is permeated with a tremendous imposter-syndrome.

Academics make their lives from the idea that they are smart, that their minds can come up with important ideas that can change the world. Academics make their lives on the generally-accepted premise that they are somehow brighter and more creative and more insightful that the rest of the population. It is the single most-important myth of the University, the foundation for everything that happens at this place, and the myth appealed to as much by faculty in their role as workers as in their role as scholars.

Now, when I was in school, reading my books and writing my papers and doing my presentations, I consistently felt like a fraud. And that wasn’t just me, but is a feature of most student life. We pretend we know more than we do, we try to put on an air of confidence, we find ways to turn questions and discussions around to subjects we know slightly more about, all in order to keep up the act, to prevent our teachers and other students from realizing what we ourselves know to be true – that we are confused and muddled and certain of very little, and that we are nowhere near as well-versed in literature and history and scientific principle as we pretend.

I realized that all students felt this when I was in grad school. And I realized through my job as faculty union guy that pretty much all profs feel the same way. It’s a collective myth sustained by a collective pretending to mask a collective insecurity and a collective fear of that inevitable day that someone will catch on, someone will realize that we’re not all that smart after all, that that book, that article, that argument, that turn of phrase, or even that Nobel Prize was a freak accident, a bluff that somehow hasn’t yet been found out. But it will be, one day, somehow. Every academic feels that. Every academic fears it.

But y’know, none of that really makes a difference. Sure, it matters for individuals, who it hangs over day after day, and occassionally torments to the point of incapacity. And, yes, the myth itself is a problem in that it sustains elitism and classism and is so often used as a hammer to silence other voices. But at the same time, the myth actually does serve a purpose, I suppose. I mean, if we all went around puddles of tears or knots of insecurity, not a hell of alot would get done, would it? In academia or in relationships or in parenting or in sports or in music – in absolutely every moment of our lives – if we ever dropped the myths, dropped the pretending, we would be a more honest planet but certainly not a sustainable one. So, I suppose at the end of the daythough an awareness of the illusion is helpful, and allows some self-reflection as well as a greater understanding of what others are dealing with, we can’t really afford to drop the illusion altogether, or stop pretending. Cause living is so much acting. Living is all about carrying on despite the fear and weakness, carrying on through it.

Wrote mostly about academics here, cause it is something I have often thought about. But actually today’s writing began with something much more personal, much more difficult to speak and to share, and that kept me up worried much of the night – a personal insecurity of my own that arises more frequently than any other, and that many times a weak creeps up and takes over my brain.

But is there really any difference what the particular issue is for each of us? I’m successful at work when I can convince those I work with and for that I know what I’m doing, regardless of my own confidence. That act puts them at ease, gives them confidence, and builds the foundation for actual success. In academia, the writing and speaking and teaching does indeed throw ideas out there and open debate, regardless of whether the initiator has her or his own doubts. And in relationships, the act of security and strength and desirability and capacity inspires in one’s partner the confidence and faith that it takes to keep things growing stronger and closer, and makes those things true.

The long and short of it? I’m a fucking mess much of the time. Truth be told, I am pretending each and every day, as we all are. Truth be told, behind all this I am scared, and weak, and confused. But at the same time, and with no less truth, I am all the strength and confidence I can muster, too. Because there really isn’t any meaningful break between the act and reality. The act is reality. That’s the nature of my humanity, and the nature of all our humanity.

Days of muddling and survival. Days of strength and confidence. Days of fear and insecurity. Each, I suppose, is all bound up with the other. Perhaps the changes in general mood are no more than slight shifts in the balance , reactions to little things that either tip the scales to an act successful or tip the scales to stagefright. And if that’s the case….well, that’s something I can deal with.

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Just back in the office after a meeting in which I represented a faculty member who is facing a student complaint. A complaint which generally consists of, “I failed an exam because she asked me questions that were too hard. No one warned me in advance of the questions I was going to get and I felt put on the spot.”

I’m seeing alot of this these days. I have seen it as a student, as a teaching assistant and instructor, and I see it with alarming regularity as a faculty union rep. Allegations of harassment, demands for higher marks, and explicit calls for profs to be disciplined or even terminated. Now, obviously there are occassions in which the complaints are serious, are legitimate, and indicate real abuses of power. But these are the exceptions. What I see mostly are disputes about student comfort with currriculum or student performance that get re-framed as abuse or harassment.

A student is offended that a prof lectures on the close relationship between colonialism and Christianity. Another takes issue with an Alice Munroe story that at one point describes masturbation, and alleges the prof is forcing her to read pornography. Many, many complain that by being given lower grades than they’d like – and we’re talking not fails here, but Cs and Bs – profs are destroying their chances of having successful academic and professional careers. “I always got A’s in high school; now I’m getting B’s. Obviously, this prof is treating me unfairly.” OK, that’s crazy enough. In a signficant number of these cases, it’s not even the students that complain, but their parents, who insist little Sally or Billy deserves to be at the top of the class. It’s really quite astounding what one sees in this environment.

And what it all comes down to is a culture of entitlement. I’m paying fees to earn a degree. My tuition should be enough. I don’t pay to be made uncomfortable. I don’t pay to be put to work. I pay for a degree, and damn it I deserve the degree.

And sadly, universities play right along.

Yes, university administrations are increasingly referring to students as customers or clients, and seeing themsleves as customer service outlets rather than educational institutions. In the last short while, I have seen administrations order faculty to put out disclaimers if they are likely to teach anything that might be controversial or contentious, allow students to refrain from doing any readings that make them uncomfortable, and ignore academic rules around plagiarism to avoid potential conflicts with students. It’s a trend that’s been growing for a number of years, has already hit epidemic proportions in the US, and is increasingly altering the culture of Canadian universities as well.

Of course, all this has repercussions for the folks I represent, faculty. If students are clients, faculty are customer service reps, expected to first and foremost please students, and only secondarily to teach them. Those profs we’ve all had, the assholes who worked us like hell, forced us to re-think our basic assumptions and walk into areas that made us cringe a little? More often than not, those are the ones we all remember as the best and most influential. But they are a dying breed in this new world, and those that are still kicking around find themselves again and again dragged into bullshit investigations that, while they may not result in findings of wrong-doing, destroy confidence, reputation, career.

Yes, the university as a place of critique and challenge is shrinking fast, replaced by something increasingly like a combination diploma mill/ professional training program. Pay your money, get your credentials, and head out into the world knowing no more than you did when you stepped through the door. Really a sad thing to watch happen.

Of course, this isn’t fundamentally a problem of bad students and bad administrators. This shit doesn’t spring fully-formed from the head of Zeus. Behind it all is corporatization of the university and commodification of education generally. I mean, charge people money for education and they are customers – the whole relationship changes, to one in which the degree is ultimately bought. So, structurally-speaking, we can’t really be surpised when people turned into consumers act like the market wants them to. Still. It’s  drag watching the up-close and personal dynamics play out.

I’m a school slut. I will study anything anywhere I can, moving from discipline to discipline, classroom to classroom, debate to debate just because I get off on the discussion and the crazy ideas that get thrown around. And I actually find it quite painful now to walk around this campus, to see these kids all around, and to know that there is so little learning happening here, so little engagement, so little challenge. And worse, to know that where those pockets of critique and debate are still happening – those are precisely the places most likely to be tagged “trouble-spots” by an administrative culture that judges itself by what it sees in Maclean’s magazine and various other ‘customer satisfation’ surveys rather than by the vigour of its debates and the diversity of its opinions.

Higher education, indeed.

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