volume I, number 2
Where's the Beef?
Proctalgia Fugax, Pisanus Fraxi
Taking Aim At Marksmanship: The BA English Requirement
Deconstructing Pretense: The Irrelevant Curriculum
Poseurs, Pedanterasts, and Other Prancing Professors
The Rage of Caliban
Blast from the Past
The Way We Were
[Send a Letter to the Editors]
[Sign or View Guestbook here]
Volume 1 Issue 2
Where's the Beef?
A phrase much in evidence in popular argot this summer is the term coyote ugly. What the phrase means exactly can only be properly defined by imagining a particular scenario.
One night, sniffing the pheromones wafting in from a local bar, you stroll in, consume vast amounts of a patriotic beer, feel your discrimination dissolve away in the litres of piss left on several trips to the toilet, and end up dancing and flirting with the last single left standing. The next morning you wake up beside this person asleep in some bed in a strange apartment. One glimpse tells you there's been some horrific mistake. You just gotta get out of there.
The trouble is the your limbs are entangled with or firmly lodged underneath your partner's body, so you cannot move without risking waking up the snoring marinating creature stretched out beside you. Anything is better than that, so in order sneak away unnoticed, you, like the coyote, chew through your own trapped limbs. Self-amputation before any further socialization--he or she is that ugly, coyote ugly.
There's something about the phrase which aptly describes the present situation of the academic degree programs at Malaspina. We sniffed the pheromones, danced the barroom curricular courtship, had the partnership solemnized by the AUCC (after some trouble with the banns), and went to bed, intoxicated with our success and randy as hell.
But now it's the morning after and, ohmigawd, what's that stretched out beside us? Surely we didn't make a play for that? But the truth gradually dawns: we've set up some sort of lasting commitment to something so ugly that if we stick with it, allow it to wake up, it's going to cost a fortune in cosmetics just to keep up appearances. Yuck! We gotta get out this place.
So now, as we awaken to the morning after, we have to start chewing our way through our limbs. Chomp, chomp, there goes the English requirement. Chomp, chomp, there goes a science requirement. Chomp chomp, ooops there's goes our tradition of open access. Only a couple of majors programs and a technology program or two now between us and the door. Chomp, chomp. It's painful, mighty painful, but that how it goes on a coyote ugly date.
About ten years ago, at the initial meeting to discuss the shape of Malaspina's degree curriculum, the very first thing Dr. Bauslaugh said was that if we wanted to clone conventional university programming, we'd end up a pale and mutilated imitation of worthier institutions, because we simply would not have the money to produce Harvard West or Stanford North or (for that matter) a mid-Island UVic. Well, Gary Bauslaugh is gone but no doubt enjoying from near by the sight of the cannibals munching their own flesh.. Welcome back to the feast. Pass the salt.
Post Script to the First Issue: The name of the fish on the title page is Florida Phil because he comes from Phil in Florida. The new fish on this issue's cover (different species) comes from Tony Bigras.
[Back to Table of Contents for Volume One, Issue Two]
Taking Aim at Marksmanship: The English Requirement in the BA Program
As we gear up for an assault on the English requirement, there might a point to adding some perspective. After all, we are dealing here with a part of the curriculum which has had a long innings and whose reduction or elimination might shake things up bit, at least on the surface. The key issue we should be considering is whether or not any element of a compulsory English requirement is worth preserving for the sake of student learning (setting firmly to the distant sidelines issues which address faculty interests only, like "What will the loss of the requirement do to enrolment in the English majors program?"--a question already in play--or "Man, I could use some of those extra English sections in my department!"). If the English requirement does indeed serve important student needs, then some caution may well be in order. If not, then why spare the knife?
I should state up front that I've been a keen fan of the English requirement. It has provided me with my professional career (something that might instantly give certain people a persuasive reason for seeking to eliminate it) and has ensured that, while many of my colleagues have had to worry constantly about enrolments in their departments, I have been able to remain confident that there would always be a fresh and full supply of students.
Making English courses compulsory in the BA program has a long history in BC. Thirty years ago, that requirement was considerably greater than it is now. All BA students at UBC had to take two years of English, the usual first-year literature-and-composition mix and the second-year survey of English literature, the dreaded English 200, the pons asinorum of the entire BA curriculum. These requirements made English departments huge, and the horrendous difficulties of wading in selections of Paradise Lost and Henry IV, Part 1 kept summer schools full of students trying to negotiate their way through English 200 for the second, third, and fourth times with the help of underpaid sessionals and lecturers on temporary contracts.
Traditionally there were three justifications for this requirement. The first was the need for all undergraduates to have some specific instruction in writing academic essays in an appropriately correct style. While there was no necessary reason why such instruction had to take place in English courses, traditionally it did, mainly because teachers of other subjects, then as now, were simply not prepared to undertake that task.
Second, there was a widely shared notion among teachers in the Humanities generally that one of the most essential aspects of being an educated person in any profession was an ability to cherish great literature, especially in a society which no longer had any use for a shared religion.. This idea, passed down to us most famously from Matthew Arnold and honed into sharp partisan academic rhetoric by the New Critics in the 40's and 50's, still had a lot of legs in the 1960's and was, decades later, an important part of the case made at Malaspina by, most notably, Ross Fraser, when the English requirement was established here.
Third, the compulsory English requirement did provide some coherence in an otherwise anarchic first-year curriculum. True, this reason was not widely publicized, largely because until fairly recently no one really worried much about the difficulties students were going through in first year. But there was an important social value for students in giving them a shared experience, something they could discuss with other students not necessarily in the same class or academic program (asking for help in English 200 was a standard pick-up line in the SUB cafeteria and thus an important social tool).
The last two of these justifications have been totally exploded by what has actually been going on in English departments for many years now. Arnoldian principles were chucked out long ago, together with any sense of shared purpose among English instructors. The idea that we need to study traditional fiction in lower-division English courses to save us from mass culture, technology, capitalism, advertising, oppression, or whatever, as the New Critics maintained, is clearly absurd, and besides, for a couple of decades there have been all sorts of more fashionable competing ideologies at war in English departments, as feminists, Marxists, post-colonialists, critical theorists, Canada-first types, reader-response proselytizers, cultural relativists, ethnographers, Frye and Fish babies, and so on duke it out about everything from a suitable composition handbook to the length of a research assignment and the need to jettison Shakespeare.
Whereas all teachers of sections of the same first- or second-year English course once shared a significant part of the curriculum in common and faith in a particular methodology, so that they and their students from different classes could usefully discuss together particular poems, plays, and stories, nowadays everyone fashions something different from everyone else. No wonder the book store staff goes crazy, and instructors in more coherent disciplines give up trying to figure out what those mad people in English are up to.
So far as the literature part of first-year English courses is concerned, what plausible reason could one set on the table which actually matches what goes on in English courses? Now that English professors have repeatedly made the case that the study of literature is really cultural anthropology generously mixed in with a mélange of imported ideologies and a soupcon of left-wing historical critique, it's difficult enough to defend the study of any English course at the university in the face of those who say, well, if that's what the subject has become, why don't we turn it over to the departments of Anthropology, Women's Studies, Philosophy, and History? In such a situation, making the study of English compulsory seems as outmoded as forcing Cambridge undergraduates at some colleges in the early 1960's to swear allegiance to the Thirty-Nine Articles.
It's a bit like the story of poor Tobit, who had a good life as caretaker of a graveyard. But one day, while he was relaxing stretched out on the cemetery grass, a high-flying bird crapped in his eyes, and he went blind. The experience left him totally disoriented and miserable most of the time. Well, some ideological bird from the Continent long ago dropped a poisonous load in the eyes of English professors, and life has never been the same since. Tobit, of course, was eventually saved by Tobias. No such saviour seems likely in our case.
So there's no justification for retaining the English requirement by an appeal to a tradition which hardly anyone inside the department takes seriously any more. Useful as that rhetoric has been in defending the English requirement in the past, the outside world has finally caught on and isn't buying it. I'd be surprised if any English teacher had the temerity to claim that the English department exists to serve that traditional vision of the subject (one can hardly call it a discipline any more).
That leaves the issue of writing. Is the English requirement worth preserving in any form in order to address what most instructors see as a significant issue: the urgent need for quick, effective improvement in undergraduate writing, especially written arguments? The question is all the more urgent at Malaspina, where we have low entrance requirements and most of our beginning students bring with them no star accomplishments in high-school English.
In principle, this need should provide no justification for making any course compulsory, simply because instruction in writing should be the responsibility of every instructor who demands it from students and who evaluates their success in the course on the basis of written assignments. In practice, however, the issue is more complex for one simple reason: instructors outside English departments, almost without exception, have always refused to teach writing properly.
There's no secret about how to get students to improve in this respect. They have to produce written arguments, submit them for marking, get them back, review the results carefully, and try again, often with the help of some classroom instruction in key principles. The process is much the same as in learning any complex skill: practice, analysis, review, try again. But this process is consistently thwarted by the refusal of non-English instructors to foster it.
It's not that such instructors do not mark a lot of papers, often very thoroughly. The problem is the nature of the marking. To correct every grammatical mistake, provide punctuation where necessary, write out awkward sentences correctly, and cover the paper with remarks urging the student to get help are of very limited use, because they do not permit an intelligent review of the style or an understanding of the problems.
To appreciate the point ask yourself this question: What is a student who is really keen to learn how to improve supposed to do with a marked essay covered in such notations? Unless the instructor has provided some system of cross-referencing mistakes to a grammar handbook, how is the student supposed to understand the nature of her mistakes, especially the repetitive errors, each of which has been painstakingly corrected without explanation? And how is this exercise going to be useful to the student (so far as learning how to write is concerned) if she is denied a chance to write the paper again, this time correcting the basic mistakes?
These principles are so self-evident that I am astonished that virtually all non-English instructors (and some English instructors) stubbornly refuse to acknowledge them and put them into practice. By not doing so, they deny themselves and the student a major educational opportunity, and they strongly encourage the attitude among students that things like run-on sentences, faulty parallelism, transition phrases, coherent paragraph structure, a confused vocabulary, and so on are trivial things which they need to attend to only in first-year English classes (sometimes not even there). If they give a low priority to removing such errors and repeat them from one paper to the next, they are simply responding to the methodology most instructors use in marking their papers. How are they supposed to remove specific habitual mistakes if they don't know precisely what they are and have an opportunity to correct them?
I know many non-English instructors who mark hundreds of papers per year very diligently and who are frustrated and concerned about the quality of the students' prose. But in thirty years I have met only a few non-English instructors who bothered to use common-sense teaching practices to address the problem. Some instructors are prepared to assign a certain number of marks for something they call style (usually a few percent)--as if the quality of an argument can be divorced from the way in which it is presented--and to lecture the students on the need to improve their style or to visit the Writing Centre frequently. But they draw the line at linking their own assignments and marking style effectively to that task (let alone taking up class time teaching grammar or the argumentative structure of an essay).
The excuses are always the same: I have my own subject to teach. I don't have the descriptive vocabulary. It's the English department's job. And so on. I don't agree. If a student makes an egregious mistake in logic in a paper for an English course, it's my job to point that out (using the appropriate descriptive vocabulary), not simply to write a phrase like Bad Logic--Please see the Philosophy department on the side. Ditto for matters of fact officially owned by other departments (as in, for example, papers supporting creationism as true science or the death penalty as a deterrent). Instructors who assign all responsibility for teaching writing to English courses might like to reflect that, in many cases, the majority of a student's written assignments are for courses other than English and that many of their students may not have even taken a first-year English course yet.
There's a simple pedagogical principle at work here: what we expect the student to be able to do and what we use as the basis for evaluating the student, we should be prepared to teach that student as effectively as we can. This point is simply an obvious extension of the slogan on the poster in many high-school classrooms about the key difference between giving someone a fish and teaching her to fish.
Over the years, there has developed considerable hostility to English departments, largely because they exert such numerical clout in the committee structure of the institution. But those complaining are, as often as not, a major reason why the department is so large: there's a need out there, and the English instructors are the only ones prepared to address it.
So we might well ask ask ourselves the following: If writing is a problem, if English is eliminated as a requirement or significantly reduced, and if non-English faculty are unwilling to undertake the task, then where is the student going to have a chance to learn how to improve? To think (as some do) that raising the Grade XII English entry requirement a notch and beefing up the Writing Centre will take care of that issue is excessively sanguine. Instructors unhappy about the quality of their students' writing might reflect momentarily on what is going to happen if increasing numbers of their students don't take any English courses at all and what remedies will be in place if the number of first-year English sections is significantly reduced. The goose may not be laying golden eggs, but it's laying some eggs. Killing or maiming the creature will not assist production.
Of course, it's a very fair point to question just how effectively first-year English courses teach writing (for it is certainly not the case that all English instructors consistently use the procedures mentioned above). Here, as in just about everything else with the English curriculum, there is no shared sense of what we should be doing, and different instructors go in wildly different directions, with different content, methods, and widely different standards. A recent statistical study of the final grades awarded by English instructors in first-year courses over a few semesters (fall 1997 to fall 1999) shows a range from an average GPA of 6.76 to an average GPA of 2.77, from a percentage passing rate of 92.6 percent (with 50 percent of the grades in the A range) to one of 70.1 percent (with 0 percent in the A range), all this in spite of the repeated attempts of the English department to publicize and insist upon a very specific set of common criteria for awarding grades
[Parenthetically, these results suggest that all easy generalizations about what goes on in all first-year English courses are suspect, since there's clearly considerable variety. And those instructors who may be shocked at some aspect of these results should examine similar statistics from their own department, if there are any, before flinging accusations in the direction of the English department--not that some accusations might not be entirely in order]
Anyway, such a study suggests that what a student learns about writing and the grade she receives are largely a function of whatever section the registration process randomly dumps her in, and there is no guarantee that any particular section is going to treat as a priority the task of presenting rational arguments in clear prose which must meet some common standard (something which, in any case, totally contradicts the postmodern infection endemic in many humanities departments)
This feature of first-year English courses lies at the heart of the problem. For objections to the English requirement generally rest (at least in part) on the claim that such courses do not pay sufficient attention to the writing most required in other courses or, if they do, the results are not sufficiently useful in non-English courses. Such a claim has fuelled many objections to compulsory English courses in the past, particularly from departments of Business and various technologies, who don't see why all that time has to be taken up with fiction (especially tales full of naughty images and dirty sex, aka the Bill Holdom curriculum) and effete nonsense like irony, point of view, structure, or rhythm (to say nothing of the politics of language), when the instructor could be (as one Forestry instructor at another institution put it to me) "pumping grammar into them." The Strasburg goose syndrome in action.
For it's clearly not the case that instructors generally are satisfied with their students' prose and believe an improvement in writing is not all that necessary. The issue is far more one about the effectiveness of the present English courses, with their eclectic and wide-ranging curricular mixtures, in addressing the problem. Baldly stated, why should a course which isn't doing the job (or a sufficiently good job) be required?
Many students, however, continue to attest to the value of what they learn about writing in their particular sections of first-year English, and some departments (e.g., Forestry) are keen to retain compulsory English, as taught by the English department, so the requirement still has fans who base their case on the fact that some useful learning is going on.
And I remember any number of colleagues in various English departments who did (and still do) make the job of teaching writing properly a top priority and who undertake the enormous amount of detailed marking and personal tutoring that requires. If their efforts do not produce students sufficiently literate to satisfy non-English instructors, that doesn't mean some effective learning is not going on (think how much they might achieve if there was significant pressure to improve writing and some useful assistance in that task from non-English courses). Such professional diligence makes a full-time workload of lower-division English courses something any instructor who has never undertaken it just cannot imagine. No wonder some of us in the English department are not particularly eager to defend a system which requires such work.
Where does all this leave us. I have no idea. But I do get the distinct sense that, unless the English department can persuade other departments that the present first-year courses (slightly modified, perhaps) are doing the job effectively, the English requirement in its present form is toast. Who's going to go to the wall to defend it, and what weapon will they have at their disposal?
It is to be expected, of course, that, with the requirement removed or reduced, most incoming students will still want to take some course in writing (except perhaps some of those who most need it), so the first-year English sections aren't going to go away as long as we continue (as we will) to insist that only lunatics and some English teachers should be prepared to work so hard at such a mundane but important task.
If we really wanted to address the students' need for a chance to learn to write better, the obvious answer would be to ditch the English requirement and develop a series of workshops for all instructors in service of a shared commitment to writing across the curriculum among all those who require writing (a commitment that changes existing classroom practices significantly). That won't happen, of course, so wherever we go from here, the complaints about student writing are unlikely to disappear. Removing or reducing the English requirement, the only courses which address directly (if imperfectly) the problem, will probably lead to even louder laments.
We might even end up with a delightfully ironic situation in which departments now eager to scrap or reduce the English requirement, once they get what they desire, find that their students' writing is so in need of improvement that they now would like to include such a course as a necessary part of their majors program, only to discover that the money has been reallocated, the sections have disappeared, in short, that there is no room at the inn. If their students are to learn to improve in this respect, such instructors will then have to take on the task themselves.
Of course, with compulsory English removed, we could deal with the problem somewhat by raising the bar significantly, by demanding a much higher Grade XII English grade for entry into particular degree programs. But that would reduce enrolment drastically, and whatever else we do, no one is going to take any step, no matter how pedagogically effective, which threatens upper-division enrolment, the very cause of our collective faculty being.
So, in a sense, we're stuck. We want writing improved, most of us don't want to undertake the task ourselves, and many people don't like what those who are supposed to be (and are) addressing the problem are doing in first-year English. But we don't want to hurt departmental enrolment with significantly higher entrance requirements, and some people want many of those juicy English sections redistributed. It's a problem with only one obvious solution: let's simply eliminate writing as a requirement in any course (or stop caring about it). Perhaps that's what will happen eventually.
In the meantime, of course, we'll end up with a compromise--a reduction of the English credit (from 6 to 3, or from two courses to one) but no significant change in what goes on in English courses. So it will be business as usual (whatever that means these days in English courses), but less of it. The writing problem will remain, and complaints about students' prose will continue unabated.
I would, however, invite any instructors who like to make such complaints and to point the finger at the English courses (required or otherwise) to consider the following question: What are you doing about the quality of your students' prose in your courses, your assignments, and (above all) your marking?
[Back to Title Page for E-Coli, Volume 1, Issue 2]
DECONSTRUCTING PRETENSE: THE IRRELEVANT CURRICULUM
PRESENTED AT MALASPINA COLLEGE
[In the late 1980s Malaspina College hosted several papers on curriculum development. Professor Kim Blank, English Department, University of Victoria, argued that universities and colleges were hopelessly lost in the past, teaching materials that were largely irrelevant in the postmodern world. Old notions of objectivity and of truth were outdated. The marginal is where the action is. He stated: "Much of the academic material that constitutes the educational system as it exists today in the Western world is the result of a series of pronouncements of the rich over the poor, of the few over the many, of the enlightened over the dim, of the divinely ordained over the misinformed masses, and of the politically empowered over the disenfranchised populace." Blank presented a "pomo" position [radical skepticism] which prompted Malaspina's Bob Lane to reply in the next session of the series. It is good to note that these were lectures, written to be read to an audience of peers, and then written up for publication.]
Today I'm going to talk about doom. Today I'm going to talk about D.E.W.M. Today I'm going to talk about te deum. Today I'm going to talk about tedium.
If those sentences sound repetitive let me assure you that they are not. If they sound ambiguous let me disambiguate them for you. Today I am going to talk about doom. "Doom" is "a sentence, a judgement, a condemnation." Kim Blank judged the curriculum, condemned it as oppressive, and sentenced it to the punishment of displacement by the marginal. If only we can displace Milton with some Bobby McFerrin (instead of "Paradise Lost", "Get Happy") all will be well in the halls of academe. Or, if we spend less time on Shakespeare and more time on Simon we will be less oppressive and our students will be better off. Teach the popular not the classic is the call of the wild. Shed the heavy mantel of the dead past and revel in the present and the popular is the theme presented by Kim Blank in the first paper of this series.
And why not since as Blank says of the curriculum "It has no external justification." It does seem to follow that if there is no external justification or standard by which to measure the curriculum then indeed anything goes. And if anything goes then why not study "trash" novels, pornographic films, and "Three's Company" instead of the difficult works that are to be found on most university curricula. After all the popular is more fun, more easily digested, and more, well,....more popular.
Secondly, I am going to talk about D.E.W.M. That is an acronym for Dead European White Males. The arguments about curriculum in the states right now usually have to do with the attempts by special interest groups to have some special materials on the reading lists of the liberal arts courses. Black groups want African writers, Hispanic groups want Hispanic writers, women's groups want women writers, lesbian groups want lesbian writers, survivalist groups want survivalist writers, born again Christian groups want born again writers, and the National Rifle Association wants the care and feeding of the hand gun as an integral part of the curriculum starting at grade one. And, of course, if Kim Blank is right, and there is no external standard to employ in making curriculum decisions, then it is simply a matter of power and she who has the power selects the texts.
The most important argument that has come out of the debate in places like Stanford and Berkeley has been this: no book should be required reading for students just because it was written by a D.E.W.M. Being dead and white, European and male is not a sufficient reason singly or conjoined to justify your work being read and studied as required material. Others may have made significant contributions to the history of ideas and should not be excluded on the grounds that they are not D.E.W.M.s. I think that is exactly right. If works are being chosen on those kinds of grounds then they should not be. And it follows from this that books should not be chosen just because they are written by live, non-European, non-white, females. These factors of age, race, sex, and place of origin are not relevant when selecting works to be studied by students in required courses. Racism, sexism, ageism, and placism are not morally defensible and must be discontinued especially in universities, which as institutions with the responsibility for leadership, cannot and should not be involved in immoral acts.
Next, I want to talk about Te Deum. This is, of course, an old Christian hymn which I refer to simply as a way of bringing to the discussion the matter of God and whether she is still alive. But more importantly, I want to consider whether the existence of god is a necessary condition for there being external standards in things like morality and excellence. Dostoevsky suggests in The Brothers Karamozov that since God is dead everything is permitted. And if Ivan is right in this assertion then it does seem that standards of excellence and of morality do indeed disappear and one is left with some floating, flexible, situational ethics to apply in any of the human endeavors that depend upon judgement and decision. Alas, if there is no way of making value judgements at all then everything is a matter of taste and Three's Company has every right to displace Two Gentleman of Verona in the curriculum.
Finally, I want to talk about tedium. "Tedium is the condition or quality of being tiresome, wearisome, or monotonous." I find it tedious to be told that education is oppressive. I believe just the opposite to be true. Education is liberating. Education is liberating not oppressive.
Tedium is also what I do not want the audience to feel today and to protect you from that I will be fairly brief in developing the arguments that support my main claims.
To return now to the "doom" part of the paper: I will argue that the oppressive, prejudiced, and "darwinistic" curriculum that Kim Blank describes in his paper is a red herring since it does not exist in North America now, and never has. From the beginning of the development of the community college, for example, the thrust has been toward providing educational opportunities for the mature high school drop out (like me), and for the citizen who never completed all of the necessary prerequisites to move directly to the university. It was also set up to offer an opportunity to women, who for whatever reasons, had been left out of the post-secondary education dream. It had from the start an open door (though now we are beginning to close that door) and a welcome for anyone who could do the work required. The whole idea of the community college is to provide educational opportunities for citizens who are not rich kids or the parents of rich kids, but who nevertheless know the value of education. Natives and visible minorities were also target groups that could in many situations benefit from the community college and its comprehensive offerings in communities where the student could continue to live at home while taking the courses or program that she thought was of benefit to her. Malaspina College is a place for second chances, a place for individual attention, a place for its students which is certainly not marginal, but is a helpful half-way house between high school and university or between unemployment and employment.
We do not have the same kind of streaming in North America that existed and to some extent exists in Great Britain today. I know that the systems are too different to compare directly and that is why I charge Kim Blank with the fallacy of red herring and could also probably make the charge of faulty analogy stick. If we stick to our curriculum then we can see rather quickly that the "central, universal, and classical" curriculum that he sets up in order deconstruct is neither as central nor as universal nor as classical as it must be in order for his deconstruction program to have something to deconstruct. I can give you some quick and easy examples: when I first came to Malaspina College when it first opened one of my jobs was to serve as the Coordinator of English and one of the main tasks was to articulate the English courses with the universities. Now I remember as I am sure others do that we were looked at as indeed being marginal. The universities at first thought we were some second class institutions that would go away in no time if they simply ignored us. Well we didn't go away, and in fact we had more influence on their curriculum than they on ours. We taught Canadian Literature before the University of Victoria did! Maybe then and even now they thought of themselves as a British university; that might explain some of the descriptions of curricula in Dr. Blank's paper, I don't know. More recently philosophy departments in the province have responded to expressed societal needs by the developing and teaching of practical ethics courses in such fields as medicine, business, policing, and the environment. Look in a college or university calendar; you will find all sorts of philosophy offerings today that were not there just ten years ago. Now, if we were indeed driven by the conservative urges posited by Kim Blank could these changes have occurred?
Let me get to the claim that there can be no external standard by which to judge the curriculum. That claim I will argue is just false. There can be and is a standard to be employed and that standard is excellence. The reason we continue to teach Plato, DesCartes, and Kant is because no one has ever surpassed them in the work they did. If you really want to know about I-self then you must read DesCartes. If you want to know the source of the radical skepticism that is contemporary literary criticism you have to read DesCartes Meditations. If you want to understand what a deontological moral system might look like or what grounds individual autonomy then read Kant. Yes, they are both dead, European, white and male. But it's their work, their philosophy we study and learn from, and the rest is truly irrelevant.
Let's look for a moment at what we do when we do science or art. What we do is:
(1) select certain features from the physical world based upon complex considerations of beliefs, function, and reality; (2) make guesses about the way the world works, and put these guesses in the form of hypotheses, paintings, or stories; (3) these guesses are improved upon, amended, corrected, or thrown away. "Guesses" is a word I borrow here from Karl Popper. Popper uses the word to talk about scientific theories or knowledge claims that are to be tested against the world to determine if they can be falsified. I believe that works of art are similar claims. They are hypotheses or guesses about the way the world is, and are constantly being checked against reality for accuracy, functionality, scope, purpose, etc.
"At the leading edge of experience in philosophy, science and feeling there is inevitably a groping for language to translate the insecure novelty of noticing and understanding into a precision of meaning and imagery." So wrote physicist Frank Oppenheimer in the introduction to a series of readings at The Exploratorium on "The Language of Poetry and Science." Poetry and science? Not so strange when you consider that Niels Bohr himself once wrote: "When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images." (1)
It is a current theory in the humanities that subjectivity of vision is the source of knowledge and that scripts, novels, poems and the like are self-contained creations, spun out of the autonomous human consciousness. This formalist view separates the literary work from objective reality, science, and the world of practical, utilitarian communication and defines it as an autonomous, self-sufficient "world" or law unto itself, independent of the external world. This view seems designed to reconcile science and literature--but not by rehabilitating the truth claims of literature, but by undermining those of science. Instead of saying something like: "Literature and science are one in that both give us objective knowledge about the world," we say, "Literature and science are one, in that both are essentially fictions by which we entertain ourselves; the objectivity of science is itself a fiction, a myth, a model."
I believe that literature and science are fundamentally the same, not because each is a detached balloon of coherence, but because each makes claims or guesses about the world which are either true or false. In short, I want to argue against the position expressed by Oscar Wilde and reiterated by Northrup Frye, Susan Sontag, Jonathan Culler, Kim Blank and others. Wilde writes: "art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself. She is not to be judged by any external standards of resemblance. She is a veil rather than a mirror. Art never expresses anything but itself." The subjectivist argument gets started on an ad-hominem base: it carves up the world in such a way that no one would want to be associated with the one side. Realistic and objective ways of thinking about language and thought, we are told, lead to amoral science, positivism, mechanism, venal commercial calculation, stifling respectability, manipulative propaganda, regimentation and limited wisdom. This radical skepticism has its own privileged pairings: creation\representation, text as invitation\text as determinate object, voyages into the unseen\boundaries and constraints, non-rational\rational, constructing\recording. Robert Scholes summarizes this subjectivist position as follows: "Once we knew that literature was about life and criticism was about fiction--and everything was simple. Now we know that fiction is about other fiction, is criticism in fact, or metaphor. And we know Criticism has taken the very idea of "aboutness" away from us. It has taught us that language is tautological, if it is not nonsense, and to the extent that it is about anything it is about itself."
These "fictions" are no longer about anything Scholes argues here, except maybe they are about themselves. Well, if they are about themselves then they are about something and therefore no one has taken the idea of aboutness away from us. Further, one has the notion that he intends the sentences in his paper to express something, to make claims about life, even that we cannot make claims in language about life. But isn't that a claim? in language? about life?
The subjectivist seems to believe that persons are somehow demeaned if they imitate nature or take their cues from outside their own minds. The subjectivist denies realism and common sense on the grounds that they are restrictive , limiting, conservative, and support the status quo. Yet the very act of denying all naive realisms presupposes an objective standpoint. Such denials can only be stated in language, and language is an incorrigible realist. The word "fiction" functions only against something which is real. Just as counterfeit money presupposes genuine money so fiction presupposes fact. How could you tell an imaginary world if you saw it except by checking it against the real world? As Gerald Graff puts it in Literature Against Itself:
The recognition that our concepts are constructions of language systems...or of psychological or social processes, tells us nothing about their relation or lack of relation to reality.
Evaluation, interpretation, mimesis, excellence, rationality itself; all of these are under attack these days. In part the groundwork of this attack comes out of philosophical skepticism which attempts to build a theory of knowledge on the claim that nothing can be known. In the resulting subjectivist world of phenomenology those things which can be known are supposed to be our own precepts, or our own feelings. If only we introspect long enough or with the help of our therapists seek the invisible we will have a better sense of I-self. You can see straightaway that if the skeptic claims that nothing can be known then she can not even get her theory of knowledge started since, by her own claim, she can not know that nothing can be known! I claim against the skeptic that we can know all kinds of things about the world, ourselves, and about all sorts of objective conditions or states of being. Knowledge of this sort, public, verifiable, accessible, is a necessary condition for interpretation and evaluation. Value depends upon understanding; it is not something of a different logical category that is added on to a set of facts. The facts of a situation or a work of art do not march by our consciousness followed by a valuation any more than the platoons and companies march by followed by the regiment. There can be no description of experience without some conceptualization, interpretation, and commentary. To the extent that works of art or works of science are descriptions of experience (or guesses at that description) they too depend upon conceptualization, interpretation, commentary, and evaluation. The only real formalism is silence.
"An interpretation, such as the various interpretations of quantum theory, is in no sense a deduction from experimental facts or from the mathematics of a theory. Rather it is a proposal of what the theory might mean in a physical and intuitively comprehensive sense. Thus every interpretation brings into the theory something which is not in the observations and equations themselves. This additional material comes from a very broad area which extends beyond what is normally taken to be science and includes philosophy and aesthetic sensibilities." (2)
Any curriculum must follow from these considerations, and be modeled on a philosophical notion of what knowledge is and how we obtain it. It does not follow from the many interpretations of a work of art or a work of science that all of the interpretations are equal- this is one place where equality is not the primary principle. Getting it right is what counts and that is exactly what we should teach in all of our schools- getting it right.
Since we cannot possibly provide the requisite knowledge for "getting it right" in all areas, that is, since we are not gods, we are forced to ask the most fundamental of all curriculum questions: What kind of knowledge is most worthwhile for our students? Given the kinds of problems that we face today with an environment that can not continue to support our nonsense, with a world shrinking in size while growing in real terms a larger and larger gap between the rich and the poor, we need to consider with care what best prepares our students to cope and to survive in this world. One approach to this large problem is to follow the suggestion in a part of Professor Blank's paper and teach our students to think critically.
Another way of putting this basic curriculum question is "what kinds of knowledge and understanding are likely to have the most universal value?" When the question is put this way, notice, it is not a question about transfer-of-training effects, which is a psychological question, but it is a question about which kinds of knowledge we consider to have the most value. Will it be, for example, how to repair one's automobile or the study of history? Will it be public speaking or literature? These are the sorts of questions that must be faced for education in general and a fortiori for critical thinking in general.
It seems to me when we consider all of these points there is no other plausible candidate for our curriculum besides a broad liberal education. No other curriculum can provide quite the same breadth of understanding into the human condition and the problems which perennially face it. The disciplines which make up a liberal education (e.g. those in the arts, the sciences, the humanities) are not separate from, nor alien to, the everyday problems requiring critical thought, but rather they are the fundamental constituents of such problems. To attempt to think rationally at all is to employ the various forms of rational discourse which are the disciplines. For some reason there has come to be a widely held belief that standard disciplinary knowledge is somehow technical, esoteric, arcane, abstract or primarily of mere academic interest. This view fails to recognize that the disciplines had their origins in the human condition and are substantively about the human condition. Their raison d'être is to provide insight and understanding to the problems faced by humanity. If the disciplines are believed to consist in merely esoteric or academic knowledge, then this says more about the poor way this knowledge is perhaps often taught, but this should not confuse us about the basic purpose and power of the disciplines. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the disciplines do not exist for their own sake. Rather they enable rational discourse about the problems which confront us. It is the job of educators to convey this power and purpose of the disciplines because they are the basic ingredients of rationality itself.
I am not claiming that typical, everyday problems of the sort we are interested in will always, or indeed ever, fall neatly into one domain or the other. The typical problem is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional, therefore several types of knowledge and understanding will be needed for most problems. I am simply claiming that because the disciplines provide knowledge and understanding which goes "beyond the present and the particular" (to use Charles Bailey's felicitous phrase) they provide the best set of knowledge and skills for coping with problems affecting society. Another point to be made here is that liberal education does not consist merely in absorbing a lot of different types of information, but its major characteristic is that it enables one to understand and appreciate both the strengths and weaknesses, and the power and limitations of the various forms of thought which make up our thinking. That is, the liberally educated student should understand the epistemic status of different types of knowledge claims within the different forms of knowledge. Liberal education is not, of course, the passive acquisition of different types of information, but rather it is being able to enter the various forms of rational discourse as an autonomous thinker. The liberally educated person must understand the different processes of reasoning every bit as much as the products of that reasoning. Moreover, such a person is not someone who merely possesses arcane knowledge in a half a dozen specialty areas, but rather they possess a broad cognitive perspective which enables them to see significance in the most mundane events.
I want to end today by saying that in my own case education was liberating and never oppressive. It released me from the back breaking work of the farm laborer or the construction laborer, although maybe not in time, and it has brought me gifts and excitement. I have never gotten over the joy of being paid to read books and talk about them!
I have studied in many disciplines and will offer a private report of what it is that we are supposed to be teaching: from literature we learn point of view and how to imagine being in another's shoes, from mathematics we learn order and the beauty of coherence, and from philosophy we learn humility, or the awareness of limits - we do not know everything.
(1) SYMPATHETIC VIBRATIONS: REFLECTIONS ON PHYSICS AS A WAY OF LIFE, K.C. Cole, p.154. [Back to Text]
(2) SCIENCE, ORDER, AND CREATIVITY, David Bohm and F. David Peat, p.101. [Back to Text]
[Back to Title Page for E. Coli, Volume I, Issue 2]
Poseurs, Pedanterasts, and OtherPrancing Professors
When attending any university, choosing your major is a very important and surprisingly difficult task, and the peculiarities of Malaspina University-College make it even more demanding. The primary reasons that make choosing one's major more difficult stem from two common less-than-perfect motivations for following the road to post-secondary education. The first of these misguided motivations involves students that have seen Animal House a few too many times and are disappointed that a major in brewing with a corresponding minor in teenage-girl appreciation isn't offered. The second problem is that many young people choose university because the idea of getting a job and working for a living just doesn't sound like so much fun. While those people are very correct in this, the difficulty is that they are also often the type who is constantly looking for courses that involve minimal effort and thus end up changing their majors frequently, achieving very little except to make headaches for administrative staff. All of this is compounded by the unique perspective one has as a student at the top of the hill at Mal-U. So which department to choose from among the many? Maybe we can find out by examining the choices…
One of the things that Malaspina offers that may not be available or as prominent at other schools is the Liberal Studies program. This area of study is highly touted by its instructors and the advisors at Malaspina as well, and thus many well meaning and innocent people may end up enrolled in it quite by accident, and without the warning that is so necessary. Many others may end up enrolled because they want a learning environment where they will not get beaten up too badly for wearing their beret to class, as is common in most history department classes.
What is little mentioned is that Liberal Studies is not for the faint of heart or the naïve. Many, if not most of the faculty involved are extremely shady characters, as is apparent after some careful observation. The first clue is the prevalence of tobacco use among the faculty in Liberal Studies. We are nearing the turn of the new millennium, and smoking is no longer the recreational pastime it was in the 70s. To continue to smoke in the less tobacco-friendly and more health-conscious present era speaks of at least one of two characteristics in people: An open defiance of all that is reasonable and makes logical sense, or a peculiar brand of bankrupt idealism that turns to nihilism. It is a frightening thing to turn in a paper for marking to either of these types of people, as the illogical ones will challenge your thesis to the death using arguments of the kind that in a more just society got Socrates put to death, and the idealistically bankrupt will pour their bottle of red ink on the paper and hope it spells 'irrelevant' and 'what good is this in a post-God universe?' several times.
Scary stuff indeed, yet there are many reasons as to why Liberal Studies is the ideal course of study for those who are aspiring professors themselves. Some of the aforementioned shady characters have a certain charm and style. They are the cowboys of academia. Leather jackets, pipe smoke, and finely manicured beards are but a few of the weapons in the men's accessory arsenal of the Liberal Studies professor, removing all doubt that the faculty of Liberal Studies instructors would prove to be the most popular action figures if Malaspina ever decides to raise money by reckless over-marketing.
Incidentally, the reading lists for the courses are also quite fascinating and educational, and if you don't agree you get to fill out a questionnaire and tell them so. The department deserves credit for living up to the first half of its name, as this semblance of participation in the process is so very different from Liberal Studies' antithesis, "Oppressive Studies", more commonly known as History.
It might come as a shock to some, but Malaspina University College also provides avenues for people who might normally be labeled as perverts outside of the necessarily insane world of academia. Yes, that is right, the History department even encourages such fringe elements like masochists, and those with the most exotic of tastes, the students cursed with the love that normally dare not speak its name. I am talking of course of those peculiar people with a fetish for footnotes and bibliographical excess.
Many prominent historians, even some at our own hallowed Malaspina University are themselves driven by these black desires and are bibliographical perverts themselves, going so far as to ignore the efforts of organizations with good intentions like the MLA or APA and publishing their own proprietary style book filled with arcane and esoteric referencing techniques, which they will sell to initiates in the Quasi-Masonic Brotherhood of History for the super-low price of one dollar. This rejection of the MLA and their specifications is quite understandable–-how else would one go about distancing the more serious study of history from the suspect behaviors of poetry and (be prepared for this) teacher-student interactions that happen in the English, or even worse, the Liberal Studies departments?
If your English teachers are letting you down by forgetting to wear tweeds and instead showing up in berets and blue jeans, if your Liberal Studies teacher doesn't care if you cite someone whose books sell better than his and this strikes you as intellectual cowardice on his part, then the Department of History is your best bet for academic success until the inevitably of the History department's next endeavor, the formation of the Conservative Studies department to provide a bulwark against the proliferation of hippies and bohemians that the Liberal Studies program is releasing upon an unwitting world.
The Other Arts
There are also a great number of other arts courses one can take at Malaspina, including political science, philosophy, English, etc… The list goes on. These are all fine programs, with the only drawback being forced to explain to people what you are going to do with an arts degree in the job market when you graduate. This is a very tough question because you have to answer something other than "I want to be a teacher," if you expect a good response. Teaching is a respected profession by all, but giving this answer invariably leads to a response resembling "That's pretty typical," and this is not at all desirable.
A major reason to get higher education is to impress one's colleagues, so more creativity is definitely in order when trying to excuse one's arts education. Another major drawback is automatically being assumed infallible on topics even remotely related to one's education. Just try to get away with a spelling error if you are an English major, or excuse your voting for a right-wing flat-tax fanatic if you take Political Science. Everything else aside, the arts really are the only way to become a modern Renaissance man, even if you will end up doing construction for a living.
The college life can be very different from the eyesight-degenerating Arts programs or the messy fish problems in the Science departments if one decides to make the study of music his or her pursuit. The key element in making this decision however is not so obvious. To the untrained mind it may seem that choosing one's instrument would be the choice that affected study. This is entirely untrue. The key is making the right choice between studying classical or jazz.
The very respected status of the jazz program, although a good reason, is not the only reason to make the choice to take jazz. No single decision can spare a musician from so much pain. While their peers in the classical music program aren't falling asleep during lectures on the rules of formal counterpoint that only Bach could ever remember, the poor students are busy developing carpal tunnel syndrome trying to learn Chopin and Rachmaninoff for their exams. You see, a common misperception exists that classical musicians always play classical music. The sad reality is that they end up having to play much more physically demanding, but often unmemorable Romantic music to demonstrate that they can play chromatic scales faster than the metronome can go. The general purpose of this is to be able to play Liszt, as if anyone educated likes his music or anyone uneducated doesn't think that everything without distorted guitars is Beethoven anyway.
The jazz musicians are largely free from this kind of technical competition, as they are forced to cooperate–-if only because no one is ever willing to shut up while some one else plays. Because of every musician's inability to stop making noise when given an instrument that is as primal as drums or bass guitar, a new art form was born, jazz, which is essentially four guys playing a different song at the same time. Sure it sounds like a marijuana-induced train wreck, but who cares? Jamming on your guitar sure sounds like a great way to get through school…
Perhaps I am not being fair to the sciences by grouping them all under the same heading, but really it doesn't matter, as my sole purpose in discussing science is simply to yearn for the good old days of scientific thought when the philosophers reigned supreme. Anyone who gets into the science game now had better be prepared for some serious ultra-specialization on extremely esoteric subjects such as 'mating habits of hermaphroditic hummingbirds' or 'reactions of imaginary spin-2 particles in hypothetical Friedmann models of the second after the unlikely but possible initialization of the inflationary universe.' It makes one nostalgic for the days in which old men in sandaled feet could say, "The Earth goes around the sun!" and thus get their ugly faces cast in bronze and plaster and deface our modern textbooks with their ugly un-Olympian visages.
Doubtless there are many young people without the fear of long and boring textbooks that will emerge from our science schools as environmental champions and innovators in medicine, but there are at least an equal number who will start wishing they had signed up for arts courses nearer the bottom of the hill where the walks are short enough up the stairs that one does not have to give up smoking and become a marathon runner to make it to class on time.
This is of course only a partial list of the myriad choices available for the ambitious scholar. A discussion on the immoralities of the theater department or the sheer hilarity of talking Reaganomics in the business faculty would require a whole book. There are more choices at Malaspina University-College than there are at the Terminal McDonalds…although there is no fun caboose for the children at Malaspina-–the kids will have to be amused by the antics of the Liberal Studies faculty instead.
What is the practical outcome of all this choice? It means that there is no reason to ever leave university provided that one has wealthy parents or is proficient in defrauding the providers of student loans. What is there to gain by finishing school anyway? I hear that one is expected to find honest work and start behaving oneself--a dead end decision if I ever heard one.
A little known secret is that if one stays in university he/she will likely end up teaching there. This is a much preferable alternative to honest work. Who wouldn't kill for a job involving so many opportunities for dressing nattily and associating with twenty-year-old girls? Malaspina University-College has not only taught me this but also given me excellent calf muscles and filled the void in a post-God world. The real lesson to be learned is that it really doesn't matter what your major is, the point is that the crazy bubble of academia, where simultaneously monkish and hedonistic old men pore over ancient dusty tomes, is one hell of a fun place to be.
[Back to Title Page for E. Coli, Volume I, Issue 2]
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. (Adam Smith)
ten years ago, in the midst of our frantic scrambling to develop an
upper-division curriculum, I delivered a talk to the faculty at Malaspina (as it
then was) College on the relationship between conventional research and
publishing in the university and the quality of undergraduate teaching.
The emphatic central point of the talk was that, although there were many
vigorous claims about the existence of a fruitful and beneficial relationship
between such routine scholarly activity and teaching, no one had ever
successfully demonstrated that such claims were true.
In fact, a number of studies seemed to confirm that no such relationship
could be established.
paper was circulated among the faculty here and elsewhere and a copy placed in
the Malaspina library, where it has been routinely mutilated ever since.
A version of it also appeared in the Canadian Journal of Higher
Education (now evidently--and significantly--defunct) in 1990.
And on a number of occasions I reminded people in print of the
conclusions presented in that argument. For those who are unfamiliar with the paper or who would like
to scan it again, I have prepared a slightly edited cyber version which the
reader can access immediately by clicking on the following link:
Conceptions of Academic Work Once More.
All this by way of a lead-in to a short account of what (for me) has been particularly fascinating ever since, the various responses of many faculty members to a direct assault on the most cherished myth of their profession and obviously for some a keystone of their sense of themselves as valued professionals. If we like to think of the academic world as a place where rational argument holds some currency, the results I have witnessed cannot be called reassuring.
The Comment Querulous
The first immediate reply to the speech in which I presented the results of my enquiries came at the very start of the question period. It was a curt remark from someone who throughout the presentation had sat quietly with an expression of growing anguish: "I feel violated," she said. Well, she was a recent PhD in English, so I assumed she knew what she meant by that expression and its attendant connotations. Somewhat taken aback, I let her observation pass and sought out another question.
That initial response and others like it, interestingly enough, have been for ten years (at least) very symptomatic of a growing tendency for some faculty, especially in the Humanities, to counter arguments they do not like to think about with statements of injured feelings, a rhetorical ploy engendered by a disastrous liaison between postmodern chop-logic and Me-generation sensibilities, a union which raises a bruised ego to the logical status of a contradiction, tears for fears.
The Riposte Pugnacious
The second response at that initial meeting was equally curt but more assertive. "I don't believe it," said the next PhD sitting in the front row. When I pointed out that much of the research came from academics in her very own discipline, tenured professors at reputable universities, her reply was equally sensitive, "I still don't believe it."
In the months that followed I was to grow very familiar with this retort (at Malaspina and elsewhere), the reflex defense of someone who just does not wish to consider the argument, so rigidly entrenched is the faith handed down to us from our academic ancestors. Research is essential to being a well informed effective instructor, except apprently research which indicates that that claim is not true. Hmmm.
Allied to this fighting stance was an initial desire on the part of some faculty to set up a debate, a professional development opportunity, where people might, by repetitive assertions of disbelief, adjudicate whether or not what I was saying had any merit. I welcomed the chance to present my paper again, but I pointed out that a debate was rather pointless because my case was based on a very simple factual claim: There was no reliable evidence to support the idea that conventional research and publication had any positive effects on teaching. If someone had such evidence, then the debate was over; if no one possessed such evidence, then there was nothing to debate. So the idea of a faculty chat evaporated. Parading one's unwillingness to believe is one thing; being asked to provide some factual basis for that stance is evidently quite another.
Such blithely willed ignorance is by no means unique to Malaspina. In the campaign to promote conventional scholarly research activity, outsiders occasionally joined in. So, for example, Dr. Patricia Roy of the History Department at the University of Victoria wrote a letter to Rich Johnston, President of Malaspina, urging him (on behalf of the history teachers in the BC college system) to throw his support behind conventional research on the ground that it was indissolubly linked with good teaching. Knowing that academic historians are famous (or notorious) for their rigorous insistence on detailed documentation for every claim (and fiercely hostile to their often more popular colleagues, like Peter Newman, Pierre Burton, and Barbara Tuchman, who fail properly to document their sources), I wrote to Dr. Roy politely requesting the sources to back up her confident assertions. My letter remains to this day unanswered (no surprise there).
The Retort Diversionary
One group of faculty at Malaspina was (and continues to be) particularly energized to attack the claims I had made, members of the science departments. They have, they assert in chorus, direct evidence that what I was stating was hogwash. After all, in the BSc program students have to have research projects (set up and supervised by faculty) in which they can participate as part of their upper-division curriculum. Such research projects are an essential part of their education and are immensely useful for all sorts of reasons. Some students dutifully engaged me in the pages of the local press with appropriate indignation (perhaps at the prompting of their supervisors?).
Such an position is, of course, a gigantic red herring, spawned in those misty polluted creeks where arguments get obfuscated by fiddling around with the key term (the famous text book example of such a fallacy is the following: Nothing is better than a good lesson; a bad lesson is better than nothing; therefore, a bad lesson is better than a good lesson).
None of my case rests on the value of student projects or of research activities set up as an essential part of the student's curriculum. That should have been quite evident to anyone who read what I was saying with half attention. Such projects, like the similar activities involved in theatre productions, woodlots, athletic teams, jazz combos, and field trips of all sorts, are designed to assist student learning, not to improve the instructor's pedagogical quality. As part of the curriculum, they fall naturally under the rubric of workload, so that if an instructor needs additional time to set up and supervise these properly, that needs to be taken care of as a workload issue, not in some fanciful appeal to an old lie.
The Quip Snide
And, of course, there has been no shortage of ad hominem attacks, "Well, what do you expect? He doesn't have a PhD," "He's just someone who cannot cut it in conventional academic circles," "Hell, he comes from Malaspina." And so on.
So I've grown accustomed to hearing that any attack on the academic establishment's ways of doing business is just a sign of anti-intellectualism or some character flaw, as if any challenge to the claim about research fostering good teaching is, ipso facto, an attack on the value of all scholarly activity itself. But I have no trouble defending the importance of research and scholarly activity. Offhand I can think of two or three very interesting arguments in support of these activities (the most important being that they are immensely enjoyable and often useful). I'm just not prepared to advocate we spend even more instructional money on them for reasons which appear at least unfounded and at worst quite spurious, especially in an institution which has a chronic shortage of money for instruction and no university-style mandate to carry out research..
A really egregious example of the rhetorical doublespeak of the Quip Snide occurs in Peter C. Emberley's book Zero Tolerance: Hot Button Politics in Canada's Universities:
After citing one Carnegie Foundation study after another from America supporting the argument for the conflictual relation between teaching and research, the OCUA report finally offers "a Canadian perspective" from an instructor at Malaspina College in Nanaimo, British Columbia. He "argues in terms of the deleterious effect of research and publication on instruction" It is unfortunate the Malaspina College instructor could not present his findings in person to scholars like Northrop Frye, George Grant and Charles Taylor, whose prodigious publication records and star teaching belie this self-serving cant. (83)
What makes this logically absurd example so edifying is that it comes in the middle of a chapter in which, among other things, Emberley is trying to clarify for us the difference between good and bad scholarship, in a book which manifests a fairly aggressive reformist swagger. But even under such conditions, the author is so convinced of some fruitful connection between the right kind of scholarship and good teaching that he eagerly castigates someone with an awkward set of facts by misrepresenting the argument, without bothering to read the text he is denigrating or even naming the person at whom he is pointing his accusatory finger. If the holy triumvirate he names had to judge on the basis of self-serving cant, I have a much better candidate than the Malaspina College instructor referred to.
Emberley may be apparently sympathetic to some stringent reforms of Canada's universities, but it is unfortunate (and really significant) that the Carleton University professor is not willing to provide something more persuasive than his Pavlovian reflex adherence to his profession's central myth in defense of statements like the following (with which his text is generously larded): "Teaching without active engagement in the scholarly culture degenerates into mere information transmission or empty utterance of platitudes." Such assertions, without the active engagement of some basic rules of evidence, degenerate into repetitive reformulations of a self-interested mantra or Ohrwurm, on the principle, I suppose, that if a university professor says something often enough, then it must be true. And so long as the energetic critic genuflects in front of the single most important professional article of faith, the analysis of the profession, no matter how apparently critical, is without any significant edge and can be accepted without risk (perhaps that is the point).
Then again, the rhetorical excess here (and in similar varieties of this response) may be symptomatic of a mind very uneasy (unconsciously perhaps) of the emptiness of the claim upon which so much of the life of the university professor rests. Caliban, they say, became enraged at the sight of his own face in the mirror. He dealt with the problem by smashing the mirror. Zero tolerance, indeed.
The Countercheck Machiavellian
During a nicotine refill break under the awnings, at one point I lamented the absence of anything remotely resembling reason in the responses to what I was presenting. "Don't worry about that," an experienced member of the faculty reassured me. "Of course, the faculty claim is logically erroneous, but, hey, it's a stick which enables us to beat the administration over the head so as to reduce work loads."
That, of course, is the key point. As a political ploy, harnessing the myth about the importance of research to effective teaching is really useful, since faculty can appeal to the professional consensus and, by throwing around phrases like "credibility" and "AUCC accreditation," wring concessions from the administration, so that hundreds of thousands of dollars of instructional money are annually transferred from student needs to faculty desires. It may be hypocritical, but we all surely understand that in any workload debate the end always justifies the means.
That seems to have worked quite well, at least initially. So now (at considerable expense to students) we have a system of release time in place for upper-division courses. The trouble is we are now (perhaps) about to be hoisted by our own petard. For the administration seems to be on the verge of demanding that we live up to our own protestations of the essential need for scholarly research and publication in order to be effective teachers. Having allocated the money at our energetic request, the administration may now be about to ask that we actually produce some evidence that we are spending that time in the way we originally required, that we are all really carrying out research..
The faculty union (MFA) is understandably very concerned about this. It's one thing to ask for money for release time to conduct research on the ground that such an activity is essential to quality instruction in the upper-division. It's quite another to expect those making such a confident case to live up to what they earlier professed, once the release time is actually granted.
Of course, the administration has to be cautious in its demands, too. For if some imperial fiat came down that, before being permitted to offer a particular upper-division course, anyone proposing to teach it had to produce evidence of recent conventional scholarly activity directly related to that course, we would probably have to close down many of our upper-division offerings or else seek temporary staffing from beyond Mount Benson.
That's actually quite a clever Catch-22 situation, when you think about it. We have to have release time to do the scholarly activity which qualifies us to teach upper-division courses. But we don't actually have to do the activity for which we are getting paid, and any effective demand that we do is unlikely to have any real teeth because that would create curricular havoc. Besides, we can always appeal to the fact that the allowance we do get is such a pittance, how can anyone carry out any significant work.
As We Like It
What's important to remember in all this is that the argument is not just one (more) academic debate wafting around the ivory towers (although it is that). The erroneous claim at the heart of faculty culture is the single most significant reason for the endemic financial plight of our post-secondary institutions (and for all the various problems, from class size to higher fees and the oppression of teaching assistants, which arise out of that).
The really ironic thing in all this comes from the realization that the most important job almost all faculty share as teachers of undergraduates concerns education in analyzing and constructing good arguments. We expend a great deal of pedagogical energy trying to get students to recognize all sorts of basic logical mistakes, to learn about what counts as a reasonable presentation of a case based on good and sufficient evidence and reliable principles and what does not, and to foster an attitude of skepticism about various claims which are not rationally grounded. The subject matter may vary, but the challenge of instructing students in reasoning remains fairly constant across the curriculum in all years of the undergraduate program.
So it's interesting (to say the least) to see how often some of us, in defense of what we want to believe about our profession (and especially about our work load), resort to exactly the same reasoning which persuades many of our students that Creationist Science is a valid alternative to neo-Darwinism in Biology classes or that psychic phenomena are as real as anything else or that something is true if anyone believes it or that the Holocaust did not take place, after all.
The Way We Were: An Invitation
"I don't want to live in the past. I just don't want to lose it" (J. J. "Jake" Gittes, in The Two Jakes)
Malaspina is losing its history. Oh yes, we have the detailed paper trail and the scrapbook, the official minutes and back issues of Mainly Malaspina. But we're losing the stories of the old days, the anecdotes which, whether garnished or not, define what Malaspina was. Each recent retirement of a member of the old guard (Kevin Roberts, Carol Matthews, Jim Slater, Bob Lane, for example) carries away one more repository of the past and increases the percentage of faculty who have no personal memory of, say, Carl Opgard, the old hospital, a Jackie Droz recital, Mike Matthews in The Cherry Orchard, Ross Fraser in his Kiss costume, Fred Marshall on the basketball court and in the bar, Joy Leach on the picket line, or a really funny joke from John Fairfield.
It's important, as Nietzsche tells us, to be able to forget the past and move on with our own projects, unencumbered by a heavy inheritance. But he also reminded us that the past is at times necessary to us as a source of inspiration and energy, something which challenges our understanding of the present in worthwhile ways. So the departure of those in possession of the old stories registers as something of a loss. That seems a point worth pondering at this particular moment, because we are clearly moving into a significantly new phase in the history of Malaspina's academic programming.
That history so far has fallen into three very distinct phases. The first was the Pioneer Stage, the first six years (or so), which involved getting the enterprise off the ground in the old hospital, organizing academic and technical programs, persuading the community that the college was something worthwhile, and planning a new campus. That stage ended with the move up to the present campus in 1976 and the departure shortly thereafter of Carl Opgard, widely regarded as the major founding spirit, whose physiognomy (pictured below) does not accurately reflect the zeitgeist:
The Capo di tutti Capi
Here we had a wonderful new campus, relatively few faculty, and an enormous amount of energy to direct into all sorts of activities. The faculty were still young enough not to be worried about excess, and there was nothing to stop them from wild and wonderful experiments: Arts I, innovative theatre productions, great parties (sometimes the drinking was of epic proportions), summer arts festivals, faculty athletic tournaments (and not just golf), entries in the Nanaimo parades, four by four rallies up and down the stairs of the new campus, a stash of departmental doobies, a faculty lecture series, tons of sex and drink, and what not.
The second stage was a glorious time, that brief period in the life a newly developing institution between the emergence of anarchic imaginative energies with a lot of room to maneuver and the onset of procedural rigor mortis. True, for some of that time we didn't have CD's, computers, photocopiers, automatic telephone answering, or credit cards. But we did have college cars which spontaneously combusted, gymnasiums which collapsed overnight, and hungry cougars lurking at the cafeteria door (in the days when deer still played among the portables), and smoking everywhere.
In that happy times, before we nervously sweated about our credibility,, students were devoted to their studies, keenly competing to be the best in their class, no firkin around on their own time.
Faculty and staff were more fired up then, able to get really excited amid the bone-crushing workload and spiritually wedded to their own technology:
Bill Clark and friend
Dave Kerridge in flagrante delicto
Okay, so things occasionally got out of hand, inviting a stern official response:
Arresting Scene Outside the Library: "I'll Go Quietly, Officer"
But such moments were rare in the generally loose culture as yet undefined by Byzantine procedures and detailed contracts. Senior administrators had a most distinguished mien about them then.:
And Malaspina's most famous student (Ronnie) was known to all..:
Much of the period was taken up with trying to find a suitable president to replace some real duds, so there was a cheerful and often noisy sense of clueless anarchy about senior administration. The presiding genius of the place was Gary Bauslaugh, and he was perfect for the time, given his liking for imaginative experiments, satire, flying by the seat of his administrative pants, a rich and varied scene on campus (art, jazz, theatre), and fostering individual creativity in all sorts of ways (unless you were trying to defend the Math Learning Centre, purchase a Super-8 camera on the capital budget, or hand out bibles in the cafeteria).
We got important visitors from time to time, so that ineptly ambitious administrators could take time off from plans to bankrupt the college and stroll around the well groomed grounds with frumpish foreign dignitaries on a ten-minute stop-over:
Mr. Fraser and Mrs. Windsor
God, then in a mood to be much amused with practical jokes of various kinds, gave us many an administrative marriage made in heaven:
Gerry Sylvester and Beryl Bennett
This second period, like many a honeymoon, came to an end very abruptly and unexpectedly just over ten years ago, the very day we learned that Malaspina was to become a university-college and start granting degrees. All of a sudden that wonderfully creative energy directed into various college activities became totally focused on internecine curricular debates, which soon grew all the fiercer because of the war between those who sought to do something different (some alternative to the conventional undergraduate curriculum) and those who had no desire for anything out of the very ordinary.
This ten-year period has provided an extraordinarily revealing study of faculty and administrative culture generally and has made Malaspina something of a case study for anyone interested in reforming undergraduate education (not always a positive example, by the way). There's no time to review the developments here (perhaps in later issues), but the central narrative about how a ringing official endorsement of imaginative alternatives eventually produced an excessively conventional degree (except for Liberal Studies, the rump of the experiment) is probably the single most decisive story of curricular importance in the history of our undergraduate programs; it is certainly the most interesting and instructive. Already one book has been written about it (awaiting publication), and no doubt there will be others.
At any rate, that phase is now over. We have a cloned curriculum in place, a new Vice President of Instruction, and apparently the blessing of the AUCC. So now, in September 2000, we settle in for the long haul, putting into place, within the limits set by the budget, the curriculum which our combined talents made out of the only opportunity we're ever going to get to redesign from scratch everything we do. There will still be plenty to keep us occupied, of course, but it will be the usual academic busy work essential to running a complex conventional bureaucracy, honing procedures and contracts, refining policy, worrying about our scholarly bona fides--as I mentioned, institutional rigor mortis.
Now that we are hiring only candidates with PhD's, the chances of having a faculty as young and wild as in the good old days are gone forever (even with all the retirements), and the new research impetus will make sure that whatever energies faculty do have left over from teaching they will direct away from the institution to distant colleagues who share the same narrowly defined interests. It's already quite evident that the cultural context within which we operate on campus has become greatly impoverished, and one main reason is not difficult to ascertain: the faculty are not putting the energies into it that they used to, but redirecting their efforts elsewhere, as they must in order to comply with the curriculum we have chosen.
It may not be insignificant that the first major conference we have had in this phase has to do, not with theatre, music, poetry, astronomy, forestry, curricular reform and so on, but with finding funding for academic research projects. And a future priority is going to be teaching the faculty to write acceptable scholarly papers. Sigh. A sign of the times.
Given my interest in Greek fatalism, the whole process has been (and continues to be) fascinating. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Still, I do occasionally feel sorry for new instructors who will never have the chance to experience Malaspina in its glorious youth (bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and so forth), new teachers who bring whatever youthful imaginative vigour they have left from their graduate degree work and run immediately into an iron-cage bureaucracy so stifling it leaves room only for business as usual--victims of institutional historical inevitability.
So it would be nice to keep alive some of the old stories as reminders of something or other. The loss of that early culture was no doubt inevitable, the shades of the prison house closing in around the growing boy, and so forth. Moreover, Malaspina is merely a small college on a remote island. Its history may not amount to a hill of beans in comparison with anything really important. But, hey, it is our history, and there might be some point in attending to it before we lose contact with those most vitally involved.
All of this by way of an invitation to you old-timers out there (you know who you are). Put some of your best (or worst) memories on record right here in the E-Coli, and let's assemble something of value (or at least embarrassing) about the way we were. Some memories we just cannot afford to lose forever.
Mitch Levine and a Very Close Associate
"Who killed cock Napster?"/ "I," said Rod Church, "to avert a disaster." So here at Malaspina, well before any court orders, we were shut off from our favorite free music source early in the summer, right in the middle of our specially funded professional development project to transfer all of AC/DC onto our office machine. Oh well, at least we got "All Night Long" onto the hard drive before the gates were slammed shut.
Dave Wadeson continues his campaign to paint the entire college yellow. Not content with decorating each stair and covering the campus with yellow warning signs ("Loading Area," "No Parking," "Piss Off, Dork!"), his ambitions are turning to larger projects. Next on the list are the buildings themselves. "Well, we do get lots of dead birds running into the windows of Building 355, and the structures clearly pose a threat to low-flying aircraft," he explained. Is this the result of the college's continuing paranoia about legal action? "It might be," said Dave, "but when your in-laws own paint stores, there are other concerns."
Stuck for some page-turning reading? Well, you can now purchase the PhD dissertations of all your colleagues ($57.00 each for bound copies), available through the Internet from a private firm called contentville.com. Someone in the National Archives must have been attending to the entrepreneurial call of the Alliance party. We can't imagine this site rivaling Stephen King's sales, but as one more sign of the commercialization of academia, it's worth a visit.
In its continuing effort to bring high quality professional development opportunities to Malaspina faculty, the MFA is bringing in a series of workshops, "How to Be A Total Faculty Asshole and Not Cost the College a Fortune in Legal Bills." Sessions will include details about the minimum apparent fairness required towards female applicants for instructional positions to avoid a human rights suit and special workshops on how to hone the standard faculty defense of oppressive attitudes ("What I say is free speech; if you object I'll sue") so that students offended when they feel they have been harassed will quickly give up in despair or in exhaustion from the interminable and expensive process. Judging from what's been going on around here the last few years, there should be no shortage of faculty who can speak to such a workshop from the depths of their own expertise.
Nice to see the tag team that brought us Liberal Studies is back in the news. In the July 1 issue of the Vancouver Sun, articles by Stan Persky and Gary Bauslaugh took up almost all of p. A19. We couldn't make it to the ending of either article, but then our lips do get tired quickly.
Worried about the social lives of your students? You might be interested in the experiment at William Woods University, Missouri, in which students are going to be paid to be social, up to $5000 per year (rebate on fees) if they can demonstrate that they have some sort of social life (bopping an instructor doesn't count). Good to see academia interested in such a problem, but amazing, isn't it, the lengths faculty will go to avoid having to making their own classes socially rewarding?
Those with fond (or not so fond) memories of Michael Oczko, Malaspina's most (ahem!) interesting classical music student, will be interested to learn that the ex-bad boy of Nanaimo is now leading the capitalist charge in post-glasnost Poland and has just purchased a castle to go with his urban apartments. Plans include a tourist hotel. It's a long way from setting up Cappy Yates Park as a welfare project.
Malaspina's most exclusive club, The Coven, announces its annual award in the on-going bridge tournament. Once again Maggie McCall easily triumphed over the opposition. Asked about her remarkable continuing success, the champion attributed it to a medal of St. Philomena she had secretly stashed in the overhead lamp shade. Coven stalwarts Anne Leavitt and Lisa McLean had alternative explanations (unfortunately unprintable in a family e-zine), although they are part of a plan to communicate with the Vatican the details of this miracle in an attempt to salvage the reputation of this demoted saint (Philomena, that is).
Plans are afoot to launch Russell McNeil's acting career in the major role of Werner Heisenberg in a local production of Copenhagen, a well-known new play about the famous meeting in 1941 between the father of the uncertainty principle and Niels Bohr. Production details, however, are, of course, uncertain. Meanwhile, Dr. McNeil is taking up temporary residence in a women's college in Oxford to see if their ancient manuscripts can help him sort out unresolved question of his identity.
We notice with some mild alarm that we are now being described as a College Professor in various public places beyond the lavatory wall, a re-Christening that puts us in mind of change of name of the Furies to the Kindly Ones. More evidence, I suppose, of how much some people want to sound more academically important than they really are. What, I wonder, are we really professing about ourselves in this change?
Colleagues and students should not be alarmed at the fact that Norm Cameron's crotch has been recently covered with dog snot. This, we have been assured, is part of a radically new study into the limits of symbiotic relationships in Nanaimo's Old City.
Let's finish with a poem (with apologies to WCW):
For A Lady
(suaviter et fortiter modo)
So much depends upon
Reigning white chickens
among the duskier crew.
[Back to Title Page of Volume I, Number 2]
Miscellaneous Stuff: Bullshit Bingo
Are You an Old Fart?
Old farts have lingered at Malaspina for a long time and thus retain some valued information. Test yourself to see if you qualify, partially qualify, or still have a long way to go. Check out the following questions:
1. Who is the man in the cartoon below, why are people shooting arrows at him, and what does he have to do with Malaspina (art by Yaku)?
2. How many presidents has Malaspina had in its history? Can you name them in order? Why did each one leave, and where did he go? Bonus question: How much money did each take with him as the golden handshake?
3. Who or what were the following: (a) Zane Ibrahim, (b) the Jack Nutt affair, (c) Ronnie Walker, (d) the World Youth Conference, (e) the Madrona Centre, (f) Mariko van Campen, (g) Heilwig von Koenigsloew, (h) the gymnasium collapse, (i) Bart Sorensen, (j) the Yes Mac Players (k) the meld, (l) the Masked Poet, (m) Tom Petrowitz, (n) Shakespeare Plus? (o) the Outhouse.
4. What theatre show officially opened the Malaspina College Theatre? Who was the director? What was the year?
5. When and where did Malaspina College mount a theatrical production of Midsummer Night's Dream? Can you name one person who acted in the production?
6. Why did Malaspina classes suddenly all move out of the college into a church hall? When did this take place? Where was the church?
7. What BC Premier gave a speech at Malaspina in the College Theatre?
Bullshit Bingo, Card 2
Okay, everyone knows the rules by now. At a meeting you cross out a word from the following grid as soon as someone says it. Once you have a vertical or horizontal row of terms all scratched out, you cry "Bullshit," and can then leave the meeting with no questions asked.
You are not allowed to cross out words which you yourself say. The card is good for three consecutive meetings.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
ZERO SUM GAME
WHOLE RAFT OF ISSUES
OUT OF THE LOOP
Points will also be handed out to those who submit suitable terms for future Bullshit Bingo cards. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Back to Table of Contents for Volume I, Issue 2]
SEND IN YOUR SUBMISSIONS FOR THE NEXT ISSUE NOW (PHOTOGRAPHS, GOSSIP, RUDE STORIES, WHATEVER)--TO JOHNSTOI@MALA.BC.CA