Sunday, December 30, 2007

Critical Mass

This year for Christmas Eve, I did something that I had never done before: I went to midnight mass. Now, I am not a Catholic, or even a Christian, but my best friend and I wanted to see the inside of the Cathedral, and this seemed as good a chance as any.

Having been, now, I have to say I was deeply moved. Not because of the religious content, mind you; I remain as committed a secular humanist as ever. And certainly not because it evoked the supposed "true meaning" of Christmas. No, I was moved because at every moment I could see that those responsible for the event were convinced that this was something to be taken absolutely seriously. The decoration, the music, even the man who held the door -- every detail was clearly done with one thought ever-present: this is no time to rush, or fake, or skimp. It must be done right and done well.

It is this kind of seriousness of purpose that often seems to me to be lacking in most human endeavours. Nearly everything, even very important things like education, and art, and architecture are very often done with half-efforts and a pervasive sense of something-is-better-than-nothing.

Christmas, happily enough, is often a time when people get a surge of seriousness, I think. It's only once a year, and if there is real value in the ceremonies of Christmas -- finding the right present, preparing the perfect meal -- maybe it is the chance, at least once a year, to take things seriously. To try, if only this one time, to get things just right.

So maybe I learned something about the true meaning of Christmas after all. See you all next year. Seriously.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


One of my favourite pastimes is making up words.

A little while back, I coined the word "earlate" which is what you are when you arrive early and then find something to do to kill some time, but kill too much and end up late. You were late, but you should get some credit for having been early in the first place. So you're earlate. I was very proud of that; I hope it catches on.

Here are a couple more of my recent neologisms:

Pressert: the sweet part of the meal you usually eat last but eaten before the main course. I sometimes indulge in pressert when I am too impatient to wait for the main course to come out of the oven.

Carbage: the mess of fast food containers, drink cans, and other junk that builds up in the back seat of a car. I make an effort to keep my carbage to a minimum but every time I look back there -- there it is.

Please use these words as often as you can, preferably in print and referring to this blog if at all possible. I would like to be in the OED someday. It's my OE-Destiny. Hey, there's another one.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Those of you who know me personally (are there strangers out there reading this? how on earth did you find it?), I have recently become single for the first time in a long time.

Now, relax, this is not going to be a long whine about how being single sucks and how I'm so lonely and how depressed I am about never finding someone again -- none of that applies to me. I'm doing just fine in my single life, thank you very much.

But being a single adult is not entirely what I expected it to be based on my TV and movie experiences.

For one thing, no one is trying to set me up. I was under the impression that people are always trying to set up single people with other people they know. I'm not sure I particularly want to be set up, but it is a bit unnerving to think that nobody has been sitting around and saying, "have I got a guy for you!"

Which brings me to the second thing that has surprised me about being single. Nobody cares. In the movies and TV, it's somehow the defining characteristic of any single person. It's like there's a ringing alarm bell going off the whole time. It's all anyone can talk about. But here I am going on with my life.

Different than it was, and different than I thought it would be.

Anybody free next Friday night?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


For a long time I have resented the term "academic" as applied to people in my profession because it seemed dangerously close to trivializing the work. People say, "it's all academic" to mean it doesn't really matter. I preferred the term "scholar" because it suggested the actual work of what someone like me does. Scholarship. Dignified. Important. Certainly not just academic.

But lately I've been more deeply involved in the administrative side of the university, and I have a better appreciation of all the various things that need to be done to keep this ship afloat. Moreover, I've found myself thinking more and more about the future of this place and how I might contribute to it.

And it occurs to me that being a professor is about more than one's own research and teaching and even more than what is blandly called "service" around here. To be a professor is to be a custodian of an ancient tradition. Often neglected, to be sure, often sullied by cupidity and small-mindedness no doubt, but somehow, through all the years there is still, miraculously, a place where people like me are paid good money to be high-minded idealists.

It irks me to have to keep track of receipts for printers and desks, and it wearies me to get terse emails from faculty who have been accidentally left off mailing lists or who have been assigned a course they don't want to teach. But through all that I manage to work slowly away on a book whose only effect when finished will be to help readers better understand a single play. I spend hours every week instructing a captive audience on how to better read poetry. If universities had never existed, the idea of spending millions of dollars on public money for such things would seem absurd to our pragmatic legislators. But here they are, and here I am. And a great many of my colleagues feel the same way.

In a small way we are like the great Plato himself who was taught by Socrates never to accept conventional wisdom but to question everything and to seek for virtue and truth, no matter how remote they may be. He called his school the Academy and people like me try to keep that spirit alive as best we can.

This is the academy. I am an academic.

Monday, May 28, 2007

About Face II

Since I wrote my earlier post about Facebook, I've thought alot about it, especially in light of numerous comments suggesting that the whole thing is nothing more than a fad. Maybe it is. But there's one question that keeps coming back to me.

Is the kind of social networking that happens on Facebook the first really new thing that the internet has given us?

Think about it. Most of what we do on the internet is really just faster or bigger version of things that we had been doing all along. Email is, as the name suggests, another kind of mail. Chat is a screened version of the telephone. Porn is porn, news is news, and online shopping is just a slightly faster version of what we used to call mail order.

In fact, the hubub over You-tube and Wikipedia has obscured the fact that the former is not much more than an elaborate take on America's Funniest Home Videos, and the latter is a rapid version of collaborative reference works like the Oxford English Dictionary.

But it's hard to find an obvious predecessor for Facebook. Even the paper facebooks of American universities (for which the site is named) are not really much like the site because of Facebook's interactivity and boundless connections. Internet social networking may be changing the way we relate to each other and the way we think of our world. It may be as big a development as regular mail delivery or the daily newspaper. Or it may be a fad. You know, the way the telephone was.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


As regular readers of this space will know, it was supposed to be heavy-items-pick-up week for garbage in my neighbourhood last week. I guess they're behind, though, because my heavy items are still there. I must say I am a little annoyed with the local authorities because through their negligence I have now gone from a guy throwing out heavy items to a guy who just has a pile of junk in his front yard. But that's not my point -- they'll get it eventually. I hope.

No, what I want to tell you is that the other night I was sitting in my living room when a car pulled up in front of my house. Out jumped one of the occupants who quickly apprised my heavy items, snatched up an old VCR that I had thrown out, got back in the car, and sped away. And it wasn't just the VCR either, by the way. My old lawn mower and weed eater had disappeared from the trash heap earlier in the week. And this very morning, my old cans and bottles were spirited away before the recycling truck could get to them. Now, I seem to recall hearing at one point that your garbage was yours until picked up by the municipality and that taking someone's garbage is stealing. But that's not my point -- I didn't want that junk anyway, and if someone else can make use of it, so much the better.

I suppose it was a little annoying that the people in question didn't ask if they could take it. It is on my property, after all, and wouldn't it be civil to knock on the door and say, "Sorry, but it looks as though you're throwing that out. Would you mind if I took it?"? But that's not my point, either -- this is not a part of the world where people stand on such ceremonies and that's fine.

No, what really bothered me about the incident was that somewhere along the line, I have become part of a class of people where my very refuse is valuable enough for people to search out and take for their own. Somehow have ascended to some kind of elite realm where stuff that is not even good enough to take up space in my closet is snapped up by eager passers-by.

My trash is literally another man's treasure.

Except for the junk that's still sitting there.

Monday, May 14, 2007


A little while ago a friend of mine referred to my TV as an "idiot box." It was a joke and I didn't take offense, but later I felt as though I should have defended my TV against the insult.

My lack of fortitude was brought into focus yesterday when I had the sad duty of putting an old TV in the garbage. It's heavy-items-collection week where I live and the TV is heavy and it doesn't really work any more, and it takes up valuable space in the closet, and so it has fallen victim to spring cleaning. But that TV was special; it was the first TV I ever bought, one of the first big things I ever bought on my own, in fact, and so that TV -- my first TV in a sense -- was part of the gradual, inexorable process that one day finds us as grown ups and wondering how it happened.

But through it all, one TV or another has been there. Keeping me company when I was alone, entertaining my friends when I was not. When I was a little kid we were just about the last family in my neighbourhood to have cable, and we begged my parents to get it to no avail. Then one day I came home from school for lunch and my mother suggested I eat my lunch at the TV, which was unusual. So I went downstairs and found the TV already on and tuned to a channel that we didn't get. And yet we did. We had cable! Of course, it's not the cable that gives this story a special place in my heart (I don't have cable now), or even that my parents caved and got it for us. It's that my mom knew how happy I would be and set it all up in advance so I could have a happy surprise. Thanks, Mom. And thanks, TV.

Not counting the one on the curb, I now have three TVs at my house -- each of which has its job. One anchors my movie obsession; one serves as a workout partner; one plays music for me on surprisingly good speakers. They never judge. They never complain. And the next time someone calls my TV an "idiot box" I know what I will say.

You can't talk about my friends that way.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Who would have thought I'd be at this two years later?

Looking over my archives, I'm amazed to see that I started this blog over two years ago. At that time everybody had a blog, it seemed, and I didn't want to be left out.

At the same time, I didn't really find very many blogs very interesting because they were so pointedly personal. They really were web logs, literally logging whatever the blogger had done that day. Today I got up and watched SNL from last night and then had a shower...

So I decided to make my blog more about thoughts I had that seemed a bit nutty if I brought them up in conversation, but somehow seemed dignified by prose. You can't just walk up to someone and say, hey, guess how I get rid of weeds! I redefine them! But somehow in the blog it sounds sort of funny, I think.

One of my favourite parts about blogging is that every once in a while people actually seem to have read what I've written. One reader told me it changed her mind about blogs in general which was a very nice compliment. Another told me she didn't get her schoolwork done one night because she went on my web site looking for research material and ended up reading the blog instead. I'm still not sure how to feel about that.

I've also been fascinated by which entries have garnered the most comments. Religion seems to get people talking -- and I heard a fair bit about my critique of Jesus take the Wheel. One of the few highly negative reactions I got, though not posted, came after my post about the war in Afghanistan -- which is understandable. And for some reason the issue of gendered bathrooms sparked a fair bit of debate. So the blog lets me keep up on the state of the culture, too, I guess.

So for those of you who have been loyal readers or who would like to be, keep reading when you can, and I'll write when I have a thought. And keep the comments coming. And tell your friends.

And we'll see where we are in a couple of years.

Friday, April 06, 2007

About Face

Recently it has been suggested to me that I am too critical and cynical in this blog and that I should write something positive for a change; it has also been suggested that I write something about the Facebook craze that I myself have recently become part of. So consider this a two-birds-one-stone entry for my loyal readers. Here goes.

I love Facebook.

For those of you out of the loop – as I myself was until recently – Facebook is a website that allows people to post personal profiles and then link to the profiles of other people in a variety of ways. It sounds simple enough – and it is – but it quickly becomes addictive. Looking at people's pictures, exchanging messages,and, my personal favourite, getting an updated “news feed” about what your friends are doing – this is how I've been spending my time lately. What are my friends woirking on? How are they feeling? Why are more than one of them pictured suggestively with fruits and vegetables?

Admittedly, Facebook stretches the concept of “friend” pretty far. Some of my “friends” are people I don't know all that well and some are people I haven't seen in years. But that is precisely the point: it lets you keep track of people that you wouldn't have time to catch up with otherwise, or that you had lost track of altogether, or that you've always wanted to know more about but were too shy to ask.

And I guess that's what I really love about Facebook. While so many people are out there using the internet for spreading hate or selling kiddie porn or trying to convince me that I can get millions simply by sending my bank account number to Namibia, Facebook is populated by people doing what we ought to be doing more often. Getting to know each other.

And if that's not positive, well I don't know what is.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The case for exams

A recent item in the local newspaper did something very difficult: it offended me. It offended me so much, in fact, that I have set aside my piles of late-semester work and turned to the blog to provide a rebuttal. Perhaps some of you are wondering what the point of exams is and have set aside your studying to surf the net. Let's consider the case against exams recently presented.

The author took aim at the practice of giving exams at universities, my own in particular. "They do not benefit students at all," said the author, so why have them? His critique was as follows:

1.Exams exist primarily as means by which professors torture their students by forcing them to submit to the "twisted formula" by which students are assessed and by which their efforts are graded. They are, our correspondent intones, "a new form of hell created by vindictive teachers and professors."

2. Students do not learn from exams and so they can only be a means by which the diabolical instructors, that is, the benighted ones who don't "get it," exercise their arbitrary authority over cowering students. The students, he says, are so terrified that they freeze and "are afraid to do anything," not even scratch an itch lest they be accused of misbehaving.

3. Once completed and graded, professors use exams to subject students to further "humiliation" and "punishment" by telling everyone who got the lowest grades.

I respond as follows:

1. Professors do not assign exams to be vindictive or because they have never considered any other means of evaluation. Rather, we provide exams because they are, by and large, an effective means of determining which students have acquired a mastery of the material and to what degree. Moreover, they do so in a means that is relatively objective and fair. What is the alternative? We simply spend a semester chatting and at the end, I assign whatever grade I feel like? Surely that would be open to much more abuse of power than most exams today. Exams are not perfect of course, but in many courses (my own included) they are not the only means of evaluation either.

2. To complain that students don't learn from exams is like complaining that thermometers are lousy heaters: it's true but it misses the point. Exams are not meant to teach; they are meant to test what students have learned. To have such a testing process is reasonable. If I go to a physician, it is not enough for me that she has merely explored ideas about medicine; I want to know that she has demonstrated her deep knowledge of the subject to experts in the field and has satisfied them that she knows what she's talking about. Indeed, the public has the right to expect this rigour of all university graduates. An English degree should mean that the holder has demonstrated knowledge of the English language and its literature and has shown skill in thinking and writing critically about those things. Exams may not benefit students directly, but universities exist not to serve individual students per se, but to serve society as a whole by providing meaningful education. In this sense, exams do benefit students because they help establish that their degrees actually mean something.

The notion that students are so frightened by exams that they can only sit and cower (and not, say, answer questions) is absurd. By the time they reach university, students have taken many exams and they know how to handle it. Good students realize that if they are well prepared, there is no need to panic. To be sure, most students do get stressed, but there is nothing wrong with that. Difficult things are difficult. A few may be stressed beyond healthy levels, but there are avenues by which such students can get help, including a university counseling service, an office for students with disabilities, and, of course, a range of public health services.

3. In my nine years as a university student and my seven years as a faculty member, I have never seen a professor reveal a student's low grade in class or use a bad grade to deliberately humiliate a student in front of peers. I cannot even recall knowing anyone (other than our columnist who never says he actually saw such a thing, only that "some professors" do it) who ever claimed to have witnessed this kind of event. Perhaps it has happened, but such an action would be grounds for a very serious complaint to the administration, not least of all because it would violate a student's legal right to privacy.

Exams, like thermometers, take a small sample and though they are not always exact, they are usually a good indication of what's going on. Just as you only need one thermometer to tell you how warm the whole pool is, one three hour exam is a good indication of what the student has learned in the past three months. The fact is, that good students writing fair exams do well. Students who are not well prepared have themselves to blame. If the exam is unfair, there are means of appeal. But in my experience, most professors bend over backwards to ensure that exams are fair if not downright easy. We provide review, sample questions, and advice on how to study effectively. My exams are given in a modular format to allow students to take breaks and leave the room if need be. I have more than one student this year who will be writing exams in the disability centre so that they can more easily focus on the questions.

The kind of critique that I outlined above and tried to refute is offensive not because it calls me stupid, vindictive, and Satanic -- I can handle that -- but because it speaks from an alarmingly anti-intellectual position, a position that eschews standards and rigour in favour of the nebulous "free flow of ideas" as though every idea is equally interesting and every suggestion equally true. But if that were the goal, why have universities and degrees at all? Our columnist, I suspect, like so many others, wants the benefit of an education without the real costs. He wants to be taught by learned men and women while sneering at the process by which they have become so. He wants the credential that says he is an educated man without having to show what he has done to deserve that credential.

So to all students, I say this. I know it's hard. It's good that it's hard. Really valuable things are usually hard to get. So take a deep breath, let it out, and let's all get back to work.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Jesus, give me a break...

Am I the only one who thinks that the (now) Grammy-award-winning song "Jesus, take the Wheel" is one of the worst hits ever recorded?

For those of you who have been living in blissful ignorance of this bit of pop culture bilge, it is the ballad of an ordinary woman who loses control of her car on an icy road and rather than, say, steer into the skid, throws up her hands and cries out "Jesus, take the wheel!" and is (I'm not kidding) miraculously saved. The experience causes her to repent her lack of faith and promises to let "Jesus take the wheel" from there on.

What bothers me most about this song is its unbelievably inane vision of life and of religious experience. On one level, this little ditty -- just about the most popular one in the world thanks to the media machine called American Idol that has made Woody Underwear a household name -- is an insult to religious people everywhere because it puts Christianity on about the level of the AAA. Christ as roadside assistance.

But of course the point is more profound than that. The story is a metaphor, but what is the metaphorical point? Apparently that the way to live in the world is to abandon all personal effort and let "Jesus" (as the Sunday school kids call him) control your life. And that to me, is the most horrifying part of the whole thing. Only the worst kind of zealot would suggest that human beings should exercise no agency in the world because, let's face it, the world has plenty of troubles and all the evidence so far indicates that if there is a God, he is not going to intervene to save us from ourselves (why not? well now, that's a question I would like to pose to Gordie Sampson, the Canadian author of this nugget of iron pyrite).

My point is not that Christianity, or any religion, is necessarily a terrible thing, but anyone who teaches, even by pseudo-Christian pop-culture allegory, that human beings do not have a profound responsibility to one another should be ashamed.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Weighing in on Small Business

In the circles in which I run (academics, progressives) there is a general feeling that small business is a fine thing. Local, independent operations, run by ordinary folk who call their customers by name and go that extra mile because of the pride they take in their work and in their communities -- this is the vision that is usually offered. By shopping at such places, I am told, I keep big corporations at bay and support the local economy.

It all sounds very nice and homey and wholesome. But I find it harder to believe every day.

Living in a moderate-sized town these past six and a half years, I've come to feel that a great many small businesses are small for a reason. If the operators knew what they were doing, they'd be bigger.

Today, for instance, I decided it was time to get a new bathroom scale (yeah, I wore the old one out, hardee-har-har...). So I set out into town to find the sort I wanted. Digital and modern, you know the kind I mean. Anyway, to the hardware store -- no dice. They had exactly one scale in stock and it was a crummy dial model. So the big grocery stores (these are stores that sell barbells and cell phones -- is a scale too big a leap?) but no luck at either of them. So on to the pharmacies (three different ones). The closest I got was when I was told they sometimes get them in around Christmas time. I almost asked if they sold time machines, then, but I'm trying to rein myself in these days.

So home it was, and on to the internet where I found just what I wanted at a site called Canadian Weigh. Stylish and modern my new scale is and packed with cool features. And it was on sale too. This company is going to be big.

So my hard-earned dollars that might have gone to the local economy -- might have if any one of six different stores had what I was in the market for -- has now gone elsewhere.

And no one in any of those stores knew my name.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Wonderful World of ISDY

Today I bring you a new feature: ISDY, short for "I'm So Disappointed in You."

This first installment shakes a disapproving head at the National Restaurant Association. As you may have read, a new commercial shows Britney Spears' ex Kevin Federline in a glitzy music video, but the gag is that it's just a fantasy sequence and poor Kevin is really working in a fast food restaurant.

So far so good -- until Steven Anderson, president of the NRA (the food people, remember, not the gun people) complains that -- wait for it -- the commercial is insulting to restaurant workers. Imagine suggesting that some restaurant workers might actually prefer to be doing something else, like, oh, I don't know, being rock stars.

Now, I have worked in restaurants in my time, and I will be the first to say that it is hard work; those who bust their butts to make an honest living and help people get their meals have my admiration. But let's face it, for virtually all fast-food workers, this is not their dream job. They didn't go to university and major in Rapid Gastronomy so they could fry burgers and mop up spilled ketchup. I dare Mr. Anderson to go into any McDonald's or Burger King and offer a million bucks to anyone who's willing to promise to never to work in the restaurant business again. Do you think he'd have any takers? Of course he would. The place would clear out. Why do think they have American Idol?

My point is that lobby groups like the NRA (butter, remember, not guns) should actually be working to improve the conditions of the people they represent. When people like Steven Anderson come out with frivolous complaints about insults that never were, it breeds cynicism about social action in general and undermines the credibility of those actually trying to improve the lives and rights of working people.

So, Steven Anderson and the National Restaurant Association, I have only this to say: I'm so disappointed in you.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Playing favourites

I'm going to let you in on three little secrets.

First, professors have favourite students.

Some don't like to talk about it, and some may pretend it isn't true, but its inevitable. Why? Not because we're "human" but because for the most part, professors get into professing because they want to inspire students the way they were inspired once upon a time. Now, I know that for some profs that has long worn off and their trying to get through the days without going crazy -- and not always succeeding. But those ones are in the minority. Professors care about what they're doing and they quite understandably want students to care too. And so when professors see two students, one carefully taking notes, the other staring at the wall, one actually listening, the other drawing cartoons in the margins of a scribbler, one asking intelligent questions and the other running off at every opportunity...well, which one of these students would make YOU feel like you're not wasting your life?

So here's another secret. I don't think that professors having favourites is such a bad thing.

The last secret is the secret to academic success. Find the professors you respect, the ones that really know their stuff, the ones that really care, the ones that really want you to learn. Then be their favourites.

TV Commercial Hall of Shame: New Members

1. Toyota -- for their entire new series of ads that claim there should no longer be a difference between Want and Need. You get the idea? If you want it, you need it. No need for self restraint, moderation, a healthy bank account. Don't spend money on the braces that your kid NEEDS, you WANT a shiny new car and that's just as important. Yes, what you want is now what you need. Toyota ad execs, how do you look at yourselves in the mirror?

2. PharmaChoice -- for their latest "It's like having a pharmacist for your best friend" commercial. In this one, a woman in a restaurant orders a glass of water whereupon her "friend" launches into a whole big speech about how she might have diabetes. If my friend said that I'd throw the water in her smug face. "Diabetes? Are you trying to scare me to death? You're not a doctor!" Pharmacists everywhere must be cringing.

[Note: Earlier I misidentified the company as PharmaSave. Apologies. I don't know what their commericals are like, but they're not these ones.]