Archive for Colby Cosh
Colby Cosh sorts out education, job training and credentials
When you join a national newspaper or magazine as a writer, you start getting a lot more email from three kinds of people: PR folks, the insane and journalism students. Over the past decade I must have had 30 or 40 appeals for help, interviews, or extensive advice from J-schoolers. More famous colleagues must be well into the hundreds. This seems pretty paradoxical, from a labour-market standpoint. Although Maclean’s is a happy exception, the overall enterprise of journalism is shrinking, not growing. At least it is if we’re talking about paid journalism. This goes double for paid print journalism, and triple for paid print general-interest journalism.
If I were to drop dead tomorrow, the column inches I left behind could be filled pretty easily, perhaps by a cat trained to walk across a keyboard. But the journalism students who want to know about my career path and trade secrets are not idlers. They are people who have already invested heavily in training and effort to take my job, or one like it. This is puzzling, not only because I have only the one job for dozens to fight over gladiator-style, but because I never bothered with any of this training myself. Nor did many of the people who haunt, or even boss, big Canadian news institutions.
Trudeau’s plan to enroll more Canadians misses the point
To read more by Colby Cosh, visit Macleans.ca
The Liberal Party of Canada held its third leadership debate over the weekend; you probably heard about how it led to an argument about the terrible things Martha said to Justin and what Marc said about what Martha said to Justin and whether or not there is actually anything in what Martha said to Justin… well, the news-cycle hivemind cannot help making things personal.
Something more interesting actually happened immediately before the debate, when Justin Trudeau published an op-ed on federal education policy—a self-evident attempt to deflect Marc Garneau’s criticisms of him for being a policy lightweight with no specific program. But I’m afraid reading the piece had me saying “If only!”
A Liberal Party led by me would make it the highest national economic priority to raise our post-secondary education rate…The Canadian promise, that if you get educated and work hard, you can guarantee a better life for yourself and for your kids, is being seriously questioned. Canadians are rightly concerned that their leaders have lost focus on the policy that is at the heart of this promise: access to affordable, high-quality education. So what should the federal role look like? It should be principled, specific and targeted at the overall goal of raising our participation rate from just over 50 per cent to 70 per cent.
Why Brigham Young University suspended its star basketball player
When Brigham Young University announced that it was suspending sophomore forward Brandon Davies for the closing weeks of a dream season by its men’s basketball team, many sports fans must have had thoughts of a flamboyant 51-year-old Irish Catholic who may be the greatest athlete in the annals of the school. Davies was punished for violating the Utah university’s strict honour code, apparently by having sex out of wedlock with his girlfriend. BYU, in theory, expects all students to live a “chaste and virtuous life” according to the rules of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—but Jim McMahon says it’s not so simple.
McMahon, whose colourful language and dress alone would have been enough to turn the honour code upside down, played at BYU for five years, starting out as the Cougars’ punter and going on to shred the record books as their quarterback. McMahon now recalls how BYU’s administration threw him out of the school with suspiciously convenient timing—the day after his last bowl game. “They said they had ‘just been informed’ that I was doing some things,” McMahon told Miami radio station WQAM last week. “You follow me around, you stake out my apartment. You don’t know what I’m doing? C’mon. They know what’s going on there.” The bon vivant Chicago Bears great, who re-enrolled at BYU last fall to pick up the handful of credits he needs to complete his degree, added that he “saw a lot of hypocrisy” at the university, saying of Davies that “some guys get caught, some guys don’t.”
That was 30 years ago, and McMahon, unlike Davies, was no homegrown star. All BYU undergraduates are bound by the honour code, which (unlike student-behaviour codes at most universities) sets standards for grooming, polite language and avoidance of addictive substances, including caffeinated beverages. The code applies on campus and off. But things are clearly a little different in practice for the few hundred non – Saints scattered among the school’s 34,000 students. Davies, a Mormon, grew up in Provo, home to BYU’s main campus, and led a local high school to two state titles. He is living the college experience under the unblinking gaze of his community, his church, and the administration of his university, all at once.
The loss of Davies represents a serious blow to the basketball Cougars’ chances in the NCAA Division I Championship—the annual orgy of gladiatorship and gambling more commonly known as March Madness, which begins on the 15th. The announcement of the suspension came hours after BYU was named America’s third-best team in weekly polls of reporters and NCAA coaches. The team is led by James “Jimmer” Fredette, a six-foot-two Mormon point guard from upstate New York who is expected to earn national player of the year honours. Fredette’s buffet of moves and devastating long-range shooting have made him one of the most cherished folk heroes in college basketball since the era of “Pistol Pete” Maravich. NBA star Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder called him “the greatest scorer in the world!!” in an admiring January tweet.
The six-foot-eight Davies has been one of the few plus-sized passing targets for Fredette and is the team’s top rebounder. In the first game after his suspension, BYU promptly lost 82-64 at home to unranked New Mexico as he watched glumly, wearing street clothes at the end of the bench. Literally dozens of other tournament-eligible teams will have lost good players to injury in the final weeks before March Madness, but the combination of Fredette’s national following and a slightly prurient media angle has turned Davies’s loss into melodrama. Fredette is in his final year of college eligibility and gives BYU, which last made the Elite Eight stage in 1981, its best ever chance at a Final Four appearance.
The drama emphasizes the unique challenges faced by a private, church-run school with a strong countercultural commitment to old-fashioned conduct. (See also: Notre Dame.) BYU is meant to be, among other things, an advertisement for the worldly excellence of the Latter-day Saints faith, and athletics are an ever-growing part of that enterprise. Davies, unlike Jim McMahon, could not easily be written off or accommodated hypocritically as a “rebel” and outsider. His misstep confronted his school with a tough choice: compromise the fate of a team on the verge of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, or consent to a slight but humiliating erosion of its principles. Thousands, including many who have no particular love for the Mormon faith as such, will be cheering for the Cougars to elude the horns of the dilemma.
Photos: By Bill Waugh/Reuters
An enterprise that has the silliness baked right in
I’m vexed when it comes to the subject of Mary-Lu Zahalan-Kennedy’s world-first “graduate degree in the Beatles”, which has made the Canadian singer and future Sheridan College instructor an ephemeral worldwide celebrity. The sneerers are out in force on the net, which was predictable, if weirdly anachronistic in the year 2011. Apparently the souls of those who got huffy about “more popular than Jesus” and the Boer War pensioners who couldn’t tell if the Beatles were male or female have somehow transmigrated into the bodies of present-day philistines.
Put simply, the Beatles are one of the pivotal cultural phenomena of the 20th century, and if they are beneath the notice of the liberal arts, then anything is. Any argument against graduate-level study of the Beatles—whose compositions Deryck Cooke, one of the greatest of musicologists, thought worthy of his attention—would extend readily to cover any popular idiom, throwing its penumbra naturally over operetta and ballet and zarzuela and the blues. Before you could say “Bach’s your uncle,” there would be nothing left of musicology at all beyond the deconstruction of fugues.
Moreover, the actual stuff of Zahalan-Kennedy’s thesis, unmentioned in most reports, sounds fascinating. Who knew that the Beatles hit big here in Canada as early as 1962? That’s a story worth re-telling after half a century. Maybe even in Maclean’s magazine!
But on the other hand…there is a heavy thumbprint of marketing on this piece of news, and it’s tough to watch Ms. Zahalan-Kennedy defending the seriousness of an enterprise that has the silliness baked right in. It’s tough, in part, because one senses that she will have to do it for the rest of her life. But there’s also the issue that her degree from Liverpool Hope University is hardly groundbreaking in any real respect; surely it’s just a bog-standard cultural-studies/history credential from an otherwise undistinguished (albeit conveniently situated) institution? The academy doesn’t really give out degrees “in” the Beatles, any more than it gives them out “in” Christopher Marlowe or Greek koiné or leptons, or for that matter the Dave Clark Five. It’s the process and the standards, not the particular subject matter, that are supposed to be the point.
As an assignment editor could probably figure out if he sat down and thought about it for a moment, there are probably dozens if not hundreds of people who have already received advanced degrees on the basis of Beatle-related thesis content. As Hunter Davies noted in his authorized biography-cum-handbook The Beatles:
In the early 1980s, I was asked to be an outside examiner for a student at London University who was doing a Ph.D. on the Beatles. I thought it was a leg-pull at first. I’d heard that some minor American universities had introduced such studies, but not any British ones, certainly not one as distinguished and rigorous as London University. I can still remember her name, Melody Ziff. She was, in fact, American, but London University had accepted her to study for a Ph.D. Her thesis, as I remember, was called “The Beatles’ lyrics as poetry”.
Today, there are universities, colleges, and schools all over the globe, eminent and otherwise, offering courses that include a study of the Beatles…
The philistines will question the “cash value” of close study of the Beatles, and while that is beside the point, it still seems remarkable given the unquestionably enormous number of people, from the time of the Monkees to that of Oasis, who have made millionaires of themselves by raiding the Beatles’ bag of tricks. There have to be at least as many of those as there are rich economists or physicists.
Dorms face a ‘major problem’ and when kids come home, you could too
Imagine you’re a bedbug—a creepy nocturnal creature, maybe no bigger than an apple seed, that craves human blood. Times are good for you right now in North America. DDT once rendered your species a distant memory, a revolting relic found only in children’s rhymes. But you’ve evolved immunity to the short-lived, environmentally friendly insecticides of today, and you’re on the march. So where would you prefer to nest and spread your progeny? You’d look for a communal setting, one where people are frequently moving and swapping furniture. Tidiness is a minus; substance-induced inertia a plus. The ideal host population would include sheltered young people who have never seen a bedbug or learned to recognize its excreta.
“Universities are in the line of fire,” declares Don McCarthy, president of Braemar Pest Control in Bedford, N.S., and board member of the Canadian Pest Management Association. “You’ve got transient populations. You’ve got a lot of the social aspects that come with being at university—your buddies come over and sleep over; everybody’s going back and forth to parties and study sessions. There is not a major university anywhere in North America that does not know this is a major problem, whether or not they have it.”
There is no evidence bedbugs can transmit disease, and their whole modus operandi is to be noticed as little as possible. But news of their presence can ward off visitors and clients as effectively as any plague—as retailers are discovering in New York City, where flagship stores for franchises such as Niketown and Victoria’s Secret have had to close temporarily to address infestations, and as Toronto learned in August when a mere Internet whisper had Toronto International Film Festival organizers double-checking venues.
News of on-campus infestations occasionally slips through to public notice. Ryerson University in Toronto has had intermittent problems dating back to at least 2006. The same is true of the University of Alberta, which had to evacuate and treat the entire 20-storey Newton Place residence in 2008. McGill was hit tornado-fashion in 2007 and 2008, with New Residence Hall, MORE House, and Solin Hall all affected. The University of Calgary admits to a steady “one or two cases per year,” according to spokesman Grady Semmens. Humber College in Toronto is following up a positive finding last month with a campus-wide sweep of residences using bedbug-detecting dogs.
At Simon Fraser University, bug-sniffer dogs have become a familiar sight; the school uses them pre-emptively, checking every residence once a year shortly after the start of classes. “SFU has not been immune to the bedbug problem,” says Chris Rogerson, associate director of residence life. “No multi-unit housing provider is.”
But Rogerson emphasizes that universities enjoy advantages that private apartments or social housing don’t. “Universities have departments like mine whose job is to educate tenants, dispel myths and misconceptions, and organize quick reactions to problems,” he observes. “We encourage early reporting, and our attitude is, address the bug, not the person.” That’s why the dogs are brought in after the students arrive. “We don’t get into saying, ‘Well, the unit was clean before you got here.’ The best defence is to make sure there’s no stigma attached, so students don’t decide to suffer in silence.”
Routine pre-emptive inspections are becoming part of the arsenal for many schools, according to Mike Goldman, owner of Toronto’s Purity Pest Control and a pioneer of bedbug training for dogs. “Universities have to deal with students, but ultimately they also have to deal with parents,” says Goldman. (Some of those parents may be worried about secondary infestations acquired on home visits; bedbugs aren’t avid travellers, but they can be transmitted in laundry or other personal effects, a potential worry as thousands head back home for Thanksgiving weekend.) “Nobody wants to get the ‘What kind of school are you running over there?’ call.” Dogs can detect live bedbugs super-accurately, but Goldman says they work better when students are given advance notice to tidy up and minimize distraction. “They’re bedbugs,” he says. “The dog and I have to be able to get to the bed.”
Maclean’s speaks with Ann Coulter
Ezra Levant, who was present at the venue for tonight’s aborted Ann Coulter talk at the University of Ottawa, spotted my quickie weblog entry about the cancelled event and had me chat briefly with the leggy agitator. Coulter tells Maclean’s she never had the chance to move on from a private dinner reception at which she was signing books, meeting local conservatives, and waiting for the all-clear from her bodyguard, who was on the scene at the university. “I was just reviewing my speech. It was a fine little speech, and by the way, I cut it down so we could have an extensive question-and-answer period. I gathered that I was going to have a very exciting crowd tonight.”
The police, Coulter says, “had been warning my bodyguard all day that they were putting up [messages] on Facebook: ‘Bring rocks, bring sticks, you gotta hurt Ann Coulter tonight, don’t let her speak.’ And the cops eventually said, we’ve got a bad feeling, this isn’t gonna happen. And they shut it down.”
Coulter agrees with the suggestion that conservative speakers face greater dangers and nuisances in trying to encounter audiences on university campuses. “I speak at a lot of college campuses and I need a bodyguard… Michael Moore does not; Judy Rebick does not. I think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could have spoken tonight with less controversy.” She dismisses the possibility, however, that things are ever likely to change. “Unfortunately, conservatives are too polite, so they will never get a taste of their own medicine in that regard, in terms of angry mobs with sticks and rocks.”
She accuses the University of Ottawa’s academic vice-president, Francois Houle, of “inspiring hatred” toward her with his epistolary warning to her that she needed to be conscious of Canada’s criminal prohibitions of hate speech. Indeed, she says she intends, with Levant’s help, to ask police to proceed with exactly the same charges against Houle.
“He described the law to me very carefully—any speech that incites hatred toward someone based on membership in an identifiable group can be criminally prosecuted. Well, before I even set foot in Canada, he had identified me as having criminal proclivities because I belong to an identifiable group: conservatives. Or it could be because I’m a Christian, I’m a Presbyterian. I’m a female conservative. If what Francois Houle did to me is not a hate crime, then nothing is.”
After the event was cancelled by the police, Coulter says she went to her hotel room to relax and had a surreal moment. “I was watching the local news, which was all hockey and Ann Coulter, and some nut came on claiming that he was the organizer behind my speech. [murmurs in background] OK, his name is Craig Chandler. I sent an e-mail to my bodyguard saying Craig Chandler is disinvited from the event in Calgary. He’s on TV claiming to be the organizer and denouncing me!”
The actual “scientific” literature on learning styles is virtually nonexistent
A new study in the APS journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest [PDF] inquires into the scientific basis for one of the most influential fashions in current pedagogy: the idea that different students have different kinds of optimal “learning styles.” The number of “learning style” taxonomies being peddled by various authors and theorists is in the dozens. It’s a lucrative business, as Pashler et al. point out, and it has gotten a firm toehold in the public schools and education textbooks (and, he might have added, in homeschooling literature). One of the most popular theories is the “VARK” schema, which sorts the human species into visual, aural, “read/write”, and kinesthetic learners.
If you’re like me, you may have encountered this notion in the guise of somebody’s excuse for doing poorly, or for somebody else doing poorly, on a course or a test. I suspect that the younger you are, the more likely you are to have heard it. And I sometimes suspect, heaven forgive me, that the function of much educational research is to keep parents supplied with such excuses—to provide middle-class children with prefabricated “sick roles,” in the argot of sociology. But I digress.
It is obvious and empirically demonstrable that many students do possess specifiable permanent preferences for learning by means of one sensory mode or another. In practice, this is how most “learning styles” handbooks and articles recommend sorting students into style types: by asking ‘em what type they are. No teacher really has time to do the sorting by means of a validated test. With younger students, who have not yet learned their own preferred “modalities” through trial-and-error and introspection and (perhaps) plenty of frustration and difficulty, the educator may be left to use intuition and guesswork. Some feel confident in their judgment; some don’t.
The question Harold Pashler and his group set out to answer was whether there is any strong scientific evidence for “learning styles” at all. It’s not enough, they argue, to show that people have preferences. The relevant version of the “learning styles” hypothesis is that students will actually benefit from receiving instruction that matches their preferences—what the authors call the “meshing hypothesis”.
Confirming that hypothesis to a scientific standard, they suggest, would not be particularly difficult. It is child’s play to design a randomized, controlled experiment to test it: take two groups of learners sorted into “style” groups by whatever method you like, select a common learning task, have a randomly-chosen half of each group work on the task by their preferred/optimal means and the other half learn the “wrong way”, and test everybody. Bam. If you find a significant “crossover interaction”—instructional mode Q works best for the Q group, but X works best for the X group—the “meshing hypothesis” wins.