Archive for Todd Pettigrew
Todd Pettigrew, PhD, is Associate Professor English at Cape Breton University. He blogs for Maclean's OnCampus on university issues. Follow him on Facebook (Pettigrew On Campus) and on Twitter (@toddpettigrew).
Now some students want to ban energy drinks.
Nothing, it seems, is safe anymore on university campuses. Many campuses have banned smoking in parts or all of campus. Some have banned bottled water.
But this week, things reached a new low.
Yes, students at St. FX are proposing a ban on energy drinks.
As part of a class project, a group of students at the Antigonish university want Red Bull and friends booted into the Strait of Canso because it is, they maintain, inconsistent with a healthy lifestyle.
Sadly, such a proposal is in keeping with the recent trend towards unbridled self-righteousness when it comes to health. We have long since moved past encouraging people to eat well and get plenty of exercise. Today, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is approached as though it were a moral issue. An unhealthy choice, it now seems, is not only potentially unwise — it must be stopped.
But energy drinks are not monsters. Not even the one actually called Monster. Sure, they contain caffeine, but a can of Rockstar — my personal favourite — contains around 80 mg of caffeine. According to this data provided by the Mayo Clinic, that’s considerably less than an ordinary cup of coffee, and just over half of what’s in a Starbucks Latte. And some may be loaded with sugar, but a lot of people like sugar. It’s really catching on. And, believe it or not, there are other goods in the world besides health. Pleasure is one. And so is freedom. And so is a boost of energy when your term paper is almost due.
Part of becoming an adult is learning that almost every activity requires a balancing of benefits against costs. The joys of a night with one’s drinking buddies must be weighed against the sickness and fatigue of the morning after. Even activities like running — often thought of as a quintessential part of a healthy lifestyle — have potential health risks in the form of joint injury and damage to the heart when done to excess. And avoiding excess, as in so many things, is the key to the healthy use of energy drinks, too.
In a free society, banning anything (even in a limited area like a university) should come as a last resort and be reserved for only the most serious of dangers. Deadly toxins. Guns. Powerful explosives. A can of Amp doesn’t qualify.
Photos of disrepair on campus don’t tell the whole story
Every Monday I teach in a classroom that, I must admit, is not my favourite. It has a dusty old chalkboard (I know, chalk!), and several ceiling tiles are missing. A couple of the windows are caked with so much salty residue that one can barely see through them, and a fluorescent light is burnt out. There are two lecterns in the room and both are broken—though one has been hastily repaired with a piece of cardboard.
It’s just not a great room in which to teach.
So I get the motivations of a new generation of staff and students seeking to shame their universities into improving facilities. One prof at Hunter College in New York started tweeting pictures of holes she saw on campus and now has a blog called Holes at Hunter. A similar blog, Classrooms of Shame, seeks to draw attention to such “deplorable conditions.” In Canada, too, blogs like I heart SFU show similar pictures and a prof at Memorial University recently went public with complaints about mould and asbestos on his campus.
Why Canadians shouldn’t feel so smug about this video
A video is making the rounds showing students at Harvard University struggling to answer a simple question of world geography: what is the capital of Canada? Canadians love this game. We congratulate ourselves for knowing plenty about the US while looking down our nose at Americans who know nothing about us. And the fact that even the best and brightest Americans—Harvard students no less—are so ignorant, well that’s just the whipped cream on the ice cream isn’t it?
But it’s a silly game and we should stop playing it.
For one thing, in videos like this there is no way of telling how many students came up with Ottawa but weren’t shown in the final edit. For another, we should acknowledge that at least most of the students seemed embarrassed by the fact that they didn’t know. And besides, Canada, unlike the UK or France or Japan, is one of those cases where the capital city is not the largest or most prominent city—so it’s a tricky question. I bet most Canadian students think the capital of Australia is Sydney.
But the main reason we should stop finding ways to feel superior to Americans when it comes to a world knowledge, is that, if we faced facts, we would have to admit that we are not much better. Sure we know a fair bit about the US because we are awash in American media, but what about the rest of the world?
Indeed, if you are a Canadian university student, why not take a little test right now? Consider, for example, the world’s ten most populous countries. Can you list all of them? And if you can, can you name the capital cities of each of them? I’m going to assume that you know the capital of China is Beijing, but what about India? Mumbai? Guess again.
Put your hand up if you know the capital of Brazil. Now put it down if you thought it was Rio de Janeiro—it’s actually Brasilia. Do you know the capital of Pakistan, the world’s sixth most populous country? How about Nigeria, the seventh? Can you name any cities in Nigeria?
Don’t get me wrong: I think world knowledge is important. But there is a lot more to knowing about the world than knowing game-show style trivia. It’s more important to me that people know more about efforts to reduce poverty in Bangladesh than the fact that its capital is Dhaka.
Let’s hope they are studying that at Harvard. And everywhere else.
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.
Why I side with students who won’t wear the red poppy
Students at the University of Ottawa came under fire this week for supporting the white poppy campaign, a drive to get people to wear a white poppy rather than the traditional red one, on the grounds that the red poppy can be seen as a tacit support of war itself. Since white is traditionally associated with peace, the white poppy is meant to meant to support remembrance but with an emphasis on peace rather than war itself.
This piece in The Toronto Sun sneers at students for “hopping aboard” a “left wing” bandwagon. The Minister of Veterans Affairs jumped in too, calling the campaign “totally disrespectful.” Meanwhile, over at the National Post, Matt Gurney claims that the “very existence” of the campaign “is insulting by its implication that the red poppy glorifies war.”
Too bad. The red poppy does glorify war. And it has been so successful in doing so that it seems as though its supporters don’t even realize they are doing it. Celyn Dufay, the Ottawa student at the centre of this imbroglio is quite right in explaining, simply enough, “we want to work for peace.”
Prof. Pettigrew on the reaction to an email that went viral
Once, when I was just a young professor, I dashed off an angry email to a colleague regarding a certain administrator who, in my judgement, had not lived up to his promises when it came to funding a project I was working on. But after I sent the email, a troubling thought struck me. What if the person I sent it to forwarded the message to someone else, who ended up copying the administrator in question, and so on. And if he were to scroll down…
Fortunately, nothing came of it, but I made a rule for myself that I try to follow to this day in my professional life: never email something that you wouldn’t be willing to have everyone read. Because you never know—everyone might.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Rachel Slocum devises a similar rule for herself in the future. Slocum is the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse professor whose email blaming right wing Republicans for the fact that her students couldn’t access course material—all owing to the partial government shut down caused by Washington gridlock over the budget—caused outrage after it was widely circulated on the internet.
Customers are always right. Students aren’t.
The University of British Columbia announced this week that they will be creating a giant focus group to help guide university decisions. “The results of the surveys,” we are told, ”will help UBC design new programs, make changes in courses, update communications and improve service to students and alumni.”
Clearly, the Canadian academy has crossed a line. It wasn’t very long ago that any university would blush at such shameless consumerism. Today, it seems, we are proud of it.
But wait, I hear you saying, what’s wrong with universities finding out what their students and alumni think? Why not take their views into account? To a certain extent such an objection is reasonable, but UBC is not just getting input on superficial matters like what flowers to plant or what their web site should look like; they are seeking input on courses and programs too.
Prof. Pettigrew considers Rate My Professors
One of the things that professors frequently discuss when students are not around is the whole set of difficulties faced by female professors in an academy, and indeed a world, that has historically been dominated by men.
So I was very interested to see this piece by student Easha Acharya, who argues that female professors have a harder time of it because students are biased against them. The idea here is that students are accustomed to the idea of a male professor, and are thus less comfortable with female profs. As a result, she argues, students see the authoritative male professor as normal and right while efforts to be authoritative by women are perceived as overly aggressive.
I was intrigued by this piece because my own intuitive sense on the matter was nearly the reverse. My sense has been that female professors are viewed by students are friendlier, more approachable, and more helpful than males who are seen as aloof, difficult, and arrogant.
Curious, I gathered some quick data and did some rough and dirty analysis. Drawing on the scores from Rate My Professors (which is already problematic, but provides accessible public data), I calculated the average rating for English professors in my department based on gender. I only considered tenure and tenure-track faculty (which fortunately gives about an even split). This admittedly small and local sample did nothing to support Acharya and only a little to support me. The average score out of five for men was 3.54. The average for women: 3.86. So students seem to prefer the female English profs in my department, but only by a small margin.
But gender, of course, is not the only characteristic against which one might be biased, so I tried breaking down the same numbers along a different line, age. Here the distinction was a bit greater. Professors under 50 scored, on average, 3.96 out of five, while profs over 50 scored 3.4. This might seem counterintuitive. Shouldn’t older, more experienced professors be better teachers? Or are they increasingly tired and jaded? Do students tend to prefer professors closer to their own age (or at least their parents’ age)?
To complicate matters further, these two variables may play off each other. I have heard it said among professors that older women are more subject to bias than their equally aged male counterparts. Where an older man might seem like a wise sage, the older woman is interpreted more and more like an elderly lady whose day is long past.
All of this raises troubling questions for universities. Where precisely are the biases? Do they apply equally in all disciplines? How can they be combated? And most of all, as this piece cited by Acharya points out, is it not another reason to call into question the value of student evaluations of university professors?
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.
Prof. Pettigrew on the limits of ‘teach what you love’
I don’t like Spenser’s Faerie Queene, but when I first taught Introduction to English Literature,there it was on my syllabus. I felt like I had to include it, so I did. When the time came to teach it, I gave some background, including an account of an earlier poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Once we got to Spenser though, I quickly realized my students weren’t liking it, because I didn’t like it. They had picked up on my enthusiasm for Sir Gawain, and wanted to know more about that Green Knight guy.
So I learned a good lesson: teach what you love, not what you think you’re supposed to teach.
This same principle, taken to an absurd extreme, has also been adopted by University of Toronto English Instructor David Gilmour, who got folks excited yesterday when he was quoted in an interview saying that he had no interest in teaching female writers because he only taught what he was passionate about: “Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”
Prof. Pettigrew on religious accommodation
Every Friday, my university cafeteria serves fish and chips. I’m not a big fan of fish and chips myself, so I don’t particularly look forward to it, but it does always make me pause and recall the ways in which even generally secular universities often hold on to their religious pasts.
The fish and chips, of course, descend from the days when Catholics were expected to avoid meat on Fridays, itself a remnant from older practices of fasting ahead of the sabbath.
Even as one whose views of religion at universities ranges from the skeptical to the hostile, I can’t get too worked up over these last vestiges of religion in public funded schools. I doubt very many people even realize why they serve fish on Fridays and, someday, they likely won’t.
But tolerating the not-quite vanished traditions of a dying tradition is one thing: encouraging faith-based observances at a public university is quite another.
And so it was with some concern that I noted that the University of Regina has gone so far as to install special sinks to facilitate the washing that observant Muslims do in preparation for their prayers. U of R has also created a dedicated prayer space for Muslims as well.
Individuals, not “rape culture,” are at fault here
By now, anyone who reads the news will have heard of the appalling frosh-week chant at Saint Mary’s University in which students loudly proclaimed their interest in raping everyone’s little sister.
Appropriately, everyone was outraged. The news media was all over it, administrators fell over themselves to apologize, the student leader apologized, and there’s sensitivity training all around.
That was the right response. But these days it seems that we are no longer satisfied with bad behaviour being punished appropriately. It’s not enough that those who have done wrong are brought to account. Today, it seems, everyone must be brought to account for everything.
And so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see this editorial in the Dalhousie Gazette blaming me, you, and everyone we knew for the gormless barking of the leg-humping Huskies of Saint Mary’s.
Prof. Pettigrew on the Collegiate Learning Assessment
When I was in high school, my favourite teacher was an old-fashioned English instructor I will call Mr. Hunter. One day, we wrote a test in class. I can’t recall the precise format for the test, but whatever it was it wasn’t the sort we were used to. When we were done, each our tests was graded by a fellow student. Then, to our surprise, Mr. Hunter had us say aloud what grade we got on the test so he could record it in his grade book.
I doubt teachers could get away with that today—privacy or self-esteem or whatever—but as the numbers were read, it became clear that the students we all knew to be good students had scored well, and lesser students, not so well. At the end, Mr. Hunter looked up and smiled and asked, “It doesn’t really matter what kind of test it is does it?”
I think about that class from time to time when I am pondering my own testing procedures, and I thought about it again recently when I was sent this little polemic about the new Collegiate Learning Assessment in the USA. If you haven’t heard, the CLA is a test that will be taken by graduating students to show just how much they have learned while at university.
Smaller budgets for arts and sciences aren’t inevitable
If you are my age or younger, you probably can’t remember many times when universities weren’t under financial pressure. When I was an undergraduate in Ontario, everyone was talking about underfunding and rising tuition fees. Today, my university in Nova Scotia continues to deal with annual government cuts. Residents of other provinces can, no doubt, fill in their own stories.
The news that the University of Alberta is suspending enrollment in twenty arts programs is, in a sense, no surprise.
There are plenty of complexities here to be sure. U of A keeps reminding people that not very many students will be directly affected by these cuts since most of the programs are small, and some students may be able to get what they need in similar programs. Besides, U of A is cutting science seats too.
Conversely, others have pointed out that some of these programs should be small (it’s unsafe to have large numbers of students in technical theatre classes, for instance), and cutting tiny, low-cost programs like classical languages can’t possibly save much money. Oh, and in science, they are only cutting enrollments, which is not the same as cutting programs.
Why even the Oslo bomber deserves an education
Once, I had a killer in my class. Well, to be precise, he was enrolled in one of my distance education courses. And, as I gathered, he didn’t actually kill anyone, but he assisted in a crime where people were killed, and that got him sent to the Kingston Penitentiary where he was preparing for his eventual release by taking university courses.
In a way, I admired that student. He had, of course, made some terrible choices, but he had accepted the consequences and was, slowly, trying to position himself for a future where he could contribute in a positive way. That was over 15 years ago. I hope he’s out now. I hope he’s using his education.
I thought about that student recently, when I learned that a much more terrible criminal, convicted mass murderer and all-around wacko Anders Breivik , was not allowed to enroll in courses at the University of Oslo, despite the fact that prison officials were willing to allow the convicted killer to study in his cell.
Professor Pettigrew on watching a discipline come of age
It was recently pointed out to me that the new director of the Institute of Women’s Studies at the University of Ottawa is a man, Michael Orsini. According to this interview, Orsini thought there might be flack from fellow scholars. Instead, got only bad jokes in the elevator. Not only do I not have a problem with a man running a Women’s Studies centre, I think it’s a positively good thing.
When I was an English major at the University of Western Ontario in the early 90s, the Women’s Studies Program there was just getting going. The new department was given swanky digs in historic University College and issued glossy ads with an elegant lavendar colour palette. Clearly the university was taking this seriously.
One day I found myself in conversation with a disgruntled friend who was complaining about two students in her Women’s Studies class who were ruining the course because, as she explained, they didn’t “accept that there’s patriarchy” and without everyone accepting that the world had always been run by men for the benefit of men, the course kept getting bogged down in arguments over basic assumptions.
Prof. Pettigrew on students ditching STEM
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal seems awfully disappointed in America’s science students, zinging would-be science grads for switching majors when they learn that science and math are hard.
The Journal cites a new paper that looks at data from Berea College which does, indeed, find that science disciplines tend to be the ones that university students switch out of, not into. Their results accord with my own anecdotal sense: many students start in science but find that it’s not for them and change to the arts or what have you. Moreover, in my experience, few arts students have much academic interest in science per se—and many of them actively fear mathematics—so few students switch into science. This, more or less, is borne out by the numbers in this particular study, for, as the authors conclude:
We find that students enter college as open to a major in science as to any other major, but that relatively few students finish school with science as their outcome. This occurs because, relative to other majors, students are both more likely to leave science (if they started in science) and are less likely to change into science (if they started in a major other than science).
Prof. Pettigrew on digital scapegoats
When you teach at Cape Breton University, as I do, you get used to a certain amount of (mostly undeserved) sneering from those at other larger or richer or older Nova Scotia universities—which is more or less all of them. So it is always a bit of a guilty pleasure for me to see those same universities embarrassed by their students.
I must confess to feeling a little bit of Freude at the Schaden suffered by Dalhousie University this week when a report emerged that not only were many of Dalhousie’s engineering students failing their courses, but that they had determined the nefarious cause behind the failures.
Yes, according to the CBC, “dozens” of such students are in danger of failing out of the program because, say the students, they have been unable to resist the siren song of social media. At least one student quoted in the story is trying to solve the problem by cancelling his Facebook account.
Prof. Pettigrew on how the genius truly viewed education
If there is one thing the internet loves, it’s an inspirational quotation from a famous person. In all manner of fonts, with all degrees of accuracy in punctuation, and with all manner of colourful photography, we are exhorted to improve ourselves, to accept ourselves for who we are, to be kind and compassionate to all, and to never take crap from a world full of idiots.
Well, it’s the internet—you can’t expect consistency.
The quotation-based memes often touch on education and intelligence, and among the most ubiquitous is the following remark attributed to Albert Einstein:
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
This professor is troubled by a lack of resilience
A new report about the state of health among Canadian university students has prompted the usual hand-wringing in the media. The Montreal Gazette, for instance, calls the findings “troubling” and “grim” and notes that many university students feel overwhelmed, anxious, and in some cases, suicidal.
Even without seeing the report, one might be skeptical of such reactions. After all, take any large survey of people and you are going to find some who are having a rough go of it. And given that university students tend to be younger, experiencing big life transitions, and under pressure to perform at a high level, a certain number of cracks in the foundation are to be expected.
But when I looked at the statistics for myself, I too was troubled. Just not for the reasons that everyone else is. I was struck not by how many students are having difficulty, but, rather, by how many of them are not.
Universities shouldn’t fire scholars just for being mean
Dear obese PhD applicants: If you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation. #truth.
As you might imagine, cyberspace went nuts, calling Miller lots of nasty names, calling for his resignation, and hinting darkly at the possibility of legal action. Many outlets then took a closer look at some of Miller’s other public statements including the time he wondered whether women might be wise to schedule job interviews while they are ovulating because, he said, they are more sexually attractive then. There are also renewed questions about his ideas and involvement in Chinese eugenics—as in this article which seems to equate wealth with intelligence, and ends with an allusion to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—Miller seems unaware of the fact that the novel actually condemns biological manipulation for social benefit.
Sensitivity only reinforces stereotype of Muslims as violent
An event that has become all too common in our benighted century is the suppressing of anti-Muslim sentiment over fears of retribution. Canadians will recall it happening, for instance, at the University of Prince Edward Island in 2006.
More recently, the Australian National University made international headlines, when the student newspaper there was barred from running a satirical graphic about Islam.
The Woroni had already skewered other religions, but when it got to Islam, university officials stepped in, saying that the piece might gain “traction” in social media and could spark violent protests. The university’s vice-Chancellor called the graphic “offensive and discriminatory” and hinted that the Koran should be off-limits because of “very unfortunate side effects.” Even Civil Liberties Australia defended the Uni. Crikey!