All Posts Tagged With: "Universities"
Universities are ground zero of the locavore movement
Students are leading a shift from greasy grub to gourmet fare. Here are scenes from the locavore movement on campus. See the full photo essay in the 2014 Maclean’s University Rankings issue.
Prof. Pettigrew on why universities can’t divest
Here, Cape Breton University Professor Todd Pettigrew argues that divesting from “unethical” companies isn’t as easy as activists make it sound. After reading his commentary, check out Torrance Coste’s argument in favour of divestment.
I served, for a brief time, on the Board of Governors of Cape Breton University, and one thing I did during that period was speak in favour of looking into ethical investments. After all, we know from the proverbs that money talks. So if we are talking with our money, why not have it say something important?
Ethical investing, I argued at the time, seemed all the more urgent in the context of university education. If we are trying to teach our students to think critically, shouldn’t we ask tough questions about scholarship endowments and pension funds? Should we give scholarship funds to a student studying, let’s say, social justice, and then tell that student not to worry where that money came from?
The Maclean’s ranking tool lets you mix and match data from the most recent edition of the Maclean’s University Rankings to build your own, customized university ranking.
Maclean’s ranks Canadian universities on a range of performance indicators in six broad areas, assigning a weight to each indicator that determines how much it contributes to the final score. The ranking tool lets you select whichever indicators matter most to you and lets you decide how much weight you want to give to each indicator.
For example, Maclean’s weights the Student/Faculty Ratio indicator at 10%. That means each university’s performance on this indicator contributes 10% to their final score. If you place a high value on access to your professors, you can weight this indicator at a higher percentage. You can customize a ranking based on this indicator and just two or three others but give 50% of the weight to Student/Faculty Ratio. Or you could choose this indicator along with up to six others, but still give Student/Faculty Ratio the heaviest weight. You decide.
How it works:
Select the performance indicators that most interest you. You can select up to seven at a time.
Then click NEXT.
Assign a weight to each of the indicators that you have chosen based on how much you want each to contribute to the final score. The total must add up to 100 per cent.
Then click NEXT.
Select the universities you wish to compare. You can choose all universities, or select by region, such as universities in the West, Ontario, Quebec or the Atlantic region. Or you can create your own list of up to 49 individual institutions.
Then click NEXT.
Our ranking tool will perform the calculations using the indicators, weights and schools that you have chosen. Voila! Your own personalized ranking of Canadian universities.
Note: Ranking for the Personalized University Ranking Tool is not calculated in the same way as the annual Maclean’s university rankings. Though the two use common data, the rankings use a statistical percentile method and are three separate rankings, one for each of the three categories of universities: Primarily Undergraduate, Comprehensive and Medical-Doctoral. As such, results obtained from this online tool may not agree with the Maclean’s annual rankings, even if the same set of weights are applied to the indicators.
How the traditional university is under attack from all sides
The epic battle waged between Gábor Lukács and the University of Manitoba, which ended last week, has shone an unflattering light onto the state of academic integrity at our universities.
Listening to most recent observers, one would think that our universities need to be completely “reinvented” because professors spend too much time either not teaching at all or at least not teaching practical job skills.
But the Lukács case shows what’s really wrong.
As universities become increasingly defined by their administrations—as opposed to their faculty—the traditional values of higher education come under assault from all sides: from management, from the public, and even from the associations that represent professors themselves.
Prof. Pettigrew explains his support for more open urination
If you want evidence that universities are places where basic assumptions are questioned, check out this story about students in Regina and Winnipeg pushing for gender-neutral washrooms.
The point of such gender-neutral facilities is to provide a place for those who do not fit neatly into the normal divisions of male and female. If this seems confusing, consider the case of an old undergraduate buddy of mine who I will call “Andy.” Andy was, genetically speaking, female, but had her hair cropped short and liked to sport a Greek fisherman hat with a men’s shirt and jeans. She was tall and fit and if you were just passing by her on the street you would be hard-pressed to fit her into the usual categories of men and women. That, of course, was sort of the point. Once, a mean-spirited store-owner mistook her for an effeminate man: “You look like a girl,” he sneered.
Why so many students dream of working for the government
It can be lonely for recruiters manning the booths for big banks or retailers at Ryerson University’s student job fairs. “The government agencies get a lot more attention,” says Ian Ingles, the organizer of the Toronto events.
That’s no surprise, considering the statistics. In a recent survey for Studentawards.com, 30 per cent of university students picked the government of Canada as their employer of choice. Then came Health Canada. Provincial governments did well too, beating out all of the banks and the video game developers. Even the trendiest private sector companies, Apple and Google, couldn’t beat the federal agencies.The results echo another recent survey of nearly 10,000 Canadian students by research firm Universum. In it, arts graduates, for example, gave the government of Canada, the provincial governments and Health Canada gold, silver and bronze respectively.
The recession explains some of the zeal for the civil service. During the rough days of 2009, students got the message that private companies were shedding employees while government workers were relatively unaffected: there was a record-setting 4,000 applications for 106 Ontario government internships in early 2009.
But how to explain the post-recession jump in applications for the same internship program? Last March, even with many private sector employers hiring graduates again, applications to the annual program grew by more than 20 per cent to just over 5,000 for 76 spots.
Demographics—and the altruistic goals of new graduates—best explain the march toward public service, says Sandra Botha, a campus recruiter for the government of British Columbia. Modern immigrants to Canada are proud to work for the government, she says. “Many students perceive a government job as having a lot of prestige, because it did in their parents’ country of origin,” she explains. “We have many more Chinese-Canadians applying in B.C., and if you come from China, working for the government is considered the job.”
The government would have been the only job available for Elias Samuel had he stayed in his native Ethiopia, he says. “You don’t really have any other options if you graduate from engineering,” says the 2010 graduate of Brandon University. Samuel fled his country as a refugee after he was threatened by police for demonstrating against the dictatorship. Still, he maintains a strong desire to work in the public sector. He’s even considering a master’s degree in statistics to improve his chances of landing a government gig.
Samuel says working for the government will teach him skills to help change the world. “Canada is a very democratic government and everything works smoothly,” he says. “Maybe if I worked for the government here, then I could one day go back to my country and implement change to the system,” he says.
Botha has witnessed strong altruism among Canadian-born students too. “If we have an external position posted for anything environmental, we have huge numbers of people applying,” she says. “They all want to make a difference to climate change.”
That may explain the growing number of degree programs directed at students with big plans for the planet. Trent University recently accepted the first class of students into its new masters in sustainability studies program, which includes political science courses to prepare students for work in government ministries. The University of Guelph is currently training Canada’s first ever Ph.D.s in international development studies.
David Turpin, the president of the University of Victoria, says more students want to change the world than ever, but he has another explanation for the lure of the government gig: they are successfully fighting the stereotype that the public service is boring, he says. That’s something Ingles, the Ryerson career expert, says he’s noticed too.
Of course, pensions, perks, and job security are nothing to sneeze at. Manvi Kapoor, a soon-to-be human resources graduate of Ryerson University, says the high starting wage was why she applied to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services two summers ago. The benefits—including life insurance, guaranteed nine-to-five workdays, and plenty of vacation time—are the reasons she’ll go back. There’s no need to re-apply; even summer students have enviable job security.
Kapoor sees one potential snag in her future plans. “People of my generation are really restless to move up quickly,” she says. “But because of the good job security in government, people stay in their jobs 10 years or more before ever making a move.” That could slow things down. “If I want to move up, I’ll have to wait for people to literally die off one by one,” she says.
MOU is DOA.
Recently, there was something of a buzz here in Atlantic Canada over a new memorandum of agreement among universities and First Nations. Media reports called the MOU “historic” and implied that it would begin a new era that would see a swell of participation in higher education among Aboriginal Canadians in the Atlantic region.
If the reports could be believed, the news would be very good indeed. It is no secret after all, that while many aboriginals have excelled at the highest levels of education, as a group, Aboriginal Canadians are less likely than Canadians in general to attend university and to earn university degrees. According to this AUCC report, only 8 per cent of aboriginals complete university, and this Statscan report shows how aboriginal women have educational attainment rates well below non-aboriginal women. And since university education has the real benefits of broader knowledge and sharper skills, as well as other vaguely imagined values that might also sway an employer or lending agency, higher education can be one way to ameliorate the poverty that disproportionately affects many aboriginals.
But look more closely at the news reports and you realize that amid all the smokey, shop-worn rhetoric, there is no mention of actual programs or policies. Indeed, nowhere could I find any indication of any concrete programs designed to tackle the problems of aboriginal higher education. Instead, the news churns out a series of cliches that are as soporific as watching someone yawn. For instance:
The deal is “is designed to open the door to higher education.” (Chronicle Herald)
The deal represents a “new start” for Aboriginals (Daily Gleaner)
It’s a “unique partnership” that is “innovative.” (CCLA)
The deal “will contribute to fundamentally changing our communities for the future.” (CBC)
All of this is fine. I’m not in against opening doors or starting anew, but real changes require real solutions. Real change means specific policies and targets. It means hiring people with specific job descriptions and offices and resources. What is actually going to be done? Is there to be more money to fund bursaries and scholarships for aboriginal students? Will there be extra tutoring programs to help students stay in high school and better prepare for university in the first place? Will there be additional academic advisors hired at universities to help students cope with cultural differences and the expectations of university life? Or are there other programs based on needs that haven’t occurred to me?
In the hopes that the problem was with the media reports and not the agreement itself, I started looking around for a copy of the actual MOU. When I first encountered it, on the APCFNC web site, I literally did not recognize it based on the descriptions I had read. Where every media account that I have read suggests that this is an education inititaive (variations on the phrase “opens doors to education” are in almost every article), the actual MOU makes scant reference to education. In fact, the full title of the document is “Memorandum of Understanding with the Atlantic Region Universities Covering collaboration in Research.” That’s right, it’s an agreement whereby universities promise to do more research on economic issues relating to Aboriginal Canadians.
Still, the universities have committed to doing more work in this area, so that’s good right?
It would be if the MOU actually committed universities to anything. But it doesn’t. The language of the agreement includes so much vague and conditional language that the agreement really doesn’t bind any university to anything. Consider, this key passage, for instance:
This MOU does not require any of the Universities to fund research projects and related initiatives, but the Universities are expected, subject to financial and operation constraints, to assist with the implantation of the AAEDIRP where possible.
In other words, if, in three years, the university signatories have done nothing, they can, in all honesty, say they have not broken the understanding, because it did not require them to do anything in the first place. And any frustrated expectations can be explained away as being impossible because of ”operation constraints” which could be any reason at all.
Still, the MOU would be a nice gesture towards a worthy goal, except for the fact that it is being presented as a great step forward in getting more aboriginals into universities. The MOU specifies four objectives, and all are related directly to research on economic development. There is nothing there about getting more undergraduate aboriginal students into Atlantic universities. In fact, the only mention of students in the MOU is in the context of students working on research projects, and even then, every reference but one is specifically to graduate students. Again, I have nothing against getting more aboriginal grad students involved in research, but since grad students, by definition, have already graduated from at least one program, research help for grad students won’t help improve aboriginal participation in the system overall.
Universities should work with First Nations in the areas of research and higher education. What they should not do, however, is create vague agreements that commit themselves to nothing and then pretend that they are going to make a big difference. It gives the false impression that something is actually being done about one of our most pressing national issues.
The answer may enrage you.
Having posted over a hundred entries to this blog on university affairs, I may seem foolish asking a question like “what is a university?” Shouldn’t I know? Isn’t it obvious? Does it really matter?
As some philosopher said regarding time, I know what a university is — so long as nobody asks me, so I was curious as to what my own definition would look like if I tried to spell it out. The answer is not obvious, though, because a university has not always meant the same thing over the centuries, and it does not necessarily mean the same thing to everyone now. And it matters because very often the arguments we have about universities turn on our assumptions about what universities are and what they ought to be. Recent debates over certain religious universities in Canada, provide one obvious example. What follows then is my initial, and admittedly provisional attempt to define what we ought to consider a university in this country. I hope it provides readers with some food for thought and some opportunity for debate.
1. A university has two principal functions: providing instruction on matters of intellectual importance and conducting research on those same matters.
2. These two functions, to the extent reasonably possible, should support one another. University teaching, therefore, is distinguished from other modes of education not only by seeking the highest levels of sophistication, but also by deriving its vitality from the atmosphere of on-going discovery fostered at the institution. For this reason, most, if not all courses at a university should be taught by faculty who are active researchers in the disciplines in which they teach. Conversely, research ought not to be done in isolation from teaching. Researchers should be open to allowing issues that arise in teaching to suggest new research questions and, where feasible, students, both undergraduate and graduate, should be given opportunities to participate in research.
3. Because strong intellectual work can only be done in an atmosphere where scholars feel free to take risks, challenge conventions, and change their minds, universities must foster an environment that prizes intellectual freedom. Except in cases of illegal conduct, violence, or flagrant abuse of the trust placed in faculty members, universities should never seek to sway, silence, intimidate, threaten, or otherwise influence faculty members to take, renounce, or be silent on any particular position, nor to control or monitor controversial actions. Indeed, universities should take all legal action necessary to defend the academic integrity and freedom of the scholars associated with it. Academic freedom is a right of individual scholars, not of universities themselves or their administrations. Therefore, no university should seek to impinge on the academic freedom of a scholar by claiming it has an institutional freedom to do so.
4. Though university education should provide the kind of intellectual enrichment that would serve any graduate well in the working world, university education should never be construed solely or even primarily as a path to employment. Even in disciplines with obvious professional connections such as education or law, the university should first aim to teach the history, theoretical underpinnings, crucial knowledge, and critical skills necessary to build a profound understanding of the discipline. A university law program, for example, should aim primarily to produce graduates with a profound understanding of law, rather than lawyers, per se.
5. A university has one additional secondary function: to serve as a cultural touchstone in its community to encourage all members of the public to participate in the life of the mind. Universities should, within reasonable limits and without needlessly detracting from its primary missions, sponsor and host artistic performances and displays, public talks, open debates, and other events that excite interest in intellectual pursuits, broadly construed.
This to me seems like a good starting point for a real, meaningful debate on what a university should be. Some readers might object and say that I have simply described Canadian universities as they are. To the extent that that is true, we should consider ourselves lucky, and seek to conserve and develop what we already have. But as the case of Trinity Western and Redeemer have demonstrated, not all institutions that consider themselves universities would sign on to all five of my criteria — particularly the part about academic freedom. Quest University, the new private institution in BC, would certainly not qualify because it does not expect its profs to be researchers, for example. And it’s not just those universities: I think you would be hard-pressed to find many university administrators or any politicians who would endorse number 4.
In any case, what we mean by the term “university” is a debate that we have to continue to have in this country. Have at it.
University inspired them to change the world. College gave them the tools to do it.
University graduates are tossing their mortarboards in the air, sliding their degrees into the filing cabinet—and then heading straight to college. In Ontario, applications for postgraduate diploma programs (which accept only university grads) have jumped 21 per cent since 2007. In Atlantic Canada and Western Canada, college programs that recruited high school grads a decade ago have become de facto postgrads with most applicants already holding degrees. Dianne Twombly, the manager of York University’s career centre, has noticed the trend on her campus, too, and she thinks she understands why. “As more and more students get bachelor’s degrees, postgrads are a way to distinguish yourself—a way to get an edge.” York has seen so much interest, it’s offering at least one postgrad workshop each month.
Aisling Nolan, a 27-year-old philosophy graduate of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., attended university and then college, rather than a master’s program. Her university degree helped her understand what she wants to do with her life—help people overseas. Once she knew that, she was ready for the one-year college certificate in international development from Humber College, because it promised practical skills and connections to put her plan into action.
Students tell what they really think about their university, from the quality of their profs to whether they feel they get the runaround
Here you will ﬁnd additional results from the Canadian University Survey Consortium (CUSC). The CUSC survey, which was commissioned by the universities, asks more than 100 questions about specific aspects of the undergraduate experience—inside the classroom and beyond—designed to provide universities with data to help them assess programs and services.
Each year, the survey targets one of three student populations: first-year students, graduating students and all undergrads. In 2010, 39 campuses took part, administering an online questionnaire to a random sample of approximately 1,000 first-year students at each university. Institutions with fewer than 1,000 first-year students surveyed them all. In total, more than 12,500 students took part with an overall response rate of 39 per cent.
Students need to be taught writing skills before they get to university
As the former editor-in-chief of a student newspaper, I’ve seen some pretty poor writing. So I was pretty interested in Maggie Gilmour’s piece from last week about the poor quality of student writing in universities.
I think the problem is that primary and secondary schools just aren’t doing a good job of teaching writing and they’re doing an exceptionally bad job when it comes to teaching grammar.
I definitely learned more about proper grammar from the Canadian Press Stylebook, while working at the Concordian, than I ever did in a classroom and that’s a real problem. If there’s anything that shouldn’t be an extracurricular it’s the study of grammar.
When it comes to writing and grammar, the best way to learn is by doing. Reading plays an important role in the development of writing skills but students should also be editing each others’ work from an early age.
I hate to say it, but there’s also a role here for plain old memorization. I remember my entire grade seven English class repeating “I will not spell a lot as one word” over and over again. Crude? Yes. Effective? Absolutely.
Most importantly, students need to be taught the importance of grammar and how it relates to meaning.
If we want to fix this problem, we may have to look at universities. Just like students in every other program, education students are coming to university with poor writing skills and if elementary and high school teachers don’t have strong grammar, what hope do their students have?
If governments won’t support the liberal arts, someone else is going to have to do it.
Canadians have for many years been justly proud of their system of public universities. And as with publicly-insured health care, our system of government-funded universities serves as a means to distinguish us from the U.S. Sure, we say, Harvard and Yale may be great schools, but their costs make them almost exclusively for the elite few, while working-class Americans have to settle for modest state schools or community colleges that no one takes seriously. Here in Canada, by contrast, anyone can go to any of our high quality public universities.
So far, so good, but the times are changing, and changing fast. It is increasingly an accepted article of faith among university administrators and government officials alike that universities are economic levers. As such, programs that seem to have a clear economic benefit — business, engineering, computer science — are increasingly understood as the disciplines that matter, while the traditional areas of studies — the liberal arts in particular — are viewed as old-fashioned, irrelevant, and economically unsustainable.
Like many professors of the humanities, I have railed against this view, with no success. No matter how many times people like me argue that education ought not to be mainly about training workers who can create value for corporations, the march of the Philistines goes on. No matter how many times people like me point out that research shows how liberal arts grads actually end up doing better economically than graduates from applied programs, English Literature still appears to be the discipline you can’t do anything with, while Entrepreneurship seems street smart and savvy.
So be it. Governments have the right to fund what they see as important and if the electorate doesn’t make an issue of it, I suppose we shouldn’t expect our politicians to do so either. The barbarians aren’t at the gate: they’re in the cockpit.
But if governments refuse to properly fund and support and promote the liberal arts, they should allow — indeed, by all rights they must allow — the creation of private universities for those same liberal arts. It’s one thing to deny funds to such programs. It’s entirely another to deny the whole populace the right to pursue the kinds of education they want. Notice, by the way, that I am not talking about for-profit institutions, only institutions that do not rely on regular government funding.
Can such institutions be viable? I think they can be, though the gestation period will be long and difficult. For one thing, they would require a certain amount of start-up capital, and that would mean private donors. But building a foundation of private donations is not impossible, and many existing universities got their start just that way. Such donations would go mainly towards building and furnishing a building (or renovating an existing structure), providing books for the library, and creating an endowment from which an annual investment revenue could be drawn to continue to cover the maintenance costs.
Once a base of donations has been gathered and the start-up costs have been covered, the running of a small liberal arts college is actually extremely cost efficient. Without expensive labs and scientific equipment, and with an endowment to help cover day-to-day costs, the largest expense for such an institution would be faculty salaries, and these could be covered through tuition. I could imagine a small, credible liberal arts university with, let’s say, five departments: Literature, History, Philosophy, Anthropology/Sociology, and Languages. We could tweak the exact organization and complement, but let’s start there for argument’s sake. Now, let’s imagine five members in each department, and let’s say every faculty member teaches 3 courses per year with 30 students in each class. That’s enough room for 450 students taking a full course load. Now, let’s say each of those students pays something near the top end of the existing Canadian tuition scale (and why not for an elite liberal arts school?) or $7000 per year. That’s about $3.2 million in revenue. Our 25 faculty members, making, let’s say $75 000 per year, cost about $1.9 million for their salaries, leaving us a surplus of over a million dollars to spend on other things such as administrative costs.
Readers might argue with the particular details and the exact arithmetic, but the basic point holds: a small, private liberal arts university would not be particularly expensive to run. And with a small faculty and student body, the army of administrative staff that bogs down the budgets of other universities could be largely, though not entirely, avoided. There would be no need for Deans or Chairs or their secretaries. Similarly, by focusing only on academics, needless expenses like football teams can be forgone, too. Many aspects of campus life — residences, food services, the bookstore — could support themselves with the revenue they generate.
But why would anyone go there? For one thing, there is still a large number of students (and parents) who understand that the joys of communing with the great minds of our past and present are too great to pass up. Moreover, such a university would attract the very best scholars and teachers in the relevant fields, because Canadian liberal arts professors generally feel undervalued and would jump at the chance to teach in a small university dedicated only to their disciplines.
Moreover, employers would scramble to hire graduates from my little university because they would recognize that their well-developed curiosity, imagination, and critical faculties make them much more valuable in the long run than graduates from public universities trained in technologies that will be obsolete in five years. And so students will be all the more eager to attend, knowing that a degree from Pettigrew University really means something.
But wait, don’t such colleges already exist as public universities? They do, but given current trends, they won’t in the long run, and those who want to save the liberal arts traditions from the unexamined dustbin of history have to start preparing now. If we don’t, the last university liberal arts program will be cut by the end of the century, long after there are enough people left who remember why it mattered.
But to start now we need to do two things. First, start keeping your eye out for rich people who want to leave a legacy akin to, say, the Stanford family and when you find them, encourage them to establish a foundation for a private liberal arts university. And get them to tell their friends, too. Second, give up the notion that Canadian universities all have to remain public and get your provincial government to give it up, too.
Once you’ve done those things, contact me, and I will take it from there.
Don’t assume your teachers don’t care because they don’t chase you down
I’ve never liked asking teachers for help. There’s something I’ve always found uncomfortable about asking anything more than whether I’ve picked a suitable topic for an essay. But learning to ask for help can be extremely important for new university students.
Related: To impress a prof
In high school if you missed an assignment your teachers probably noticed, they probably even spoke to you. Don’t expect this in university. Many classes don’t have regular assignments and even in those that do, your professors probably aren’t going to say anything. It might be easy to make the assumption that they don’t care, but that isn’t usually the case. The fact is you’re an adult now and they expect you to take responsibility for your work, it’s not their job to track down missing assignments.
A couple years ago I fell behind in an assignment-heavy class. My program has a policy that late assignments would not be accepted and I didn’t think to ask whether exceptions could be made. Looking at the remaining assignments and their mark values I realized that passing the class would be almost impossible and, in view of impending failure, I discontinued the class.
Last year, I got into a similar situation. I had fallen behind in a workshop class. Passing would be extremely difficult and there was no chance of getting a good mark. But this time I decided to talk to the professor, who agreed to accept the assignments I’d missed with the caveat that some marks would be deducted for lateness. While my final mark wasn’t perfect, it was higher than it would have been if I hadn’t talked to the professor.
Sure, talking to your professors won’t solve every academic problem but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Just because something is the policy of your program doesn’t mean it’s written in stone.
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.”
In the juggle of priorities on campus, books are falling off the shelf
Last month, the University of Texas at San Antonio announced it had built the world’s first bookless library. Its Applied Engineering and Technology Library offers access to 425,000 e-books and 18,000 e-journal subscriptions, and librarians say they’ve yet to hear a complaint from the 350-plus students and faculty who pass through its doors daily. “We’ve gotten no negative feedback,” says Krisellen Maloney, library dean at the University of Texas. “We looked at circulation rates, we looked at electronic resources, we looked at requests, and we decided that having the services was more important than the physical books.” She adds bluntly: “When we prioritized the needs, the books weren’t the priority.”
It used to be that the size of a collection defined a library’s greatness, but now with access to online academic journals and e-books, a large physical collection doesn’t yield the same competitive advantage.
Now the bookless trend is taking hold in Canada, where more and more libraries are expanding their electronic resources. “My own institution has increased its holdings exponentially,” says Ernie Ingles, vice-provost and chief librarian at the University of Alberta and president of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL). “Virtually 90 per cent of our journals are electronic now, without print equivalents, and I believe we have approaching one million e-books in one kind or another.” Ingles says that all the members of CARL, including the University of British Columbia, the University of Ottawa and Dalhousie University, are moving in a similar direction.
However, Roger Schonfeld, research manager at Ithaka S+R, a non-profit research organization that focuses on the impact of digital media in academia, cautions that digital materials can be censored or restricted.
Recall in July 2009 when Amazon deleted copies of George Orwell’s novels Animal Farm and 1984 from people’s Kindle devices over a licensing spat with a publisher. Also, smaller universities with tighter budgets that can’t afford an electronic archive can find themselves in a precarious position. “What we’re discovering is yes, you buy the archive, but then you have to buy access to the platform that the archive sits on,” says Marie DeYoung, university librarian at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. “You’re always paying money hand over fist to the publishers because they own the content and they frequently own how you access the content.”
But it’s not just about accessing the information, it’s how well students are able to navigate through it.
Since the Internet became ubiquitous, DeYoung’s role as a librarian has changed dramatically. In the past, DeYoung says she might have spent 10 or 15 minutes with a student, but now the average time has increased to an hour. “When they’re asking us for assistance, it’s not for the easy stuff anymore, it’s the hard stuff,” says DeYoung. Gohar Ashoughian, university librarian at the University of Northern British Columbia, is managing a pilot project called iRoam, which sees five librarians armed with iPads roaming the libraries acting as a “mobile reference service.” When students need help they can page a roaming librarian who will then come and provide support. Ashoughian says the pilot is a success.
Servicing readers is only one part of the library, though. “We’re in the business of preservation as well,” says Ingles, “making sure that these assets are available many, many years into the future.” Ingles says digital is no less ephemeral than print. He is working to address “bit rot”: the “digital medium itself will deteriorate over relatively short periods of time, five, 10, 15 years.”
But for all the easy access and quantity of online scholarship, Mitch Renaud, 21, in the third year of his composition music major at the University of Toronto, says there’s “a privilege to having a large library.”
Renaud, who frequents the music library, says, sure, there are holes in the collection, but “there’s quite a bit of that that is difficult to find online.” And while he enjoys accessing digital resources like Oxford’s Grove Music Online, he says that “a lot of learning a piece is to be able to write on the music, and make notes on interpretive things to do.” Laptops and the Kindle or iPad can’t replicate that—yet. Renaud adds: “There’s something about being in the Hart House library that would be lost sitting at home in front of a computer terminal.”
Still, without the library’s real estate being taken up by print, the University of Texas’s Maloney says the space is now full of students instead of books. “If you’re walking through any of our libraries, you see students studying all over the place,” says Maloney. “It’s the heart of the university.”
Look east to see that all universities are not the same.
I am getting really tired of people protesting too much the state of Canada’s universities in general but describing big, central and western Canadian research universities in particular.
Oil executive Gwyn Morgan gives us the latest salvo, blasting today’s universities. At our modern universities, he contends:
1. Little attention is given to the teaching abilities of faculty when it comes to hiring and promotion.
2. Faculty hate undergraduate teaching and get their grad students to do it if they can.
3. Students, at least in first year, sit silently, listening to dry recitations of material that could easily be found in the textbook or online.
4. Students only attend classes because they are coerced by pop quizzes and other underhanded methods.
I’m not entirely certain this is broadly true at any university in Canada, and I can say with confidence that it is generally not the case at other small eastern Canadian universities. Indeed, I can say with certainty that none of the above matches very well with the reality at my own august institution. To wit:
1. At my university, teaching is taken just as seriously as research when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions.
2. Small universities like mine don’t have grad students for the most part so teaching is not foisted upon them. In any case, I can’t think of a single colleague of mine who hates teaching. Perhaps there are one or two who would do only research if they were allowed to, but those are, by far, in the minority. Based on my interactions with faculty at places like Acadia and UPEI, the same seems to hold true at other small maritime institutions. If you are a faculty member at a small east coast Canadian school and you despise teaching, let me know.
3. Unlike classes at the big research schools that Morgan seems to have in mind, classes at my university are small, even at the first year level. In my department, first year classes are capped at 30-45 students and upper-year classes rarely have more than 20 students in them. But even in my first year class (enrollment of about 40), the emphasis is on learning to read literature as a set of skills and as a habit of mind. Most students are reluctant to talk in first year, but even so, the class is not simply a monody of cold facts; I help my students understand what it is to read creatively and to think critically. It’s a year-long dialogue.
4. Some professors may reward attendance with grades, but I certainly don’t. To my mind, the benefit of attending classes should be obvious to students: you learn interesting things and take part in interesting discussions.
Indeed, it’s amazing to me that Morgan concludes his essay by wishing for something that already exists:
What if formal lectures were eliminated altogether, in favour of informal, smaller group discussions with those talented scholars? Think of how much richer the teaching and learning experience could be.
Could be? Nay, Morgan, it is. You just have to know where to look for it.
The tragic death of a Queen’s student has renewed calls for a crackdown that is already well under way
Natasha Zapanta, a cheery first-year Queen’s University business student in a perfectly manicured first-week outfit, won’t be telling her grandchildren about any Old School-worthy hijinks. Frosh week for this 17-year-old involved scavenger hunts, a video dance party and “Commerce Cares”—random acts of kindness visited upon unsuspecting fellow students by commerce freshmen. “There was nighttime partying,” she admits, “but we just stayed in the residence hall.” Most of her friends are also 17, below Ontario’s legal drinking age and, while alcohol is readily available, they’ve been warned not to indulge.
For biochemistry major Connor Forbes, the week was so low-key it threatened to dampen that famous Queen’s school spirit altogether. The gloom extended even to the engineering faculty, where students were this year banned from the school’s ancient move-in day tradition, in which engineers paint themselves purple and taunt incoming freshmen. Engineering society president Victoria Pleavin, citing complaints, sent an email to all engineering students warning them that anyone caught engaged in the practice would be escorted off campus. “Move-in day was really an introduction to the fun of the school and gave you a sense of community,” says Forbes. “The event is gone and we don’t know if it’s coming back. They took it away.”
Such moves followed a raft of measures taken by Queen’s administrators aimed at taming the furor surrounding frosh week—and, it seems, everything else too. Last year, the university cancelled its infamously out-of-control homecoming event, which newspapers have become fond of noting cost over $200,000 to police. Queen’s also vowed to curb freshmen excesses by stamping out the likes of “Slosh the Frosh” and “Sauce the Boss” because, according to senate meeting minutes last year, they “put students at risk.” The clampdown is, depending on your politics, already a success. Says John Pierce, interim associate VP and dean of student affairs: “By last Thursday, I was getting reports that, ‘Well—jeez!—frosh is going better than it has before!’ ”
And yet even these stringent measures could not prevent tragedy. Last Monday, Queen’s students on their way to rugby practice discovered the body of Cameron Bruce, an 18-year-old freshman from Connecticut, on the lawn outside his residence, just hours before he was to start classes. The night before, Bruce had attended an engineering banquet—a sort of last hurrah to end engineering frosh week. After dinner, he walked back to residence with friends. What happened next is still shrouded in mystery: police suspect no foul play, and they’re investigating whether alcohol played a role in the incident.
News of the death brought the inevitable newspaper editorial: “Be it the mass drunkenness of Aberdeen Street or young people getting a dubious initiation to booze in peer-pressure-filled orientation activities,” wrote the Kingston Whig-Standard, “the greater community has long quietly wondered: what will it take for Queen’s to do something about this? Does someone have to die?” The incident’s significance was not lost on students: “I think it’s the beginning of the end of frosh week,” one told Maclean’s.
No, actually. It’s the end of frosh, full stop—not just at Queen’s, but everywhere. A generation of children raised in an era so risk-averse that schools ripped seesaws, parallel bars and fireman’s poles from playgrounds has come of age and gone to university. The halcyon days, when freshers set cars and couches ablaze and guzzled beer at university-sanctioned keggers, now grow dim and will soon become distant memories. Many schools have retired the word “frosh” altogether, preferring less festive words like “orientation”; at the University of Ottawa, freshmen are referred to by the tin-eared sobriquet of “101er.” Official first-week events are now mounted sans booze. A handful of U.S. colleges are entirely dry. The University of Guelph this year, for the first time, made residences alcohol-free zones during frosh week. It’s a revolution some students call a “war on fun.”
Canadian universities are “closed and fearful institutions”
Most people think of lawyers as silver-tongued, but Robert Martin, a retired law professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., admits that subtlety is not his strong suit. His paper, “University Legal Education in Canada is Corrupt Beyond Repair,” is as subtle as a sledgehammer: in it, he compares law faculties to “psychotic kindergartens” populated by “a horde of illiterate, ignorant cretins.” The paper, published last fall in the academic journal Interchange, made the rounds of law blogs and news sites in Canada and abroad last week, turning Martin into a minor Internet phenom.
It’s no wonder the legal community picked up on the article. Canadian universities are “closed and fearful institutions,” writes Martin, 70, from which students graduate “armed with bits of paper, which most of them are probably not able to read, called degrees.” Schools have adopted a “corporate model,” he continues, singling out the University of Toronto’s law faculty, which, in deregulating its tuition fees, “pattern[ed] itself after a Wal-Mart outlet.” Other faculties, “equally lacking in integrity,” followed suit. Martin’s solution is to close every law faculty, offer the buildings to the homeless, and use law textbooks as kindling—“a much more socially useful function,” he writes, than “being gawped at by illiterate students.”
Academics refused to comment, suggesting that to do so would give the article—published in a journal even Martin calls “obscure”—a veneer of credibility. Still, Martin is unapologetic: “I believe in being direct and to the point,” he told Maclean’s in an email. “If one is to spend one’s time paralyzed by the fear that one’s writing might offend someone, then one should not be writing.”
Elsewhere, legal watchers reacted with a mixture of horror and glee. The State Bar of Michigan blog, for one, said Martin “defies both the stereotype of the super-polite Canadian and of the phlegmatic academic,” while Simon Chester, who blogs on the well-read Slaw.ca, dismissed Martin’s words as a “hyperbolic rant,” a point that most seem to agree on. “Talk about your cranky old man,” wrote one commenter on the site.
Study philosophy if you are bothered by philosophical problems
Spend long enough studying philosophy, and eventually someone — most likely a member of your family — is going to ask, “what are you going to do with that?” It’s a tough question to answer, since philosophy isn’t really something you do something with, like a screwdriver. It’s more like something you just do — like fly fishing. But academic philosophy, like every other department in the university, is in the selling game, trying to attract customers and the money they bring, money that enables you and your colleagues to keep doing philosophy.
And so during my time in academia, I spent a number of days at university fairs, these events in big convention-style halls where you set up a little booth, pile a few texbooks in front of you, and wait for prospective students to wander by. And when they do — parents hovering skeptically in the background — they want to know why they should study philosophy. One year, I remember manning the booth with a fellow grad student, and we had come up with what we thought was a pretty clever sales pitch. “It’s great preparation for law school,” we told our customers. “Think of it as like cross-training for your brain.” etc.
The truth is, neither of us really had two clues why anyone should study philosophy, or what you would do with it. It didn’t really bother us though, since philosophy was interesting, we were young and curious, and the harder, more pressing questions seemed a long way off. But the fact that the best we could do by way of justification for philosophy was its instrumental or technocratic benefits says a lot about our own disciplinary insecurity and the ideological tenor of the times (which, it has to be said, has only intensified over the last decade).
So that’s one bad way of defending philosophy (feel free to substitute your own favoured discipline for “philosophy”). The value of studying philosophy can’t be that it’s a form of preparation for law school, or that it provides a sophisticated critical/analytic training for your brain.
But at the same time, the liberal arts has to be useful in some sense, doesn’t it? I say this because there is a defense of the “squishy subjects” that makes the opposite error, by making their value far too, well, squishy. A case in point is a recent piece by Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution, which was printed in the Wall Street Journal. According to Berkowitz, the true aim of liberal education is to prepare citizens for the proper exercise of freedom. “Education for freedom” or “Education for citizenship” is an old idea; here’s Berkowitz’s version of it:
How can one think independently about what kind of life to live without acquiring familiarity with the ideas about happiness and misery, exaltation and despair, nobility and baseness that study of literature, philosophy and religion bring to life? How can one pass reasoned judgment on public policy if one is ignorant of the principles of constitutional government, the operation of the market, the impact of society on perception and belief and, not least, the competing opinions about justice to which democracy in America is heir?
This makes me more or less uncomfortable, depending on how we are interpret the thesis. On a “strong” interpretation, Berkowitz comes close to saying that only people who have studied the liberal arts are truly indepedent thinkers and are positioned to judge public policy. At the extreme, only these people are truly citizens. I’ve never really been persuaded by these sorts of arguments, and it strikes me as a dangerous route for the defenders to take by moralizing the study of the liberal arts. It is a commonly held position in academic circles though — more than a few humanities profs console themselves with the thought that even if they aren’t as important or as well paid as the hotshots in the sciences or engineering faculties, at least they are better people.
A weaker version of the thesis says something like the following: A healthy society provides a cadre of intellectuals with the time, space, money, and resources to think deeply and broadly about all sorts of questions. The goal of these inquiries is not “freedom” or “citizenship”, and it certainly isn’t more questions. The answers matter because the questions matter, though their practicality or application may not be always relevant or obvious. But it is worth having people think and argue about all sorts of things: immigration, equality, justice, voting behaviour, constitutionalism, race, culture, language, class and on and on, because we don’t really know what sort of problems we’ll face as a society.
On this view of things, the liberal arts work sort of the same way as your immune system. Your immune system doesn’t know what specific invasions it will face, so it just generates billions of shapes of antibodies, hoping that one of them will match the relevant antigen. I could go on, except I seem to have arrived at pretty much the same answer given by Paul Wells, in his excellent essay on the subject, which you must read if you haven’t yet.
The upshot: Study philosophy if you are bothered by philosophical problems. Study history if you are interested in problems in history. Etc. If you are lucky, you will have an interesting career. If you are very good and also very lucky, your work will be relevant and useful.
Recessions hit young people hardest—even long after they’re over
During his ﬁnal year at the University of Ottawa, Justin Cantin had one goal for his ﬁrst job after graduation: not to wear a uniform. Ideally, he hoped to put his undergraduate degree in history to work in a museum or doing research. But after graduating last December, in the aftermath of the most severe recession in decades, reality hit. With $45,000 in loans, the 23-year-old moved back in with his mom in Mississauga, Ont., and started sending out resumés. He soon broadened his search to include part-time jobs, factory positions—“whatever would give me a paycheque,” he says. Last week, he landed a warehouse gig in Waterloo, Ont. Though relocating for a manual labour job is not something he ever imagined he’d do, he says, “It’s better than nothing.”
As Cantin struggles to adjust his expectations, he can take comfort, however cold, in the knowledge that many of his peers are doing the same. Though it’s been months since Canada’s economy returned to growth, recessions have a way of bearing down hard on youth, even long after they’re officially over. Predominantly employed in industries like retail and food service, which depend on consumer demand, or in unions where seniority rules, youth tend to be first on the chopping block when the economy goes south. This time was no different: since October 2008, more than 190,000 jobs for young people have disappeared; unemployment among 15- to 24-year-olds rose to 16.3 per cent in August 2009, almost double the overall rate.
Although jobs are slowly coming back—as of February, youth unemployment had dropped to 15.2 per cent—what’s on offer is hardly the stuff from which middle-class careers are made. Thanks to the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, hiring freezes and the delayed retirement of workers, for many the reality is a spell of unemployment or a low-paying gig—both of which can have lasting consequences, derailing careers for years to come. While it’s impossible to know how much their future will be shaped by the Great Recession, one thing is clear: the generation raised to believe in the limitlessness of their own potential has just been dealt a very unlucky blow.
Strictly in terms of unemployment, this recession has not been as cruel to youth as other downturns. In August 1992, unemployment for those aged 15 to 24 shot up to 18.4 per cent; in the early ’80s, it reached 20.6 per cent. But according to Armine Yalnizyan, an economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, it’s the kind of jobs that were lost that’s cause for concern. Whereas the recession in the early ’80s replaced full-time jobs with part-time jobs, and the one in the ’90s replaced traditional employment with self-employment, this downturn “seems to be replacing permanent jobs with temporary jobs,” she says. “Where is the next generation of middle-class jobs going to come from?” she asks. “There’s just nothing coming up on the menu.”
The best way for youth to survive the hostile job market, say experts, is to wait it out by investing in school or volunteer positions. The trouble is that with median family incomes slipping, indebtedness at record highs and boomer parents struggling, many youth can’t afford to delay working. To make matters worse, says David Green, an economist at the University of British Columbia, the social safety net is not what it once was. While 83 per cent of those who were unemployed at the beginning of the recession in the early ’90s qualified for jobless benefits, this time only 43 per cent qualified. And incomes aren’t what they used to be either: though new workers began to gain ground again in the mid-’90s, at the start of the recent recession, says Green, they were still facing real wages below those of their counterparts in the early ’80s.
For youth who are unable, or unwilling, to prolong their entry into the job market, breaking in during a downturn is an uphill battle. When Amanda, who asked that Maclean’s not use her last name, got her undergraduate degree in math last June, she wanted to get a job as an analyst. But after four months of unemployment, she took an entry-level position at a Toronto IT ﬁrm. While her friends who graduated with similar credentials just a few years earlier started out making about $40,000, she’s earning $30,000.
In fact, most young people entering the job market now are making less than peers who found jobs two or three years ago. “And that lasts for quite a while,” says Paul Beaudry, Canada Research Chair in Macroeconomics at UBC. A study of Canadian men who graduated with B.A.s over almost 20 years found that, on average, those who begin their careers in down times tend to do so at smaller firms that pay less, suffering an eight to nine per cent income hit. And it takes 10 years to catch up to those who graduated in boom times. Worse still, for those who graduated from less prestigious universities with degrees in lower-paying fields, the scarring effect on their earning potential “sort of remains permanent,” says Phil Oreopoulos, a University of Toronto economics professor who co-authored the study.
The prospects are bleaker for those without post-secondary education. “Employers out there, they’re asking for everything—the moon and the stars,” says Joan Gardener, project administrator at the Mississauga, Ont.-based Youth Community Connections, a government-funded program that serves out-of-work young people. For those who do manage to secure employment, the erosion of high-paying, middle-class manufacturing jobs means it’s tougher to get ahead. “Think about it as a career ladder with the rings in the middle all being missing,” says Morley Gunderson, an economics professor at U of T. “You don’t have a way to start at the bottom and move up anymore.”