Archive for the ‘Hire education’ Category

Comps: Rocked, locked and kicked to the curb

Monday, September 10th, 2007

I finished my second comprehensive exam last Friday: The social construction of the Internet. It went a lot smoother this time round; I wasn’t writing scared in the final hours. I learned a few things. Imagine.

About a week before this second exam, I found that my brain reached a saturation point. I managed nonetheless to read a few new texts (!) and reread some ones read 4 months ago – texts I knew were foundational. That was very helpful. The main thing I did differently was write up some stuff ahead of time. This was something TedH had recommended way back, 6 months ago or so. For whatever reason I just didn’t have it in me for the first exam. But this time, I started my exam a day earlier. That is, after thinking about it for a bit, I decided 1. what I wanted to write on; and 2. what was likely going to be on the exam. Happily these things coincided. So I began writing out Marx’s theory of technology, based on my contention that he was, in fact, a social constructivist. Seen from another light, this amounts to a defense of Marx against charges of technological determinism.

The first question (of the 5 I received) was a doozy (thanks Rick!) and it was exactly that Marx question. I took that as a good omen. The second and final question I chose happened to be the subject of a conference paper I’ve been thinking about for my panel at the Union for Democratic Communication conference this fall. So that was a great chance to write out some ideas that have been fermenting; I hope to use that answer as a starting point for my paper.

I kept up my same schedule as the first time, breaking for lunch, taking tea as I worked and heading out for a run at 6pm. I wrote the exam in Point Grey, so runs along the ocean were amazingly invigorating. Dinner at 7, then writing till too tired, around 11 both nights. I finished the first question on the first day; last time I was still writing the first question part way into the second day which, obviously, wasn’t good.

Nonetheless, by the second day I was feeling it – the pressure, the brain drain, the exhaustion was setting in. But I just kept plugging away and you know, I think things turned out ok. I even had a chance to proof read this time, so there were limited embarrassing typos. It is an exam after all, so I have to believe there’s a bit of grace.

The experience of the first exam really helped, I think. In part, just knowing what to expect is hugely valuable. Also, writing ahead – even a few hundred words of a coherent argument – is immensely advantageous. And also thinking about what it is you want to write about, and then selecting your questions and framing your answers with that in mind, is key. I mean, this is my career – my life, really – not some random hoop I’ve got to jumpt (though in truth, it is that too). I should be writing about what I’m interested in, what I’ll be researching in the near or distant future.

While I felt my first exam was was a hazing ritual with little pedagogical value (and said as much to the Grad Chair), it seemed this time that I really got something out of it. I could, at last, see the value of this process.

So now the oral defense in three weeks. But before that a few things: 1. first day of teaching CMNS 253 solo tomorrow; 2. Web of Change, where I’ll present; and then back in town for the defense. God love Rick Gruneau for calling it a chat, b/c that’s about all I’ll be in the mood for.

Fashion vs. Ed Grimley: Academic smackdown

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

Today it is raining – torential downpour-type rain. It began last night in a short, violent burst evocative of a monsoon. It cut the heat, sending a blissful wave of cool rolling across everything. Right now, it is raining hard and I love how people are walking around without umbrellas (myself included) – as if to say, no, we don’t really live in Vancouver; as if their denial of this moment will sustain the stretch of dry, mostly warm weather we’ve been relishing of late.

A thing on my mind lately is fashion (or lack thereof) in the academy. I know this is fairly unimportant, superficial, even. But when you’re surrounded by total fashion victims on a daily basis, it becomes a strangely pressing issue. I’m not kidding: I saw this guy the other day dressed like Ed Grimley.

Now I love Ed Grimley. He was my all time favourite on SCTV which I used to watch regularly with my friend KA, back when were 10 in her house on Wineva in the Beach. Those were the days of pay4view TV (KA’s dad had SuperChannel) and listening to Richard Pryor and the McKenzie Brothers (other SCTV alum) on record. The early 80s were good times – innocent times – no matter what anyone says.

But I don’t think anyone in real life should dress like Ed Grimley. Not only is it aesthetically disturbing, it also looks to be uncomfortable. And so to my mind, wrong. Often, on my way to the School of Communication I take the less travelled path – through a lower level of the Schrum Building. It is one long corridor that streches on and on, eventually ending at our school. This corridor passes through possibly the nerdiest departments at SFU: physics, biology, chemistry. At the beginning of this tunnel of fashion devastation, is the office of one prof who is, in fact, stylish. Not just stylish, but almost couture. I first saw this physics prof in line at the coffee shop. I commented on her shoes – some very funky pumps that I’m sure had never set foot in a university before this woman brought them there. After I’d gotten my coffee, I made my way, via this less travelled path, to the Grad Lounge. And I was behind this woman all the way. That’s how I know where her office is. I’ve seen her since, here and there on campus. And you know, she kicks it every time, with the most unlikely but totally awesome ensembles. Now every time I pass through Physics, I keep my eye out for her, just to see what she’s wearing that day.

I’m not saying academics need to go to this length (although I certainly appreciate it). But there should be an aesthetic standard; or if not standard, at least not acquiesence to the stereotype of befuddled, carelessly attired professor. Why? Simply because it’s unnecessary. And it can be depressing. I have to say that our school is fairly fresh (if not fashion forward). There are a number of young profs who are mildly to moderately aware of or concerned with what they wear. And of course, their is our fearless fashion leader, the school’s director, Martin Laba. He carries the torch for our school and I, for one, am grateful.

That’s all I’m saying.

Northern Voice, open knowledge and the most famous “Robert”

Monday, March 5th, 2007

So I went to Northern Voice last weekend.

I giggle to think that I’m blogging about a blogging conference one week (exactly) after it happened. I’m so lame.

But no, I”m not (said with all humilty). Like all but the professionally unemployed or the geekily employed, I find there’s not a lot of time left to blog after paid work, school work, house work and kids – not in that order, of course.

But I’m blogging about it now, and all should be forgiven. For me, it’s not part of membership in a club. Indeed, it was in the name of fieldwork that I attended. I have this blog for my research, not for the integrity of blogging (if such a thing may be said). That said, I’m uncomfortable in my role as “researcher” because my “subjects” (again, a problematic term) are human – living, sentient beings, not in fact objects to be studied, extracted from life and later “coded” for my empirical results. I get an icky feeling about it all – in grade school, they would have called me a “user”.

So I don’t approach conferences like this with half the amount of professionalism I “should.” I go, check out the panels that even vaguely corelate to my work, and then go for a beer. What else is there?

And it was over a beer that I met the most famous Robert on Google. I innocently asked the man across form me at the bar (apres conference) – so, what’s your blog? He said, I’m the number one Robert on Google. And he is. Two above Robert DiNero (he’s occupies spots number one AND two) and four above Canadian children’s author, Robert Munsch.

You don’t say!

I learned later that night that his fortune rose as the “Microsoft blogger” and the rest (as “they” say), as far as his place in the blogosphere goes, is history. I have two things to say about the guy: 1. He looks like Philip Seymour Hoffman (perhaps a tad handsomer?) and 2. He was very nice. I’ll leave you to pronounce on his geekiness.

But back to Northern Voice. It was full of the usual suspects – that is, the “who’s who” of the Van tech scene, plus many more my ignorance prevents me from immortalizing. I missed the opening addres by Anil Dash (I could only think of Damon Dash – what does that say about me?) but I made it in time for coffee (which was very important, given my haul on the B-Line and hike halfway across UBC campus – a vast and alien territory for me). There was one panel that was, in fact, a perfect match. It was called “Building Rich Communities with Wikis” and the discussants were Stewart Mader and John Willinsky. Now Mader was interesting – he spoke of his experience publishing a book about wikis on a wiki. You can check it out here.

But it was Willinsky, a UBC english prof, who really caught my attention. He was an engaging and fascinating speaker, but it was the substance of his talk that really fired me up. Willinsky is in deep in the Public Knowledge Project, a federally funded research initiative at UBC and Simon Fraser University that “seeks to improve the scholarly and public quality of academic research through the development of innovative online environments. PKP has developed free, open source software for the management, publishing, and indexing of journals and conferences. Open Journal Systems and Open Conference Systems increase access to knowledge, improve management, and reduce publishing costs.”

Willinsky described how he used wikis in the post-secondary classroom setting. I’m fairly familiar with this through CMNS 253, which I’ve TA’d for two semesters. Nonetheless, I was inspired. I asked about my pet interest – open knowledge. I take this to be similar to the products of wiki collaboration (Wikipedia, for one) but within the academy. Can scholars collaboratively produce “authenticated” knowledge, given the restrictions of copyright, and the requirement to innovate new ideas to ensure career advancement (e.g. single authorship, the “coining” of terms, notions, concepts or methods, “it’s MY idea” etc.) Essentially, the question is: Can we “wikify” academic knowledge?

Willinsky mistook my question, and corrected me: “Open access.” And proceeded to explain his involvement in this movement. Which is entirely worthy, and certainly adjacent to my concerns. But if we want to democratize society further – if we believe in the liberatory and progressive elements of knowlege; if we want to challenge the limits of capitalist democracy (My Friend says I have to stop using the “C” word if I want to make any headway…) we need to take on the Academy (and here I use it with a capital “A” for emphasis) head on. I mean, in a no-holds barred, street brawl kinda way. If the academy is the last bastion of free thought, the preserve of rational (and hence progressive) thinking, then why is access to its knowledge restricted (see the Public Knowledge Project); why must academics “publish or perish” with all the sacrifice to education (and quality of knowledge production) that entails; why the stinginess, the slyness and the lack of openness when it comes to presenting one’s ideas to the public (e.g. publishing)?

These are some (!) of my burning questions. I’m going to ask Willinsky, see what he has to say. I support his project. One of my collegues has been quite involved in the Open Journal Systems that supports the Canadian Journal of Communication’s online presence. There’s no question it’s innovative, important. But I maintain it goes beyond access to knowledge – right to the heart of the matter, to knowledge production itself. Open knowledge. How will it play out?

Academics behaving badly

Friday, February 16th, 2007

There is a “race” for director in our school. The current director is being challenged; it seems they got a committee to get him off the block (please somebody get the Beastie Boys ref), and came up with a contender. Now I’ve got nothing against the contender, nor anything particularly for the incumbent (except for his snazzy sense of style, refreshing in a place known for its neglect of – nay contempt for – fashion). But what is putting me off, what is, in fact, offensive, is the way in which this whole thing is going down. For all protestations of “collegiality” and “forthrightness” and “honesty”, there seems to be quite a lot of the opposite.

Not only is this mildly annoying, as in could you people please get a life but it’s embarrassing. If we (as in grad students – supposed future profs) are to be taking an example from their behaviour, there’s much left to be desired. While folks are hopping up and down about procedure, transparency and democracy they are forgetting even basic good manners. I have begun to take it personally, though technically, it has nothing to do with me – grads don’t have a vote.

I have little patience for office politics; I’ve never had a real job before, in part because of bullshit like this. But here I am, getting dragged inadvertently into the muck, by virtue of my status as PhD rep. The faculty have encamped – that is patently clear. They remind me of my kid, when doing a magic trick, thinking he has me fooled by his manouevres, though they are painfully obvious. I can tell who’s voting for whom by their disingenous remarks, meant to seem innocently bumbling when they are clearly poison-tipped arrows. Or by their sheer rudeness, or the acidity in their tone when they speak or by the way they avoid each others’ eyes. Talk about transparency!

While I previously never felt a pull toward either candidate, I am shying away from what certainly appears to be a ruthless and self-absorbed cabal that has taken on the task of “fixing” the school. It will all be over soon but regardless of who “wins”, one thing is for sure: true colours, once revealed, do not soon fade.

Gender inequity in the academy and the “mommy” track

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

I know, I know, it’s shocking that gender inequality would still be a topic for discussion… Not. People, especially young women and men believe (in the same way kids believe in Santa Claus) that there is no such thing as gender-based inequality or discrimintation – at least not in Western society. They assume that feminism is redundant, if not offensive, and that any woman daring to suggest all is not well on the gender parity front is simply a whiner, a man-hater or an attention seeker.

But as this Canadian Press article shows, gender inequality is alive and well in the hallowed halls of the academy, that bastion of patriarchy and hierarchy. Women profs receive less pay than their male colleagues (of the same rank) – or $6000 less for full professor. They also achieve full professorship – the highest rank – much less frequently, making up a mere 19% of Canada’s full professors.

While the Statistics Canada report on which the article is based shows “improvement” for women profs, this must not be taken as a job well done. It is utterly pathetic that since 1990, the percentage of women appointed to full professor (e.g. new appointments) has risen two percent. Two percent!! From 12 to 14. Pathetic.

The article notes that women account for the majority of students at the post-secondary level (undergrad and grad) – have done so since 1988. So why the disconnect between learning and teaching, between the classroom and the professoriate? If universities are graduating more women, it might be logical to think that they end up on the other side of the lectern, if not in equal numbers to men (gender-based discrimination and inequality being systemic and all), then at least in greaters numbers than currently.

One main reason for this, I’d hazard to suggest, is mothering. The article only touches upon this: “Climbing the academic ladder is supposed to be merit-driven, generally based on an evaluation of factors such as a candidate’s track record of research, publication and teaching.”

But, it continues, many women step off the tenure track for the “mommy track”. Funny, I don’t see this phenomenon affecting male profs. Yet their prospects for bearing progeny don’t seem to be affected. Hmmm! Men can have long successful academic careers, research, write and publish their way to a tenured position, and still have families!! Amazing! How is that possible?

It’s possible because women step aside, step down and forsake that career success to have the children. And the academy makes little to no accomodation for this handicap. And I say handicap in the best of ways – I have children. They’re amazing, lovely creatures with no equal in my heart. But they don’t factor in to the academy’s calculus for success. And that isn’t right. Not when the male profs are benefitting from this unequal situation.

This is why feminism can’t be dead.

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What’s with the old dogs…

Tuesday, November 28th, 2006

At the risk of sounding ageist, what’s with the old dogs in the academy? Ha, you’re thinking, the age old question!

Indeed. In their recent journal article No Time to Think, Heather Menzies and Janice Newson contend that “technology, far from freeing up academics’ time, has compressed it to stressful levels” endangering the university as a “site of critical and creative reflection.” Their findings? 58% of respondents find it harder to focus; 51% don’t have enough “time to think” and 42% said they are more susceptible to being distracted by the information and communication coming at them.

No shit. These findings reinforce what I have gathered, learned anecdotally, and have begun to experience in my training for the venerable position of professor. The authors attribute this state to the shift to the “new, technologically enhanced work environment”, wherein academics are regularly online with colleagues, students, and research subjects and partners.

The problem with this article, as I see it, is the conflation of technology with the corporatization of the academy, and the blaming of the former for the deterioration of post-secondary education. To their credit, the authors acknowledge the commercialization of the academy, which began with severe funding cutbacks in the 1970s, and the ensuing repositioning of universities as more business-friendly. One result of this has been the “wired campus”. But in addition to reporting the (seemingly natural) outcome of higher stress due to fewer faculty members and increased work loads, as well as instant access via the internet, this study appears to be blaming ICTs for academics “not reading as deeply and reflectively as they use to, or as they’d like to.”

Hello! That’s a bit of a stretch. I have the internet, so I can’t concentrate, can’t think deeply? My students can access me 24/7 (though I’m under no obligation to respond in kind, and can, in fact, set strict parameters around this), and that’s why I do shitty research. Sorry, I don’t buy it. I don’t dispute the findings; I do take issue with where the authors lay the blame: technology. It’s too simple and too easy to blame this new technological dystopia that campus life and work has become.

Despite this fairly uncritical, determinst approach (technology ruined my life, waaahhh…), the study also only surveys 80 faculty members from across the country. While I think this is a fairly small sample, and hardly representative for all the fuss it’s causing, what I’d really like to know is their age. And does this technological anomie correspond to where these academics came in on the IT learning curve? For those of us who don’t know any different, I wonder if this encroachment of communication technology is so devastating. I don’t think that technology and critical pedagogy are mutually exclusive. Why on earth would Menzies and Newson assume this; it’s a flawed premise, and it has skewed their conclusions. Why would my use of technology as a professor mean that I “fail to challenge and provide an altenrative to students’ self-reported ‘consumerist’ approach to education…” Why would it preclude or threaten necessarily “sustained dialogue in leanring communities and asking questions about the long-term public good.”

There is definitely a problem in post-secondary education. But it’s not technology. Try looking at the people behind it, beginning with those who talk about university degrees as commodities, and students as consumers. Just for starters.