Tag Archives: higher education

Dear Committee Members: Drop out of University and Get a Job Alreadyear

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If only it was as funny to be a part of the dying university as it is to read about the death in Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members. A lot of my job can be likened to the orchestra aboard the sinking Titanic. Rather than changing the conditions – fixing the massive hole in the hull – my job is to distract and soothe (entertain?), but without drawing too much attention to the need for distraction.

Dear Committee Members is a distraction trying very hard to draw attention to the flooding lower decks. An one-side epistolary novel, the story is the whip smart satire of the contemporary university (in particular the Humanities) attempting (badly) to grapple with declining funding, increased enrollments, ‘job-ready skills’ and the promised-not-yet-delivered panacea of technology. Taking about two hours to read, the book is the fastest way you can get a sense of what it’s like to be a humanities PhD in 2015: hilarious(ly heartbreaking/dream-crushing).

The book skewers the disparity within the university between high-profile/high-budget programs and those lesser cousins, takes on the nepotism that undergirds hiring (and tenure) processes and questions the purpose of the university as either job-skills or big ideas (and the validity of the binary itself), by marshalling forth the glut of reference letters a single professor in the creative writing program at a middling university must write over the course of one year. The letters are funny. Very funny. Funny because they show the extent of the damage and the absurdity of a single professor scooping water with a paper cup. And yet scoop he must.

I’m not sure the novel has yet committed to the need to get on the lifeboats; it holds hope for the future of the university. And because we all know I’m secretly an optimist (not a secret), and that I have a yet unshakeable (if probably pathological) belief in the university, I loved the steadfast resolve that concludes the novel. And I love the idea that satire can push us to improve, to ask us whether students might not only deserve something better, but actually get something better. So read it. Then get out and get involved with federal (provincial and local) politics. There’s an election coming and I’d rather not have to swim.

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A Tale for the Time Being: You Probably Haven’t Heard Of This Book; Here’s Why You Should Read It

maxresdefaultOr maybe you have heard of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. After all, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, hyped in all of the right places. All the same it slipped through my Canlit net, and seems to have for all those I’ve talked about the book with as I’ve been reading it, and so I’ll assume you haven’t heard of it either (you’re my made-up audience, so I may as well, right?).

This idea of the reader-audience and how readers make novels mean something by reading them is one of the (many) preoccupations of this fantastically rich and layered story. At one point our protagonist-cum-author notes “Surely a reader wasn’t capable of this bizarre kind of conjuration, pulling words from the void? But apparently she had done just that, or else she was crazy. Or else… Together we’ll make magic… Who had conjured whom?” (392). The role of reader in the novel is complex: with two threaded narratives – that of Ruth, an author living on an island in British Columbia who finds a diary washed up on the beach and that of the diarist, Nao, an American-Japanese schoolgirl – that both reflect, influence and respond to one another, one of the questions the novel asks is how readers determine and impact the meaning and influence of a story. Within the novel itself this question is explored in the relationship between Ruth and Nao, but the novel expands this question with metafictional play and probity to include this reader, too. So you ought to read it because the novel presupposes its existence depends on your reading it.

You ought to read it because the philosophical questions it explores like the nature of time and quantum mechanics; the role of animals in the interconnected web of being; restitution, responsibility and war; the relationship of class and identity (and bullying); the purpose of art and art-making; – are those questions that make both for great dissertations and for great discussions (and I know you have a thesis you want to write or a book club to attend [*cough* this was a book club choice for the book club I attend]). These questions look esoteric when I write them down, and there are moments of the novel – like reading the Appendixes on Schrodinger’s Cat – that stray in that direction, but the overwhelming feeling this novel evoked for me was exhilaration: it’s simply thrilling to see a masterful exploration of questions of time, identity and the nature of meaning in life through grounded (if somewhat fantastical) story.

And you ought to read it because I say so. Okay, not that. But because it’s beautiful.  Layered with complexity and richness, yet not so dense as to be inaccessible or off-putting. And you see it and think 400 pages, really? And I say, consider the time it takes to read. No really, consider “time” and “takes”: what does it mean to “take time”? Once you’re asking that question you may as well be reading the novel because in reading you find time, time-taking, time-making – well, you might have a different feeling on the other side (which assumes you ever leave a novel once you’ve read it… another question for another time being).

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Higher Ed: Bulimia isn’t the worst part

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Tessa McWatt beat me to the novel I haven’t written in Higher Ed. The novel takes up the current state of higher education in Britain (to be fair, I’d write the novel about Canadian higher ed, so perhaps there’s still a market – not). Through the interwoven narratives of five characters – the administrator, the film professor, the waiter, the law student and the civil servant – the novel explores the way we live in alienated, precarious and exhausted existences and how we might live otherwise.

Metaphors work to give contour to this exploration. Our administrator, Francine, works as a Quality Assurance officer at the University, helping programs through the absurd and demeaning process of justifying their existence by way of forms, counts, assessment checks and more forms. Francine, our character-stand-in for the university itself, has a distorted self image and bulimic practices. She wants to be ever trimmer, ever more efficient, to see herself, and more importantly to be seen by others, as successful. Yet, as any bulimic would know, in the attempt to purge, all she succeeds in doing is wasting energy on what isn’t important (and getting – ironically – bloated in the process). She sells out her ideals (and her body) to get ahead, only to discover that in the process of proving her worth to others she’s forgotten her own sense of self and priorities. Read the last paragraph again replacing “she” with “the university” and you see how the metaphor works in the novel.

Enter the civil servant who works disposing of the forgotten or “lonely dead,” those who have no one but the state on which to rely when they die. The civil servant, Ed, works with his once estranged daughter, the law student, Olivia, to bring some kind of meaning to these sanitized and bureaucratic deaths complete with mass graves and – again – forms. Their attempts at meaning take the shape we all recognize as meaning-makers: song, storytelling and poetry. As the two characters make this lone and ultimately futile (like life, the novel poses) effort, they deepen their relationship and come to trust and rely on one another. Pitted against the horror of the forgotten, lonely, death this quickening of a relationship is meant – I suspect – to offer us some hope and solace.

And there’s the crux. The novel suggests we live and function among cold and uncaring bureaucracies that are driven by profit and absent either individual or community. Yet, against these efficiency efforts the novel offers budding relationships and clumsy romance. As if to say we may have forgotten how to reach out to one another, how to use poetry to understanding our humanity and how to speak to one another in words not in text(s), but we are not so far gone that we can’t try to, maybe, hazard the attempt at, remembering and connecting.

In other words it’s not an overly optimistic or heartwarming story. Instead, as a sort-of administrator in higher ed myself, I find the call for connection, for real conversation, for extended empathy as at one and the same time entirely appealing and utterly insufficient. We live in the tragic gap, says Parker Palmer, between the reality we recognize and the reality we imagine as possible. In this novel we sit precisely in that space between what the university (what our society) is– profit driven – and what it could be – people driven. And from this gap we’re meant to both witness and imagine. If only we had a way to do that. Oh wait, we do: we can read.

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Filed under Book Club, British literature, Canadian Literature, Fiction

Stoner: Overlooked Gem

Published in 1965 John William’s *Stoner* reads like something written forty years earlier. I’m not sure how I’d never heard of the book before, though a quick search of the internet suggests no one else has either (thanks mum for point it out to me). It was reissued in 2006 by New York Review of Books with an accompanying set of quotes from famous people (Tom Hanks endorses it!) pointing out its relative obscurity. So! If you’re looking for that hipster book that will set you apart as a reader who knows what’s what… No really, this book well deserves much more attention (something beyond a Wikipedia *stub* for instance).

Except it’s sort of a thematically appropriate obsolescence and obscurity. The novel takes a realist and measured approach to the question of what makes our lives meaningful – recognition? reputation? family? career? – and ultimately concludes that most of us – including our titular character and protagonist – will die unremarkable and unremembered (just like the book!). Against the idea that this obscurity is to be bemoaned or fought, the novel suggest that by embracing the small, idiosyncratic “purposes” that enliven our individual lives we can find, if not notoriety, then contentment. This message is one well worth considering in an era of ubiquitous fame and instant-celebrity. Instead of imagining that life fulfilment will come from celebrity, or even posthumous remembrance, the novel suggests that it is the quotidian and the insignificant that afford life its purpose and satisfaction.

In a similar vein the novel poses that the disasters that befall us (our protagonist is an English professor at a small American college who cannot communicate his desires, married to an unhappy and angry woman, father to an unhappy and angry daughter) as smaller – even to ourselves – than we might imagine. Disasters of workplace tension are nothing compared to the personal horror of making the wrong choice in a partner or abandoning our parents’ dreams for us to pursue our own. 

A humble book about a humble man that is, in this humility, simply extraordinary.    

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