Monday, December 31, 2012

Looking back and trying to look forward

During the academic year, I am often out of the house before 8 in the morning, finding that the first few hours in my quiet office are the most productive.  So during the holidays, it has been a treat to begin my mornings sitting in front of a lit Christmas tree with only my reading light on, watching the blackness outside turn blue before winter appears out my window.  I drink my coffee and read Daniel Deronda.  Occasionally I simply stop to look at the Christmas tree and let my mind wander toward the new year while Twig parks himself on the top of the sofa cushion behind me so that I can sometimes rest my head in the curve of his neck and listen to his purr. 

I have spent the last couple of days reflecting on the past year and trying to think my way through the next one.  It has been a frustrating, disheartening task.  This is in part because the academic year, since I returned from my idyllic sabbatical, has been dominated and even at times overshadowed by attempts of the central administration, the Faculty of Arts, and the Department of English to plan for funding to the University of Regina to be cut 3% a year, possibly for the next three years.

I have been teaching for thirty-six years, and am watching an institution to which I've given my life--the idea of the university, not simply the U of R--attempting to transform itself into a professional school.  What has happened to the university's commitment to ideas, curiosity, engagement, a sense of life's complexity, and a sense that one individual's confusion and passion have been experienced countless times before by others and that there are at least some reliable questions one might ask?  Parents and politicians--and hence students--are  now convinced that familiarity with the world's ideas and questions are less important than a definite job at the end of four years.  What has happened to the process of finding oneself, to spending four years thinking about self and world and how those two things might relate to one another?  What has happened to adventure?  Does one really know at 18 that one wants to become a petroleum engineer?  And what happens when there are no more jobs for petroleum engineers, when we have all bought electric cars and the oil supply has collapsed?  Does that engineer know how to live, how to adapt, how to find a new purpose?

Human beings don't plan very well.  We are particularly bad at planning on the long term, and even worse when our planning should take the needs of others into account.  We can see that this failure is endemic in Canada.  Not protecting the environment, but rather considering how we can best benefit financially in the immediate future from selling mineral rights is not effectively planning for the future or for future generations.  Not finding a way to improve the lives of our Aboriginal peoples is certainly not thinking long term or of others.  Allowing the divide between the wealthy (and even the comfortable) and the poor to increase is not planning for the future, because such a future is likely to involve rebellion or push-back of some kind.  Taking money out of education, which is the best predictor of health, and putting it into health care is certainly not planning for the future.  Putting money into the health care needed by people living on the street rather than housing them is not a long-term solution.  I have a sense that our leaders are not willing to take the long-term solutions because the short-term response at the ballot box might challenge their views and their actions.  But what are leaders for?  Did we elect them just so they could do whatever it takes to get themselves re-elected?

In the face of these failures, I have felt that the university (as an idea) provided a place to reflect, that its many disciplines provided a variety of perspectives from which to consider the challenges of the present historical moment.  In the Twitterverse, pundits and gad-flies and politicians attempt to provide immediate answers; politicians in particular are hampered by the society's expectation that they not to waffle or change course. The university moves at a more human pace; here the only expectation is that we not simplify, that we don't ignore evidence, that we don't assume that a single individual has enough perspectives to see the challenges of a new problem or the potential implicit in change in all its complexity.  If politics is the story of individuals attempting to put their stamp on the future, the university (again, as an idea) is about a community's commitment to reflection, to complexity, to conversation rather than edict.

I'm not sure we can plan with the idea of long-term student needs in mind.  Our administration has argued that more students are demanding professional or pre-professional programs like petroleum engineering or marketing.  Yet we are told that student engagement is down--perhaps because professional programs do not prompt the kind of engagement required by Fine Arts, Arts, and Sciences.  Professional programs are focused on an end product--the piece of paper that leads to a degree and a secure job--not the journey.  I wouldn't suggest that students enrolled in the professional faculties like Nursing or Engineering are not thoughtful; I would suggest that a cultural language devoted to destinations rather than journeys, a cultural preoccupation with jobs rather than lives is skewing their expectations and perhaps their curiosity.  What happens when the university has built an infrastructure of programs and professors only to find that times have changed?  As Ezra Pound once said,  "Literature is news that stays news."  The same is true of history, philosophy, and all the sciences, though each of these disciplines is also attuned to change, to revolution.  Indeed, they are committed to making that change.

Behind the Christmas tree, the sky has turned an improbable pink, and occasionally I can hear the falling needles clink against a glass Christmas ornament, providing the perfect setting for my sad contemplation of my own future.  I have loved teaching this term.  At the same time, the endless meetings and crises have been exhausting.  Hence I'm faced with the conflict between "duty to self" and "duty to others" that Austen exposes so well in Sense and Sensibility.  What is happening to universities all over the world is breaking my heart. If I were simply thinking of my own well-being, I would retire in 2014.  I've found myself on the edge of this decision numerous times in the last months, only to step back.  Because the truth is that I will not be replaced.  The credibility and practicality of the  English Department's Creative Writing program in particular will be questioned.  Yet I feel that it is creative people that our society needs at this moment.  Yet if I continue to teach, what will I do with my own creativity, which is hobbled and hampered by an atmosphere so tense and fraught?

Well, I'll go back to reading Daniel Deronda, Eliot's last novel, wherein she considers what one might call the ethics of identity.  Both Daniel and Gwendolyn Harleth wonder who they are:  their dogged and passionate posing of that question leads them to consider a whole range of ethical choices they must make.  Eliot won't give me any answers, but she'll suggest a way of thinking things through.  It is, perhaps, the questions that count, though they don't make one comfortable or self- satisfied.  That is, perhaps, the best way to begin a new year. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jane Austen's Persuasion and Academic Freedom

Jane Austen's final novel, Persuasion, is my favourite.  I might think Pride and Prejudce the most skilfully built (though I only think this in certain moods); I might concede that Emma is an astute attempt at psychology that involves the reader in an interestingly conflicted relationship with the too-privileged Miss Woodhouse.  But Persuasion is the most visual of Austen's novels; its autumnal notes are fully present to our inner eyes.  It also has a rather startling heroine in Anne Eliott, a woman in her later twenties who, unlike so many of Austen's unfortunate heroines, decides to take her fate into her own hands.  It's the most egalitarian of Austen's novels; the gentlemen from the British Navy turn out to be more principled, more domestic, more sensitive and humane than the landowners who have been living beyond their means, have failed to play leading roles in their communities, and only seek social connections based on status.

But I would also argue that it's Austen's most philosophical novel.  Austen's work is firmly situated between the Enlightenment and Romantic eras:  although she wrote what appear to be courtship novels, she was more concerned with development of her heroine's abilility to think clearly about and judge her conduct, her preconceptions, and her society.  We see this most dramatically in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth Bennet reads and re-reads Darcy's post-proposal letter, cross-referencing it with what she has observed and what she has ignored and what is probable in Darcy's account of Wickham's life and her family's unconventional (and not very proper) behaviour, finally uttering "Until this moment I have never known myself!"  In a way that also echoes Austen's engagement with the Enlightenment, the word "persuasion" recurs over and over in her last novel, allowing us to see persuasion in all its manifestations and to consider what role it plays in our civil lives. 

The first kind of persuasion Austen explores is a kind of top-down variety.  Seven years before the novel opens, Anne Eliott had been persuaded by Lady Russell to give up her engagement to Captain Wentworth, because he "had nothing but himself to recommend him."  Wentworth is convinced he will be successful--in Austen's time members of the Navy were awarded the spoils of the ships they took in Naval battles--and indeed he is.  But Lady Russell doesn't entirely believe in character alone as a predictor of success:  there must be some aristocratic or at least propertied family behind a young man to guarantee that he would get on in the world.  And of course Lady Russell's advice is wrong.

Indeed, if we shuffle through our memories of Austen's novels, we come up with a number of characters who believe they can use their powers of persuasion in this way.  Lady Catherine De Bourgh, with her tendency to look into Charlotte Collins's linen closets and advise on other ways of arranging them, is one such character.  Darcy's decision to persuade Bingley to give up Jane Bennet because she's not really attached to the latter is another example of this kind of persuasion gone wrong.  And of course, Emma could have been subtitled Persuasion, so disastrously flawed are Emma's efforts to arrange the lives of the people who live in her community.  Austen is suggesting, then, that when the powerful or the privileged think they know what is best for us, they risk, in Anne Elliot's words, giving "advice which is good or bad only as the event decides."  Those authoritarian persuaders often risk giving bad advice not only because humankind doesn't see the future particularly well, but also because it s difficult for any of us to comprehend another person's wishes, dreams, desires, or another's capabilities complete with secret strengths and weaknesses.

Yet persuasion is crucial to our social lives.  Those characters who are not "persuadable," like Anne's two sisters, Elizabeth Elliot and the hypochrondiacal Mary Musgrove,  and Anne's father, Sir Walter Elliot, are locked in their own world views.  These characters are treated satirically by Austen and shown to be individuals who are incapable of reality checks on either their finances, their social pretensions, or their beliefs about their own health.  We see these individuals locked inside their own perspectives and thus self-involved and unable to undertake their social obligations as members of the gentry.

This issue of being persuadable is most dramatically explored when Louisa Musgrove, who presents herself as someone of a determined mind not easily persuaded, decides against Wentworth's advice to take a second leap down the stairs at Lyme Regis onto the stony Cobb and falls, probably giving herself a concussion.  Anne Elliot wonders at the time if it occurred to Wentworth "to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him, that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits.  She thought t could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character."

Like so many aspects of our social lives, persuasion works best as part of a conversation, not an edict.  When Anne attempts to persuade Captain Harville to moderate the grief he feels at the death of his betrothed, Fanny,  Anne talks to him about the literature they both love:  "He was evidently a young man of considerable taste in reading, though principally in poetry; and besides the persuasion of having given him at least an evening's indulgence in the discussion of subjects, which his usual companions had probably no concern in, she had the hope of being of real use to him in some suggestions as to the duty and benefit of struggling against affliction, which had naturally grown out of their conversation."  Such a conversation occurs again at the end of the novel in the life-changing moment when Anne realizes that her conversation with Harville's friend, Captain Benwick, about whether men or women have the most long-lasting feelings, is being heard by her former lover, Captain Wentworth, and she has a chance to speak to him indirectly about her feelings for him by suggesting that women continue to love long after it serves any purpose.  Benwick, of course, thinks that this is a quality of men:  as they have the hardiest bodies, so do they have the most long-lasting feelings.  Besides, he continues to argue, women's inconstancy is continually written about in "songs and proverbs." Anne argues that these songs and proverbs were written by men.  Benwick, frustrated, asks "How shall we prove any thing?"  Anne responds "We never shall.  We never can expect to prove any thing upon such a point.  It s a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof.  We each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex, and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle."

Here Anne and Austen, far ahead of twenty-first century psychologists, observes the effects of "confirmation bias"  which my friend Katherine Arbuthnott has taught me about.  Because the world is complicated and at every turn we attempt to tame its chaos to make it manageable,  we tend to offer ourselves simplified narratives and explanations which feel comfortable to us because they accord with our beliefs.  As in Anne's explanation to Benwick, we choose to attend to or note only those cases which confirm our account.  This s probably not a significant problem in our daily lives; as Kahneman points out, most of the time we make "good enough" decisions based on our impressions.

But when we are making large-reaching and long-lasting decisions, "good enough" is not good enough.  Then we need to be aware of our confirmation bias and find ourselves a kind of devil's advocate who can see what we are inadvertently ignoring.  And here is where Jane Austen meets the academy and persuasion as a conversation meets academic freedom.

Canadian university administrators have recently reconsidered the issue of academic freedom, and have decided that the freedom of its teachers and researchers is limited to the scope of their scholarly expertise; we are not to question the administration's decisions unless we have the special knowledge that bears on the question at hand.  Not uncoincidentally, many of those university administrators now need to lead their institutions through a time of decreasing budgets.  This is precisely not the time to silence dissent, because one of those cranky and opinionated voices is going to see something the administrators themselves do not see in their quest for a coherent strategy.  As decisions are made about which programs to cut, which to support and develop, decisions about what the university of the future should look like in a society increasingly faced with more and more difficult decisions about scarce resources, social trends, new technologies, and the meanings of our lives, confirmation bias is going to become more, not less of a problem.  We simply can't afford at this critical moment to silence individuals who see beyond our coherent but simplified view of the future towards strategies that might be, in Austen's words, "good or bad only as the event decides."

We are seeing this trend in government, in the Saskatchewan government's refusal to consult widely about the community pastures, beyond those voices who will confirm the government's  already-made decision that "the market" is the most reliable means of determining what should happen to them.  We are also seeing this tendency in the Federal Government's decision to limit environmental protection at every turn.  If you are only looking at these issue through the lens that tells you that private ownership, growth in jobs, the development of natural resources--and thus the market--are the most important factors for deciding what to do with your land, you are not going to see what a species means to an ecosystem or understand what clean water contributes to peoples' lives.

I have worked in the academy for 36 years, and for much of that time have seen that one of its roles is to challenge the direction other parts of the culture is inadvertently--or advertently--taking.  Just as persuasion was central to the responsible conduct of Austen's characters, academic freedom is a central ballast for the wider culture, a way of questioning and perhaps moderating its values and goals through conversation.  Now is not the time to limit it.  In fact, it is self-defeating to do so.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Winter: when time is a prairie or a core sample of snow

If you live on the prairie, it's hard not to think of time in the terms the landscape dictates.  You unthinkingly see time and memory as something that stretches from horizon to horizon.  In the service of being more exact, you might fiddle with the metaphor a little.  At my age, you could envision the land tilting inexorably uphill, so that you see yourself closer to one horizon than  the other, rather than smack in the middle, the way you are on the flatter stretches of fields south of Regina.  That uphill tilt is indeed more exact, particularly on days at the end of term and before Christmas, when you have the same things to do you always had, the baking, shopping, wrapping, planning, shopping, cooking, with less energy to do it with.  Then there is the fervent wish to be doing exactly what you are doing--baking cookies for a neighbour who is undergoing chemotherapy--while also wanting to think in long draughts of thoughts about Virginia Woolf's ideal reader with only cats to interrupt.  The tension is painful.

That shorter horizon at the end of the rise before you is more dramatic when you long to sink into the field of ideas and words.  Because that closer horizon reminds you every day that there is less and less time between now and the point where your mind refuses to give you the right word, or to weave a complex formal pattern that you want all your writing to partake of in some way or another.  Less time between now and the age when you'll read mostly detective fiction because convention dictates that toward the end of the novel the detective will explain how he or she solved the crime and will recap all the details you have forgotten.

(Even to myself, I sound here like someone contemplating retirement.  But then there's an inward battle between the delights of teaching, the current financial and philosophical chaos at the U of R, the sense of isolation that will be part of my writing life when I retire, and the ecstasy of knowing that I can get up each morning to write.)

Then occasionally a gift arrives to throw your metaphor out the window.  Rather than standing in the middle of a prairie, you are driving down a prairie road and glimpse something surprising in your side view mirror, which always reminds you that "objects in mirror are closer than they appear."  (I thank Chris Brown for this metaphor, which he used in his linked collection of subtle, suggestive stories that made up his creative honours paper, "Coal Carriers," which I examined on Friday.  He was using the trope of the of the side view mirror for another purpose, not to describe memory, but he brought the possibilities of the metaphor to my attention.  Thanks Chris.)   December is generous with such gifts. I caught one grocery shopping on Saturday.  As I was heading from "milk" to "meat,"  I glanced down the row of tinned fish and saw flat, oblong cans of smoked oysters, something my father loved to eat during the holidays.  I think  I was the only one in the family who shared his taste for them.  Certainly,  I couldn't eat any today.  I'd find them too greasy, the oddly-coloured innards that are the consistency of damp plaster, plus the valve bits which are rubbery would be too weird for my taste now.

When I was talking to Chris about his linked set of short stories which begin, chronologically at least (though not formally) with a father's uncanny meeting with a bull moose that didn't seem to acknowledge his presence, I said that I found fathers (like cats) a mystery.  But it's more than that:  it's a mystery that's sidled right up to you in a hug or a whisper.  So I'm grateful for these moments when I catch my father in the side view mirror and he seems closer than he is.  Sometimes when my knees hurt, I remember rubbing my father's right knee from my perch in the middle of the Chevy's front seat.  I always think of him when we put up the Christmas tree.  He was so proud of choosing perfect trees that one year, when he brought home a real dud with gaps around the bottom, he sawed off lower branches, drilled holes in the trunk, and stuck the trimmed branches in the holes.  For the most part, I don't know the meaning of these moments.  Well, that's not true.  He'd been in the Navy, which perhaps left him with a sense of craftsmanship, of neatness, of pride in doing something in a workmanlike way.  That's what appears in the memory of the Christmas tree.  He had the skills and tools to make the tree look better; all he needed to add was the time.

But his character doesn't explain my eating smoked oysters with him or rubbing his knees while he drove.  As children, if we're loved, we seek intimacy with people we don't really understand.  We're too inexperienced and too busy being ourselves and seeing what that feels like to figure out other people.  We just know the intimacy feels good, even if it tastes funny.  And then suddenly it's too far from our present lives to get anything more than a glimpse of.

Let me madly mix metaphors.  Time may be a prairie with its shifting horizons; sometimes you may catch things made suddenly close by your side-view mirror.   But in December it's also a core sample, of mountain or snow.  That's because our whole surroundings are saturated with memory's prompts.  When I looked down that aisle at the smoked oysters, there was a Christmas carol on the muzak and there was holiday food everywhere.  Our memories are on overdrive.  This seems natural to me somehow.  As the days grow shorter and shorter, as I sit daydreaming in front of the Christmas tree in the dark, it seems a good thing to pull up a core sample of snow and study the layers that are brought close by the time and the inclination to reflect.  Maybe above all, in the seasonal busy-ness of shopping and wrapping and cooking, time to reflect is really what I'm longing for.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Beneath a Petroliferous Moon

In 1940, Pablo Neruda published his poem, "Standard Oil Co," which concludes

They buy countries, people, seas, police, county councils,
distant regions where the poor hoard their corn
like misers their gold:
Standard Oil awakens them,
clothes them in uniforms, designates
which brother is the enemy.
the Paraguayan fights its war,
and the Bolivian wastes away
in the jungle with its machine gun.
A President assassinated for a drop of petroleum,
a million-acre mortgage,
a swift execution on a morning mortal with light, petrified,
a new prison camp for subversives,
in Patagonia, a betrayal, scattered shots
beneath a petroliferous moon,
a subtle change of ministers
in the capital, a whisper
like an oil tide,
and zap, you’ll see
how Standard Oil’s letters shine above the clouds,
above the seas, in your home,
illuminating their dominions.

How Pablo Neruda knew this about oil and its place in our lives in 1940 eludes me, except that I suspect it has something to do with my profound and embarrassing lack of knowledge about how oil companies exploited South American governments who either could not or would not hold them to ethical standards.

Neruda's description of a world "Beneath a petroliferous moon" is the title of an exhibition at the Mendel curated by Jen Budney.  She has gathered together artists from as far afield as Benin, Rome, Austria, and Canada in an aesthetic query of lives that are made possible by the energy that comes from oil.

Immediately inside the gallery the viewer is faced with Louisa Conrad's "Disintegration:  A Catalogue of Arctic Flowers 2009."  Scraps of drawing paper have been carelessly cut and adhered to the wall in a kind of constellation; each of these contains a beautiful, detailed pen and ink drawing of the flora Conrad saw on her trip to the Canadian Arctic in 2009.  The form these take on the wall figures forth the disintegration of our arctic, the thawing of the permafrost and the melting of the polar ice cap brought on by climate change.  

Next, one is faced with Ernst Logar's "Documents and Drawings."  These contain a sequence of large photographs (perhaps 24" by 30"), each presenting a serene and seemingly unspoiled landscape--a field or a sea shore.  Except that in the foreground of each of these there are awkwardly built tripods with assemblages nailed to them--plastic bottles, tools, oil cans.  I didn't quite know how to read the tripods:  were they an artist's ironic easel?  Or the tripod for a weapon or a camera?  Or a surveyor's levelling instrument--so crucial for marking off the ownership of land?  Whatever they were, they obscured much of the beauty beyond them.  

Yoruba artist Romuald Hazoume of Benin has created masks out of containers for motor oil and other oil products.  While these clearly reference the African masks appreciated and collected by Virginia Woolf's friend, Roger Fry or written about by D.H. Lawrence in Women in Love, or even the more edgy faces represented by Picasso, they also marked a shift in the tradition.  While those masks were crafted into their formalized shapes, these were violently cut and smashed.  Oil has done something to the human face, they seem to suggest.

Most easily read and yet most dramatic were Edward Burtynsky's photographs of the oil sands.  Taken from the height of an "establishing  shot," they first give the viewer a sense of the immensity of the landscape.  Then one sees that the earth's skin has literally been peeled away or has been pocked with machinery, roads, and vehicles necessary for getting at the oil beneath.

Many of these artists spoke of the way in which the energy from oil that makes our lives possible seems almost invisible--present in our communities only in the little corner gas stations where we grab a coke or a newspaper or even a bundle of firewood.  They sought through their work to make oil more visible, something Robert Ladislas Derr did quite literally by videotaping a street in Oil City Pennsylvania, America's first oil town, through the film of oil gliding down the window the viewer looks out of.  It is beautiful and horrifying at the same time.  

In a little gallery next door to these works I found Terry Billings's elegiac "Reassembled Moult," a carpet of Sandhill Crane feathers that flows lyrically down the gallery wall and onto the floor.  Nearby was Billings's "Revealed Wasp Drawings," made (how I am not entirely sure) from the paper of wasps' nests.  These were the thoughtful monochrome of Art McKay's mandalas, while the movement of the subtle designs recalled the spinning of the stars in Van Gogh's "Starry Night."  Something has happened to art, this juxtaposition seemed to say.  Cranes and wasps can unconsciously be and make beauty (albeit mediated by an artist), while the human presence is deforming the planet.  Yet oddly enough, this was a hopeful exhibition:  around the world, artists are giving us portraits of ourselves, landscapes of the world we have made.  None of these works was what my friend Diane Whitehouse used to derisively call "a one-read painting."  They all asked for our imaginative attention, our engagement, which is the first step toward reflection and perhaps change.

You can find the rest of Neruda's poem here:

You can find the Mendel's website for this exhbition here: