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. 


  1. Your contemplations have sparked a deep conversation over here. My partner, who I regard as being more qualified to comment on these things than I (since he's less biased) recommends that you 'hang in there, and sow as many seeds as possible'. When I asked him what universities were for, he said that they were for improving society. I asked about poetry, and arts (he is an engineer) and he said that the arts are in part about helping us to think about things that are not invented yet.

    Hold fast, if you can, for all of us. I start on the tenure track next week, and my whole career will be defined by this stupid crisis. We are the universities. We are the writers and poets and thinkers of things that have yet to become. Some of us, like me, have to play the long game, keep our jobs and raise our families. Others have more degrees of freedom. We should use all the strategies and tactics we can. Happy New Year, and good luck.


  2. Congratulations, Alison,on beginning your tenure-track journey. You hold fast too. And thank you for your own reflections and encouragement. Happy New Year!

  3. Kathleen, when I read this, I could hear your voice. It made me smile to recall a time when I was on the journey you speak of and looked to you for directions.

    Kind Regards,

    Darcy Kirkham

    1. And you have just made me smile, Darcy. Where are you and what are you doing? Please bring me up to date.

  4. "Fraught" is certainly the best word to describe the atmosphere, lately. The energy that should go into teaching, writing, and supervising keeps flowing into endless conversations about what we've already lost and what we're going to lose. I find it increasingly difficult to advise students about graduate studies, or even about the prospect of majoring in English, because I can't see what the department will look like 2-3 years from now. What strikes me is how many people have asked: is my job safe? This seems like a question that's focused on the long-term, but in reality, it emerges from the same line of thought that's creating this mess. The job as all-important. I'm concerned less about the status of my job, and more about what my job will become. Once we've stripped away the innovative programs that first attracted me to this school, what will be left?

    I agree that creativity is what's needed. A student recently asked me: why should I care about poetry? I imagine that many of us hear this question on a regular basis. All I could think of to say was: if you ignore poetry, you'll be missing something incredible. Your work will suffer, even if you don't realize it. Ignoring poetry because it's difficult is like breaking up with someone because their intentions aren't always clear, or because they don't always agree with you on every point [I didn't say that last part, but I should have]. If anything, it seems like we have to champion what you've described as "a sense of life's complexity."

    As I prepare to teach another creative writing class, I have to remind myself that these are students who want to learn about storytelling. They aren't just interested in critical reading, analysis, and literary appreciation. They're on fire to actually tell their own stories. Aboriginal ways of knowing often situate the act of storytelling ("worlding") as a form of critical theory, and it seems like this is what we're actually defending: the new storytellers who need time and space to develop their craft, without having to worry about landing a job.

    1. Jes,
      I can't imagine what this atmosphere is like for you and my other young colleagues who will have to live inside what the job becomes. Thank you for giving me a glimpse of this.

      Yes, we must continue to tell stories. In her remarkable Tanner Lectures, "On Beauty and Being Just," Elaine Scarry notes that justice always occurs inside the particular, not the general. What we in the academy are looking for is a kind of justice. And "the particular" is exactly what stories bring us to.

  5. Very well said. As a psychologist, I watch the same shrinking of creativity and complexity in biasing applied research (to solve some specific, present problem) over basic research (understanding how things work in general). Given our demonstrated human fallibility in predicting the future, I dearly hope that enough young people choose to navigate using their creativity, curiosity, and sense of what gives them joy that the function of universities is retained, even if not in the current structures. That, and not immediate jobs, is our true insurance for the future.

  6. Kathleen, I just discovered your blog. Thank you for writing this. Since graduating with the MA/English in 2011 I have taught a few courses at SIAST. I see the importance of both a technical/applied college and a university. It saddens me that university is the "Catch-all" degree for employment, when in fact a degree should be pursued by individuals who want to learn and pursue the thinking and discovery and research a university degree offers.

    I don't begrudge the existence of applied faculties such as engineering and nursing. I do think they are extremely important facets of our society, and engineering in particular, at the graduate level, has as much creative discovery as a literature program. (Having briefly been an engineering student I can attest to this.) However, that the university environment as a whole is favoring this path, and it is selling itself as job-creation tool rather than a place of learning and discovery, makes me very sad.

    We live in a society that doesn't understand the value of tradesmen and professional programs. Yet, they are fundemental to the functioning of society, so we try to insert them into educational institutes that we do see as valuable -- namely our universities. It's mixing apples and oranges at the very real risk of harming pure academics.