04 December 2012

In Memoriam

My dear friend Sue Purnell has passed away.  I can't claim her as my friend only, because she was friends with so many people, so I feel somewhat selfish for referring to her as "my dear friend".  But she was.  I thought I should write about her here, as a way of paying her some much-deserved respect.  A blog post seems too little in this regard.  But what could be adequate for someone who touched the lives of others with such power?  However we try to memorialize her, our efforts will be inadequate.

When I met Sue I was at one of the lowest points of my life.  It was the fall of 2010.  I had just returned to work after two months away -- time in which I'd had a leg amputated, found myself confined to a wheelchair before mercifully receiving an artificial leg, experienced the destruction of my mind by stress and multiple drug interactions and a terrible relationship that ended when my partner left me while I was still in recovery.  Not working was in itself devastating for me, as I don't know what to do with myself when I'm not contributing to something larger.  All was not well.  I thought of myself as a mutilated sub-human, tossed aside and unwanted by the world, trapped in a toxic stew of despair and self-loathing. 

So I finally returned to work, an absolute wreck, ready to give up on everything, and there was Sue.  She had just arrived as the new Visiting Fellow in Educational Development.   And what a force of nature she was: bold, unshakable, determined, compassionate, intelligent, utterly human in the best meanings of that word.  She saw right away that I needed help, and though at this point I was a stranger to her, she lifted me up and kept my head above the water. 

Over the next few weeks Sue changed the way I saw the world.  She re-oriented me to everything that was valuable and worthwhile.  She helped me stop dwelling on myself and my own problems so that I could be of some help to others.  She was steady as a rock -- steady as a mountain -- but never cold.  In every interaction I had with her, I came away feeling better because there was such emotional depth to her that I had never seen in another person.  When I conceptualize wisdom, I see Sue's face and hear her voice.  She understood human beings, and life, apparently without effort.  Really, though, she had just learned so much from reflecting on difficult experiences in her own life.  She'd made her own tragedies fuel for personal growth.

During her time with us at the Centre, I enjoyed Sue's company nearly every day -- sometimes in the context of work, sometimes socially.  We all loved her and wished she could stay with us.  She jumped into whatever projects we had going on.  We went on a road trip to Toronto, drank a lot of coffee, leanred together in class (she took a course from me as a student, which I found bizarre at the time), spun out ideas and possibilities, performed The Santaland Diaries together, went karaokeing.  Basically, I don't have many memories from that period that don't involve Sue. 

At some point, Sue and Tory James, our centre's photographer, fell for each other and Sue was so blissfully happy that it restored my faith in what relationships could do.  I remember how awed she was that late in life one could still fall in love and feel young again.  She loved Tory immensely.  Even when the relationship didn't work out because of logistics (he living in Windsor, she splitting her time between the UK, New Zealand and Zimbabwe), she always spoke of how deeply they connected, and how grateful she was to have him in her life.  What they shared together -- at least, the way she always described it to me -- was truly beautiful. 

Since she returned to the UK, Sue would still drop by to spend some time in Windsor now and then (most recently last spring), and we'd have a chance to catch up and laugh together.  And in between she would make sure we kept in touch through email and Facebook.  Thank god for that, because I'm terrible at keeping in touch with people.  I always looked forward to seeing her, always grateful for whatever opportunity we had to spend time together.

Actually, I often worried that our friendship was parasitic, that I was taking from her much more than I gave.   The last time she was here she laughed that off and told me I was terrible at seeing what I gave to others.  I don't know if that's true, but I hope it is.

Recently Sue had been in New Zealand visiting her daughter and her kids (who she adored) and old friends.  Last night she, a longtime Bond fan, went out to see Skyfall.  She loved it and when she returned she phoned her daughter to tell her all about it and persuade her to go see it, offering to babysit for her.  During the conversation she told her daughter she felt some chest pain.  Her daughter asked her if she was okay.  Sue said, "No".  And that was that.  It was far, far too soon, but I guess we should all be glad it was quick. 

Sue's death comes close to the first anniversary of my dear grandfather's death, another person who had an immense effect on my life, and who saw me through many rough patches.  It seems cruel that such people have their lives cut short.  I suppose it's inevitable.

I don't have the right words to explain what a wonderful person Sue was, the deepest and truest of souls.  I'm no good at articulating thoughts and emotions this personal.  So I hope this post suffices as, at least, some hand-waving in the right direction.

To Sue: Wherever you are now, I hope you know that you are loved and appreciated and admired. 

To all of us: Let's treasure the good people in our lives, please.

24 May 2012

On the Quality of Higher Education in Canada

A couple of interesting stories caught my eye this week.  I probably would have been interested in them anyway, but I was particularly intrigued by their apparent contradictions (nothing piques my interest more than a contradiction!).  The first, from University Affairs, proudly proclaimed "Canada places third in new international ranking of higher ed systems".  Wow!  That's unexpected.  The second was from the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) newsletter, which I think I noticed the following day.  Its headline was, "Ontario's professors and academic librarians warn that university quality is on the decline".  Yikes.

Wait, are these compatible?  What's the story here?  The devil, as always, is in the details.

18 May 2012

What Would Bertrand Russell Do?

In honour of Bertrand Russell's 140th birthday today, here's his "Liberal Decalogue", originally published in "The Best Answer to Fanaticism: Liberalism" (New York Times Magazine, 16 Dec 1951), then reprinted in the third volume of his Autobiography.  I've written a previous post on Russell's contribution to the Russell-Einstein Manifesto.

Nothing significant has changed in the intervening half-century.  These principles are just as important now as they ever were.

Interestingly, they were originally framed as principles to guide teaching. How different higher education would be if we diligently applied these principles in practice!

11 May 2012

16 April 2012

The Ballad of Steve Harper

In honour of our Prime Minister's latest scandal, and as requested by Canadian Cynic on Twitter (@canadiancynic).  Sorry I couldn't perform it for you!


Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Steve
Rich Prime Minister abed with industry
The one day he was hidin' what he do
And up from the rabble came a proper "Fuck you"
(Rage that is, ice cold, voters seethe)

Well of course y'all know ol' Steve's a hillbilly
Canuck folk said Steve get away from me
Said down in Texas is where ya oughta be
So he loaded up his limo and became a true Dixie
(Rube that is, right wing, ignorant)

Well now it's time to say goodbye to Steve and all his kin
They would like to thank us all for voting them all in
You're all invited back again to re-vote PC
If you don't give a crap about your fine country
(Texas Hillbilly, that's what they call 'im now.
Nice folks.  Y'all stay away now, ya hear?)

Ah . . . we can dream.

15 November 2011

Congratulations to UWinners -- 2011 edition!

Now UPDATED with photos by Tory James!

The Centre for Teaching and Learning, in conjunction with the Office of the Provost, held its sixth annual Celebration of Teaching Excellence yesterday, and I just wanted to take a moment to congratulate the people who were honoured for accomplishments relevant to my programs.  Because I'm narrow-minded.  And because mentioning every winner would involve far too much typing for my insomnia-addled brain.

First, congratulations to winners of this year's GA/TA Awards!  Paul Moffatt (Physics) won the GA/TA Award for Educational Leadership; Melanie Santarossa (English) and the team of Vanessa Bruce, Laura Krasean and Amanda Robinson (Psychology) won GA/TA Awards for Educational Practice.  Their submissions were all outstanding, and it was great to see all of the winners (except Melanie, woe betide our souls) at the ceremony.

Second, congratulations to the 2011 graduating cohort of Fundamentals of University Teaching, the first level of the University Teaching Certificate (UTC) Program!  The cohort included the following luminaries:
  • Jessie Beatty (English)
  • Lyn Cunningham (Business)
  • Nabih Jaber (Electrical and Computer Engineering)
  • Betsy Keating (Education)
  • Kathleen McMahon (Nursing)
  • Debbie Rickeard (Nursing)
  • Melanie Santarossa (English)
  • Gemma Smyth (Law)
Honestly, I was so excited to see these people make it through that I tripped on my way to the stage, thus humiliating myself in the eyes of all those watching me (what, no one was looking at me?  Shameful).  So we can conclude it's their fault I'm, a klutz.  

Congratulations, everyone!  The University of Windsor is lucky to have dedicated, intelligent, hard-working people like you!

GA/TA Award Winners 2011!  From left to right: President Alan Wildeman, Dean of Science Marlys Kochinsky, Paul Moffatt (Physics), Vanessa Bruce, Laura Krasean and Amanda Robinson (Psychology), and Dean of Arts and Social Sciences Cecil Houston

University Teaching Certificate Grads 2011!  From left to right: President Alan Wildeman, Nabih Jaber (Electrical and Computer Engineering), Lyn Cunningham (Business), Debbie Rickeard (Nursing), Betsy Keating (Education) and Kathleen McMahon (NUrsing)

11 October 2011

The Globe and Mail calls for HE Reform

The present employment situation in Canadian Higher Education, though marginally better than that in the United States, is, as a new Globe and Mail editorial puts it, "unsustainable".  We continue to graduate reams of Ph.D.s who will never find full-time tenure-track appointments -- not because they are stupid or poorly educated, but because the academic labour market simply has no room for them.  As tenured faculty retire, more often than not they are replaced by part-time sessional instructors or not at all.

These sessional instructors are hired to teach, and only to teach, and it's an open secret that academia holds teaching in very low esteem.  Sessional instructors are far-too-frequently treated as a slave caste paid poorly to do the work that tenured faculty members would rather not do: teach.  They know they are not valued by their colleagues or their administrators.  To make matters worse, they're often treated disrespectfully by their students as well.

Yet, despite the Globe and Mail's assertion, most students don't care about the dismal situation of sessional instructors, and we have little reason to believe that the education provided in our universities is any worse than it was in decades past.  Lots of people say it is -- but then, lots of people made the same claims in the 1940s, the 1920s, and the 1890s.  If we're to believe these claims, we must posit a shining utopia of post-secondary education at some remote point in history, which we've yet to reclaim.  Nonsense.

09 October 2011

How Do You Know That? -- On The Reliability and Credibility of Claims in SoTL Research

When I was accepted to university I panicked.  I hadn't really considered the possibility that I would get in, after all, and I had been a, shall I say, stalwart underachiever all my life.  From Kindergarten to eleventh grade, I slumped along with Cs and Ds, for the most part, occasionally higher grades in art and drama, frequently Fs in math.  But when my family moved to a new town of 1,000 people (max) and I found myself miserable, with a lot of dull time to myself, in twelfth grade, I started doing my homework because there was little else to do.  And it was pretty easy stuff.

But I knew I lacked a lot of the basic habits and skills that other university students would have -- study skills, note-taking skills, research skills.  The sorts of things that good students knew how to do.  Once I got that terrifying acceptance letter I figured the first thing I should do was learn how to write properly, using those boring conventions of grammar and punctuation.  So I slaved away for two months teaching myself how to write.  Once I was on campus it didn't take long for me to realize that, actually, no one around me seemed to know how to write either.  Oh well.

But the research and studying skills -- ah, those I didn't even know how to begin learning.

05 October 2011

Are Teaching and Research Distinct?

The Globe and Mail recently published a fairly sensible article about teaching and research in the universities -- so sensible, in fact, that at first I couldn't accept that it was published in the Globe and Mail.

In the article, entitled "Universities aren't about teaching v. research, they're about teaching and research" (30 Sept 2011), Stephen Saideman argues that the "essence" of the university is its overarching goal: the creation and dissemination of "better understandings of the world around us", which he identifies with knowledge.  There is usually no financial stake in researching, nor in writing up the results of such research; when there is a financial stake it tends to be quite small.  So financial gain can't be the purpose of such activity.  It must be something else, the sharing of what was learned through research, "with the idea that a better understanding is better than ignorance".

Remember Your Humanity and Forget the Rest

On 9 July 2011 we passed the 56th anniversary of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, as I was reminded by a post on the Bertrand Russell Society listserv from Ken Blackwell (former archivist at the Bertrand Russell Archive and author of a wonderful book, The Spinozistic Ethics of Bertrand Russell).  Given that I see the Manifesto as one of the most important contributions made by philosophers to public life in the 20th century, and given that it's a joint enterprise of that century's greatest philosopher and greatest physicist, I'm kind of ashamed with myself for not commemorating the anniversary with a post.  A cake would have been nice, too.  And some Red Hackle.

05 September 2011

A lovely sketch

The uber-talented Sonia Sulaiman created a lovely sketch of me teaching a workshop on student evaluations last month, which you can find here.

Shockingly good, isn't it?  And she did it during the workshop, at an astonishing speed! 

More posts to come -- the past few months have been a blur and, while I've started several posts, I've not had the time to finish any.  This will change . . .