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And the Academy Award for theatre goes to…

I found the following amusing:

Throughout her career, Moore also had a number of roles in film, including the serious role in Ordinary People, which won the Academy Award for best picture, and theater.

The main artlessness was placing “and theater” at the sentence’s end. It follows a long, complex parenthetical phrase, which leaves and theater completely divorced from its context. Thus one registers for a microsecond that Ordinary People won an AA for theatre, as well as best film. So you double-take — rereading the sentence and mentally pasting and theater where it belongs, next to roles in film.

The writer/editor had easy ways to solve that problem (e.g., “a number of roles in theater and film, including…”). But this was rushed to press at the moment of Mary Tyler Moore’s death, and most likely the long parenthetical phrase (“including…best picture”) was hastily added in. Such is the 24-hour news cycle.

The same sentence contains another glaring, risible flaw — “the serious role”. Moore’s wasn’t the only serious role in what was, of course, a very serious film. What the writer meant to say was “including the drama Ordinary People”.

And there’s more. Near the bottom, the article states, “She went onto add…” Of course, went on is the idiom and to add is the infinitive. So “onto” is wretchedly out of place.

The same Guardian article spelled “theatre” the American way, suggesting this may have been a  a U.S. wire service piece, or rewrite thereof. Or a mashup from various sources. Or, who knows, the U.S. spelling may reflect the Guardian’s self-image as a trans-Atlantic paper. An image it needs to burnish.


Shifting currents, tides of humanity

It has come to this. An article in the Globe & Mail details how a number of Indonesian fishing boats answered a distress call north of the Strait of Malacca. Arriving at the scene in the middle of the night, they found several hundred people bobbing and thrashing — and dozens going under by the minute — in the open sea, their abandoned cargo hulk having sunk due to damage caused by some of these same starving people fighting over the barest remnants of their food supplies.

The fishermen pulled survivors aboard, fed and clothed them, and brought them ashore at their own village at the north end of Sumatra. Whereupon these fishermen were bullied by police, it being the policy of the world’s most populous Muslim nation to allow this current tide of Muslim refugees to starve and drown at sea. Okay, Indonesia is latterly softening that stand, having apparently realized that much of the world is dismayed by its policies. One hopes that Thailand and Malaysia, the other refuseniks, and Burma, a source of the refugees, also come around. But this boatload was one of a great many, all bringing the same ethnic groups from the same few places southwards to nowhere — refused entry by several countries, then abandoned by their crews and adrift and starving.

Vietnamese boat people. Wikipedia.I find certain ongoing calamities absorbing because of what they say about the present and future of humanity. The drought in California — North America’s main source of food — is one. The NYT recently noted that North Americans outside of California consume hundreds of gallons of California water each week, in the form of fruits and vegetables (taking into account the water needed to grow that produce). This story asks us: where are we going? How will we get there?

The ocean-borne refugee crisis asks much the same questions. Europe struggles to find an accommodation as tides of Africans, Syrians, Somalis, what-have-you, perish at sea or are rescued by an overtaxed Italian coast guard, to be deposited in overcrowded Italian or Maltese refugee camps, or released into crowded European countries with sputtering economies. These refugees and economic migrants are people from other continents and very non-European cultures, albeit we all had some hand in destroying Iraq and Syria (especially Mssrs. Bush and Cheney). Much of the tension is this: the more these boatloads are rescued and towed to Europe’s outer shores, the more boatloads will sail forth. The European Union appears to want to arrive at some form of tough tough-love — intercept the boats near their points of origin off Libya or Tunis, perhaps; sort the true refugees from the economic migrants; and repatriate the migrants.

This newer crisis in the Andaman Sea seems even harder to fathom in its entirety. From my bemused vantage point, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are all Southeast Asian nations. Further, Indonesia and Malaysia are Muslim nations. I’ve traveled through each of these countries, and Bangladesh, too, albeit 30-odd years ago. Back then, Sumatra was a relatively lightly populated island, with a huge land mass, which the densely populated Javanese were effectively colonizing. Lebensraum. But today, in a nation of some 250-million, could a few thousand refugees be really that onerous? Could they not be given temporary visas pending a longer-term solution — with the men from Bangladesh, who really do appear to be economic migrants, shipped back in fairly short order? Okay, these solutions rarely prove to be ‘temporary’. But must they die at sea instead?

Ecuadorian refugees near Guatemala. Wikipedia.And here’s where these two huge calamitous stories, each with global and future implications, start to dovetail. Bangladesh is a horrendously overpopulated and bitterly impoverished country. It’s also, for the most part, a massive delta — myriad fingerlings of the Ganges filigree through its tidal silt into the Bay of Bengal. Rising oceans, as a result of melting polar icecaps, are beginning to inundate this country’s farmlands. So those starving Bangladeshi men drowning in the Andaman Sea/Malacca Strait would seem to be a harbinger. And indeed, the other half of that regionally despised human cargo were Muslim families from the northwest coast of Burma. The Burmese insist this Rohingya minority have migrated from Bangladesh over the course of recent generations. And for that reason, apparently, they are persecuted by Burma’s government and Buddhist majority. Or, for that reason plus the usual ethnic hatred that arises between ethnically disparate peoples living cheek by jowl, in this case a seeming tectonic friction point where SE Asia meets Indian subcontinent. So Indonesia confronts essentially Europe’s conundrum: the tide of Bangladeshis would be massive.

The implicated Southeast Asian countries have been meeting lately to try to negotiate some compromises, panaceas or possible solutions to their regional crisis. Australia’s approach has been to divert all Aussie-bound migrants and refugees to the tropical hell of Papua New Guinea, whom it is paying to receive them. (Theh ya go, mate, yer on dry land. Nah bugger off.) Living in Edmonton this past year, I’m startled by the size of the Somali community. With their almost coal-black skin, they’re a hyper-visible minority in the great white north, and I’m told their integration is rocky and their young men often join gangs. And yet they’re a drop in the global bucket.

Decades ago, Paul Simon sang of “the boy in the bubble” as a kind of miracle-trope for our age of wonders. But the people in the boat are hardly miraculous. They’re a wonder, alright — and an inescapable and international calamity entirely of our own making. People crowd into these floating coffins out of desperation, be it economic or political (the two are often inextricable).

SE Asia faced a similar crises with the Vietnamese boat people of the late 1970s and ’80s, refusing to take more of them except temporarily and pending resettlement elsewhere. Eventually the U.S. accepted many of them — a minuscule reckoning for having propped up a despotic regime and having bombed the country to smithereens. So did Canada and many other Western countries. But when the cause of a massive refugee crisis is as diffuse as global warming or global arms sales, who will take responsibility?

In the recent film All Is Lost, Robert Redford’s yachtsman character is undone by a floating cargo container that has toppled off some container ship; its corner pierces his hull. The container itself spills tens of thousands of cheap sneakers across the Indian Ocean, as Redford’s character tries in vain to get the attention of impassive passing container ships too behemothic to detect his sinking life-raft. Such resonant metaphors.

We overpopulate the Earth. We destabilize it through armed interventions and arms sales. And we pollute the Earth. The cruel concatenations of these misdeeds now include the southern Mediterranean and the Andaman Sea. As the Middle East implodes, Africa scorches, and Bangladesh is inundated by tides, how to turn the human tides?


UK zeitgeist

Only in England.

During a byelection, Emily Thornberry, a Labour candidate in working-class Rochester (Kent), tweets without comment a photo of a rowhouse bedecked in English flags (i.e., the St. George’s red cross, a component of the UK flag). This rowhouse has a white van parked out front.

Thornberry is immediately fired by Labour leader Ed Miliband, apparently for her liability as a condescending, out-of-touch metropolitan, though to date he and his party haven’t actually said what was wrong with her tweet.

The North American reaction is rightly: wtf?

It’s really about:

  • Labour MPs and voters having defected to Ukip;
  • the Blair government’s having opened up immigration to fuel a flagging economy, only to have far more immigrants enter the country than they’d anticipated;
  • the Labour Party’s immigration misstep being exceeded in unpopularity only by the Cameron coalition government; and,
  • Ukip’s ability to exploit the whole bloody mess from its anti-immigration, anti-Europe perch on the far right.

The thousands of (sometimes witty and funny) comments from Guardian readers illustrate how the English love to dissect and pore over every micro-nuance of their class system, fumbling as always over politically loaded nouns like working “people” (read: class) and speculating as to whether Britain’s working class is held in more contempt by Labour’s neoliberals, the party’s pro-immigration metropolitans, Cameron’s Tories or the Ukip currently wooing them. (And, whether this shrunken and divided working class still has much political clout.)

Besides a need to hang on to defecting working-class support, the premise for Miliband’s action seems to be to quash any whiff of a post-Thatcher tradition of sneering or laughing at “chavs“.

Semiotics, anyone?   The “white van man”.

The owner of the rowhouse — a tattooed gent now famous as the “white van man” — turns out to be the kind of bloke you might expect would cover his house in English flags when immigration is a heated issue. A few doors down from his place, the residents were flying a rainbow flag.

The UK needs to have an open and reasonable discussion about immigration. This coming spring’s election will be quite interesting. Perhaps too interesting. God save England.



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Best DVDs of 2013

This list of videos viewed in 2013 is in subjective order (and very approximate subjective order, at that). It runs from quite extraordinary, at the top, to quite watchable, at the bottom. A number of films didn’t make the list. Needless to say, before investing the time in borrowing and viewing any of these DVDs, you would do well to review them on Rotten Tomatoes. Most large public libraries would have virtually all of these titles.

  1. Killing Them Softly
  2. Frances Ha
  3. The Deep Blue Sea
  4. Silver Linings Playbook
  5. Oslo, August 31st
  6. Lore
  7. Moonrise Kingdom
  8. Django Unchained
  9. Central Park Five
  10. The Paperboy
  11. Beasts of the Southern Wild
  12. Into the Abyss
  13. Zero Dark Thirty
  14. The Seven Psychopaths
  15. Thunder Soul
  16. Coriolanus
  17. Ted
  18. Smashed
  19. The Hunger Games
  20. Trollhunter
  21. Side Effects
  22. Young Adult
  23. This Is the End
  24. Neil Young: Journeys
  25. Prometheus
  26. A Late Quartet
  27. Lincoln
  28. The Artist
  29. Compliance
  30. Magic Mike
  31. In the Land of Blood and Honey
  32. Friday Night Lights
  33. Holy Motors
  34. Paranorman
  35. Brighton Rock
  36. The Queen of Versailles
  37. Vidal
  38. Shame
  39. Killer Joe
  40. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  41. Higher Ground
  42. The Mill and the Cross
  43. In Darkness
  44. District 9
  45. Crossfire Hurricane
  46. Margaret
  47. Winter in Wartime
  48. Littlerock
  49. The Trip
  50. Blue Valentine
  51. Your Sister’s Sister
  52. Bernie
  53. Looper
  54. My Perestroika
  55. A Mighty Wind
  56. Carnage
  57. Ruby Sparks
  58. Restless
  59. The Grey
  60. We Need to Talk About Kevin
  61. Chronicle

Need something? Why not ask?

A funny thing happened on the way to Professional Development Day. I found myself listening to the speakers.

On campuses around North America, Pro D Day is often a euphemism for corporate indoctrination — implanting banal pro-team ideas in the minds of attendees, breaking down the individual in favour of the collective. And this one, Cultivating a Civil Community – Minding What Matters 2.0, had its share of that, which might account for why faculty seemed to be in sparse attendance.

But the theme resonated with me because I’ve found civility — or something like it — sometimes lacking in the culture of TRU. And as the keynote speaker admonished us at the day’s outset, incivility has real costs in terms of productivity lost to depression, stress, absences and turnover.

In keeping, I thought, with the theme of the day, I made a point of joining a table of people I didn’t know. They were all CUPE staff, as it turned out, all female, some of them friendly and good fun.

When we collaborated on an exercise in translating our personal values (mine: creativity, honesty) into tangible suggestions for improving civility at the university, my CUPE colleagues were almost obsessed with the value of respect (or, as Aretha Franklin famously sang it, R-E-S-P-E-C-T). It eclipsed all other values, whether internal or interpersonal.

I could understand this fixation. Though nominally “faculty”, I know what it’s like to feel like a desk-bound Coke machine subject to people’s demands. Web services is one of those jobs in which your work is highly visible (everyone interacts with it) while at the same time many people have opinions on it — indeed, believe they have a keener sense of it than you do.

As well, I think it’s rather easy for people to assume that Web services are indeed a service, one that is owed to them rather than something we all have a stake in making better. The jibes and criticisms can be withering. The demands are frequent. At their least gracious, requests can take one of two forms: direct orders; and complaints. I find myself wishing more colleagues would simply ask or suggest. But Canadians aren’t always comfortable with asking, perhaps because it implies a negotiation, or an admission of need — either way, a ceding of power or authority in the transaction.

Asking is deference. Asking implicitly recognizes the asker’s non-claim to greater power (I’m sorry if that sounds convoluted). Civility is about deference insofar as deference acknowledges the other person’s role and contribution. Demands, by contrast, are the unseemly projection of power. (And of course, “asking” without a please or some acknowledgement that you’re incurring an obligation is inauthentic and rude — e.g., the stark, impersonal “are you able to”.) Expressions of gratitude — a simple ‘thanks’, the merest acknowledgement of an extra effort made — can be likewise in short supply.

I found it interesting that the keynote speaker, who set the day’s tone, was from “south of the Mason-Dixon line”. I’ve sometimes wondered how it came to be that the Southern U.S. famously cultivated and preserved civility and manners — and what role slavery may have played in that incubation.

Slavery represented the ultimate power relationship. Some slaves were whipped in the fields, while others worked in the kitchens, parlors and porches of the slave owners. And in the latter case their humanity had to be recognized. Lording it over your maid or butler would have been superfluous, anyway, when both of you fully understood the totality of the power relationship. Civility glazed over that bleak fact, imposed a veneer of mutual respect that made the relationship — and household environment — tolerable.

The paradigm in the North, on the other hand, has been the impersonal industrial-age factory. This absence of literal slavery is hardly cause for smugness. Factory workers are, not unlike slaves, economic units (though perhaps more akin to the cotton-picking than mint-julep-serving variety). On the factory floor, orders are barked, obedience expected. The foreman has a stake in productivity (i.e., his higher position on the pay scale); the worker, less so.

But the campus never was very industrial; and, anyway, the information age has eclipsed the industrial, or so we’re told. Reams have been written on how managing knowledge workers (who are sometimes well educated) is fundamentally different from the factory floor. Meanwhile, terms like “microserfs” express resentment over a lack of fundamental change from industrial practices.

Stranger in a Strange LandIn the same group exercise — translating personal values into tangible suggestions for improving campus civility — my collaborators were again fixated, this time on the notion that the online “telbook” should include each person’s photograph, so we can all put faces to names. I suppose it might help; but I also had to wonder why I was the only one at the table — the only one in the vast ballroom, in fact — geekily wearing a nametag. And why were my colleagues across the table — all from the same department, it seemed — all sitting together, gossiping up a storm? Mostly, I felt like a stranger in a strange land.

But that’s often been my feeling at TRU. It strikes me as an intensely clannish environment, bifurcated between staff who’ve worked here a very long time — nowhere else, in many cases — and a large number of sessionals and limited-term appointees, like me, whirring through the revolving door. (Perhaps we’re the tatters in an anachronistic bubble of privilege.) It’s a surreal dichotomy that no one likes to talk about.

Memorably, the staff at the table next to ours proclaimed a kind of manifesto when it came their turn: “We are not economic units!” their spokesman shouted, sans mic, to the vast hall. Yeah, I could relate to that, though I knew it was also a rhetorical statement, and that I, like many, am perforce an economic unit, a plug-and-play widget.


One of the strangest moments came at the end when another member of the audience explained how he tells his son to think to himself “it’s a pleasure” each time he assists someone. It sounded quaint, harking to a time — not long ago — when people routinely said that in response to a “thank you”. There was stunned silence, then titters as the crowd exhaled through the double doors into the foyer and quadrangle.

But many points had been made. In our rush to the illuminated screen, and in the media-driven coarsening of our culture, we’ve abandoned, in large measure, both face-to-face interaction and the civilities that used to define it. Still, my new CUPE friends and I managed to talk, banter and share perspectives. It felt civil.


A résumé of one’s own

“All of them hurry to Bath, because here, without any further qualification, they can mingle with the princes and nobles of the land. Even the wives and daughters of low tradesmen, who, like shovel-nosed sharks, prey upon the blubber of those uncouth whales of fortune, are infected with the same rage of displaying their importance… The husband, therefore, must provide an entire house, or elegant apartments in the new buildings.” Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, 1771.

Last week I attended a conference at which an excited man from an East Coast university extolled the benefits of giving every student a personal webspace on which to forge his or her own “online identity” and “personal learning network”.

This “pedagogy of uncertainty” (so labeled because it’s unregulated and entails a modicum of institutional risk) encourages self-discovery among students, said the speaker, Jim Groom. He’s director of  Teaching and Learning Technology at the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia, where he has implemented such a program, called A Domain of One’s Own.

Perhaps because it’s still evolving, Groom has been at pains to define the program’s benefits, describing it variously as:

  • “heady stuff… a conceptual shift in how we think about controlling data, syndicating content, aggregating ideas, and, more importantly… empowering faculty and students alike”; or,
  • a “digital social security number of sorts, a tolken [sic] that is secure and frames a context digitally that was heretofore not only been [sic] unnecessary, but unimaginable”; or simply,
  • “a personalized portfolio of their work”.

It also fosters a richer understanding, he told the conference, of our era’s most pervasive medium:  “How can we think critically about identity on the Web if we don’t inhabit that space.”

It was hard not to agree when he put it that way, and in fact some learning theory does support having students publish online in various forms, which is why legions of teachers have been doing so. However, I had to wonder: self-discovery or self-indulgence? Critical thinking or crass distraction? I’m sure much learning can come from this initiative, and that it fits admirably with the current zeitgeist, and yet it gives me pause. Perhaps it’s just the language used.

In fact, I recall a similar concept from one of my grad courses in educational technology — the instructor posited that people would be better off if technology existed for tracking and storing everything a person does, so the true sum of all his minor achievements might be leveraged for career advantage.

In another course, though, I was told to beware of the false promise of ‘technolust’.

But come to think of it, faculty routinely do track and store their activities as part of the academic enterprise — every little community service, conference or webinar attendance, in hopes that listing these activities in their annual activity reports will improve their prospects for promotion or tenure.

Groom pointed out that young people engage in image-grooming on Facebook and the like anyway, but he likened that to “sharecropping”, insofar as corporations own the content and can whisk it away (or sell the data) at any time.

But isn’t shaping an online identity what corporations themselves do obsessively? So, does grooming a personal Web identity turn a person into his own spin doctor, not to mention a mirror-gazer unduly concerned with appearance?

I know I run the risk of sounding like a harrumphing, hidebound stick-in-the-mud, pining for a mythical time when kids were, gosh, just kids. But it did used to be the case that students merely stuffed their typewritten assignments in a forgotten desk drawer, if they kept them at all. In a pre-looking-glass world no one cared about your long-ago minutiae — and really, I doubt anyone does today. So why are we fetishising these things, implicitly telling students that their “portfolios” will matter? Because it reflects well on universities as career-engines?

But what do I know? The world has whirled on its axis. I came of age when young women wore shapeless dresses and no makeup as a matter of pride. Today, campuses are fashion shows and female students would-be sexpots. Boys pump iron. Campus events feature German cars and local radio stations, but nothing deliberately political.

Groom fits this vibe better than I do. He uses a comic-book-superhero avatar, speaks in a steady stream of movie references, peppers his writings with high-wattage expressions (“excited”, “blown away”), and runs a sidebar of “testimonials” adjacent to every blog post. (Ed tech, like many spheres, can be a heady mutual-admiration society, as the conference bore out.) So let’s drink deeply of the Domaine de Moi-même, or whatever vintage (in new bottles) we’re tasting this week. After all, it’s empowering, whatever that means.

Indeed, it’s a pedagogy of uncertainty.