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Here’s a Facebook discussion I had with some friends and colleagues about academic service. I thought it might warrant a wider audience.
The discussion started when I shared a blog post on “Overcoming Post-Tenure Paralysis.”
Me (quoting the post): “Believe it or not, the biggest threat to midcareer professional success is often too many service commitments.”
Uh, damn right I believe it.
Friend: The more government services are cut, the more “volunteer opportunities” are created. The present fascist government would like nothing more than for the 99% to give up political affiliations and actions entirely because we are too busy with “service commitments”. Volunteer less, and protest more. Join a political party. Choose a candidate in the next election and become active in their campaign. (I know I’m preaching to the converted here, Mark, but hitting “like” seemed insufficient this time)
Me: the related story inside the increasingly corporatized university is that the professoriate is asked (or pressured) to do both more and less service: more service to protect collegial governance from corporate-style management, and, in the process, to shoulder governance work the administration should take responsibility for; and yet also less service, in committee work and related commitments that comprise “consultaganda,” giving the barest veneer of legitimacy to the administration’s decisions that it really doesn’t want to genuinely consult about. the documented inflation of senior management roles in universities does not then spell less service for faculty, but more: it becomes busywork to justify administrators’ similarly inflated salaries (thus too is documented) and – coming to my point here – it keeps critical scholars and teachers like me from doing the critical research and teaching that are themselves vital forms of political action.
Friend: Hear hear!
APO colleague: The buzz word I got fed for my job”academic effectiveness”. The moment you start trying to measure whatever the hell that is, you’ve forgotten what the hell a University is there for in the first place.
Contingent academic colleague: …so the tenure track do all this ‘service’, get course releases, then sessionals are paid next to nothing to teach the courses but can’t do research or service work so they also stagnate…. seems like the only people who get mid career success are the admins, what do they do again?
Me: How’s this for a telling symptom? The new issue of University Affairs, which is a national platform for university & college administrators, has a “career advice” article for post-tenure professors – and the advice is, literally, Service, Service, Service, and Service:
Contingent academic colleague: I found a niche that doesn’t involve tenure or service, but it took ten years and some serious soul searching… now I teach 50% of the time and work for publishers for the other half, but it’s all on my terms so I’m actually very happy. Decent income, no committees!
Faculty Association staff member: Some ‘service’ work is often downloading work management should be doing and more often doing work that gives the appearance of faculty involvement in decision making. Look for that pesky word ‘recommend’.
Tenured academic colleague: Consultaganda. Just the word I’ve been looking for.
Note: Credit for the “Consultaganda” coinage goes to AU labour studies prof Bob Barnetson.
Many thanks to Bruce Sterling and Wired for the kind word about my article on copyright, Canadian science fiction, and social media.
I’ll take “really really Canadian” as a compliment. (Would there by any other way for a Canadian to take it?)
Not sure why WordPress waited four years to notify me about this particular pingback, but better late than never.
In this post I want to try to explain, as clearly as I can, two things: 1) the proper focus of academic essays on literature (or other cultural texts, like plays or songs); and 2) how to achieve that focus in essays of comparison and contrast among two or more texts.
1. In your essays, talk about the writing.
The proper subject of an essay in literary criticism (here meaning criticism of any textual form) is the writing: the text as a composition of significant elements of form and style. (The analysis of how these elements work together to achieve artistic effects and cultural functions is what we call close reading, and it’s the core methodology, the critical practice of literary studies.) It’s a common mistake for students new to English studies to treat a text like a “window” rather than a “painting,” as U Penn’s Prof Jack Lynch puts it, in his excellent, short guide to Getting an A on an English Paper – a guide that I would advise as an absolute must-read for every student in English literary studies.
in an English paper, don’t talk about the “real world.” Talk about the writing … don’t assume literature is a transparent window that shows us the real world — it’s not something we can reliably look through. Often it’s more like a painting than a window, and instead of looking through it we should learn to look at it. … this doesn’t mean you can’t be interested in the real world behind the text. … Just remember that you don’t have any direct access to that real world, only representations of it. Never lose sight of that fact.
If an English paper is about these representations, then its thesis is the reader’s interpretation – that is, your interpretation – of how a given play constructs these representations, using dramatic techniques, literary devices, and other elements of form. Lynch describes some of these elements at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/EngPaper/close.html – for instance, diction, word order, metaphors. The seven-point list of categories of dramatic form posted for Athabasca University’s Engl 303 world drama course assignment in scene analysis assignment is another useful catalogue of dramatic techniques; I’ve also posted a similar list of Categories for Textual Analysis of works in various media, including drama.
2. Compare texts, then, on grounds of common elements of form.
The key to writing effective English essays of comparison and contrast lies in identifying which such dramatic techniques or elements of literary form furnish the most interesting or distinctive grounds on which to compare two plays, and thereby to argue your own distinctive interpretation of these plays.
As well as “writing about the ‘real world’,” another error common among students new to comparative criticism in particular is not comparing plays directly with each other, but rather discussing how each addresses the student’s chosen theme or thesis. So an essay making that kind of error might argue something to the effect that two plays both represent an identified theme, and discuss how each one does so separately from the other, without considering what elements of form they might have in common. (Essays like this also tend to stay focused on “real world” type content – characters’ actions and events, as though they’re things that happen, not scripted constructions composed to convey specific artistic and cultural effects.) Instead, a stronger essay of comparison and contrast might argue that two given plays compare or contrast in their representation of a given theme – through the uses of two or three different dramatic techniques and/or elements of literary form that each uses in a way that’s significantly similar to or different from how the other does.
More about integrating the grounds of comparison for an essay of comparison and contrast is at this page I’ve created in the Landing, Athabasca U’s social network.
And if you’re still unsure about the whole “talk about the writing” thing, I’ve blogged more extensively about it.
And, lastly, in another blog post, I detail four specific steps to practice the close reading of texts, in order to focus on how they’re written and the implications of that writing.
Given the market fundamentalist ideology (neoliberalism) that has thoroughly pervaded state governance and has been steadily colonizing higher education for decades, Alberta presents an instructive microcosm of the ongoing privatization and corporatization of the university (see Readings), seen in four specific threats to academic freedom now faced by Alberta’s universities:
1. provincial government “Letters of Expectation”
2. provincial government anti-labour legislation: Bill 45
3. university collaborations with private corporations
4. university policies on employee conduct
Before detailing these threats, it is important to understand what academic freedom is and why it is of central importance to the public interest. Academic freedom is related to freedom of speech in general, but is also significantly different. Like freedom of speech more generally, academic freedom is not an excuse to be an asshole: it is not the freedom of “entitlement to one’s opinion,” that reflex reaction of the uninformed to the reasoned critique of unreasonable claims (see Stokes); it is not the freedom to “agree to disagree” that sanctions untenable positions. Academic freedom is a kind of freedom of speech, specific to the social institution of the modern research university: it is also a freedom of research, teaching, and service. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) defines academic freedom as follows:
the term “academic freedom” within the post-secondary education context means the freedom of speech, the freedom to teach, and the freedom to carry out research and publish results thereof. It also means the right to criticize the university and other social, economic, and political institutions without fear of institutional censorship, penalty, or reprisal. Academic freedom carries with it the duty to use that freedom in a manner consistent with the scholarly obligation to base research and teaching on the search for knowledge.
Academic freedom serves the public interest, then, as the ethos and context for the independent pursuit and publication of research that is not beholden to interests beyond the research community, research that is free to unsettle received wisdom or question authority. As CAUT observes, in its new report on current university partnerships with industry and government, “the integrity of the university is measured by the extent to which it protects this necessary context for scholarly work.” Ensuring academic integrity and protecting academic freedom mean, in practice, insulating researchers from external influences and submitting research proposals and findings to independent peer review (the impartial and sometimes anonymous critique of expert researchers in the field). However, as the CAUT report goes on to say,
Ensuring academic integrity has never been easy for universities as the free pursuit of knowledge and the challenging of conventional wisdom create discomfort in many quarters and among powerful interests. There is a long and disturbing history of efforts to rein in the university and to direct scholars along paths that others want pursued. (1)
For example, drug research is routinely pressured by pharmaceutical corporations, sometimes to suppress findings that thwart a given product’s profitability, sometimes to manipulate findings to enhance profitability. The public interest is not served by research findings manipulated to serve business or the state, it is betrayed by them and the conflict of interest they represent. And such conflicts of interest erode public trust in the university as social institution of advanced teaching and research.
It is important to explain academic freedom and its social importance because both are clearly lost on – or pointedly disregarded by – the most powerful interests today: corporate businesses and the governments that serve them, governments that seem increasingly deaf to any interests except those of corporate business and oblivious to any concerns except that of winning and holding power. Since the hard right turn to market fundamentalism (or neoliberalism) around 1980, “attempts by industry and government to direct scholarly inquiry and teaching have multiplied” (CAUT 1). And such attempts are shown with special vividness right now in the province of Alberta, in four important instances.
1. provincial government “Letters of Expectation”
In the spring of 2013 the Alberta government’s Ministry of Enterprise and Advanced Education1 announced that each of Alberta’s twenty-six postsecondary institutions (colleges and universities) would be required to write and submit for ministry approval a “Letter of Expectation” that outlines the institution’s mandate, distinctive contribution to Alberta’s postsecondary system, and commitment to the ministry’s stated prioritization of applied research, commercialization of research outcomes, and partnerships with industry and government. This last requirement of the Letter of Expectation was not even its most troubling aspect: what was and remains most troubling, as the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) was quick to recognize and publicly criticize,2 is that the whole exercise of drafting and seeking approval for the Letter simply lends the appearance of consent and legitimacy to the government’s sharp cut to the postsecondary budget, a cut of some 7%. This cut came as a shock to a sector that had been previously assured it could count on three consecutive annual budget increases of 2% in 2013-15 (and to a voting public that had been promised “no service cuts” in the ruling party’s 2012 election campaign).
From the spring to the fall, university administrations drafted their Letters of Expectation; AU’s administration provided university faculty and staff with periodic updates and opportunities for consultation and feedback on the drafts in progress. Understanding the idea for the Letters to have originated with the British Columbia government, AUFA noted that the BC sector’s Letters all opened with a legal disclaimer, to the effect that the Letter is not legally binding on the parties signing it. The inclusion of such a legal disclaimer became AUFA’s main recommendation for AU’s draft Letter. While AUFA continued to maintain that participation in the Letter-writing represented a problematic legitimizing of the Ministry’s hurtful governance of Alberta postsecondary education (an invitation to participate in the political punishment of a sector seen as a soft target, under pretences of financial “austerity”), the Association also maintained that the inclusion of a legal disclaimer reduced the Letter-writing to an essentially meaningless bureaucratic exercise. Successive drafts of the AU Letter did include that disclaimer: the version submitted for the review and feedback of AU’s General Faculties Council in October included that disclaimer. However, the version that the AU administration and the Ministry ultimately both signed and put on file in November has not retained the legal disclaimer. The disclaimer was also dropped from the Letters of other Alberta institutions that had previously included it. (See AU’s finalized Letter of Expectation at http://eae.alberta.ca/media/letters/Athabasca.pdf.)
The disclaimer stating that the Letter of Expectation is not legally binding is important, because of other disturbing details in the Letter that show the ministry’s interest in aligning postsecondary education much more closely with the interests of industry and government. At first glance, the Letter appears to be a variation on the Mandate & Role document that’s been on file with the Ministry since 2009, and many clauses drafted by the university administration articulate very well the university’s open educational mission (e.g. in serving students who “face barriers to access and success in university-level study”), its commitment to academic freedom and integrity (e.g. in “foster[ing] research and creative activity in both pure and applied fields”), and its expectations for progressive governance (e.g. in making outcomes contingent on “sufficient funding” and government commitment to fostering a “supportive and attractive” postsecondary environment). But it’s the details of the Letter that harbour the devilry. Of particular concern, first and foremost, is the deletion of the “not legally binding” disclaimer. There is also the neoliberal language of partnership, entrepreneurship, and collaboration with industry and government that features prominently and pervasively throughout the Letter. And of special concern is the clause that describes AU’s responsibility “to operate within its approved mandate, as set out in its approved mandate statement and mandate and roles document, and in accordance with any additional direction provided by the minister” (2, my emphasis). This clause is significant – and disturbing – in that it basically gives the Ministry a free hand to direct the university to do whatever it asks. Whether or not the Ministry would in practice exercise this extraordinary infringement on university autonomy and academic freedom is not the point; the point is that the permission for this extraordinary infringement is now enshrined in the language of a document to which the university administration and the Ministry have signed agreement.
Furthermore, the fact that the university administration has taken up (rather than, say, rejected) the endeavour of writing and signing this Letter constitutes an act of complicity with a Ministry that clearly sees higher education not as a public good and social service in its own right, but as an instrument of economic growth, to be managed (or, as the mere fact of the Letters suggests, even micromanaged) according to narrowly neoliberal, business-based metrics of profitability, performance, and efficiency – which are (as CUFA BC’s Rick Kool has pointed out) not the right metrics to use for measuring university excellence.
2. provincial government anti-labour legislation: Bill 45
By the end of November 2013, the Redford government passed two pieces of legislation, Bills 45 and 46, that generated considerable criticism and commentary from Alberta workers, labour organizations, and their allies. Bill 45 imposes harsh new penalties for public sector work actions like strikes; Bill 46 imposes wage limits on public sector workers. Of particular interest here is Bill 45, which, as labour studies researcher Bob Barnetson argues, is symptomatic of a fascist tendency in the provincial government, given the well documented, close historical relationship between corporate business and fascist governments, and the equally well documented, historical practices of fascist governments to attack labour ideologically, to legislate against organized labour, and to use democratic mechanisms to undermine democratic rule (“Is Bill 45 fascist?”). Yes, this fascist tendency does therefore apply with equal precision to Canada’s current federal government.
Among its measures for suppressing organized labour, Bill 45 imposes an extraordinary chill on freedom of speech, and thus on academic freedom as a kind of freedom of speech. Barnetson’s analysis is worth quoting at length here, because it explains how this chill effect works:
Here is an example … that affects all Albertans (not just public sector union members).
Section 4(4) of the Bill says:
(4) No person shall counsel a person to contravene subsection (1) or (2) or impede or prevent a person from refusing to contravene subsection (1) or (2).
Sections 4(1) and (2) are basically prohibitions on illegal strikes or threats of strikes:
4(1) No employee and no trade union or officer or representative of a trade union shall cause or consent to a strike.
(2) No employee and no officer or representative of a trade union shall engage in or continue to engage in any conduct that constitutes a strike threat or a strike.
Strike and strike threat are pretty broadly defined in ss.1(1)(j) and (k) of the Bill. I won’t list all of the possible definitions here (you can read Bill 45 yourself). The key issue here is that if someone uninvolved with a union (say a newspaper editor or an academic) says “The workers’ only recourse is an illegal strike” that could well be construed as counseling workers or trade unionists to violate ss.4(1-2), which is a violation of s.4(4).
So what happens to the editor or academic? Well, s.18(1) says that if you violate s.4(4) you are guilty of an offence. Under s.18(1)(d), the editor or academic would be liable for a fine of $500 a day per day of the contravention. Section 20(a) says that prosecution may occur within 1 year of the last day the offense occurred. (“Initial thoughts,” my emphasis)
As many other commentators observe, Bill 46 amounts to censorship of just talking about strikes. In this instance, the impact of government policy is not restricted to academics (though it may acutely felt by labour studies experts like Barnetson), but actually extends to all citizens of Alberta; for instance, journalists and bloggers, especially those sympathetic to labour, have taken this as a direct threat to their commentary (see Climenhaga, “If” and “Who”). “It’s hard to imagine a more blatant violation of free speech,” writes Don Braid in the Calgary Herald,
a right that always implies a certain social anarchy to function usefully.
People are not allowed to break laws, but they are permitted, except in obvious cases of threatening harm, to talk about challenging, testing, pushing or even breaking them. The offence is in the breaking, not the talking.
But not for Alberta’s public unions. Talking is now pretty much illegal.
3. university collaborations with private corporations
As mentioned above, CAUT has recently published Open For Business: On What Terms? This report analyzes twelve existing Canadian university collaborations with corporations and governments. The analysis applies CAUT’s Guiding Principles for University Collaborations in order to assess each collaboration according to the following seven criteria:
- protection of academic freedom
- protection of academic integrity
- protection of “academic knowledge sharing” – i.e., protection of university and researcher autonomy in communicating and publishing findings
- conflict of interest
- role of academic staff – i.e., in the governance of the collaboration
- structure of employment – i.e., does the collaboration employ university students and faculty or non-tenured, contract, or external employees
Of the twelve CAUT analyzed, seven are research collaborations (not academic program collaborations); of the seven research collaborations, four involve Alberta’s comprehensive research academic institutions, or CARIs.
The Alberta Ingenuity Centre for In-Situ Energy (AICISE) involves the Universities of Alberta and Calgary, the provincial government, and five corporations, including Shell, Nexen, and ConocoPhillips. CAUT’s analysis of AICISE argues that this collaboration meets none of the seven criteria listed above.
The Centre for Oil Sands Innovation (COSI) has conducted projects at universities elsewhere in Canada, but currently is housed at the University of Alberta, and involves the Imperial Oil corporation and the provincial agency Alberta Innovates. CAUT’s analysis of COSI argues that this collaboration meets none of the seven criteria of academic freedom, integrity, governance, and employment.
The Consortium for Heavy Oil Research by University Scientists (CHORUS) is based at the University of Calgary and its key industry partners are major oil corporations like Nexen, ConocoPhillips, and Husky. CAUT’s analysis of CHORUS argues that this collaboration meets only the last two of the seven criteria: the industry sponsors are not allowed a role in academic governance, and the research is to be conducted by U of Calgary faculty and students.
The Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability partners the U of Calgary with the energy firm Enbridge. CAUT’s analysis of this partnership argues that it protects most of the criteria: academic freedom, integrity, knowledge sharing, role of academic staff, and structure of employment.
These collaborations may represent models for the Alberta government’s narrowly neoliberal, instrumentalist view of postsecondary education as job training for oil workers, the production of patentable technologies, and the discovery of other ways to keep oil revenues flowing. The Ministry has repeatedly stated this view of postsecondary education, and has indicated that applied, commercializable research and industry partnerships should be the main priorities for postsecondary institutions. However, these collaborations also show a troubling if unsurprising congruity between the provincial government’s aggressively neoliberal approach to exploiting universities and that of the federal government, which has drastically restructured and restricted the allocation of research funding – for instance, by “prioritizing” certain, economically rationalized areas of investigation (see “Priority Areas”), and by earmarking all new research funding strictly for university-industry partnerships (see “Get Science Right”). The Alberta university partnerships also harbour provincial counterparts to the kinds of suppressive attacks on university research and teaching that are taking place at the federal level, as have been seen in the Canadian government’s blatant and heavy-handed suppression of research findings concerning climate change. The COSI collaboration at the U of Alberta in particular has become controversial – and the postsecondary Ministry along with it – for the amount of control that it cedes to the Ministry over the communication and publicization of research findings.
The agreement … indicates that the Alberta Minister of Advanced Education must be notified of any breakthrough discovery. The minister must be consulted regarding “the desirability of and content of a public announcement or press release” and that the university will refrain from making any public announcement without the approval of the minister “as to the contents of the announcement or press release.” (CAUT 22)
The government minister gets to control what the university can tell the public about the research done in this partnership. This control constitutes an extraordinary surrender of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. “How can this minister claim that she values academic freedom,” asked NDP opposition MLA David Eggen, “when this office is increasing its political control over any information released from our public universities? (Eggen qtd. in “Report”).
The agreements thus also represent the failure of university administrations to protect basic principles of university research and teaching (a failure we are witnessing on a global scale, as university administrations become increasingly colonized by business approaches and litigation jitters that result in astonishing moves like the U of London’s recent ban on student protests).
Moreover, all four of the above industry and government collaborations with Alberta universities allow for the very real possibility of conflict of interest; the COSI agreement goes so far as to indicate that such conflicts are “unavoidable” and are merely to be minimized, at best (CAUT 23). The potential and the tacit allowances for conflicts of interest in these university partnerships with industry and government are ironic in light of the government’s stated concern for public sector conflicts of interest and its recent
4. university policies on employee conduct
University policies on employee conduct are a constant focus of attention for CAUT’s academic freedom and tenure committee, which monitors how such policies infringe – whether actively or potentially – on academic freedom. While conduct policies are not uncommon among Canadian universities, two Alberta universities – Athabasca University and Grant MacEwan University – have recently implemented conduct policies whose terms pose a more specific kind of threat to the academic freedom of these universities’ employees.
In 2013, these two universities implemented “code of conduct” policies that differ significantly from conduct policies at other universities in the following ways: they require the employee to sign a form indicating that she or he has read and understands the policy; and they state that failure to comply with the policy may result in employee discipline. MacEwan’s new conduct policy and accompanying signing form are presumably the university’s response to the February 2013 Alberta Auditor General’s report, which recommended the university inplement a policy on conflict of interest and code of conduct in language almost identical to that which the MacEwan policy and form now use.3 Athabasca’s administration told AUFA that its new conflict of interest and code of conduct policy, implemented in early July 2013, is, similarly, a response to government directives. MacEwan’s form is for new employees to sign on hiring, although the conduct policy is in force for all employees; Athabasca’s form is for all employees to sign.
Athabasca’s policy was no sooner announced than AUFA began to critique and oppose it. We immediately advised all our members not to sign the conduct policy form, and continue to advise our members not to sign it. The form initially stated that an employee, by signing, would agree to having read and understood the policy, and to abide by it “in perpetuity.” AUFA criticized these stipulations, and sought a legal opinion on the necessity to sign at all. The administration has since twice revised the form, first to delete the “in perpetuity” clause and next to delete the more subtle but still legally problematic “understanding” clause. However, AUFA continues to question the push to sign any form, and continues to advise members not to sign. As AUFA has communicated to the administration:
AUFA’s argument against the conduct policy signing form is twofold: the signing request is both redundant and exorbitant.
Redundancy: The employer has the right to adopt reasonable policies or codes like this, and to bring them to the attention of staff with a view to compliance. That may be accomplished by making an announcement, as HR did in its email of July 5, 2013, and putting them on the website, which has also been done. AUFA therefore holds that all staff have received notice that they are expected to comply with the Code, and nothing more legally needs to be done by the employer to make the Code applicable to staff. The policy is binding on our members without their signatures.
Exorbitance: While completing and signing a disclosure form to fulfill Conflict of Interest policy requirements is fairly standard among Canadian universities (I myself have completed and submitted the disclosure form), the requirement that an employee sign one’s receipt or acknowledgment of a Conduct code is unheard of. For the as-yet unknown implications of signing, especially in terms of possible discipline (which the Code mentions in section 16) and possible curtailment of academic or professional freedoms, AUFA advises its members not to sign the form.
The signing requirement is especially egregious, but the conduct policy itself is still problematic. Although its second article acknowledges academic freedom, this article also suggests specific limits on that freedom:
At the same time, this Code emphasizes that academic freedom imposes responsibilities upon the University community; members are expected to use this freedom in a manner consistent with a responsible and honest search for and dissemination of knowledge and truth. (“Code”)
Article 11 goes somewhat further:
Honest and accurate recording and reporting of information is critical to the ability of the University to fulfill its mandate and are relied upon to produce various reports. Members of the community must understand that, because the University is a publicly-funded institution, its records and communications of all types are subject to Freedom of Information requests and may become public through legal, regulatory or media investigation. Exaggeration, derogatory remarks, legal conclusions or inappropriate characterizations of people and organizations shall be avoided. This applies to communications of all kinds, including email and informal notes or interoffice memos. Records are to be retained and destroyed in accordance with the University’s Records Management Policy. (“Code,” my emphasis)
This article basically warns employees against communicating anything that could be construed as defamatory or libelous. The exhortation to avoid “legal conclusions or inappropriate characterizations” is especially vague and vast. The university’s law scholars might be surprised to find their academic freedom so specifically curtailed, to say nothing of the possibility that sound legal conclusions may well be reached by scholars who are versed but not expert in law. And how does the administration define “inappropriate characterization”? The advisory against this could be levered particularly against feminist, Marxist, anti-racist, and queer characterizations of any number of “people and organizations.” In short, this article chills criticism; and yet as Stuart Hall has stated, “the university is a critical institution or it is nothing” (qtd. in Giroux).
Finally, Article 16 outlines the consequences of failure to abide by this code of conduct: “Conduct which falls below the standards outlined in the policy may result in discipline or, in the event of serious violation, dismissal. Any disciplinary action including dismissal shall be taken in accordance with and be subject to the provisions of the relevant collective agreement, where applicable” (“Code”).
This article clarifies that conduct is tied to discipline, and thus infringes on precisely those provisions the collective agreement sets out for disciplinary action. The linking of conduct to discipline adds a further chill to employees’ – and by extension the university’s – capacity to criticize both the institution and persons and organizations outside it.
MacEwan’s conduct policy is similar in that it requires the employee to sign her or his agreement; that signing, however, is requested on a form presented to newly hired employees. The form includes one article on conduct, four on confidentiality, two on disclosure, and a handful of other general articles (e.g. acknowledgment of consequences of failure to comply). The conduct article cross-refers to MacEwan’s “Code of Conduct – Employees.”
MacEwan’s Code of Conduct is not as detailed as AU’s: on the one hand, it doesn’t mention academic freedom at all; on the other, it doesn’t meticulously itemize communication modes and transgressions as AU’s does.
Like MacEwan, AU has folded acknowledgment of its new Conduct policy into the form to be signed by newly hired employees of the university. New hires are put in a particularly difficult position at both these institutions, since they are being asked to sign agreement to problematic conduct policies presented amidst an array of other university policies.
The administrations of AU and McEwan argue that these conduct policies and signing forms simply follow new government directives for conflict of interest policies and procedures. Given the government’s own massive facilitation of conflicts of interest in the aforementioned university-government-industry collaborations, the government’s directives impose a farcical double standard in which conflicts of interest arising from industry and government involvement in university research are only to be expected, while conflicts of interest – and, according to some associative assumption, breaches of conduct related to them – arising among university employees are to be regulated with unprecedented severity.
The four issues detailed here are not the only threats to academic freedom in the province, or for that matter in the pressurized and fast-changing global context of postsecondary education (see Coetzee, Giroux, Schuman). Other similarly institutional threats appear in the targeted closure of research projects and teaching programs that produce knowledge inconvenient or challenging to specific states or companies, or to neoliberal hegemony more generally (see “Silence”); they appear in the ramped-up destruction of Canadian research resources (the long census) and archives (see Nikiforuk); they appear in initiatives to move university IT to cloud-based services that expose faculty research and teaching files and communications to surveillance and law enforcement (whether covertly via intelligence organizations or overtly via legal provisions like the Patriot Act) – these initiatives not only compromise privacy but amplify the chill on freedom of digital communications. But in Alberta these four particular threats to academic freedom – emerging both externally, via government and industry, and internally, via administration – vividly encapsulate related global trends and dramatize, in their convergence, the ways in which neoliberal governments, and the corporations that direct them, both view the modern university as an ideological problem and exploit it as an entrepreneurial opportunity. And neither that view nor that exploitation serve anything close to the public interest in the way that it is advanced by the principled, critical practice of academic freedom.
1. Note the symptomatic pairing of industry and education in the ministry’s very title. Following the government’s cabinet shuffle of November 2013, this ministry has been re-named Innovation and Advanced Education.
2. See AUFA’s open letter to the AU Board of Governors, which details our concerns with the Letters of Expectation: http://www.aufa.ab.ca/uploads/1/3/9/9/13991368/aufa-cupe_lettertoauboard_reeaeletterofexpectation.pdf
See also the Edmonton Journal’s coverage of this letter and AUFA’s further statements on the Letters of Expectation: http://www2.canada.com/edmontonjournal/news/story.html?id=4a0d569d-7cae-457b-9240-571d6bfe5f7d
3. Compare the title of MacEwan’s “Employee conduct, confidentiality and disclosure” policy to the February 2013 report of Alberta’s Auditor General, which recommended that MacEwan U implement an “employee conduct, confidentiality and disclosure” policy: http://www.oag.ab.ca/webfiles/reports/OAGPublicReport-Feb2013.pdf
“Academic Freedom Fund Constitution.” Canadian Association of University Teachers, n.d. http://www.caut.ca/docs/academic-freedom-fund/academic-freedom-fund-constitution.pdf?sfvrsn=2
Barnetson, Bob. “Initial thoughts on Bill 45.” Labour & Employment in Alberta 28 Nov. 2013 http://albertalabour.blogspot.ca/2013/11/initial-thoughts-on-bill-45.html
—. “Is Bill 45 fascist?” Labour & Employment in Alberta 29 Nov. 2013 http://albertalabour.blogspot.ca/2013/11/is-bill-45-fascist.html
Braid, Don. “Tory laws to ban the very mention of union strikes delivers a blow to free speech.” Calgary Herald 4 Dec. 2013 http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/politics/Braid+Tory+laws+very+mention+union+strikes+delivers+blow+free+speech/9243464/story.html
Climenhaga, David. “If the deputy premier wants free speech for Ukraine so badly, why is he attacking it in Alberta?” Alberta Diary 4 Dec. 2013 http://albertadiary.ca/2013/12/if-the-deputy-premier-wants-free-speech-for-ukraine-so-badly-why-is-he-attacking-it-in-alberta.html
—. “Who gets muzzled next by unconstitutional Redford government laws? Environmentalists?” Alberta Diary 6 Dec. 2013 http://albertadiary.ca/2013/12/who-gets-muzzled-next-by-unconstitutional-redford-government-laws-environmentalists.html
“Code of Conduct.” Athabasca University. 7 Jun. 2013 http://ous.athabascau.ca/policy/humanresources/code-of-conduct.htm
“Code of Conduct – Employees.” MacEwan University. 10 Dec. 2009 http://www.macewan.ca/contribute/groups/public/documents/document/pfw_003567.pdf
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“Get Science Right: Infographic.” CAUT, 2014 http://getscienceright.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/CAUT_13-147_Infographic_FIN2.jpg
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In the course I’m teaching on academic writing for graduate students, the students are required to practice peer review: they have to give constructive criticism on drafts of one another’s essays. Some students have asked how to present criticism constructively: “My feedback on —’s paper is quite critical,” wrote one student. “Any pointers in how I can manage the tone better would be appreciated, I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.”
Giving criticism constructively is tricky, but it does get easier with practice. And while expectations of tone and etiquette can vary (for instance, anecdotally, academics in Europe don’t mince words the way North Americans do), academia tends widely to uphold standards, for peer review and critique, of politeness, professionalism, and focus on a given argument’s substance (theory, method, evidence, reasoning) and form (structure and style). These are standards of constructive criticism: criticism intended to support and strengthen writing in progress.
So how to put the principle of constructive criticism into practice? Here are a few of the rhetorical moves I use in giving constructive criticism to students’ work and colleagues’ papers:
Give good news with bad news: begin by saying something positive about the work, something you think it does well, before moving on to discuss something you don’t like or something it doesn’t do well.
Substitute imperative for negative: instead of saying something negative (e.g. “this paper doesn’t review enough articles”), say it as an imperative (e.g. “this paper needs to review more articles”). this also makes your criticism action-oriented; you provide specific steps and actions the recipient can take.
Recognize intent amidst error: try to identify and if possible praise what a given bit or whole piece of writing is trying or intending to do – and then go on to discuss how it could better realize or achieve that intent.
Be specific: this is related to the imperative idea above – constructive criticism means criticism that can be concretely acted on by its recipient. so avoid general or vague judgments about the whole work or about its component parts – instead, highlight specific ways to improve the work.
The practice of constructive criticism is vital in studies and research – especially in the distributed, “virtual” classrooms like those of #AthaU, where students aren’t actually facing one another, and where the risks are consequently higher for either remaining too reserved or getting rude. But constructive criticism is an eminently “transferable skill,” too, one that is important in lots of different work and social situations and communications. Since we’re trying to have a civilization here, after all.
If you know of other tips or rhetorical moves for giving constructive criticism, please feel free to share them in a comment below.
I recently learned a highschool friend is now pursuing a BA with #AthaU, and in response to their stated frustration with academic essay writing, I offered some pointers and resources. These might be useful for undergrad students generally – I know frustration with academic writing drives whole black markets (and I boo those black markets!1) – so voilà. (I’ve made some comments less #AthaU-specific, like the discussion of the campus student writing service.)
Here are some various tips and resources for effective, successful academic essay writing.
First, here’s the article by Cory Doctorow on writing for 20 minutes a day; it’s worth a read for his reasoning on this process, and for the related tips that can make the 20 minutes as productive as possible. http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2009/01/cory-doctorow-writing-in-age-of.html
Next, something I teach students is writing as a four-stage process: Drafting, Revising, Editing, and Proofreading. Sometimes the stages overlap, but understanding the importance of each stage means two things:
1) leaving enough time to follow this process (not leaving the whole writing job to the last minute); and
2) giving yourself enough time between stages to walk away from the work, for at least a day or two, so that you return to it with refreshed perspective (and so that you don’t burn out trying to push a project through to completion)
For any given essay assignment, you should try asking your tutor or instructor if you can send them your working thesis for the essay, or a point-form outline of the essay, or both. Some instructors welcome this consultation on process; others see it as conflict of interest (i.e. they can’t mark something they’ve helped put together in the first place). Do not ask an instructor to look at a complete first draft (unless this is required in the assignment instructions) – that would be a direct conflict of interest. But it is always worth asking if you can consult with the instructor on your initial thesis and approach to arguing it. (It could help the instructor to look more favourably on the final submission too.)
As a student, you can and should take advantage of your university’s student writing services office. This kind of service provides one-on-one feedback and coaching; the service works best once you have a draft essay for them to look at. Most universities’ writing service offices (like #AthaU’s Write Site) also have websites of their own that are full of tips and references for effective academic writing.
AU’s Write Site, for its part, has lots of publicly accessible essay writing tips and resources. Some examples you might find helpful:
Writing Resources: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/writing-resources.php
Writing Genres and Samples: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/writing-genres.php
Research Writing: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/research.php
Getting the most out of your university’s writing coaching and consulting means contacting that office earlier instead of later. They’re sometimes quite busy, especially around common deadlines (e.g. midterm time, and ends of semesters).
I can’t recommend highly enough a blog by a dedicated academic writing teacher; it’s called Explorations of Style and it covers just about anything and everything you want to know about academic writing, from macro-level uses and purposes to micro-level details of style and composition: http://explorationsofstyle.com/
Lastly, here are some sample rubrics of standard expectations for undergrad essay composition. One is at the Write Site: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/marking-scheme.php
The other is one I’ve adapted from my own undergrad learning and early TA work; it’s more specific to writing essays on literature, but some principles work across the curriculum: https://landing.athabascau.ca/pages/view/10019/grading-comments-for-essays-on-literature
I hope you find some of these tips and resources useful. If so, please share a comment, if you can spare a moment for it, to let me know which – if any – proved particularly helpful. (Or to alert me to others you’ve found useful.)
1. As I expected, this post is drawing traffic from would-be “essay writing service” vendors – that is, vendors of academic fraud and plagiarism. As a teacher of writing, I categorically condemn and actively prosecute plagiarism: the fraudulent presentation of another’s unacknowledged work as one’s own. Plagiarism is academic misconduct and the student who attempts it incurs serious penalization, from a failing mark to expulsion from studies. Writing is a transferable, in-demand skill: learn it, don’t outsource it.