Category Archives: Empire


New post at my other blog: “On fielding a press inquiry about how pop culture depicts the oil industry”

English professors don’t often get press inquiries, but a writer for EnergyWire, an oil business-facing news service, contacted me last week to ask what I think of the video for Justin Bieber’s new song “Holy.”…

“The TPP will invalidate millions of dollars of tax-payer funded research in Canada”

Following the annual conference of the Association of Canadian College & University Teachers of English (ACCUTE) at Congress in Calgary, ACCUTE has posted to its English Matters blog a condensed version of my conference talk on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (#TPP):

“The TPP will invalidate millions of dollars of tax-payer funded research in Canada”: Implications of the TPP for Canadian literature and literary studies

The article identifies many major authors whose entry to the Canadian public domain the TPP will interfere with; and it highlights a few publishing and research projects that the TPP will kill, thus posing a waste of public funds and a cost to Canadians’ social literacy and access to knowledge.
The article ends with links and resources for how to “stop the TPP and the mess it would make of the Canadian public domain (not to mention the Internet).”
A full version has been sent to Canada’s Minister of International Trade, and submitted to the Government of Canada’s Public Consultations on the TPP.

New Fronts in the Copyfight, Part 2

Now published, just in time for Fair Dealing Week 2016: Part 2 of New Fronts in the Copyfight, my guest-edited series in Digital Studies/Le champ numérique (DSCN). DSCN is an open access journal in the Digital Humanities. New Fronts in the Copyfight is a series featuring innovative, multidisciplinary directions in critical copyright studies. The new installment includes research articles by Dr Carolyn Guertin (author of Digital Prohibition) on digitally remixed creativity, and by Dr Daniel Downes (author of Interactive Realism and co-editor of Post-Colonial Distances) on a theory of “transproperty.” The installment also includes my review of Rosemary Coombe et al’s Dynamic Fair Dealing (2014), an excellent book, and a timely one, given the fast-approaching review of Canada’s amended copyright act and the copyright implications of the signed but not yet ratified Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Open letter to PM Trudeau about the #TPP and the need for public input on it

What follows is a letter I’ve just sent to Prime Minister Trudeau, International Trade Minister Freeland, and several MPs, about my concerns with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the need for meaningful public consultation on it. (This letter is adapted from a template provided by the Council of Canadians for mobilizing public action on this Charter-trumping, corporate-rights deal.)

TO: Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister; Chrystia Freeland, Minister of International Trade

CC: Rona Ambrose, Leader of the Conservative Party; Thomas Mulcair, Leader of the NDP; Rhéal Fortin, Leader of the Bloc Québécois; Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party

Subject: Please hold meaningful public consultations on the TPP

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Freeland,

Concerning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), you have promised to consult meaningfully with Canadians and act on what you hear. I commend you for this promise, and take you up on it now that the agreement is public.

I have serious concerns about the TPP. Your previously stated support for it contradicts your stated commitments to strengthening the middle class, the arts, and Canadian democracy. The TPP’s investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms would privilege and entrench corporate rights over citizens’ Charter rights (see Dr Ariel Katz’s recent column in the Toronto Star); it would exacerbate the middle class’ destruction; and it would, in effect, impose US laws to trump Canada’s own. 

As a professor who researches copyright, I have particular concerns with not only the TPP’s ISDS provisions, but more specifically with its Intellectual Property (IP) chapter. That chapter will needlessly cost Canada billions in pharmacare by toughening patent protections for vital medicines. That chapter will also seriously damage Canadian arts and culture by extending the term of copyright protection from 50 years after the creator’s death to 70 years. 50 years is already far longer than what economists argue is necessary to incentivize new creation, which is more like 12-14 years at most (see the UK government’s 2011 Hargreaves report, p. 19). There’s no economic justification (beyond sheer corporate greed) to lock down culture and impoverish the public domain for generations to come. Furthermore, that chapter will reintroduce Internet-censoring and access-denying provisions much like those of the USA’s 2011 SOPA bill that was roundly defeated after global public outcry.

Therefore, the TPP requires rigorous, independent review to assess whether it is in Canadians’ best interests.

Specifically, I request that you:

    1. Ask the Parliamentary Budget Officer to conduct a comprehensive, independent analysis of the TPP text. The analysis must assess the deal’s impact on human rights, health, employment, environment and democracy.

    2. Hold public hearings in each province and territory across Canada as well as separate and meaningful consultation with Indigenous communities and First Nations. No agreement can be ratified without full consent.

    3. Protect any progress made in Paris at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) from the investor-state dispute settlement provisions (ISDS) in the TPP. Furthermore, ISDS must be excised from the TPP.

Thank you for considering these comments and exhortations.


Mark A. McCutcheon, PhD

Make the Trans-Pacific Partnership (#TPP) a bigger issue in the 2015 federal election: it’s not “free trade,” it’s anti-democratic privatization and censorship

After I posted this message about an anti-TPP petition to Twitter and Facebook, a friend asked:

I am interested in knowing exactly what parts of this you disagree with and why. I don’t know too much about the deal.

To which I replied (in a possibly too-long-for-Facebook comment that might work better as a blog post):

In brief: the TPP is less a “free trade” deal than a corporate rights deal that undermines the national sovereignty of signing countries. It has been negotiated for years – in secrecy. Particular concerns (to name only a very few, in addition to its anti-democratic cloak of secrecy) are:

  1. Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions that let foreign companies sue our government on grounds of lost profit; four instance, legislation to protect the environment or the public interest – or Crown corps like CBC or Canada Post – could be grounds for a company to say this legislation hurts their profits, and the action would be decided in a secret tribunal. (These kinds of actions have already been happening under NAFTA; in the late 1990s, a company that manufactured a harmful gasoline additive successfully sued the Canadian government for millions in damages after the government passed a law banning it from gasoline.)
  2. Copyright term extension from 50 years after author’s death to 70, to conform to US copyright law. (Meanwhile, many copyright scholars agree copyright need last no longer than 15 years after a work’s publication.)
  3. Loss of digital privacy and threats to Internet access by forcing ISPs to spy on customers and deny them internet service – this is a provision much like the US’ controversial SOPA act defeated in 2011.
  4. Job losses: Harper says the TPP will create jobs – but he’s already pledged billions to dairy and auto industries against their expected losses.

For more details, see and and take a look at this short introductory video:

And following up to better explain the ISDS thing, which isn’t well or widely enough understood, I also shared this infographic (by the Council of Canadians):


The Canadian public needs to understand the wide-ranging, anti-democratic, and socially and ecologically destructive implications of the TPP agreement. Its text isn’t even public yet, and it’s not at all a done deal – it will need the formal approval of signing nations’ governments, meaning our Parliament. So the TPP should be a much bigger issue in this federal election. If you think so too, consider signing this petition against it.

And if you’re wondering how the Harper government has been able to pursue this agreement in the midst of an election period, when the Canadian government is supposed to stop its regular Parliamentary functions and maintain only a “caretaker” status:

Further Reading

John Nichols, The Nation: “The TPP Prioritizes the ‘Rights’ of Corporations Over Workers, the Environment, and Democracy.” 7 Oct. 2015.

“The TPP agreement ‘would overhaul special tribunals that handle trade disputes between businesses and participating nations’ in response to ‘widespread criticisms that the Investor-State Dispute Settlement panels favor businesses and interfere with nations’ efforts to pass rules safeguarding public health and safety.’ … Bernie Sanders was blunt about the fundamental flaw in the pact. The TPP, said the Democratic presidential contender, lets ‘multinational corporations rig the system to pad their profits at our expense’.”

Jordan Pearson, VICE: “What we know about the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership that was just signed.” 5 Oct. 2015.

“Buried in the reams of dry legal jargon of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (‪#‎TPP‬) are stipulations that will affect everything from access to pirated movies and music, to government spying, to the price of life-saving drugs around the world. …
“When the TPP is finally released, expect the policy shitshow of the decade.”

Maira Sutton, Electronic Frontier Foundation: “Trade Officials Announce Conclusion of TPP – Now the Real Fight Begins.” 5 Oct. 2015.

“The fact that close to 800 million Internet users’ rights to free expression, privacy, and access to knowledge online hinged upon the outcome of squabbles over trade rules on cars and milk is precisely why digital policy consideration do not belong in trade agreements. Hollywood, other major publishers and even big tech companies have taken advantage of this secretive, corporate-captured process to pass rules that they could not otherwise get away with in an open, participatory process.”

“Austerity U is fracked” (but here are two ideas for unfracking it)

FindlayTalk-AUE-4Mar15Yesterday at Athabasca U, the AU Faculty Association hosted a talk by Len Findlay, U of Saskatchewan Distinguished Professor of English and Chair of CAUT’s Academic Freedom & Tenure committee. Professor Findlay’s talk was titled “Academics on Empty? Academic Freedom, Collegial Governance, and the Failure of Academic Leadership in Canada.” (Here’s the presentation from his talk.) This was galvanizing subject matter for a university and a province where academic freedom and collegial governance have been in question and imperilled for some time (as I’ve blogged previously).

Findlay critiqued the ongoing corporatization of Canadian universities, in the contexts of an increasingly authoritarian federal government that prioritizes resource extraction above everything, and an increasingly neoliberal (i.e. market-fundamentalist) governance of universities that’s restructuring them according to a reductive theory of value, entailing “intellectual species loss and desertification,” endangering academic freedom, and hollowing out collegial governance.

Findlay talked at length about his home institution’s “TransformUS” program prioritization plan, and how it was so effectively opposed by the joint efforts of faculty and students that it was ultimately abandoned.
Findlay is one of Canadian academia’s most gifted orators, and his talk was as witty in its form as it was worrisome in its content.

He recalled responding to a senior administrator’s claim that raising tuition would attract “the best and the brightest” by countering that it would instead attract only “the best-off and the whitest.” He described the colonization of education by business as a shift from the liberal arts to the “neoliberal arts,” and said (a few times) that “Austerity U is fracked.”
While that phrase resonated in the room, the ceiling – I kid you not – started to drip, likely from melting snow on the roof above. A few audience membes scrambled to get buckets and contact the building superintendent, while the rest of us marveled at the perfect metaphor trickling down into the middle of the room.
Findlay, undeterred, forged ahead with his talk. Maybe the most helpful take-away was that he identified two specific things that faculty and staff can watch for at any university that indicate collegial governance and academic freedom at the institution in question are under attack:

  1. Does the university president chair the General Faculties Council?
  2. Does the General Faculties Council (and/or other governing bodies, from the Board to departments and programs) use a “consent agenda” for conducting meeting business?

About the ironically named “consent agenda” (a trivial procedure in Robert’s Rules that has been rapidly adopted and widely abused “to bury sins”), Findlay suggested replacing it with a “dissent agenda.” The consent agenda concept seemed new to him, and may be news to many readers, so it’s something to watch for – as are ways to object to it.

About the managerial disempowering of Faculties Councils, he advised that a university president who chairs a General Faculties Council should be challenged about occupying that chair; “the Faculties Council should facilitate the faculty’s work, not impose the president’s will.” He talked about how U Sask students and faculty (including the faculty union) had organized to successfully relieve their president of the GFC chair. Findlay argued that these two governance trends suggest that “autocratic dictation” (in the guise of “institutional autonomy”) is supplanting “collegial discourse” in university governance.

Which should sound an alarm to faculty and faculty associations across Canada to mobilize towards protecting collegial governance, academic freedom, and the very university itself, as a public institution advancing the public interest – or, in Findlay’s words, as “the last redoubt of critique in Harperland.” In closing, Findlay exhorted us to work against the grain of possessive individualism (and the caricature it creates of the academic as self-interested careerist), and instead embrace advocacy and coalition-building as a vital part of the academic job description. (To which end, this post, along with all the live-tweeting, is one modest contribution.)

And, just for good measure, he also wondered aloud why tuition in Canada isn’t free. “Canada is a rich country, but not a generous one. We’re not generous to our young people, our Indigenous people.” Since Athabasca U’s particular mission is to remove barriers to university education – and tuition costs are the single most cited barrier – then free tuition is a public-interest ideal to strive for (especially in the wake of the abolition of tuition fees in places like Germany). But if that dream isn’t likely to become an imminent reality, neither can we justify raising tuition – as the government would now like to allow Alberta’s universities to do – without grievously jeopardizing Athabasca U’s mission and reputation. “For this university to become elitist by stealth,” warned Findlay, “would be a national disgrace.” I couldn’t agree more.

Lastly, in response to a Twitter query, I’ve put together, with Findlay’s help, a list of the research sources for his talk (along with some further recommended readings).

Works Cited in Len Findlay’s “Academics on Empty? Academic Freedom, Collegial Governance, and the Failure of Academic Leadership in Canada”

Collini, Stefan. What Are Universities For? London: Penguin, 2012. [Review in THE.]

Findlay, Len, ed. Rethinking the Humanities. Spec. issue of English Studies in Canada 38.1 (2012).

— and Paul M. Bidwell, eds. Pursuing Academic Freedom: “Free and Fearless”? Saskatoon: Purich P, 2001. [review in Canadian Literature]

Ginsberg, Benjamin. The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. [Review in THS]

Kamboureli, Smaro and Daniel Coleman, eds. Retooling the
Humanities: The Culture of Research in Canadian Universities

Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2011.

MacKinnon, Peter. University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century: A President’s Perspective. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2014.

Open For Business: On What Terms? CAUT. Ottawa. 2013.

Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan, 2015 SCC 4

Tuchman, Gaye. Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011.

Further Reading

Barkawi, Tarak. “The neoliberal assault on academia.” Al Jazeera 25 Apr. 2013.

Canavan, Gerry. “Universities, Mismanagement, and Permanent Crisis.” 25 Feb. 2015.

Coetzee, J.M. “Universities head for extinction” [foreword to John Higgins’ Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa]. Mail & Guardian 1 Nov. 2013.

Findlay, Len. Rev. of Cary Nelson’s No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom. CAUT Bulletin, ca. 2010.

—. Rev. of Robert C. Post’s Democracy, Expertise & Academic Freedom: A First Amendment jurisprudence for the modern state. CAUT Bulletin, ca. 2012.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: 0 Books. [Preview a dubious proof copy of unknown provenance here.]

Giroux, Henry A. “Public Intellectuals Against the Neoliberal University.” Truthout 29 Oct. 2013.

Hanke, Bob and Alison Hearn, eds. Out of the Ruins, the University to Come. Spec. issue of TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 28 (2012).

MacDonald, Dougal and Natalie Sharpe. “Chapter 3: Online Teaching and the Deskilling of Academic Labour in Canada.” Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System. Ed. Keith Hoeller. Vanderbilt UP, 2014. 65-74.

Marcus, Jon. “New analysis shows problematic boom in higher ed administrators.” Huffington Post 2 Jun. 2014.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996.

“Report of the CAUT Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Governance.” CAUT. 12 Nov. 2009.

Rooke, Constance. “The Engagement of Self and Other: Liberal education and its contributions to the public good.” The Idea of Engagement: Universities in Society. Ed. S. Bjarnason and P. Coldstream. London, The Policy Research Unit, The Association of Commonwealth Universities, 2003. 228-250.

Rumble, Greville. “Social justice, economics and distance education.” Open Learning 22.2 (2007): 167-76.

Turk, James, ed. Academic Freedom in Conflict: The Struggle Over Free Speech Rights in the University. Toronto: Lorimer, 2014.

Warner, Marina. “Learning My Lesson: Marina Warner on the Disfiguring of Higher Education.” London Review of Books 37.6 (19 March 2015).

Game Of Thrones isn’t escapist, it’s an allegory of today’s new feudalism

“Old-fashioned escapism”? | Definitions | Win or die | Brands and circuses | “The slavery of being a girl” | “Winter is coming” | A “cracked-mirror” Europe | A critical or ideological fantasy? | Notes | Works Cited

“Old-fashioned escapism”?

Fantasy may think of itself as escapist, but it of course escapes nothing, and the idea that it therefore does not have anything to say about ‘reality’ is wildly simplistic. (Miéville ¶40)

Game Of Thrones season 1 screenshotThe HBO TV series Game Of Thrones is one of today’s most popular TV shows. Based on a series of novels by George R.R. Martin, Game Of Thrones is set in a fictional world “like a cracked-mirror reflection of medieval Europe” (Tucker ¶2), and its plot concerns a struggle among several aristocratic families, or “Houses,” for the monarchy of a realm called Westeros. Game is mainly a character drama about these “high-born” families embroiled in this war for the realm’s “Iron Throne,” but it belongs to the fantasy genre that was innovated by J.R.R. Tolkein. The setting is a feudal, agrarian society; battles are fought with blades and bows among castles, cavalry, and catapults; and there are fantastic elements like magic, and monsters: dragons, giants, and, yes, zombies too.

In the popular press, Game is often described as “escapism” – whether for better or worse. In the UK’s Independent, Sarah Hughes attributes the popularity of Game to audience demand for “fantasy and escapism, which tends to happen when times are hard” (Hughes ¶11). Critic Navneet Alang praises violent shows like Game and The Walking Dead for their “brutal escapism”: Martin_STFUaboutGoT“both shows are escapist dreams,” he writes; “[w]hile The Walking Dead is a look into an imaginary future … Game of Thrones is a look back into an imaginary past” (¶3). BBC journalist Ken Tucker applauds Game for its “old-fashioned escapism … invit[ing] you to join a world where you can solve your problems with a sword and a saddle” (¶2). In contrast, Vice columnist Clive Martin states his “aversion to anything that could be described as fantasy” and categorically dismisses Game – together with the whole fantasy genre – for its escapism: “I’ve always seen it as a culture that tends to be adored by people who can’t quite deal with the chaos of the real world” (¶8).

Nevertheless, some of the critics who call Game escapist still point to elements of social relevance from which they would otherwise distance the show (or fantasy in general). The Independent‘s Hughes mentions “hard times”; and the BBC’s Tucker notes that “at a time when people fear upsetting the boss lest they find themselves tossed into a frighteningly small job market … the escapism of a programme in which bosses can be cut down to size with one precise slash of a sword exerts a gut-level allure” (¶6). Other critics question the supposed escapism of Game. In The Nation, Michelle Dean asks if Game is “escapist enough”: “typically the escapism we once preferred was, as in the Great Depression, social-comment-free: musicals … utopian dreams and escapist fantasias … about … the hope of a better world in a really bad one. But Game of Thrones … isn’t about that. It is about choosing the lesser of evils” (¶ 4, ¶8). Dean suggests that Game’s “postmodern approach to power” signals a “politically interesting shift” in how popular culture “imagin[es] alternate worlds” (¶7-8).

Detail of "Realms of GAFA" by David Parkins (The Economist 1 Dec. 2012)

Detail of “Realms of GAFA” by David Parkins (The Economist 1 Dec. 2012)

Likewise, in 2012, The Economist commented that, for Silicon Valley audiences, “the escapism [Game] offer[s] may be tinged with … recognition. … [Its] tales of a world that has lost its king echoes the reality of today’s technology industry, where the battle lines between the four large companies seen as dominating the consumer internet … are in furious flux” (¶2). The Economist article compares Game’s contenders for the “Iron Throne” to Silicon Valley’s competitors for “the iron phone”:

Their lordships Page, Cook, Zuckerberg and Bezos thus need to map a course for their respective firms through dangerous legal and regulatory territory. At the same time they have to avoid being distracted from fighting their rivals; the mad emperors of Microsoft … And the shareholders, hungry for returns in a moribund global economy, need to be kept happy. (¶28)

Connections like these, between the feudal world of Game and today’s capitalist world, are what the Vice columist alludes to, when he ridicules fans of the show who claim “it’s about politics” (¶4). In what follows, I want to challenge “escapist” readings of Game – which mystify the show’s social relevance – by elaborating on its relevance, on how, exactly, “it’s about politics.” Game is not “escapist,” it’s an allegory of today’s new feudalism.1 (Fans should note that what follows is only about the TV series only, not the books it is based on.)


Some definitions are now in order, for my key terms: allegory, neoliberalism, and new feudalism. First, allegory can be summarized as “the concrete presentation of an abstract idea, typically in a narrative – whether prose, verse, or drama – with at least two levels of meaning. The first level is the surface story line, which can be summed up by stating who did what to whom when. The second level is typically moral, political, philosophical, or religious” (Murfin and Ray 10).

This meme made Game Of Thrones an allegory for the 2012 US presidential election: it’s illustrative, but parochial. We can think bigger.

That is, allegory is “an extended metaphor” – extended, sometimes, to the length of an entire narrative (10), and involving extensive and often subtle use of tropes – figurative language and images – to convey multiple meanings, to convey irony and subtext. And irony and subtext need have nothing to do with the intention of a text’s creator, but are equally valuable (if not moreso) as acts of reading. I read Game as an allegory of what has been called the “new feudalism” of neoliberal capitalism.

Neoliberalism basically describes a free-market ideology that masks a globalized economy of governments controlled by corporations. David Harvey calls neoliberalism “an elite-political project that ‘proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade’” (qtd. in Smith ¶4). That’s the free-market ideology part; however, as Peter Jay Smith writes, “[f]ree enterprise does not mean free competition as depicted in neoclassical theory.” Instead, this “free-market fundamentalist” ideology conceals the real operations of global capital as an oligarchy – a system of elite rule by corporations, with state leaders as their servants, which means “protection for the strong and socialization of their risks, market and discipline for the weak’” (Smith ¶15). In other words, neoliberalism means, in practice, “socialized costs” and “privatized gains” (Hjersted ¶8) – for the rich, the “socialism” of generous tax breaks and subsidies, and, for everyone else, the cut-throat capitalism of the “free market.” The demonstrable result of neoliberalism has been the impoverishment of the public good, and a corresponding, sharp increase in wealth inequality.

The dog-eat-dog neoliberal ethos, together with its resulting wealth gap and financial crises, has led some artists, thinkers, and even businesspeople to understand capitalism today as a return to feudal society: a new feudalism. William Gibson’s “Sprawl” novels from the 1980s envision a near future ruled by heavily fortified corporations. For political scientist Tim Duvall, writing in 2003:

The New Feudalism is much like the Old Feudalism. We call it ‘liberalism’ now, we think of it as ‘democracy,’ but it is really what it always was: the freedom of the economic elite to dispose of their property at will. (83)

The “serfs” of our New Feudalism are the shrinking middle classes and the growing working classes and under-classes of poor and precarious labourers, all redefined as consumers. The “lords” of our New Feudalism are corporations that have annexed the state and the media, to enforce business interests by any means necessary, persuading us that business interests are society’s interests, and attacking as heresy any questioning of “the deified Market” (87).

Occupy LA photo courtesy of

Occupy LA photo courtesy of

The 2008 “Great Recession” has breathed new life into feudal analogies of the modern world’s economy, amidst the “economic awakening” of Occupy Wall Street and related movements. US journalist Chris Hedges writes: “a slow-motion coup by a corporate state has cemented into place a neofeudalism in which there are only masters and serfs” (¶3). UK blogger C.J. Stone writes: “we are in the midst of … a return to feudalism. … The new Feudal Lords use financial rent – indebtedness – [for] living off the back of a servant class” (“Empire”). The comparison of late capitalism to feudalism recurs often enough in the Huffington Post that the term “neo-feudalism” is a searchable tag on the Huffington Post website (see “Neo-feudalism”, Pederson, and Whitehead). And even a US venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer, makes the same point: “Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. … If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us” (¶6-8).

We see the feudal character of neoliberal capitalism in the ways that corporations cultivate consumers’ “brand loyalty”; in the ways that workers toil like serfs in a globally distributed and fortified gulag of “export processing zones”; in the ways that corporations enjoy more rights and representation than citizens. Corporations are the new aristocratic “Houses,” while workers are being disciplined or coerced to work under conditions of serfdom, indentured servitude, or guild apprenticeship (e.g. unpaid internships), if not outright slavery.

Win or die

In this context, Game allegorizes the new feudal society that has been built by neoliberal policies (and it is far from the only TV series to give allegorical form to neoliberal capitalism2). The show dramatizes the competition among an aristocratic elite for “the Iron Throne,” object and symbol of a monopoly on power and wealth; this dramatization includes forceful scenes of the wealth inequality, militarization, corruption, and patriarchal violence on which that power and wealth depend. The “high-born” Houses of Westeros echo those of feudal Europe. As the creators acknowledge, Game borrows from many historical sources, mainly the 1455-85 War of the Roses between the English houses of Lancaster and York; in the series, they are “Lannister” and “Stark” (“Plot”). But these Houses are also figures of corporate business. Many corporations are family dynasties that rely for their sustenance and reproduction on kinship, a patriarchal division of labour, and ties of loyalty (chiefly the loyalty of their client governments, and also that of consumers). Among the Houses, the “rapacious values” of neoliberalism characterize the contest for the throne as a “war of all against all” (Vint 139, 141). Early in the series, the queen of Westeros, Cersei Lannister, expresses this ethos with her characteristic economy of words: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Claims to the Throne that base their legitimacy in anything but violence and guile are ridiculed as naïve: among Westeros’ noble Houses, as among today’s corporations and investors, lofty claims to legitimate rule are most often a smokescreen for force and cunning.

In Game’s world, only might makes right, as we also see in the summit meetings of state leaders and corporate lobbyists (like the routine show of elite force and narrow interests at Davos, Switzerland, which is happening as of this writing). Since the 1990s, such summits have been met by escalating public protests, and accompanied (and sometimes sabotaged) by disproportionately growing security forces. Corporate capital routinely presses its entrenched advantage with state leaders in closed-door meetings that, like sites of capitalist production, are hidden and militarized zones.

The main reason we never see the so-called “invisible hand” of the free market is because it’s hidden behind the pointy end of the weapon it’s pointing at us.


Stannis Baratheon asks for a loan in Davos. I mean Braavos.

Game features many characters who are “sellswords,” or mercenaries – the realm’s private security contractors, as it were. The loyalty of these characters, like that of their cynical “high-born” lords, is always for sale to the highest bidder, and self-preservation trumps all bids. Likewise for its financiers, as seen when Stannis Baratheon, brother of King Robert Baratheon whose death precipitates the war for the Throne, gets a loan for his war campaign from the “Iron Bank” of Braavos, a city-state in Essos. Scenes like this also present an alleogorical image of the familiar link between force and finance: as it turns out, the monarchy is running a deficit. In the first season, we learn that the realm’s finances are badly managed; in season three, we learn that the monarchy is in debt to the Iron Bank. The fact that the Westeros government is indebted to a foreign eastern power is a detail that resonates with the present financial relationship between western powers like the USA and eastern powers like China.

Brands and circuses

The ruling elite also spends conspicuously, not just on repressive apparatuses, like armies, but also on ideological apparatuses, like displays of leadership and charity. We learn the monarchy is in debt amidst the Throne-occupying Lannister family’s planning for King Joffrey’s royal wedding. circusesThe expense of the wedding is justified as a nation-building spectacle for the masses, a spectacle of conspicuous consumption calculated to inspire the poor with a circus, not give them bread. This subplot resonates with the media attention and public finance spent on British royal weddings – amidst the neoliberal dismantling of Britain’s welfare state that has continued steadily since the “iron” rule of Margaret Thatcher. Westeros’ Houses are as concerned with their subjects’ loyalty as corporations are concerned with consumers’ “brand loyalty.” Each House has its own distinct heraldry and “words,” which together function as brand and trademark.

Significantly, “low-born” and poor characters are mostly marginal to the plot. Where poor characters do appear – as servants, soldiers, sellswords, serfs or slaves – they are shown to be abject, exploited, and yet still loyal to their lords. mobWhen depicted as crowds, the poor become a stereotypical menace. A scene in season one shows a royal parade get mobbed in a poor quarter of the capitol. This mob, with its bare hands, dismembers a royal priest, and some men threaten to sexually assault the young girl Sansa Stark. She is rescued by a royal bodyguard, who kills her attackers. With very few exceptions, the low-born, labouring, and poor characters in Game tend to be depicted either as virtuous individuals who are unquestioningly loyal to their lords, or as wretched masses always ready to riot.

“The slavery of being a girl”

Game‘s allegory of capitalism as new feudalism also becomes apparent in its images not just of class inequality, but also of gender and sexual inequalities. The series has become controversial for its harrowing and graphic scenes of sexual assault, abuse, torture, incest, and other kinds of gendered and sexual violence. takeordersMen in the show constantly subject women of all classes and ranks to violence and humiliation; one of the most striking and distressing details of the show is the frequency (and sometimes even the tone of resignation or boredom) with which the word “rape” gets used. In Game, women are commodities and objects; and the complicity between feudal rule and patriarchal oppression is shown as clearly in the expectations of aristocratic women characters as it is shown horrifically in the all-too-predictable fates of prostitute women characters. These representations have prompted some important feminist critiques in their own right (see Murphy and Zeisler)3 – especially since some of the show’s most compelling main characters subvert or oppose these strict and exploitative gender and sexual norms – but these representations are also integral to Game’s allegory of our economic world-system, which bell hooks describes, bluntly, as “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (46). Corporations and feudal Houses alike traffic in gendered divisions of labour for their reproduction, by consolidating family fortunes through bloodline succession and marriage, and by exploiting women in all kinds of precarious service work (Rogan 77). Game’s “high-born” women protagonists are constantly reminded of their one job: to produce future kings. Girl children are traded and bartered to strengthen ties – and treasuries – among the aristocracy; or they are exiled or abandoned; or they are imprisoned; or they are assaulted and killed outright.

The complicity between capital and male privilege may be highly stylized and sensationally depicted in Game, but it accords with the intersectional critiques of this complicity in our own world, critiques well expressed in the work of feminists like hooks, Donna Haraway, Adrienne Rich, Dionne Brand, and Jasbir Puar – to name just a few among so many others who remind us that we are nowhere near living in anything like a “post-patriarchy,” but instead are living through something more like a “war against women” (Mallick ¶11). This gender aspect of Game’s allegory is memorably captured in a scene between Cersei and a Prince from an eastern land, Dorne, where Cersei’s daughter has been sent. Bristling at the “barbarism” he finds in Westeros, the Prince tries to assure Cersei:
Cersei’s reply is a curt but unflinching condemnation of patriarchy:

“Winter is coming”

Just in case the economic and gender parallels between Game’s world and our own aren’t striking enough, the story also includes extreme weather and characters’ preoccupation with weather – both of which are uncharacteristic for the fantasy genre. whitewalkerIn the world of Game, seasons do not turn with the years; instead, seasons themselves last years, sometimes generations. Game’s plot begins as “the long summer” is ending; and as we constantly hear, “winter is coming.” The descriptions of winter, given early in the series, evoke grim images of snowdrifts high as houses, of mothers murdering newborns to spare them from being raised in darkness and starvation. The onset of winter, in other words, amounts to climate catastrophe.

In an io9 article (which piqued my initial interest in watching the show), George Dvorsky offers five scientific hypotheses that could account for such “messed-up seasons.” Climate change is not one of these hypotheses, but it is mentioned as a factor in how “oceans, currents, and winds” could make for unpredictable seasonal change and “long-term weather trends” (¶24-25). The very mention of climate change in an article about Game highlights how the show resonates with current concerns; what’s more, while Game leaves largely unexplained the reasons for Westeros’ unpredictable climate, it does hint at one large-scale human intervention in the natural environment that is strongly associated with – and may even have influenced – weather: the continent-barricading Wall, said to have been raised by magic in ancient times to protect Westeros from dangers lurking in “the North” such as “wildlings” (read: indigenous peoples) and fantastic creatures (mammoths, giants, and zombies). The Wall often stands as a sharp spatial division between winter and summer, and the story’s consistent preoccupation with weather augments Game’s overall relevance to the real world that has been wrought by neoliberal capitalism.

A “cracked-mirror” Europe

The Wall is one of several geographical details that further build Game’s allegorical relevance. Patrolled by a conscript army recruited from bastards, criminals, and the poor, the Wall exists to keep “the wildlings” out of Westeros. One subplot involving these wildlings represents them as a colonized, indigenous people who engage in anti-colonial resistance against Westeros. The Wall thus resonates with the real-world wall erected by Israel, the wall that US conservatives perennially want to raise against Mexico, and the overall sharp rise in wall-building that has followed the attacks of September 11, 2001, as found by Elisabeth Vallet’s research on “democraties fortifiées” – fortified democracies. Whereas in 1990, after the Berlin Wall fell, some fifteen state or territorial walls stood to divide a supposedly “globalizing” world, by 2011 over fifty such walls could be found (“Des murs d’argent”).

Élisabeth Vallet: “Toujours plus de murs dans un monde sans frontières : nombre de murs frontaliers, 1945-2012” (“Always more walls in a borderless world: number of territorial walls, 1945-2012”).
Note especially the dramatic increase after 11 Sept. 2001.

Other geographical cues to Game’s allegory appear in the map that is shown in the series’ opening title sequence, a clever TV adaptation of the fantasy novel’s convention of introducing its with a map. In this map, Westeros looks like the UK: the capitol, King’s Landing, looks like London on the Thames; and the Starks’ House, Winterfell, is in the north, like England’s York. Westeros is separated from the continent of Essos by a “Narrow Sea,” or channel; Essos looks like Europe, and the specific area of “Slavers’ Bay” – where the subplot involving the exiled princess Danaerys Targerian takes place – closely resembles the rim of the Mediterranean. Westeros map, Game Of Thrones titlesPredictably enough, then, the people of Westeros are quite English looking and sounding, while the various peoples of Essos are ambiguously “ethnic” in their darker complexions and vaguely Slavic and Arabic sounding languages. The map of the opening titles looks very much like a “cracked-mirror” map of Europe.

A critical or ideological fantasy?

So, among with its depictions of feudal economy, patriarchal oppression, climate change, and Eurocentric geography, Game constructs an allegory of the new feudalism that is resurgent today, a new feudalism brought about by free-market ideology and corporate-controlled governance. The point of my allegorical reading is not whether the show depicts feudalism with precise historical accuracy, or even whether Game’s feudalism maps precisely onto the social systems of globalized capitalism. Rather, my point is that Game’s image of feudalism provides an apt and timely metaphor for today’s wealth inequality, the economic and political structures that support it, and the social effects – and side effects – that it has produced. This allegorical reading challenges capitalism’s claims to modernity, progress, and above all democracy; it challenges the tired capitalist hype about “the end of history” – which Game shows, instead, to be something more like history’s rewinding, or its barbarous revenge. In this way, Game can be read as what leftist fantasy author China Miéville calls “critical fantasy,” in which

the realism of concern and the weird of expression are each their own end, but through metaphor, that magic dialectical glue, they are also … functions of each other. (¶11)

But to read Game as critical fantasy is to miss some key aspects of its narrative strategy: Game might create a critical allegory of the new feudalism in certain details of its setting, imagery, and tone; but in its plot and characters, Game also reproduces the dominant neoliberal ideology that has brokered feudalism’s return.

The plot reproduces neoliberal ideology in the main story’s constant focus on competition and conflict among the noble Houses. The plot of traditional fantasy, after the fashion formulated by Tolkein, is a quest story, in which an individual or group attempts to achieve an arduous or impossible task: the main story of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saga is the fellowship’s daunting quest to infiltrate Mordor and destroy Sauron’s ring. Quests provide the plot structure of most popular fantasy plots, from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, to Dungeons and Dragons franchise pulp, to Harry Potter’s long struggle to solve and exorcise the enigmatic scourge that is Voldemort. Game does include some sub-plots that could be construed as heroic quests: the travels and travails of Arya Stark and her brother Bram Stark are both individual voyages of apprenticeship and self-discovery. But the main plot that drives most of the character drama is a story of vicious, no-holds-barred fighting and treachery among elite families in pursuit of the monopoly on power promised by monarchical rule. This is a kind of decentralized plot, in that it is not organized around any one specific quest, and in the way the early episodes establish all families’ claims to the throne as more or less equally pretentious.

So the plot of Game differs sharply from that of most fantasy. The quest plot is linear, monumental, with a fixed end in view; but the contest-for-supremacy plot is lateral, and this kind of decentralized plot works better for the television serial drama format: it more effectively deals in suspense and continuation than in beginnings and endings, as scene changes sustain the viewers’ interest in several families and individuals at once. The way that Game privileges multiple points of view and choreographs them around the pursuit and achievement of monopolistic power, the way each viewpoint commands our sympathy in greater or lesser degrees – these elements of the show’s plot depart significantly from the traditional fantasy genre and are legible as symptoms of the neoliberal ideology that is creating a neo-feudal world.

Furthermore, Game makes this ceaseless competition – this feuding – of the new feudalism seem not only like the only story worth telling, but also normal, even natural, by anchoring the plot action among “high-born” aristocrats as the characters who we viewers are supposed to relate to. We are invited to identify with protagonists who are monarchs, royal family members, and nobles of Westeros’ ruling elite. In this focus on elite charactes and their concerns, Game promotes the interests and values of the ruling elite, and, moreover, misrepresents such values as the values of society in general (Duvall 85). This is nothing new in culture, literature, or media, from Jane Austen’s dramas of leisure-class match-making, to Fox News’ constant pleas of sympathy for beleaguered, persecuted big business. Such invitations to identify with the elite are long-standing symptoms of culture and entertainment under capitalism, a powerful strategy with which the elite continues to persuade us “low-borns” that the interests of the “high-born” are our own interests too.

Moreover, the construction of elite characters as the most “relatable” characters belongs to the same ideological system that encourages audiences to interpret a show like Game as merely “escapist,” as irrelevant to contemporary everyday life. mastersCritics who read Game as “escapist” (whether positively or negatively) fail (whether by deficiency or design) to pay attention to the uses of allegory and metaphor, and such critics are either underestimating the interpretive powers of the viewing audience, or they are actively mystifying the metaphorical work that fantastic and non-realist narratives can do. In this work, much of the political power of these narratives can be found, if we exercise the critical imagination to detect it, raiding the stories of the rich to make them speak for the rest of us.


1. While chasing down some last research details for this essay, I stumbled upon David Stubbs’ article on Game as an allegory of “modern times”; his argument is similar in premise, but it’s briefer, attuned to different details, and overall rather vague about how exactly Game relates to “modern times” (a side effect, perhaps, of understandably wishing to avoid sharing spoilers).

2. Several TV serial dramas have developed extensive allegories of neoliberal capitalism, economic globalization, and the market society. As I wrote in 2009, of the re-made Battlestar Galactica series:

Battlestar belongs to a recent trend in specialty cable programmes about the US as an increasingly deregulated and/or underground market society – such as Showtime’s Dead Like Me (Canada/US 2003-04), in which the grim reaper’s work is all outsourced to undead sub-contractors; Showtime’s Weeds (US 2005- ), in which a single mother tries to maintain her gated-community lifestyle by dealing drugs; and HBO’s Deadwood (US 2004-06), a Western which, like Battlestar, works as a frontier allegory of diasporic migration, militarised public space, technologised security threats and unregulated enterprise in a society characterised less by democracy than ‘adhocracy’ (Doctorow qtd. in Jenkins 251). Among these series, Battlestar most stridently articulates questions of market-society culture, technologies of reproduction and political-economic ethics to a military problematic. (21)

More recently, AMC’s zombie apocalypse series The Walking Dead has generated widespread interpretations as an allegory of the neoliberal market society – and some compelling interpretations as an allegory of settler-invader colonialism, as in Cutcha Risling Baldy‘s must-read post about teaching The Walking Dead in Native Studies courses:

for a long time in California, if you were an Indian person walking around, something or someone might just try to kill you. They were hungry for your scalp and your head. They had no remorse. There was no reasoning with them. And there were more of them then there was of you. (Zombies. But even worse, living, breathing, people Zombies…) (¶18)

In the wake of the burgeoning popularity of zombie texts, the increasing volatility of global economics, and a corresponding boom of critical and scholarly interest in “zombie economics” (e.g. Quiggin and McNally), The Walking Dead has become a cultural lightning rod for critiques of neoliberalism in culture and society. For just a few examples, see Clitheroe, Powers, and Sherryl Vint, who reads the series as “an extended meditation on the problems of community and individuality” (139), “in a world understood to have peeled away the veneer of community and revealed the ‘true’ state of nature as a war of all against all” (141). This understanding, for Vint, represents the “rapacious values” of neoliberalism, “a discourse that acts on the population to ‘make survive’ … but one that simultaneously dehumanizes and makes monstrous these survivors”- who, like the zombies they flee, are also, ironically, “reduced to endless walking and consuming” (141). As Gerry Canavan sums up readings like Vint’s, “narratives like The Walking Dead map onto a form of capitalism that has itself become completely monstrous” (143).

3. More than I’d have expected of the online discussion of Game Of Thrones and feminism seems unduly concerned with whether the show, or its creator, “is” feminist in and of itself. I agree with Zeisler’s suggestion that such a concern seems misplaced, neglecting the interpretive powers of audience response to search instead for the creators’ intent (and doing so well after Roland Barthes’ famous 1967 declaration of “the death of the author,” the idea that every reading is a new re-writing). As Zeisler puts it: “does it matter if Game of Thrones is feminist? Maybe not. But what does matter that it’s one of few shows to give us a reason to even argue the case.” Whether a given cultural text itself “is” feminist seems to me a less urgent question than how a feminist reading of that text is productive for feminism.


This essay is a revision of a talk I gave at the Fourth Research Forum of the Centre for Humanities at Athabasca University, on 28 Nov. 2014; I want to thank the audience for their questions and comments. I also want to thank AU alumni Sarah Mann and Heather Clitheroe, who, in reading courses I supervised, found and built on key studies of the new feudalism and of neoliberalism in pop culture.

Works Cited

Alang, Navneet. “On Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and the Joys of Brutal Escapism.” Hazlitt 28 Mar. 2013.

“Another game of thrones: Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are at each other’s throats in all sorts of ways.” The Economist 1 Dec. 2012.

Baldy, Cutcha Risling. “On telling Native people to just ‘get over it’ or why I teach about the Walking Dead in my Native Studies classes.” Cutcha Risling Baldy [blog] 11 Dec. 2013

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author” (1967). Image Music Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana, 1977. 142-48.

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage, 2001

Canavan, Gerry. Rev. of Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism and Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Science Fiction Film and Television 5.1 (2012): 143-46.

Clitheroe, Heather. “I think I have my thesis.” Lectio 27 Aug 2012.

Dean, Michelle. “Is Game Of Thrones escapist enough?” The Nation 29 Mar. 2013.

Duvall, Tim. “The New Feudalism: Globalization, the Market, and the Great Chain of Consumption.” New Political Science 25.1 (2003): 81-97.

Game Of Thrones. Writ. George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss et al. Perf. Lena Headey, Maisie Williams, Emilia Clarke et al. HBO, 2011-.

Hanauer, Nick. “Ultra-rich man’s letter: ‘To My Fellow Filthy Rich Americans: The Pitchforks Are Coming’.” TIP News 30 Jun. 2014.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-81.

Hedges, Chris. “No One Cares.” Truthdig 3 May 2010.

Hjersted, Tim. “Profit is Theft: It Sounds Absurd but Here’s Why.” Films For Action 3 Jul. 2012.

hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge: South End P, 2000.

Hughes, Sarah. “Living in a fantasy world with Game of Thrones.” The Independent 31 Mar. 2013.

Mallick, Heather. “Women’s abortion rights may vanish if the NDP doesn’t choose a fiery leader.” The Toronto Star 23 Mar. 2012.

Martin, Clive. “Please Shut the Fuck Up About ‘Game Of Thrones’.” Vice 9 Apr. 2014

McCutcheon, Mark A. “Downloading Doppelgängers: New Media Anxieties and Transnational Ironies in Battlestar Galactica.” Science Fiction Film and Television 2.1 (2009): 1-24.

McNally, David. Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012.

Miéville, China. “With One Bound We Are Free: Pulp Fantasy and Revolution.” Crooked Timber 11 Jan. 2005.

Murfin, Ross and Supriya M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford, 1997.

Murphy, Meghan. “Just because you like it, doesn’t make it feminist: On Game Of Thrones’ imagined feminism.” Feminist Current 26 Apr. 2013

“Neo-feudalism” [search tag]. Huffington Post.

Pederson, Dave. “America: Home of the Bewildered Serf and Land of the Feudal Lords.” Huffington Post 4 May 2012.

Game of Thrones: Plot.” Wikipedia 12 Jan. 2015.

Powers, John. “The Political Economy of Zombies.” Airship n.d. (circa 2013).

Puar, Jasbir. “‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’: Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics.” European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies. January 2011.

Quiggin, John. Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010.

Rich, Adrienne. “Notes Towards a Politics of Location.” Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985. London: Little, Brown & Co., 1984. 210-31.

Rogan, Alcena Madeline Davis. “Tanarive Due and Nalo Hopkinson Revisit the Reproduction of Mothering: Legacies of the Past and Strategies for the Future.” Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory. Ed. Marleen S. Barr. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2008. 75-99.

Smith, Peter Jay. “The Rise, Fall, and Rise of ACTA?” New Fronts in the Copyfight: Multidisciplinary Directions in Critical Copyright Studies. Ed. Mark A. McCutcheon. Spec. series of Digital Studies/Le champ numérique 4 (2014).

Stone C.J. “The Empire of Things.” Think Left 26 Aug. 2011.

Stubbs, David. “No Myth: Why Game Of Thrones Is An Allegory For Our Times.” The Quietus 4 Jun. 2013.

Tucker, Ken. “Why is Game Of Thrones so popular?” BBC Culture 7 Apr. 2014.

Vallet, Elisabeth. “Des murs d’argent: Et la frontière devint un marché prospère et militarisé…” Visions Cartographiques 29 Nov. 2013.

Vint, Sherryl. “Abject Posthumanism: Neoliberalism, biopolitics, and zombies.” Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader. Ed. Marina Levina and Diem-My T. Bui. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. 133-46.

Whitehead, John W. “The Age of Neo-feudalism: A government of the Rich, by the Rich and for Corporations.” Huffington Post 28 Jan. 2013.

Zeisler, Andi. “Does it matter whether Game Of Thrones is feminist?” Bitch 7 Jun. 2013.

Further Reading

Larrington, Carolyne. “Game of Loans.” 1843 Magazine, ca. 2016.

Frankenstein as a figure of globalization

“Frankenstein as a figure of globalization in Canada’s postcolonial popular culture,” an article I published in Continuum 25.5 (2011), is now available for Open Access, via Athabasca U’s institutional repository. The abstract and downloadable PDF (post-print full text, but not publisher’s version) are available at

Applying the popular ‘technological’ interpretation of Frankenstein to the problematic of globalization, these Canadian films [Videodrome, Possible Worlds, The Corporation] criticize the corporate institution, borrowing from Shelley’s story and its popular progeny to comment, with self-reflexive irony, on communication media and their instrumentality to globalization, its hegemonic naturalization, and the ‘imperialist aspirations’ of transnational conglomerates.

Threats to Academic Freedom (and the Public Interest) in Alberta

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

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:

  1. protection of academic freedom
  2. protection of academic integrity
  3. protection of “academic knowledge sharing” – i.e., protection of university and researcher autonomy in communicating and publishing findings
  4. conflict of interest
  5. transparency
  6. role of academic staff – i.e., in the governance of the collaboration
  7. 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:

See also the Edmonton Journal’s coverage of this letter and AUFA’s further statements on the Letters of Expectation:

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:

Works Cited

“Academic Freedom Fund Constitution.” Canadian Association of University Teachers, n.d.

Barnetson, Bob. “Initial thoughts on Bill 45.” Labour & Employment in Alberta 28 Nov. 2013

—. “Is Bill 45 fascist?” Labour & Employment in Alberta 29 Nov. 2013

Braid, Don. “Tory laws to ban the very mention of union strikes delivers a blow to free speech.” Calgary Herald 4 Dec. 2013

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

—. “Who gets muzzled next by unconstitutional Redford government laws? Environmentalists?” Alberta Diary 6 Dec. 2013

“Code of Conduct.” Athabasca University. 7 Jun. 2013

“Code of Conduct – Employees.” MacEwan University. 10 Dec. 2009

Coetzee, J.M. “Universities head for extinction.” Mail & Guardian 1 Nov. 2013

“Get Science Right: Infographic.” CAUT, 2014

Giroux, Henry. “Public Intellectuals Against the Neoliberal University.” Truthout 29 Oct. 2013

Ibrahim, Mariam. “Stand up to province, faculty say.” Edmonton Journal 3 Apr. 2013

Kondro, Wayne. “In Canada, A Stern Critique of University-Industry Collaborations.” Science Insider 25 Nov. 2013

“Letter of Expectation between the Minister of Alberta Enterprise and Advanced Education and the Board of Governors of Athabasca University.” Alberta Government, Nov. 2013

Nikiforuk, Andrew. “What’s driving chaotic dismantling of Canada’s science libraries?” The Tyee 23 Dec. 2013

Open for Business: On What Terms? An Analysis of 12 Collaborations between Canadian Universities and Corporations, Donors and Governments. Canadian Association of University Teachers. Nov. 2013

“Priority Areas.” Social Science and Humanities Research Council. Government of Canada. 6 Sept. 2013

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Harvard UP, 1996.

“Report confirms threat to academic freedom in Alberta.” Alberta NDP Opposition 21 Nov. 2013

Schuman, Rebecca. “The brave new world of academic censorship.” Slate Dec. 2013

“Silence of the Labs.” Writ. Linden MacIntyre. The Fifth Estate. CBC, 2014

Stokes, Patrick. “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion.” The Conversation 4 Oct. 2012

The research and teaching link: worth strengthening, not severing

Amidst a spectrum of positions on the relationship (or lack thereof) between research and teaching, I hold that research and teaching are integrally connected forms of academic labour: they drive, inform, and improve each other. The exact character and extent of the relationship between research and teaching has become a point for heated debate, of late: the emergence of the “teaching-stream” university model – in which courses and programs are taught by instructors who do no research – is a recent result of this debate, and I would suggest it is also a deeply troubling symptom of the neoliberal hegemony under which the modern university is increasingly a transnational corporation, and decreasingly an institution of public service and public interest.

Along with private research endowments and the continuing transfer of teaching labour to contingent academics, the “teaching stream” university model represents a further step in the corporatization of the university (of which Bill Readings warned in his 1996 book The University in Ruins), in no small part because of the instrumental rationalizations given to justify this model: the appeals to efficiency, performance indicators, and other narrowly economistic measurements that expose the neoliberal ideology driving the model – an ideology that is essentially hostile to and fearful of informed and reasoned critique.

To respond to the diminished public funding of higher education by proposing “teaching stream” restructuring, or related restructuring models1 (many of which – like the administrative push for MOOCs that outsource course production to private firms like Coursera – further the university’s corporatization), is not to innovate authoritative, critical, and accessible education, but instead serves only to legitimize the neoliberal pinch.

The answer to accelerated privatization is not more privatization.

The teaching-stream university model emerges not only amidst the political economy of austerity (which is, in any case, a social engineering program that uses the bottom line as both carrot and stick) but also amidst the perceived uncertainty, within the modern university, over how exactly research and teaching relate, or don’t, in the first place.

Research is a defining feature of the modern university, one that goes hand in hand with teaching.2 I insist on the integral interdependence of research and teaching, which – while it may stand in need of empirical quantification – has been written about by experts on academic freedom (see Horn), historians of the university institution (see Keefer), social scientists of university culture (see Appadurai), and critical theorists of postmodernity and globalization. A notable articulation of the close relationship between research and teaching appears in Jean-François Lyotard’s seminal study of postmodernity, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Anticipating more recent work by Appadurai on the “research imagination,” Lyotard affects a kind of etic perspective to investigate and theorize the institutional structures, discourses, and “language games” of the modern university that “legitimize” its social authority and capital. In the process, he discusses the didactic and dialectical intimacy of research and teaching:

It should be evident that research appeals to teaching as its necessary complement: the scientist needs an addressee who can in turn become the sender; he needs a partner. Otherwise, the verification of his statements would be impossible, since the non renewal of the requisite skills would eventually bring an end to the necessary, contradictory debate. Not only the truth of a scientist’s statement, but also his competence, is at stake in that debate. One’s competence is never an accomplished fact. It depends on whether or not the statement proposed is considered by one’s peers to be worth discussion in a sequence of argumentation and refutation. The truth of the statement and the competence of its sender are thus subject to the collective approval of a group of persons who are competent on an equal basis. Equals are needed and must be created. […]
you teach what you know: such is the expert. But as the student (the addressee of the didactic process) improves his skills, the expert can confide to him what he does not know but is trying to learn (at least if the expert is also involved in research). In this way, the student is introduced to the dialectics of research, or the game of producing scientific knowledge. (24-25, my emphases)

Perhaps the most obvious concrete example of what Lyotard describes here is the faculty supervision of graduate studies. The faculty member and graduate student negotiate a program of study and project of research in which the student works more or less independently, but in close consultation with the supervising faculty member. The outcome of the student’s labour in this dynamic, which is fundamentally a teaching and learning dynamic, is often publishable research. But the relationship between research and teaching occurs in the undergraduate context as well: I am presently reviewing the proofs of a soon-to-be-published study of globalized media, which the author introduces as a study based on previous lectures given to undergraduate students. Many academic books take shape in this way, and serve variously as textbooks for undergraduate study, or as more specialized monographs for graduate or expert research, or even sometimes as both.

I can think of numerous examples of Lyotard’s didactic and dialectical interdependence between research and teaching in my own academic work. I teach university courses that are grounded in my research interests, courses that, in turn, further develop and deepen these interests. For one recent example, a research article I published in 2009 has been reprinted in a new Oxford UP anthology on television studies. The book’s title, The Television Reader, signals its teaching orientation as a collection of studies selected to represent the state of research in a given field, and designed to introduce students to the field.

My first three peer-reviewed publications were papers produced in the course of graduate studies. That is, they began as essays undertaken in the context of teaching and learning – as assignments I completed for graduate courses – but thereafter (and with the supportive mentorship of the various course professors) I revised them and submitted them to refereed research journals, which subsequently accepted them for publication. As a university teacher, I have since had the pleasure to receive research essays by graduate and undergraduate students that I have thought worthy of refereed publication, and have offered mentorship, in turn, to these students to help their work find such publication. The courses I teach are correspondingly grounded in the learning and research I have undertaken on subjects of interest. For instance, having studied Afro-Futurist music in the course of doctoral research, and subsequently published some of this research, I have made a unit on Afro-Futurist music a cornerstone of courses I have taught on DJ Culture and on Black Atlantic literature and culture.

However, one of the most concrete materializations of the link between my research and teaching reversed that traditional flow from expertise to curriculum – it started with teaching work that led to research work, culminating in a 2009 article for University of Toronto Quarterly, a special issue on discourses of security in Canada. That article, “Come on back to the war,” analyzes the recurring and prevalent stereotyping and vilification of “the German” in Canadian popular culture, in order to argue that this largely unquestioned pop cultural trope constructs Canadian nationalism as a nationalism grounded in war – and, ironically, reproduces in Canada the kinds of nationalist structures of feeling that had previously legitimized in Germany the Nazi-fuelled xenophobia and genocide against which the Allies ostensibly fought in the first place.

As the essay itself recounts, its argument took shape as I was in the process of designing curriculum about Canadian popular culture for German graduate students, when I taught at the University of Bonn in 2006-07. Trying to identify Canadian cultural texts that are popular outside Canada and that would interest German students, I became quickly sensitized to texts that included stereotypical or vilified images of German citizens. And almost as quickly I became aware that there are lots of such images, from Anne of Green Gables to 22 Minutes. Such a distinct pattern emerged that I included it as a subject in my Bonn course on Canadian pop culture. During my time in Germany I was invited to give talks at numerous conferences, and at the universities of Bremen and Marburg I presented preliminary versions of a talk on this subject that formed the basis of the paper eventually published.

The talk at Bremen produced a memorable teaching moment for presenter and audience alike. The audience, mostly twenty- and thirty-something students, were surprised by this pattern of representations and led to critically reflect on their assumptions and understandings of Canada. For my part, I was surprised by how easily this subject led the audience members to comment on their own personal relationships to and understandings of Germany’s wartime history, with which many expressed discomfort and which some disavowed, born into a tragic and atrocious legacy not of their choosing.

When I gave the talk at Marburg, I was unaware the audience included representatives of Canada’s embassy in Germany. They expressed genuine concern over the subject – and particularly over the possibility I might publish on it. Rather ironically, that audience for my talk – itself a research product and, delivered as lecture, a practice of teaching – included my own doctoral supervisor (whom I had invited to give a talk at Bonn). He had excellent insights on the subject to share – with an equal he had helped to create.

Research and teaching, then, work together as complementary practices in what we might describe as the larger scenes of producing knowledge and of mobilizing it. They drive and inform each other, and in their potential segregation, their division into relatively private domains of their own, we must recognize only a localized symptom of the larger privatizing forces at work to reshape institutions of public service and public interest increasingly on a corporate model – which is to say a fundamentally undemocratic and exclusively profit-motivated model. Surely the collapse of democracy and the exclusive priority of profit are the ends of neither productive research nor effective teaching.


1. In the context of models of the corporatization of the university, Terry Anderson and Rory McGreal’s (2012) argument for a “no-frills” university warrants a detailed critique that it is beyond the scope of this essay to hazard. The “no-frills university model” calls for some restructuring that academics might welcome – e.g. the thinning of swollen senior administrative ranks – but also for some that we might not – e.g. dispensing with research for its purported irrelevance to teaching. Problematically, the “no-frills university” seems more easily (if unintentionally) aligned with the neoliberal corporatization of the university than with the socially progressive ethos of open higher learning that is Athabasca U’s mission, and that is eloquently expressed in Greville Rumble’s 2007 article “Social justice, economics, and distance education.”

2. Does research go hand in hand with teaching – or hand over fist? The modern university everywhere promotes research over and sometimes even against teaching. Research is what most academics go into the profession to do, while teaching is widely seen as a duty; academics speak of “teaching load,” never of “research load.” Leave from teaching duties to pursue research is called “release time.” I am oversimplifying matters, but I would be surprised to field any disagreement on this basic observation about university culture, which itself arguably has done much to facilitate the traction now enjoyed by “teaching-stream” university models.)

Works Cited

Anderson, Terry and Rory McGreal. “Disruptive Pedagogies and Technologies in Universities.” Educational Technology and Society 15.4 (2012): 380-89.

Appadurai, Arjun. “Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination.” Public Culture 12.1 (2000): 1-19.

Chapnick, Adam. “The teaching-only stream: Are we headed up a creek without a paddle?” University Affairs 10 Oct. 2012

Horn, Michael. “Students and Academic Freedom in Canada.” Historical Studies in Education 11.1 (1999): 1-32.

Keefer, Michael. Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars. Toronto: Anansi, 1996.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984.

McCutcheon, Mark A. “‘Come on back to the war’: Germany as the Other National Other in Canadian Popular Literature.” Discourses of Security, Peacekeeping Narratives and the Cultural Imagination in Canada. Spec. issue of University of Toronto Quarterly 78.2 (2009): 764-81.

—. “Downloading Doppelgängers: New Media Anxieties and Transnational Ironies in Battlestar Galactica.” Science Fiction Film and Television 2.1 (2009): 1-24. Rpt. in The Television Reader: Critical Perspectives in Canadian and US Television Studies. Ed. Tanner Mirrlees and Joseph Kispal-Kovacs. Toronto: Oxford UP, 2013.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996.

Rumble, Greville. “Social Justice, Economics and Distance Education.” Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning 22.2 (2007): 167-76.