Tag Archives: education

My brief on fair dealing & education for Canada’s copyright review

Here is a copy of the brief I submitted last month to the Government of Canada’s current review of the Copyright Act (a review mandated among the Act’s 2012 amendments). This brief focuses on fair dealing and education. (Click here for the direct link to its Scribd page.)

Other excellent submissions to the review include Meera Nair’s and the Dalhousie Faculty Association’s.

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Fair Dealing Myths & Facts, from the Canadian Association of Research Libraries

The Canadian Association of Research Libraries has published a helpful, concise briefing on fair dealing in Canadian copyright law.
Get the facts, not the all-too-pervasive myths.
Fair Dealing Myths & Facts (PDF format; updated November 2017).

Japan downgrades its universities to quasiversities: a symptom of the Humanities and Social Sciences under neoliberal attack

The Times Higher Education reports today on a drastic directive issued by the Japanese government, which instructs the country’s eighty-six national universities to close their Humanities and Social Sciences programs or “convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs.” The article reports that twenty-six universities have already agreed to comply, while the Universities of Tokyo and Kyoto have refused. One university president, Takamitsu Sawa of Shiga University, has publicly denounced the government order as “anti-intellectual.”

Which is precisely what the order is. The universities that comply with the decree should also be required to re-title themselves as quasiversities. The targeted disciplines include economics and even law.

Let’s not be misled by the Times article’s vague reference to financial pressures and low enrollments as reasons for such a short-sighted and regressive government decision. And more importantly, let’s not pretend such an order couldn’t be issued anywhere else. Britain more or less cut the Humanities and Social Sciences loose in the early 2010s, when it stopped all state investment in those areas, a harsh decision that has left those programs and departments to sink or swim by corporatizing and competing in the postsecondary market while the aggressively neoliberal British government has prioritized the “profitable” STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering, math (Preston). (Of course, the postsecondary “market” is no market at all, but that social entity we used to call “the public.”)

Closer to home in Canada, the Harper government for years has been restructuring federal research grant councils to prioritize not just the STEM disciplines but more specifically their “applied” uses for business and industry (CAUT). Same goes for the ousted PC government of Alberta, which before it got sent packing had begun to take a strong intervening role in postsecondary education, with steep funding cuts, formalized “expectations,” emphasis on business-oriented applied research, pressures on institutions to collaborate if not merge in order to find “efficiencies” (McCutcheon). In addition, the PC government imposed a narrowly neoliberal kind of budgeting: “results-based budgeting,” which by projecting desired “results” in advance – by “picking winners” as one of my colleagues put it – curtails and compromises the inherently messy and unpredictable character of university research and teaching.

Neoliberal or “market-fundamentalist” policy and financial disciplinary measures like those constantly threaten the Humanities and Social Sciences with the proverbial death by a thousand cuts. More like the direct and brutal Japanese directive, in 2007 the New Brunswick government proposed to turn the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus into a polytechnical training college. That move – rumoured to be a means to better provide industry-specific job training for the province’s highly concentrated and interconnected oil, forestry, and Anglophone media businesses – was thwarted by public outcry and campus mobilization, with the support of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).

As neoliberal governments around the world show themselves increasingly to serve not the voting public or the public interest but rather the financial elites and corporations that now manage so-called democracy to advance their own profiteering interests, these governments would evidently like nothing more to suppress and shut down the Humanities and Social Sciences programs and departments that inconvenience if not threaten business elites and neoliberal politicians with policy analysis, ideology critique, public-interest advocacy, and public mobilization, among other valuable forms and practices of counter-discourse. The Humanities and Social Sciences help to advance critique as one of the university’s core social missions; as Stuart Hall famously said, “the university is a critical institution or it is nothing” (qtd. in Giroux).

Which means that, as warily as we have to watch for drastic and overt policy moves like the Japanese government order, we also have to refute and reject the perennial claims that the Humanities and Social Sciences are in some kind of financial or existential crisis. We must understand that crisis is a manufactured crisis, a crisis constructed by the powerful interests whom these disciplines and practices inconvenience, threaten, and expose. Several globally renowned scholars, among many others, have made forceful arguments not just for the continuing relevance and utility of the Humanities and Social Sciences, but for their urgent and pivotal importance to democracy, civil society, and the public interest. Martha Nussbaum argues that these disciplines vitally advance democracy and engaged citizenship. Natalia Cecire identifies these disciplines as powerful influences on our everyday life – and calls BS on pundits and policymakers who keep trying to belittle and dismiss them. And Wendy Gay Pearson points out, without exaggeration, that these disciplines can even save lives:

looking at texts for what they reveal about what it is like to live in a particular world can be exceedingly relevant, indeed even a potentially lifesaving experience. This is especially the case with queer novels and films: they teach isolated and distraught young people that they are not alone. Particularly for those in rural areas or in intensely homophobic environments, reading a novel or seeing a film that shows that another world exists can and does save lives; it is no secret that gay teenagers are at significantly greater risk of suicide when they are most isolated from contact with other gay people and especially when they genuinely believe that there is no-one else like them. (16)

Relatedly, some psychology studies of reading have drawn media attention for giving the weight of scientific evidence to conclusions that those working in the Humanities had already known all along: that reading widely, reading difficult and diverse texts, and reading outside one’s zone of comfort and personal experience all expand the reader’s capacity for empathy and understanding (Chiaet). More empathy is evidently not what serves elite interests or the class divisions they keep widening.

But, as an unfortunate torrent of events just this year has already demonstrated, the pernicious persistence of systemic racism, sexism, bigotry, misogyny, homo- and transphobia, and gendered and sexual violence in all areas of contemporary social life vividly and tragically underscores the need for more – not less – teaching and learning in the Humanities and Social Sciences, areas that are not at all peripheral but vitally central to the pursuit and production of social justice, civil society, and an engaged and informed citizenry. To marginalize or destroy them is to destroy the very idea of the university, to leave it a crippled quasiversity – it is to leave the university, and by necessary extension the public interest it is historically mandated to serve, truly in ruins.

Works Cited

Chiaet, Julianne. “Novel finding: Reading literary fiction improves empathy.” Scientific American 4 Oct. 2013.

CAUT. “Federal Budget 2015. Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). Ottawa. 21 Apr. 2015.

Cecire, Natalia. “Humanities Scholarship is incredibly relevant, and that makes people sad. Natalia Cecire’s Blog 4 Jan. 2014.

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

McCutcheon, Mark A. “Threats to academic freedom (and the public interest) in Alberta.” Academicalism [blog] 15 Jan. 2014.

Nussbaum, Martha. Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton UP, 2010. Excerpt rpt. at http://harvardmagazine.com/2010/07/open-book-education-for-the-soul

Pearson, Wendy Gay. “Queer Matters: A Response to Robert Fulford.: English Studies in Canada 32.4 (2006): 13-17.

Preston, Alex. “The war against Humanities at Britain’s universities.” The Guardian 29 Mar. 2015.

Sawa, Takamitsu. ”Humanities Under Attack.” Japan Times 23 Aug. 2015.

“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).

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.

Notes

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.

“Political correctness”: decoding a vicious, pernicious code word

I always cringe when I hear the phrase “political correctness” being used. It’s a deeply coded phrase, and what it encodes is a stubborn, neoconservative cultural politics, a politics of entitlement and disrespect. And yet that politics is so deeply coded that one encounters the phrase being used by people who should know better; and maybe they will learn to avoid the phrase, if they take the time to get caught up on its context and complexity. If I never see it being taken out and waved around in public discourse again, it will be too soon.

In the late 1980s and ’90s, North American academia – and the Humanities and social sciences sector more specifically – found itself in a war of words and policies not only among its own stakeholders, but also with policymakers, and with corporate news media – which, let’s remember, held far more cultural and discursive sway then, before the popularization of the Internet in the mid-’90s. This encounter became known as the “Culture Wars.” In his critical retrospective, Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars, U of Guelph Professor Emeritus Michael Keefer describes the Culture Wars as “a widespread perception of crisis in North American higher education, a perception stemming largely from the outcries over ‘political correctness’ in American and Canadian universities that began in the late 1980s” and continued until the mid-1990s (Keefer vi). Understood in retrospect as a “moral panic” created and fueled by neoconservative ideologues (e.g. Rush Limbaugh, George F. Will, Allan Bloom) to justify the defunding and privatizing of the Humanities and social sciences, the “PC furore” revolved around the coded buzzword “political correctness.”

“Political correctness” remains in use today, usually as a pejorative term that neoconservatives use to ridicule or criticize progressive or left-leaning events or persons, to conjure moral panic over freedom of speech, or to otherwise vilify criticism of inappropriate or untenable claims. Take this Maclean’s article from last year, for instance, which uses the phrase to dismiss the UN’s quite legitimate critique of Canada’s policy language of “visible minorities.”

One of the usual suspects

The phrase also gets an annual dusting-off during the holiday season in neoconservative news media reports of a purported “war on Christmas.” The phrase has nothing like the traction it had in the early 1990s – when you couldn’t swing a black and smoking Christmas tree without hitting some old white fart brandishing a new book denouncing the censorious menace of “PC” – but it has persisted, viciously and perniciously, in everyday speech, popular culture, and public discourse. “Political correctness” is still a card quickly played by conservative or otherwise privileged voices who complain of being “censored” – not just the usual rightwing media suspects, but also a curious and tenacious class of strident yet paranoid academics whose definitions of political correctness – as some kind of discursive “tyranny,” or liberal conspiracy, or “threat” to academic freedom – have helped establish the phrase as a rhetorical stick with which to beat progressive intellectuals. Or intellectuals generally, for that matter. I’m not linking to any such definitions or diatribes. Google “political correctness” if you want, and then take in the lunacy of even just the first page of results. But I will stoop to briefly administer some undeserved oxygen of publicity to a recent example in peer-reviewed scholarship – on account of its windy bombast, and its startling success in finding refereed publication some twenty years after this party more or less ended:

One of the abominations of our day, and there are many, is the beast of political correctness that has been turned loose on the world. Born of genuine humanitarian impulses, it now threatens to devour much of what is greatest in our literature and forever separate the children of our culture from what is essential to their humanity. (272)

Whoa, this opener makes PC sound like a Monsanto product. Actually, in this particular article, this chimerical “beast” threatens to suggest that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a racist text, instead of just a “beautifully written” one that “should still be read” (278) – as though analyzing the book’s racism somehow means we shouldn’t, or haven’t.

But – its purported “beastliness” and “tyranny” aside – what does the phrase actually mean, as a phrase so cherished and widespread in neoconservative usage? “For the sake of reporters and columnists who might want to come clean and openly mock the virtues that would otherwise remain hidden by the PC label,” Keefer directs our attention to Wayne Booth’s “list of synonyms for political correctness”:

(1) decency; (2) legality; (3) moral or ethical standards; (4) justice, fairness, equality of opportunity; (5) tact, courtesy, concern about hurting people’s feelings unnecessarily; (6) generosity; (7) kindness; (8) courage in defending the underdog; (9) anti-bigotry; (10) anti-racism; (11) anti-anti-Semitism; (12) anti-fascism; (13) anti-sexism; (14) refusal to kneel to mammon; (15) sympathetic support for the jobless, the homeless, the impoverished, or the abused; (16) preservation of an environment in which human life might survive; (17) openness to the possibility that certain popular right-wing dogmas just might be erroneous. (qtd. in Keefer 11)

More plain-spoken versions of this definition appear as ripostes to a diatribe against political correctness that was published (unsurprisingly enough) on the Richard Dawkins Foundation website:

“Political Correctness” – Buzzword used to express the absurd notion that the majority is being dominated by the minorities. (foundationist)

Political correctness is formalised good manners. It has been a benefit to society. Before it became influential it was common to see overt racism, sexism, homophobia, jokes about the disabled and so on. Fortunately a culture of respect for diversity developed and with it a culture of disrespect for rudeness – political correctness. … The term ‘political correctness’ can be used as a verbal weapon by those who want to do extreme things, things which would attack equality and human rights. When others complain, the response ‘that’s just political correctness’ is supposed to be a conversation stopper, because political correctness is supposed to be wrong. Complaining about political correctness is as absurd as complaining about good manners. The response ‘that’s just political correctness’ usually translates as ‘that’s just being polite’. (Zara)

In other words, “political correctness” is a nasty way to describe talking nicely, as though talking nicely is nasty. This rhetorical duplicity, coupled with the privileged, dominant positions from which pronouncements on political correctness typically come, has made the phrase “political correctness” slippery, robust, and insidious. The phrase thus provides a present-day example of “political speech and writing” as “the defense of the indefensible,” as criticized by George Orwell, in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English language.” The phrase “political correctness” is a perfect example of a phrase whose cryptic complexity lets it smuggle into one’s speech or writing a formidable freight of covert (and perhaps, sometimes, unintended) meanings that can detract from or even derail the point of a statement in which it’s used, when it’s not being openly used to justify oppression.

Amidst the flame wars, troll rampages, and other hostilities that attend a digital mediascape much more populous and interactive than it was in the mid-1990s, it is a tragedy of English vocabulary and public discourse that one of the main progressive take-away points from the “political correctness” furore – that we be courteous, thoughtful, sensitive, inclusive, and above all respectful in our language – has been lost, body-snatched by a sneaky and vicious code word for the privileged, entitled, and bigoted to claim not only license but even moral high ground for their vituperative sound and fury.

Works cited

Booth, Wayne. “A politically correct letter to the newspaper.” Democratic Culture 3.1 (1994): 2.

Curtler, Hugh Mercer. “Political correctness and the attack on great literature.” Modern Age 51.3-4 (2009): 272-79.

Derry, Alex. “Political correctness gone mad?” Maclean’s 10 Aug. 2011

foundationist. Comment 2 re: “A challenge to the politically correct.” Richard Dawkins Foundation. 20 Apr. 2011

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

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” Horizon Apr. 1946. Rpt. in Stanford U. Web.

Zara, Steve. Comment 4 re: “A challenge to the politically correct.” Richard Dawkins Foundation. 20 Apr. 2011

Two new posts at my university blog

Now the fall semester is underway, I’m making more extensive use of my other blog, housed at the Landing, Athabasca U’s social network. I’ve just written two posts there on different subjects.

“On Black British science fiction” is a post that’s developed in response to a question that arose on the SFRA listserv, about the perceived dearth of Afro-British writers working in SF. My answer to this (following critics like Kodwo Eshun, Paul Gilroy, and others) is that the preponderance of the black diasporic SF imaginary gets invested in music production.

The other post is fitting enough for the start of the semester: it’s about the course syllabus as a kind of contract – and about whether enough students understand this, and how educators might help them to do so. This post has drawn a few comments from students and educators alike – and a few tweets as well, including this reply:

Is it just me, or is this an unusually public statement on the subject from a university administrator? I’m not sure what to make of it.