Tag Archives: university

A Festschrift piece in Comparative Literature for the New Century

I’m delighted to have a chapter in Giulia Gasperi’s and Joseph Pivato’s new book, Comparative Literature For The New Century, which has just been published by McGill-Queens University Press.

It’s a delight, too, have written that chapter as a Festschrift piece* honouring Pivato’s discipline-building career.

And—in the process—it’s both a delight and a privilege to be able to bring to this writing a payment of tribute—by way of opening epigraphs—to other important mentors in that critical institution called the #university:

* What’s a Festschrift? A peculiarly academical genre.


A word of thanks for university support for Humanities research, on AU’s Employee Recognition Day

[I shared this short word of thanks on the occasion of receiving this year’s PARSE research award, at today’s annual Employee Recognition event at Athabasca U, in the town of Athabasca.]

Thanks so much to Athabasca University for the President’s Award for Research and Scholarly Excellence. Thanks especially to the judges of this award; the colleagues whom I consulted about applying to this award; and Athabasca University Press, for publishing my book, The Medium Is the Monster: Canadian Adaptations of Frankenstein and the Discourse of Technology. It’s been a long time coming: the project started over a decade ago, in 2006, and there are many reasons it’s taken so long to see print. I’m relieved to see that other studies of Frankenstein have taken as long. And I’ve made other workload choices (especially in service) year to year at AU. Maybe I’m making up for some of that time, but during this PARSE leave I’m now working on not one but three book projects. But enough about me.

The President’s Award for Research and Scholarly Excellence recognizes and supports several practices and values vital to preserving and building our research university. For one thing, the PARSE award supports Canadian scholarly book publishing at a time that sector is being squeezed by global competitors (not by copyright law, as some lobbyists claim). But for another thing, closer to home, the PARSE builds and diversifies AU’s research culture. AU support, like the PARSE, for research across all our disciplines is vital in a provincial context where we must compete for external funding and awards with two of Canada’s biggest universities (who shall remain nameless here).

As an internal support for disciplinary research, the PARSE also supports quality teaching, since research and teaching are mutually constituted in university work of excellence. In this way, the PARSE affirms and builds AU’s status as a comprehensive academic research university (or “CARI”) – a status that’s vital to our students. Students come to AU because they know we’re a real research university.


from M. Terras et al, “The Humanities Matter!”, 2013, 4humanities.org/infographic. Click for full-size image.

And as both an AU award and a book-publishing award, the PARSE is especially appreciated by a Humanities scholar like me: in Humanities disciplines (like English, history, or philosophy), it’s books, not articles, that are the currency of the realm. And most if not all Humanities research is not applied, it’s pure or curiosity-driven (and sometimes, as a colleague reminds me, even fun-driven) research. The value of Humanities research isn’t well appreciated by the public because it’s not obviously useful. But usefulness is not the appropriate way to measure Humanities research. Humanities research may have no economic application; what it produces is critical knowledge, and that’s a vital, non-economic public good. At its best, Humanities research speaks truth to power, promotes engaged citizenship, and unsettles common sense, making the familiar strange and vice versa. Humanities research is, in a word, critical. And as Stuart Hall said, “the university is a critical institution or it is nothing.”

Thank you again for conferring on me the honour – and the responsibility – of this extraordinary award.

On the “literary turn” in non-literary disciplines

A thought about the late spate of studies like this one, just reported in The Guardian:

“Literary fiction readers understand others’ emotions better, study finds: Research by US social scientists found that those who read novels by the likes of Toni Morrison and Harper Lee do better on ‘theory of mind’ tests. Genre fans do not.”

Read the full article on Dr Kidd and Castano’s study, and/or read the study itself.
Anyway, my thought is this: literary studies have long valued & practiced interdisciplinarity; but, from recent neuroscience studies on novel reading and empathy, to this latest sociological research on fiction, the apparent “literary turn” of other disciplines — often better funded and better reported disciplines — is maybe cause to ask (at the risk of seeming protectionist) to what extent those other disciplines are engaging with literary study — or colonizing it?

New MA course on Canadian prairie poetry & drama at Athabasca U

Athabasca University’s MA in Integrated Studies program is pleased to offer a new group-study* course for the coming fall semester: Poetry and Drama of the Canadian Prairies (MAIS 752).
The course is open to enrollment by students not just in Athabasca U’s MA program, but also in other Canadian and international graduate programs that recognize and transfer AU course credits.  Interested grad students can e-mail AU’s MA program office at cis@athabascau.ca for more information or to enroll. (Enrollment deadline: Aug. 15.)


Highway 13 sign pointing to the town of Forget, Saskatchewan.

* “Group study”: Some of AU’s graduate programs use an online grouped study format. Students in these courses augment their studies with online group discussions and learning activities. Online grouped study courses are usually 13 weeks long and start in May, September or January. There are no extensions for these courses.

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).

Academic service in the corporatizing university

Here’s a Facebook discussion I had with some friends and colleagues about academic service. I thought it might warrant a wider audience.

The discussion started when I shared a blog post on “Overcoming Post-Tenure Paralysis.”

Me (quoting the post): “Believe it or not, the biggest threat to midcareer professional success is often too many service commitments.”
Uh, damn right I believe it.

Friend: The more government services are cut, the more “volunteer opportunities” are created. The present fascist government would like nothing more than for the 99% to give up political affiliations and actions entirely because we are too busy with “service commitments”. Volunteer less, and protest more. Join a political party. Choose a candidate in the next election and become active in their campaign. (I know I’m preaching to the converted here, Mark, but hitting “like” seemed insufficient this time)

Me: the related story inside the increasingly corporatized university is that the professoriate is asked (or pressured) to do both more and less service: more service to protect collegial governance from corporate-style management, and, in the process, to shoulder governance work the administration should take responsibility for; and yet also less service, in committee work and related commitments that comprise “consultaganda,” giving the barest veneer of legitimacy to the administration’s decisions that it really doesn’t want to genuinely consult about. the documented inflation of senior management roles in universities does not then spell less service for faculty, but more: it becomes busywork to justify administrators’ similarly inflated salaries (thus too is documented) and – coming to my point here – it keeps critical scholars and teachers like me from doing the critical research and teaching that are themselves vital forms of political action.

Friend: Hear hear!

APO colleague: The buzz word I got fed for my job”academic effectiveness”. The moment you start trying to measure whatever the hell that is, you’ve forgotten what the hell a University is there for in the first place.

Contingent academic colleague: …so the tenure track do all this ‘service’, get course releases, then sessionals are paid next to nothing to teach the courses but can’t do research or service work so they also stagnate…. seems like the only people who get mid career success are the admins, what do they do again?

Me: How’s this for a telling symptom? The new issue of University Affairs, which is a national platform for university & college administrators, has a “career advice” article for post-tenure professors – and the advice is, literally, Service, Service, Service, and Service:

Contingent academic colleague: I found a niche that doesn’t involve tenure or service, but it took ten years and some serious soul searching… now I teach 50% of the time and work for publishers for the other half, but it’s all on my terms so I’m actually very happy. Decent income, no committees!

Faculty Association staff member: Some ‘service’ work is often downloading work management should be doing and more often doing work that gives the appearance of faculty involvement in decision making. Look for that pesky word ‘recommend’.

Tenured academic colleague: Consultaganda. Just the word I’ve been looking for.

Note: Credit for the “Consultaganda” coinage goes to AU labour studies prof Bob Barnetson.

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 http://eae.alberta.ca/media/letters/Athabasca.pdf.)

The disclaimer stating that the Letter of Expectation is not legally binding is important, because of other disturbing details in the Letter that show the ministry’s interest in aligning postsecondary education much more closely with the interests of industry and government. At first glance, the Letter appears to be a variation on the Mandate & Role document that’s been on file with the Ministry since 2009, and many clauses drafted by the university administration articulate very well the university’s open educational mission (e.g. in serving students who “face barriers to access and success in university-level study”), its commitment to academic freedom and integrity (e.g. in “foster[ing] research and creative activity in both pure and applied fields”), and its expectations for progressive governance (e.g. in making outcomes contingent on “sufficient funding” and government commitment to fostering a “supportive and attractive” postsecondary environment). But it’s the details of the Letter that harbour the devilry. Of particular concern, first and foremost, is the deletion of the “not legally binding” disclaimer. There is also the neoliberal language of partnership, entrepreneurship, and collaboration with industry and government that features prominently and pervasively throughout the Letter. And of special concern is the clause that describes AU’s responsibility “to operate within its approved mandate, as set out in its approved mandate statement and mandate and roles document, and in accordance with any additional direction provided by the minister” (2, my emphasis). This clause is significant – and disturbing – in that it basically gives the Ministry a free hand to direct the university to do whatever it asks. Whether or not the Ministry would in practice exercise this extraordinary infringement on university autonomy and academic freedom is not the point; the point is that the permission for this extraordinary infringement is now enshrined in the language of a document to which the university administration and the Ministry have signed agreement.

Furthermore, the fact that the university administration has taken up (rather than, say, rejected) the endeavour of writing and signing this Letter constitutes an act of complicity with a Ministry that clearly sees higher education not as a public good and social service in its own right, but as an instrument of economic growth, to be managed (or, as the mere fact of the Letters suggests, even micromanaged) according to narrowly neoliberal, business-based metrics of profitability, performance, and efficiency – which are (as CUFA BC’s Rick Kool has pointed out) not the right metrics to use for measuring university excellence.

2. provincial government anti-labour legislation: Bill 45

By the end of November 2013, the Redford government passed two pieces of legislation, Bills 45 and 46, that generated considerable criticism and commentary from Alberta workers, labour organizations, and their allies. Bill 45 imposes harsh new penalties for public sector work actions like strikes; Bill 46 imposes wage limits on public sector workers. Of particular interest here is Bill 45, which, as labour studies researcher Bob Barnetson argues, is symptomatic of a fascist tendency in the provincial government, given the well documented, close historical relationship between corporate business and fascist governments, and the equally well documented, historical practices of fascist governments to attack labour ideologically, to legislate against organized labour, and to use democratic mechanisms to undermine democratic rule (“Is Bill 45 fascist?”). Yes, this fascist tendency does therefore apply with equal precision to Canada’s current federal government.

Among its measures for suppressing organized labour, Bill 45 imposes an extraordinary chill on freedom of speech, and thus on academic freedom as a kind of freedom of speech. Barnetson’s analysis is worth quoting at length here, because it explains how this chill effect works:

Here is an example … that affects all Albertans (not just public sector union members).

Section 4(4) of the Bill says:

(4) No person shall counsel a person to contravene subsection (1) or (2) or impede or prevent a person from refusing to contravene subsection (1) or (2).

Sections 4(1) and (2) are basically prohibitions on illegal strikes or threats of strikes:

4(1) No employee and no trade union or officer or representative of a trade union shall cause or consent to a strike.

(2) No employee and no officer or representative of a trade union shall engage in or continue to engage in any conduct that constitutes a strike threat or a strike.

Strike and strike threat are pretty broadly defined in ss.1(1)(j) and (k) of the Bill. I won’t list all of the possible definitions here (you can read Bill 45 yourself). The key issue here is that if someone uninvolved with a union (say a newspaper editor or an academic) says “The workers’ only recourse is an illegal strike” that could well be construed as counseling workers or trade unionists to violate ss.4(1-2), which is a violation of s.4(4).

So what happens to the editor or academic? Well, s.18(1) says that if you violate s.4(4) you are guilty of an offence. Under s.18(1)(d), the editor or academic would be liable for a fine of $500 a day per day of the contravention. Section 20(a) says that prosecution may occur within 1 year of the last day the offense occurred. (“Initial thoughts,” my emphasis)

As many other commentators observe, Bill 46 amounts to censorship of just talking about strikes. In this instance, the impact of government policy is not restricted to academics (though it may acutely felt by labour studies experts like Barnetson), but actually extends to all citizens of Alberta; for instance, journalists and bloggers, especially those sympathetic to labour, have taken this as a direct threat to their commentary (see Climenhaga, “If” and “Who”). “It’s hard to imagine a more blatant violation of free speech,” writes Don Braid in the Calgary Herald,

a right that always implies a certain social anarchy to function usefully.

People are not allowed to break laws, but they are permitted, except in obvious cases of threatening harm, to talk about challenging, testing, pushing or even breaking them. The offence is in the breaking, not the talking.

But not for Alberta’s public unions. Talking is now pretty much illegal.

3. university collaborations with private corporations

As mentioned above, CAUT has recently published Open For Business: On What Terms? This report analyzes twelve existing Canadian university collaborations with corporations and governments. The analysis applies CAUT’s Guiding Principles for University Collaborations in order to assess each collaboration according to the following seven criteria:

  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: http://www.aufa.ab.ca/uploads/1/3/9/9/13991368/aufa-cupe_lettertoauboard_reeaeletterofexpectation.pdf

See also the Edmonton Journal’s coverage of this letter and AUFA’s further statements on the Letters of Expectation: http://www2.canada.com/edmontonjournal/news/story.html?id=4a0d569d-7cae-457b-9240-571d6bfe5f7d

3. Compare the title of MacEwan’s “Employee conduct, confidentiality and disclosure” policy to the February 2013 report of Alberta’s Auditor General, which recommended that MacEwan U implement an “employee conduct, confidentiality and disclosure” policy: http://www.oag.ab.ca/webfiles/reports/OAGPublicReport-Feb2013.pdf

Works Cited

“Academic Freedom Fund Constitution.” Canadian Association of University Teachers, n.d. http://www.caut.ca/docs/academic-freedom-fund/academic-freedom-fund-constitution.pdf?sfvrsn=2

Barnetson, Bob. “Initial thoughts on Bill 45.” Labour & Employment in Alberta 28 Nov. 2013 http://albertalabour.blogspot.ca/2013/11/initial-thoughts-on-bill-45.html

—. “Is Bill 45 fascist?” Labour & Employment in Alberta 29 Nov. 2013 http://albertalabour.blogspot.ca/2013/11/is-bill-45-fascist.html

Braid, Don. “Tory laws to ban the very mention of union strikes delivers a blow to free speech.” Calgary Herald 4 Dec. 2013 http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/politics/Braid+Tory+laws+very+mention+union+strikes+delivers+blow+free+speech/9243464/story.html

Climenhaga, David. “If the deputy premier wants free speech for Ukraine so badly, why is he attacking it in Alberta?” Alberta Diary 4 Dec. 2013 http://albertadiary.ca/2013/12/if-the-deputy-premier-wants-free-speech-for-ukraine-so-badly-why-is-he-attacking-it-in-alberta.html

—. “Who gets muzzled next by unconstitutional Redford government laws? Environmentalists?” Alberta Diary 6 Dec. 2013 http://albertadiary.ca/2013/12/who-gets-muzzled-next-by-unconstitutional-redford-government-laws-environmentalists.html

“Code of Conduct.” Athabasca University. 7 Jun. 2013 http://ous.athabascau.ca/policy/humanresources/code-of-conduct.htm

“Code of Conduct – Employees.” MacEwan University. 10 Dec. 2009 http://www.macewan.ca/contribute/groups/public/documents/document/pfw_003567.pdf

Coetzee, J.M. “Universities head for extinction.” Mail & Guardian 1 Nov. 2013 http://mg.co.za/article/2013-11-01-universities-head-for-extinction

“Get Science Right: Infographic.” CAUT, 2014 http://getscienceright.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/CAUT_13-147_Infographic_FIN2.jpg

Giroux, Henry. “Public Intellectuals Against the Neoliberal University.” Truthout 29 Oct. 2013 http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/19654-public-intellectuals-against-the-neoliberal-university

Ibrahim, Mariam. “Stand up to province, faculty say.” Edmonton Journal 3 Apr. 2013 http://www2.canada.com/edmontonjournal/news/story.html?id=4a0d569d-7cae-457b-9240-571d6bfe5f7d

Kondro, Wayne. “In Canada, A Stern Critique of University-Industry Collaborations.” Science Insider 25 Nov. 2013 http://news.sciencemag.org/education/2013/11/canada-stern-critique-university-industry-collaborations

“Letter of Expectation between the Minister of Alberta Enterprise and Advanced Education and the Board of Governors of Athabasca University.” Alberta Government, Nov. 2013 http://eae.alberta.ca/media/letters/Athabasca.pdf

Nikiforuk, Andrew. “What’s driving chaotic dismantling of Canada’s science libraries?” The Tyee 23 Dec. 2013 http://thetyee.ca/News/2013/12/23/Canadian-Science-Libraries/

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 http://www.caut.ca/docs/default-source/academic-freedom/open-for-business-%28nov-2013%29.pdf?sfvrsn=4

“Priority Areas.” Social Science and Humanities Research Council. Government of Canada. 6 Sept. 2013 http://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/funding-financement/programs-programmes/priority_areas-domaines_prioritaires/index-eng.aspx

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

“Report confirms threat to academic freedom in Alberta.” Alberta NDP Opposition 21 Nov. 2013 http://eepurl.com/Jmz6b

Schuman, Rebecca. “The brave new world of academic censorship.” Slate Dec. 2013 http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2013/12/kansas_university_system_censorship_social_media_and_academic_freedom.html

“Silence of the Labs.” Writ. Linden MacIntyre. The Fifth Estate. CBC, 2014 http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/episodes/2013-2014/the-silence-of-the-labs

Stokes, Patrick. “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion.” The Conversation 4 Oct. 2012 https://theconversation.com/no-youre-not-entitled-to-your-opinion-9978

Academic essay writing: pointers and resources

I recently learned a highschool friend is now pursuing a BA with #AthaU, and in response to their stated frustration with academic essay writing, I offered some pointers and resources. These might be useful for undergrad students generally – I know frustration with academic writing drives whole black markets (and I boo those black markets!1) – so voilà. (I’ve made some comments less #AthaU-specific, like the discussion of the campus student writing service.)

Here are some various tips and resources for effective, successful academic essay writing.

First, here’s the article by Cory Doctorow on writing for 20 minutes a day; it’s worth a read for his reasoning on this process, and for the related tips that can make the 20 minutes as productive as possible. http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2009/01/cory-doctorow-writing-in-age-of.html

Next, something I teach students is writing as a four-stage process: Drafting, Revising, Editing, and Proofreading. Sometimes the stages overlap, but understanding the importance of each stage means two things:
1) leaving enough time to follow this process (not leaving the whole writing job to the last minute); and
2) giving yourself enough time between stages to walk away from the work, for at least a day or two, so that you return to it with refreshed perspective (and so that you don’t burn out trying to push a project through to completion)

For any given essay assignment, you should try asking your tutor or instructor if you can send them your working thesis for the essay, or a point-form outline of the essay, or both. Some instructors welcome this consultation on process; others see it as conflict of interest (i.e. they can’t mark something they’ve helped put together in the first place). Do not ask an instructor to look at a complete first draft (unless this is required in the assignment instructions) – that would be a direct conflict of interest. But it is always worth asking if you can consult with the instructor on your initial thesis and approach to arguing it. (It could help the instructor to look more favourably on the final submission too.)

As a student, you can and should take advantage of your university’s student writing services office. This kind of service provides one-on-one feedback and coaching; the service works best once you have a draft essay for them to look at. Most universities’ writing service offices (like #AthaU’s Write Site) also have websites of their own that are full of tips and references for effective academic writing.

AU’s Write Site, for its part, has lots of publicly accessible essay writing tips and resources. Some examples you might find helpful:
Writing Resources: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/writing-resources.php
Writing Genres and Samples: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/writing-genres.php
Research Writing: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/research.php

Getting the most out of your university’s writing coaching and consulting means contacting that office earlier instead of later. They’re sometimes quite busy, especially around common deadlines (e.g. midterm time, and ends of semesters).

You can also use a free online service called Paper Rater to check your own work for grammar, style, etc.: http://paperrater.com/

I can’t recommend highly enough a blog by a dedicated academic writing teacher; it’s called Explorations of Style and it covers just about anything and everything you want to know about academic writing, from macro-level uses and purposes to micro-level details of style and composition: http://explorationsofstyle.com/

Lastly, here are some sample rubrics of standard expectations for undergrad essay composition. One is at the Write Site: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/marking-scheme.php
The other is one I’ve adapted from my own undergrad learning and early TA work; it’s more specific to writing essays on literature, but some principles work across the curriculum: https://landing.athabascau.ca/pages/view/10019/grading-comments-for-essays-on-literature

I hope you find some of these tips and resources useful. If so, please share a comment, if you can spare a moment for it, to let me know which – if any – proved particularly helpful. (Or to alert me to others you’ve found useful.)

1. As I expected, this post is drawing traffic from would-be “essay writing service” vendors – that is, vendors of academic fraud and plagiarism. As a teacher of writing, I categorically condemn and actively prosecute plagiarism: the fraudulent presentation of another’s unacknowledged work as one’s own. Plagiarism is academic misconduct and the student who attempts it incurs serious penalization, from a failing mark to expulsion from studies. Writing is a transferable, in-demand skill: learn it, don’t outsource it.

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.