Tag Archives: academia

BOOK REVIEW: “Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People” by Michel Hogue

I came to this book with an academic background not in history but, rather, in issues associated with philosophical change in Canadian postsecondary education. One of my interests is implications for humanities research, including historical research, of postmodernism. I’ve also had a longstanding interest in Canada’s First Nations people, but mainly in the present context. (I worked for a few years for CESO on a Native youth employment program that gave me the opportunity to visit several reserves in northern Quebec and BC. The experience left a very strong impression.)

Frankly, I’m generally wary of the work of academic historians. So much of such work buys into, if not explicitly then implicitly, the binary logic that has held sway in Western universities since their inception. This system of logic no longer generally prevails in modern democracies like Canada so, at best, such work is merely outdated. Often, such work is not only outdated but also conceivably could do harm. (I could say more about how such harm may occur, but this isn’t the place for another one of my screeds about academic humanities research.)

Although Michel Hogue is a professor in the History Department at Carleton University and “Metis and the Medicine Line” is published, in Canada, by the University of Regina Press (it originally was published in the US by the University of North Carolina Press), I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in Canadian Metis history and culture and/or the history of the Canada-US border–even to those skeptical of academe. I also would recommend it to any culturally responsible Canadian whose knowledge of plains history is, like mine was before I read this book, basically confined to compulsory high-school history classes and watching “Dancing With Wolves,” who should know more–even if they don’t yet know it. (I saw “Dancing With Wolves” a second time, on APTN, after reading this book, and the movie was more interesting the second time around.) I also would recommend it to academic historians, regardless of their areas of specialization, as a model of how academic historical work can remain relevant, and be beneficial, in the current era.

Because of its rich detail, “Metis and the Medicine Line” sometimes can be tough reading, even for academically trained readers. But getting through the book’s densely packed pages is worth the effort. (To be fair, there are several interesting historical photographs interspersed throughout the book.) These details are included not merely to illustrate particular points but also themselves effectively comprise two central points of the book.

The first is that Metis history is much more rich and complex than has traditionally been portrayed. As Hogue recounts, when the North American plains were first being colonized, the Metis people crossed many of the conceptual ‘borders’ that the White colonists, who themselves thought in binary terms, tried to impose on them: these include ‘borders’ relating to race, culture and nationality. The second is that the development of the physical border between Canada and the United States in western North America was a more complex, and more conflict-ridden, process than is usually understood, owing in large measure to the cross-border travel in pursuit of buffalo, and cross-border shenanigans, of migratory plains people, most notably the Metis. (The meaning of “the medicine line” in the title of the book is related to some of these shenanigans. If you want to know more, you’ll have to read the book.)

A stylistic device that Hogue employs throughout this book that helps to organize, and to bring resonance to, details he provides about Metis life and culture and Canada-US border creation issues is to follow a single Metis family, the family of the peripatetic trader Antoine Ouellette and his wife Angelique Bottineau, through the period covered in the book. It’s a very clever, very elegant, device that draws readers back in when the details may be starting to wear them down. It worked that way for me, anyway.

Because I’m not a historian specializing in Metis culture and/or Canada-US border development, I don’t know if and, if so, to what extent, Michel Hogue’s book, and his related academic work, is precedent setting. I’m curious to know. I would suggest that with “Metis and the Medicine Line”, Hogue not only has written an important book about a people that crossed racial, cultural and national borders, but also has done some significant border-crossing himself, bringing a fresh, non-traditional, non-binary, perspective to this subject. He is to be commended–as are his publishers.

A relatively minor shortcoming of this book, in my view, is that I wish that Hogue had said a little more about himself in his book, and what led him to write it. The combination of his first and last names suggests his family backgound is culturally mixed, including some French or French-Canadian. In a book like this, I think he owes it to his readers to let them know at least if he is, or isn’t, Metis. . . . Actual Metis, that is, and not just any old border-crossing, contemporary, Canadian who identifies with these border-crossing people.

The Evolution of ‘Feminist’–Starting With Jian Ghomeshi

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So Jian Ghomeshi, the former CBC radio star, minored in Women’s Studies when he was studying at York University. Maybe this had no influence whatsoever on his shocking, abusive, treatment of women, as chronicled in the Canadian media, including our social media, in the past week. But I do have to wonder if Ghomeshi could, to some extent, have learned how to abuse women through taking university Women’s Studies courses when he did. It’s an appalling idea; but, based on my own experiences with academic feminism, I can’t help but consider it.

Ghomeshi is 47 now so, according to my calculations, he would have been taking those courses around the same time that I had returned to university in my early 30s to do an MA in Education. I was then confronted by an angry, bitter, form of feminism that portrayed men in general in the worst possible light, that seemed to be a relic of the most vitriolic feminism of the 1960s and 1970s. Feminism, at least in Canada, outside of our academic institutions, had significantly evolved since then–or at least I thought it had. But, apparently owing largely to a professional interest in maintaining the status quo, those academic feminists didn’t see this–or wouldn’t openly acknowledge it if they did see it.

Even as a grad student, I was critical of this kind of feminism, and got into some trouble for it. (The most noteworthy incident is that my Master’s thesis, in which an academic publishing house initially was interested in publishing, was so strongly shot down by an academic feminist reviewer that the publishing house chose to abandon the project. The comments this reviewer had scrawled on the manuscript were just rude. Not as bad as a fist to the head, but something like it.) But then I was allowed to be critical. I was a White, middle-class, woman who grew up the oldest of five in a female-led family, with a very strong mother, and who already had some career success behind me when I went back to university for an MA, so I could afford to be critical. That was so unlike Ghomeshi’s position.

I imagine a young Iranian guy trying to fit into a predominantly White Canadian culture, who hadn’t yet had a great deal of experience of Canadian culture outside of our universities, listening to those academic feminist rants about an evil, abusive, Patriarchy, and I wonder, I just wonder, if maybe his misogynist, abusive, tendencies that have come to light in the past week were, in part, Ghomeshi’s way of fitting in. That is to say, a way of being a Canadian man, as he understood Canadian men to be, through doing that minor in Women’s Studies at a Canadian university when he did.

Before all of this Jian Ghomeshi business started, I had been planning to write a piece for this blog simply about the evolution in recent decades of the meaning of the term ‘feminist’. I’d been interested for several months in how many young women today are unabashedly describing themselves as ‘feminist’ (the British actress, Emma Watson, and the American entertainer, Beonce, are prime examples) although most older women, such as myself, are now much more reluctant to use this term. This includes even those women who, in the past, described themselves as ‘feminist’. I wanted to try to make some sense of that.

But, inevitably, I’ve also been thinking in the past week about Jian Ghomeshi and, especially after I learned that he had minored in Women’s Studies, I couldn’t write a piece about feminism without mentioning him. Maybe there is–or maybe there isn’t–a relationship between the Ghomeshi case and the ‘ENIMFIST’ anagrammatic variation of ‘FEMINIST’ from the list of variations at the top of this post. (Most, like ‘ENIMFIST’, aren’t real words, although a meaning is suggested through the meanings of the constituent parts.) I’ll have more to say about the evolution of the meaning of ‘feminist’, and those anagrams, in a later post.

 

Back to My Blog & Back to Trinity Western University: My ‘Vote’

My most recent post for this blog was almost two months ago–and that was basically a repost of something I’d written about two years ago. It was a busy summer for me. (We’re still in the house, and my mother is okay.) Also, I was devoting more of any free time I had for social media to Twitter. Twitter is a good medium for sharing basic information and opinions–and, often, having a good laugh. But what I have to say now is more complex, and sober, so I’m returning to my blog.

On Friday, the Benchers of the Law Society of British Columbia essentially implemented a stalling tactic that will allow the Supreme Court of Canada to decide whether or not Trinity Western University should be allowed to operate its own law school. They voted in favour of the general membership of the BC Law Society voting on the issue, and the vote being binding, but with the vote being taken several months from now, when court proceedings initiated in Ontario and Nova Scotia will already be underway. The decision of the general membership will be contingent on what is decided by the courts.

I sincerely hope the Supreme Court of Canada will be able to look at the big picture on this issue, considering not just this single case but, rather, how the case fits into the present state of Canadian universities in general. Looking at the big picture, the Supreme Court should be asking not simply if Trinity Western University should be allowed to operate its own law school but whether Canadian law schools any longer belong in ANY of our universities, as these institutions are presently conceived. There are certain biases within our secular Canadian universities that make these institutions just as unpalatable for many Canadians today, including by no means only members of the religious right, as Trinity Western is for others. (I’ve discussed such biases elsewhere in this blog, including in my most recent post.)

Barring a complete revamp of our secular universities, I think the answer lies in legally and administratively severing the relationship of all Canadian law schools and all of our universities, but, for practical reasons, allowing Canadian law schools to operate on the grounds of our universities, including Trinity Western University, and to draw an appropriate amount of income from them. (As I’ve suggested elsewhere, income seems to be a key reason Trinity Western now wants its own law school.) Being associated with a university should not be seen as a requirement for a law school. Thus, we could see law schools sprouting up across Canada that are completely independent of any university, and that may, eventually, train more Canadian lawyers than any university-affiliated law school.

But whether any lawyers, including even members of the Canadian Supreme Court, who all received their legal educations in universities, and who may still be beholding to these institutions, are able to think in these broad terms, and to vote accordingly, remains to be seen.

UWHO? Who Replaced All Those ‘Retired’ University Professors?

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This was supposed to be a time of major renewal in Canadian universities.  In the 1990s, when I was doing graduate work in Education, it was widely anticipated that a large number of university professors, across the academic disciplines, would be retiring in the upcoming years and that they would have to be replaced.  If a large number of professors were to be replaced, it seemed to follow, at least to me when I beginning my graduate studies, that this would open the door for some much-needed, significant, reform in our universities.  Get some new people in there like me, who recognized a need for change, and change would come.  It hasn’t happened that way.  None of it.

First, many of the university professors who were expected to retire simply didn’t retire.  In 2006, several Canadian provinces that formerly required that university professors retire at the age of 65 banned mandatory retirement.  I haven’t been able to find any recent figures (I admit I haven’t looked very hard), but some information about how many professors had opted to extend their careers a few years after the ban is available in the 2009 article in the Canadian academic magazine, University Affairs: “Faculty postpone retirement across Canada.”  It is noted in this article that, although country-wide figures were unavailable, “every university contacted for this article is experiencing the phenomenon of delayed retirements.”  One of the universities that was contacted and for which some data is provided in the article is the University of British Columbia–in Vancouver, where I now live.  According to the article, at that time at UBC, 80 percent of the professors who were still working at age 65 had elected to stay on.  The article goes on to explain that the 80 percent was offset to some extent by early retirements; but, still, that’s a huge percentage.  

It would be extremely interesting to know how long those who had opted to stay on had indeed stayed on, or planned to do so; but, in my rudimentary on-line search, I could find no such information.  Due to the various benefits, including health and dental benefits, in addition to the relatively high pay included in faculty compensation packages at Canadian universities, and due to the relatively undemanding physical nature of academic work (intellectual demands, or lack of demands, are a whole other ball of wax, that I won’t get into here), I suspect that, in a great many cases, these professors have stayed on more than just a couple of years–and may stay on for several more.

The delayed retirements have stalled new hiring in two ways.  First, there is the obvious: assuming the number of Canadian university students has remained relatively constant, which seems to have been the case, fewer new professors are required if more professors are extending their careers.  Also, as is discussed at some length in the above-mentioned article, the older professors who have extended their careers have tended to already be at, or near, the top of the academic pay scale when they chose to stay on, which has increased expenses for universities.  Thus, there is now less money than before to hire new recruits, even when the relatively few retirements create a need for replacement faculty–or if and when a need is recognized for new people to fill new faculty roles that previously didn’t exist.

That’s a big IF: IF there is a recognition of a need for new people to fill new faculty roles that previously didn’t exist.  In the natural and applied sciences, universities seem to be relatively diligent and adept at recruiting new people who are experts in new areas of knowledge.  Funding in these areas, and the recruitment of top students, is largely dependent on keeping up-to-date.  In the humanities and social sciences, including, broadly speaking, faculties of Education, the pressures aren’t as great to keep up.

What I discovered in my experience as a graduate student in Education was how, and to what degree, a future career as a professor in this area is dependent upon alliances one forms with existing university professors.  I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of this factor until the final phase of my PhD program, after all my coursework was completed. This factor has become especially important in these times of minimal new hiring.

Graduate students can get all A’s in their courses, and even have a few interesting papers published as a sole author, but finding a strong mentor among existing professors, who can help them get their names on a lot of publications and meet the right people, also is essential.  Unless they are exceptionally lucky with the professors they encounter as students (I don’t discount the possibility of some professors being unusually forward-thinking), the people with the new ideas stand a very good chance of coming up short in this area.  Others, who are especially conservative themselves, or especially wily, or both, are likely to have the greatest success. 

Based on the views of most Canadians today about our universities and where they should be heading, I would suggest it is often the wrong people, whose views most closely resemble those of the professors who came before them, and/or who just know how to play the game, who are getting those few academic teaching jobs that have become available in recent years.

If major reform is to come to our universities, it seems extremely unlikely that it will come from within the professorial ranks.

 

CANU? A National Strategy for Canadian Universities

The Globe and Mail special series on Canadian universities concluded on October 19th with a two-page essay by Erin Anderssen that focussed on the need to create a national strategy in Canada for post-secondary education. At present, Canada is the only country among developed nations that doesn’t have a national strategy.

I agree with Anderssen that a national strategy would be beneficial in helping to make our post-secondary educational institutions more responsive to labour needs across the country, as well as in helping to facilitate the inter-provincial transfer of academic credits by students. But I feel that Anderssen may have omitted perhaps the most important reason that Canada now needs a national post-secondary education strategy: so that we may begin to rebuild our philosophically crumbling institutions of higher learning on a solid foundation.

In my last blog post (“UAUBUC x 2”), I addressed, in general terms, underlying philosophical disparities among the various proposals for improving Canadian universities in the Globe and Mail series, and mentioned in passing that such disparities also can be found within our universities–including even within individual programs in these institutions. An example that is commonplace these days is tacking onto a fundamentally traditional academic program in the liberal arts some practical work experience in a vaguely-related field, in order to pacify to some extent those who believe that a liberal arts education isn’t sufficiently practical. (The graphics that I incorporated in that post portray, in abstract terms, the philosophical confusion in, and about, our universities these days.)

In general, undergraduates (who were the focus of the Globe and Mail series) are unlikely to find these inconsistencies highly problematic–or, at least, young undergraduates are likely to have more to lose than to gain by speaking up about any perceived problems of this nature. In contrast, graduate students, especially mid-career students who have established themselves to some extent in professions other than the academic profession, may find these inconsistencies highly problematic, on various levels. In professional terms, assuming, or pretending to assume, a philosophical perspective that differs from the philosophical perspective that predominates in their professional community in order to satisfy a particular program requirement may actually hurt them more than help them professionally, particularly if the work in question is made available to the general public–as is the case with most theses. Psychologically, for anyone with a modicum of maturity and self-awareness, it can be a hardship to have to pretend to be somebody one isn’t–or various people that one isn’t, if the program in question is sufficiently fractured philosophically–in order to get through a graduate program. Ethically, for anyone concerned about such matters, it just stinks.

I could go on and on here about the need to create greater philosophical consistency within our universities, and between various professions other than the academic profession and the university programs that are entrusted with providing credentials for these professions, just based on my personal experience. (My personal experience as a student is limited to the humanities and social sciences, including graduate programs in education. I must point out here that problems of this nature are less severe in the natural and applied sciences, and in those professional programs that have close links to their professional communities, such as law.) But griping about problems I’ve personally experienced in universities isn’t the main point of this blog post.

The main point is that I wanted to say here that, like Erin Anderssen of the Globe and Mail, I believe that it is now vitally important that Canada develop a national strategy for post-secondary education–even though the reasons I have for believing this are more wide-ranging than those of Anderssen (or at least more wide-ranging than those she used in her essay to support her case). I’ve also been wondering if there is anything I might now do, as a “private citizen” who is no longer directly associated with a university or college, or any related organization, to help the cause.

For example, in the past, I’ve written many letters to politicians and newspapers when I was passionate about an issue. (Just a few days ago, I wrote a short letter to Vancouver city officials about the recent intensification of the raccoon problem in our neighbourhood, in part inspired by Margaret Wente’s piece about raccoons in Toronto in the Globe and Mail on October 23.) If I were to write a letter, or a few letters, I’ve been wondering to whom I should write, and have been doing some research on-line to figure that out. Thus far, I’ve hit more dead-ends than good possibilities–and am definitely open to suggestions from readers.

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) will not be getting one of my letters. I came across a blog post published on October 23 included in their on-line journal, University Affairs, by the deputy editor of the publication, Leo Charbonneau, responding to Anderssen’s essay. In Charbonneau’s post, he states: “The arguments in favour of a national strategy are legitimate, but irrelevant. It’s not going to happen, period. The current federal government has no interest whatsoever in inserting itself in matters of provincial jurisdiction and the provinces themselves have had a poor track record of accomplishing anything of substance through the Council of Ministers of Education Canada (an intergovernmental body founded by the provincial ministers of education).”

Although it was disappointing to read Charbonneau’s post, I’m not going to let the views of someone working for AUCC, an organization that has strong vested interests in maintaining the status quo, dissuade me. The current federal government not inserting itself into Canadian post-secondary education is almost as ridiculous as the City of Vancouver not being involved with the control of raccoons in this city.

I got a response today to my letter about raccoons from the City of Vancouver, in which I was informed that, in British Columbia, raccoons fall under provincial jurisdiction–even if they are in a major city like Vancouver, and even if the City of Vancouver is responsible for domestic animals. I guess I’ll have to write to the provincial government next. Maybe it could be just one letter, about both the proliferation of raccoons and raccoon poop in Vancouver and the need for a national education policy–linked by a discussion of the need for rethinking current jurisdictional divisions.