Monday, August 24, 2009

Guest Blogger: College

Usually I'm not a fan of 'Cape Breton-isms.' For the most part they paint us as some of the more so dimwitted Canadians. Phrases such as “How she goin' bi'?” have always portrayed the idea that we are uneducated, behind the times, and – one of the worst things a location can be – quaint. Oddly, despite my feelings toward these 'isms' I do have a favorite. Equally odd is the fact that it shows all of those stereotypes that I cannot disagree with enough. That ism can be seen in the following example:

Taxi-driver - Where are we headed?
Me - The college.
Taxi-driver - Okay.

Cape Breton University to almost every Cape Bretoner I have ever run into is simply referred to as “the college” including those who are too young to even start thinking about their lives after high-school, those who live out of Cape Breton, those who have never attended CBU, and even those who have pursued post-secondary education at different institutions. I have met countless examples of each of these groups, and they all refer to CBU as “the college.” But, that stands to reason – it IS the college in their hometown.

Only it isn't.

Cape Breton University is, as the third word in the name would indicate, a university. Before it was a university it was a university-college (UCCB). Before it was a university-college it was a college – the College of Cape Breton (if you look around the college even now you can see the old logo from CCB – it's orange and green and looks like a weird box). However, that has not been the case since 1974. That was well before many of the people who call it “the college” were born – myself included. While it may not be a college anymore, I can see the idea – it WAS the only college in the hometown, so it makes sense to call it “THE college.”

Only it isn't.

There have been and still are a number of colleges – actual colleges with the word “college” in the name and everything – around Cape Breton. There's McKenzie College and Breton Beauty College. Cape Breton Business College has been around since 1958. The Canadian Coast Guard College has been around since 1965, and it has never changed the name, never once saying it was anything but a college. None of these schools, as far as I know, are EVER referred to as “the college.” I used to live about three blocks from the Coast Guard College. I went swimming there, used the gym, played in the woods right next to it, and went on various tours of the buildings seeing all the classrooms and everything that made it a college. This did not change the fact that whenever “the college” was talked about, I knew it was in reference to the big building between Sydney and Glace Bay that I had only ever been to once as a child. The Gaelic College – celebrating everything Cape Breton – was founded in 1938 – 13 years before the school that would become “the college” was.

There's even a college with the same driveway as CBU! Nova Scotia Community College, Marconi Campus, has the exact same directions from pretty much any given point however when I am getting a ride to CBU, I am always asked “Which entrance to the college are you going to?” I'll say “the main one.” After turning onto University Blvd. (notice it's not called College Cres. – a dead giveaway that it's not a college) they never turn right to take me to the NSCC; we turn left and go to the university.

So, why do we call a building that is not a college not just “a college” but “the college” - as if it were the definitive college. Maybe we're behind the times with the name. Maybe we're uneducated about the other institutions around Cape Breton. Maybe we're just quaint.

James F.W. Thompson

Coming soon: Guest blogs!

Keep reading the great posts already here, and stay tuned for a new feature, guest contributions from current students and alumni.

Next month: James F.W. Thompson on "The College."

Are you a current student or almnus or almuna? Want to contribute? Let me know!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Meet Sheila Christie

I spent a long time thinking about what to write for this blog. When I first offered to contribute a post, I thought I’d give you a brief introduction to my specific area of study, Medieval Drama. A lot has happened since then, however, and I feel that blogs are places where you think through what’s on your mind at the moment. What’s on my mind right now is how I managed to end up in one of the most beautiful parts of Canada, employed in the best job I could imagine. I am alternately terrified and ecstatic, inspired and overwhelmed. One of my new friends, a local educator and artisan, reminded me that a lot of you are coming from someplace new, too, and that you may be feeling some of the same things. You’re embarking on adventures that, like mine, may lead you to unexpected places. You’ve already taken a huge risk in choosing to attend university, gambling a familiar present for an uncertain future. And taking risks is what life is all about – it’s how we grow. So, for my first post on this blog I’m going to take the risk of telling you a bit about myself, about the journey that has brought me to Cape Breton as a teacher and researcher, and about the things I’ve learned along the way.

My name is Sheila Christie. You can call me Dr. Christie, or professor if you want, but I’m most comfortable with first names. You can also make up nicknames, as long as I get veto rights. I’m painfully shy but with enough theatrical training to overcome it most of the time. My favourite classroom experiences are always characterized by real discussion between everyone in the classroom. If you end up in one of my courses, you’ll find I have high standards and a lot to teach you, but I’ll also want to hear what you think, not what you think I want to hear.

My first full time teaching related job was in educational multimedia. Most of the programs I used to work with are obsolete (I coded directly in html, for example), but my understanding of what teaching means was formed there. My job was to absorb information and then figure out the best way to teach it, whether it was lumber grading, electrical safety, or Canadian history. It was good training, and it honed the research and writing skills I’d gained through an honours degree in, you got it, English.

As interesting as the multimedia work was, I knew within a year that I needed to go back to school. I bore easily. I also have a strong work ethic. These qualities occasionally come into conflict, but in this case they gave me the motivation to seek greater challenges. It took me another year to choose and apply to UBC. It was the only school I applied for, an act of potential hubris, but I was accepted, and promptly spent the next two years doubting my own sanity for choosing to do this thing called a master’s degree. I felt constantly out of my depth and I struggled with the material through many sleepless nights, but at the same time some of the best experiences in my life happened during those two years. Not only did I discover within myself a passionate desire to know things, but I’d also taught for the first time and saw the potential for real change within the scope of the classroom. My love of theatre blossomed there as well, leading me to stage manage and produce several shows. My experiences during my master’s program gave me confidence and a growing certainty about what was important to me. It was painfully hard work, but the rewards in personal growth were immeasurable.

I had applied for, and been accepted into, a PhD program in England, but could not get funding, so I went home, to Edmonton, to look for work. At Grant MacEwan College I was fortunate enough to meet Department Chair who believed that the only way to train excellent teachers was to give them the chance to teach. She hired me at sessional rates to teach four courses a term. It was murder. I’d only ever taught one course at a time, and not as the sole instructor. I learned on my feet, then. I made mistakes. I learned to embrace my mistakes and learn from them. By the end of my first year I knew two things. I would never happily teach five courses a term – a full teaching load at college level – and if all I did was teach, I would burn out within two years.

So I applied again – for funding for England, and for a PhD program at the University of Alberta. England offered me nothing, and my soon to be supervisor in Edmonton offered me a two year scholarship, making the choice an easy one. Whereas time had sped by during the MA, it stretched out with the PhD dissertation. I learned that no matter how good you are and how much experience you have, writing is hard work. When I ask my students to write, I don’t pretend it is easy. I will share the tools and tactics I have discovered, but writing will always take work, and that work is worthwhile.

That work was worthwhile for me. As with the MA, there were times I thought the PhD had broken me, but when I worked through the growing pains, I felt better for it. More alive. More aware. That, my friends, is never a bad thing. And life rewarded that growth. I was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship, government funding to conduct my research in Bristol, England. I work on a particular kind of medieval drama, called cycle plays. These plays were produced by and for civic communities. Craft associations and other community groups would put on short pageants – little plays, ten to twenty minutes long – that all together told the story of the bible. The Bakers for example, might do the Last Supper, or the Shipbuilders do Noah’s Arc. The whole play could take up to three days to perform, and each little pageant could cost a year’s wages or more to produce annually. In my work, I look closely at historical records to figure out what purpose these plays served in their communities. I do so by imagining these communities into being based on the data I’ve found, and then attempting to witness the plays from the perspective of that culture. It is an approximate art, but it shows me how the text can work to influence communities. I am motivated both by a genuine interest in these texts, and by the conviction that all theatre can be used to foster community. If I can articulate how the these plays created community in the past, then we may gain insight into how we can use theatre to achieve positive change and strengthen the communities we live in today.

These are ideas that have been developing over the past year, during my time in England, along with several others on the connection between space and memory; labour in medieval romance; and veils and masks in Troilus and Cressida. But the post doc wasn’t the only reward life had in store. I had barely settled into a routine in England when CBU posted an ad looking for a professor of dramatic literature. I remember reading the posting details repeatedly, certain that it was not possible for a job description to describe my particular skills and interests so exactly. The more I learned, the more I knew Cape Breton was the place I needed to call home. Thankfully, the hiring committee agreed.

I have been on a fourteen year adventure, facing huge changes and taking larger risks. Each time I was terrified that I would fail. Each time I achieved more than I could have imagined.

And it all started with an English degree.

Those of you who are also new, welcome. If you get a little freaked out, talk to me. I’m probably going through the same stuff and may know where you can go for help. Those of you who were here before me, I look forward to meeting you, and to learning with you.

Sheila Christie

p.s. No, Shakespeare was not medieval. He’s classed as Elizabethan, Renaissance or Early Modern.
p.p.s. Yes, there was drama before Shakespeare. Ask me if you want to know more.
p.p.p.s. Look! A comments button. Tell me what you’re thinking.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Beware Doll: Bob Dylan in the University

The first thing that a visitor to my office generally notices is the relative absence of ornamentation on my walls, and I admit that if one’s office walls are the windows to the soul, I guess that makes me something of a blank slate. I like to think that I am partially redeemed by the second thing most visitors notice: a signed photo of Bob Dylan (looking very “Another Side of Bob Dylan”) that I use in a desperate attempt to give myself some credibility by giving the illusion of intimacy with Mr. Zimmerman (if I’m being entirely honest, it was a gift from my wife, who bought it on ebay; I’ve never really met the man). Depending on how Dylan-savvy my visitor is, this has the potential to lead to endless conversations about favourite songs, albums and various other Dylan minutiae, but, given the setting, I often find myself fielding questions about the role of Dylan in academia.

One question that I am asked from time to time is, “have you ever considered teaching Dylan as poetry?” Well, yes and no: yes, I’ve thought about it, but no, I’ve generally written off the idea as way too self-indulgent. As much as I would hope that my enthusiasm for the subject would transfer to my students, I am also very conscious that it can be very hard to teach something that one is too close to (I don’t even teach my beloved Byron—arguably the Dylan of the 19th century… but that’s another story—in my English 200 class). Nevertheless, this question, hitherto always posed in the abstract, became the subject of more concrete reflection the other day when, leafing through a sample poetry anthology sent to me by a publisher, I noticed the inclusion of two Dylan songs, “The Times They Are A-Changing” and “Tangled Up in Blue” sandwiched between some of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (in case you’re wondering, this anthology was organized in alphabetical order—ooh, edgy!).

The sight of these songs/poems triggered a variety of reactions. As a Dylanophile and self-confessed pedant, my initial reaction was horror at the way that a song that exists in so many different musical and lyrical guises as “Tangled Up in Blue” should be fixed in print as a single authoritative set of lyrics. Where are the subtle modulations between third and first person that have marked the evolution of the song from its original version (later released on Volume 2 of The Bootleg Series) through the “official” Blood on the Tracks version through Dylan’s alteration of the song over the years in live performances? What about those incredible alternative lyrics, such as those preserved 10 years later on Real Live? (I have always, for example, been fascinated by Dylan’s determination, in the last verse, “to find someone among the women and men whose destiny is unclear.”) As a practical, professorial type, however, I quickly accepted that it is in the nature of textbooks to create canons and impose authoritative readings. The price of canonicity is invariably the stifling of the experimental, the edgy, and the uncertain.

I was left puzzling over the larger implications of this newfound canonicity; what, for example, would be the effect of putting Dylan on a course with the luminaries of English literature? That Dylan is a poet is beyond doubt (and if any doubters do remain out there, I refer them to Dr. Keshen in the Philosophy department; he will set them straight on that score more resoundingly than I). Certainly, it would certainly be possible to analyze “Tangled” in terms of diction, rhyme, meter, point of view, and to ask all the necessary literary questions about it. It could work quite well, for example, in a sequence of poetry about love from the courtly love tradition to the modern (Is the “Italian poet from the thirteenth century” mentioned in the song actually Petrarch? Unlike me, Dylan was no pedant, and maybe “fourteenth century” wouldn’t have sounded as good.) But, however academic I can make it seem, the question would still be why study Dylan rather than, say, poor old Prufrock on the facing page?

One possible answer would have to be relevance. Dylan has songs for any listener and for any occasion, and it would be possible to select texts that most students would respond to. For example, I imagine that many local students would feel the poignancy of “North Country Blues,” a song in which Dylan adopts the persona of a miner’s wife, lamenting the changes that have taken place over the years: “my children will go/ As soon as they grow/ ‘Cause there ain’t nothing here now to hold them.” Certainly, there is here a more directly accessible kind of angst than Prufrock’s description of an evening laid out “like a patient etherised on a table.” (All right, I’ll stop picking on poor T.S. Eliot; I’ve got nothing against him really, he just happens to be ready at hand.) Or, if my choices are dictated by the textbook (as they so often are), “Tangled” is itself a heartfelt reflection on love and loss that has a universal sort of relevance. The star-crossed lovers with disapproving parents, and the modern sense of disillusionment and anti-romance, for example, might certainly be used to attract students and to argue for the “literary” quality of the song.

On the other hand, another answer would have to be strangeness; Dylan is not what people usually consider literature, so studying him would allow one to open a whole host of questions about what literature is, and to bridge the gap between popular culture and so-called high art. If a song can be studied as a poem, that might make the study of English literature seem less elitist. The question that still troubles me, however, is this: wouldn’t the inclusion of Dylan on a course syllabus be an inherently self-defeating gesture? It would assert the canonicity of a figure who is being evoked precisely to challenge the idea of canonicity, and would risk being perceived by students as yet another authoritative voice (and I’m sure that there’s nothing Dylan would hate more than becoming canonical). So, if I teach Dylan because I think he’s a great poet (which I do think), I undermine the motive of teaching something substantially different. On the other hand, if I teach Dylan because he’s relevant in a contemporary way that “classic” literature sometimes isn’t (which I also do think), I beg the question: why not teach, say, Nietzschean readings of Kanye West’s “Stronger” (“what does not destroy me makes me stronger”) or Coldplay and the French Revolution? This cultural studies approach helps to defamiliarize common uses of language, and to make students see that there is no cultural product that is not a carefully crafted manipulation of discourse; it is not simply that literature is a privileged discourse that professors “read into” to discover meaning. But this approach seems to necessarily call for a shifting of its object from year to year; if contemporary relevance is what is required, then the class must shift as cultural tastes change (which they do about every 15 minutes).

So, after several digressions (is anyone still reading this?), I’ve boiled it down to two arguments; I can teach Dylan because he is the same as and equal to other canonical authors, or I can teach him because he is different from and opposed to them. But perhaps the real lesson here is that he is both; he offers an example of one who has been an icon of popular culture and is now anthologized as a poet. If nothing else, it invites questions about how such a transition might be possible, and what is at stake in the decisions made by textbook editors. Is literature to be defined as the reproduction of certain “norms” of literary language, or precisely as the experimentation with language and the disruption of such norms? If it is the latter, doesn’t that invalidate the whole idea of a stable canon? Literature would be an approach, not a final product. Literature would be whatever comes next. I would certainly like my students to consider this point of view, and if I can use Dylan to make this point, I could—possibly—be convinced to change my mind and “see it from a different point of view.”

Nat Leach

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Why spelling matters

This month sees the beginning of the 2009 Canwest National Spelling Bee. Nationwide, something like a quarter of a million kids will be taking part. The event culminates with the national finals in Ottawa in April.

I have been involved with the spelling bee as an official for the past couple of years, and people are often curious to know more about it. Many (understandably I should add) do pose some tough questions. Should we really be encouraging this kind of competition among kids? How does spelling really help kids use language in the real world? Isn't this just an exercise in memorization? Does spelling even matter any more in the age of computers?

Let me see if I can answer all these in a coherent way. To begin, I should point out that spelling competitions seem oddly subject to questions that we do not pose about other competitions, which are usually taken to have value in themselves. Hockey, for instance, does not build specific skills applicable in the real world (unless you live in Ottawa and can skate to work on the Rideau Canal), but we don't really care, nor should we. For one thing, hockey at its best is great fun for players and fans. For another, it builds broader aspects of character like sportsmanship, grace under pressure, discipline, and so on. But, of course, competitive spelling does all these things too. Last year at the Halifax bee, one of the two finalists looked at the other just before the final rounds were about to start and said with all sincerity, "I hope I win, but good luck." I have rarely heard a better formulation of the competitive spirit.

As for the more specific concerns, spelling is not just an exercise in mindless rote learning. The best spellers realize that to know how to spell well is to understand what words are and where they come from. Top spellers learn not just the letters, but the origins of the words, and how they are related to other words. Of course, these things help with the spelling, but it also opens up for kids the remarkable landscape that is the study of human language, with its incredibly vast detail, and its intricate history. They learn that the history of every people is not just written in its language but on its language.

And what of the competition? What of the crying children who must leave the stage after spelling hamadryad or hypobulia incorrectly? Well, trust me, they get over it. And if they have good parents, they have a chance to talk about some important truths in life. That one cannot always win, but that one can always compete with dignity. Sports parents, one hopes, take advantage of their children's losses and setbacks to teach this vital lesson. But not all kids are athletes. Not all kids are blessed with natural physical ability. Some are smart, and this is their chance to compete in the arena in which they excel. And to learn the lessons -- some thrilling, some heartbreaking -- that this arena affords.

And that's why spelling matters.

Todd Pettigrew

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Another blog on blogs, or my New Year’s resolution

My New Year’s resolution this year is to write. Just to write. To see what I might have to say. The blog, which I’ve never written, seems to make manifest the desire behind all writing—to be heard by someone you know but don’t know, someone you can’t see who is nonetheless extremely close. Someone (or is it something?) not exactly there and yet potentially reachable in the act of writing.

One of my favorite poets, W.S. Graham, wrote to this unseen auditor all the time. Knowing he had someone to write to who could never quite hear, and yet was part of a contract for communication that both subscribed to, gave Graham a way to write. And that’s what I’m looking for this year: A way to begin. To say what might need to be said. Here’s one of W.S. Graham’s poems on the subject:


Meanwhile surely there must be something to say,
Maybe not suitable but at least happy
In a sense here between us two whoever
We are. Anyhow here we are and never
Before have we two faced each other who face
Each other now across this abstract scene
Stretching between us. This is a public place
Achieved against subjective odds and then
Mainly an obstacle to what I mean.

It is like that, remember. It is like that
Very often at the beginning till we are met
By some intention risen up out of nothing.
And even then we know what we are saying
Only when it is said and fixed and dead.
Or maybe, surely, of course we never know
What we have said, what lonely meanings are read
Into the space we make. And yet I say
This silence here for in it I might hear you.

I say this silence or, better, construct this space
So that somehow something may move across
The caught habits of language to you and me.
From where we are it is not us we see
And times are hastening yet, disguise is mortal.
The times continually disclose our home.
Here in the present tense disguise is moral.
The trying times are hastening. Yet here I am
More truly now this abstract act become.

Graham lived a life of solitude and poverty in Cornwall, in a small cottage without plumbing. He spent his time trying to speak to someone (“Dear Who I Mean,” he entitles one poem), to find something to say. Waiting for “some intention [to] rise up out of nothing” was his dream, and my dream, of what writing might do. That it might connect one to an/other. That it might make something / new. That it might shine a light, compose a dawn, draw the faint starting of a path for change. Not necessarily the “yes-we-can” kind, but a more tentative “maybe”: maybe something’s/someone’s out there, waiting.

So this is my New Year’s resolution: to write, to try. And it is also an invitation to others. You don’t need anything to write but the will to begin, to move a line forward, to start on a tentative path where an intention might just rise up, out of nothing.

Mark Silverberg