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.