Category Archives: the unexamined life

Where do good ideas come from?

If you’re a new reader here, you might wonder why I’m not posting here as regularly as I used to.  There are several reasons.  First, I’ve just finished my first term of full-time teaching, and I’ve been spending a lot of time working on ideas with the students in my seminars.  Second, and perhaps because of this, I’m feeling like a lot of my ideas are wearing out.  Rereading posts from a few years ago, I recognize shapes of big ideas that are still sailing through my consciousness.  I still think they’re good.  I just don’t know that I have all that many new ones.

I’ve been wondering this for years:  do we only get one (or two) really good, big ideas in our lives?  Where do they come from?  What do you do when your ideas run out?

Starving the Future

 I walked in the largest “student” protest in generations yesterday.  Around 50,000 people walked through central London. Although we walked peacefully, I suspect that many people carrying signs and filling the streets were angry.  Some were angry about having to go into debt to get a university degree, some were angry at having voted for an unbreakable promise that was broken, and some, like me, were angry because government, the one we voted for, has starved the future.

Cutting core funding to education eliminates one of the key investments in future innovation and economic growth.  Like funding to the arts, in the short term education funding creates jobs and promotes sectoral growth, but in the long term it also contributes to better decisionmaking, governance, and economic and political strategy.

The anger shared by the thousands of protesters and perhaps even the hundreds that engaged in civil disobedience can be generalized as anger at starving the future.  ‘Austerity’ measures suffered more by the vulnerable are saddening, but even more so when presented with the government’s seeming lack of hope or enthusiasm for the future.  Without investment in education, who will think?  Who will lead?  Who will decide?  Will these core social values be privileges accorded only to the financial and social elite?

If not, social action might be necessary — as  K-Punk notes,

 “This is definitely not the time to recline into the leftist version of capitalist realism, the defeatist counterpart to the Bullingdon club’s bullishness. Now is the time to organise and agitate. The cuts can provide a galvanising focus for an anti-capitalist campaign that can succeed. Protests in these conditions won’t have the hubristic impotence of anti-capitalist ‘feelgood feelbad’ carnivals and kettles. This is shaping up to be a bitter struggle, but there are specific, determinate and winnable goals that can be achieved here: it isn’t a question of taking a peashooter to the juggernaut of capital.”

In other words, it’s time to fight for the future.

Policy-based Evidence-making

Like many of my colleagues across the UK, I’ve been in a state of shock for the past few weeks, reeling from the proposals in the Browne report for the massive restructuring of academia, which includes shifting education from being funded as public good, with benefits accruing to society as a whole, to being funded as a market, where students act as rational consumers and “competition drives quality.”

Beyond the fact that this strategy is weak and technocentric, as John Naughton suggests, it is also problematic in another way.  We KNOW that public goods do not accrue using the logic of the market.  We KNOW that students don’t act as rational consumers.  Thus, this is a proposal made entirely on ideology, not on evidence.

This means that instead of making evidence-based policy, we are going to start seeing policy-based evidence.  In a mad rush to make reality conform to narrow assumptions, it’s quite likely that the actual benefits of public education will stop being measured.  Society won’t just be weaker and thinner, we won’t necessarily even know about it.

History provides numerous lessons about how tenacious policy-based evidence-making can be.  For example, Marilyn Waring has proven that economic success (even of developed nations) has depended on unpaid labour, often done by women.  She calls the systematic lack of measurement of this labour the “patriarchal economic paradigm.”

Canada’s census will stop measuring unpaid labour, under new rules made by its Conservative government.  In a Toronto Star article, Waring comments on this decision:

“I see this mirrored in so many conservative governments in the post-recession period,’’ says Waring. “They want to rule according to ideology not according to evidence. So one of the most important things they can do is to obliterate evidence so they can operate on the basis of propaganda.’’

From higher education to labour force statistics, the public is going to have to start paying attention.  All governments would like to make decisions based only on their ideologies.  But responsible ones use evidence to check that ideology and prevent it from having too much influence.  Beware of policy-based evidence-making.

“You Can’t Tweet That!” Personal Branding and Public Intellectuals

Lewis Gordon at Truthout argues that the market model of academia has killed the public intellectual.  He argues that market pressures, including heavy competition for limited jobs, and the focus on professional academics as masters of technical and textual knowledge has forced public intellectuals into creating the equivalent of academic literature reviews every time they want to talk about major issues of public interest.  He contrasts this market-driven logic with some of the public intellectuals of the past, who rejected the spoils of faculty positions and prestigious prizes.  He writes:

For many, it’s impossible to imagine intellectuals like Fanon and Sartre as anything short of holier than thou, even though neither of them argued that academics should not have academic pursuits and seek academic rewards. They simply asked for the rest of us not to pretend that the world is somehow better off by our being rewarded for such pursuits and especially so in the most prestigious representations of establishment.

A key pillar of this argument is a critique of fame – or, at the very least, the commoditization of academic fame.  In my office today there was much discussion of how we young academics are expected to maintain a personal brand.  Every tweet, every blog post could be read by future employers or future students, and all must be kept consistent, in content and style, with what we are expected to produce as knowledge workers.  And as social media is time-sensitive, the brand must be maintained at all times.  The reward for maintaining this image is an academic job, as Gordon points out, but it is also fame within the social media sphere.

This is a double-edged sword for anyone who (like me) has aspirations as a public intellectual.  On the one hand, as the Chronicle of Higher Education has pointed out, many factors combine to limit the number of academic posts.  With more competition, productivity becomes important.  So turn off Twitter and stop reading blogs.  Write that article, and ignore the Party on the Internet. But leaving aside the perilous labour conditions and the market-driven environment that might await once one gets the academic post, there’s also the immediate question of how much to engage with the flow of debate rushing through the social media sphere.  To catch the stream, one must maintain a different sort of personal brand – one that depends on constant and high quality participation.

I disagree with Gordon’s claim that it’s essentially impossible to be a true public intellectual under current market conditions.  I think it is possible, but it comes with a heavy pressure of time and participation that doesn’t seem to be well understood or supported by the academy.  How do others negotiate the different demands of academic and advocacy social media worlds?  What goes on the Twitter stream, and what stays off?

Would you go to jail for your rights?

I went to the British Library on Saturday to see the exhibit “Taking Liberties:  The struggle for Britain’s freedom and rights.” Beginning with the Magna Carta (on display!) it showed how unstable British politics have been, and for how long.

I was fascinated by the section on the long struggle to give women the vote.  The movement started in the 1860s, but the exhibit claimed that it didn’t have much success until after the First World War – women over 30 got the vote 1920, and women over 21 in 1928.  The Suffragettes were more organized, and more radical than I thought.  They blew up post boxes, stages rallies in the street, and accumulated criminal records.  In fact, so many of them went to jail in the 1890s and 1900s, and then went on hunger strikes in order to be released, that the government passed a new law.  The “Cat and Mouse” law permitted the government to release a woman after a hunger strike and then rearrest her as soon as she had gained enough weight not to die in jail.

It seems unimaginable now that the suffrage activists would have to go to such lengths to prove that women should be allowed the same democratic rights as men.  But female suffrage was very threatening to the moral and social order of the times.  If women were willing to blow up mailboxes in order to get the right to vote, who knows who they might vote for if they got the chance?

The exhibit was a good reminder that freedoms and rights are often grudgingly given by those with more power to those with less.  Those with less  are often called to put their beliefs on the line.  I started to ask myself, “would I be willing to go to jail for my rights?”  If ever my right to vote were revoked, I would like to belive I would.

Democracy (especially in Britain) sometimes seems wounded and tepid – with too much balancing to truly bring change.  But another amazing event of this week proves that it can still work.  Obama’s inauguration, and the vision of millions of people on Washington’s mall, suggest that people with less power, working together, can still shift the heavy machinery of government.    But we all need to be willing to push.

Starry Starry Night

A perfect night out:

A river (preferably one of the world’s greatest waterways)
A boat
Tape to hold the lights on
8 oars
7 friends
Moon (rising)
Stars (Orion hanging just over the horizon)

I am falling into an epic love affair with the Thames. Tonight, the first night outing with my rowing club, was a serene marvel of flat water, sliding oars, stars, and speed. I hope for many, many more.

End of an Era

I’m about to pack up my desk. For four years (almost to the day) this apartment has been the place I’ve returned to, to entertain, relax – and work. Even when I’ve been away for long periods, the same view out my office window has been waiting for me when I return. It seems somehow fitting that the first thing I unpacked when I moved here was my desk, and now it will be the last thing to be dismantled.

Of course I’m a “mobile worker.” After all, my academic work grew out of an interest in working in places other than homes and offices. I’ve hauled my laptop downtown, to the library, across the ocean, and into the living room. I’ve tried to find community in cafés, bars, and libraries, as well as in the long hallways of university departments. But this place seems to invite writing and thinking, even now that the files are on servers and the books are in boxes.

I’ll be unpacking the boxes in another home office with another view (these days, of the blooming lilies I planted in a fit of procrastination in January). But also, for the first time in a long time, I’ll also be working in an office. As a visiting fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, I’ll have to leave my cozy home office three days a week and go sit in a room with other people. It’s an exciting proposition, after the isolation of writing.

Even more exciting (and terrifying) is the whole matter of moving to a new country permanently rather than temporarily. No more Montreal pied à terre. No more splitting time between a city I love and one that terrifies me. Time, perhaps, for a new kind of love affair, and a new kind of life.

For now, for the last little while that I can, I’ll be sitting here in my sunny home office, writing and thinking, looking outside at a wonderfully familiar view.

Research roots and wings

So, I’m in London. Waking up in the morning in a house in West London, next to the person next to whom, out of all the people in the world, I most want to be waking up with. Riding my bike in traffic in London, on the left hand side, circling buses and avoiding pedestrians and sometimes looking up at the Regency mansions on the way to the library. Writing in a cafe in London, listening to accents from the edges of the empire. In these first few weeks in a new place, the differences between where I come from and where I am seem most marked. I don’t know the conventions here – Christmas is Happy, not Merry. Mistletoe is a plant, not a plastic symbol. More beer is drunk than I am used to, and sex is taboo in a way I don’t expect – jokes about it crop up everywhere as if to urgently break the tension.

In these days, at this time, I cannot yet say that I am truly living in London. I am, in some ways, still in transit. Once, someone asked me whether I thought I would spend my life as an “uprooted researcher living in a global city.” That question has followed me since, as I have travelled farther and farther from the place I grew up with, the culture that I could have called my own. But in a way, nomadism is also my culture: from the Polish orphan who landed at Ellis Island and lost his name, to my grandparents fleeing postwar England for the warmth of Africa (and then again for the cold of the Midwest), and of course my parents, driving their tiny cars full of possessions here and there across the continent.

But that question came back to me today: not the bit about being uprooted, but the bit about being a researcher. As I clicked off the reading light, packed up my pads and pencils, passed through security, and walked into the central atrium of the British Library (looking like nothing else in its airy magnificence than a cruise ship for the bookish) I felt as if I were travelling from one world to another. From the world of my thoughts, the true site of my research, to the reality of being in London: the cold fog descending, Christmas lights twinkling, and the same buses and taxis to avoid on the long descent down Notting Hill. A strange world, after the deep and commanding one of my thoughts – and more strange for being still unknown. I think this is why researchers, even those who like me are committed to understanding and participating in situated and particular knowledge, need sometimes to travel. When the world outside is strange, the world in your head, the world you are excavating every day through writing, feels familiar, comfortable, and known.

All those other lives I never lived

I recently applied for a conference to be held in Montreal in May. The brochure for the conference was illustrated with “typical” Montreal images: curving metal staircases, lights on the St-Lawrence seaway, neon signs on St-Catherine. An offer of what the city is meant to give to tourists.

Biking home in the golden light this afternoon I passed hundreds of “typical” blocks of flats, engaging in my usual habit of imagining “what would my life be like if I lived somewhere else — on the Plateau, downtown, in St-Henri . . ” I imagined the tiny but important differences from my life at Jean-Talon. A different vegetable market. Fewer Mexican restaurants. Another cafe with different owners. Would they remember my allonge, collect my forgotten mittens for me?

Next month, I will live in a Victorian row house in West London. From the back window of that house, you can see the planes land at Heathrow, above the rows of chimneys, the thick trees full of birds. The London tourist brochures show images of these white-fronted terrace houses, window boxes full of flowers. The brochures include pictures taken down along the Thames where I run sometimes, past houseboats and waterfront pubs and parks. Beyond what’s in the pictures, the river has surprising beauty. The city noise falls away, leaving the sound of rowing skiffs, clinking glasses, and geese. On the far bank, bicycles careen through mud left by high tide, against the backdrop of wild parkland. Even in winter, the trees are green.

By the time I come back to Montreal it will be spring. I have never lived through a winter with no snow, without the bitter cold jab of air in the nose on a February morning. This feeling is never described in a tourist brochure. Neither is the precise quality of light reflected at 4 pm through my office window.

The fact is, we can never know what things, exactly, change our lives. I came to Montreal almost by accident, but living here has given me something I never could have imagined. Paris, too. As I prepare for a new life, in another city, I wonder — not even daring to imagine — what surprising beauty I will find.

My favorite police state (OR: Who is the media?)

police protest.JPG
May Day we took a day off and took to the streets to support fair labour laws, human rights, and the right to peaceful protest. Red flags in the street, yellow police jackets on the sidewalks. It seems the British still have the right to protest — sometimes. But certainly not anonymously. With all this camera equipment on the sidelines, the exercise became as well-documented as a trip through the London Underground — never far from the camera’s eyes. But as InnerHippy found out last time he took pictures of the cops, the right to record doesn’t seem to extend to everyone . . .

houses of parliament.JPG

In front of the Houses of Parliament, protest is another matter. It’s recently been made illegal within 100 m of the buildling. The BBC explains that most protests now try to draw attention to this fact. I decided to find out more. With my best Canadian accent, I asked these police officers whether it was really true that the British no longer had the right to protest. One of them carefully explained that they could protest, but only after filing paperwork with the police detailing the number and identity of protesters. Why? “To prevent just anyone from coming up and protesting”. Of course.