Thursday, April 03, 2003

If They Were all like Rex…

Sitting in a café, writing papers on my laptop and sipping my Freedom Vanilla coffee, it is difficult to think of anything but my late papers and the impending doom of exams. Thank god I’m getting out of here.

This may be the lack of sleep talking, but, while I’ve always assumed that I would go back to school for a Masters, at the moment I’m on the fence about this wild and wacky world of academia. With war and pestilence and various other horsemen of the apocalypse galloping across the front page of the newspaper, spending hours on a thirty-page paper about radio evangelism in the 1920s feels a little like fiddling while Rome burns. I can’t help but feel like this work I’m doing is inconsequential and, dare I say it, selfish. While a degree will add a couple of letters to my name, how does it actually benefit the world in comparison to, say, volunteering for an NGO in Africa?

Post-secondary education in Canada was in serious decline for over a decade or so thanks to deep cuts in government funding. Now, however, there seems to be a genuine attempt by universities and governments to fix some of the rot that set in during the 1990s. Going into academia might actually be a wise career move right now; the Association of Universities and Colleges estimates that universities will have to hire between 30,000 and 40,000 new professors in the next ten year. By 2010, two thirds of McGill’s faculty will have been hired in the new millennium. This is a huge opportunity for renewal here at McGill.

This influx of younger faces alone won’t fix universities’ larger public relations problems, however. Academia has had to endure years of snide remarks from Canadian Alliance and Reform MPs ridiculing off-the-wall thesis topics in the House of Commons.

There is a valid point buried deep in their redneck rhetoric, however. Some of the stuff in the socials sciences and the humanities seems positively pointless, an expensive exercise in onanism. Too often the “social” and “human” is left out of these disciplines. Some academics actually seem to pride themselves on the esoterism of their pet projects.

The sciences have done a good job of arguing for their importance in our society. We’re interested in funding microbiologists work because of sudden outbreaks of diseases like the SARS. How can a literary analysis of women’s work in Shakespeare’s histories compare to issues of life and death? It leads me to feel like packing up my bags post-BA and heading to the “real” world of journalism or politics. Professors need to argue and prove the relevance of the arts disciplines.

I’ve been to a few ceremonies over the past couple of weeks. As the academic year wraps up, this is a penchant for naming People of the Year. Well, allow me to give out an award myself, if I may be so presumptuous. Let’s call this award the Professor of the Year award. The full title of the award is the Professor who Makes Me Believe in the Importance of Higher Education of the Year Award (PMMBIHEYA).

I’ve name-checked Professor Rex Brynen a couple of times in this column. I only took one of his courses in my brief fling with Political Science in my first year, but the excitement and relevance of his lectures has stayed with me. Brynen is at the top of his game and doesn’t shy away from sharing his work on regional security, conflict and democratization in the Middle East with the general public, as he does in the weekly Gulfwatch 2003 briefings.

Brynen employs interactive teaching techniques, most (in)famously in his Peacebuilding class and seminar, where student participate in a large-scale simulation of an international crisis in the fictional country of Brynania. He has a sense of humour and his students are devoted to him.

Holding professors to the Brynen Standard is perhaps a little ambitious. He does work in a topical and sexy field. But in reaching out to the larger community, he does a good job of arguing the importance of continued funding for the humanities and social science.

Anyway, I’m not going back to school right away next year. I think I’ll light out for the territory before I get too sivilized by the Aunt Sallys of academe. But in a couple of years, I reckon the bright lights of folks like Rex might just lure me back…

J. Kelly Nestruck can be reached at He apologizes for the gratuitous Huckleberry Finn reference.

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