The Rant
[A Section Specially Designed for Letting off Some Serious Steam]

Ask Not What the University-College Can Do For You . . . and so on
Ian Johnston

Qui s'excuse, s'accuse.

Last semester Ken Lyall was hauled out of his recent retirement and commissioned to conduct some sort of enquiry into research, scholarly activity, and so on at Malaspina.  Dr. Lyall dutifully did the rounds talking to faculty and eventually, towards the end of his interviews, arrived at my door.  We had a very pleasant conversation, near the conclusion of which he asked me the following question: "What do you say to faculty members who complain that the college does not  provide them enough support for scholarship?"  At the time the question struck me as a bit odd, but I muttered something in reply, and we finished our agreeable chat.  Well, I've been thinking about that question for a while, and I think I may have arrived at a more complete answer than the one I was able to provide on the spur of the moment.

First of all, I'd ask them what they meant by "the college."  Aren't they an integral part of this institution?  Are they wondering why they don't give themselves sufficient support?  The question, thus posed, seems silly.  If they are so keen to support scholarship, surely the best way to demonstrate their support for scholarly activity is to stop the endemic whining and, as the slogan says, just do it, by actually carrying out some project or encouraging and assisting their immediate colleagues in their endeavours.

But, of course, some might answer that by "the college" the question really means the college administration, those in charge of the money. The issue is that such executives don't allocate sufficient money to what faculty want or need to do by way of scholarship.  The obvious answer to this interpretation of the question is to ask those making the complaint where the money is to come from, with the proviso that they should immediately abandon any notion that there is a huge pot of money somewhere which is being withheld.

For some time around here there has existed a perception in academic circles that far too much money is squandered on useless things like physical plant, maintenance, Adult Basic Education, Vocational Education, and (on occasion) Liberal Studies.  If this money went where it most properly belongs, into promoting scholarly activities, then all might be well. 

This perception, although common enough, is excessively stupid for obvious reasons.  Quite apart from the arrogance in the claim that other activities are useless or less important than the generally valueless work of university academics, the funds for many of these activities are often ear marked, so that if the activity were removed, the money would disappear. Moreover, there are provincial standards in most support areas (like Advising, for example), which Malaspina is expected to meet (and with respect to which, in some cases, we have been seriously deficient in comparison to other university-colleges).

Before those who expect more support from the college for their research launch into their next plangent chorus of lachrymose distress, they should be prepared to answer the following question: "Which specific area of your own department's offerings would you recommend curtailing in order to obtain the support you are so desperate about."  Until they can answer that question, they, like pit bulls paraded in public in Nanaimo, should be muzzled.

For the largest wasteful squandering of money in this institution by far is the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars annually of  instructional money into faculty scholarship, or rather, to put the matter more precisely, into release time for such purposes (how much scholarship, trivial or otherwise, is actually done is a moot point).  Such scholarship has no pedagogical benefits whatsoever (other than projects directly linked to student activity, in which case the issue is one of workload), and the release time we provide for it is a major factor contributing to the financial plight we are in, with a series of degree programs we cannot afford to maintain.  

We established this gravy train to win approval from the University of Victoria for the upper-division courses we offered in their name here, and we have maintained the transfer of funds (and expanded it slightly) in order to win accreditation.  It was the price of joining the club.  Now that we have accreditation, let us hope that the administration puts a firm stop to any further robbery from student Peter in order to pander to the interests of some faculty Paul.

I'm sick of the complaint that we are expected to carry on scholarly activity and yet not given sufficient support.  This statement is far more a confession of the inadequacy of the complainer than a significant critique of the institution.  For over twenty-five years, with financial perquisites far less generous than those presently in place, Malaspina faculty carried out all sorts of scholarly activities (however that term is to be defined precisely), publishing academic books, scholarly articles, plays, poems, novels, textbooks and carrying out a number of important practical projects.  The notion that scholarly work simply cannot be done at the present level of support is a self-serving lie or excuse or confession of failure or all of the above

To make this claim is not to say that all forms of scholarship are equally easy to pursue in Nanaimo.  We are a long way from the nearest nuclear generator, Sumerian archeological site, sub-Saharan mosquito (in situ), or expert in regional dialects of the medieval Serbo-Croats.   But the challenge of scholarship at the university-college, for those who feel they must do it, is to adjust the nature of the project to the resources at hand, not to whinge constantly about the lack of funds for some single project requiring very specialized resources.

In my own case, coming to work in the BC college system meant I had to give up a scholarly interest in the history of modern Shakespeare productions.  My PD money did not permit regular flights to Stratford-upon-Avon (the real one).  So what?  I shifted my attention to what could be undertaken here.  Those who protest that this is not possible in their case are just indicating their own lack of imaginative initiative.

It's true that research training often is excessively narrow, a very poor preparation for a situation demanding imaginative intellectual flexibility (I recall one application for a job here which indicated that the candidate had spent the last fifteen years or so studying full-time the mating habits of a particularly exotic insect species).  To wish to perpetuate that narrow specialization is all very well (I suppose), but to ask for more instructional money (i.e., student spaces)  to promote it seems entirely antithetical to what this particular institution is here to achieve.

Thus, to return to the question Dr. Lyall posed in my office: now that I've had some time to think about it, I'd tell those making the complaint to shut up and get some sort of (intellectual) life here within the present arrangements (something like, say, teaching) or seek employment elsewhere.

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