Thursday, June 26, 2014

Military Picture Of The Week

His Excellency The Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, shows off a very impressive stride as he inspects the Ceremonial Guard at Rideau Hall on Monday.  Photo courtesy of the Ottawa Citizen, more pics and a video here.  This picture would only be better if a regimental goat was present, but to my knowledge, the Ceremonial Guard does not have a mascot.  Pity.

What's Wrong With Our Universities?

Apologies to those who find the use of fonts here frustrating.  There are some issues between MarsEdit, my blog composition app of choice, and Google’s Blogger.  Hopefully I’ll get them sorted soon.  MP

It may seem to some like a frivolous exercise, but friend of mine, an Assistant Professor of literature at a Canadian university, is among a cohort of 56 younger academics who have done something novel to draw attention to what they say are the overpriced salaries of senior university administrators.  Working in teams of four, each team has applied jointly for the position (and $400,000 plus salary) of President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Alberta.  As my friend explained it on her Facebook page;

"This began as a serious joke to protest the 'administrative bloat' taking place on many university campuses who are supposedly under 'austerity' regimes.  The event has morphed into a larger movement targeting the 'rhetoric of austerity' of large and expensive administrations and administrators, focusing especially on the increasing dependence on sessionals/adjuncts and the skyrocketing costs of tuition."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the UofA was not interested in any of these applicants.  In the rejection letter which my friend shared online, it states that:

Given the serious endeavour of pursuing the UofA’s Change Agenda and building on the strengths of the institution, we are focusing the search on a highly competitive field in which there are only a small number of candidates whose particular sets of experience and skills closely match the position profile."

While none of these young faculty thought that the UofA would seriously consider a job-shared approach to its top position, they were pleased that they drew media attention to the issue of the income gap between university administration and many teaching positions.  One of the job-sharing applicants was included in a New York Times debate on the issue, and it also got the attention of CBC Radio’s show As It Happens.
For those who haven’t been tracking the state of post-secondary education, there’s been a a lot of media attention to what some commentators see as its failing state of health.  

Particularly, these stories involve the perceived bloat in university administration costs, the hollowing out of rank and file university teaching as tenured faculty are increasingly replaced by temporary adjunct faculty (with a consequent CEO-worker pay imbalance that mirrors the trend in the corporate world, the increasing cost and declining accessibility of post-secondary education and the increasing debt burden of many students, the decline of humanities programs and the increasing corporatization of universities in general.

For those who suspect that the list of ailments in that last paragraph betray a left-wing bias, let me refer you to that starry eyed liberal columnist, the New York Times’ David Brooks.  In his essay “The New Right” (NYT 10 June 2014), Brooks wrote this:

We are moving from a world dominated by big cross-class organizations, like public bureaucracies, corporations and unions, toward a world dominated by clusters of networked power. These clusters — Wall Street, Washington, big agriculture, big energy, big universities — are dominated by interlocking elites who create self-serving arrangements for themselves. Society is split between those bred into these networks and those who are not. 

In other words, Brooks seems to be saying, whereas we once had social institutions and mechanisms that created opportunities for social mobility and advancement (“cross class organizations”), we are moving to a world where a self-replicating, even hereditary class with a monopoly on wealth, power, and management expertise (“interlocking elites”) reengineer these institutions and mechanisms, including universities, to keep themselves at the top of the food chain.

I suspect that Brooks might find my paraphrase of his words to be crass and reductive, but I think that is what he is saying.  However, if you prefer plain speech to Brooks’ polished prose, and you care about the relationship of education to a healthy society, you should have a look at this recent piece by Thomas Frank (June 10, 2014) in Salon on what he sees as a thirty-year tuition spiral that is turning the university education from a social good to a Chivas Regal-type brand that becomes the price of admission into the elite of our new “Neronian” gilded age.  Why is it, Frank asks, that American students and their parents are willing to mortgage their futures for a diploma when students of other countries fill the streets at the “tiniest” tuition increases?

Because in this country college fulfills a different role. Even if those peaceful campus quadrangles were originally laid out by Quakers or by the egalitarian Thomas Jefferson, we all know what they signify today: They are the central symbolic device for explaining inequality. College is where money and merit meet; where the privileged learn that they are not only smarter than everyone else but that they are more virtuous, too. They are better people with better test scores, better taste, better politics. College itself is the biggest lesson of them all, the thing that teaches us where we stand in a world that is very rapidly coming apart.

Again, you may decide that this is left-wing opinion, and indeed it is, but I would argue that there are at least three issues at play that are undisputedly factual.  They are:

1) Rising University Administration Compensation.  Last month the NYT editorial board reported that according to a report from the Institute for Policy Studies, at the 25 American universities where executive compensation was highest, pay for university presidents had gone up by a third between 2009 and 2012, with an average salary of just under a million dollars a year.  While the IPS report did not directly link this increase in administrators’ salaries to student debt or the increasing use of adjunct faculty, as one of the report’s authors told the NYT, “if you think about it in terms of the allocation of resources, it does seem to be the tip of a very large iceberg, with universities that have top-heavy executive spending also having more adjuncts, more tuition increases and more administrative spending.”

2) Spiralling Tuition and Student Debt.  Several nights ago, the PBS News Hour interviewed documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi, whose new doc, Ivory Tower, looks at this issue.  Rossi found that since 1978, US university tuition costs have risen by 1100% and that on average, students are now graduating with $33,000 in debt.  You can find a trailer for Rossi’s film here.  I haven’t had time to research comparable Canadian levels, but you can start with a slightly dated CBC story here.  According to the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canadian tuition costs for post-secondary education are the fifth highest in the OECD countries (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), behind the US and several Asian countries.

3) The Rise of the Faculty Underclass.  Put simply, more than half of the undergraduate teaching at American universities is done by part-time instructors who do not enjoy the benefits of tenure and are paid, like academic sharecroppers, strictly for the courses they teach.   Some have incomes below the poverty line.  This situation (50% of faculty being non-tenured, temporary staff) may be similar in Canada, based on what little digging I’ve been able to do and what I hear anecdotally in grad school.  This problem is probably more pronounced in the Arts and Humanities than it is generally, and part of the problem, as Joshua Rothman notes in The New Yorker magazine, is that graduate faculties have been incentivized to overproduce PhDs for decades now.  This is not to say that tenured faculty are not expensive, and doubtless their salary costs have been rising for years as well, but one has to ask, if a university education is a commodity whose purchase increases one’s chances of prosperity, than does the brand (not to mention society as a whole) suffer if more and more of the teaching (which is, after all, the content filling that brand) is done by impoverished instructors who do not get paid to do the research that should, ideally, produce excellent teaching?

Besides these three issues, one could point to a whole host of trends that are working to erode, or at least, change, university education.   As mentioned in point 3, the rise of the adjunct underclass goes hand in glove with the decline of the Humanities as a discipline.  The NYT reported last year on a study indicating the decline of that archetypal Humanities degree, the English major, and while that finding has been contested by none less than a past president of the Modern Languages Association.  However, the people I know on the ground would say that the ethos of the liberal arts education (critical thinking, a well-rounded view of life) is being undervalued.  A thread I followed recently on Facebook, started by a respected English professor at a major Canadian university, noted that the success rate for securing funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada was about 15%.  the same professor was told that securing external funding was a significant metric used by university administrators in measuring faculty performance and whether they “added value” to their universities.  Other faculty in the same thread reported that SSHRCC funding criteria was increasingly moving towards rewarding proposals that talked about Big Data and Data Management, rather than, say, the small “d” data that a Humanities scholar might produce from reading books and thinking about philosophy and such, which is, presumably, what equips Humanities faculty to work in the classroom.

My thoughts on all of this are fairly pessimistic.  I am currently in a graduate program in Religious Studies, paid for by the Canadian Armed Forces.  I have a job to go back to when I finish my thesis next year.  Some of my friends in the RS PhD program at U of Waterloo want to go on and work in their discipline as faculty.  I wish them every success, and I suspect that the most driven amongst them will succeed, just as, twenty years ago, many of my peers in a PhD English program eventually found full-time academic work.  However, the evidence suggests that a lot has changed at universities in twenty years, or even in ten.   Among the younger faculty I know, I detect a certain pessimism and even despair at the direction universities are heading in.   For those younger people contemplating a university education, especially one in the Humanities, I would encourage them to proceed, but carefully.  I would ask them to look at debt rates versus employment success rates.  I would encourage them to ask, really ask, why they want that degree?  If they want it as a step towards changing the world, I would encourage them to proceed bravely but wisely, but if they want it simply as a guarantee of lucrative employment, I would encourage them to look at a vocational program, and maybe take a film or a poetry course on the side if they were so interested.

It’s past time that we as a society challenged the idea that a university education was a commodity to be bought to secure advancement.  We need to take down the walls of cant and corporate speak that universities are being allowed to shield themselves in.  Why, for example, does the UofA need to spend $400K on its President?  What possible value could that person deliver for $400K, and for that matter, why spend extra money on the inevitable headhunter if, as the UofA rejection letter told my friend, “there are only a small number of candidates whose particular sets of experience and skills closely match the position profile” ?   Exactly what skills and experiences are they?   If that $400K+ price tag is necessary to buy a member of the elite with fund-raising access to the rest of the elite, then doesn’t that mean that the whole idea of the university as a means to a thoughtful, egalitarian economics, society and politics, as we once understood it, is post-secondary education today fatally flawed and in need of a reboot?

Monday, June 9, 2014

How Not To Cover Religious Diversity In The Military

Not that I was expecting the UK’s Mirror of aspiring to the journalistic standards of more posh newspapers, but I was disappointed that a link from today’s UK MOD news service led me to this rather trashy story about religious minorities joining the British military, including this badly photoshopped picture with the caption, “Air power: how a soldier witch might look in action”.

 The content of the story is fairly thin gruel, and the main substance includes a reference to another Mirror story from March which reports that "Official figures obtained through Freedom of Information show 770 members of the armed forces declared their religion as "other" and, of these, are 120 devotees of paganism”.

The Mirror’s coverage reflects a general cultural prejudice that Wicca or paganism does not deserve to be taken seriously as a religion or, to put it another way, as a spiritually-based world view.   Perhaps this lack of respect is because of popular assumptions that it is about druids and faeries, or that it is a recently invented religion without centuries of tradition to lend it gravitas, or perhaps because of fears of some Christians that it is associated with devil worship.    Certainly,  as Ronald Hutton notes in this interview with the Religious Studies Project, contemporary Wicca or paganism is a modern construct, without documentable links to ancient practice despite some of the claims of its practitioners.  Other scholars have noted the diversity of pagan/Wiccan practices, its links to environmentalism, romanticism, feminism and the pronounced individualism of our culture.

In his study of the US military chaplaincy, sociologist Kim Hansen noted that even among (predominantly Christian) chaplains, the officers charged with guarding religious freedom in the military, there was an overwhelming tendency to dismiss Wiccans as being immature seekers and “whackos” “who are either malevolent or silly”.   In this respect, Hansen notes, Wiccans have not gained the same degree of acceptance in the military as Muslims, whose practices, while not always understand by non-Muslims, are intelligible according to widespread understandings of what religion looks like.  Military chaplains, whatever their own beliefs, have a duty to facilitate the sincerely felt beliefs of military members, provided that they are not prejudicial to order, discipline, and operational requirements.

Protecting religious diversity in western militaries is a serious business when citizens of diverse democratic societies expect their military to mirror, or at least resemble, its country.   Stupid articles by journalistic hacks filled with sniggering references to “HMS Hogwarts” do not further this goal.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Remembering Two Canadian Chaplains Who Fell On D-Day


Honourary Captain / Rev. George Alexander Harris.   Originally from Solihull, Warwickshire, England, Harris was the Padre to the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, and died on D-Day at the age of 34.  Details from this site on British Airborne padres.

From In This Sign by H/Major Walter T. Steven, Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1948.

"H/Captain G.A. Harris had been in the Army less than thirteen months when he was killed-in-action with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion on June 7th, 1944.  Harris at first had wanted to become a chaplain in the Royal Canadian Navy but when he discovered there was more need in the army, quickly wrote Bishop Wells that he would be glad to serve wherever he was needed.  For some time he was attached to the Parachute Battalion at Shilo, Manitoba, and was happy when he was again attached to this unit Overseas.  In the ordinary course of his duty Harris was dropped behind the German lines with the Battalion on June 6th, but, like many of his comrades, did not last long against the bitter attack of the enemy.  

That he conducted himself gallantly no one could doubt, but we have almost no details about his death.  A personal letter from a soldier in hospital to his mother came to the notice of H/Major the Rev. Canon Wm. Askey, E.D., of All Saints Church, Winnipeg, formerly Senior Chaplain, 4th Canadian Armoured Division.  This letter told of a report that had reached the writer that the grave of Padre Harris had been found with his identification discs and Bible on it.  The losses of the unit were so heavy that it is possible we will never know further details.  When he left Camp Shilo for Overseas his Senior Chaplain spoke of him as “one of the most capable and trustworthy chaplains” and as brave in preaching as in other ways.  He was an immediate loss to the Chaplain Serivce as, in longer terms, he was to Canon Askey whom he had assisted in All Saints’ Church, and the Church of England generally."



Padre Walter Brown, Chaplain to the Sherbrooke Fusiliers, 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, murdered while a prisoner of war, June 7th, 1944.

Again from In This Sign:

 "H/Captain W.L. Brown , a former curate of All Saints’ Church, Windsor, Ontario, went to France on D-Day and was missing on the same day.   On June 8th a wounded officer was brought in who reported that Padre Walter Brown had been with him on a sortie for wounded men.  They ran into a nest of the enemy and Walter was captured.  Long afterwards it was discovered that he was one of those prisoners-of-war whose life was forfeit, agaist all the rules of the Geneva Convention, to the whim of a brutal enemy.  He was a gallant young man, loved by his men and much appreciated by his fellow chaplains.  His Senior Chaplain, H/Major McCleary wrote, “Never will we forget the return of Walter Brown, as those stretcher bearers tenderly brought in his spent body, and on July 11th we buried him in Beny-sur-Mer, in the midst of the lads he loved and served so well.  Walter buried the first lad in the corner of this field where we have mad a resting place for so many in the subsequent weeks.

It is a tribute to Brown’s devotion and skill that when it was proposed, before he left Canada, that he be detached from the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and sent overseas with another formation his Brigadier made an earnest request that he stay with the formation, putting up such a good case that the request was granted.  He was the sort of chaplain who knew his men intimately and had their confidence and that of the Commander so that he could render his maximum service in that particular Brigade.

Two years later the staff in the office of the Principal Chaplain was proud to go to considerable pains to recover some portions of the Communion set that had been used by H/Captain Brown.  As is necessary under battle conditions this equipment had been used by other padres but it was ultimately possible to recover and send to Walter Brown’s mother the chalice and paten that she so wanted to have as a memorial to him."

As a footnote, Padre Brown’s communion set was brought to the Canadian Armed Forces Anglican Chaplain’s Retreat in 2012.  It was a great joy to me and to my bears to use his chalice and paten in our Eucharist.  I wrote about that occasion here.



Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Worth Repeating: Amy Davidson on the Bergdahl Trade

As more and more of the backstory of the US trade of Guantanamo detainees for its soldier, Bowe Bergdhal, emerge, and as the story becomes increasingly politicized, I would say that there are some clear ethical and legal threads that need to be followed.

First, while numerous stories from his military peers are now out there as to how Bergdhal intentionally deserted and thus jeopardized the lives of comrades sent to look for him, I don’t think these stories trump his right to come home.   When other US soldiers were accused of crimes against Iraqi and Afghan civilians, they were brought back to the US to face justice.   The same principle should apply to alleged deserters.  If the phrase “Leave No One Behind” counts, it shouldn’t have moral exemptions.   As the only US soldier to be help captive by the Taliban, his health, which was apparently declining, and the declared intent of the US to withdraw from Afghanistan, made this the right time to bring him home.   If I was Bowe Bergdhal’s father, I would want my son to face military justice in the US rather than to be punished by allowing him to linger in Taliban hands.  There will surely be a Board of Inquiry into his capture, and if the BOI leads to charges and even a conviction for him, better and more just for Bergdahl to be confined in a military prison such as Leavenworth.    It also seems to me to be common sense that when soldiers deploy to future conflicts, they need to know that their country will do all that it can to bring them home, whatever the political costs may be.  

Second, the controversy over the trade of five supposedly high-value captives for Bergdhal, as Amy Davidson writes in The New Yorker, merely remind us of the morally compromised position that the US placed itself in by refusing to treat them as Prisoners of War according to internationally-agreed on Laws of Armed Conflict.

"These five prisoners, known to be Taliban commanders and officials, were ones the Obama Administration had said should be held indefinitely, because they posed a threat. However, it was not prepared to charge them with any crime. One thing that the angry response to the trade revealed is that the implicit definition of “indefinite,” in many quarters, was “forever.” But indefinite means indefinite; when you have what, despite the frippery of various review boards, are essentially extrajudicial imprisonments based on the judgment of the executive, you might have people who get out a lot sooner than one would expect, too. Want to be more sure that the people now at Guantánamo stay prisoners for an extended period of time? Then convict them of something; give them a sentence.

Similarly, Guantánamo’s advocates have long dismissed legal (and moral) doubts by repeating the word “war,” arguing that these are battlefield prisoners. But prisoners of war get released when conflicts end. The main affiliation of these prisoners is the Taliban, not Al Qaeda, and their fight is the war in Afghanistan, which is winding down. (John Bellinger makes this point in a post at Lawfare.) They also get exchanged. One can’t have it both ways: there are laws associated with prisoners of war, too. The phrase “P.O.W.” is not just shorthand hand for “don’t have to go to court.”

Perhaps the Obama Administration did break the law in not notifying Congress before making a prisoner exchange.  I’ll leave that question to my American friends to debate, though I do agree with Davidson that a law apparently designed to keep certain certain people detained forever is a curious sort of law.

Language Play of the Week: Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge

We have an occasional feature here at Mad Padre called Language Play of the Week. Actually it's more like Language Play of the Quarter but I digress. Every now and then I come across a passage that makes me say "Wow, Writer Dude, you totally nailed that." OK, that last phrase wasn't especially felicitous, but you get my point.

Thomas Pynchon is one of the last men standing from the American literary subculture of the 1960s.  If your library or memory goes back that far, you know the guy - Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, etc.  Bleeding Edge was published last September and is a long novel, described by some reviewers as a shaggy dog story about 9/11 and the bubble years leading up to it.  Well, sort of.   The first three hundred pages are about a fraud investigator, Maxine, who tries to protect her precocious kids (adept in computer skills and Jewish martial arts), and reconnect with her WASP stockbroker husband Horst, well getting lured into a dark world that includes a renegade software company run by a sinister Bill Gates type, a Cold War experiment in time travel that may still be running, an alternate web world called Deep Archer (a kind of Second Life in which a kind of supernatural post-death existence may be possible), an IMF/CIA agent who may or may not have a heart of gold, a Russian mobster and his goofy Hip-Hop loving henchmen who also may or may not have hearts of gold …. and so on.  And all this in hundreds of pages before we ever get to 9/11, an event which plays strangely in the background of these busy and strange events.

Here’s a taste, a paragraph about the two internet pioneers who create Deep Archer.

"Having managed to score not only seed and angel money but also a series-A round from the venerable Sand Hill Road girl of Voorhees, Krueger, the boy, like American greenhorns of a century ago venturing into the history-haunted Old World, lost no time back east in paying the necessary calls, setting up shop around early ’97 in a couple of rooms sublet from a Website developer who welcomed the cash, down in the then still enchanted country between the Flatiron Building and the East Village.  If context was still king, they got nonetheless a crash course in patriarchal subtext, cutthroat jostling among nerd princes, dark dynastic histories.   Before long they were showing up in trade journals, on gossip sites, at Courtney Pulitzer’s downtown soirees, finding themselves at four in the morning drinking kalimotxos in bars carpentered into ghost stops on abandoned subway lines, flirting with girls whose fashion thinking included undead signifiers such as custom fangs installed out in the outer boroughs by cut-rate Lithuanian orthodontists."

This gets the Language Play of the Week award or a number of reasons.   First, it’s hard to believe that this stuff is written by a man in his 70s, and one who is notoriously reclusive at that.   Bleeding Edge is so full of 90s pop culture and tech references that it feels like a younger man’s work, say William Gibson in his earlier career.  Second, the language has a fluid quality, a sense that it could unspool itself like this for ever, and that the author is only capping his sentences with the odd period to give the reader a quick respite.   Third, there are references in the book that could or could not be real, and like the alternate web-world flickering on the edges of Maxine’s perception, it almost feels plausible.  I sort of new what a kalimoxto was, but I had the strange feeling that if I googled it, it might not exist.  Later, there is a reference to Ben Stiller starring in The Fred McMurray Story, which I am fairly sure does not exist.  It’s like the reference to the “cut-rate Lithuanian orthodontists” - of course they would have to be in “the outer boroughs”, but why Lithuanian?   It sounds faintly plausible, whereas if he had made them “Russian orthodontists” it would have seemed like a lazy stereotype, whereas just calling them “cut-rate orthodontists” would have just been lazy.   Lastly, there is the sense of the exotic, as in “bars carpentered into ghost stops on abandoned subway lines”.  Are there such bars?   How would one find them or find these “ghost stops”?  That’s the whole point of the off-the-grip hipster-hacker-nerd world that Maxine ventures into.   And using “carpentered” as a verb is to my mind a minor gem of a word play in itself.

I recommend this book highly for summer reading, but don’t feel cheated if you end up scratching your head and asking what the heck it was all about, though if you do, there’s a Bleeding Edge wiki here just in case.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Thirty Anglican Chaplains Walk Into A Bar

 Which we did, at various times during last week during our annual Retreat.  This crew is a sizeable chunk of the Anglican Military Ordinariate, the body of Anglican Church of Canada chaplains in the Canadian Forces.  The trio in the foreground, from left to right, are BGen John Fletcher, the CF Chaplain General, Bishop Peter Coffin, the Bishop Ordinary to the CF, and Colonel Nigel Shaw, our Ordinariate Archdeacon.  Yours truly is in there somewhere.  In our glory days, there were over fifty full time Anglican chaplains in the CF, but demographics are being a little unkind to us of late.    If you’re an Anglican priest and could picture yourself amid such a handsome and gallant bunch, we should talk.  


Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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