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Technology has a place in classrooms, but it shouldn’t be a crutch used by lazy professors

My article “Pass, Fail” in The Walrus seems to have triggered a massive response from readers, most of it approbative but some of it highly critical, in several instances verging on being ad hominem. Happily, this not the case with Darryl Whetter’s “The Kids Are Alright.” He does not agree with my argument, but nor does he condemn it. Rather, he attempts to think about it critically. I offer the following brief remarks in response to his concerns. Darryl Whetter’s criticism of my article consists of two substantial assertions and two corollaries. First the assertions: (1) Technology has not had the deleterious effect on education I claim it has; (2) neither student ability nor university education per se has declined over the past several decades in the way I suggest. As to the corollaries: (1) Professors who endorse either or both of these assertions may be nostalgic, narcissistic, and perhaps even ill-inclined toward contemporary students; (2) my article indicates that I am such a professor. I’ll address Whetter’s substantial assertions directly; I’ll leave the matter of the corollaries to the readers’ judgement. First, nowhere in the article do I offer a wholesale critique of technology or of its role in university education, as Whetter suggests. Nor am I against technology in the manner in which the comparison of me with Bernard of Clairvaux implies (the prostitutes aren’t “student e-distraction.” The students are the mill workers. The prostitutes are those who profit from their misfortune—the lower ranks of the administrative cast, the student services cabal and the e-cheerleaders.) Insofar as I have a critique of technology, I’d be inclined to agree with Jaron Lanier—technology is merely a tool, and should be thought of and used as such. To think of it as being more than this—as salvation, as the most important… Read More

The rise of the “activersity”

It’s an uphill job, the campus social justice circuit. It isn’t just a matter of showing up with some signs and megaphones and hollering, maybe disrupting the odd speech with a little horn-blowing or firebell-ringing. It takes organization and passion and energy. Most of all it takes time. Righteousness can even take a toll on one’s health, it seems. I happened upon a recent article in the Brown University Daily Herald, entitled “Schoolwork, advocacy place strain on student activists.” Here I learned from an undergraduate identified only as David, who confronts issues of racism and diversity on campus, that “There are people breaking down, dropping out of classes and failing classes because of the activism work they are taking on.” David himself is a good example. He confides to the reporter that his commitment to social justice has resulted in dramatically reduced grades, lost weight and a regimen of antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills. Another student, Justice Gaines, has similar problems. Once, feeling compelled to take part in a protest, xe (sic) “had a panic attack and couldn’t go to class for several days.” What helped Gaines to manage both xyr (sic) schoolwork and activism was deans’ notes deferring assignment deadlines. Usually deans are quite amenable to issuing these notes and professors equally amenable to accepting them. But sometimes - sometimes - they are not. It was a Thursday, as student Liliana Sampredo remembers it. She had a research presentation that was supposed to be completed that week. But she was also part of a group that was activating for revisions in the university’s “diversity and inclusion action plan.” She felt her activism should take precedence on her schoolwork, so “I remember emailing the professor and begging her to put things off another week.” But the professor denied her request. And… Read More

Parliament, not student unions, should vote on boycotting Israel

Students at McGill University will soon vote, once again, on whether the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) should endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which seeks to place an economic boycott on the state of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.  Members of Parliament will soon vote on the same issue.  For Parliament, this is an important international question, entirely within the federal government’s responsibility over foreign policy.  For a student union, it’s juvenile grandstanding. McGill is not alone.  Student unions at York, Ryerson, Concordia and others have all passed motions endorsing BDS, thus diverting student union money and resources towards ideological goals that not everyone agrees with. BDS is not the first issue to be taken up by Canada’s student unions. In recent years, student unions have also endorsed positions on bottled water, abortion, “Silent No More,” Pride, “misandry,” fossil fuels, “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land,” and a not-so-diverse collection of other issues.  Some student unions go even further by placing an outright ban on groups, lectures or events representing alternative views that don’t align with the views of student politicians.  This has made it necessary for two university campus clubs, Speak for the Weak and Students for Life, to sue their respective student unions at the University of Toronto Mississauga and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.  In both cases, the student unions denied club recognition to these student groups because of their pro-life stance on abortion. Successful endorsements enable activists to claim that they represent the entire student body in wanting to boycott Israel, or ban water bottles, or support Pride. They obtain a form of “democratic legitimacy,” in spite of the fact that fewer than twenty percent of students actually vote in student union elections. The result is that a very… Read More

BDS at McGill is pointless and divisive

And so, once again, the seething acrimony that has long been churning in the underbelly of the McGill community has festered and resurfaced. The age-old vitriol that year in and year out has been clubbed back into submission has dared to rear its ugly face once more, the toxic, hate-spewing libel has been ordained with a fresh corpus of terminology and the anti-Israel crusade has assumed a new pretext. I will leave it to the proponents of BDS to angrily recite their usual slew of allegations against the Jewish state and to formulate a substantive argument that addresses how, exactly, a vote undertaken by the student body to ostracize, demonize and alienate Israel will usher in an era of peace in the Middle East. By all means, they can advance their line of reasoning that a motion sanctioned by SSMU to take a unilateral and high-handed stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will lead to its amelioration, despite the flagrant fallacies that plague this argument and the empirical evidence that demonstrably proves otherwise. And they can contend the merits, or utter lack thereof, of their claim until they feel gratified with their contribution to furthering the cause of humanity. I wish not, however, to dismantle the tenets of BDS or to corroborate how it is to the detriment of the entire peace process. One can spend all day postulating, pontificating and preaching the ideals that the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement professes to stand for, and the academic disquisitions that are both for and against it can be fired back and forth in a volatile exchange until the end of time. Rather, I wish to discuss what is actually most pertinent in this debate, and that is how it will directly affect the life of a McGill student— after all, that is… Read More

Are we really Charlie Hebdo?

In the aftermath of the horrific Paris terrorist attacks in January 2015, the journalists at Charlie Hebdo were rightly lauded as heroes for their defence of free speech. Across the world, many took to social media proclaiming “Je suis Charlie”, or I am Charlie in solidarity with the deceased journalists. Yet despite our superficial support for free expression, at most North American Universities, something like Charlie Hebdo would probably never have been allowed to be published. Its efforts at satire would inevitably fall victim to the intricate web of equity laws and speech codes that govern our lives at institutions like McGill. At McGill, a combination of the prevailing social climate and university policy often stifles debate and leaves many students fearful of expressing their views on particular subjects. In 2014 the Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms, a libertarian leaning legal advocacy group, awarded McGill two D’s and a F on four categories that measure the extent to which the right of students to free expression is upheld by both the school administration and student unions. On campus, the views of many students often fall victim to vaguely defined and enforced concepts like equity and safe space. For example, in March 2012, the student group, McGill Friends of Israel (MFI), tried to host an event called “Israel A Party” to counter “Israeli Apartheid week. However, before the event could take place, SSMU insisted that the event be renamed because the original name “made a mockery” of “oppressions” suffered by the Palestinian people. Similarly, in 2009, SSMU attempted to revoke the club license of the pro-life group “choose life” for the use of graphic images in promoting their message. This attempt at suppressing divergent views can even extend to the faculty. In March 2013, the prominent civil liberties lawyer and professor… Read More

The ongoing travails of Jewish students at York University

Toronto’s York University has not been a particularly hospitable place for Jewish students for the past few years. Many feel that a climate of anti-Semitism, masquerading as “anti-Zionism,” has pervaded the university. Some students have feared for their physical safety at times. Things took an even uglier turn last month. A pro-Palestinian acrylic painting that has been on display over one of the entrance foyers to the Student Centre since 2013, entitled Palestinian Roots, shows a person looking at a bulldozer close to a building while holding rocks. The person is shown wearing what looks like a Palestinian flag with a map of Israel without its borders – in other words, a map lacking the “Green Line” that divides Israel from the West Bank. At the bottom of the mural, the words “justice” and “peace” can be seen along with other text. The artist, Ahmad Al Abid, is a 2013 graduate of York. Gayle McFadden, chair of the York University Student Centre, sees nothing wrong with this. She said the student’s piece was “an artist’s interpretation of what’s currently going on in Palestine.” She added the usual boilerplate: “Anti-Semitism is directly against people of the Jewish faith, and I think that is abysmal and horrible, but critics of the state of Israel are not that.” The work is “merely critical of the state of Israel and its continued occupation of Palestine.” She of course knows better than the Jewish students do as to what is and isn’t “anti-Semitic!” Paul Bronfman, the chair and CEO of William F. White International Inc., a provider of movie and theatrical production equipment, was less sanguine when he recently learned of the mural. His company has provided thousands of dollars of equipment and technical services, as well as access to seminars, student lectures, trade shows… Read More
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