A Murder is Announced: the Death of the Classroom

A revolution is coming to U.S. higher education, one that will sweep away an archaic business model, erase the value of many venerable brands, and enhance the brands of new entrants and nimble incumbents. It will be a tough time for many U.S. colleges and universities but great news for the rest of the world.

This is an excerpt of an article in Forbes, one written by Bruce Guile, president and co-founder of Course Gateway, an online education consultancy, and David Teece, executive director of the Institute of Business at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. (See link below.)

I read this with some amusement. A murder is being announced here, à la Agatha Christie. The victim? Classrooms. The perp? Technology as defined by Silicon Valley.

Articles and arguments like this are sweeping the media and their purpose, it seems, is to shift the balance of power away from universities and colleges and to a new world of techno-ed, a world shaped by ideals of openness, democracy and free online education. This world will level the playing field: students in Mumbai will study alongside students in Toronto and Honolulu and all will emerge with equal degrees and, presumably, an equal shot at making it in the world.

A youthful spirit of rebellion is fueling this movement, providing followers with the added incentive of feeling they are doing some good: they are freeing their equally young and intelligent counterparts in other, poorer parts of the world, making it possible for them enjoy the same privileges and wealth. What this utopian vision of education is missing, however, is a realistic accounting of how all this will be achieved.

I’m going to look at two reasons why this thinking is flawed and I’m going to use some real-life anecdotes from my academic career to do it.


I’m an English professor and I’ve taught at three different colleges in Montreal. Many years ago, I volunteered to give breaks to colleagues who were overseeing a provincial exam. I had a schedule that took me from classroom to classroom in a building where hundreds of students were writing simultaneously; I went to each room and took over for 20 minutes while the attending professor left. In one classroom, I noticed a student I’d taught previously. Because I was bit bored, I picked up the attendance record, which had just been delivered, and proceeded to walk up and down the aisles, checking student photo IDs against the names on the list.

I hadn’t gotten to the student I recognized before he came to me, agitated, and told me he had to leave. He said it was because of a “family emergency.” I was puzzled because cell phones were not allowed in the exam and I wondered how he knew an emergency was taking place. I concluded something must have happened earlier in the day and that he was too distracted to write. I took in his exam booklet, advised him he would have to wait a few months before he could sit the exam again – a fact that could delay his graduating – and then reluctantly let him go.

christie_a-murder-is-announcedHe left and after I finished the attendance, I sat down and opened his exam booklet. Pages had been ripped out, and on the cover, he’d completely scratched out his name. Curious, I looked at the remaining pages underneath. And that’s when I solved the mystery: he was writing for another student, one that I had also taught. He’d scratched out the name so that I wouldn’t make the connection. This imposter student had the bad luck of having me as a relief professor, and having me – as opposed to my less-knowledgeable colleague – check the attendance records during her break. He likely knew I had taught the student he was standing in for and knew I would catch the switch. No wonder he was so agitated.

When it came to light, this event caused quite a scandal. The evidence was taken to Quebec City – where our province’s Ministry of Education is located – and much discussion ensued about what to do. In the end, and because this is Canada after all, a mild warning was issued to both students and the real student was allowed to sit the exam several months later.

I’m relating this story because I want people like Guile and Teece to understand that cheating, even in brick and mortar institutions, is a real problem. I also want the public to understand that because of incidents like the one above, institutions are taking proactive steps to prevent cheating scams. For example, programs like Turnitin have made online, for-purchase essays far riskier for students. Now cheaters who want to skip essay-writing have to turn to sites like Craigslist to find writers willing to write more expensive on-demand essays. Universities in some countries, like India, are planting signal jammers on campuses to prevent students from using their phones during exams. I images (15)predict institutions in North America will eventually follow suit. There are also programs like Lanschool – one that I use – that make it possible for teachers to turn off the internet in computer labs during essay writing sessions.

So while technology may be delivering information to a broader base of eager, international learners, as Guile and Teece correctly assert, elements of that same technology are also making it possible for colleges and universities to test individuals’ learning more accurately. And therein lies the problem: the dissemination of information online is not a problem, but verifying its uptake in individuals is. And contrary to what Guile and Teece are saying, this is where conventional institutions have an undeniable advantage.

And this brings me to my second point. Self-directed learning, of the sort promoted by many e-tech enthusiasts, can be problematic too.

Here’s another anecdote from my life: I will admit, in writing, that I hated a lot of the courses I took in graduate school. I took four in one year and the only one I enjoyed was Canadian literature. What did this mean? It meant I had to write essays on topics, like Romantic poetry, that I enjoyed a whole lot less. It meant I had to slog my way through tomes of theory about structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis and feminism without being able to apply these theories to narrative texts. It meant I had to read other poetry, poetry by early Canadian poets, some of which was patriotic and nationalistic and of truly dubious quality. I am one of those literary types who will admit there are certain forms of literature and of literary analysis I simply do not like.

Why is this important? It’s because my undergrad years were halcyon by comparison. I had professors who let me write on topics I’d invented and who encouraged imaginative free-thinking; these were professors who, at the time, I rather grandiosely felt recognized my genius. Yes, once upon a time, I really was that young and self-centered.

images (16)So graduate school felt like boot-camp and for the most part, I hated it. That being said, I knew even then that writing on topics I didn’t like was good for me. Tackling texts I was not prepared for frightened me into doing thorough and exacting research. Focusing on ideas outside my chosen purview broadened the scope of my knowledge and changed the way I looked at what I already knew. Being a teaching assistant prepared me for the disappointment of having to teach students uninterested in literature. These experiences combined gave me the patience to forgo quick routes to gratification and to strategize, meaningfully, against boredom and indifference, both mine and others’.

And this is the problem with self-directed learning. Left to my own devices, I would have kept researching the things I liked best. I would have kept to the same trajectory I’d started in my undergraduate years. If I hadn’t been forced to read about deconstruction, I wouldn’t have done so. Furthermore, not indulging myself caused me to take a trip to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto and to hold in my hands the same text of Greek and Roman myths Keats used when he wrote Endymion; it caused me to write a comparative analysis of that poem using these two bodies of myths, an analysis that was deemed publishable by the professors and Ph.D students who attended my presentation. Moreover, studying the patriotic poetry of my country’s first settlers may not have been an aesthetically pleasing experience, but it did teach me a few things about history and the hardships early Canadians faced. And deconstruction, god bless it, taught me that none of this really signified.

images (19)I taught Euripides’ play Medea for many years. It’s a cautionary tale about the perils of living outside the precepts of the Golden Mean, a design for living first formulated by Aristotle. The Golden Mean is about staying on the middle path between two extremes, about not giving in to the temptation of dramatizing one’s circumstances in life. An attribute commonly used to illustrate this point is courage: a man with too much courage can be reckless; a man lacking it can be cowardly. In Medea the Golden Mean is expressed by the women of Corinth. They surround a devastated Medea in the aftermath of her betrayal by Jason. They urge her not to be alone with her feelings.

She listens to advice,
even from friends, as if she were a stone…and weeps,
crying to herself for her dear father, her home,
her own land, all those things she left behind,
to come here with the man who now discards her.
Her suffering has taught her the advantages
of not being cut off from one’s own homeland…
Her mind thinks in extremes.

A nurse, who knows Medea well, describes the Golden Mean:

It’s better to get used to living life
as an equal common person. Anyway,
I don’t want a grand life for myself—
just to grow old with some security.
They say a moderate life’s the best of all,
a far better choice for mortal men.

images (17)Even in this age of nanosecond communication, the Greeks have something to teach us: it’s better not to be alone with strong feelings. I haven’t taught Medea for a few years, but I still talk about the Golden Mean in my classes. I discuss it in the context of the 2006 school shooting we had at Dawson. I talk about how going to sites, like the Goth one shooter Kimveer Gill frequented, can be fun in moderation. I tell them that an excessive reliance upon the reality presented on those sites can start us on a troubling path, a path where our framework for reality starts moving away from the center in increments too small to notice. The Greeks didn’t have the internet, but even they knew that the company we keep can be crucial to our mental health. The women who surround Medea, the ones who sense her capacity for violence, are Euripides’ mouthpieces. Their warnings presage Medea’s murderous actions: she kills her two children to get back at Jason, the husband who has abandoned her for a younger wife.

How does this centrist approach apply to conventional teaching? Because I deal with students face to face, I can gauge the effect my words have on them. And like most teachers, I try to nudge them away from extreme positions. Those of us in the arts and humanities, especially, teach students there are usually several ways of looking at a problem and taking into account all factors is best. It’s how one arrives at a measured response to circumstances.

Despite all the hype and magical thinking, the internet is not a live teacher with its students’ best interests at heart. In fact, it’s a forum that allows young people to self-direct their learning in ways that aren’t always positive. Those with extreme views can always find their soulmates and can collectively reinforce one anothers’ beliefs. While Kimveer Gill’s association with the online Goth scene is an extreme example, the same paradigm of funneling can be applied to education. With less formal requirements and without the intervention of teachers — individuals there to read expressions on students’ faces, answer questions and provide support — we risk creating a population of young people whose world views are narrow and circumscribed. The extremity of the views expressed by Guile and Teece provide a good example. I’m not sure where they’re getting their dire projections from: college enrolment, at least in my neck of the woods, is higher than ever.

Goth-gothic-6148265-600-896There is another reason to heed Medea’s story: she is a foreigner in Corinth. She was a princess of Colchis and abandoned her homeland and royal status to become Jason’s wife. In other words, she is at one remove from her origins, away from family and friends. What does this suggest? To me it suggests a student, sitting at a computer, away from the positive influence of experts and peers who might play a role in shaping that student’s consciousness. It raises questions: exactly what is this student learning and how is he or she learning it? More prosaically: is it really the student’s work the professor is grading?

Aristotle and Euripides may not have seen the internet coming, but it doesn’t really matter. Their ideas are still powerful today and I doubt that either they or Agatha Christie would be foolish enough to announce the death of classroom education. I’ll leave that for the likes of Bruce Guile, David Teece and those other naysayers — naysayers of both conventional education and wisdom.

Here’s a link to the Guile and Teece article: http://goo.gl/eDpJh


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Transparency on the Internet: Do I really want to know?

I’m using a story from Canadian author Alice Munro an analogy for open data. I spend the first few paragraphs discussing it — then, on to open data.

In Alice Munro’s “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” Johanna Perry, a homely housekeeper, lands the delectable but down-and-out Ken Boudreau:

hateship-friendship-courtship-loveship-marriage-by-alice-mun-7He had figured out by now who this woman was. She had said she came to bring him his furniture, though he hadn’t asked her or anybody to do that – hadn’t asked for the furniture at all, just the money. He should know her name, but he couldn’t remember it. That was why he opened her purse, which was on the floor of the hall beside her suitcase. There was a name tag sewn into the lining.

A couple of weeks ago Johanna had been able to transfer the whole of her inheritance from Mrs. Willets into her bank account…The sum was not dazzling, but it was impressive. It gave her substance. In Ken Boudreau’s mind, it added a sleek upholstery to the name Johanna Perry.

“Hateship, Friendship” is a variation on the Cinderella story. The persecuted heroine is Johanna and she is set up for humiliation by two young girls, one of whom is under her care. They intercept a heart-breaking letter she has written to her putative lover Ken, telling him about her harrowing life. The girls rightly interpret it as a play for his emotions and like evil stepsisters decide to trick her. They concoct a series of love letters, ostensibly from Ken, and these eventually prompt Johanna to leave Ontario and to find him in Gydnia, Saskatechewan, a forsaken tumbleweed town.

The concept of superior knowledge, also known as dramatic irony, is a frequent plot device used in literature, particularly in theatre. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it as:

a plot device in which the audience’s or reader’s knowledge of events or individuals surpasses that of the characters. The words and actions of the characters therefore take on a different meaning for the audience or reader than they have for the play’s characters. This may happen when, for example, a character reacts in an inappropriate or foolish way or when a character lacks self-awareness and thus acts under false assumption.

Alice Munro
Alice Munro

Dramatic irony is deployed in Munro’s story with equal parts pleasure and misgiving. We know that Johanna is acting on a false assumption when she travels across the country to find Ken. Having only met her once, he barely remembers her. However, when she first arrives, he is in a seedy hotel too sick with flu to wonder at her sudden appearance. While Johanna is busy, he sees an opportunity to jog his memory and goes into her purse looking for ID. Discovering her net worth in the process, he decides not to question the windfall she represents and gratefully submits to her ministrations.

Like onlookers to Cinderella’s triumph, we cheer for Johanna: she richly deserves her prince. Like worried friends, however, we also hope Ken’s motive for marrying her is never revealed. Years later, one of the young pranksters hears of the birth of Johanna and Ken’s son and fervently wishes to distance herself from that younger, more malicious version of herself. Nevertheless, she is stuck with the knowledge – and the dismay — that her interference has brought forth greater consequences than she counted on. As the story closes, she is at her kitchen table doing homework, translating a line from Latin: Tu ne quaesieris, scire negas, quem mihi, quem tibi — You must not ask; it is forbidden for us to know.

Issues around transparency and the ownership of knowledge are particularly complex these days. I used the example of Munro’s story because Johanna and Ken’s mutual windfalls could only happen in the context of her ignorance and his discretion. Their coupling is extraordinary, but that haphazard way fate has of surprising us is not. The Latin admonition at the end of the story is key here: What exactly are we meant to know?

The fight over information and in particular online information, is being fought in different contexts with different players, all of whom feel they have a moral stake in the outcome. Here’s a brief overview:

  1. First, there are those who believe in radical transparency (or open data) when it comes to government and business and to some extent individuals. These are people who believe all creative endeavours should be open-source, meaning texts, movies and music should be available to the public for free on the internet. Aaron Swartz’s liberation of JSTOR articles is an example of this way of thinking. 
  2. Secondly, there are those who envision a more mixed world, where matters of the public good are transparent and free, but that creators of texts, movies and music can control their work or in some way be compensated. One idea held by this middle-of-the-road group is the institution of a communal fee, similar to taxes, which would support creative endeavours. Larry Lessig’s work with the Creative Commons represents a step in this direction.
  3. Lastly, there are those who like the status quo and don’t feel we need more transparency. The belief here is that a lower level of transparency serves the interests of private industries and individuals best. Creators would be paid for their work and the distribution of it would be limited to those who have purchased it. Not surprisingly, members of the first group, the open-sourcers, tend to view this members of this last group, the closed sourcers, with suspicion. From their perspective, the latter tend to be oppressive über-capitalists or shady politicians. Countries like China and Iran, with their relatively closed internet systems, belong in this group too. 

319578-always_lie_lying_nowThis is where things get complicated. This crowd of three groups can be divided further, but we need to throw them all back into the pot and stir. Now let’s pour the contents into two diametrically opposed bowls. The first represents those who believe a radically transparent system can liberate us; the second represents those who feel we should protect our privacy at all costs. The latter are hacker privacy mavens (who distrust governments) and über-capitalists (who fear mob rule).

This is how we end up with activists who see no contradiction in supporting the openness of a Wikileaks organization while believing their own privacy is sacrosanct. At least half of the time, they stand alongside some capitalists and politicians who like mixing openness and privacy too, in the same ways but for different reasons. It raises the question: is this to be the decade of odd-bedfellows or the century of it?

If you’re still following, let’s substitute the word boundaries for the words division or divide. Because setting boundaries around some very important issues is what all these groups are fighting for. And they each want primacy: they want to be the ones drawing the lines. To sort out my own thoughts, I started looking at how I felt about transparency and privacy. And this is when my ideas about lying came in handy.

I’ve written extensively about my difficulties with the Canadian healthcare system, so I won’t reprise the story here. What I will say is that I was lied to on a number of occasions and perusing my mother’s hospital records after the fact told me the lying wasn’t restricted to the face to face variety. There were significant omissions in those records and I was mischaracterized by a doctor I had had words with. In the end, it was a mischaracterization that had larger implications: problems ensued with at least three subsequent doctors, problems I believe were directly attributable to the words written by the first.

Screen_Shot_2012-05-16_at_7.22.43_PMSo being followed around by a lie acting like thug prompted me to look at lying generally. I became far more conscious of my own lies and I attempted, with great resolve, to banish them from my social repertoire. This created real tension: being consistently truthful isn’t easy and it made me aware that my anger at the healthcare system felt slightly hypocritical at times. The official term for this competition of thoughts is polyphasia:

The concept of cognitive polyphasia refers to a state in which different kinds of knowledge, possessing different rationalities live side by side in the same individual or collective.

Of course, looking at dishonesty as a whole is very tricky since individuals lie so often, for so many reasons and in so many ways. It’s simply too unwieldy a category of behaviour to characterize easily. Despite that, I still think it’s important to weigh our own dishonesty when we consider ideas around transparency and privacy, especially those ideas we’d like others to respect. Asking ourselves why we lie is a good place to start. If we do this, and do it honestly, I believe the policies we create will be better for it.

Jennifer Epstein, of Cornell University Medical College, studied everyday deception and made what I believe are some very comforting observations:

…the portrayal of everyday lies as disruptive of social life and hurtful to the targets of the lies is in need of modification. In keeping with the perspective described by Goffman (1959) and other social interaction theorists, we think that many of the lies of everyday life are told to avoid tension and conflict and to minimize hurt feelings and ill-will (Lippard, 1988, Metts, 1989). We think that people lie frequently about their feelings, preferences, and opinions and that when they do so, they are far more likely to feign a positive appraisal than a negative one.

If most lies and deceptions are relatively inconsequential, as is likely the case, then how do we determine which are not? Enemies and apologists along the transparency/privacy divide are likely to disagree about the scope and intentionality of various deceptions. Enemies will argue that when a deception results in any harm, then it is too consequential to ignore. Apologists may argue that some deceptions are necessary to avoid either greater harm or harm in other arenas. So determining a deception’s intentionality and scope is necessary to make an accurate judgement. The problems, of course, are that most of us simply don’t have the time to make judgements and judgements that are weighed carefully are subjectively weighed much of the time.

Larry Lessig
Larry Lessig

Larry Lessig is an academic and activist for internet freedoms. He is also the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. In his essay, “Against Transparency,” he makes a pithy observation about how easy it is to mishandle information. He uses an anecdote by Peter Lewis that appeared in the New York Times. Lewis described a meeting between a middle-aged man and a young woman in a Manhattan hotel, and he narrated the meeting from the point-of-view of the security cameras which captured it digitally. Despite his neutral language, his interpretation suggested a romantic rendezvous. He used this narration to show how a meeting between himself and his adult daughter, based solely on a trail of digital images, could be misconstrued. Observing the dangers of these epistemological shortcuts, Lessig asserts that:

The point in such cases is not that the public isn’t smart enough to figure out what the truth is. The point is the opposite. The public is too smart to waste its time focusing on matters that are not important for it to understand. The ignorance here is rational, not pathological…Yet even if rational, this ignorance produces predictable and huge misunderstandings. A mature response to these inevitable misunderstandings are policies that strive not to exacerbate them.

Two operative words in this excerpt are mature and exacerbate, and they lead me to a discussion of my own judgement calls when it comes to being truthful.

images (11)What lies do I tell? In a professional capacity, I often encourage students by positively enhancing my responses to their writing. In short, I am a nice teacher who avoids negative criticism. When I teach immigrant or francophone students (I teach in Montreal), I help them by allowing them to re-write essays. Although I worry about the inequities this might create, I know my one-on-one work with them — which is detailed and thorough — helps them learn English in ways that will serve them not only academically but socially as well.

I think of my mother taking free, government English courses after arriving in Canada and the difference between her life and my father’s. He was not given the same opportunities and ended up being one of those immigrants who never fully grasped the language. I saw first-hand the limits and frustrations this imposed on him.

And so I lie to them. I tell them it will get easier when I’m not sure it will. I encourage them by saying their ideas are good and by consciously enlarging my definition of good. In subtle and delicate ways, I inch their grades upwards so that they won’t fail or become demoralized. I see their anxiety and their weariness and sometimes their isolation and I don’t want to add to it. I want them to experience Canada (or English-speaking Canadians) as welcoming and I want them to know there are kind-hearted authorities willing to support them.

And this is where I have trouble with some of those folks Evgeny Morozov believes are “net-utopians,” those activists who believe radical transparency via the internet is a good thing. They remind me of those students who think they have a right to know the class average every time I hand back an assignment. The ones who narrow their eyes suspiciously when I say no. And I say no because spending time around young people has taught me that a bit of artful discretion, appropriately managed, can go a long way toward not destroying their spirits.

What I fear is that the radical transparentists aren’t seeing the therapeutic side of this kind of dishonesty. They don’t understand that full transparency could lead to the elimination of emotional bolt-holes, and, as a consequence, opportunities to save face might be eliminated too. And not all individuals are up to that. Think of Jacintha Saldanha, the British nurse pranked by the two Australian radio hosts pretending to be the royal family. What they thought was harmless fun ended in tragedy and The-Net-Delusion-How-Not-to-that was because the scale of Saldanha’s very public humiliation was unsustainable for her.

This tells us transparency isn’t a simple issue and it’s easy to march, blindly, into the land of unintended consequences. Saldanha’s experience is a cautionary tale — it warns us that we may end up being victims too.

I’m not sure what the answers are when it comes to the online transparency/privacy debate, and I suspect we’re in for a muddled few years before any solutions become clear. Partially it’s because our thinking about these issues needs to catch up to the technology. However, we can start the process by trying to understand the full implications of transparency; that starts when we take an honest look at how it would work in our own lives.


 niiiii (2)Author’s bio: Irene Ogrizek teaches English at Dawson College in Montreal, Canada. Previous to that, she was cross-appointed in both English and Humanities at Vanier College, also in Montreal. In her 20s, she worked as a flight attendant, both in Canada and abroad, spending two years living and working in countries in the Persian Gulf. Later, she worked on contract for both the Canadian Environmental Law Association and The International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (led by Ed Broadbent). 

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Mock Heroism and the Theatre of Cunning

In this article, I take a look at heroism using recent events in Canadian healthcare and the IT world. More specifically, I write about my hospital experience, Aaron Swartz’s suicide and Hamed Al-Khabaz’ expulsion from Dawson College, in Montreal. All thoughts here are my own.

In Timothy Findley’s novel The Wars, a young officer, Robert Ross, defies orders and releases horses and mules confined in a barn. It is WW1 and he is in France and being shelled by Germans. Releasing the animals is a way of saving them — the barn is an obvious target for enemy gunners.

Ross is with the CFA – the Canadian Field Artillery – and it’s his love of animals and justice that motivates him. It’s also his last act before deserting. Afterwards, he tears the lapels from his uniform and goes AWOL.

Days later Ross walks along train tracks and discovers a lone mare and her companion, a mixed-breed dog. When they lead him to a convoy of boxcars carrying horses bound for the front, Ross releases them too and travels north, leading them all to safety. When he passes a military encampment and a private tries to stop him, Ross shoots him in the face. He is not court-martialled, however. In the following standoff, he sustains burns so serious he is deemed unfit to be tried. He dies six years later, in England, of complications from those injuries. Having brought shame on his wealthy Toronto family, none save his father will ever visit his grave.

The point of The Wars, of course, is to assert that Ross’ actions were heroic in context. His liberation of the horses is cast against the shadowy psychopathy of WW1, a psychopathy so hideous it kept high-ranking military men from touring the front. Had they done so, the carnage of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele might not have materialized. More soldiers, from all forces involved, might have made it home.

tumblr_lsprl9gT4a1qeljaho1_250I taught Findley’s novel for many years and the poignancy of its message was rarely lost on my students. Its depictions of war are rendered through the voice of a historian calmly sifting through documentary evidence. Via transcripts, interviews and photographs, Findley’s characters come to life and we see that war’s damage, its pathology and momentum.  

I’m writing about The Wars because it seems conventional ideas about heroism are atomizing before our eyes. A broader and more relativistic way of seeing things, perhaps brought on by the pervasive use of the internet, is transporting us to a world where the villians are everywhere and they’re usually in charge. It’s created some odd bedfellows and even odder instances of cross-pollination. The Arab Spring, a political uprising with some very discernible causes, was “replicated” in Quebec by the Maple Spring, a student uprising that had a lot of us here scratching our heads. Having lived and traveled extensively throughout the middle east, I was puzzled by the students’ adoption of a name whose power was clear but whose basis for comparison was wildly inaccurate. Events like these leave a lot of us asking: who are the real heroes?

It’s my contention that literature can provide us with compelling exemplars and that fictionalized heroism, in particular, has much to teach us: its portrayals reflect paradigms of courage culled from history and give us enough flesh to hang on that bone. In novels like Findley’s we see heroism, in all its disturbing and glorious detail, laid painstakingly bare.

Another theorist interested in heroism, Margaret Heffernan, has written about a different breed of hero, the whistle-blower. In her latest book, Willful Blindness, she describes qualities she feels distinguishes them from others. Here is a summary of her findings:

  • – they seem to see things others can’t see
  • – they are curious and resourceful
  • – they are obsessive truth seekers
  • – they are often considered psychologically unstable
  • – they are optimists
  • – they are not innate rebels
  • – they believe truth will prevail

Most of Heffernan’s attributes don’t surprise. That most whistle-blowers are detail oriented, deeply engaged, and bring unique perspectives to problems is obvious. But two of her attributes stand out. The first is the common misconception that these individuals are psychologically unstable; the second is that they are not innate rebels.

The first of the two is important because feelings of instability are often what come of the cognitive dissonances whistle-blowers experience on an ongoing basis. For myself, I know there is a brief window of time, a blank nothingness like a broadcaster’s 7-second delay, that transpires before I realize a situation doesn’t make sense. Like many women, I often attribute that dead air to the perception that I’m unable to synthesize information quickly. However, I’ve learned that blaming myself usually isn’t fair. Given time to put my confusion in context, I can usually clarify who or what is wrong.

images (10)The second outstanding attribute — that whistle-blowers are not innately rebellious — also got my attention. It’s because I’m thinking of my struggles with the Canadian healthcare system and how unprepared I was. That lack of preparedness led me to become involved in the fight against institutional elder abuse, and that has put me in the company of activists of all stripes. It seems to me there is a divide among them and this observation of Heffernan’s comes close to defining it. Some activists come across as professional rebels, people who like a fight better than a cause.

To put this in context, I was like most Canadians before my mother became ill. I took the quality of our nation’s healthcare system for granted; I believed my mother would be treated fairly and that her carers would be professional and honest. The system’s failure to live up to those widely-held expectations wasn’t something I, or my fellow travellers in this fight, saw coming. Consequently, many of us felt conscripted into battles we weren’t ready for. That doesn’t make us any less committed; in fact, that ordering of events — our loved ones suffered and we decided to take up the larger cause — is a bit like Cinderella’s slipper. It identifies us as genuine: I see other outraged relatives speaking up and I know we’re in it for the right reasons.

So when it comes to activism, are there wrong reasons for getting involved?  I would say yes and that’s when definitions of heroism become useful.

storm_cloudsOne by-product of being pitched into a mighty battle is that one develops a heightened sense of vigilance. My trust in my government was shaken and it naturally followed that my ability to trust, in a general sense, was shaken too. So when an ominous thought appeared on my mental horizon, two things happened: a) I accepted it because I had become willing to; and b) I was too battle-fatigued to fight it.

And here is that thought: some individuals who lay claim to heroism actually create the conditions for it. For example, one of the primary physicians overseeing my mother’s care kept putting her off: he and his staff cancelled and then delayed appointments, lied to my family about having notified us and, generally, gave me and others involved in her care the impression that her condition didn’t merit a quick intervention. All of this served to create a disastrous delay that saw her admitted to hospital in inordinate pain with an infection that had run an almost fatal course. She survived, but not until after she’d suffered a stroke, a stroke likely caused by the blood clots that were running unchecked throughout her bloodstream.

When this physician did get around to saving her, he wasted no time describing his heroic actions to me. He arrogantly claimed that he, and he alone, had saved my mother. For someone in my position, the requisite response to a declaration like this — correct or not — is gratitude. I did thank him, but that 7-second delay, that dead air that signaled to me something was awry, made its presence felt in my consciousness. So the bubble over my head, after the delay passed, had these words written in it: “But you created the problem in the first place.” I knew better than to voice my thoughts, however. I’d seen that speaking up, in that hospital anyway, could be dangerous.

Mock heroism appears in other forms. Dawson College, where I teach, recently came under fire from web enthusiasts because of the expulsion of a 22 year-old computer science student, Hamed Al-Khabaz. Al-Khabaz discovered a security flaw in the college’s Omnivox system — where grades are stored — and reported it to the college who duly reported it to Skytech, the company that owns it. The college was initially grateful to Al-Khabaz, but unfortunately his curiosity didn’t stop there. He kept checking to see if the problem had been fixed and was finally given cease and desist orders, twice, to stop.

PAD1671The college issued these orders because while Skytech was busy trying to fix the system, Al-Khabaz kept breaking into it. In an ironic twist largely ignored by his supporters, Al-Khabaz’ signing of a non-disclosure agreement became known once he went to the media. That agreement, reached jointly in order to contain the breach, was wrongly cast in a sinister light and some journalists used it to portray Al-Khabaz as the hero, as the little guy who was being silenced and victimized by the menacing wrath of an evil institution.

I saw things differently and here’s how: Imagine you are working on your computer. A colleague walks past, notices a problem and suggests you fix it. You try, but your computer isn’t cooperating and your anxiety level is rising. Then, every five minutes, your colleague asks you if you’ve fixed it. You finally ask him to stop, not once but twice, because his interference isn’t helping. When you do solve the problem, your colleague takes the credit for spotting it, tells everyone you took forever to fix it and then manages to fit in a comment about how ungrateful you are.

Al-Khabaz’ supporters will hate to hear this, but that’s not heroic, it’s annoying. But to give him credit, his timing was canny: he was riding on the wave of anti-institutional feeling triggered by the suicide of American web activist Aaron Swartz.

This brings me to my last point: a lack of perspective when it comes to heroism can be dangerous.

Justin Peters wrote a tribute to Swartz in Slate and in it he made Swartz’ iconoclastic nature clear. A gifted learner, Swartz quit high school at 14 and went on to collaborate with others in developing a version of the RSS feed — the Real Simple Syndication — that allows individuals to be fed articles from their favourite websites. Ten years later, Swartz got into legal trouble when he planted a laptop inside an MIT computer closet and downloaded a substantial portion of JSTOR’s documents. When he went to retrieve the laptop, police arrested him.

jstor_logo_large_verge_medium_landscapeJSTOR is a non-profit organization that indexes and stores journals electronically, primarily for universities and libraries. The cost of subscription is significantly lower than other journal indexing and storage services (referred to as “aggregators”) and that’s because JSTOR hosts mainly archival rather than current content. Two of its main rivals, for example, are privately held, for-profit companies with subscription fees several times that of JSTOR’s. An institution like MIT would undoubtedly host them too.

And so this begs the question: why did Swartz break into JSTOR if, as he said, he believed information should be free? I’m making this observation because of all the indexing and storage services out there, JSTOR’s mission seems most in line with his thinking. It is non-profit, affordable and its access criteria are among the most liberal — they only cover their costs with their subscription fees. This means many institutions, like small libraries, can afford it. So the question is, why did Swartz risk so much to steal from an organization that was relatively inoffensive by his own standards?

We’ll never know the answer, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Swartz, like that arrogant doctor and Hamed Al-Khabaz, was caught up in a hero template of his own making. He pitched his actions against a heroic backdrop but didn’t take into account the inconsequentiality of what he was actually achieving. Did this finally occur to him? That JSTOR was not the bad guy and that a conflict had been created over a situation that barely merited it?

A lot has been said about prosecutorial zealousness, but if the death threats Dawson administrators received are any indication, a respect for the law is something supporters of Swartz and Al-Khabaz don’t seem particularly interested in — a fact some lawmakers might feel determined to change and to change for the public good. Ask the thousands of people who have had their identities, or even just their credit card numbers, stolen online. Making a decision to work with institutions instead of against them might have helped. Even Justin Peters notes that:

This was the beginning of a lifelong pattern of impatience with unpleasant situations. Instead of trying to adapt to what he believed were rigid, broken institutions, Swartz would try to make those institutions adapt to him. And if they didn’t change, he would leave.

WW1soldiersSwartz was obviously brilliant, but he was also young. It’s also clear he was on a mission and saw himself as a liberator of information. But unlike Robert Ross in The Wars, Swartz’ act of civil disobedience doesn’t seem to have taken place in the context of genuine suffering. Instead, he acted on ideological grounds when his ideology, unfortunately, didn’t appear to come from a place of profound understanding. If it had, he might have chosen differently. He might have chosen to fight the battle on terms more amenable to everyone and targeted more appropriate “offenders.” He might not have painted himself into a corner by breaking the law; he might not have felt the need to end his life when the consequences, like so many harpies, came clamouring for him. These facts don’t just make his suicide tragic, they make it terribly so. His cause, the one he apparently died for, seems sadly flimsier than it ought to be.

It sounds trite, but a deeper understanding of how the world actually works might have helped Swartz and in fact might have helped all the men I’ve described here. A better understanding of behavioural templates, often derived from cultural archetypes and expressed in literature, might have helped them understand the transparency of their motives and the narcissistic aspect of their actions. They may have come to understand that we often play out our deepest needs in theatres of our own making and that even the most convincing altruism can disguise a profound yearning for acclaim. Our needs can be quite cunning in that regard and it is the job of maturity to bring us into closer contact with our souls, to give us the self-knowledge to deliver us from a life lived in the confines of less mature, less liberated versions of ourselves.

A line from a Margaret Atwood poem springs to mind. Her Helen of Troy tells us, “There’s nothing more opaque than complete transparency.” That’s a rather poetic way of telling us we’re all vulnerable to deception. I could have been fooled by my mother’s physician, I could have joined him in his belief he’d acted the hero, but an innate need to locate the truth wouldn’t let me. Throughout Atwood’s poem, Helen’s narrative makes the necessity of this diligence clear: her jaded voice warns us of the dangers of being dazzled by beauty, of failing to listen, and of making that fateful choice to see only what we want to see.

I included Heffernan’s thoughts on heroism because I have found them helpful. My experience with Canada’s healthcare system threw me into conflicts that tested my stamina and my spirit: like her whistle-blowers, I was truly a reluctant activist. However, spending time around other activists, particularly those interested in spreading democracy, has sensitized me to the nuances of activism generally. It’s been fascinating but difficult and my left of center politics have been sorely challenged at times. There’s an unspoken rule that leftists don’t criticize other leftists, but the gratuitous violence of the student uprising in Montreal and the willingness of some activists to break the law first and justify later, is troubling. That democracy is built on the idea of respect, and some activists aren’t willing to abide by that, is troubling too. The end result is a kind of stage heroism, a heroism that is too calculated, too self-referencing and too cold-blooded to come from the heart.

 niiiii (2)Author’s bio: Irene Ogrizek teaches English at Dawson College in Montreal, Canada. Previous to that, she was cross-appointed in both English and Humanities at Vanier College, also in Montreal. In her 20s, she worked as a flight attendant, both in Canada and abroad, spending two years living and working in countries in the Persian Gulf. Later, she worked on contract for both the Canadian Environmental Law Association and The International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (led by Ed Broadbent). 

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The Perils of Perfectionism Part 3: Sonnets 30 and 116

To Students: Queen Elizabeth 1st and Kate Chopin appear half-way through this article.

Sonnet 116:

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the untimely death of Shyria Shah, the Nepali-Canadian woman who died descending Mount Everest. In Part 2, I posted a video of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the body-builder turned politician. He disparaged poetry in a speech inaugurating his think tank at the University of Southern California.

In this, Part 3, I’d like to take an applied approach to poetry. I’m going to look at Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 and Sonnet 116 and illustrate why they are useful prompts for self-reflection. In keeping with the larger theme of this series, I’m also going to show how poetry can help us understand why some individuals pursue excellence to the point where it becomes life-threatening.

Here’s Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove;
O no! It is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Shyria Shah-Klorfine
Shyria Shah-Klorfine: to read more click here. 

This sonnet begins with a phrase reminiscent of marriage vows: Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments. Much has been made of this line, particularly in discussions about Shakespeare’s sexuality. While this may be a call to arms in support of same-sex unions, I think it equally possible that Shakespeare was making an argument for more openness in relationships generally, urging fellow Elizabethans of all classes to mingle. The marriage of true minds then, would be the only criterion that mattered: as long as lovers felt they’d found their soulmates, onlookers would not be allowed to admit impediments, would not be allowed to stand in the way.

The patrician tone of the sonnet is established at the beginning and what follows is a measured and formal dissertation on what love is and is not:

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove;

Shakespeare is saying here that genuine love does not change when a partner changes. The most obvious changes occur when a partner becomes ill or ages. Of course other things can happen. Lives get complicated; one partner can leave, can fall in love with someone else.

However, the constancy of the love Shakespeare describes in 116 is a lofty ideal untouched by predation or possession: it’s the kind of love couples strive for in intimate relationships; nevertheless, few, as we all know, actually achieve it.

In the next line, he speaks of a remover, a remover who has proved a puckish character over the centuries: he, she or it resists easy definition, refuses to be pinned down. However, I believe this cosmic being, endowed with the capacity to remove things — like bad habits or thoughts perhaps — is surely an expression of Shakespeare’s concept of God.

Shakespeare was Catholic at a time when being one wasn’t advisable and talking about an almighty of any sort was dangerous. By the time he was a young man, for example, priests had gone into hiding, Catholic churches had been stripped of their relics, and beautiful frescoes and murals, depicting biblical stories favoured by Catholics, had been painted over. This all happened so that a newer and simpler religion, one that allowed divorce, could be ushered in by Elizabeth’s father, Henry the 8th.

The Bard
The Bard: To read more about Sonnet 30, click here. 

This was a religion the intellectually gifted Elizabeth saw fit to protect in ways both rational and violent, a fact that Shakespeare, with his own gifted view of the world, would have experienced directly. So this remover character — that being without a source — represents a generic deity individuals could call upon when a partner or child was in need of edification of the behavioural sort. Taking this idea even further, we can reasonably argue that the remover is religion itself, especially religion used in the service of bending another to our will.

Other writers have written about the same oppressions. Kate Chopin, in her oft-anthologized “Story of an Hour,” perhaps says it best:

There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.

Louise, the “her” in this excerpt, has just been liberated from marriage by the death of her apparently kind husband. She dies, however, when she realizes this information is wrong. He walks through the door; she expires. In accordance with the Victorian values of Chopin’s time, Louise’s death is put down to the shock, to the “joy that kills.” Only we, the readers, know that this interpretation of events is perversely and (almost) comically wrong. Louise’s freedom has been cruelly taken from her — in the space of an hour — and that is the real cause of her demise.

So why am I discussing cosmic characters and untimely deaths? It’s because both Shakespeare and Chopin are writing against what each saw as the tyranny of social control. They are positing arguments for individual freedom and against social conformity, whether that conformity is enforced via religion or cultural value systems. What they are really doing, I believe, is urging us to know ourselves and to use self-knowledge to love ourselves. Shakespeare’s reference to true minds, minds enriched by self-knowledge, makes this clear.

And this is where I return to the subject of Mount Everest and that extreme sport of competitive body building, a sport that kick-started Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career.

I wonder if Shyria Shah had a concept of self-love that didn’t include the necessity of conquering Mount Everest. I wonder if the woman in this picture, her jaw squared by steroids, has a concept of self-love that doesn’t involve taking harmful drugs and distorting her body. I wonder where these women got their oversized ideas about perfection; when and how they came to believe that risks to their health were less important than achieving their physical ideals.

This is going to sound unbelievable to the Schwarzeneggers and Everest-climbers of this world, but studying Shakespeare might help. Reading sonnets about despair — one driving force behind the quest for perfection — might help women like Shah and this body-builder understand that accomplishments like the ones they’re after often aren’t enough to banish self-doubt. It might help them to understand that despair is an aspect of life better experienced than driven underground, better experienced than hidden beneath layers of down-filled clothing or grotesquely developed muscle.

Sonnet 30:

Here’s a sonnet about despair:

Kate Chopin: To read more about Chopin, click here. 

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Here is a narrator enumerating his miseries: He doesn’t have all the material things he wants, he’s unhappy because he’s wasted time on useless pursuits, he has friends and lovers he misses because they’ve died. Worst of all, he’s feeling these losses as if they’ve just happened. What pulls him out of his despair? But if the while I think on thee, dear friend / All losses are restored and sorrows end. He’s not thinking about climbing Mount Everest; he’s not thinking about bulking up; he’s thinking about a friend he loves.

It’s this reflective action of thinking our grief through, of accepting life as it is, that is expressed so unsparingly and lyrically here. This is what poetry does: it explains our lives to us in ways our mothers, our friends, self-help books and visits to the gym just cannot. It lets us know others have felt what we’ve felt and it tells us this in the most beautiful and moving ways possible. It fills the crevices between big ideas and hovers over nuances too subtle to be discovered on a therapist’s couch. And it does all these things without the saccharine excesses of a Hollywood movie or the mind-numbing lyrics of a J-Lo song.


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