MOOCs: the Personal and Political

I currently have articles on two other sites and am putting the links here. A personal essay, “MOOCs, Mom and Me,” appears on HEDDA, an online journal based in Oslo, and it begins here:

To manage cravings, recovering alcoholics are often told to “play the tape to the end.” It’s an exhortation to consider the entire experience, consequences included, of starting at one drink and ending at twenty. That’s good advice for those of us who aren’t addicted too: when possible, thinking a process through to its natural outcome is useful. MOOC enthusiasts, I suspect, are not playing the tape to the end, creating a worrisome disconnect between shortfalls in students’ educations and in the cost this can have for the rest of us.

In 2008, I had the edifying experience of helping my mother survive a stroke. In the same week, she had her non-paralysed leg amputated. She went from being an active 77 year-old—who swam at the Y six days a week—to a person with only one functioning arm. I teach English literature and knew very little about health care.

She lived far away and since I was her primary caregiver, I wanted to bring her closer. However, there were long waits for nursing homes in my province, and so in the interim, she moved in with me. For 20 months, I climbed a steep curve, learning to nurse a very sick and disabled persoon.

To continue, please go to the paragraph starting with “While caring for my mother…” @ Heddapiece


“MOOCs undermine the public higher education sector” from the University World News begins here:

small_logo_biggerNothing about our current Industrial Age education system, with its silo’d knowledge and emphasis on professionalism, is designed for adaptation to rapid change, interactive thinking, iterative process, or collaborative methodologies, all informed by deeply humanistic and social attention to such major issues as intellectual property, security, privacy, freedom, and even the definition of the “self.” Everyday life and everyday work brings most of us into constant contact with these issues. And education? Hardly at all.

This is our current and sorry state of education according to Cathy N. Davidson, Professor of English and Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. She makes these assertions in an article intended to calm the storm swirling around MOOCs and the threat they pose to universities.

I’ve been following the MOOC hype and the most provocative information is coming from individuals and corporations invested disruptive innovation. In education, the term describes technology that’s shifting boundaries around various disciplines and epistemologies, creating new organizing principles and shaking up the traditional academy as we know it. Supporters like Davidson claim that MOOCs will redefine education and challenge long-held ideas about learning. The sage-on-the-stage will be replaced by the guide-on-the-side; professors at elite universities will be superstars in the system while the rest of us will become handmaidens of an academic process no longer conducted in real classrooms.

To continue, please go to the paragraph starting with “According to Robert Meister…” @

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). Photographs local to Montreal were taken by Irene. 



Daphne Koller and the Problem with Coursera

Coursera is a for-profit company that has joined with top universities to deliver free online courses. The “free” part sounds good until we realize the real intent of companies like Coursera is to transition into producing monetized, for-credit university courses. To many academics this represents a conflict of interest that compromises the integrity of higher education institutions. I agree and here’s why:

Guardian columnist George Monbiot made a recent observation that got my attention.

In 1927 the French philosopher Julien Benda published a piercing attack on the intellectuals of his day. They should he argued in La Trahison des Clercs (the treason of the scholars) act as a check on popular passions. Civilization, he claimed, is possible only if intellectuals stand in opposition to the demands of political “realism” by upholding universal principles. ‘Thanks to the scholars,” Benda maintained, “humanity did evil for two thousand years, but honoured good.” Europe might have been lying in the gutter, but it was looking at the stars.

Monbiot’s article focuses on inappropriate collaborations between oil companies and academics like the University of Alberta’s David Lynch. Lynch, U of A’s Dean of Engineering, appears in advertisements supporting the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an association whose raison d’etre is to promote Canada’s controversial Oil Sands project.

The corporate world has other tentacles in education, and the portal that’s granting them the most access these days is technology. In Benda’s terms, the current “realism” being foisted on academics is the idea that online distance-learning, in the form of massive online open courses (MOOCs), must be implemented to save cash-strapped institutions. The idea is being flogged by corporations looking to expand their markets and has found support among co-opted academics willing to help them. These are academics, like Lynch, who have made Faustian bargains in return for the glory of heading institutions operating in the black.

The latest edict comes to us courtesy of Don Nutbeam, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton. Apparently we higher ed types “must embrace the massive open online course movement and adapt [our] teaching methods or face a tough future.” Threats like this have become the trope à la mode when it comes to hectoring academics who don’t believe online teaching can replace the real thing.

George Monbiot
George Monbiot

MOOCs for credit are a bad idea, but there’s a reason why their supporters are gaining ground. It’s the relationship between income inequality and dropping levels of disposable income, coloured by a profound fear the populations of many countries have when it comes to the future. It’s this fear that has young people seeking higher education in ever-increasing numbers and, in many western countries, has older learners flocking to night and weekend continuing ed courses. Most of these post-graduates are work-weary folks who are doing everything they can to stay gainfully employed.

The incursion of the corporate world into education makes sense when we consider that declining disposable incomes are depriving businesses of the spenders they need to stay profitable. If people aren’t buying the goods and services that keep economies afloat then how can corporations survive? One answer is to capitalize on the fear that’s out there and to invest in markets, like education, that will yield a profit. Higher education is a sure thing, a commodity frightened people will always pay for.

One of the prime advocates of MOOCs is Daphne Koller of Stanford University. In a TED talk that has had over a million views, Koller’s address to the well-heeled Tedsters in her audience is at once compelling and implausible. It’s a narrative that has all the right motifs, but lacks the depth of analysis that would also make it true. Coming from one of Stanford’s finest, it would, under normal circumstances, be an irritating disappointment. However, the fact that Koller is being taken seriously makes it less irritating and more alarming. It speaks to the gullibility of monied technocrats who believe they can change the world, and to the desperation of lesser mortals eager to stave off a decline in their living standards.

(To see my other articles about problematic TED talks click here  and here.)

Koller’s video is powerful because she uses manipulative strategies to convince us she’s right. One of the first images she presents us with is that of a bloody crowd outside of the gates of the University of Johannesburg. It depicts the aftermath of an open registration day in 2012, when hopeful applicants rushed the gates and caused a stampede that left one woman dead. Koller states: “She was a mother who gave her life trying to get her son a chance at a better life.”

Daphne Koller
Daphne Koller

The reality of higher education in South Africa is more complex than this tragedy would suggest. While access to universities is a problem, low graduation rates for high school students are far more troubling. Education specialists Rolf Stumpf and Gustav Niebuhr report that:

Improving learner success and throughput in secondary schools is one of South Africa’s most challenging priorities. Most South African learners successfully complete Grade 9 and look to the National Senior Certificate (an equalivent to the GED) as a form of access to higher education.

Furthermore, when it comes to low graduation rates, they believe:

Another reason for drop out after Grade 9 could be that the requirements of general education do not suit many senior secondary learners. Would they cope better in vocationally-oriented education? If so, how can Grade 9 learners make better choices about which learning path to follow when South Africa’s schooling system lacks a diversity of appropriate and socially acceptable education pathways after Grade 9?

The problem they pinpoint is not a lack of university places, as Koller suggests, but low graduation rates combined with limited options when it comes to education pathways. Although it’s true blacks were kept out of most universities during Apartheid, that era’s legacy has created a third pernicious problem: technical and vocational skills development (TVSD), which has always been accessible, has been stigmatized in ways that reflect historical racial tensions. The lingering effects of TVSD’s perceived inferiority, of its being a less desirable education pathway, has left South Africa with two very serious problems: a high youth unemployment rate and a critical shortage of workers equipped with technical and vocational skills.

So rather than opening more seats at universities, it’s this misperception the government is desperately trying to rectify. Scott Baldouf, reporting on the stampede for the Christian Science Monitor, took a more balanced view of events. He observed that: “South Africa’s universities have an estimated 150,000 seats; but 330,000 prospective students have already applied. Less prestigious vocational schools, meanwhile, have seats that go unfilled.”

Another powerful image Koller presents us with is that of Ryan, a young man who was housebound because his immune-compromised daughter couldn’t be exposed to incoming germs.

South African Stampede
South African Stampede

…recently we’ve been in correspondence with Ryan [and] his story has a happy ending. Baby Shannon – you can see her on the left – is doing much better now, and Ryan got a job by taking some of our courses.

I’m assuming the education Ryan had before he signed up with Coursera helped too, but that information doesn’t quite fit the topography Koller is trying to create here. He’s mentioned alongside a briefly flashed image of an attractive blonde woman, Jenny, a single mother of two who wants to “hone her skills so that she can go back and complete her master’s degree.”

What’s irritating about these psuedo-testimonials is that they are obviously contrived. Koller’s vocal delivery is oddly modulated and arrhythmic, suggesting a memorized speech and not a natural delivery. Given her corporate backers – those venture capitalists who have access to PR and advertising firms – it’s likely her array of vignettes has been vetted by focus groups who, like the analytics she also refers to, had a hand in deciding which sub-narratives carried the most emotional power. What we are seeing is a carefully calibrated infomercial, one that has been created to push all the right buttons. Who is against helping the disadvantaged in Africa? Who would deny a young father with an ailing daughter a chance to improve both their lives? Who doesn’t want single mothers to succeed? Anyone who speaks against Coursera, Koller’s video seems to be saying, is likely an educated and condescending elitist who, owing to innate snobbery, is against helping the worthy and disadvantaged among us.

So here’s my answer to Koller’s use of sick and single-parented children in her video. Imagine you are the mother or father of an eight-month old baby. You need a baby-sitter and all things being equal, you are given a choice between two 17-year-olds living in your neighbourhood. One has completed a 45 hour baby-sitting course at the local YMCA while the other has completed the same course online. The first has had the benefit of changing a real baby and of being taught vital procedures, like the Heimlich manoeuvre and some low-level diagnostics, in person. The second has been given the same information, albeit via her computer. Who would you want looking after your child?

Koller also believes that when it comes to learning,

David Lynch
David Lynch

…mastery is easy to achieve using a computer because a computer doesn’t get tired of showing you the same video five times and it doesn’t even get tired of grading the same work multiple times…and even personalization is something that we’re starting to see the beginnings of, whether it’s via the personalized trajectory through the curriculum or some of the personalized feedback that we’ve shown you.

The term “personalized trajectories” sounds promising, but it can mean a lot of things: it can mean it took Student A twenty to thirty views of a video – let’s say one produced by the Khan Academy – to successfully complete a math or physics-based problem. And that raises some questions: at what point did this student stop learning and start memorizing the correct information? And would a platform like Coursera reveal that Student A often needed that much help? If Student A graduated from an online commerce program, would you knowingly hire him to work in your firm?

Other personalized trajectories, applied to a skill like driving, can be informative. What if it takes Student B one attempt to get her driver’s licence and it takes Student C six? Student C can be applauded for her spiritedness and tenacity, but imagine she’s a helpful neighbour offering to drive your children to school. What then?

Distracted dangerous drivingTiming and testing are vital components of learning: they determine mastery in ways that create safe and productive pathways towards achievement or higher levels of learning. On a personal level, they help us find our natural aptitudes. Knowing that Student C needed six turns at a driving test is the kind of helpful information that could be reflected on a transcript. It’s important because that knowledge allows us to make informed decisions that may affect the health and safety of both ourselves and others. If online learners are able to repeat tasks infinitely, that open-ended process in and of itself can obscure vital information. I personally wouldn’t trust my savings with Student A I described above, but with Koller’s system, how would I know not to? This student may have graduated with an impressive GPA, but it may also have taken him 160 tries, as opposed to an average of 70, to complete a series of auto-correcting exams. That makes the validity of his accomplishments questionable, but will Coursera, a for-profit company that needs to attract students, be inclined to share that information with me?

And given that for-profit status, Koller’s suggested use of analytic data produced by students is also worth noting. She says we can use it to “understand fundamental questions like, what are good learning strategies that are effective versus ones that are not.” We can also use the data to monitor student frustration and create easier pathways for difficult problems; this will have a bearing on MOOCs if and when they become for-credit courses. For example, if incoming analytics show that one particular lesson is causing students a lot of grief, the professor can tweak it to make it easier. The motivation for doing so is obvious: when education becomes a product, it must satisfy the demands of the market to be successful. So the incentive to ease students’ frustration and to dumb down course content becomes even more pressing.

combined-testing-analysisSimply put: a course that is too difficult may not be pleasing and if it isn’t pleasing, it won’t sell. Packing difficult concepts into small and marketable “bundles” — Koller’s choice of term – might make that information easier to digest, but it also increases the likelihood we’ll be producing weaker thinkers who are degreed but under-educated. The market value for what they’ve accomplished, it naturally follows, will be diminished.

Koller is using loaded examples – desperate African students, a sick baby and a single mother – to sell Coursera on humanitarian grounds. However, if I could easily find the back story of the stampede at Johannesburg, I’m assuming Koller could too. My question then becomes why didn’t she? A simple google search — “stampede,” “South Africa” and “education” — turns up information that reveals the entire story of what is happening there. So it appears her examples are for effect and if that’s the case, what are her real intentions?

Coursera is a for-profit entity. It, along with other for-profits, is being heralded as an example of corporate innovation that will bolster and transform the global education sector. But the bottom line is that Koller, her partner Andrew Ng, and their backers are in it to make money. Images of desperate South Africans might be useful for generating support, but eventually someone, most likely the South African government, will have to pay for the privilege of collaborating with Coursera. And the profits will go to shareholders and not back into an ailing system that can produce a stampede that can kill a mother who only wants what’s best for her son.

Venture capitalists are venture capitalists precisely because they know how to make money and that is who Koller is currently in bed with. The only question is not how Coursera will make money but when it will start doing so. Until Koller and others like her come clean about their real intentions, we too should keep our eyes on the bottom line.

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 in the airline industry, 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).

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:


Shakespeare on Addiction: Sonnet 129

Sonnet 129:

Something interesting happens every time I teach Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. I’m reasonably certain the term sex addiction didn’t exist in his day – and neither did 12 step groups for it, with Elizabethans turning up in their flamboyant garb – but that doesn’t mean that the problem, and its attendant degradations, didn’t exist. Just ask Shakespeare about his Dark Lady.*

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

A few years ago, I came across an hour-long documentary made about Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside. The area has been ravaged by an influx of drugs and its victims, earning it a reputation for being something of an elephants’ graveyard: it’s where addicts go to die. The film was called Through a Blue Lens and was shot, mostly, by two beat cops who wanted to portray the lives of the addicts living there. It’s not a warm and fuzzy film about drug addiction, but it’s not condemnatory either. Here’s an excerpt:

The plight of those living in that part of Vancouver became a minor cause célèbre in 1999, in part because The Globe and Mail published a photo essay of its denizens that left a lot of Canadians gasping. It made us aware, in a none-too-gentle way, that we had inner city problems just as bad as some cities south of the border. Vancouver’s port is a gateway for the drug trade and it seems at least some of these drugs don’t travel far: they form the lifeblood of those immiserated souls living in the downtown area.

So why look at Canada’s Skid Row when we’re talking about Shakespeare? It’s because his definition of addiction is one of the best I’ve ever read. It’s relevant today and that’s because when addicts talk about their addictions they report having the same feelings and experiences described by Shakespeare. Those haunting sounds of agony — the addict’s anguish — are distilled, painfully and thoroughly, in this poem.

It begins:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Shakespeare believes we forfeit our spirit – our soul – when we engage in addictive behaviour. The expense, or the price of the addiction, is paid with it. Waste here is used literally (implying that lives are wasted by addiction) and also symbolically to denote a place. This double meaning is made obvious by the use of the preposition in, as “in” a waste of shame. Waste as a place bookends neatly with that other inferno, hell, mentioned in the closing couplet.

Lust is Shakespeare’s drug of choice and the belief is that it was aimed at the infamous Dark Lady, that promiscuous creature that had Shakespeare, and others, utterly intoxicated.

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust

What are the signs of Shakespeare’s enslavement? The form of a sonnet is strictly prescribed: it is made up of three quatrains — three groups of four lines — and a closing couplet. The rhyme scheme tends to alternate lines, meaning the first line rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth, etc. The lines are usually made up of phrases that go towards forming sentences. However, in this quatrain, the last half is simply a list of adjectives or adjective phrases, enumerating Shakespeare’s agonies. And these agonies are stated strongly, with words like murderous, bloody, savage and extreme.

This is a man in the throes of an obsession, an obsession that won’t even allow him to form coherent thoughts; instead he spits out a list of adjectives to convey his feelings. Shakespeare the wordsmith created this list for a reason. It’s there to denote a burst of feeling that can’t be contained.

But does this fury of Shakespeare’s capture the state of those sad and emaciated souls wandering the downtown eastside? I would argue it does and the key word here is shame. Ask any active addict how they feel about their life and you are bound to discover, underneath the anger and street braggadocio, a deep and murky well of it. That shame is what keeps them using; it’s what keeps them from wanting to feel.

After Shakespeare establishes his narrative voice, he turns to the cyclical nature of his malady. In the second quatrain, he states:

Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Here we see the structural and thematic rendering of the cycle of addiction. Let me translate: the addict no sooner enjoys (uses) his drug when he starts to despise its consequences straight (right away). However, beyond all reason he continues to hunt for it, and again, as soon as he consumes it, he hates it beyond all reason. Why?  Because he can’t stop. Shakespeare then expands the subtle animal imagery and lays blame on suppliers and enablers. His drug is like a trap laid on purpose and it makes him, the taker, mad. Mad here is being used in the British sense of the word, meaning insane.

It’s usually at this point in my class that I stop and ask students to think of an activity, any activity, they do to excess. Do they spend too much time online? Eat too much of the wrong kind of food? Text incessantly? And it’s also here that I tell them my own little story of addiction, the one that had me frequently rushing to my neighbourhood corner store, in Toronto, when I was a student.

I had an addiction and it was to Swedish berries, those soft red candies that taste heavenly but are of no nutritional value whatever. These darlings came in handy at midnight when I had an essay to finish and needed a sugar boost. However, the problem was that I didn’t know when to stop. The store sold them in bulk and I didn’t have the discipline to buy only a few. My reasoning, as I stood in front of that bin and ladled in scoop after scoop, was that I would save some for later.


So I would eat them until I felt sick and this process, over the last two years of my undergrad degree, repeated itself more times than I care to remember. But it was the sequence of events in the process that was important. I would come to the realization it was late. I knew I had to keep working but didn’t want coffee. Then I would think: Hey, Swedish berries! Great idea! And I would haul myself off to the store, come back and over-indulge. Only afterwards would I say to myself: “Did I really have to scarf down that whole bag?” Or: “Good idea? What was I thinking?”

So too goes the cycle of addiction: there is the chase, the consummation and the aftermath. In other words, the anticipation, the imbibing and the remorse. This cycle will be expanded upon in the next quatrain.

Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

The first quatrain establishes, through the use of enumeration, Shakespeare’s loss of control. The second establishes the cyclical nature of his addiction. This last is significant because it does not provide new information. However, it does repeat the three part cycle and repetition in Shakespeare is always significant: he uses it to let us know we need to pay attention. Here we are told, again and with more emphasis, that an addict is mad while chasing the drug and mad while consuming it. And of course it is that madness — that inability to reason — that starts the cycle all over again.

But take a look at the second line. Shakespeare reverses the order of the cycle: he starts with the aftermath: had, moves to the consummation: having, and then moves to the first stage of the cycle, the chase: in quest to have. He does this to create the impression of a back-and-forth motion: the addict moves forward and backward, forward and backward, ad infinitum. Why? Because that’s what happens when one becomes addicted: life stalls.

At the start of this article, I said something interesting happens every time I teach this sonnet. Here it is: after I read it out loud, I tell my students to look closely at the panhandlers, especially the young ones, when they pass through the Atwater metro, the metro that services Dawson College. I almost always get the same reaction: the class goes silent, the flow of air in the room stops, and these young people, with their futures ahead of them, pay closer attention. This suffering, rendered so poetically by Shakespeare, is only steps away.

And it happens elsewhere. When I drive home, I stop at a busy intersection leading onto the highway. That’s where I often see a young woman, her blonde hair in dreadlocks, holding up a sign asking for spare change. I always give her some and now she knows to come to me. If the traffic light permits, we may even exchange a few words.

I’ve been criticized for doing this — “she’ll just spend the money on drugs” is what I hear — but I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know how we can stop people from “committing suicide on the installment plan,” as a good friend of mine puts it.

Shakespeare didn’t know either, but luckily for us, that didn’t stop him from looking deeply into that darkness and writing about it anyway.

*I will be, for the sake of brevity and compression, be referring to the narrator as Shakespeare.

More literature? Read my article on Alice Munro here.