Jay Teitel’s firestorm of controversy, plus several online-only letters

Illustration by Raymond Verdaguer

Bonus Marks
Several times while reading Jay Teitel’s “Failure to Fail” (April), I felt like I was being personally addressed. I teach at a degree-granting post-secondary institution, and am appalled by the lack of basic writing skills and work ethic of many of my students. I often ask myself and my colleagues, “How can I, in good conscience, pass them?” Would I be doing them any favours? Would I be lowering the bar? Thankfully, there are always one or two brilliant minds in each class, and they keep me going. But I am usually stuck teaching to the lowest common denominator. What I would really like to know is how they got into college in the first place.

Marlene Hielema
Alberta College of Art and Design

The first day of undergrad physics at St. Francis Xavier University, 1971, there were sixty-five of us in the class. Three years later, fourteen guys had their engineering diplomas, and a year after that three of us had physics degrees. I was accepted into grad school at Queen’s but flunked out after two semesters. In fact, everyone flunked eventually. I don’t know what others were told, but my supervisor informed me that no one from St. FX had ever succeeded at Queen’s (in those days, people didn’t think much of a school at which a significant percentage of students were Capers). This was “You flunk, asshole.” I heard later that students revolted, but I never did get my degree there; nor did anyone from my cohort.

Thirty years later, I was teaching a sessional (non-faculty) course to senior engineering students at a certain East Coast university, and by the first mid-term half the class had failed. This was a design course, which in general means that if you make any effort at all you can’t flunk. I had students coming to me in tears. When I told them my twelve-year-old son could have passed the exam, these fifth-year students complained that the text was too difficult to read: it had equations! The head of the department took me out to lunch and explained that I couldn’t fail anyone, as it was too long a process, what with retests and so on. And he also gave me the strong impression that as a lowly sessional instructor I simply didn’t have the authority. I taught that class for five years. I have no idea if student appraisals had anything to do with my not being asked back, but they were most revealing: “Prof should assume we know nothing!” was my favourite.

Things have obviously changed immensely over the years. My father says that he was an adult at sixteen, I became a grown-up at twenty-one, and this crowd — including my father’s grandchildren — are still immature at thirty. They have been protected and spoiled and overindulged all their lives, and we still don’t understand what we’ve done to ruin them.

Bruce Parsons
Portugal Cove, NL

Failing to fail is hardly a new phenomenon. Back in 1985, one ne’er-do-well in my first year of fine arts at York University kept himself so busy doing whatever it was he did that he missed most of the lectures, along with the attendant work. That didn’t stop him from screaming bloody murder when his profs and some classmates suggested he did not belong at university and ought to leave. He argued that he was being sent off on account of his sexuality, his politics, and even his personality (he may have been on to something with that third point). This lout remained at York and later graduated. From the student body that rallied to his defence, to the professors who, like ostriches, hid their heads in the sand, to the senate appeals committee that capitulated to such conniving tactics, there was plenty of blame to go around.

This issue extends beyond post-secondary education. My own high school–aged children have yet to bring home a dud report card. They are at the heads of their classes — along with everyone else. As far as I can tell, nobody brings up the rear anymore. But it can be a competitive world out there, sugar-coat it (or bell-curve it) as we may. Learning that lesson before the score truly counts might be the best education a young person can buy. And hopefully, a lesson they will not fail to learn.

Michael Phillippo
Richmond Hill, ON

The Bum’s B.A. , Jay Teitel’s imagined television show, wherein the goal is to get through a year of university with the least amount of work, is a more accurate description of what I experienced at the University of Toronto in the early ’70s (around the same time Teitel was there) than anything I have seen since becoming a university teacher myself. While many of us were “live at home,” some did manage to rent rooms downtown, which became crash pads for the suburbanites. We’d land at 2 or 3 or 4 a.m. after long pub crawls (rent was expensive, but beer was cheap). I still remember my pleasant surprise at passing my first-year economics course after having skipped most of the classes because the 11 a.m. start time was too early.

I was less surprised, but also not particularly worried, at my tutorial leader’s recommendation that I “not continue in history,” the subject I now happen to teach. There is a long tradition of academia in my family, and I was always aware that my experience in the ’70s was very close to that of various great-uncles and great-aunts during the ’20s and ’30s. I recently learned that one of the most brilliant of my great uncles managed to do the four-year B.Sc. in a handy six years. He loved to party, but nevertheless became a research scientist in chemistry, first for the private sector and then for the federal government. Likewise, no one from my crowd flunked out. Some of my buds did drop out, but almost everyone went on to exceptional careers.

Against this background, what strikes me about my own students is their commitment and seriousness. When I lecture, the classroom is usually dead quiet, with very few of the whispered conversations and none of the guffawing that often interrupted the large undergrad lectures I attended thirty-five years ago. The students meet their deadlines, and on balance the work is very good. Comments about illiteracy among the computer generation are, in my experience, wildly overstated. Nevertheless, students do fail my courses. There are those who leave notes on exam papers — “Sorry Sir. Nothing to do with your teaching. I just couldn’t get it together this semester” — and others who simply do not submit assignments.

Where Teitel is most powerful is concerning the pressures on today’s students. In my day, very few had part-time jobs during the academic year, whereas a fair number of the undergraduates I teach have jobs that can demand up to forty hours a week. I make a point of not prying, but I hear enough to know that this is often the result of very limited family resources. There is also students’ gnawing worry about their prospects. I teach at a school in a region west of Toronto that is front and centre in the “new economy.” Every day, it seems there are stories in the press about new high-tech initiatives, but even more frequently there are heart-rending accounts of century-old industries closing their doors.

Roger Sarty
Wilfrid Laurier University
Waterloo, ON

Jay Teitel has clearly spent little time in a dean’s office. While the idea that universities are afraid to fail students attracts attention, the claim does not accord with student experience. Each semester, I receive agonizing letters from students (and often from their parents) asking the faculty to reconsider their dismissal. Many take full responsibility for their academic misfortunes, and, knowing only too well the result of failure, express their hope that the university’s remedial mechanisms will return them to academic success.

Students attending university these days face formidable challenges: high academic standards, tough competition, reduced supervision by teachers or parents, and the additional distractions of campus life. Almost 15 percent of the students at most Canadian universities can’t cope, and either drop out or fail. Certain universities make exceptional efforts to support and rehabilitate these students, because they are reluctant to abandon young people whose high school experience suggests that they should be able to complete an undergraduate degree.

“Failure to Fail” does highlight elements of the malaise that currently surrounds the Canadian post-secondary experience. Many students enter university with their focus more on careers than on learning opportunities. Their parents want the university to provide their child with a high-status qualification, but are quick to demand exemptions from institutional standards if their son or daughter stumbles badly along the way. Navigating a terrain shaped by the competing motivations, expectations, and aspirations of faculty, students, parents, and employers is difficult for all involved, but particularly so for young adults struggling to find their way in an un-certain world.

Ken Coates
Dean, Faculty of Arts
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, ON

I was taken aback by Jay Teitel’s “Failure to Fail,” which raised the unsupported and, frankly, rather absurd notion that McGill University would be delighted to have underachieving students take many years to complete their degrees simply because of the revenue they would generate. It is true that our funding is based largely on enrolment, but we have long lists of highly qualified applicants who compete for a limited number of places at McGill, so we do not face any shortage of excellent students.

Morton J. Mendelson
Deputy Provost, Student Life Learning
McGill University

* * *

Hillier than Hillier
In answer to Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang’s question “Who makes defence and foreign policy in this country?” (“Too Few Hilliers,” April): the prime minister and the chief of the defence staff — acting together, yet in accord with their separate responsibilities, based in law and custom — make defence policy, here defined as practical outcomes, not mere rhetorical statements. It’s an arrangement that has evolved over the past decade in response to a number of factors, not least of which is the war in Afghanistan. Governments simply cannot command or control armies without the cooperation of their generals, a fact that gives the senior officer corps a degree of influence over defence policy as well as operational matters.

Rick Hillier’s personality has nothing at all to do with civil-military relationships in Canada. As Stein and Lang note, “Hillier did exactly what a responsible military leader is supposed to do.” In this discussion, Hillier would be quick to acknowledge and praise the leadership of former cds General Ray Henault, who led the officer corps out of the confusions of Jean Chrétien’s and Paul Martin’s defence policies. It was Henault who instructed his senior officers to offer elected officials their unbridled professional advice without concern for partisan interests. And it was General Henault who set the example by insisting, without reference to the defence minister, that Canadian military war dead receive all the honours military tradition and custom demand in open public ceremonies, something the Chrétien government had frequently avoided throughout the war in the Balkans.

“Too Few Hilliers” provides a useful preliminary examination of the consequences to Canadian civil-military relations brought about by the war in Afghanistan. I am sure, however, that the authors would agree with a former chief of the defence staff who said recently, and privately, “The full story of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan has yet to be told.”

Douglas Bland
Defence Management Studies Program
Queen’s University
Kingston, ON

* * *

Flag Waving
I was struck by the irony of the scenes Marcello Di Cintio described in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter as unfolding under the Israeli flag — flown not just by Israel in its occupation of Palestinian East Jerusalem, but by The Walrus itself (“Iftar at Damascus Gate,” April).

Israel’s conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967 has never been recognized by Canada or any other country in the world. In fact, Israel’s annexation and, in 1980, amalgamation of the region was repudiated by UN resolutions 242 and 478, respectively. Final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority continue to turn on the axis of Jerusalem, which Palestinians universally believe is their capital city — just as the Israelis do.

The Walrus’s choice to fly only the Israeli flag atop Di Cintio’s story gives the false impression that Palestinians seek, by negotiation or by fire, to take from Israel what is rightfully Israel’s, when in reality Israel has taken what is rightfully part of the capital city of two nations. It is a choice that only confirms why, as Di Cintio observed, “[v]oices speaking of a Palestinian state are tinged with sarcasm rather than hope.”

Richard A. Johnson

* * *

The Ecstasy and the Agony
A footnote to Susan Crean’s excellent piece on aboriginal theatre (“Riel’s Prophecy,” April): George Ryga’s play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe underwent two transformations subsequent to its stage drama presentation. The first was the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production, choreographed by Norbert Vesak, with music developed from the original score by Ann Mortifee (who acted as a kind of Greek chorus during scene changes); and the second was an LP recording, featuring Ann Mortifee as vocalist, jazz flutist Paul Horn, and Chief Dan George, and the soon to be late and grievously lamented CBC Radio Orchestra, under its original conductor, John Avison. Both the ballet and the LP took some liberties with the characters and narrative trajectory of the play—not entirely to George Ryga’s liking, as he felt they romanticized his stark conception of both to a certain extent.

In the early 1970s, Rod Booth, Jim Morrison (no, not that one), and I formed a hole in the wall record company, Kerygma Records, which landed the contract to record that work. Like so many such productions, it was an artistic success, had some radio play, and sold moderately well, but it never made back production costs, let alone a profit, and soon disappeared from view. I still listen to it from time to time, and although a lot of it is dated—the preachy and patronizing Magistrate’s comments, for example, would never be countenanced in any court nowadays—I’m gratified that so much of it still works almost forty years on. The music is haunting, and Chief Dan George’s narratives are particularly poignant. Maybe it’s time for resurrection in a contemporary format, if only as a cultural artifact. Any takers?

Len Lythgoe
Vancouver, BC

* * *

No Rifle Trifle
After reading “The Caribou Hunter” by Christine Pountney (April), I could not sleep. Why? Mainly because it brought back memories of being shot at by someone who used his rifle to “scope me out” and then fired. First, I heard the bullet go over me—it sounded like a very large, extremely angry wasp. The deafening rifle report came a split second later.

Pountney writes, “We walked slowly and stopped often to raise the rifle and scan the treenline through the scope.” Then again, later, “I was using the rifle like a spyglass.” If she did the scoping on her own, shame on her. If boyfriend Michael, an experienced hunter, saw her do this and didn’t stop her or, worse, taught her to do this, shame on him.

Never, ever point a firearm at anything you do not intend to shoot. Always use a good pair of binoculars to look for potential targets.

Robin Leech
Edmonton, AB

* * *

Seeing the Forest for the Trees
As a lifelong resident of the Cowichan Valley, an organic grower, and a staunch advocate of our sustainable food renaissance, it was with great interest that I read “The Greens Forest” (April). Murray Whyte accurately portrays the dynamic new era of economic growth and diversity our region is enjoying, and I am pleased that yet another journalist has championed our efforts. I am wary, however, of pitting these new areas of growth against long-standing stereotypes of the traditional resource-based economy.

Working forest lands constitute 87 percent of the forests on Vancouver Island. The many forest workers I know personally are intelligent, hardworking folks who strive to support their families by doing work they enjoy. Contrary to popular opinion, relatively few are loggers. In its most recent heyday, the industry employed hundreds of silviculturists, technicians, and professional foresters—stewards who performed the value added work of pruning, spacing, and monitoring second growth forests to ensure a top quality crop. There is much to recommend this employment, not least of which is the opportunity to gain the kind of in-depth knowledge of ecosystems and remote natural areas that most Gore-Tex clad trekkers can only dream of. That these lands currently provide employment for only a handful of workers (BC’s forest lands now provide fewer jobs per hectare than any other industrialized jurisdiction in the world) toiling away for companies that show no concern for stewardship or sustainable practices is a travesty that deserves our collective attention.

Political and economic forces have thrown our local forest industry seriously out of balance, but the industry’s shortcomings will not be overcome by writing it off as a failure and refusing to participate in it. Forestry in the Cowichan Valley is far from being a sunset industry. Rather, it is industry in transition with a vast potential for providing meaningful employment, as well as a source of pride and community identity, for years to come. It is the responsibility of all of us here to demand a greater degree of public ownership and involvement from companies and politicians. The crowd of more than 1,300 forest workers and environmentalists that rallied at the provincial legislature in March shows that we are serious about doing just that.

Sustainable food production is one key element of a vibrant rural economy. Sustainable forestry is another. Lucky as we are with our options, we should not imagine that we can easily substitute one for the other. The sooner we envision a future for our valley built on both of these elements, the sooner we will realize it.

Emily McGiffin

* * *

“The time has come,” The Walrus said, “to talk of many things.” Email us at letters@walrusmagazine.com or write to us at 101–19 Duncan Street, Toronto, ON M5H 3H1.

Letters may be edited for length, height, width, depth, clarity, and accuracy, and may be published in any medium (such as disappearing ink).

“The time has come,” The Walrus said, “to talk of many things.” Send us a letter, an email (letters@thewalrus.ca), or a tweet, or post on this website. Comments may be published in any medium and edited for length, clarity, and accuracy. Mail correspondence to: 411 Richmond St. E., Suite B15, Toronto, Ontario, Canada  M5A 3S5