My Life As A Teacher: Part 4 Addendum 3: A Gentle Rogue History of North Island College from my Perspective.

I owe a great deal to North Island College. I worked there from 1983 until 2012. That’s quite a stretch. My time there was mostly fruitful (I got paid decently), challenging but exhausting too. It probably didn’t have to be that way, but it’s my nature I guess to never allow a vacuum on time in my life. Whatever time I have seems to be filled and if it isn’t I get to filling it as soon as possible.

I got the job at the college because I was an experienced sociology instructor who had taught a number of sociology courses, but who also taught the history of Québec at Douglas College, I was (am) bilingual, and I had experience with teaching studying techniques. In the context of a unique distance education organization that hired tutors rather than instructors, the president of the college soon realized that I could tutor a large number of course. And I did. Like I wrote in my last post, I tutored students from all over the north island in courses on sociology, anthropology, Canadian history, geography, French, and studying techniques. Eighteen courses in all.

At the time (1983) the college had a lot of what it called learning centres all over the place. Twenty-one in all if I recall. The main ones were in the Comox Valley, Campbell River and Port Alberni, but there were learning centres in Port Hardy, Port Alice, Port McNeill, Sointula, Alert Bay (ironically in the abandoned residential school), Cortes Island, Ucluelet, etc.. Just before my time the college also had mobile units that travelled to Denman and Hornby Islands, and a ship, a converted ocean-going tugboat called the Samarinda, that was supposed to bring education to the remotest places on a wild and wooly coast. That didn’t last long. The Samarinda’s propeller graces the foreshore park in Horseshoe Bay. The rest of the vessel is long gone. Meanwhile, the distance ed. thing rolled right along.

The college expanded into doing telecourses on the Knowledge Network. The first ‘tutor’ to take on the job was Michael Catchpole, a Port Alberni psychologist who did as I did and travelled to Vancouver to the Knowledge Network studios to do his thing at least once a week between September and May. We were followed by a couple of English instructors. We did that until 1992. The college also developed its own internal kind of television network after the Knowledge Network gig went bust. For example, I might be teaching a course in Courtenay which was being broadcast live to Port Alberni. That was a riot…literally. Controlling the remote site was a special challenge but the local students weren’t always thrilled with the arrangement either because they weren’t getting my full attention. I constantly had to remind myself that there were students out there that I couldn’t see in at least one other site, sometimes two other sites. Technically it was a constant challenge because we had no techs that were always available because they had more than one course to deal with themselves and they often worked with marginal equipment off the sides of their desks. Fun and games. But we carried on.

Getting back for a minute to the older days, the end of learning centres was entirely predictable. Small villages like Sointula couldn’t sustain a learning centre for long because once a group of students took a course, that was it. There was no second group ready to go in the next term. When the college finally closed the centre in Sointula I think the hue and cry could be heard from as far away as Port Alberni. In the early 90s, there was a coup at the college. Dennis Wing, the first president and the strongest advocate for distance education anywhere was turfed and Neil Murphy took over with the mandate of transforming the college into a conventional community college. In 1992 the college moved from a number of sites in Courtenay to its current campus on Ryan Road, a new facility was built on Roger Street in Port Alberni and Campbell River got a new campus in the same buildings as Timberline High School. I had to commute there every week to teach on that campus as well as in Courtenay. I even travelled to Port Alberni on occasion to be with my ‘remote’ students. Finally, I was the first instructor at the college to teach an entirely online course for students in the north island. I think I had eight students.

The college’s official history is pretty sparse and doesn’t tell anywhere near the whole story. For instance, it says nothing of our union organizing and the establishment of CUPE Local 3479 and The Federation of Post Secondary Educators Local 16 as the North Island College Faculty Association. I was its first president but only lasted a short time in that role because I was burnt out and headed for a health crash for which I had to take months off. That was not my most enjoyable time at the college. As far as I can see there’s one line in the official timeline about NIC and the Knowledge Network. Frankly that is a bit disappointing but the college doesn’t owe me anything. I got well paid and generally very well treated by the administration during the times I had to take time outs for health reasons. Of course, I’ve left out a lot of the juicy bits. Can’t tell all, of course. Lawsuits could ensue. But, mygawd, there’s a lot more to tell.

I should say in conclusion that I was awarded emeritus status at the college as I retired and I received two teaching awards in my time there, one for innovation in teaching and the other for teaching excellence from a group at the University of Texas at Austin dedicated to celebrating such things.

 

My Life as Teacher: Addendum

So, in my blog post on teaching I left out a major part of my teaching experience. That was writing and presenting 254 live-interactive telecourses on the Knowledge Network. These telecourses were North Island College courses, but used the Knowledge Network as the transmission medium. I started with a studying skills course then added another one to be followed by an introductory sociology course and then a second sociology course.

When I say that my courses were live-interactive, I mean that I went on live with only an 8 second delay. No rehearsals, no retakes. It also means that we opened the phone lines during most of broadcasts to entertain questions or comments from the audience, sometimes they were even my students. One of my favourite comments came from a guy living in Masset in Haida Gwai. He was obviously drunk, slurring his words, but he was able to get out a comment: “I think your program is a crock of shit!” I did the only thing I could do and entertained the next caller. Never a dull moment. Mostly I got kudos, even from people in prison. I had a number of students in prisons in Saskatchewan. My courses ran all over Western Canada and I had students from many small and large communities, close to a thousand one year. I think it was 1987 or 1988, I accounted for 10% of the college’s course enrolments.

I did my courses live from the Knowledge Network studios first at UBC then in Burnaby on Mathissi Place. I travelled to Vancouver mostly be plane, often a twin or single Otter, stayed in Vancouver overnight at a hotel close to the airport, did my shows then flew home. I did this every week during the Fall and Winter terms from 1987 until 1992. During the summers I worked on scripts and new material. I also was in charge of courses on campus too so I was a very busy guy.

I learned much later that some of my colleagues thought that I was getting extra money for doing the Knowledge Network work. Absolutely not. It was just part of my job. It was exciting to do  television teaching, but it was also exhausting and I paid for it health wise.

If you want, you can now transport yourself back to 1990, pretend you’re sitting in your living room with the TV on and my program comes on. This is what it was like:

Yes, you can have a laugh at my expense. I can take it.

 

My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 4: Arting.

Alright, so I’ve written a little bit about teaching and writing in my last two blog posts. If I decided to, I could write a book about teaching and writing. In my last two posts I didn’t touch on my philosophy of teaching nor it’s sociological and economic dimensions. I just introduced you to my practice. In a later blog, I want to address my intellectual development in all of its many manifestations, permutations and stages. Now, in this fourth post in this series I come to art.

The act of creating  or making art, in my humble opinion, should be called arting. If I can teach and write, I should be able to art. I know, as a verb it doesn’t work in the English language. It should. I’ve been arting for a long time. It’s never been a way for me to make a living nor do I have much formal training in art, like I had in teaching and writing. Still, it’s been an important part of my life.

When I was a kid I’m sure I played with crayons. I may even have drawn stick people on the wall of the bedroom, but I can’t recall. What I vividly remember maybe at the ages of five or six is watching my older sisters, Thérèse in particular, drawing what I can only describe as fashion figures, always young women with elaborate hairdos, flowing gowns and elegant arms. Thérèse would not consider herself an artist now, but I thought she was amazing. Some of my other sisters probably did it too, but I don’t recall. If they read this, they could maybe jog my memory. A little later in my life I clearly remember my uncle Denis paint a kind of small cartoon character on the side of my brother-in-law’s car. It blew me away. How could anybody do such a wonderful thing? I’m sure these events had something to do with my compulsion to paint and draw later in my life, but I don’t recall actually making the connection at the time. I don’t think I ever said to myself: “Boy, I want to do that too!” It wasn’t like that. Then I went off to boarding school and art was not on the curriculum. Music and theatre were taught to some extent, but sports dominated extra-curricular activities.

When I left boarding school before completing grade twelve, it took me some time to adjust to life on the outside. After some time I took an informal painting course with a nun I had not previously known. (I was taught in elementary school by nuns but she wasn’t one of them.)  My sister Lucy and my uncle Denis were also involved. Lucy painted like a dream as did my uncle. I had already tried to paint. I bought some cheap oil paints, a rickety easel (which I still have), a couple of brushes, canvas boards and eventually some canvas and stretchers. I put together a few paintings, some quite large but none very good. Well, I was just starting out, but I was impatient. I wanted to paint a masterpiece. I bought some how-to-paint books (I still have those too). One by Robert Wood, a California landscape painter caught my fancy as well as a book of photographs he took that could be used to inspire paintings. I used that to paint a sunset and it turned out pretty well. (I’m not sure where that painting is now. Maybe long gone after a short stint in a dumpster) I was encouraged. I didn’t draw well at the time so I stayed away from painting figures. That came much later. This painting is based on a Ringo Starr album cover. I don’t know why I wanted to paint it but I did and I realized that I could have some control over my paints and brushes. Devil Woman

The kids were scared of this painting for a long time. They still may be for all I know. The grandkids probably are too. Who knows why.

I also painted this little boat. I still have this painting. It’s 16 X 20 and hangs in my studio in the corner. It’s a reminder of what I did in the far distant past. Yes, far distant past.

First Boat Painting

I think it’s okay for what it is and when I did it.

This covered bridge painting I did in 1971 while I studied with the nun I mentioned before (Damn, I wish I could remember her name!)

Covered Bridge 1971. 18X24 Oil painting

So, anyway, this is some of my earlier work. By 1974 I was doing more drawing but I was in university and that put a cramp in the time I could dedicate to my art. And besides, we got married in 1973 and that also took up some of my time…in an entirely good way, I might add.

It took me ten years to get back into arting after we had moved to the Comox Valley the year before. That’s when I read Betty Edwards’ book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It inspired me to draw again, but this time in a more realistic style. I wanted to be able to draw what I saw when I wanted to. So, I started doing this kind of thing:

Then this:

These two last images of derelict boats (the pencil drawing and the acrylic painting) came from some photographs I took on River Road in Delta, BC, I can’t remember exactly when, but it would have been in the 1970s sometime. Over the years I did three more acrylic paintings incorporating two boats from the photographs I took in the 70s, the Elcay and the VR 280:

River Road Derelicts 36 X 40 inches. Acrylic.

I also did a pencil drawing of the same two boats in the mid 90:

That drawing and a course I took in printmaking at North Island College with John Hooley changed my direction to some extent. I was still interested in painting and drawing, but now I would add printmaking to my repertoire, a medium I very much enjoy. This drawing became the first intaglio print I did. I used a zinc plate that was etched in nitric acid to get the effect I wanted, which was this:

I really need to take a better photograph of this piece. I have an edition of 30 of these prints (I do believe) that are now for sale. I’ve already sold a couple. 

During my course with John Hooley I also learned how to do relief printing and silkscreening. I need to take a silkscreening course again because the techniques and materials have changes so much in the last 25 years. 

After moving to Cumberland in 2002 I had a large studio available to me:

That allowed me to set up a painting and leave it on the easel as long as I needed to instead of having to take everything down every time I finished a session because we needed the space for something else. I’m now working on some prints and have a printing set-up in my studio for relief printing.  I also have a large acrylic painting on the go…which I WILL finish soon because I want to finish up an oil painting I started 10 or 15 years ago at least.  Me in my studio ten years ago:

Five years ago I did this from a photograph one of my former students who was a new mom at the time allowed me to use. She has this drawing. I’ve always meant to do a painting based on this drawing. It’s still my intention, but I have stopped pressuring myself to do this kind of thing. It will happen if it happens. One thing is certain, I have no shortage of projects. My only limitations are my aging body and time. 

If you’re interested in seeing more of my work I have a selection of it on my other blog: http://rogeralbert.blogspot.ca. 

Over the past 25 years I’ve done a number of realistic pieces but I tend more to the impressionistic side of things and I even do what some people would consider pretty kooky works. I’ve copied the works of some of the masters including Vermeer and Schiele. I can’t say that I’ve been overly influenced by any one artist of the past. I just do what comes to mind.

I love to doodle and sometimes I’m astonished by what comes out:

I often carry a drawing notebook with me but don’t always use it. Sometimes I just sit and think about painting or drawing subjects. Art is never far from my thoughts. Neither is writing. They tend to compete for brain space. Carolyn knows all too well what this means for my lack of attention to other things I could very well be attending to in my environment, social and natural especially as they concern her. My brain is a busy place. If a subject attracts my attention in a particularly forceful way I’ll sit and draw it if it’s possible given time and place. Drawing people on the ferry and sitting at picnic tables in parks has been fruitful for me in terms of drawing subjects. I’m finding too that I’m increasingly drawn to ink rather than pencil for my doodles and mini sketches. My ink drawings tend to be less precious and more spontaneous. I like that. 

A group of printers and I associated with the Comox Valley Printmakers Association just last weekend had a pop-up exhibition and sale in Cumberland. We had some 500 people come through in my estimation. Some say more came through. Now I have to finish up some flooring upstairs in the house and some window and door trim. Art has to be set aside for a bit. That said, I never stop thinking about it. But, you know what? I have to clean up my damn studio. I may want to be on a studio tour sometime soon. 

That’s enough for now. I’ve already started to plan my next blog post. It will be a about my intellectual development. 

My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 3: Writing

I write…obviously. I think I write fairly well for a French-Canadian kid from the wrong side of the tracks. That wasn’t always the case.

Of course I learned how to write when I was quite young, in elementary school. I learned early to write in French and in English. I still write in French and in English, but at the moment I write predominantly in English. However, in this blog post I don’t concentrate on the mechanics of writing. I’m more concerned here with writing as a craft, or as some would say, as an art.

I must say that I was fortunate to attend some good schools where the staff were sincerely concerned about the students and their success. I attended a French Canadian Catholic school in Maillardville*, BC close to New Westminster from 1952 until 1959. All the teachers were nuns. In 1959 I and about 40 other boys from Maillardville travelled to Edmonton to attend the Collège St-Jean. That was an excellent school where a classical education could be had. I, not being particularly brilliant at the time, failed to appreciate the good fortune I had being at such a school. Boarding with hundreds of other boys never really appealed to me, but I did okay socially. I was an especially mediocre athlete in a school that loved athletics. I pretty much failed at sports although I always participated and I failed to excel at my academic work too going from the top of my class to the bottom of my class in grade 12. I was always too self-conscious to be good at anything. Instead of going ahead and just doing things like score goals in hockey, I always had one eye on the coach concerned with what he thought of me. I had the brains and some skill along with some desire, but I was completely bereft of self-confidence. A couple of concussions I got from playing hockey probably didn’t help much either.

At Collège St-Jean students were expected to write a lot in both French and English. I managed to learn some of the basics and for some reason I loved verb conjugations in French. I studied them even when I didn’t have to. We studied Latin too and I loved Latin conjugations as much as French ones. I have no idea why. I still have in my library a book entitled 5OO French Verbs. I’ll bet you don’t have one of those. I also have a couple of Latin grammar books. Every once in a while I’ll pull one off the shelf and flip through the pages just for old times sake. I even go so far as to test my verb conjugations against the tables at the ends of the books. Now, Google has all of that online. It’s hardly any fun at all anymore. English verb conjugations are hopelessly unfun.

So, even though I was pretty much an utter failure in most of my college activities, I had some fun with language and did well in my literature and composition courses. It’s when I entered Douglas College in New Westminster in 1971 that I had to really buckle down and learn some writing skills. I struggled. Composition was not easy for me. I had to work hard at it. It seemed to take forever for me to write a term paper. At least that’s the way I felt about it. Of course, my fellow students were having as much trouble as I was, by and large, coming from the working class, but not many of us were too keen on broadcasting the fact. I busted my butt at Douglas College and ended my time there with a strong grade point average as well as eight general credits for attending Collège St-Jean in Edmonton. Douglas College was obviously impressed with the quality of the education I got at St-Jean. Simon Fraser University (SFU) went one step further than Douglas College when I applied to study there in 1973. It recognized fifteen general credits for my frankly shoddy performance at Collège St-Jean. That was the equivalent of one semester’s work. Bonus! Happy days!

SFU was mostly great but being a natural contrarian I wouldn’t see it that way most of the time I was there. I got depressed. I got anxious. I got angry. I got scared. Same as many of my fellow students. At Douglas College I found that sociology was my favourite subject so I decided to enrol in the Sociology and Anthropology Department (S&A). That was a great choice on my part. I finally did something right. I loved it and did very well in terms of grades. I still had to work hard at writing, but that was something I was willing to accept as a likely prelude to the work I would have to put into writing at any job I was to get in the future. I wasn’t happy with it, but I was resigned to not being a good writer. Still got a BA though. Grades were good too. Good enough to get into grad school, no problem. Thankfully, it was in grad school that I finally learned how to write with some fluency and ease. It was about time. Writing my dissertation proved to be the impetus for me to completely change my attitude and practice towards writing. I could not have done it without some help from a couple of amazing professors I had. I live in perpetual gratitude to Noel Dyck for working with me as a member of my committee for pushing me hard to figure out the process of writing. He’d tear my essays apart. They’d be covered in comments: “Signpost that!” “Complete your thought!” I still love him for that. Richard Coe from the English Department was also instrumental in getting me to understand the dynamics of paragraph structure and the organization of narrative. I still have his great book Toward A Grammar of Passages.

Now, writing is enjoyable for me. I can sit down and compose a thousand word blog post in an hour or two. Of course, a big part of being able to do that is to have something to write about. I think I’ve proven that I do have something to write about given the 280 blog posts I’ve put together over the years. Add to the numerous blog posts I’ve written the scores of television scripts I wrote in the 80s and 90s, a number of research reports, magazine and newspaper articles and I have a fairly impressive body of written work.

Learning how to write well has not been easy. I write now with a fair bit of ease, but that ease was birthed in anxiety and self-doubt over many years, decades even. Finally, I can say that I’m quite pleased with myself for having survived the process. I don’t look to the coach anymore to see what he thinks of me.

 

___________________________________________

* The history of Maillardville is interesting. It was a community of French Canadians who, for the most part, came from western Québec, close to the Ontario border, around 1909. They were brought to BC from Québec as strike breakers in a long racially-charged dispute among forestry mill owners and their white workers against an increasingly strong Asian presence in organized labour.

My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 2: Teaching

If you read my last post you got some general idea of my life trajectory in broad terms. In this post I want to pay special attention to how and why I became a college instructor with a couple of side trips on scholarship and the philosophy of teaching. Many of my colleagues teaching at the college level get their first taste of teaching in high school. Not me. I never intended to teach in high school. Something about high school teaching appealed to me, but I wasn’t interested in going to university in the Education faculty for a year of professional development which would have allowed me to teach in BC high schools. So, what was my alternative? It was going straight from university into college teaching. University faculty don’t need professional development, or so they have insisted for decades. Theoretically, aspiring university teachers learn the teaching craft by watching and emulating their professors. I always though that was a bit strange because of the variability of skill exhibited by faculty. Still, working as a teaching assistant was a form of preparation for eventually taking over the big job. Frankly though, I got a job teaching on a sessional basis at Douglas College as I entered graduate school so I had no real previous experience teaching or managing a classroom. I learned by doing what my colleagues were doing but I also learned from books, lots of them. I questioned everything about teaching, including the setting, the materials, the psychological, sociological, political, and economic assumptions, the goals and the means.

As a student of the social sciences I was already prepped for a critical stance with regard to what I was doing. The time was the mid to late 1970s. I graduated with a B.A. in 1975 and went on to study for my Master’s degree in 1976 after I was recruited by the Sociology and Anthropology Department at SFU to be a teaching assistant. We needed the money, so it was a no-brainer. I was definitely cocky enough to believe that I could pull it off and I think I was pretty good at it. Academia suited me to a T. At the same time, most of the colleges in BC were either in their infancy or about to be built. Most of them were begging for teaching staff. One of my former teachers at Douglas College asked me if I would consider teaching there. I only had a B.A. but was in a grad program and that was enough for them. I started then on a 5 year stint as a sessional faculty member at SFU, Douglas College and eventually Kwantlen College before moving to the Comox Valley in 1983 to teach at North Island College (NIC), although at NIC we were called tutors and not instructors. The college started as a distance education organization which worked closely with Athabasca University to provide university-level courses to people in the northern half of Vancouver Island. Eventually it morphed into a regular college and by 1992 had pretty much made to transformation completely. I worked at NIC until 2012, the year I retired. Now, reading back on the words I have just written I can assure you that I’ve only provided you with some of the backbone events and circumstances that make up my story as a teacher. The reality is much more nuanced and complex. Teaching is all about human relations and love. Yes, love*.

Going to university as an undergraduate was a fairly new thing for someone of my class background. SFU, and the newly named University of Victoria, were a new kind of university set up to train a much needed workforce in a new world of work that demanded a higher education than ever before. The BC college system came into existence around the same time and for the same reasons.

Social roots and standard teen silliness

Coming from a basically working class family with hints of an agrarian past, I had no expectations of going to university. Initially I worked in lumber mills and at odd jobs here and there, jobs that were easy to come by at the time. I was not a particularly stellar kid and for a time hung around my brother-in-law’s used car lots. I tried selling used cars but I just didn’t have it in me. I was wracked with indecision, bounced around from job to job, smoked and drank way too much. I was like a lot of my peers. Because we’re raised to think of ourselves as quintessentially individual, I though the world revolved around my belly button and had no idea about what anyone else was doing, nor did I care. Eventually, as I got older and worked my way slowly, painfully, and hesitatingly out of my teens and into my twenties, my interests changed as did my attitude and behaviour. I got involved with a French-Canadian organization and found in that group a mentor, Roméo Paquette, who helped me understand my potential and encouraged me to get more involved. I had a lot to learn if I was going to go to university and much of my interest started with my French-Canadian connections. At that time I also struggled with by Catholic upbringing. It wasn’t easy. For some time I had ceased to believe in the teachings of the Church and I had an increasingly clearer and clearer appreciation of evolutionary theory. Church teachings just didn’t make sense to me any longer especially in the light of science. Still, I loved my parents and I knew that my newfound perspective on the world was something they could not understand or accept. It’s strange in a way. My parents were very proud of me and my academic career yet they were never able to relate to my life in the least. Their faith in the Church was what sustained them and they could not understand anyone abandoning that faith. They prayed for me. For me, a break from Catholicism was inevitable. I haven’t looked back since.

Back to 1971

I spent 18 months at Douglas College as a student, then transferred to SFU in 1973, the year we got married. By 1976 I had gotten a BA. Carolyn and I decided it would be fun to travel a bit and we did. We packed up our car and a travel trailer, stayed with my sister in 100 Mile House for a bit, found out Carolyn was pregnant, then moved on to Edmonton easily finding jobs. Our intention had been to make it to Ottawa so I might find work, but our plans changed with the pregnancy and we moved back home to BC. I happened to go to SFU upon my return and was offered a job as a teaching assistant. That clinched it for me. As I started work as a teaching assistant the faculty just assumed that I would enter grad school there so I did. I studied at SFU until 1980, got my MA and decided to apply to the grad program at the University of BC. I studied at UBC for a couple of years on a PhD, but couldn’t keep it up because I needed to work and help raise a family. Still, that was my introduction to teaching. I sort of fell into it. I readily took to teaching. I loved it. In 1983 I got a job at NIC as I already noted. That job lasted 29 years.

Scholarship

Of course, teaching was only a part of what I was up to at the time. I did graduate work and settled on a dissertation about Harold Adams Innis’ work. Innis was a well-known but entirely misunderstood scholar teaching at the University of Toronto until his untimely death in 1952. My dissertation was an attempt to set the record straight on Innis. I don’t think it had much of an impart on scholarship but it got me my M.A. Working in my dissertation I had to deal with my previous studies of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, etc., but a new scholar entered my life at that time. I discovered him through Innis. His name is Thorstein Veblen. He was born who knows when but he definitely died in 1929. His work blew me away and laid the groundwork for much of my later research. His influence on me was closely followed by Ernest Becker and a panoply of scholars associated with his work including Marx, Freud, Rank and many others. The archives of this blog are filled with references to their work.  Later, I read Norbert Elias and was immediately struck by the lucidity and strength of his analysis about the relationship of the individual to society. For Elias we are interdependencies and interweavings and it’s barely logical to speak of individuals unless the immediate qualification is that we are essentially social.  All of that time, I also read voraciously authors like the French social historian Fernand Braudel, the economists David Ricardo, Adam Smith, iconoclastic psychiatrists like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz. I’ve never stopped reading. I must say, though, that there has been a consistent thread running through my reading and that’s been the rise and fall of empires and the globalization of capital. My library at home is replete with books on the nation-state, revolution, European history, ideology, and capitalist expansion.

Of course, if you took a tour of my library you’d figure out quickly enough that the above hardly scratches the surface. The scholars I mention above are but the high points on my literary landscape. The meadows and valleys are filled with books on Canadian history, religion, philosophy, language (semiotics and pragmatics), sexuality, ethnography, evolution, biology, psychoanalysis, and art. Now, my attention has also turned to YouTube and other digital formats. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, a neuroscientist, has a series of lectures on YouTube that are brilliant to say the least. To a non-expert, they explain clearly the social class basis of stress not only in olive baboons on the African savannah, but also in Whitehall, the seat of British government bureaucracy.

The above is not a trip through my intellectual story, but it does provide a scaffolding for more interesting backstory commentary. Neither is this a place for a wander through my intellectual trajectory. I suppose I have to get down and write that sometime for me, if anything. The archives here contain a lot of insight into my worldview, but it’s not condensed and focussed. That condensation and focus really defines a retrospective for me. I can do that. What I hope you will get from this is some appreciation of the time and effort it takes to put together the worldview I have. It’s unique and idiosyncratic. You could never duplicate it. Parts of it are accessible to all, but not the whole thing. There are just too many elements to it, too many connecting strands that I alone have experienced. That makes it infernally difficult to share. I will try.

 

*Love is a word that begs definition. Maybe in a future blog post.

 

My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 1.

I haven’t written in these ‘pages’ for a while because I’ve been working on my ‘art’ blog and getting ready for a printmaker’s show on October 27th and 28th in Cumberland at The Convoy Club where 10 printmakers including me are showing our works and offering them up for sale. Check out my other blog at: https://rogeralbert.blogspot.com. There’s a page on it that includes most of my prints.

[Just a note about printmaking: the works offered up in this show include relief prints (woodcuts, linocuts), intaglio prints (drypoint and etchings), collographs, and serigraphs (silkscreening). All of the prints are hand made. No digital prints allowed. All of the work is complex, but some is more complex to execute than others. For example, one of my pieces called Van Duesen Dead Ivy is multi-stepped in its making. It starts with a drawing I did of ivy that I was particularly struck by on a trip to Van Duesen Gardens in Vancouver. It had been growing up a large fir tree and got very large before someone cut the vines off at the bottom of the tree in order to save the fir tree from being choked by the offending ivy. My pencil drawing was then transferred to a 15X20 inch copper plate that had been coated with resist. Resist is a material that prevents the areas covered by it from being etched by ferric chloride. I had to transfer every line, every feature of my drawing to the copper using a variety of sharp metal tools. It’s not necessary to dig into the copper at this point, just remove the resist from selected lines and areas so that the ferric chloride can etch the copper. Once the copper has had its bath in the ferric chloride, it’s ready for printing. Printing itself is a very physical activity. It requires spreading ink on the plate then wiping all of it off again. Well, not all of it. Only the ink that has not settled where the acid has etched away the copper and where the plate needs to remain white. The ink is wiped off the plate with newsprint, a physically demanding task for a plate this big. Once that’s done, the plate is placed on a press bed, paper is placed on top of the print followed by a sheet of newsprint than three blankets. If all goes well, a print is born. If all does not go well, it’s back to the drawing board… The ‘art’ cards I’ve made for this show are very simple linocut prints but each is still made by hand. I should do a YouTube video showing the process of etching but there’s a lot of them out there already. Still, that’s no excuse. There’s a lot of blogs out there too yet I still do this.]

Printmaking, particularly intaglio printmaking, requires heavy presses so I didn’t start printmaking until I had access to a printmaking studio at North Island College. Most of the ‘art’ work I have done over the years involves painting. I have done many paintings and drawings over the years. I make prints now, but I also draw using pencil and pen, I paint in oils, acrylic and watercolour and I’ve done a bit of sculpting in wood. I’ve been drawing and painting since the 1970s; printmaking and sculpting are more recent additions to my repertoire. I’ve been printmaking for a mere 30 years or so and sporadically at that. Art work has not been a central part of my life until recently.

My main adult occupation was as a college sociology instructor. That paid the bills. Writing has been a large part of my career too. I wrote television scripts for two Knowledge Network telecourses for which I was the instructor. I wrote all kinds of research reports and manuals. My ‘art’ has been with me a long time, and now that I’m retired from teaching I can spend a lot more time at it, but I could never have made a living as an artist. I’m mostly self taught although I have taken courses over the years in the art department of my college and with independent artists. I don’t hesitate to call myself a sociologist (I have the credentials). I do hesitate to call myself an artist even though I do a lot of things that artists do. I need to explain this further in another blog post. I’ve read many books on art and art history but the nature of it still eludes me. It’s clear to me that looking at a painting I’m not always looking at a work of art. Oh, I have some sense of what it is, its origins and connections to other aspects of culture, but I’m still not convinced I fully understand it.

I was not destined to be a teacher, writer, and artist. In fact my social class at birth almost precluded access to those adult pursuits. My father was functionally illiterate although highly intelligent and capable. My mother had a grade eight education in a rural school at a time when academic achievement was not considered very important for girls. As she entered adulthood, she was too busy raising children (I have fourteen siblings) to engage in any sustained artistic activities even if she had wanted to. We had very few books in the house as I was growing up. We got a television set in 1956 and that became the centre of family life after church and cards.

My grandparents migrated from Québec and New Brunswick in the early 20th Century to homestead in north-eastern Alberta. They weren’t farmers by training, but free land had its appeal. They were tradespeople and entrepreneurs. My paternal grandfather was an accomplished blacksmith and my maternal grandfather was much more inclined to start a small business than farm. He eventually ran a bakery in Bonnyville, Alberta and later, after moving to British Columbia, he owned a grocery store. Later, he returned to agriculture to some extent with a quite successful blueberry farm in Abbotsford. My father, in spite of his illiteracy, was able to rise to management positions in the lumber industry, nothing high level, but still, he became a foreman and operations manager of a fair sized wood remanufacturing plant. More important, he was a virtuoso with tools, both creating them and using them. I have no idea how he did it, but without any formal math or engineering skills, he could grind planer knives to very demanding specifications and in a variety of profiles.

I grew up in a small three bedroom house in Coquitlam. I never felt poor but I knew that we weren’t rich either compared to our doctor and dentist or even some of our neighbours like the mayor (reeve) of Coquitlam. Of course, they weren’t wealthy either on the order of a Jimmy Pattison or other corporate magnate. As I grew older, however, I came to fully understand my class position. More on that later.

So, in terms of employment my family life did nothing to prepare me for my life as a college teacher. Higher education was not a consideration in my early teens. In fact, I actually started working in the lumber industry during the summer when I was fourteen years old when my father got a job in a picket fence manufacturing plant in South Surrey, BC. and continued to work in mills and lumber yards for a few years. In a sense I was much better prepared to work in the lumber industry than at a university or college. Partly what turned me away from the lumber industry was an industrial accident requiring lower back surgery. Fortuitously, after I recovered from my surgery, I undertook a one day occupational and psychological testing program as a means of figuring out what my aptitudes might be. A couple of weeks later I got the results of the day’s testing and one of the results was that I had the aptitude to become a writer and maybe an anthropologist. Well, then, I had something to go on. I applied to attend Simon Fraser University but was turned down because of my poor high school record. So, I turned to Douglas College in New Westminster where I was accepted. I did very well there in terms of grades and after a couple of years applied to SFU and got in. Both of my degrees are from SFU.

Strangely enough, although my family had no way of relating to my career choices, it did prepare me for a sensitivity to art. Some of my siblings are wonderful at drawing and painting and one of my uncles was a brilliant artist but made a living painting street signs for a couple of different municipalities. What my family did for me without doing it deliberately at all was show me that art could infuse my life even if I couldn’t make a living at it and that artistry can be found in the studio, in the darkroom, but also at the forge, in the garden, and in the woodworking shop as well as in the kitchen.

In many ways I have had an idyllic life. I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to do so many things. Of course I’ve had my share of trauma being human and all that, but I’ve also had the privilege of learning and studying with some very fine teachers over the years and my years of teaching have been a wonder. I’ve read thousands of books, mostly in sociology and related disciplines, but I’ve also read many books on art and art history as well as novels and stories from which much learning can be had. I’ve been able to travel, canoe and hike in some of the most beautiful places on earth. I have a beautiful home. I have my family. What a gift my family has been. Nothing I say about my family can be enough. No words can express the love I feel for everyone, Carolyn, my children, their children, my brothers and sisters, their children and their children. We don’t always agree on everything, but that’s okay. Everyone’s road is different. Sometimes we do share the road. At other times not so much, but that doesn’t diminish the deep connection I feel for everyone in my family. They give meaning to everything that I do every day. On top of all that, I have my community in the Comox Valley, especially in Cumberland. I feel firmly connected to it and the natural environment here. I know about evolution and the temporality of life; I know that my life is meaningless in the cosmic sense, but I don’t live in the cosmos, I live here and now. I know that it’s a bit of a waste of energy, but I get angry at the utter disrespect some people show towards others and the natural world in which we live. Yes, I do feel love but I also feel anger. I’ve thought about this a fair bit because sometimes I feel anger welling up inside of me and I have some trouble explaining why. Anger is a very complex emotion and it is not easy to explain or dissect. I’ll give it a try though in a post coming soon to a computer near you!

Finally, in future posts I want to explore teaching, writing and art in turn as aspects of my life. I want to explore the processes involved in each activity and my journey in learning how to teach, write and ‘do’ art. As well, I will reflect on the philosophical and social underpinnings of each activity. I’m basically embarking on a bit of a retrospective examination of some major parts of my life but, like a good teacher, I expect some of you might just learn a little something by reading my work. It’s a hope I always had as a teacher with respect to my students, and that hope hasn’t died just because I’m no longer getting paid to teach!

 

 

Trump plays silly buggers with trade.

It’s hard not to think of Trump as either silly or cynical.  His economic nationalism is skating on very thin ice and is impossible given the current state of capitalist industry and finance in the world today. Trump should know that capital has long considered national borders as an inconvenience, an opportunity to make more capital, but certainly not as impenetrable walls. His own campaign material was printed in China. His ‘Make America Great Again’ hats were made in China. What the hell is he thinking? It may be that he doesn’t care a wit about any of this because nationalism and flag waving are big sellers in the US. If enough Americans buy into his strategy, if in fact he has one, he can safely ignore his anti-globalist stance in practice and get on with making more money for himself and his cronies. He promised Appalachia that coal would return. It won’t. Empty promises don’t matter, it seems. China and Canada are mean and unfair to poor little USA. ‘Yes! That’s right!’ shout his acolytes. Blame others, that’s it. The people will lap it up. As long as people believe him, Trump feels safe. That would make him the consummate cynic. Do you buy into the idea that Trump knows exactly what he’s doing? His popularity is slowly waning however so he had better watch his ass. Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I want to repeat here what I’ve written before, at least in its essence, elsewhere in this blog (among other places). Yes, I will be repetitious in this post, but only because sometimes repeating a message over and over again is the only way to get through to some people. Of course the people I would like to convince to look more deeply into Trump’s politics are not likely to read this blog. Research, science and thoughtful criticism are not where they turn to for ideas on current political affairs. Belief is enough for them, heart and feeling trump brain. Because Trump is so high on America First, I want to outline some ideas that have been kicking around for centuries about the relationship between countries and capital. Where do American corporations fit into Trump’s world of international trade? Where do international industrial practices, just in time production, export processing zones and globalist production, distribution and consumption fit in Trump’s world? Who knows? However, I don’t think it matters much because capital is bigger than Trump and bigger than the American political system. Capital will eventually eclipse all politics and we’ll be left with who knows what. That may be the end of our tenure on this planet. I have no idea. The problem is that we are such a species full of contradictions. We can do amazingly wonderful things then in the blink of an eye turn into murderous butchers. But back to my point. There is a ton of books that have been published in the 19th, 20th and now in the 21st century about the relationship between countries and capital, but they haven’t seemed to have convinced most people that countries are no longer the repositories of capital and haven’t been for a couple of centuries. Most of the books and scholarly articles I’ve read, and I’ve read dozens on this subject, are clear that capital has long since eclipsed countries as the seat of political economic power. Barnet and Muller in their book Global Reach: The Power of Multinational Corporations from 1976, the year I entered graduate school, argue that of the 100 most powerful economic entities on the planet, 49 of them were multinational corporations (MNCs). I’m sure that ratio is now even more skewed towards MNCs than it was then. I suggested earlier in this post that I was about to write about capital, so what am I doing writing about multinational corporations? Well, MNCs are the seat of capital, the embodiment of what capital means and stands for. They are the crystallization of capital, the vehicles for the generation, circulation and consumption of capital and ultimately its concentration. It might be informative at this stage to define what I mean by capital. I’m not going to do that except to say that capital is the means of creating and re-creating wealth although people commonly equate capital with money. Actually, Marx defined capital in the 1860s with his book, Capital. If you want to understand capital, read Marx, then read some more. A recent book by Thomas Piketty (2017) called Capital in the Twenty-First Century, takes up Marx’s challenge and does a fair job of it. His argument carries on where Marx left off. He clearly documents how capital has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of just a few corporations and individuals (the 1%) over the past three centuries. It’s been a slow but inexorable process. I’ve already argued in this blog on several posts that countries were a creation of capital to start with. ‘Modern’ capital was initially dominated by merchant capital, think Christopher Columbus, (starting in the 11th Century and even before), was replaced eventually in the mid 18th Century by industrial capital, think Wedgwood, then in the late 19th Century by finance capital, now, of course, think Rothschild and Goldman Sachs. That doesn’t mean that all forms of capital haven’t survived, it just means that the dominant form of capital has changed over the decades. In the face of the persistent and overwhelming power of capital, countries went from being somewhat independent political entities with more or less functioning economies to essentially servants of capital and managers of the working class. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s a process not an event. As Harold Innis (1894-1952), a political economist and professor at the University of Toronto, wrote in the 1940s, politicians rely on national statistics to support their power. The Canadian government collects national statistics and ostensibly relies on them to make political decisions. Stephen Harper did not like Statistics Canada because it often reported in ways he did not approve of. Innis knew that national statistics were often a sham and he said so. Think of this possible scenario: General Motors sends a car it assembled in Oshawa to Michigan. Stats Can considers this a transaction that needs to be reported under the heading: international trade. Or this: Canada’s petrochemical industry is overwhelmingly owned by American companies. They ship their product along their pipelines from Canada (Alberta) to the US for refining. That is international trade. It strikes me that if we want to get a grip on how ‘our’ economy works we need to abandon our traditional way of collecting statistics or we must at least map out how large multinational corporations do business across borders. William Carroll at the University of Victoria studies international supply chains. His work is illuminating, but the situation is changing so rapidly it’s hard to keep up. According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative:
  • U.S. goods imports from China totaled $505.5 billion in 2017, up 9.3% ($42.9 billion) from 2016, and up 57.3% from 2007. U.S. imports from are up 394% from 2001 (pre-WTO accession). U.S. imports from China account for 21.6% of overall U.S. imports in 2017.
These are impressive statistics, but what real story do they tell? Well, for one, when the Trade Representative notes that ‘imports from China account for 21.6% of overall U.S. imports in 2017, does he include iPhones in that calculation? Apple assembles iPhones in China via a contractor called Foxconn. Foxconn has plants all over the place, not just China and parts for iPhones may very well come from Thailand or the Check Republic. Is an iPhone a Chinese product considered an import from China? China has established social processing zones also known as export processing zones (EPZs) where foreign corporations like Apple can come and set up shop without paying all those annoying local taxes while, in many instances, ignoring health and safety regulations and paying very low wages. Some of these EPZs are huge encompassing whole cities and surrounding areas. EPZs exist in many parts of the world we used to call the ‘Third World.” They are where our toys, clothes, and a myriad of other products are made and/or assembled. All of these products are ‘made’ by American or Canadian manufacturers, who now maybe should be called importers, but they still call the shots in every way. The automobile industry assembles cars here and there but the parts come from all over the globe. Engines can arrive at an assembly plant in Québec or Michigan ready to be dropped into a car, so are all drive train parts. Body parts can be pressed in Mexico and batteries can also come from there. There is no such thing as a “Canadian” car. Trump either knows this and doesn’t care or has it in for the  auto sector for some reason. I wonder if Trump has done the political economic calculus on his tariff plans for the ‘Canadian’ auto industry or if he just wanders off flying by the seat of his pants making decisions that are clearly arbitrary. It’s been well established that putting tariffs on ‘Canadian’ cars will put a significant dent in the profits of American car companies. Trump doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe he thinks it’s fake news. Some people have argued that Trump is just trying to force American corporations to manufacture their products on American soil. The fact is, that horse has already left the barn and there’s no way of getting it back, even if plants could retool. It used to be that the Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan imported from around the US and abroad all the raw materials required to build a car, manufacture the parts and assemble the cars on site. That is no longer the case and hasn’t been since the creation of shipping containers and the need to acquire parts more cheaply than possible from American sources only. ‘American’ cars are manufactured all over the world. Capital, like the weather, ignores borders. We live in a global world with a global economy. The existence of nation-states or countries is still a fact because taxes need to be collected and passed on to the corporations and workers need to be managed. So far, it seems better to do that locally than globally. That may very well change and there are signs that it is. Trump’s Americans are not happy about the decline of their precious country, but their world is not contained within their borders and the sooner they realize that the better.