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 a Teacher: Part 4 Addendum 2: Live Television.

Jeez. As I posted my last few blog entries I kept remembering more and more incidents, situations and conditions about my life teaching. The whole thing was entirely unconventional. I’d need to write a book to include even a fraction of the goofy and bizarre things that happened along with the mundane.

When I taught sociology and studying skills on the Knowledge Network from 1897 to 1992, the conditions in the studio were as far removed from what went on in a classroom as can be in terms of physical environment. The studio was always super hot with huge lights needed to ensure good colour on the set. There were many people directly involved in the on-air production: 3 camera operators in the studio with me as well as the floor director, the overall director in the control room as well as a number of technicians overseeing the quality of the picture and other aspects of the production. Timing was extremely important. The floor director would count me down at the beginning of the hour but every segment of the program was timed to the second. At the end of the program the floor director would count me out.

Dan Moscrip was most often the director but others were also involved. My buddy Roger Loubert volunteered regularly to man the phones for the call-in section of the program. That was especially important because NIC was responsible for the production of the telecourses and no one came forward to pay for anyone to man the phones. Roger did a great job. Much appreciated. This was really live television on a shoestring.

After I did my thing in the studio, I would hop into my rental car and head into town with Roger sometimes. But I also did other things. I have lots of family in the Vancouver area but I had very little time to visit anyone. I did spend some time with my father-in-law who was in a long term care hospital conveniently located just steps away from the studios in Burnaby. Then I’d get back to the airport for my flight home and back to my ‘normal’ life.

NIC, at that time, was a distance education operation. I was considered a tutor and not an instructor. It was verboten to refer to ourselves as instructors and we didn’t have classes, we had study groups. Most of our students were spread all over the north island and we were in contact with them mostly by phone and by mail. When I started at NIC in 1983 I was put in charge of 18 courses as tutor in subjects ranging from Canadian History to French to studying skills, anthropology, geography and sociology. These were strangely fun times. It was really a lot of work keeping up with the content of so many courses so I could be in a position to answer student questions. A lot of the grading was handled by  tutors at Athabasca University in Alberta, where most of our packaged courses originated. I developed the studying skills courses myself on the basis of Tony Buzan’s program laid out in his book, Use Your Head. Tony later went on to head an international self improvement organization but his mother lived in White Rock and I had him on my program once. I’ll see if I can dig that up.

I think I’ll write at least one more post on my teaching experiences. There’s so much to tell. Stay tuned.

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 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.

 

What were you doing on February 29, 1988?

On Monday, February 29th, 1988, early in the morning I boarded CP flight number 502 in Comox bound for Vancouver. I flew to Vancouver like this many times in the late 1980s and early 1990s to make my way to the Knowledge Network studios at UBC, then on Mathissi Place, in Burnaby to get my make-up on and teach live interactive telecourses for North Island College. I taught introductory and advanced study skills and introductory sociology all live with a phone in segment during each show. I did 254 discreet hour long lectures in the studio to be broadcast all over Western Canada.

One year I accounted for 10% of college enrolments by teaching on the Knowledge Network, but I was also responsible for tutoring a schwack of courses at our learning centre in Courtenay. I learned later that some of my colleagues thought I was getting paid extra money for doing this. On the contrary, not only did I not get paid any more but in fact it cost me money personally to do this. And I got burned out…but I did receive and award from the Association of Canadian Community Colleges. It was an honorary mention in the technical category.

That is all in the distant past now.

That is all.