Friday, February 22, 2013

Some thoughts on why people are not enamoured of unions right now

Reading today that the recently privatized garbage collectors here in Toronto voted to reject unionization does not come as a surprise, but it is a pretty depressing result nevertheless.

As I have written before, I feel as though the way in which Torontonians think about our garbage collectors is a very clear example of the general state of incoherent mean-spiritedness in the city when it comes to the public sector.

This isn't terribly surprising, given that there has been a fairly long-term (and highly successful) assault on the idea of the public sector being anything more than a bunch of lazy unionized assholes who are literally stealing money from the honest taxpayer.  As a former civil servant, and now part of the broader public sector, I still get into arguments with people who. on the basis of having had to wait for an hour to get their driver's license renewed, conclude that the government "can't do anything right".

Beyond the fact that this is a no-win argument (if the renewal office was staffed to the gills, wouldn't that be more wasteful? or maybe it's 20 years of attrition to pay for those tax cuts that had some effect?), it points to a much plainer fact - nearly no one in Canada ever has to deal with any level of government.  This is why most people go to city hall to get their passport, or e-mail the province to ask about their local property taxes.

The reality is that most Canadians don't have a clue as to how their governments work.  And what's funny about this is that they don't really have to, because we live in a society where our governments, even if I really don't like them, still manage to make the quality of life here in Canada pretty good.  But the quality of our public service has now come back to bite the public sector in the ass, because it's actually done a pretty good job of uh, doing a good job.

Anyway, I say all this in part because when the garbage strikes happened here in Toronto, it shocked people into remembering that there was this whole public sector, and it did all kinds of stuff for them, like picked up their garbage, looked after their children, or provided cheap recreation for them. 

However, in a spirit remarkably consistent with the laughter and derision towards protestors during the G20, rather than thinking that outside workers might have as much dignity as say, someone who works at a bank, we as a city, very loudly and clearly, told them to shut up and get back to doing our dirty work, and how dare they think that they deserved what they negotiated over the years, like all those previous agreements that no one noticed, and where all these "benefits" accrued. 

"I mean what", the civic body thought to itself, "do the outside workers think union negotiations are some kind of good faith contract between two parties?"

So it does not surprise me that the workers at GFL did not unionize.  I don't think it helped the union's cause when their initial strategy was to argue that GFL would do a bad job, going so far as to set up a hotline for people to call to complain.  Not a great idea, given that the GFL garbage collectors might actually think the union is accusing them of doing a bad job (which is kind of was...).

But when you think about it, I suspect most of those who work for GFL were here for the last strike, and that the last thing they wanted to do was to rock the boat right now.  I doubt that GFL even really had to press them that hard - it was ordinary Joe Toronto who scared them into rejecting the union.  I mean, right now they are the worse-off heroes of the city!   Way to take one for the team, ladies and gentlemen of GFL!

That being said, I'm sure things are probably pretty good for them right now - as is common with capitalism, there is always the opening gambit, when the company is flush with cash and able to show its workers that they can offer similar benefits without union protection  (Remember the early days of the National Post?).  But it will get worse, and GFL will ask (and likely receive) more money from the uh, taxpayer, to increase its profits while keeping wages "competitive" and costs low.

This is the perversity of our civic culture right now, and I can't help but be reminded of Michel Foucault's preface to Anti-Oedipus, when he reminds us of "the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us." (And no, I'm not saying GFL or the workers are fascists like Hitler of Mussolini!!!!!  His comment is about why we enjoy hurting ourselves to assume a particular kind of power)

I am certain, as we all are, that the garbage collectors who voted again unionization all sincerely believe that they will be better off, in the long run, without collective bargaining, because right now, they all probably feel as though they have the power, the power to be on the city's good side, and that the union would take away that power. 

However, just as one of my tyrannical former bosses believed that governments could do away with unions because "they weren't relevant anymore", by simply saying what he said, he unwittingly demonstrated their necessity.

Better luck next time, CUPE 416!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

La Clemenza di Tito

I was the Canadian Opera Company's production of Mozart's last opera last night.  I don't actually have much more to say about it than the Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail.  I completely agree with this reviewer that it was really well sung, maybe the best sung Mozart opera I've seen at the COC, and that the substitute for Michael Schade, Owen McCausland, really shone in the title role (especially in the 2nd part).  However, it was marred by one of the most incoherent productions the COC has ever staged. 

Now I have complained about COC strangeness before, like when they tried to set Beethoven's Fidelio in a Kafkaesque (HA!) bureaucracy, or completely ruined the ending of Don Giovanni (for laughs?), but the problem with this one went deeper, in part because the notes the director, Christopher Alden, wrote for the playbill were quite intriguing.  He argues that Titus, who is characterized by his clemency (hence the title!), actually tyrannizes his populace with kindness. 

I have to admit, this sounded like a really interesting take, and I looked forward to seeing that.  Unfortunately, what happened on stage failed to resemble even the director's argument for the production!  Instead, it came off as farce, which, in light of the libretto and Mozart's music, simply made no sense.  It resulted in people laughing at points of high seriousness, and reducing certain characters, like Annio and Vitellia, to wildly inappropriate caricatures. Basically all the humour that was set up in the first part led to the audience seeing certain characters as funny, and so when they got serious, like when Vitellia completely changes her position on Tito, it comes off as though she's not serious, or perhaps insane. 

It was the same with the setting - I enjoyed the idea of a kind of late-late Modernist building, and the fact that it looked like every 1960's arts centre lobby in Canada, from Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre to the Confederation Centre in PEI.  But again, there was no payoff.

So unlike some of the previous productions I've seen, which were obviously thought through, but the concept itself was poorly conceived, this one struck me as intriguingly conceived, but terribly articulated in its execution. 

Nevertheless, I would highly recommend seeing it for the singing, and it's a shame that the house was the emptiest I've seen it in a long while last night given the quality of the musical performances. 

Just try not to think too much about what's going on on stage.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Which Language does the Word "Panacea" Come From?

There has been much talk of late about online courses and how they will revolutionize the University Experience. (Yes, I meant to put every word in that sentence exactly in that way)

I say much because, I am notoriously self-selecting when it comes to what I read online.  There was a time when I would read right-wing political blogs (and maybe troll a little..) but I stopped doing so mainly because I stopped browsing the Internet when I set up my RSS feed, which I now update about once a year with a new blog or two.

Anyway, to my feed came a whole bunch of posts critical of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses).  They basically all seem to be in response to this blog post by Clay Shirky.  These responses have been building steam, and over the past few weeks everything has kind of boiled over.  (By the way, I'm explaining this out loud in part because I have no idea who reads my blog anymore, and because you aren't me, I assume that you have not read the same bunch of pieces I have. The links in the previous sentence will get you much more up to speed than my explanation anyway.)

In light of all this, a comment on an another blog, Leiter Reports, struck me.  It's the first comment after the post, and what caught my attention, unsurprisingly, was the comment about how language schools like Berlitz eating into language teaching at Universities was likely a good thing. 

As a language instructor in a university, it's not surprising that this rubbed me the wrong way!  But it got me thinking -  What would be the effect of MOOCs on language courses?  How would something like that work?

I ask this because I can totally see university administrators thinking that language learning might be a great place to try this kind of approach, especially for first year students.  There are already tons of online resources, and it would "solve" the problem of low student/teacher ratios in language courses relative to other disciplines through the magic!  You just turn university language learning into Rosetta Stone and voila! 

It's true that many people think that the way languages are taught in universities is flawed, geared too much toward evaluating grammar and not enough about learning the language as a living means of communication.  In fact,  I think this is what the commenter was getting at.  At the same time, university language courses are still a pretty inexpensive and effective way to start learning a language, and to gauge whether or not one wants to continue learning the language or not.

Anyway, it seems obvious to me that a MOOC-style model for language instruction would be terrible, and it would be terrible in part because in order for it to not be just as (if not more) labour intensive than current language courses, it would essentially have to roll back the past 50 years of science and pedagogy on language learning and focus even more exclusively on grammar and vocab memorization than we already do now.

Why?  Well, it seems to me that if these courses are to be meaningful in the sense that they give someone a grade or a sense that they've learned something, if they're to be more than a list of youtube videos, they're going to have to test them. And the cheapest and easiest way to test people is going to be by designing tests that really entirely on right/wrong answers, like asking about the genders of nouns, or filling in the mission preposition or pronoun.

I mean, this is why math and computer science are seen as great models for online learning - the answers are usually just right/wrong. But you get outside of this incredibly narrow band of topics, and it seems impossible to imagine doing anything even remotely like this with respect to most things that we teach at a university.

In my experience, when it comes to language learning, the Internet is quite good at a few things.  It's pretty easy to find good learning resources (Deutsche Welle springs to mind) for self-study.  It's also easy to find things like anki or memrise, which are basically flashcard programs.  But very, very few people are going to learn a language from flash cards or games. 

However, it has also made things a lot worse when it comes to language instruction.  Google Translate, for example, is the bane of my existence.  Suddenly everyone thinks that the translation problem has been solved because you can simply type whole pages into Google and it will "translate" it for you.  The problem is that these translations are terrible, and it is also really easy to spot fakes from students who think that Google Translate will hide the fact that they didn't want to do the hard work of writing in the language they are learning.

How would an online course address this kind of stuff, beyond eliminating all writing and talking from evaluation, which are basically all the things that make learning a language possible?

Unlike math or computer science, which are taught in a language, language learning is about the medium of thought itself.   They require a kind of intense concentration and discipline that something like an online course simply cannot provide without a huge amount of labour.  And if all that labour is going into supporting an online course, why not make it much easier for everyone and just teach it in a room?

I know that a lot of the arguments for MOOCs have to do also with the idea of having access to the best professors at the best university, but again, I cannot really imagine that anyone taking German at some community college somehow believes that they would be better off learning German via video lectures from an Ive League professor.

Maybe there are world class instructors of German, but they are probably world class because of how they interact with students on a personal basis, and not simply that the words they use or the explanations they give magically have teaching power.  And a lot of their work is probably the constant cajoling and convincing an instructor has to give students in order to keep them from getting discouraged when it dawns on them that learning a language is actually one of the hardest things to do in university, and not a bird course you take to fulfill a breadth requirement,.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more this kind of argument seems to make absolutely no sense to me.  Yes, of course, there are terrible teachers out there, but the reality is that even a terrible teacher is going to provide more of a positive feedback loop to a student than the fill-in the blanks testing that a MOOC would have to depend on in order to justify itself from an economic perspective, and it would only wind up producing people who are even less knowledgeable about communicating in a foreign language than what is currently the norm in higher education!

That being said, if the long-term goal is to just eliminate languages from universities entirely, and leave it up to the private sector, then MOOCs are probably the way to go, because after a few years of teaching them, they can evaluate how well people did and declare that it was the languages themselves that were at fault, and not the technology.  We simply will not be able to afford to teach languages anymore because we have made everything around them so efficient that they look even more old-fashioned than now.

A depressing thought, but not at all inconsistent with the way people who are actually listened to ( as in, not me!) would argue this case.