My Favourite Books… oh, and the Academic Heresy Hunt

But first…

Before I delve into today’s topic, which is books, I wanted to revisit a topic from yesterday: the plight of university graduate student Lindsay Shepherd, who, according to university officials, failed to sufficiently condemn a problematic political viewpoint, and was sanctioned for her failure

Her experience really weighs on me, in part because it gives further ammunition to those on the political Right who insist that university campuses are infected with political correctness run rampant. I actually don’t feel that they are so infected, but Shepherd’s experience gives me pause.

And given my recent frustrations with this new wave of extreme puritanism that seems to have beset Western society, I fear we may be seeing a new era of Leftist intolerance, to rival (and in some circles exceed) Rightist intolerance. So I am warmed by Shepherd’s seeming poise when faced with sanction from powerful academics; she gives me hope.

Yes, it troubles me that in this issue I seem to be bedfellows with those vultures of the media Right who salivate at every convenient episode of liberal overreach. But that should not be a factor when exploring and expressing one’s position on a thing, not if one truly purports to be a creature of principle and conscience.

I encourage you to read the linked story and analysis.  And let’s remember what this is about: a graduate student showing a couple of minutes of a TV show to her students. What TV show? The Agenda on TVOntario, one of the smartest, most poignant and acceptable bits of publicly-funded mainstream television.  To be honest, I have experienced a lighter shade of academic authoritarianism, which I am not prepared at this time to describe any further (so please do not ask), so perhaps I’m primed to be overly fascinated by Shepherd’s experience.

But I will share the experiences of a colleague, now retired, who chose to discuss with her students the political realities of the world, in the immediate wake of the September 11 attack in 2001. She was angrily chastised by higher-ups for daring to nudge a troubling topic that could result in …sigh… upset students.

First, the students were already upset, as the greatest terror attack in modern history had just been witnessed on live television. Second, and most important, what are we here for, if not to make students uncomfortable with dangerous ideas and troubling thoughts? We, as educators, are whom they turn to for contextualization and intellectual stability as they grapple with complex, and often uncomfortable, ideas.

As Shepherd demands of her university’s administrators, “Can you shield people from those ideas? Am I supposed to comfort them?”

Comforting is not our job. Challenging them is our job.

Frankly, the TV show The West Wing did an admirable job in safely exploring political issues in the aftermath of 9/11.  Their episode, “Isaac & Ishmael”, was, I felt, a fine model for leading a classroom discussion on the topic. It is saddening that a mainstream TV show has more leeway to explore an important, contemporary topic than does a leading Western university classroom.

I have made no secret of the fact that I tend to record meetings in which I am an active participant. (I make no efforts to hide my recording device, and I share these recordings with no one, except for other participants in the meetings. I have been informed by my lawyer(s) that I am in my legal rights to act thusly, so please don’t try to make this a bigger deal than it is.)

I’m glad that Lindsay Shepherd has a similar policy. You might enjoy her recording of her disappointing meeting with the university higher-ups. One has to ask whether they would have issued their apologies (here and here) if she had not had the foresight to make the recording.

Inevitably, in this era of “with us or against us” black-and-white thinking, there will be those among you who will seek to tar my support of Shepherd’s position as, bewilderingly, akin to support for Jordan Peterson’s viewpoints and/or, even more bewilderingly, support for deeply offensive transphobic perspectives and, as the Wilfrid Laurier University officials tried to paint it, societal gender violence.

Peterson, whose specific views I do not share,  is a  “critic of a prevalent campus culture that focuses on identity politics, and which he believes is silencing politically unacceptable viewpoints.” It is frustratingly ironic that the censuring of Lindsay Shepherd by Wilfrid Laurier University serves to seemingly confirm Peterson’s thesis.

What we may be facing is an inevitable ideological conflict within academia, with the fundamental question being whether traditional liberal ideals of truth-seeking are compatible with new ideas about social justice. I don’t know. But that’s not what I am claiming in this particular blog post.

So let’s be clear. My concern is for the sustenance of the university as a forum for emerging learners to shakily explore perspectives, perhaps to be shot down and perhaps to be bolstered, but at the very least to have the opportunity to work through various positions. In my view, a university is a not a space for dictating what its overseers deem as proper thought. That’s what a church is for.

In other words, Lindsay Shepherd is a damned hero.

The university library…

…Is great. I love librarians. They are the guardians of knowledge, the archivists of all that is holy in the world of intelligentsia. So it means a  lot to me that my university’s library gave me an award, which just got published on their website. I’m proud to be only the second recipient of the award, after the great and mighty Michael Geist, a man I respect deeply.

Fifty-four years ago yesterday….

JFK died. It happened before I was born, just barely. But the world in which I grew up was still reeling from this most epochal of events. I still struggle to understand what it meant for Americans and the rest of the world at the time.

But certainly in this time of Trump, perhaps the complete antithesis to the brilliant and charming Kennedy, we are hardpressed not to consider what might have been.

Here’s a taste of history, a letter written by Richard Nixon to Jackie Kennedy. Revel in his literacy, his poetry, his humanity. And this was Nixon, heretofore the most shameful President in modern history. In the era of Trump, even Nixon has been redeemed:

My favourite books…

On Tim Ferris’s podcast, he often asks his guests for book recommendations. This is a tad different from asking them for their favourite books. But nevertheless, it got me thinking about which titles I would consider my “favourite,” a list that I would limit to works of fiction alone.

My list is a tad embarrassing. The first two titles that come to mind are representatives of a time of literature that is problematic to many, especially in this more enlightened time of diversity and the casting away of colonial shadows. (Pardon the mixed metaphor.)

I have deep affection for Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge and E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India. And yet I recognize that both of those works are bits of Orientalist fantasy reflecting the depths of colonial romanticism and, in many ways, the othering and infantalization of non-White peoples.

In my defence, I came of age in Toronto in the 1970s, where the environment was the ugly of newness. We were surrounded by emerging urban infrastructure without the artistry of architecture or any prevailing lived narrative arising from an established shared culture…. this was the nature of comparatively new places.

I, as a young person thirsting for adventure and stories in a time before the Internet and cable TV, was drawn to the complexities and romance of history and the stylized Old World. And since I had a familial connection to South Asia, the romance I sought was an Indian romance.

In that time, the only access to such content was through books. And the only books that celebrated that sense of adventure and romance that I craved were either science fiction or Orientalist.

For a time, I felt that Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was the finest English-language novel written in the latter half of the 20th century. I have since revised that estimation, due in large part to how atrocious I found the film version. That probably isn’t fair, but Rushdie was intimately involved in the making of that film, even narrating it. So now I feel that I might have read more into it than the actual author had intended. It’s not a good feeling, and I’m not sure it’s a just feeling. But nevertheless, the book has slipped in my personal rankings.

Another way of thinking about favourite books is to consider which ones I recommend the most.  Interestingly, I find myself going to some length to work Arthur C. Clarke’s Songs of Distant Earth into many unrelated conversations. That should mean something, right?

I reviewed the book back in 2007, and recommended the NY Times‘s take on it, as well, which said of the book:

“This is not a poetry that relies on fresh language or fresh insights; it is a poetry of perspective, of attitude; it invites us to forget our petty problems in the contemplation of a mortality so immense as to mimic immortality in scale.”

You’re welcome: