36 / www.universityaffairs.ca / January 2014
Give me marks for trying
Hey, I’m a student again
by Alan MacEachern
Alan MacEachern is associate
professor and graduate chair of history
at Western University and director of
NiCHE: Network in Canadian History
& Environment. His column appears in
every second issue.
t turns out that reinvention is hard.
You’d think I would have known that, since
I teach at Western. In 2012, “the University
of Western Ontario” rebranded to “Western
University.” It was a change that seemed
destined to satisfy everyone. Teenage would-be
students from around the world would find it
sleeker and easier to Google. Sentimental centenarians would be impressed that we were
reclaiming the name we had held until 1923.
Everyone in-between would be fine.
But there have been some bumps. The discovery of an identically named school in Azerbaijan. The fact that the three research granting
councils insist on calling us the University of
Western Ontario, while the Association of
Universities and Colleges of Canada, including
University Affairs, insists on Western. The probably apocryphal news that some faculty members were submitting to journals under one
name, some under the other, and our journal
citation rankings were suffering as a result. The
constant teasing from Western Canadians that
we are not even in the West. (To them I say,
“Yeah, but we’re not in Western Ontario either!
And at our founding in 1878, southwestern
Ontario was the West! Well, British Columbia
and Manitoba were already provinces. Whatever.
Shut up. Tar sands.”)
Which is all to say that my quest for profes-
sional reinvention has not been without
hiccups either. For example, I have long wanted
to be more tech-savvy, the kind of person who
doesn’t use the phrase “tech-savvy.” Specifically,
I have wanted to incorporate more digital tools
and practices into my historical research. I
am not an utter novice; I was co-author with
friend and colleague William J. Turkel of an
online textbook, The Programming Historian, that
teaches just that. But I was a full participant
only in the most generous sense of the term,
like a baby in a carjacking. So this fall I have
been auditing Bill’s graduate course on digital
It has been surprisingly unnerving. Within
a couple of hours each Wednesday, I move from
talking at the front of a room with 120 students
to sitting quietly amid a class of 15.
Talking lots is an occupational hazard for
professors – or else the profession attracts those
who feel they have lots to say – but as a student,
I turn shy and self-conscious. And sometimes I
feel stupid. One week, I got trapped in an exercise and watched helplessly as the class moved
on without me. (It was the Linux command line
wget -r -H -nc -nd -np -nH --cut-dirs= 2 -A .txt -e
robots=off -l1 -i ../iafilelist-clean -B 'http://
archive.org/download/' that did me in.) Because
my eyes are bad – did I mention I’m old? – I sit
at the front, so my unchanging laptop screen, my
silent keyboard seemed designed to broadcast
my shame to all.
Even more disconcerting has been seeing
how game the students are with even the most
difficult material. And not because, as might be
assumed, they are of a more digitally literate gen-
eration, but rather because they take for granted
that there is plenty they don’t know – and that
that is temporary. They are wonderfully open to
unfamiliarity, experimentation and failure. That
is, to education.
I don’t think I stopped learning when I
stopped being a student many years ago, but it
occurs to me now that it has been largely on my
own terms. I chose the topics, the books, the
software components I felt like studying, and
moved on when I felt like it. This fall, I have
taken ridiculous pride in working out problems
in class – even problems that I had created in the
first place. I shouldn’t have had to take a course
to get a heightened respect for formal education,
but I have.
I also have a heightened respect for students.
They invest time, money and effort to transform,
to move themselves from point A to point B.
Of course, not all reinventions are successful or
satisfying or even necessarily sensible. But all
attempts at reinvention are to be respected,
because they require more than the alternative.
Or, maybe, realizing that fact is simply a nec-
essary step, or a necessary rationalization, when
the reinvention turns difficult, as it will.
In 1921, The Canadian Magazine wrote that
“A young university like Western can shake itself
free from what George Meredith calls ‘the stupor
of precedents.’ It need not be troubled by the
burden of the past, in setting its face to the future
that it will help to contrive.” As with universities,
so with university students and perhaps even
Signing off for now, from the Western Uni-
versity of Western Ontario at Western.