4 / www.universityaffairs.ca / January 2014
I am sure that other people have written to say how much
we have missed Alan MacEachern’s regular columns in
University Affairs. The last time he wrote one, his university
was going by a different name. So let me thank Alan for
taking the time to share his thoughts again with us. His take
on the mid-(academic) life crisis that appeared in the
November issue is a gem that hits the nail right on the head
– though it’s not clear on whose coffin. Please keep writing,
if only to ease the ache of our aging bones.
Dr. Garrido is a professor in the department of mathematics and statistics at Concordia University. Alan MacEachern’s second
instalment of his column, The Associate, can be found on page 36 of this issue.
Curiouser and curiouser
there is more to dr. bök’s experiments with
poetry and DNA than he realizes (“Poet, artist,
scientist,” December 2013). The constraint of
writing a text with only one vowel was employed
by Georges Perec (1972) and by at least one earlier author. It is a clear example of an inbuilt error-correction device: appearance of another vowel
in the text tells the reader that there may have
been a printing error. Error-correction is something our DNA texts have to do all the time.
In fact, I cited Dr. Bök’s work in my 2011 book
Evolutionary Bioinformatics (Chapter 4).
Dr. Forsdyke is a professor in the department of biomedical and
molecular sciences at Queen’s University.
The purpose of religion
religions were invented for the purpose of
controlling the naïve, i.e. the vast majority (“Is
God good?” December 2013). Every religion
makes use of two primary tools: the fear of its
god (of course, the only true one) and the indisputable argument that it knows exactly what that
god wants. Consequently, the enforcers of every
religion are bestowed with the power to make
decisions on god’s behalf, and to provide or deny
access to god as they see fit.
Every religion claims its way is the only correct way to the only true god, and by definition
all others are wrong and bogus. Every religion’s
enforcers make sure the followers are prepared
and do fight for their version of what is right.
The objective is always the same: to expand the
enforcers’ control. More control is more power,
the primary aphrodisiac.
It is no surprise that throughout history,
including the present day, religions caused division, hatred, distrust, wars and atrocities – all in
the name of god. It is also no surprise that when
individuals achieve intellectual and spiritual
maturity, they dispense with religion, recognizing
the fallacy of religious enforcers’ claim on the
inner track to god, and find their own way – some
to God, some to the absence of god.
Dr. Urgursal is a professor of mechanical engineering at Dalhousie University.
Comment gérer son stress
Il s’agit de savoir ce qu’on
A Swedish education
Foreign grad students are wooed
to Sweden, to study in English.
Integrate social media into
Taking a short sabbatical?
How to use your six-month
What’s new online! Nouveautés en ligne!
www.affairesuniversitaires.ca / novembre 2013 / 41
A productive mid-life crisis
The middle stretch of my
by Alan MacEachern
y the time you read this, i’ll be dead.
Not really, probably. But it’s occurred to
me that if I begin everything I write like
that, imagine how poignant, how tragic
it’ll be the one time it’s true.
I’ve been thinking about mortality a lot lately.
Because I’m, you know, alive. But also because
the last time I wrote for University Affairs, I was
a fresh-faced Bob Benson, the junior guy in the
office, and now I am a world-weary Don Draper.
(Who’s kidding who? I’ve a case of rapid-onset
I am an associate professor, that long middle
stretch of the academic marathon. The anticipation and camaraderie of the race’s beginning is
far behind me, the finish line and the festschrifts
far ahead, and for the moment it’s just me, my
bad knees, and the occasional drink station.
Although I’m not really alone. The Canadian
Association of University Teachers’ Almanac editions of the past decade tell the story of an
expanding associate rank.In my own field of
history,for instance,associate professors have
risen from a low of 32 percent of all full-time
faculty to their current level of 39 percent of
full-time faculty.This would seem to be the
result more of assistant professors moving
through the system than the number of full professors moving out of it – because fewer older
professors are, in fact, moving out.
The percentage of full-time Canadian uni-
versity faculty aged 65 or over has quadrupled
this past decade. They have soared from 1. 7 per-
cent to 6. 7 percent of all faculty. (The increase
for history professors is even more dramatic:
from 2. 1 to 9. 1 percent.) Almost one percent of
professors are over 70, which has only recently
become a measured category.
The global recession produced a steep drop
in academic openings, and the end of mandatory
retirement in Canada – well, I’m not sure of the
impact of that. Whether the move exacerbated
the hiring slowdown or kept experienced professionals in positions that would not have been
replaced anyway, I’ll leave for others to hash out.
Regardless, in an era when methodologies,
disciplines, students, universities, the labour
force, and society in general have experienced
dramatic change, the Canadian professoriate has
been about as unchanging as it has ever been,
other than aging.
That reality is difficult for individual aging
professors – that is, all of us – to come to terms
with, particularly when we see so many capable
young scholars unable to crack the academic
market. Particularly when we are complicit in
making such capable young scholars proliferate.
The CAUT Almanacs reveal, for example, that in
Canada in 2004, the ratio of students enrolled
in history PhD programs to full-time appointments in history was lower than seven to one.
But a mere four years later, with enrolments up
and hirings down, the ratio had jumped to more
than 17 to one.
All things being equal, there was much more
competition for those history jobs in 2008 than
there had been in 2004 – or when I had been
hired in 2001. Would I have been the top candi-
date in 2008 for the job I landed in 2001? Would
I, in 2013?
Beyond what I owe my students, my university, taxpayers and myself, I owe it to recent history PhDs to be the best present-day model of a
history professor I can be, and not just the best
2001 model. But like many of us, I have fallen
into the trap of recycling old lecture notes, not
keeping up with the literature, relying on graduate students’ familiarity with the latest software
rather than learning it myself. Every day, my history has grown a little more historic.
Which is why I’m dedicating this regular column to the theme of reinvention. How are professors to adapt to changing pedagogical ideas
and methods? When, if ever,do we adjust our
long-held standards in response to changing student needs? How do we maintain the university’s
forte in training students in skills that are timeless, through the use of new technologies and
methodologies – technologies and methodologies that didn’t even exist when we were originally trained?
And, of course, I’m hoping this column will
spur and document some personal reinvention
of my own. I am planning to contemplate my
current practices, develop new skills, be intentional about where I want to go from here.
I don’t for a minute think that in two years
I’ll be unrecognizable to those who know me,
but maybe I will have set myself a little off-course, in a good way. As a mid-life crisis, it
seems more productive than a convertible.
By the time you read this, I’ll be different.
Alan MacEachern is associate
professor and graduate chair of history
at Western University and director of
NiCHE: Network in Canadian History
& Environment. His new column, The
Associate, will appear in every second
issue of University Affairs.