The Jeopardy of the academy

I came to Ottawa/Gatineau a year ago to do a doctoral program in Religious Studies.  It was a four year program and I was guaranteed both full tuition and support in the form of TAships, predicated on my Summa Cum Laude graduation, just past, and my earlier graduate work in a different field.   But, after two semesters, I bailed.  It was both a case of mistaken identity (all the way around) and a “logjam” of bad planning, mostly on the part of the program planners and, I assume, of administration..  I will lay out that first, since it is the most factual and ought to be the least contentious part of this whole mess.  I should add that I was in a doctoral program in the 1990’s and so thought I had some idea of what I was in for, but, alas, did not.  I thought, at first, that this was unique, in a very unfortunate way, to the University of Ottawa, I have since been disabused of that notion – it seems that this new format is becoming standard.  What I am referring to, is that full year courses have been condensed into half year courses, (something previously feared and hated by grad students) and into these condensed courses more work has been poured.  I suspect, but cannot prove, that this is the maleficent dictate of corporate power, trying to wrest “greater efficiency” from the academic process, seeing the academy as “training” for the “real world” – meaning the world ruled by business norms and expectations.  Thus, where once we showed up to class with readings done, we now had to submit written work every week, well in advance of the session, in order for the prof to mark it and, in some classes, for fellow students to have read it.  That might have assured that the articles had indeed been read, but, at least in my case, I simply could not attend and regurgitate on that kind of pressurized schedule.  Jotting notes for a coming discussion is one thing, handing in written essays, is quite another and takes a different level of attention, time and consideration (times the number of courses one is taking).  Where once students came to tussle and debate, we now read thoughts that had been extracted from tired minds and codified onto paper, debate was stilted.  Classes were longer, three hours rather than two – far too long for sustained comprehension and engagement in such a face-to-face setting.  As if that were not bad enough, just as those courses were ending, we began to realise that the “spring/summer” courses would again condense 12 weeks down to 6.  And, although supposedly a program with “full funding”, there were no TA positions for that interval – so, just as things would get even more intense, one would have to scramble for a job?, do self employment? – busk? what????? And, the prof, admin? wanted to get a jump on the course, so before the last work was handed in for the previous courses, readings were already to have been done for the first week of these courses. No “heads-up” alert notices were sent out – way in advance – to clue us in to this logjam. We were going to hit it full on.   No Way.  I heard from friends after, that there were several serious melt downs during those six weeks.  But I was already having nasty symptoms, blurred vision was making reading a nightmare, and there were other unpleasant effects. Should I have seen a doctor, to get medication, to allow me to continue?  I don’t think so – change of lifestyle, back off the pressure.  With some thought, this could and should have been avoided,  but one comes to the unfortunate conclusion that, too bad, this was a sort of hazing test of the worthy.  One which I failed, and am glad to be out of it: I do not like those kind of games.

But that was not the only problem, or set of problems.  I had already bailed out of one of my fall courses.  This was, remember, a Religious Studies Program, and one of my two fall courses was on “critical approaches to the study of religion” – critical to the point of “deconstructing” the category of “religion” altogether.  Which would have been fine, if the professor who taught it had been willing to forgo tenure in a department named “Religious Studies”. I do think that Religious Studies does need a critical assessment, but with some serious respect for those who do believe/understand/confess to being “religious”, having a religion, doing religion, being spiritual and the like: some realm of human endeavour that is considered by the practitioner to be “religion”.  What we were doing was “sociology of rrrr….” well, sociology of something.  The contradictions in the epistemology of the course were pretzelizing. To make matters worse, far worse, this prof “treated the girls to drinks” at a local pub every week (we bought our own dinners – but what happens if, on a limited budget, that ate up your spending money for the week???).  She also had the “girls” read her own work and offer their weekly written “critical assessments”: how, I ask you, could students, being “treated” every single week, forming a coterie of admirers,  attempt any real critical analysis?  Wouldn’t this be something of a compromised situation?  I was called on the carpet, just prior to (what turned out to be) my last class (I walked and didn’t come back), because the prof said that some of the students said that I was too disruptive.  I inquired with my other prof whether my deportment in her class was any problem at all, to which she said, to the contrary, she found me polite, attentive to other students, encouraging, the things I would want to be and strive to be as a student.  But, I did try to argue, in the “critical approaches class” , when I felt that “a line” was being insisted upon.  Apparently “the girls” were disturbed.  The insupportable irony of a class about power and knowledge.

But that was not the only problem. I took an outside class in Poli Sci, on states and regimes, which I did find interesting, if, again, frustrating. It seemed that we looked at failures of states everywhere but in our own back yard.  We haven’t “failed” you say – but we did come close, we did evidence things that failed states in other places: Robocalls for one, and there were many others.  But, my own target was the American Empire – which exasperated my prof so much that he bluntly asked if I thought the US was responsible “for everything” – did no one have “agency”?  – to which I replied that people hope for, reach for agency everywhere, but their achievement depends, often, on forces beyond their control: Chile and Allende; Iran and Mosedegh; Nicaragua, San Salvador, Honduras, Afghanistan, Iraq.  Had Chomsky’s latest book, “Who Rules the World” come out a few months earlier, I would have given it to him as a going away present.  As it was, he asked me to rewrite my last essay because he thought it was too “activist” and not “academic” enough, just when I was struggling to get the last research papers done, before jumping into the condensed condensed courses.  But I had been careful to back up what I wrote with as much scholarly citation as I could stuff in – so I do not believe it was a failure of my academics but the presence of my “activism”.  By that point, however, I knew I could not hand in end-of-term papers that would satisfy them – or satisfy me.  When I heard that readings had already been assigned for the next set of courses, bailing was really my only course of action.

But that was not the only problem.  We live between a rock and a hard place.  That rock is climate change (or environmental collapse), and the hard place is the struggle to wrest a different civilization, based on sustainability and social justice from an elite, entrenched in a political economy that benefits them, but most of the world not at all.  These are the defining struggles of our time.  You would think that in a “Religious Studies” department there would be some address to these issues, since some of the justifications for and against the dividing line of sustainability and equity, are based on religious ideas. But the silence was deafening. While making a case for the “deconstruction” of “religion” (which might have been addressed to those defining issues, but was not), these urgent issues were invisible within the work of the department.  The work I found there seemed diversionary, not visionary. The one and only time I actually found people who were concerned about these urgent matters was in the public forum on divestment – (I am so happy that the University of Ottawa did decide to divest, that speaks well for the overall environment of the university, if not the Religious Studies Department).  No one but me, from our department, attended the forum: why not?  These are the defining issues of our time.  Can anything be more important than survival, than reframing our civilization so that we can survive? than reframing our civilization so that it serves the many, not the few?  So where was “Religious Studies” ? – MIA.

“It was, in the end, a sad case of mistaken identity – combined with such appalling planning in terms of the arc of the year, that people’s health was put in jeopardy, along with what I consider to be an equally appalling lapse in ethics by members of the faculty.  I am glad I am out.   Since I bailed without completing final papers, my grades at U of Ottawa will, most certainly, prevent me from doing doctoral work elsewhere.  But, I have decided that the time has come to put away wanting another degree, and getting on with writing about and teaching the things I think are fundamentally important.  At the University of Ottawa, I was chided for still, naively thinking there was such a thing as “truth” – indeed, I started to carry around a small bottle filled with very good brandy, marked “truth”.  I was also chided for wanting to do “theology” rather than “sociology (of rrrrrr)”.  The charge laid against “Religious Studies” by the “deconstruct” crowd,  is that it is a covert defense of Western theology. Even if that were the case, perhaps a service could be done by opening that up to other theologies, by developing a forum for open theology, putting diverse theological ideas out in conversation.  So I will embrace these two criticisms: yes, I still believe in getting to the bottom of things, of trying to find out “the truth”; no, we don’t just “tell stories”, the verisimilitude of our narratives count – and, yes, I want to do “theology” – but open to past, present, future, to geographic breadth and to imagination.  It was a serious case of mistaken identity.  But, at least I got a relocation out of it.  That is something.



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