Humour Matters: It’s time to make meaningless words great again

When it comes to humour about public funding, there really is no way to compete with reality. The last time the basic funding model for Ontario universities was changed, the Maple Leafs were winning Stanley Cups. Read that sentence again—the Maple Leafs were winning Stanley Cups. Unless you are a scholar of ancient history, you’ll probably have to Google the date.

But only a fool would advocate a wholesale budgetary revision, since the direction of change always seems to be down. Even with contract workers teaching 237 per cent of courses, funds seem perpetually short. Tuition has gone up and up, while students spend more time working for wages than ever before, which surely explains the small crowds for my lectures on Canadian wheat and nineteenth century railways.

In general, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future. Although, with so many picket lines ready to be deployed, at least Woody Guthrie songs will be back in fashion.

That said, the prospect of hours doing experiential learning on cold picket lines got me thinking about new revenue streams. Like, if we could put a tax on buzzwords, half our problems would be solved. All I hear from universities nowadays is transform, commercialize, incentivize, innovate, mobilize knowledge, and cultivate Excellence (that’s Excellence with a capital “E” thank you very much), words that sound emptier than the methodology section of my last grant application.

I mean, the family swear jar has exercised a powerful hold on my children. They say a bad word, they throw their allowance in the jar, incentivizing their mouths to avoid the interesting vocabulary they pick up during sleepovers at Granny’s. Perhaps the academic equivalent— let’s call it the iJAR—could be strategically placed on the podium at ministerial press conferences. Not only would this incentivize the mobilization of less meaningless changicity, but university revenues would skyrocket.

Or, since conservatives like user fees so much, we could charge them two dollars for every use of the term “political correctness.” Talk about meaningless words: undergrads won’t even stay to the end of my lectures, but apparently I have some totalitarian ability to fill their minds with neo-Marxist postmodernism.

That doesn’t even consider the amount of carbon dioxide being expelled during my cranky old-man lectures, no doubt accelerating climate change even as its existence is being discussed. Could we figure out a mechanism to regulate and monetize my hot air? Just for convenience, we’ll call it Grouch and Trade.

There must be a million missed chances for new revenues, from co-branded experiential exams to transformative commercialization of empty classes through Airbnb. The list just goes on and on. But, if you want to hear those empty words, you’ll have to drop a toonie in the iJAR.

I suppose that if we really want to mobilize knowledge and cultivate generalized Excellence, we could fund universities by having citizens contribute a percentage of their income to the government, based on a sliding scale, with the funds distributed to public goods based on widely shared objectives. Nah, forget it, that utopian scheme will never work. Only a Leafs fan could dream so big. AM

Steve Penfold is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Toronto.