By now, it seems pretty clear that the staff at Academic Matters hate me. On the surface, they seem like a friendly enough bunch. They have been surprisingly patient with my somewhat postmodern notion of deadlines and, at some point, they took me out to lunch.
But over time, their deeper, more malevolent intentions have become all too clear. Exhibit A: the succession of topics – from religion through equity to environmentalism – about which they expect me to be funny. I realize these are important and interesting topics, but can you imagine anything less amusing than a fullyemployed, middle-aged white guy waxing sarcastic about equity? How about the never-baptized son-of-a-Catholic cracking jokes about religion? I think it’s obvious that my comedic standards are pretty low, but I don’t want mobs forming outside my office.
Exhibit B: imagine my shock and awe when they phoned to announce “internationalization” as the theme of the next issue. I’ll admit that I experienced an initial flush of enthusiasm. I mean, “internationalization” has got to be easy to make funny, since it already sounds like a punch line. How many vice-presidents laid end to end would it take to get to Davos? Why did the chicken cross the border? That sort of thing. And it scores so deliciously high on the Buzzwordiness Scale (BS) – it’s being a concept impossible to oppose, like good health or personal ethics. “Good living will only prolong my suffering,” my Uncle Ralph says, but even he wouldn’t object to learning more about the world.
Are we supposed to think that “national” is the parochial status quo from which internationalization is going to save us? Here at the University of Toronto we like to think our civilizing light is projected to the very darkest corners of Canada, perhaps even as far as Winnipeg. But after a lifetime of local commutes and global migrations, my Canadian history students know an astonishing amount about Markham (a suburb of Toronto) and Milan (not a suburb of Toronto), but almost nothing about Manitoba. That sort of M-factor makes them much more worldly than me. My border-crossing experiences have been confined to childhood trips to visit my Aunt Doll in Cincinnati, a kind of cultural knowledge you won’t find in many university Mission Statements. But it’s over 2000 kilometres from Markham to Manitoba, so if we’re supposed to be internationalizing our students to save them from the status quo of “national” parochialism, we’re at least a three-day drive from the status quo. At that rate, reaching even it would take years of effort and buckets of public money.
In the end, though, I can’t work up much energy for waxing sarcastic about buzzwords. When I was in grad school, breaking down the walls between the university and the local community was all the rage and, of course, the buzzwords buzzed: community outreach, public knowledge, shared authority, and so on. Few of these lived up to their transformative promise, but so what? Even if my stint making photocopies at the Bracebridge Museum of Acute Aeronautic Failure was not a utopian act of democratic knowledge production, it was infinitely preferable to publishing my grad papers in Duh: The Journal of Obvious Research on Obscure Topics.
So let the vice-presidents buzz. The worst that can happen is that I learn something about a place more interesting than Cincinnati. Besides, I have much bigger problems. A mob is gathering outside my office. They appear to be Manitobans, and I don’t think they want to take me to lunch.
Steve Penfold is Academic Matters’ humour columnist. He moonlights as an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is The Donut: A Canadian History (University of Toronto Press, 2008).