Monday, November 28, 2005

Lost in Space -- in Interpretive Dance!

Took Tigana to see Alberta Dance Theater / Children in Dance Association's production of Lost in Space yesterday. It was....strange.

I mean, Lost in Space didn't make a lot of sense when it was a TV series (my teenage friends and I used to watch the original series to play 'rationalize the science', the object of which was to plausibly explain away whatever scientific illiteracy was currently on display, e.g., the scene in the opening episode in which the caste cry out, "Oh gosh, we're burning up from the heat of that comet!"), and when that campy weirdness gets translated into interpretive dance 30 years later, well, it raises the bar on oddness for the SF genre a whole 'nother notch.

But I have to say that I really enjoyed the performance. Campy nostalgia aside, it was artistically successful theming of dance routines, and gave an awfully large caste of kids a great variety of material through which to strut their stuff.

The performance opens with the spaceship (portrayed by the family Robinson dancers squatting mid-stage) going through a meteor storm (portrayed by dozens of dancers swirling past in black leotards). It actually kind of works! Subsequent dances provide interpretations of inside a black hole, lost in time, encounters with hostile aliens, robots to the rescue, space walks, mysterious comet (much more interesting than anything from original series!), dance of the galaxies, nebula, plant life, space junk, and astropolis, among several others. It was all pretty impressive! And I say that as someone who doesn’t even have a kid up there on stage.

Dancing performances ranged from ‘solid’ to ‘ready for professional’, and I kept thinking that someone knew what they were doing training these kids. Nice choreography executed well by a large caste. The occasional miscue came from the theatre’s lighting / video technician, not the dancers, and may be excused on the grounds that I was attending the first performance.

The acid test has to be Tigana's reaction, and it must be said that the dancing held Tigana's attention throughout, which is saying a lot for a 90 minute dance performance given my daughter's usual attention span.

So, if you happen to be in a position to see this in Calgary later this week, I'd recommend it.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Kasia and Tigana

close up of Kasia in red riding hood

Kasia on her 2nd Birthday, Nov 13, 2005.

Tigana Hiding

Tigana Hiding

So I turned around in our Calgary hotel, and Tigana had vanished.... This is what I saw. She is behind the chair, and has lifted her feet up onto the heat register to keep them out of sight off the floor.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Dissertation Defense

Mary successfully defended her dissertation Thursday morning. It was not, I take it, a particularly pleasant experience.

Ph.D. defenses come in two flavours: the celebration of the completion of a significant project (wherein the candidate gets to occupy two hours of their favorite professor's time discussing the research that has preoccupied the candidate for the last four years); or a brutal hazing ritual, the point of which seems to be that if one survives it, one is supposed to feel like that is in itself an accomplishment that renders one worthy of membership in some elite group.

To give some idea of the range here, we have the experience of my colleague in the Education faculty who also defended last week, who related how the major topic of the defense was which publisher she should approach to publish the dissertation. In her case the advisor and committee members had already told her going in that she had passed, and the toughest question asked was, "would you consider applying for a job on our campus?" At the conclusion of the session, the committee 'debated' the outcome for less than a minute, and recalled the candidate to shake her hand and address her as "Dr."

In contrast is my own experience of the defense, in which one of the committee members (a well known and respected researcher) started with the question, "What's with all this Marxist crap, then?" After two years of my submitting chapters to this individual, I did not feel that the defense was the appropriate time to raise fundamental objections to the theoretical frame, but there it was. And the conversation went rapidly downhill from there. By the time the more sympathetic committee members got their turns to ask me questions, I was so punchy that I was unable to marshal anything coherent at all. I was then left waiting for what seemed like hours while the committee deliberated my fate, and when they finally informed me that I had passed, I was left with the strong impression I had just barely squeaked past. Indeed, my ego was so badly damaged in this process that I made little effort to publish from my dissertation, and suffered a severe case of 'impostor syndrome' for a decade after.

(The devastating effects of this defense were somewhat mitigated ten years later when one of the committee members finally told me what had happened when I'd left the room. The external -- a 'Great Man' of the field -- had turned to my antagonist and told him that he was the biggest ass he'd ever encountered, that he was clearly feeling threatened by my work, and that his attack on me was the most shameful display the external had ever witnessed in his lengthy career. He then turned to the Chair of the session (not my advisor; a departmental appointee), and told him that he was an ass for allowing the defense to degenerate in that way, Since the external was speaking with the authority of both the role of external auditor and his own considerable reputation as the Grand Old Man of the Field, his view -- that mine was one of the most significant dissertations he had had the opportunity to review -- carried the day. But I dearly wish that I had known this ten years earlier so that I might have had more initial self-confidence as a researcher...)

Judging by my wife's description, I have now met someone whose defense experience was worse even than mine. Her defense was staged in front of an audience, and was so brutalizing that several of the audience broke down into tears. After the fact, the committee apparently told members of the audience, mostly Mary's fellow Ph.D. students come to see how it was done, that Mary's was an exemplary presentation and even more exemplary defense, and that they would do well to emulate her. Although complimentary to Mary, it is difficult to see how this would be reassuring to an audience that had just watched this 'exemplary' candidate being publicly savaged. Instead, the exhibition left many of them questioning whether they wished to continue in the program if it meant placing themselves in the same position -- especially since Mary is widely acknowledged to be the best qualitative researcher of the group. (I understand that the program chair subsequently called a meeting of the PhD students to 'debrief' the experience in order to address the widespread panic generated by this public hazing.)

At the traditional dinner following the defense, the harshest of Mary's committee assured her that this hazing was a necessary part of the process, that she had attacked Mary out of a sense of duty to the field to demonstrate that Mary 'could take it', and that Mary, as one of the first graduates of this new PhD program and the first qualitative researcher in the field, was 'up to standard'. In other words, she and others of the committee subscribed to the view that the point of the defense is to see whether they can break down the candidate, and were pleased that Mary was able to endure the process and remain outwardly calm and effectively defend her work. That, in their view, is how it is supposed to go.

Of course, one contributing factor here might be Mary's quick wit and poker face which, I would wager, gave no hint of how she was actually reacting to the questions posed by the committee. Had they realized that she was taking their attacks personally, they might well have eased up, or at least phrased their questions more civilly. As it was, I can imagine them thinking, "Well, she took that in stride -- let's up the ante a bit!" But still, PhD students openly sobbing in the audience should be a hint that one has crossed the line from 'spirited defence' into 'bloodsport'.

In the end, the actual revisions required of Mary amount to adding about a dozen paragraphs and the removal of a single chart -- not exactly extensive. But the actual defense was so brutal that it has drained all the joy out of the accomplishment for Mary and made her start to question what are in my view her fundamental gifts. I find Mary now second guessing her writing skills because two of these positivists complained that her writing was 'too poetic'. Oh yeah, there is a devastating critique -- it is too well written! This is a problem?! I keep thinking I want to write a novel based on my experiences in academia, but who would believe stuff like this?

The sociological function of hazing is well understood in establishing group solidarity in, say, elite military units -- the hazing standing in for and condensing the extended periods of combat that forged the existing unit into which the recruit is being inducted. It is less clear to me what purpose it serves in academia, other than to allow its victims to get their own back on the next generation. As an evaluation expert, however, I have to question the educational value of such hazing. How is this appropriate to academia?

The answer that it is tradtional -- that the defence emerged in the 1600s as part of the process wherein the student now proved himself equal to the master -- does not staisfy me, since the intervening 400 years have yielded a good deal of educational research that suggest there are better ways of doing things. By all means let us have rigor and high standards, and an oral component to the defense, but hazing... I do not see the point.

Life Goals

A quote from a Dave Barry column (which I found on Life After York):

    "So I visited my son at college on Parents Weekend, which is a nice event that colleges hold so that parents will have a chance to feel old.

    I started feeling old the moment I got to my son's housing unit and saw a sign on the door that said: END WORLD HUNGER TODAY. This reminded me that there was a time in my life, decades ago, when I was so full of energy that I was going to not only END WORLD HUNGER, but also STOP WAR and ELIMINATE RACISM. Whereas today my life goals, to judge from the notes I leave myself, tend to be along the lines of BUY DETERGENT."

As my wife successfully completes her doctorate and launches her academic career, and I am coming up on yet another birthday, I can't help noticing that I'm less than a decade from retirement, and I have yet to start on, let alone achieve, most of my career goals. My self image is still that of the 'young turk', new to the faculty, about to start -- real soon now -- on one of my many major projects. So it is increasingly distressing to me that so many of my colleagues now seem to be considerably younger than I, and keep referrng to me as 'a senior member of the faculty'. When the hell did that happen?

So I keep looking at the various projects that I'm supposed to be working on and asking myself, is this what I really want to be known for? And the answer usually is, 'Not so much'. I mean, there is a tension between doing something because the opportunity to do it is there, and it will play well on one's annual report because it means a quick and easy publication credit; versus doing what I really am interested in, for which there is generally no market or career payoff. And the way life is, one thinks, "I'll just knock off this quick project to satisfy the annual report requirements, and then get on with the good stuff" but what really happens is that you're lucky if you have the time and energy to finish the 'quicky' and end up never doing the 'important' stuff....

It's obvious, of course, that academia is structured to prevent any of us from really making a difference. The annual report structure means one has to come up with a couple of publications a year, which are necessarily shallow because journal articles are too short to present any argument longer than 8000 words; are too specialized to be read by more than a handfull of other academics; and are controlled by a peer review process that rejects anything that challenges the paradigmatic status quo. So you can't get another Das Capital, because who has a lifetime to write one book? But I bet if you looked at who has an influence on our society, who actually changes the world and how we see it, it is the people who are writing books or movies, not the authors of research buried in overly specialized journals.

Hmm, sounds like an interesting study.....but I can't even consider doing it because there won't be time to get it done before my next annual report.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Blackhole in the Center of the Galaxy

Excellent video of a virtual trip to the black hole at the centre of the galaxy, courtesy of Andrew J. Hanson of the University of Indiana (and forwarded by Edward Willett, Science Columnist extraordinare...)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

43 Things, Starting with Drumming

I stumbled onto the 43 Things site by accident, while reading Michelle's blog. I followed a 'read more' link in her blog, and then made a comment on her post. The host software asked me to register before commenting, not unlike the software, so I signed up, but then discovered I was no longer on Michelle's blog site at all, but had in fact just joined 43 Things: What do you want to do with your life? Looking around, I was rather impressed with what I saw. It is a fascinating site!

Basically, people list one or more current significant goals in their life, and blog about how they are doing towards achieving it. The site automatically links you to everybody else who has either set that goal, is currently working towards that goal, or has achieved that goal. Instant support group. The software allows you to cheer each other on (and keeps track of how many 'cheers' you've received) and to watch each other's struggles and successes etc. Having recently been greatly cheered by the discovery that everyone else in my Wednesday evening drumming class was struggling nearly as much as I, I can see how this could be a very useful site.

So I set up my own 43 Things page, and listed world drumming as my first goal. Read my entry on drumming here.

I like this site a lot. So now, do I dare list "writing great Canadian SF novel" or would that be premature, retirement still being 12 years away?