The Perilous Territory of Roman Britain

August 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

Sometimes the most fascinating things become the centre of public shitstorms.  For example, recently, a British conservative got all worked up into a later over a BBC cartoon for kids that appears to show a Roman family as African, as in black.  Chances are, this character was based on Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the Roman Berber governor of the province of Britain from 139-42.  He was from what is now Algeria.  Mary Beard, Professor of Ancient Literature at Cambridge University and author of the Times Literary Supplement’s column/blog A Don’s Lifegot involved on the discussion on Twitter and noted the ethnic diversity of the Roman Empire in general, which is kind of obvious, given the geographic spread of said Empire.

And then, things got insane, as they do on Twitter.  Beard was attacked in the typical misogynist tones of social media. And then, NYU Professor of Risk Management, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, got involved and mocked Beard on Twitter.  Now Taleb is usually somewhat of a buffoon on Twitter, he seems to have fun with the platform. And there is nothing wrong with this.  But, he acted like a prat.

His response:

Then British journalist Nick Cohen got involved:

Ah, the fragility of the male ego.  But, here’s the thing, Beard did not go after his credentials.  She went after his knowledge-base and area of expertise.  Beard, of course, knows a thing or two about a thing or two about Rome.  Taleb, on the other hand, is a professor of risk management.  Apples and oranges.  But, male privilege means that one does not need to defer to greater expertise on the part of a female colleague.  This reminds me of the time that my wife, who was then writing a dissertation on Northern Ireland, was told by a male colleague that The Troubles were ended because of the Cranberries’ song, “Zombies,” as if the people of Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, suddenly realized that they were the zombies!

But Taleb was just a bore.  He became the cover Twitter misogynists used to attack Beard, not for her ideas or commentary.  No.  They commented on her body, her age, and so on.  And they denigrated her academic qualifications.  Commentators continually referred to Prof. or Dr. Taleb and to Ms. Beard.

This, I hate to say, is par for the course in academia and the wider world.  I cannot count the number of times I have seen or heard this in action, where my female colleagues are disrespected in this manner.  One reported that her course evaluations talked more about her body than her teaching efficacy.  Another reported that her looks seemed more important to her students than her knowledge.  The now largely disused site RateMyProf initially only allowed hot tamales to indicate the hotness of a professor for women.  Eventually, it was applied to men as well.

Women have to work harder to gain the respect of students.  I see this almost everyday at work.  And, frankly, this is bullshit.

The thing is, we’re taught to believe that we live in a time of progress, that things are getting better.  They’re not.  The simple economic measurement women’s wages as a percentage of men’s for equal work has barely changed in the past 30 years.  And then there’s social media.  Remember #Gamergate?  That’s one egregious example.  Beard’s story is another. But it happens every single day.

I don’t think this is getting better.  I think it’s getting worse.  And the same is true, in many ways of racism, homophobia, and the like.  Social media allows people to hide behind anonymity to be bullies.

We need to be better.  This cannot keep happening.  We need to do a better job of educating people, so that they’re not bullies.  And the thing is, I’m not sure that many of the people who act like this online actually recognize their real-world actions.  As in, it’s easy to call someone names on a computer screen, not seeing the actual impact of it.  There are, essentially, no consequences for the abuser in this world.  Thus, education.  We need to convince people that there are consequences of their on-line actions, just as there are consequences for their real-world actions.

Maybe then we can live in a world where women, amongst others, aren’t attacked on-line for the simple fact of their gender (or race, orientation, etc.).


A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

September 25, 2015 § 7 Comments

Alexander Pope once opined that “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”  We can see multiple examples of this almost daily.  But, it was truly brought home to me on Twitter last weekend.  Against my better judgement, I got into a discussion that became an argument over discrimination against the Irish in Canada.  My interlocutor was dead set on presenting the thesis that the Irish were the lowest of the low well into the 20th century and the infamous NINA (No Irish Need Apply) signs were ubiquitous across our fair Dominion.  To back up her argument, she cited her grandparents, who reported seeing the NINA signs when they arrived (I’m not sure when they arrived, but she was roughly my mother’s age, a Baby Boomer, so I would hazard her grandparents arrived in the 1920s), a random page from a House of Commons debate where then-Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald denigrated the Irish in 1889, and a screen cap from an historical newspaper aggregator that reported some 30,000 NINA mentions in Canada.  But the time frame was not clear.

This kind of logic would not pass a freshman course.  In short, she cherry-picked her evidence to back up her thesis.  Now, I know a thing or two about a thing or two when it comes to the Irish in Canada, a result of a Master’s thesis and a PhD dissertation (and forthcoming book) about the Irish in Quebec, from the 1840s to the 21st century.  I have read nearly every book on the Irish in Canada (and North America as a whole) as part of the process leading to the MA and PhD.  Her basic thesis, that the Irish were discriminated against is not wrong.  But this argument is largely limited to the 19th century, and more than that, to the middle decades of the 19th century.  Certainly, discrimination continued to plague the Irish in Canada beyond, say, 1880, but, by then, the Irish were also successfully integrating into Canadian society, through accommodations from the dominant Anglo-Protestant culture, through accommodations made by the Irish themselves, and by the Irish forcing themselves into the Canadian body politic.  As the 19th century drew to a close, the Irish had infiltrated the corridors of power in Canada, both politically and economically.  But this does not mean that all discrimination went away.

First, she essentialized my argument, claiming that I said that NO discrimination occurred after 1900, as if the turning of the century was some magic boundary.  And then she produced this cherry picked evidence, which I countered with the larger argument, pointing to both individual and cultural successes.  She claimed that Toronto was different than Montreal.  That is correct.  But, I countered with information on the plight of the Irish in Toronto.  No luck.  She was convinced she was right.  I didn’t go so far as to get pedantic and explain how history is made/written/produced, but when I rejected her argument, she accused me of calling her grandparents liars.  At this point, I cut my losses and muted her on Twitter.

All I could do was shake my head and ponder why and how so many people are so resistant to logic and reason. It’s not like I’m innocent of this, either.  Recently, an argument broke out on the Facebook wall of one of my friends about the level of integration of Anglophones in franco-québécois culture.  All three of us arguing were ex-pat Montrealers, all three of us Anglos.  All three of us have PhDs, in other words, we should’ve known better.  Instead, we devolved into anecdotal evidence, personal stories, and ignored the meta-data all three of us are very familiar with on the matter.  So while we did not, like my interlocutor on Twitter, devolve into cherry-picking our evidence, we still engaged in #logicfail.

My point in telling this second story is to point out we all do this.  But there is great danger in this.  It leads to an American populace that thinks that Ben Carson is right when he says that the President cannot be Muslim because Islam is incompatible with the Constitution.  And still greater ills.

Irish History

April 23, 2015 § 4 Comments

It’s the tail end of the semester, and I’m marking stacks upon stacks of papers.  I am teaching Irish History this semester, for the 5th time in the past 3 years.  Irish history tends to depress me, as it is largely a story of imperialism and resistance, with great atrocity on both sides.  The Famine, in particular, gets me down.  The ambiguity of Irish history is difficult to come to terms with, as well.  It’s also very hard to teach Irish history, especially here in the diaspora.  Whenever I’ve taught Irish history, my class is overwhelmingly (over 90%) comprised of the sons and daughters of the diaspora.

It’s difficult because we of the diaspora have been raised on simplistic narratives of British malfeasance and Irish heroism; these stories are deeply ingrained in the American and Canadian Irish diasporas.  But, Irish history is massively complicated.  My students have a hard time dealing with the fact that the Irish continually lose when they rebel, in large part because of in-fighting or because only a small part of the country rises up.  I explain, partly to remind myself, that this is because the idea of Ireland as a country is a 19th-century creation, growing out of the Catholic Emancipation and Repeal movements led by Daniel O’Connell.

O’Connell is the one who re-drew the “Irish nation” from one that was Protestant (the Ascendancy, of course) to one that was Catholic.  But even then, Ireland was a divided nation, by religion (as it was during the Ascendancy, obviously).  So the idea of a unified Ireland is an elusive one.

My students handed in papers on Sebastian Barry’s brilliant novel, A Long, Long Waylast week.  It is the tale of young Willie Dunne, the son of the Chief of Police of Dublin, who enlists in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the First World War.  Willie is shipped off to Flanders to fight the Germans, like a few hundred thousand of his fellow Irish Catholics did.  But, he is subjected to British anti-Irish attitudes on the part of many of his commanding officers.  And when he’s home on furlough at Easter 1916, he’s pressed into action against the rebels at the GPO in Dublin.  He’s confused.  He doesn’t understand who he’s fighting, thinking, at first, maybe the Germans have invaded Ireland.  When he realizes he’s shooting at fellow Irish men, he’s even more confused.  And, like most Irish Catholics, he gets radicalized in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, when the British respond with draconian punishments for the rebel leaders.  This leads to a rift with his father, who is a Unionist, despite being Catholic.

One of my students writes of an epiphany he has had regarding Irish history.  He says it’s easy to be anti-British when you read and learn about the atrocities they committed in Ireland.  But, when you learn of the brutality of the rebels during the Irish Revolution, things become more complicated.  He’s left rather conflicted about Irish history, about the justness of either side, or the moral evil of both sides.

Of course, it need not be an either/or situation. I always fall back on Joep Leerson’s idea that ambiguity is part and parcel of Irish history, it is a “both/and” situation.  And, ultimately, I have been reminded as to why I love Irish history: it is ambiguous, it is complicated, it is not simple.

And I suppose this is why I love teaching; feeling worn out from teaching all this Irish history, I am energized reading of my student’s epiphany.

Scary Ideas and Lazy Journalism

April 3, 2015 § 6 Comments

Last week, the New York Times published another in a depressing series of articles in the print media about how colleges and universities are allegedly catering to sensitive-little flower millennials, who cannot handle big ideas that challenge their deeply-held beliefs, and how, instead, they seek to create ‘safe spaces’ all across campus, where they won’t come into contact with big, scary ideas.  I can never get through one of these articles without seething.  See, I am a professor.  That means I work and teach on a university campus.  I come into daily contact with these millennials.  And I’ve come to despise generational stereotypes about them, as much as I despised the stereotypes applied to my generation twenty years ago.  The stereotypes are largely similar: apathetic, self-centred, self-obssessed, etc.  And, just as they were a ridiculous accusation against Gen X, the same is true of millennials.

The larger problem with these kinds of articles is that they are written by journalists looking for sensation, and supported by their editors looking for clickbait (hey, look, Ma! I used the term ‘clickbait’ in successive posts).  These articles are drive-by smearings of academe (not that there aren’t a lot of problems within the system, but journalists aren’t interested in them, because they don’t generate headlines), written without bothering to understand how the academy works, how ideas are exchanged, and how we professors work to challenge and destabilize commonly-held beliefs, even if we agree with them ourselves.

Take, for example, the story of a course at Arizona State University called “US Race Theory and The Problem of Whiteness.”  FoxNews host Elizabeth Hasselbeck attacked the course, after talking to a student at ASU.  The problem was that the student Hasselbeck talked to wasn’t enrolled in the class, and she herself never bothered to talk to the professor.  No, instead, Hasselbeck instead ranted about the problems with this kind of course, in predictable fashion.  This led the professor of the course to doxxed and to receive death threats.

But back to the Times article.  I was going to write a strongly-worded riposte to it here, but my wife beat me to it.  So, instead, I point you, gentle reader, over to Margo’s blog, as she says what I wanted to say in a much better fashion.

Student Debt and the Cost of a University Education

October 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Post-secondary education is expensive.  That’s common knowledge.  That’s why I was out in the streets with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of my fellow citizens in Montréal last summer, protesting the then-Liberal government’s plans to halt the tuition freeze.  Québec’s tuition is the lowest in North America, if not the Western world.  And it’s a good value, as Québec’s universities compete on the Canadian, North American, and global levels.  Of course, tuition is only super cheap if you are a Quebecer, but even the out of province rates are relatively low, which is why so many Americans send their kids to McGill.

Here in the United States, education is prohibitively expensive.  One of my students last year told me he transferred from Northeastern because his education was costing well over $30,000/year.  I nearly spat my coffee out.  Even at my small state university, tuition is more expensive than it is pretty much anywhere in Canada.  Many of my students work multiple jobs to pay the bills.  One of my students in my American history class works full-time in a career-track job and then supplements his income with a part-time job to keep a roof over his head, food on his table, and his school bills paid.

Not surprisingly, student debt is also a major problem.  It has been for a long time, I might add.  I came out of my undergraduate degree owing something close to the GNP of Nicaragua to the Canadian government.  I’ll be paying that off until I retire, or something very close to it.  And that’s from Canada!  My American wife also owes what my friend Karl would call a “metric shit-tonne” of money for her education.

The average student loan debt in Canada is around $27,000.  It’s about the same in the US.  A website,, offers an interactive map for each state in the union with details on the average debt in each state and the proportion of students with debt.  In New Hampshire, the average debt is the highest, north of $32,000, and 75% of the students in the Granite State have debt.  The highest proportion of debt is in North Dakota, where 83% of students are carrying some.  I recently read another scary stat.  In Massachusetts in 1988, state student aid paid 80% of average tuition and fees.  Today, state student aid only pays 8% of the average tuition and fees.

Obviously, education costs something, it’s not free, and I’m not sure it should be.  But the reason why I was out in the streets in Montréal last summer is simple: once the freeze gets lifted, then tuition is set to the market.  And the market can always bear more than what many people can afford to pay.  And then education gets priced out of the range of many.  At my small state university, many of our students are the sons and daughters of immigrants, or they’re working-class kids, the first in their families to go to university.  Or they’re veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, looking for a chance to get ahead.

My school also has relatively poor rankings, both in state and nationally.  But not because the students are weak. Nor because faculty are weak.  Nor is it due to student-professor ratios (most classes max out around 30), nor is it even because of a poor library.  No.  My school gets poor rankings because our students are forced to juggle so many jobs (and families and careers) to be here, so that they take longer than normal (whatever that is) to complete their degrees.  Or they’re forced to drop out.

Given our present-day economy, a university education is essential to getting a job, establishing a career and having access to all the things we want from life.  And I applaud my students as the scramble to get an education.  But I also know that if it wasn’t for student loans and what scholarships I qualified for in undergrad (and grad school), I’d still be flipping burgers at an IHOP in suburban Vancouver.  My parents couldn’t afford to send me to school.  I don’t regret it, even with the massive debt I carry.  But I also wish that education didn’t require so many sacrifices on the part of my students.

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