Misak stays on as provost

After almost seven months as interim provost, Cheryl Misak was appointed to the top job as U of T’s provost earlier this week by the Governing Council. “Not much will change. I’ve been interim provost since July and it’s not a job you can do in a tentative way,” said Misak, former philosophy professor and dean of U of T Mississauga campus.

Misak succeeded Vivek Goel in June 2008 after serving as the deputy provost for a year.

She has risen up the administrative ranks over the last ten years, acting as president and dean at UTM before serving as interim VP of campus life and interim provost at St. George campus. The more settled position, she said, will still keep her busy.

The provost’s office is responsible for all academic and budgetary matters ranging from resource management to dispensing student levies.

With an economic recession cutting into endowment payouts and rising graduate applications, allocating funds may prove to be a challenge.

No funding cuts have been proposed so far and Misak said she will be keeping a close eye on the economy.

“It’s become my first priority. We are very much trying to ensure that it doesn’t have significant effects on undergraduate or graduate programs.” According to the Postgrad Medical Education Office, medical research awards are now facing the axe.

Also on the provost’s radar is the Towards 2030 project, which, among other things, aims to encourage more academic research through corporate partnerships.

In the past decade, several of the university’s corporate sponsorships proved to be contentious, sparking protests and court cases.

Misak said that U of T has a lot of policies in place to ensure academic freedom and despite the expansion process, there would always be a need to “strengthen those mechanisms that maintain academic integrity.”

Since her appointment as interim provost, Misak is most known for creating the Advisory Committee on Democratic Process in Student Government.

Formed after the provost was called to intervene in the Arts & Science Student Union election scandal, the committee barely got through one meeting before student leaders boycotted the committee. Misak disbanded it earlier this month.

Student unions disagreed with committee’s framework and said its guidelines on democratic process would give the provost more power over student governments. Misak expressed her disappointment and said she had thought the committee was structured to ensure maximum student input.

A transparent democratic process, she said, is crucial to good student governance and plans to produce some guidelines by this summer. “Student leaders declined to participate in the process, but I will still take their suggestions informally.”

Although Misak’s new career is a far cry from lecturing on Plato and Aristotle, she feels as though she has never left the world of academia.

“I still get up in the morning at 5 a.m. and add to my book. One thing I miss, though, is teaching.”

Short Cuts

Upcoming album releases

  • Local indie rockers DD/MM/YYYY will release Black Square on February 17 through We Are Busy Bodies. The album is the third release for the Toronto natives, who are celebrating with a North American tour. Catch their hometown show April 16 at Lee’s Palace.

  • March 3 marks the release of Middle Cyclone, the latest from New Pornographers’ chanteuse Neko Case. Due to mass critical acclaim for her 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, hype has already built for the new LP, which includes collabs with Calexico, Sarah Harmer, and her New Pornographer bandmates. Catch Neko Case at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church on April 17 and 18. Both shows are all-ages.

  • Maritime celebrity and Canadian icon-in-the-making Joel Plaskett will release an ambitious triple album on March 24 entitled Three. Plaskett’s obsession with numerology dominates the release, which is comprised of three discs with nine songs each. Plaskett plays Massey Hall on May 23 with his band, the Joel Plaskett Emergency.

  • Mark your calendars for April 14, the return of Metric. It’s been a long four years since Live It Out dominated the airwaves, so the there’s a lot riding on the band’s new effort, Fantasies. Trust grooves from Emily Haines and co. will get Torontonian fangirls back on the dance floor.

Campus Theatre Showdown

  • Catch three nights of student works onstage at the 16th annual U of T Drama Festival. Featuring eight original one-act plays written by U of T students, the festival runs January 31 to February 2, and closes with an awards ceremony on Saturday evening. Get the scoop on all the shows in The Varsity’s February 1 issue.

  • But the festival faces stiff competition from UC Follies’ production of Urinetown: The Musical, running from February 5 to 14 at Hart House. When a town is ravaged by a water shortage, a legislative ban is placed on private toilets, and much hilarity and questioning of authority ensues. This fully student-funded musical is presented by the UC Follies, whose goal is to challenge the belief that student productions are often unprofessional. With the amount of hype they’ve received from the mainstream media, we’re inclined to believe them. Tickets are $12 for students and can be purchased at www.uofttix.ca.

Will cell phone registry keep students off the hook?

Launched in the wake of Virginia Tech and Dawson College shootings, cell phone alerts give an extra layer of security but have vulnerabilities of their own, as several Canadian schools have discovered. This week, U of T is preparing to roll out its mobile alert voice message system to warn students in the event of a campus emergency.

The service, available to those with a current UTORID, calls all registered cell phones with a recording warning them of an emergency. Students must opt in to the alert program and provide their phone number before they can receive any warnings. Those who do receive an alert will be charged for the phone call by their carriers.

Several other North American universities implemented such systems after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, in which student Seung-Hui Cho killed 33 people including himself, and wounded 23 on April 16, 2007.

“These systems are appearing at many universities in the US [largely in response to the shootings at Virginia Tech] and a handful of Canadian schools now offer them,” wrote Erin Lemon, a university spokesperson, in an email to The Varsity.

The voice service complements a text-message alert service U of T introduced last year. Students can register for the alerts on ROSI. Other schools, including Dalhousie, the universities of Calgary, Manitoba, and New Brunswick, and the University of Victory and Simon Fraser University have all announced or implemented warning systems of their own to send text alerts to students during a crisis situation.

Despite their popularity, the systems don’t come bug-free. UVic’s first test of its text- and voice-based system was marred by technical problems this past August. Furthermore, the alerts can be very expensive. According to SFU newspaper the Peak, launching the small university’s text system will cost $30,000. The University of Calgary’s system costs 25 cents per text message, according to U of C paper the Gauntlet.

Critics of other schools’ text-message-based warning systems have demonstrated that warning messages can be easily and perfectly faked in order to lure individual students away from public spots or otherwise disrupt their movement. The Varsity found no studies of whether voice-based warning systems were as susceptible to forgery.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that a former staff member at the University of Florida had confessed to accidentally sending the text message “The monkey got out of the cage” over the school’s emergency warning system on the day of Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.

Complications notwithstanding, U of T is encouraging all students to register for the school’s warning system.

“The more people who sign up, the more effective the service is,” said Lemon.

Life Lessons

I’ve never been a huge fan of self-conscious political theatre. I tend to be drawn to the stuff that dreams are made of: meaty acting roles and meaty actors are my idea of a night well spent. The University College Drama Program’s meta-theatrical production of Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life—the Canadian premiere of 1990s “in-yer-face” theatre that rocked London—was daring, unique, and at times thoroughly entertaining, but failed to rise above its own conceit. Director Michelle Newman’s production is compelling and provoking, if not entirely satisfying. It examin of a simple question, “How do you describe a person?” After two hours of powerful ensemble work, the audience ought to be outraged at the displayed disconnect of life and truth, but instead are left feeling that they’ve been told something but aren’t quite sure why.

The set is striking and superbly designed. The performance takes place behind a wall of Plexiglas on a stage filled with cameras, TV screens, and cords strewn everywhere. This forced separation—a physical fourth wall between the audience and the actors—was an excellent concept by director Newman and designer John Thompson, assisted by the UCDP design class. The performers are superimposed on a mega screen that serves as the backdrop for the entire set. Technically, this transfiguration of perverted voyeurism aids the message of the show, yet also dates it. Surely we are all sufficiently familiar with basic PoMo to understand, if not necessarily appreciate, this sentiment.

Crimp’s script is open to a myriad of interpretations; in this production an ensemble of five screenwriters-cum-actors construct the life of a woman, or girl, or car, called Anne, or Anna, or Anushka. The ensemble—Thomas Davis, Yevgeniya Falkovich, Tara Gerami, Chantelle Hedden, and Alex Rubin—construct a woman, and a world, where everything is sexualized and disconnected, where the truth is entirely constructed, and we lose the powerful need to feel that the things we see are real.

Whether as an impassioned writer, a pathetically bourgeois middle class father, or channelling Mick Jagger in a dance sequence, Davis triumphed in his (all too rare) moments of earnest inquiry. Rubin, who plays by far the most perverted roles in the script, including that of child pornographer, is at times too understated, yet managed to simultaneously elicit disgust and understanding for his particular version of spectacle. Hedden and Falkovich clearly understood the show’s search for meaning, but simply could not compare to Tara Gerami, whose performance was filled with energy, sauciness, and vulnerability.

Despite the excellence of all the constituent parts, director Newman is unable to escape a “drama class” explanation of the script. The mid-show vignette about the artist who kills herself as her art, and who gives the show its name, is a powerful comment on the difficulty of artistic creation in a pluralistic world, but theatre works best when the viewer sees, hears, and feels it themselves — and doesn’t have to be told. This production, enjoyable it is, still has to explain what it means.

Attempts on Her Life runs at UC’s Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until February 7.

No Bluff’s

UTSC’s student union-owned restaurant is set to close Feb. 6. Bluff’s, located in the Student Centre basement, has been used for dining, social events, and pub nights.

On Monday, Scarborough Campus Student Union president Zuhair Syed sent an e-mail to all UTSC students announcing the closure “due to severe financial difficulties.”

Since opening in 2004, an annual $140,000 has been given to Bluff’s by the Council on Student Services. But this year the annual sum dried up in five months, as did a $30,000 emergency bailout from the SCSU.

“In light of the financial situation, everything’s getting cut back,” said Hamze Khan, a student representative on the CoSS. “This isn’t great, but perhaps we can change Bluff’s into something more worthwhile.”

Food and beverage manager Zalia Conde was fired on Monday, and all other employees were told they would be made redundant as of the Feb. 6 closing.

“It’s very, very depressing for everyone here,” said one manager at Bluff’s, who only agreed to speak anonymously.

“I believe it’s a problem with the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union who’s giving themselves pay raises instead of helping Bluff’s out to keep us open.”

The manager was referring to raises in executive salaries approved last year, which totalled $63,000. In the union’s defence, Syed said that the executive was one of the lowest paid in Canada at the time.

Bluff’s, which facilitates 150 people and can be opened to a hall and performing stage, was subject to a heated debate over Halal food options in 2007 which made national headlines. The restaurant generates approximately $1,400 daily and employs around fifteen people, thirteen of them students.

SCSU denied The Varsity access to Bluff’s financial records.

“I think [the closure] was a means of retaliation by the SCSU. The staff at Bluff’s had brought forth a Ministry of Labour claim against them for not paying us wages. Our staff had to go approximately the whole month of December without getting paid,” said Shanique Edwards, a UTSC student and manager at Bluff’s for two years.

“They investigated, then the SCSU then decided to close down Bluff’s. I think it was a cover-up by the SCSU because of funds that were missing from Bluff’s.”

“Nothing had to do with the Ministry of Labour issue,” said Syed. “That was a completely detached issue which was dealt with separately.”

Syed said the ministry has acknowledged that the case is closed.

As of 2009, Bluff’s had been trying to raise profit by expanding hours and catering. They also cut inventory and made more from scratch.

“We tried to lower the cost of renting space so we could get more events. Many more were booked for the upcoming year,” said Edwards.

Prior to public announcement, all staff were asked to work for the last two weeks for a severance payment based on typical earnings.

“We were given hush money,” said Edwards. “Between $50-$100 for us not to say anything to anybody about what they’re doing. Only two or three took it, the ones that actually had families… We didn’t get anything.”

“I was very shook by the fact that I had to lay off staff that have families,” said Syed, who insisted that everything took place under Ministry of Labour guidelines and legal counsel. “Unfortunately, because of the nature of the business operations and the fact that we had no money left, we had no choice.”

Syed confirmed that students who re-apply for a future SCSU restaurant role will be given special consideration.

Edwards questioned the legality of the decisions, and said the Board of Directors was not notified, thus violating the SCSU constitution.

Syed said the Board was notified in January of Bluff’s possibly closing and that he was given authority to make the decision with the help of several key executives. The Board meets tomorrow to “assess the actions taken and move forward with the decision.”

“It really is a power trip. If you look at the dynamics of how that office has been working, they’ve been firing people and putting in their friends,” said Edwards. “You’ll see it more often in the coming months.”

Syed noted that another $140,000 is available from the CSS for next year and said he is optimistic for an improved student-run restaurant, hopefully before the semester concludes.

With files from Karen K. Ho

Waking up the lurkers

Imagine a lecture hall of 400 students. There are the students at the front of the classroom who are ready to learn and eager for the lecture that is about to begin. Then there are the others who prefer to retain their right to daydream or sleep in the back rows without being seen.

These students at the back of the room are the “silent lurkers” that University of Toronto at Mississauga professor Dr. Judith Poe wants to awaken.

As a distinguished lecturer in the department of Chemical & Physical Sciences at UTM, as well as a recent recipient of the President’s Teaching Award, Dr. Poe was invited to speak at the “Ates Tanin” lecture on alternative methods of teaching chemistry at the university level.

According to Dr. Poe, the traditional method of lecturing really only works for the front row students. In order to actively engage students in the learning process, course material should be presented in an appealing manner along with practical application, so that students are not left wondering “Why would I ever need to use this in real life?”

At UTM, Dr. Poe has tried an approach called Problem-Based Learning (PBL), which strives to promote active learning and critical thinking. Rather than giving a lecture and subsequently assigning practice problems from the course textbook, PBL initiates the learning process through an initial problem. Starting with this problem, students must identify the question being asked, the information that has been provided, and the facts they are missing. Unlike the straightforward problems in a textbook, this initial PBL problem requires students to use other resources, like the Internet or the library, to come to a conclusion that may not have a clear-cut solution. Perhaps the definition of the problem itself may change as more information is gathered.

For those in academia, this method of refining knowledge in light of new information may sound strikingly similar to the research process, which is also one of the many skills students are exposed to through PBL.

South of the border, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Polytechnic State University have applied an approach called “studio-learning,” in which students conduct lectures, tutorials, and practicals in the same room. Students are split into smaller groups, and each one acquires a table, laptop, and any other necessary materials to complete assigned work or related activities.

While this method of learning is able to actively engage students, problems inevitably arise in each group, especially when the workload is not shared evenly. In order to avoid this problem, Dr. Poe has created virtual PBL projects, where students who would like to actively participate and engage in discussions with others may do so on an online discussion board. Those who would rather not actively participate can read the contents of the discussion board and still be included in the dialogue.

Preliminary results over the past few terms have shown that the number of visits to the discussion boards far exceed the number of postings, suggesting that Dr. Poe is indeed reaching out to the “silent lurkers.” Students may even improve their writing capabilities through continuous postings and emailed communication. According to Dr. Poe, PBL students have shown the same aptitude on standardized tests as non-PBL students, while non-PBL students perform less optimally on PBL-based tests.

Critics of Poe’s web-based approach say that online methods lack face-to-face communication. However, this may simply be due to personal preference. They suggest that PBL is not able to cover as much material as the traditional method of lecturing, though it does seem to instill invaluable problem-solving skills. Students may also not use reliable resources for their information, in which case it may be up to the university to teach these students early on how to access journals and other reputable publications.

As for the amount of work required to set up PBL-based lesson plans, it requires more preparation than the traditional lecture to devise suitable problems and possible solutions. When asked about the number of hours she spends answering questions regarding PBL problems from her students, Dr. Poe laughs and admits that it is a six-day job, but if no one answers their questions, then students may lose their interest and momentum. Despite her workload, the professor is not ready to let them revert back to their silent lurking.

UNB student group evicts Lockheed Martin

In a turbulent time for job-hunters, it’s hard to believe that a student group would actively seek to prevent a company from hiring from their university. Nonetheless the Strax group at the University of New Brunswick last week invited students to protest a recruitment event planned by Lockheed Martin, a major developer of aerospace and military technologies. It worked–the company announced that it would cancel the event and “reschedule the visit [for] a time when it makes sense to everyone.”

UNB notes that a motion to oppose Lockheed’s campus presence was previously defeated, and maintains that it had, until now, maintained a cordial relationship with the company.

Lockheed Martin has not stopped hiring UNB students, but its recruitment events will be postponed indefinitely.

Hoops for the new year

The head coach of the women’s Varsity Blues basketball team was delighted that her team made a New Year’s resolution to remain undefeated in 2009.

“That would be a beautiful gift,” laughed long-time head coach Michele Belanger. “I hope it happens, certainly at home. Our goal is to get back to [the] Nationals. How we get there, we’ll take any route we have to.”

The team has held true to their intentions. They swept the Laurentian Voyageurs and the York Lions in their weekend’s series at the Athletic Centre Sports Gym, maintaining their perfect record in 2009. With the talents and leadership of veteran guard Alaine Hutton and power forward Nicki Schultz, the Blues improved to an 8-1 home record and an 11-5 overall record to maintain the top spot in the Eastern Conference OUA standings.

Laurentian posted a 12-4 lead in the first quarter Friday night, forcing the Blues to make tough shots early on the strength of their court defence. But the Blues used their fast transition game to force the aggressive Lady Vees into committing fouls, frequently sending the Blues to the free-throw line where the team had plenty of success, sinking 83 per cent of their free-throw attempts.

“I thought Laurentian played a solid game and really tried hard to move us off the blocks and push and shove us,” acknowledged Belanger. “Laurentian was really difficult for us. They have some really nice shooters who can make the big shots when they needed to, but we got ourselves to the foul line and that’s what we needed to do.”

The Blues opened the second quarter with the lead and a 9-0 run, but the Voyageurs refused to go away, pulling within a point of the Blues. But with less than two minutes left in the game, the Voyageurs fouled Schultz who sunk both her free-throw attempts to seal the eventual 69-60 victory for the Blues. Schultz had 24 points and 14 rebounds for the double-double, while Hutton scored a game-high 28 points with a perfect 12-12 from the floor en route to being named the Blues player of the game.

Saturday saw another well-fought battle against their cross-town rival. A strong third quarter had the Blues lead by as much as 19 points, overcoming yet another slow first half for the Blues. The York Lions managed to chip away at the lead during the fourth-quarter, but fifth-year Blues Tara Kinnear stepped up and ran with the game in the final two minutes, nailing three huge buckets to help secure the 74-67 win.

“[Tara Kinnear] plays really hard,” said Belanger. “She bangs it pretty hard, and Tara got some really key baskets and really key boards.”

Schultz earned Saturday’s player of the game honours, as well as being named the OUA female player of the week after dropping a team-high 23 points and 17 rebounds for her second double-double in as many games for a total of 47 points and 31 rebounds this weekend. Hutton chipped in with 18 points on Saturday, while spearheading the Blues offensively by contributing crucial plays, including a beautiful pick-and-roll with Kinnear that spearheaded the victory.

“They played really, really well,” said Belanger on her two star players this weekend. “Nicki [Schultz] went to the floor several times and still keeps getting up and working hard at it. Both of them are vital parts in our offence. Both of them are quality players—they are all star players. They can score basically at will. And they work very hard.”