U of T to buy back planetarium

As proof of changing times, a property given away in 1967 now costs $22 million. U of T announced on Monday that it is buying and developing the planetarium south of the Royal Ontario Museum as part of an ongoing expansion of the St. George campus.

The McLaughlin Planetarium was given to the ROM from U of T in 1967, free of charge. Since 1995, the building has been closed to the public and used as office and storage space. Though there has been considerable interest in the location, all development projects so far have been stifled.

The first major commercial proposal for the space in recent years was withdrawn after public opposition that then-director of the ROM William Thorsell called “too deep and broad” to defeat. Eighteen months later a 46-storey condominium tower was proposed. U of T’s decision to buy the building officially marks the termination of any such plan.

Some of the strongest criticism of a residential project came from the university. There is speculation that it played a significant role in stalling the various development projects, although until now the university has not expressed interest in the location.

President David Naylor called the situation “a win-win for U of T, the ROM, and the public,” claiming that “the acquisition will deliver long-term benefits to our students and our community and provide much-needed room for the expansion of U of T’s academic facilities.” The specific use of the site remains undetermined. University spokesperson Robert Steiner said the land would ease the “massive space crunch at the St. George campus.”

VIC411: from ‘Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature’ to ‘Natures of Documentary’

Courses often change their designations while maintaining a more or less consistent syllabus, but never to my knowledge has a course maintained its designation while completely changing the course material. Until now, that is. Graduating literary and film students, as well as curious students like myself, signed up for VIC411: Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature during the summer. We looked forward to a course that was highly praised by those who had taken it in the past. Unbeknownst to us, and much to our dismay, someone had decided that VIC411: Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature was to be VIC411: Natures of Documentary. This someone made the change without notifying the students enrolled, telling departments cross-listing the course, or even updating the information on ROSI (not that ROSI is by any means reliable.) Today the course still appears under the designation, VIC411: Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature, on ROSI. Not even the slightest effort was made on behalf of graduating students, not to mention students taking the course to fulfill a program requirement.

The only alert to undergrads about the change was far from sufficient: an update to the one paragraph course description on the Victoria College website. It was as if the department had tried not to freak out students by announcing the sudden and rather drastic changes. The course was renamed Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature: Natures of Documentary, yet the syllabus makes no reference to either postmodernist theories or literature. Not only that, but no other department/program website where the course was cross-listed was updated, meaning that the departments partnered with Victoria College had not been notified of the change either. The Cinema Studies Institute has not recognized the change, despite the course being part of its Category D: Interdisciplinary Courses.

This lack of communication is not only disrespectful, it is incomprehensible. The matter was not discussed or negotiated with students, the major stakeholders. The administration covered their tracks with a disclaimer: “All course descriptions are subject to change”.

Part of our frustration is that we do not understand the reason for the changes. Students were told that the course was modified because Julian Patrick, the professor teaching Postmodernist Approaches to Film and Literature, is on sabbatical. According to the regularly updated Victoria College website, Julian Patrick is currently teaching courses both at Victoria College and in the English Department, which means he is not on sabbatical. If a professor is unavailable to teach a course, for whatever reason, the course should either be cancelled or a replacement professor should be recruited—to teach the same course. This is not only a matter of miscommunication, but deliberate misinformation.

Federal budget gives campuses a facelift

As Canadians debate the 2009 budget released Tuesday, some provisions may provide assistance to student job-seekers and university infrastructure.

A $12 billion allotment goes to university infrastructure, part of an $85-billion five-year stimulus package. “Accelerating repairs, maintenance and construction at universities and colleges will provide substantial stimulus in communities across Canada,” reads the online budget summary. Schools can definitely use the cash: the Canadian Association of University Business Officers estimates a collective deferred maintenance backlog of $5 billion for Canadian universities.

The budget also promises to improve summer job prospects by funding the Canada Summer Jobs program with $20 million over two years. An additional one-time $15 million grant will go to the YMCA and YWCA to provide new internships. Short-term funds for Canada Graduate Scholarships will see another $87 million, and science and business internships, $3.5 million.

“We are pleased that the government has not forgotten post-secondary education when planning for infrastructure spending across the country,” said Trevor Mayoh, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. “However, if the government of Canada truly wants to create the ‘jobs of tomorrow’ then serious stimulus monies must be committed to enhance access to and persistence in higher education.”

OUSA has several recommendations for investing in postsecondary education, such as increasing up-front grants to students, extending the non-repayment period for Canada Student Loans from the current six months to 12 months, and making the period interest free.

Short and sweet

As part of its selection of the top 10 Canadian films of the year, the Toronto International Film Festival Group also compiles a list of the year’s finest homegrown shorts. 2008’s picks are predictably uneven, but the mix contains enough worthwhile pieces to attest to our fair nation’s perennially underrated cinematic prowess. The shorts will screen during two programmes at Cinemathèque Ontario, making stimulating viewing for those who want to support our film industry but just can’t work up the emotional energy to take in Atom Egoyan’s latest.

Patrick Gaze’s Mon Nom Est Victor Gazon is a dark, dark comedy—very well made, but almost excruciating to watch. Victor, the ten-year-old narrator, is shocked to learn that both his uncle and an older student at his school have recently committed suicide. After reasoning “my mom said that my uncle committed suicide ‘cause there were more things that made him sad than things that made him happy,” Victor tallies up the good and bad things in his life to decide whether or not he too should do the deed. Gaze knows how to manipulate his audience (with his blend of comedy and tragedy, I was reminded of Hitchcock’s quote about “playing the audience like a piano”), and he captures his protagonist’s childlike innocence perfectly—perhaps a little too perfectly.

Next Floor, by Maelström director Denis Villeneuve, is a giddy absurdist satire about the calamitous happenings at a lavish dinner party with a group of wealthy upper-class men. Villeneuve’s visual style is reminiscent of the baroquely formal landscapes of Terry Gilliam’s bourgeois parodies (particularly Brazil), and his dry wit and strong sense of comedic timing make the film’s central joke work.

Kazik Radwanski’s Princess Margaret Blvd. is an effective impressionistic and bittersweet film about an old woman’s gradual submission to Alzheimer’s, evocative in its treatment of the disease. Similarly emotive is Mike Rollo’s Ghosts and Gravel Roads, an atmospheric portrait of empty landscapes and abandoned locations in southern Saskatchewan. Theodore Ushev’s Drux Flux is a politically charged animated film, which contrasts images of industry and Soviet propaganda in a montage style that can only be compared to Sergei Eisenstein.

Less successful is Semi Chellas’ Green Door, a complex, ambitious attempt to weave several unrequited love stories and mistaken identity shenanigans amongst six apartment dwellers, two of whom are dead or dying (one of whom is played by ubiquitous Canadian media figure Don McKellar). Green Door is fitfully amusing, but tries to cram too much into its 13-minute running time. It’s hard to be impressed by complex character relations when the characters themselves aren’t given enough time to develop.

Kevin Lee Burton’s Nikamowin (Song) begins with voice-over of a Cree Canadian asking another Cree why he does not speak his tribe’s language. The rest of the film depicts different Canadian landscapes to the sound of distorted, rhythmically enhanced Cree audio. The prologue suggests that the film’s goal is to make a case for the beauty of the Cree language…but wouldn’t any language sound beautiful if subjected to so much electronic manipulation?

The biggest puzzler in the roster is Chris Chong Chan Fui’s Block B. It’s hard to describe, but imagine a cross between Jacques Tati’s Play Time and Andy Warhol’s Empire, and you might have an idea. This 20-minute film is comprised of two ten-minute shots of an Indian apartment building, with copious day-to-day activity barely visible on each of the floors. “Observational cinema at its most extreme and audacious,” writes Alex Rogalski in the Cinemathèque programme, and that’s definitely accurate. The film is visually beautiful, thematically rich (Rogalski notes that we “learn much about the social structure of the Indian working class” —perhaps we also view the activity from the perspective of God?), and very trying on the viewer’s patience. Certainly the silver screen is the only way to really appreciate this undeniably unique achievement.

The best of the shorts is Marie-Josee Saint-Pierre’s Passages. Animated in sparse black-and-white (the background is black, while shifting, malleable foreground figures are thin, white outlines), Passages is a first-person account of Saint-Pierre’s ordeal with the Canadian health care system while delivering her baby. Treated by hospital staff seen as incompetent and lacking empathy (they are depicted as clowns, robots, and wild animals in the animation), her baby nearly dies from the results of a botched birth. Passages is the angriest and most powerful of the shorts, and also the one that plays with the cinematic form to the greatest effect.

Programme 1 plays at Cinemathèque Ontario on January 31st at 9:15 p.m. It contains Ghosts and Gravel Roads, Drux Flux, Green Door, Next Floor, and Block B.

Programme 2 plays on February 1st at 7:15 p.m. It contains Mon Nom Est Victor Gazon, Nikamowin (Song), Princess Margaret Blvd, Passages, and La Battue.

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.