Students worried for interdisciplinary programs

With an academic review underway at the Faculty of Arts and Science, student groups are expecting large spending cuts to interdisciplinary programs at U of T. A previous external review in March 2008 had recommended that the university re-evaluate the role of traditional interdisciplinary programs and take steps to control the growth of new programs. The three-member committee, comprised of faculty from other universities, noted that U of T had added 15 new interdisciplinary programs since 2005 and argued that such expansion was unsustainable.

At a town hall meeting organized by the health studies and equity studies student unions on Tuesday, students saw the review as part of a general trend towards undervaluing interdisciplinary programs at U of T, especially following recent cuts in South Asian Studies.

Attendees discussed how to respond to the review. In attendance were members of academic student unions for women and gender studies, Caribbean studies, and South Asian studies, as well as TYP students and UTSU execs. (Disclosure: Two Varsity staff members are also execs of the South Asian Studies Students’ Association.)

“The decisions being made in the review are affecting every single aspect of student life on campus,” said Faraz Vahid Shahidi, a third-year student. “Everything from what sort of programs are available to how many faculty we have and what kind of research is available to us.”

The current review calls on each college to submit a five-year plan to the Dean’s Office by Dec. 15. Colleges are asked to argue compellingly for their programs and “not to assume that the status quo will necessarily apply in the future.”

“If the university were to lose the more critical programs that focus on things like equity, the diversity of programs offered at this school would really suffer,” said Marrison Stranks, president of the Health Studies Student Union.

University officials, however, cautioned against speculating about how the review will affect individual programs.

“It is very important for students to understand that there are no foregone conclusions in this process,” wrote professor Suzanne Stevenson, vice dean of teaching and learning, in an e-mail.

Stevenson, who sits on the committee that will evaluate the colleges’ plans, said that the allocation of funds will depend on a case-by-case evaluation.

“We expect detailed and feasible plans that clearly indicate how the unit will help us to achieve the Faculty’s goals in the areas of undergraduate and graduate education and research,” she wrote.

In response to objections brought forth by the student groups stating that they have not been appropriately consulted in the process, Stevenson said that individual programs were explicitly required to speak with students.

Stranks said many students are still not aware that their programs are on the chopping block.

“I think because [Health Studies is] a small program, and we have a director who’s informed about these issues and wanted to involve students, we were given more background information than other course unions,” she said. “[I]n other course unions, having spoken to them, it was a much more passive process where students were giving feedback and not aware of the repercussions of the review.”

Stranks said she thinks student participation in this process should be mandatory.

“We should have voices in what programs are offered,” she added.

Professor Paul Hamel, director of health studies at University College, also felt that the review would entail significant changes for the faculty.

“I think [the review] does have some very strong bearing on what programs are going to be mounted and the type of university it’s going to be in the near future,” he said. “What it’s doing is providing people with an opportunity to cut things that they’ve wanted to get rid of for a long time.”

The prospect of such cuts drew impassioned reaction from the attendees at Tuesday’s town hall.

“Really, though, why we advocate for [critical and area studies] programs is just the emphasis on what’s intrinsic to the mandate of the university,” said Shahidi. “In the university’s mandate, it talks about critical thinking and engaging with one another in ways that are challenging and novel. These programs cater to this sort of environment.”

The committee that evaluates the planning submissions will meet from January to March next year and implement any changes on an ongoing basis.

Balls of fury

The University of Toronto’s ping-pong enthusiasts congregated on Nov. 14 in the Upper Gym of the Athletic Centre, to take part in the U of T Table Tennis Club annual fall tournament. Along with 14 other players, I played in the morning’s recreational event, while 33 played in the competitive bracket in the afternoon.

Each bracket featured three games of round robin play, after which players with winning records advanced to one playoff bracket while those with losing records played a separate one. All in all, four divisions awarded medals to the top three finishers.

Taking the first division (the winners of the competitive tournament’s round robin) was Frederick Chiu, who beat Mahdi Hajiaghayi in the final. Ted Liu won the match for third place after losing in the semi-finals. All three players are provincially ranked and play tournaments regularly. In the competitive division’s consolation bracket (the second division), Sunny Zhou triumphed over Bo Chen in the final, while Shengqing Gu finished third.

In the recreational tournament, Wilbur Li beat Chris Cheung for the third division title, and Ataa Elahi notched third place. Jose Enrique beat me in the final of the fourth division, and Tony Chu won the third place medal.

UTTTC has hosted tournaments twice a year, once in the fall semester and once in the winter, since around 2002, according to tournament director Oscar Del Rio. All students and faculty are welcome to play.

In addition to the tournaments, UTTTC also holds ping-pong practice sessions three times a week during the school year in the Athletic Centre. Any member of the U of T community can register for these sessions. The club also hosts the men’s and women’s table tennis teams, the former having finished sixth in North America last year and the latter, second.

Both teams are preparing for the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association’s eastern division tournament this coming Saturday, which will determine which team represents Canada at the North American championship in April.

The next UTTTC tournament is scheduled for March 20, 2010.

TTC raises fares

Update: The initial TTC news release gave $111 as the price for Metropasses that UTSU sells under the Volume Incentive Program. The actual price is $107.

As expected, the Toronto Transit Commission approved on Tuesday a fare hike starting Jan. 3, 2010. Beginning in September, post-secondary students will be able to buy discounted Metropasses for $99, the same rate as high school students. Post-secondary students will pay $107 for Metropasses from January to August.

The adult fare will rise to $3 and the adult Metropass to $121. The original proposal was to raise adult Metropasses to $126. But the TTC faced a backlash, including a “rider’s strike” last Friday. The Fair Student Fares campaign collected over 6,000 signatures to protest the price hike. The Canadian Federation of Students, along with its member unions in Toronto, organized the campaign.

CFS organizer Joel Duff said the delay in getting the discount $99 passes was due to logistical issues. Student unions have six-month contracts with the TTC.

Negotiations are ongoing about the format of the discount pass. “The TTC has stated that they do not want to have their drivers looking at multiple cards, so post-secondary students will have to get the same student IDs as high school students,” said Duff. “We want students to be able to use their student cards issued by their universities.”

The new passes require photos and students would have to go to Sherbourne station to be photographed by the TTC, but student unions want to create and issue the passes themselves, Duff said.

“We already pay, as Ontario students, the highest tuition fees in Canada. This fare increase is going to make higher education even less affordable and accessible for post-secondary students,” said Hadia Akhtar, VP external for UTSU. The U of T student union currently sells an average of 12,000 discount Metropasses per month under the Volume Incentive Program, with each pass going for $96.

“We had meetings with Anthony Perruzza, Maria Augimari, [TTC Chair] Adam Giambrone, his staff and even Joe Mihevc,” said Hamid Osman, CFS’s national executive representative for Ontario and former president of the York Federation of Students. Perruzza, Augimari, and Mihevc are TTC commissioners. Giambrone is TTC chair and city councillor for Davenport. He is considering a run for mayor.

Over a breakfast meeting with Giambrone on Monday, campaigners were told that the high-school discount would be extended to full-time college and university students only, with an age cap. Last-minute negotiations convinced commissioners to re-draft the motion to include part-time students and remove the age cap, according to Dave Scrivener, former UTSU VP external.

“The students won this,” said Mihevc, councillor for St. Paul’s West. “It is a testament to the power of student organization.”

Good things come in twos

The Varsity Blues men’s volleyball team capped a perfect weekend by sweeping away a helpless York Lions team (25-18, 25-15, 25-18) Saturday night at the U of T Athletic Centre, raising their winning streak to three.

Looking confident and comfortable, the Blues clearly played off the momentum from their thrilling win against the Ryerson Rams (20-25, 23-25, 25-22, 27-25, 15-9) Friday night when they came back from two sets down to win in five.

The team is starting to find its identity as players such as Matthew Stefanoff, Mike Manning, and Adam Palmer, who struggled at the beginning of the season, are starting to play up to their potential.

Just two weeks ago you could be excused for writing off the team after they dropped four straight to start the season. However, in their Nov. 1 loss to the Waterloo Warriors, a hard-fought five-set match, the team began to show signs of life. Three matches later, including coming back twice from two sets down to win a blowout over York, the team has not just turned a corner, but have done a full U-turn.

On Saturday, the Blues starters played nearly flawlessly, denying York the chance to score more than 18 points in any one set as they dominated on offense (with 39 kills to York’s 23) and on defence (30 digs to 25 and 11 blocks to three), while winning each set by an average of eight points.

Key to the Blues’ dramatic comeback over Ryerson on Friday was their exploitation of their opponents’ Achilles’ heel: liberos Anthony Kentris and Robert Earl.

Clearly targeted by Blues’ servers, both Kentris and Earl struggled mightily, highlighted by their inability to pass the ball anywhere near one of their teammates. This also contributed largely to the Blues’ season-high nine service aces on the match.

The women had a much easier time taking care of business, needing only seven sets to win both matches over the weekend.

On Saturday, however, it was the Lions who roared out of the gate, taking just 20 minutes to hammer the Blues 25-14 in the first set.

Blues head coach Kristine Drakich quickly calmed down her troops, as her team responded by dominating the next three sets (25-10, 25-18, 25-19).

On Friday, Blues’ star player Heather Bansley made a triumphant return to court against Ryerson after starting the season in Thailand competing for Canada’s national beach volleyball team. Bansley picked up where she left off, leading the team with seven kills and 15 digs as the Blues cruised to victory in straight sets (25-21, 25-20, 25-15).

Another positive from the weekend was the play of rookies Alexandra Hudson and Rebecca Crosier. Both proved they are more then capable of handling the pressures that come with being starters and both were instrumental in the Blues victory over Ryerson, chipping in with five kills each. Crosier also had a big day behind the service line, leading all players with five aces.

Tweet justice

The Second City’s 64th revue, Shut Up and Show Us Your Tweets, is not only an exceptionally hilarious show—it also features two U of T alum, Darryl Hinds and Matthew Reid. The Varsity caught up with both of them backstage, where they shared their thoughts on the world of comedy and their current show.

The Varsity: What was your time like at U of T?

Darryl Hinds: It was fantastic—some of the best times of my life. I went to the Erindale Campus…it’s unique in that it’s a little suburban community, a little neighbourhood, a vacuum of people. I was doing a theatre and drama program—it was a joint practical acting program with Sheridan College, but we also learned theatre and drama studies at U of T. It was the best of both worlds. I think it has been invaluable in the job that we do—it really teaches you how to appreciate all the jobs that take place in the theatre. And never to take those jobs for granted, because [everyone] works really hard.

Matthew Reid: It was a long time ago. It was cool to have long hair and goatees at the time. (Pauses for laugh). Imagine very little computer use—Internet is pretty unheard of. Social networks just don’t exist at all. There were some great professors. I took music, theory and composition. The music scene was very conservative in its radicalism. We were still living in that world of the 1960s and 1970s.

TV: How did you get into comedy?

DH: Most people who get into comedy will tell you that they were a class clown or whatever. I was a class clown, [though] I’m not an extroverted person in nature—I like making my friends laugh. I never spoke out in class and I was a pretty straight-laced kid. I remember it was one recess I started joking around and doing some impressions of characters from SCTV to my friends. Two of my friends were there and about 10 minutes later I noticed that a crowd of other kids gathered around and were watching me do these impressions of these characters. After recess was done, I looked at my friends and said, “Yeah. This is what I want to do.” So, it was like one of those profound moments during childhood.

MR: As a toddler, I had a natural propensity for slipping on banana peels. Falling out of balconies. Maybe if I made it look like I was doing these things on purpose, I would get more attention—good attention, as opposed to bad attention that accompanies accidents.

TV: Who were some of your comedic idols?

DH: The majority of the cast of SCTV. When I was growing up, SCTV was my Saturday Night Live. I didn’t really watch SNL. I watched SCTV and I’m glad for that. In my opinion, SCTV has some of the best sketches and writing that has ever been on television, next to Monty Python. Bill Cosby was a huge influence. His was actually the first comedy album that I got. I got a record which was The Best of Bill Cosby. I memorized it and recited it to my parents. Bill Cosby was huge and Peter Sellers was a huge influence as well. And Charlie Chaplin was also a big influence.

MR: In the comedy world, there [are] the SCTV guys, particularly Jim Flaherty, Eugene Levy, the Marx Brothers, particularly Harpo Marx. Also, Monty Python and John Cleese in particular. The Goon Show’s Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. The comedy side mixed with the profundity on the music side kept me balanced.

TV: Give us the take on your current show *Shut Up and Show Us Your Tweets.*

DH: As most Second City shows go, the title has very little to do with the actual show. There is very little stuff about tweeting in it or social networking, per se…I’d say it’s about relationships and connections between people. There is a lot of political satire and I think in that way, we are getting back to The Second City of the ’60s and ’70s, because they were very socially and politically based. We are never offensive for [the sake of offensiveness].

MR: There is certainly a lot more in the show that will shock or piss people off. The play is shocking, but still in the realm of acceptable shocking.

TV: If you didn’t do comedy, what job would you like to have?

DH: Another creative outlet. It would probably be something in the visual arts—comic-book drawing or [being] a cartoonist. Actually, there was a year I took a break from acting in university and I went into visual arts, because that was something that I always wanted to pursue as well. So I pursued it and I found out that I really wanted to be a performer, as opposed to getting into the visual arts.

MR: Some sort of polemicist, probably. Writing on economics—it’s an interesting and fascinating subject. A lot of people have opinions on it without knowing what the hell they are talking about. I felt it was important to “edumacate” myself. So, if comedy, writing, or music weren’t available, then I would become an economist, a social scientist, or a barber.

Shut Up and Show Us Your Tweets is now playing at the Second City. For more info, visit thesecondcity.com.

Geeks in action

Computer science students, faculty, and alumni displayed their work Tuesday afternoon at the Bahen Centre. The department’s annual Research in Action showcase featured 52 projects, up from 12 in 2007. “These projects cover the entire spectrum of computer science, from applications-oriented research that brings new insights to practical problems, to groundbreaking theoretical research that influences the entire discipline,” said department chair Craig Boutilier in a press release. Research ranged from medicine to social networking.

An iPhone application that conveys street map patterns to visually impaired users, using audio feedback from touch interaction, caught the attention of attendees.

An emergency response system, aimed to improve safety for the elderly, detects falls in the home and allows the senior to call for help. “The largest burden on health care is injuries. In 2004, they accounted for $6.2 million […] and so with this project we expect to save taxpayers money and increase the chances of full recovery,” said research manager Jen Boger. This project is one of many that is patented and searching for a commercial partner.

Other projects included a system that enhances the privacy of personal information shared on social networking sites, context-aware mobile devices to help those with anomic aphasia recall words and names, and a web application that mimics the flexibility of grading assignments with pen on paper.

Associate professor Ravin Balakrishnan is one of the showcase’s organizers. “[I hope it] will provide a channel for new partnerships and play a role in building the City of Toronto as a leader in high technology,” said Balakrishnan, encouraging students from different disciplines to get involved in projects.

Happily Everlea after

On a dreary Sunday evening, I meet with the recently-relocated Kingston band Everlea. As I arrive at the Leslieville apartment of guitarist Casey Shea and singer Justin Dubé, Shea opens the door and immediately offers me some jalapeño poppers. I notice tickets to the band’s upcoming Mod Club show lying on the living room floor. The band is visibly excited to see their name on a professionally printed ticket as a headliner for the first time.

“We’re trying to impress you,” says the soft-spoken Shea, humble and sarcastic at once.

The whole band has congregated to be interviewed, save for the newest member, bassist Pat Maclean, who hasn’t yet relocated to Toronto. (He’ll be moving in with drummer Brendan Soares next month.) I take a quick look around the modest, well-kept apartment, hoping to find evidence of rock star debauchery. I’m very disappointed—no beer pyramids or coked-out groupies, just polite girlfriends and appetizers.

We break into the interview without formalities, and the conversation flows seamlessly. Dubé, the consummate androgynous frontman, reveals a few tidbits about his hometown, raving about Kingston’s finest restaurants. When Shea offers me a beer, it triggers a Pavlovian
response—I finally remember to turn on my recorder.

“So which bands do you hate?” I investigate, attempting to stir things up.

The guys politely giggle at the incongruity of such a question—making fun of other bands just doesn’t make sense to them. I mention recent emo-scene punching bags Stereos. Every band hates Stereos, right?

“Some bands adjust their style to what’s cool at the moment—I don’t think that’s a bad thing—but it’s just not us,” Dubé answers, without a hint of resentment. That’s the closest thing to a disparaging remark I can coax out of them. Something’s not computing—a band that won’t take cheap shots at Stereos, and has jalapeño poppers ready for their guests? I’m suspicious. Are they holding a hostage captive? Have any of them killed a man?

Why is Everlea so nice?

Despite Everlea’s upcoming show, things haven’t always gone so smoothly for the four-piece. The band recently parted ways with their label, Glassnote Music (home to Parisian synth-rockers Phoenix, among others). The story behind their departure is all too familiar: A&R person responsible for signing band departs label, leaving band in limbo. But Everlea doesn’t seem to think they got a raw deal.

“Being on Glassnote afforded us many opportunities,” Dubé notes.

Their relationship with Glassnote led to them signing with powerhouse booking agent The Agency Group. It’s hard not to see the bright side when you are touring cross-country with Secondhand Serenade and opening up for Taking Back Sunday at the Kool Haus.

Dubé adds, “They still own that record, and we keep in contact. We just won’t be releasing any more records with them.” Sounds like the mythical mutual break up we’ve all heard about. In Everlea’s emotionally stable world, being “just friends” can work just fine. Don’t expect Everlea to look for a rebound, either—they’re content biding their time and growing independently.

“The best time to sign a deal is when you don’t need one,” Dubé believes. Instead of worrying about their label situation, Everlea has turned their attention to honing their craft. The band doesn’t shy away from writing songs with a mass audience in mind.

Dubé candidly describes his developing song-writing process. “Lately I’ve analyzed songs and tried to figure out the universal elements that make them great,” he explains. “I just want to find a connection—a universal meaning to my lyrics. Take my experience and take it from a personal to a universal level that everyone can understand. It took me a long time to stop being insecure and self-conscious. The goal is just to write good songs.”

But sometimes, writing good songs isn’t enough. In a saturated music market, simply being good at what you do isn’t going to help you find success. But Everlea believe their honesty and commitment is what separates them.

“I think bands more than ever have to be genuine,” Dubé argues before being interrupted. The generally subdued Shea interjects, “Some bands make great albums; they just don’t keep with it. It’s all about persistence.”

I ask Everlea a more difficult question: “Do you ever think about fucking life and quitting this music shit?”

In unison they agree, “Yes.”

When prodded about what they would do if they weren’t in Everlea, they draw a collective blank. It appears their thoughts of quitting aren’t as legitimate as their desire to continue.

“Casey would be a crane operator,” Dubé busts Shea’s balls as he shoves some homemade lentil loaf in my mouth.

“I don’t wanna be a crane operator, man. If I wanted to be anything else I wouldn’t be doing this,” Casey rebuts. Soares chimes in, “I love this kind of lifestyle.” He kept quiet during most of the interview but he knows when to pick his spots: “These last few years have been the best of my life.”

Why is Everlea so nice? The answer is not as sinister as I speculated. They love what they do.

Everlea plays the Mod Club with Crush Luther on Saturday, Nov. 21. For more information, visit everlea.com.

Publish and perish?

Are news blackouts necessary during kidnapping cases? Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, who was kidnapped last year, thought so. Fowler led a panel discussion with heads of news outlets at Innis College on Tuesday. The Canadian Journalism Foundation hosted the event.

Fowler is special envoy of the UN Secretary-General to Niger. On Dec. 14, 2008, an al-Qaeda group in Niger kidnapped him and his colleague, holding him for over 4 months. Fowler criticized news agencies for covering his kidnapping, which he felt gave his captors useful information and brought his family “gratuitous pain.”

“I think the easiest solution is the blackout [for kidnapping cases],” said Fowler. He said a blackout worked for Melissa Fung, the Canadian journalist who was kidnapped by armed men in a refugee camp near Kabul. She was held captive for 28 days before tribal leaders negotiated her release. “[A news blackout] probably did have something to do with the difference between [her] 28 and [my] 130 days,” Fowler noted.

Fowler said that if policies about blackouts are not possible from a media solidarity point of view, then news agencies should consult the government, other media outlets, and kidnapping experts before making a decision to run the story.

The other panellists were Stephen Northfield, the foreign news editor at the Globe and Mail, Robert Hurst, president of CTV News and Current Affairs, and John Cruickshank, publisher of the Toronto Star and former head of CBC News.

“Our default as a media organization is to publish,” said Northfield. “It is a position of the Globe that we will not knowingly publish information that will lead to the harm of an individual. It is impossible to be able to gauge the unintended consequences of the publication of anything.”

Northfield concluded that there were no easy answers for holding back on publishing, and that there is a sliding scale when it comes to blackouts.

“I wish there was a rulebook, […] but there isn’t. In each case it’s completely individual. There are all sorts of relative issues,” Northfield said.

Hurst, the most commanding voice of the discussion, defended news organizations and underlined how much discussion takes place before running a story.

“I would like to offer to this room today, and to Mr. Fowler, how seriously we do take these issues in the newsrooms. We talk about them a lot. We discuss it. We debate it. We talk about the pros and cons.”

Cruickshank addressed the problem of containing news stories, but defended the merits of blackouts in certain situations.

As the head of CBC News when Fung was kidnapped in October 2008, Cruickshank was responsible for taking control of the situation and getting other Canadian news organizations to refrain from reporting on Fung’s abduction.

“This is not about suppressing information,” said Cruickshank. “The term ‘blackout’ is an insidious term.” He then offered what he thought was a better definition: “This is delaying.”

“We do in fact suppress information routinely: confessions, stories about suicides, any number of the kinds of stories that we have made by the decisions in public interest to suppress.” Cruickshank added that he expects a consensus soon on how to respond to kidnappings of political figures and journalists.

The last word came when Paul Hunter, who reports from the CBC’s Washington bureau, spoke from the audience. “We have an opportunity now to make up a plan,” said Hunter, who was involved in keeping the Melissa Fung kidnapping under wraps.

“Start the blanket: no active kidnaps get covered and then finesse it. I’m a bit worried that we’ll find ourselves here in another year and somebody else will be kidnapped and we won’t have a protocol or code in place.”