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.
Students worried for interdisciplinary programs
Sex, food, and climate change
Roughly two centuries ago, British thinker Thomas Malthus famously predicted that human overpopulation would result in food shortages and mass famine. “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man,” he said. For a long time, his idea that mass famine would overtake humanity was rejected out of hand by those who pointed to industrial agriculture and vastly increased crop yields. Industrial agriculture proved him wrong, or so the textbooks said.Malthus’s ideas are now back in vogue as global food futures are uncertain, due to a devastating combination of fresh water depletion; drought caused by climate change; the collapse of the world’s oceans; an increase in fuel prices (as global oil supplies peak); soil erosion caused by excessive pesticide use; and the replacement of agricultural lands by biofuel crops.From 1940 to the present, the world’s human population more than doubled to about 6.6 billion, and is projected to be about 10 billion by 2050. An International Panel on Climate Change report says that by 2080, 1.1 to 3.2 billion people will experience water scarcity, 200 to 600 million will be starving, and 2 to 7 million people each year will experience coastal flooding. The population is expected to plummet after the year 2050 due to famine, drought, disease, and war, exacerbated by climate change and peak oil.Curbing overpopulation to mitigate climate change is also contentious due to the widely held view that reproduction is an inviolable right, and fears that coercive measures will be used to limit populations, like those used in China. The counterview holds that reproduction ought not to be considered an inviolable right when we’ve already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet, and the consequences are inevitably so tragic.One solution is to simply prevent unwanted pregnancies. Contraception is widely viewed as a viable and necessary solution by most people who write on this subject. According to the London School of Economics, contraception is almost five times cheaper as a means of preventing climate change than conventional green technologies.But there’s a dispute over whether efforts to curb population growth should be a priority while those in the industrial north are still consuming many times more than those in the global south, and are responsible for global warming to a much greater degree.George Monbiot, columnist for The Guardian and environmental activist, recently criticized those who talk about overpopulation while neglecting to mention the north-south inequity on greenhouse gas emissions. “While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth,” he said.Responding to Monbiot is Ryerson physics professor Helmut Burkhardt. He says, “It’s important to expose the misconceptions that only overconsumption is the cause of ecological problems, and not overpopulation. A drastic reduction of the few overconsumers, and reasonable and just increase in consumption by the numerous poor will raise the world average consumption of resources in a planet already suffering from ecological stress near the tipping point.”In other words, even if we greatly reduce our carbon footprints in Canada while China and India continue to urbanize and industrialize, we will not be able to avoid the much-feared “tipping point” of catastrophic climate change, with disastrous consequences for all.The reality is that if the practice of contraception is not widely adopted, another type of population control will be implemented: mass murder. Richard Heinberg, author of Powerdown, posits several types of future communities. The type he calls “Last Man Standing” neatly describes an all too common attitude among the over-privileged of the world: let the developing world—namely sub-Saharan Africa—die, and we will hoard all the resources for ourselves. This might also be called the fascist solution to overpopulation. The reality is that corporate and government inaction on climate change—including the Harper government’s failures on this front—already represents this morally callous depopulation program, albeit indirectly.A study titled Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost, says that every seven dollars spent on family planning over the next four decades would reduce global CO2 emissions by more than a ton. We are still at a critical point in history when we can rationally discuss sane options, such as contraception and family planning education, and implement them with relatively little cost.Science for Peace presents a Public Forum on Food and Population on Friday, Nov. 20, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Koffler Auditorium, 569 Spadina Ave.
Khadr come home
The Supreme Court of Canada is currently hearing the second appeal by the Harper Conservatives on a Federal Court ruling that found that the fundamental human rights of Torontonian Omar Khadr have been violated during his illegal detention at the infamous U.S Bagram air base and Guantanamo Bay facilities. The court has, yet again, ordered the government to seek Khadr’s repatriation. The original Federal Court ruling emphasized CSIS violations of Khadr’s rights, and would have forced Harper to fulfill his constitutional responsibility to the lone Western national remaining in Guantanamo (and the only child soldier charged with war crimes in modern history) had the government not appealed, again.Simultaneously, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Khadr’s case would be heard by internal military commissions, condemned by human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch as “kangaroo courts”—courts where verdicts are predetermined—while the five 9/11 suspects held at Guantanamo would be tried fairly in civilian court.The logic behind this bizarre disparity is simple: while tenable charges can be brought against the 9/11 suspects, it is correctly expected that Khadr would be instantly acquitted in constitutional court. Hence, he is being tried in a forum that will yield the authorities’ preferred result—a conviction.The decision to render Khadr to these farcical and secretive commissions—which admit they gather evidence through torture—rather than the constitutional, transparent civilian courts which are to try the 9/11 suspects, translates as a blithe admission that the Pentagon has absolutely no case against Khadr, and knows it.Military officials argue that Khadr’s alleged 2002 battlefield killing of U.S. medic Sgt. Christopher Speer constitutes “murder in violation of the laws of war” because Khadr was not part of a regular military force. But at the same time, these officials refuse Khadr his Geneva and child-soldier rights. Incidentally, many aspects of his detention constitute serious war crimes, and the evidence against him is circumstantial at best.Although prosecutors maintain that Khadr killed Speer, no witnesses claim to have seen him throw the deadly grenade. Furthermore, there were battlefield reports—suppressed by the Pentagon—that exonerated him of the killing, before being secretly “updated” to implicate him after he was charged, said the Criminal Investigation Task Force Witness Report from March 2004. According to the Los Angeles Times. his defence lawyers have been groundlessly refused access to exculpatory documents and key witnesses.Reporting his capture, a U.S. soldier claimed to have shot Khadr (then 15 years old) twice in the back while Khadr knelt, unarmed and wounded, in the wreckage of a bombed-out house.The “case” against Khadr relies on his “confession” which was coerced illegally at Bagram, one of the world’s most notorious torture labs, under the chief interrogation of Sgt. Joshua Claus. Claus later pled guilty to the beating-death of an Afghani civilian, whom he “interrogated” until the civilian’s legs were so swollen that his heart stopped. According to The New York Times, his torturers believed the civilian had “simply happened to be driving his cab past the U.S. base at the wrong time.”Needless to say, no civilian court would admit a confession that was given while the defendant was being tortured by a murderer, although the military commissions, ghoulish relics of the Bush-Cheney era, make no such quibble. It is also suspect that the commissions punished Sgt. Claus with five months imprisonment, whereas Khadr faces a life sentence.Were justice universally applied, Omar Khadr’s kidnappers and torturers would be on trial in civilian court for a list of war crimes, and Khadr would be freely collecting reparations from the U.S. and Canadian governments. Holder has therefore opted to prosecute Khadr via courts established “to secure convictions where prisoner mistreatment would otherwise preclude them,” as they have been described by former commissions prosecutor Lt.-Col. Darrel Vanderveld. Assuming that the commissions are willing to overlook international law and total lack of evidence as well as “prisoner mistreatment,” it appears that repatriation is Khadr’s only chance at something reminiscent of justice.On the heels of Holder’s stark condemnation, the Harper Conservatives genially “acknowledged the decision…to prosecute Omar Khadr through the U.S. military commission system,” arguing to the Canadian Supreme Court that it has no jurisdiction over the case, according to the Associated Press.While it is disconcerting that our leadership readily endorses Geneva violations against a national while refuting the judiciary’s authority to enforce the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the opinions of Harper’s followers on the matter are explicitly irrelevant, if not morally suspect. The executive’s prerogative of diplomatic discretion does not supersede the human and constitutional rights of its citizens—or international law, for that matter.It is worth noting that Omar Khadr, 23 and a Toronto native, might plausibly be now beginning his undergrad education at U of T had the Pentagon had the merest respect for international law, or Steven Harper any sense of duty to uphold the basic rights of Canadian citizens. Assuming that Harper’s abandonment of Khadr is not racially prejudicial, the precedent that he is setting would leave all Canadians vulnerable to torture and arbitrary life-imprisonment abroad. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will rebuff Harper’s efforts.
The Varsity Blues men’s basketball team is determined. After a successful preseason where they went 9-1, the Blues came into their season opener ranked sixth in the CIS. But for them, that still wasn’t good enough.“We know that this is our year, and we want to get it done this year,” said fifth-year veteran Nick Snow. Snow is one of four fifth-year starters on this season’s team, a team that also has 12 returning players. “Everybody’s on the same page. Our intensity in practices this year is way better than it was last year.”Nick Magalas, U of T’s starting point guard, shares the same sentiment, that keeping the core intact can yield nothing but positive results. “Confidence is key, in any aspect of life,” he said. “We’ve been in a lot of tough games that have come down to the wire, and earlier in our careers we lost those games. Now, we’re starting to win them.”“We’re a very close-knit group of guys,” added fifth-year starter Rob Paris. “I don’t know a group of guys who want it more than we do. We’re past the individual awards, we want to make it as a team, and we want this specific team to be solidified as one of the greatest U of T basketball teams in history, and we have the capability of doing that. I’ve been here for five or six years and we haven’t made it to Nationals once. It’s going to happen now, and it’s going to happen with this group of guys because we know what it takes and we want it more than anybody.”There is one thing Magalas would like to see changed for the regular season from their 9-1 preseason record: “Minus the one,” he said with complete confidence.After last season’s heartbreaking loss to Ottawa in the OUA East semifinal, the two teams met again in the preseason, and the Blues would get their revenge in an overtime win. “[It] was good because it shows we’re resilient. We came back from a loss last year, a devastating one, and we went right down to the wire and we didn’t give up,” Magalas proudly declared. “We’re going to come out number one or number two in the East,” said Paris, “and we’re going to be ready.”It turned out that the Blues’ season opener on Nov. 6 to the Laurier Golden Hawks at home would be one more test of their resilience. Another overtime game resulted in victory for the Blues, 92-89, spurred by an inspiring performance on Paris’s part. The shooting guard scored 30 points, including six three-pointers, had five assists, and also came up with a couple of key blocks late in the game. “I set him up, and he knocks them down,” joked Magalas. “It’s like a domino game. He’s got the touch, and if all of us get the ball to let him do what he does best, which is shoot, then we’ll be successful.”The Blues lost the following night to the Waterloo Warriors, 58-55, but over the two-game weekend, Drazen Glisic scrambled for a combined 25 rebounds, with 13 of them offensive. “That was huge,” exclaimed Snow. “When you get those second chances, not only do you get an extra chance to shoot, but you demoralize the other team because they have to play defence for another 24 seconds.”Unfortunately, Snow was unable to play in the game against Waterloo due to illness, nor could he play in the Nov. 13 game at McMaster. “He’s one of the best big men in the OUA. He obviously changes the dynamic of the game for the team,” said Paris. “I think when one guy goes we usually pick up the slack for them. We can win without Nick Snow, we can win without Rob Paris, and we can win without Nick Magalas. We’re a team and we’ve embraced this team concept to the fullest.”McMaster is the fourth-ranked team in the CIS, and Paris understood the significance of this game. “They’re the best team next to Carleton in the OUA. A lot of people are going to count us out for that game, but I think with being the sixth-ranked team in the country, the sky’s the limit for us.The Blues ended up winning against the Marauders without Nick Snow, 77-67, led by Pat Sewell’s 21 points, six rebounds, and five steals. Despite Snow’s return to the lineup the following night in Thunder Bay and Sewell’s 20 points and eight rebounds, the Blues came up just short, losing 68-67 to the Lakehead Thunderwolves.The 2-2 Blues are on the road again next weekend, playing Brock on Nov. 20 and Guelph on Nov. 21. The Blues play their next home games on Nov. 27 and 28, versus Windsor and Western, and are hoping for the same fan turnout as in the home opener. “It was great,” said Snow of the fan support. “They were like a sixth man out there. They were loud, they were excited, and I think I overheard that it was our biggest turnout for a home opener.”Snow, Glisic, and Sewell will continue to dominate the glass and lock down the paint defensively as they have in the first four games this year. Glisic is averaging 9.5 rebounds per game so far, and Sewell is contributing another 8.5 per game. Paris is scoring 17 points per game to start the season, and Magalas is right behind him with 16 points per game.This season’s Blues team is truly something to be excited about. Paris and Magalas will look to improve on last season’s performances, when they were voted OUA East Second-Team All-Stars, and give the Blues one of the OUA’s most potent perimeter offences and aggressive perimeter defence.
Partisanship everywhere you turn
All governments make mistakes. It’s an inextricable fact of human nature. However, in a democracy, people have the choice to not put up with it. They have the right, as citizens, to call out their elected officials for their incompetence or corruption. The important thing here is how they choose to criticize said government. Ideally, if you’re a member of an opposing party, you’d split your time evenly between trying to debate the incumbent(s) and furthering your own agenda. Yet sadly enough, these days it seems the preferred method is to derail any debate by pigeonholing all of your opponents into one ideological stereotype. Once that’s done, all you need to do is shout “liberal” or “conservative” and wait for fellow ideologues to add to the chorus. This kind of partisan orthodoxy is hardly a new phenomenon in politics, but has been far more pronounced in the last two years.One of the more extreme cases of such demagogy occured in May of last year when then-President George Bush travelled to Israel to commemorate the country’s 60th birthday. In his speech in front of the Knesset, Bush launched what many in Washington interpreted as a thinly-veiled attack against Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, accusing them of “appeasing” Syria and Iran.But extreme partisanship isn’t just restricted to Republicans. Just last year, as the recession was starting to take its toll on the U.S. economy, then–Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson was trying to get support for the bailout bill. At the time, Democrats controlled the House, and the bill was circling the drain. Desperate, Paulson knelt down before Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and literally begged her not to “blow up” the plan by withdrawing Democratic support from the bailout package. However, Pelosi was adamant in her decision not to partake in something drafted by Republicans.Two months later, Obama won the presidential election and, oddly enough, became the chief proponent of the bailout. All of a sudden, Pelosi was promoting the bill in the House and Senate, and not surprisingly, the Republicans now derided it as a socialist giveaway, “socialist” having since become their buzzword for the Obama administration.Next came the health care bill disaster. Though it started off with the usual opposition from the extreme right, it quickly turned into one of the most divisive issues in recent years. Sure, the GOP had some good points, but it wasn’t civil discourse that was shaping people’s opinions. It was all partisan mudslinging designed to convolute the debate and create a climate of confusion to mislead people. Most detractors had no idea what they were protesting against (some people held signs comparing Obama to Hitler), and supporters dismissed criticisms as “typical republicanism.” People on the outside, on the other hand, had no idea what was going on. This has become the norm in American politics.Here in Canada, partisan politics are no less preposterous. Take Michael Ignatieff, a man who has been driving the Liberal Party into the ground ever since he took over leadership in late 2008. He chooses to stick to his self-defeating strategy of blaming the Conservative government for everything that goes wrong with Canada. It is excruciating to hear him launch one tirade after another against the Conservatives, as if he knows all the answers and they don’t. Never mind that Canada is faring much better than most other countries in the recession, especially the United States.If Ignatieff invested half as much time furthering his own agenda and reaching out to Canadians as he did blaming the Conservatives, he might have been more successful than his predecessor, Stephane Dion. Instead, he remains an uncharismatic, uninspiring, out-of-touch leader who can’t promote himself or his party.It’s tempting, then, to say that partisanship is bad for society. But far be it for me to say that I have no partisan leanings whatsoever. It would also be foolish to say that partisanship is altogether detrimental to a country. On the contrary, it keeps political discourse organized and it provides its members with a sense of belonging. However, putting on the ideological blindfold and toeing the party line no matter what is an absurd tactic. Not only is it divisive, but it also creates a hostile political environment in which people cannot reconcile their ideological differences.
Live from Toronto
Thursday, Nov. 12This was a long day of soccer at Varsity Centre. With four quarterfinal games starting at 11 a.m. and going past 9 p.m., it perhaps was a bit too much soccer for my tastes. I didn’t stay very long to watch all the games or competitions live, for the sake of a sore behind and cold feet.It was not for lack of trying. But when you have two overtime games that extended the action for at least an extra hour and a half, you find yourself wishing for the great indoors after awhile in what was quickly becoming the freezing cold concrete stadium stands. Thankfully, SSN Canada would provide some very useful webcasts of all 11 games in the tournament, including the tense back-breakers that some of the Thursday games became. It meant that I could go home, boot up the computer and view at my leisure, without worrying about freezing to death as soon as the sun went down.I will say that the competition in the CIS men’s soccer tournament out of British Columbia looked absolutely top notch and are rightfully the favourites to go to the final. Trinity Western University is in fact the defending champion, and as far as I saw in their 1-0 win against the University of Prince Edward Island, they looked like a real threat to repeat.Friday, Nov. 13Today was a shorter day, with only two games. But as they were consolation games played by the losers of Thursday’s games, it left me a little less intrigued at the results.One of the games involved both teams from the Atlantic University Sports conference in a battle that thankfully did not go into overtime, though it was close—UPEI would manage to score the lone goal in the 93rd minute.The other game was a familiar all-Ontario University Athletics meeting between Toronto and York in the consolation semi-final, with Toronto just managing to come out on top of the defending OUA champions, holding on with a 1-0 win. Needless to say, York had a disappointing tournament this year. They really should have done better, but unfortunately, they came out on the wrong side of the dice in both their games this tournament.Saturday, Nov. 14Where did all these Trinity Western Spartan fans come from? I couldn’t believe how pro-Spartan the crowd was watching the semi-final game against Queen’s. One would have thought that the “home” team Queen’s would have been the more popular team of the two.Queens led 1-0 in the game and had they held it, it could have been one of the biggest upsets in the tournament. However, Trinity Western tied it with only moments left, resulting in the tournament’s third overtime game and another rear-numbing experience. In overtime, Trinity Western proved why they are the defending champions, largely dominating the play. But they saved all their finishes for penalty kicks, where five players beat the Queen’s goalkeeper five times amid huge cheers as they move on to the championship game.I’m not crazy about these single-elimination tournaments. I understand it is the best solution with regards to time but I can’t help but feel that in doing so, it leaves a little too much to chance in terms of which teams move on, and which teams get eliminated from gold medal contention. Take the Montreal and UBC semi-final game. As far as I’m concerned, UBC’s offensive game was superior to Montreal’s. But Montreal had lucky horseshoes stuffed in their cleats. Their defence stopped what should have been at least two sure-fire goals as they preserved their 1-0 lead for the win. Even the only goal of that game seemed to have been the product of a lucky break.UBC was the better team as far as I was concerned, but because of a bad break, they won’t be playing their biggest rivals in the gold medal game.The consolation final saw the Varsity Blues rise above their UPEI opponents. They played one of their best games in a long time as they put in a complete team game that would allow them to finish in fifth place in the tournament after not even making the OUA semi-finals this year. And it really felt good to see them achieve this success. After two years of severe disappointment in the playoffs, it was time to see their hard work pay off on this huge stage. I can only hope they will learn from it and be able to apply the experience to the team next year.Sunday, Nov. 14It’s finally the finals! After watching live nine games on my computer these past three days, I’m about done with watching soccer for the next little while. Too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing.Queen’s opened the scoring in the bronze medal game against UBC, but like yesterday, couldn’t hold onto their lead as they eventually fell 2-1. I have to give Queen’s a lot of credit. They did twice as good as I expected them to in this tournament, coming within a minute of facilitating a major upset. Athough they fell short of the podium in falling to the better team, they indicated that with another year, they probably could prove to be a dangerous threat to British Columbia’s women’s soccer supremacy.The gold medal game was yet another long affair. Trinity Western and Montreal would play their way to a nil-nil stalemate amid some really mind-numbing defence that was broken only in penalty kicks won by Trinity Western, marking them as the third team in history to successfully defend a CIS women’s soccer championship title.I didn’t expect the game to go to penalty kicks, but I did expect the final result. Trinity Western was clearly the best team in that game and even the best team in the tournament. They play at a competition level above what I saw from some of the other teams in the tournament, which was a treat to watch.Overall, I was very impressed walking away from the event, both with the quality of the athletes and the high standard of production provided by the University of Toronto, which hosted the event. My only wish is that the stands didn’t appear as empty as they did at times during the tournament, which seemed to exemplify the lack of student awareness to these kinds of events at the university. But for those that were there to witness it, the energy was vibrant and exciting.
A Culture of Readers: Dispatches from the National Reading Summit
What is it about reading that repels people? I once had a friend who used the Chapters gift card her father religiously bought her every Christmas to stock up on Godiva chocolates. Despite her father’s best intentions, her trip to the bookstore was always a short, albeit sweet, one. There was also that friend who Sparknoted his entire way through an English literature degree. Or my little brother, who treats a great book series as an overpriced set of door stoppers. Reading is a socially desired activity, and yet, many of us would rather go to great lengths to lie about how often we read rather than simply picking up the book.Canada has a surprising level of non-readers, as four in 10 Canadian adults struggle to read at even a high-school graduate level, according to ABC Canada. However, the issue of literacy in this country is a much more complicated issue than simply readers vs. non-readers. How come Canadians are shying away from reading? Or do we still read, but not as much as we should? Has reading been proven to have utilitarian value? And what constitutes reading anyway? Do I have to curl up with a paper-and-ink hardcover every evening to be call myself an avid reader, or will Us Weekly do?These topics constituted much of the discussion for over 100 Canadians who assembled last week to begin work on a national reading strategy. Librarians, publishers, educators, writers, poets, and journalists convened under the theme of “reading and democracy” to set the groundwork on what is to be a three-year plan to imagine and implement a sound national policy for reading. If done properly, such a plan has the potential to ensure that every Canadian is introduced to a book (in its many forms) at a young age, and is encouraged to read throughout his or her learning years. Though the participants disagreed on many things (such as the pros and cons of Twilight), they could all agree that this form of early engagement builds lifelong readers who, in effect, will contribute to a healthy democracy.The conference itself served as a microcosm for the arguments being waged right now among literacy advocates. When Ana Maria Machado, the famed Brazilian children’s author, opened the session with the provocative thought that literacy must be part of the universal human right, Anosh Irani, the Bombay-born, Vancouver-based playwright and novelist, urged that we need to not only read, but read with a conscience. There’s also the issue of who shows an interest in the state of national literacy. Looking around the room, the tables were occupied by mostly women, presumably with Master’s degree or PhDs in literature or library science. The median age is much older than even other academic symposia. Though the homogeneity of the group was troubling, they made a concerted effort to pull together from their varied expertise and experiences. There seemed to be a general consensus on the need to bring business, medicine, industry, and other institutional disciplines into the realm of literacy at large.Perhaps the most important issue looming over the proceedings, it seemed, was the uncertainty among literacy advocates about the transformative influence of technology. Will Kindle take over the bookshelves? Is that necessarily such a terrible thought? While the conference was marked by a palpable uncertainty over new media, there was also an apparent sense of openness, including from Toronto’s poet laureate Dionne Brand. As Brand declared her undying affection for book in its traditional form—“My romance lies with paper and print”—she also mentioned that reading offers the ability to inhabit “the other.” If this is truly the case, she continued, then perhaps we should make room for non-traditional modes or whatever of inhabiting this “other,” whoever it may be. That is, she pressed on against the gasps of others, reading must be encouraged regardless of form—whether it comes in a small hand-held device (such as the Kindle or the ipod), or on ancient Egyptian papyrus. Reading is reading, she argued, and even the reading purists seemed to nod along, if only for a moment.David Booth, a professorial David Sedaris–like figure and Scholar in Residence at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education agreed. After leaving the audience in stitches, Booth soberly suggested that our mission is to celebrate the text form of our time. He argued that instead of grasping onto Gutenberg, perhaps it is time to embrace Google. This, he said, is the only way we will encourage true cultural literacy and allow our schools to create engaged citizens who will learn the delight of the first page, and, perhaps also, of the last scroll.Whatever form it takes, there was a definite urgency to the conference in regard to the need to improve the general climate around reading. Chris Spence, director of education for the Toronto District School Board, shared a sobering thought: penitentiaries in Virginia can now predict how many cells they will need based on how many second grade children perform under the average literacy rate. Before this thought could settle in, Raymond Mar, professor of Psychology at York University, pressed on. Sharing his research on reading, Mar began with the hypothesis that narrative fiction is the best simulator of social experience. Mar is interested in the effect of reading on social reasoning, and proceeded to prove this claim through a study on measuring empathic abilities of readers and non-readers. His results offered empirical proof to the statement that reading correlates with knowledge, empathy, and reason. At times, facts and figures speak louder than words, and it is refreshing and heartening to see science used in the explanation of human virtue.As the summit wound down and the groups began to collect their disparate ideas into a coherent action plan, a few points stood out over the rest. Most important was the necessity of a national culture of reading that celebrates the multicultural character of Canadian literature. We are a nation of Margaret Atwood’s long pen (an electronic device that allows her to perform long distance book signings), but also that of Margaret MacMillan’s felt-tipped ones. We are a nation of Vincent Lam’s Giller Prize, and of Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker archives. We are a nation of many, and the impromptu committee who has taken on the role of forming a national reading strategy has an immense task ahead of them.Yet, as long as the dialogue continues, as long as stories are shared, as long as thoughts are nurtured and emotions expressed, coming up with a way to encourage reading should not be too difficult. After all, as Thomas King emphatically declares, “Stories are all we are. It is how we are known, how we imagine ourselves.” How we communicate them, however, remains to be seen.How come Canadians are shying away from reading? Or do we still read, but not as much as we should? Has reading been proven to have utilitarian value? And what constitutes reading anyway?
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.