Ontario teaches grads a hard lesson

Can’t decide what do with your degree? Thinking of teacher’s college? Maybe you should think again. Once a fall-back career choice of undecided undergrads (and, yes, a noble profession), teaching has become a frustrated job market. Only 41 per cent of recent graduates land a teaching position and only a small portion of those get hired full-time, according to “Transition to Teaching,” a study by the Ontario College of Teachers.

Less than a decade ago there was a healthy demand for qualified teachers in Ontario, when an aging population and a record high of retirements made ample positions for new grads to fill. Postsecondary institutions responded, upping enrolment in teachers college classrooms all over the province.

Today, it’s rare for a recent grad to landing a stable, full-time job. Instead, newly-minted teachers bide their time in occasional teaching positions, waiting many months and sometimes years for a permanent job. Location and grade level matter when considering the availability of these teaching positions, with the lowest demand being elementary school teaching, and the GTA being one of the better areas in Ontario to seek a teaching job.

Aspiring teachers in the GTA have a 45 per cent success rate in hunts for regular positions, compared with just 21 per cent outside of the region. But there’s a sobering statistic to go with it: the Toronto District School Board had 10,000 applicants for fewer than 1,000 jobs last year. Those who fare the worst are graduates of border colleges that offer teaching certificates fitted for Ontario’s standards. Only about 10 per cent of these will start in a regular teaching job within a year of graduating.

There is good news, however, if you parlez francais or enjoy binomials. Positions at French-speaking schools are still in high demand, as are teaching positions for math, science, and technology, subjects that are harder to staff due to the more lucrative career choices open to those best qualified.

So, what do you do if teaching is your passion? First, make sure it is your passion. With job prospects so poor, expect plenty of competition from your fellow would-be teachers, and plan on working hard to land that plum full-time classroom gig.

From bench top to clinic

Charities often try to solicit your philanthropic dollars by promising, in return for your contribution, a cure for cancer. Or heart disease. Or spinal cord injury. But are the research institutions that receive these dollars set up in the best way to find these cures? Some scientists may be too focused on doing science for its own sake and forget why they are working in the first place. In the words of Dr. Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, researchers need to be reminded of the goal: “to improve the health of our citizens and citizens elsewhere.”

Varmus spoke on Nov. 26 at the Sick Kids Research Institute annual retreat, a gathering of scientists, trainees, technicians, and postdoctoral fellows currently conducting research at Sick Kids Hospital. In his keynote speech, Varmus identified 10 key factors that allow research institutions to return to their primary goals. These factors included increasing funding and lab space, motivating the faculty, and extending recruitment and training programs. His own institution has undergone substantial changes since his leadership began in 2000, with department rearrangements, expanded core lab facilities, and the creation of a new graduate student program.

“[We should] ensure that the research that we’re doing in the laboratory is well-coordinated with what is happening in our hospital,” said Varmus.

The new PhD program at MSK highlights the connection between basic research and clinical treatment by pairing each student with a clinical mentor. Students connect with clinics at the hospital, learning to approach cancer as a disease—not just a research interest.

Varmus pointed out many treatments that have evolved because of advances in basic research. By pinpointing the cancerous mutations of the tyrosine kinase enzyme found in chronic myeloid leukemia, researchers were able to develop treatments that work by specifically inhibiting those cancer cells.

Many medications are suited only to patients with a specific mutation. In order to identify which recipients will respond best, basic research has come to the rescue again. Genetic tests now help doctors choose medications based on the mutations that need to be targeted, increasing the chance that a patient will respond favourably to a chosen treatment.

Varmus also touched on another of his champion causes: open access to scientific publications.

“We need access to everything that’s known and been published,” Varmus said.

He explained that since most research is publicly funded—either philanthropically or through government—the people who fund the research should be able to access the results. This includes teachers, journalists, patients, and, of course, scientists.

“There are over 6,000 journals in biology and medicine, and no one, not even the biggest institutions, can afford them all,” said Varmus.

Although clearly motivated by this topic, he was unfortunately unable to elaborate further on how to accomplish this greater dissemination of scientific discovery, pointing out that an in-depth discussion on the topic could fill its own session at a conference.

We can expect that scientists are conducting research with noble intentions. It is, however, important that all aspects of research, including the structure and attitudes of the institutions, promote the translation of basic science into practical treatments for patients around the world. It is in this critical step—the application of pure knowledge—that life-saving treatments are made.

Ferocious Finkelstein stirs OISE crowd

Norman Finkelstein, an American political scientist and author specializing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sparked controversy on Friday, Nov. 29, with a lecture at OISE commemorating the UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

Finkelstein was invited to speak to the crowd of 450 on behalf of the Canadian Palestinian Educational Exchange, an NGO that runs summer volunteer programs in Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon.

Prior to the night’s lecture, U of T alum Faisal Bhabha described Finkelstein as “an intellectual with moral courage.” Addressing the charges of academic dishonesty levelled against Finkelstein by other academics, most notably the vocal Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, Bhabha said: “You just have to read his books to see that the accusations against him are unfounded and unfair.”

The majority of those at the event supported Finkelstein’s views, but a small faction of ardent detractors made their presence known.

Orna Hollander, executive director of the pro-Israel organization Betar Canada, pointed to what she called a “growing current of radicalism” among some anti-Israel advocates.

“This is the third time in two weeks that I had heard an audience member assert that she would ‘strap a suicide belt’ to her body if she were Palestinian,” Orna said.

She and members of the campus group Zionists @ U of T handed out flyers to attendees outside the OISE auditorium where Finkelstein spoke.

Later, an audience member interrupted the lecture to condemn Finkelstein, who asked the audience, “Who thinks this person has exceeded his right to free speech?” The heckler was expelled from the auditorium.

But the shock of the night came when Finkelstein referred to Michael Ignatieff, the former candidate for Liberal Party leadership, as a Zionistsympathizing politician, and “another pig.”

He moved on to argue that four issues block the path to peace between Israel and Palestine: “Borders, settlements, Jerusalem, and refugees.” Borders, he said, should be redrawn to pre-1967 lines, all settlements in the West Bank dismantled, and territory in Jerusalem given back to the Palestinians. Palestinian refugees, he added, should be granted the right to return to their former territory.

Finkelstein insisted that if Israel acquiesced on the four points, there could be a just and lasting peace in the area. “People say this is a difficult and complex problem, when in fact there is no difficulty whatsoever,” he said.

He also discussed the historical relationship of American Jews to Israel. According to Finkelstein, Jews in America were politically and personally distant from Israel until America intervened in the Six Day War. “After the Six Day War, Israel became the religion of American Jews,” he said. He also claimed that, of all the wars Israel has fought, only the 1948 war of independence was a necessary conflict.

At the beginning of the question period following his talk, Finkelstein asked his detractors to air their grievances first. Some members of the audience called this an act of chivalry, while others said it was immature.

Yasmine Ishak, a McGill student, said that she enjoyed the lecture, “If you don’t have a position on either side of the debate it’s good to hear professor Finkelstein speak. It’s interesting to know that not all Jews think the same thing.”

Finding ways to get that elusive A

It’s tough to get good grades when so many bright students are in competition. While high school might have been a breeze, the development of bad studying habits has affected many GPAs. Upper-years probably know this by experience, but for all the first-years out there, remember that all night cram-a-thons are not the way to succeed.

Keeping this in mind, I asked two U of T psychology professors, Dr. Taverna and Dr. Goldstein, the best study strategies.

First, a little background. The way we learn stems from changes in behaviour in our experiences or environment. Such habits (what you do and how you respond) are determined by nature (genes) and nurture (current stimulation and past experiences, also called learning).

Some people may be able to change their ways more easily than others, but that does not mean others can’t reach for the top.

Many of our good and bad habits, such as procrastination, are learned. In order to overcome this, Taverna says we should understand how to modify our behaviour for the better.

“Experts are not born experts. It takes about four hours of practice every day for ten years for someone to become an expert,” said Goldstein.

Mozart may have had good genes, but it was also the work of his father, a musician, who provided a stimulating environment. Mozart went through intense training from an early age.

There are two major principles of learning: classical and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning accounts for many reflexive behaviours. A famous example is Pavlov’s dogs. Conditioning his animals by ringing a bell everytime he fed them, eventually, the dogs salivated when there was no food. The sound of the bell, a neutral stimulus, elicited a salivation response.

Humans do not only respond to enforced stimuli. Our actions have purposes that are based on past experiences. They are based on goal-directed learning and operant conditioning: we learn between behaviours and consequences and apply it to our environment.

There are two main types of consequences. Punishment leads to a lower frequency of negative behaviour in the future, while reinforcement leads to an increased frequency. They can be divided into positive reinforcement (adding a stimulus) and negative (removing a stimulus), regardless of their desirability. Also, behaviour is affected by something called discriminative stimuli, which indicate whether reinforcment or punishment will occur.

“The main reasons why it is so hard to study are delayed reinforcement and the fact that often, you are studying topics that are required,” said Taverna. Studying is often perceived as joyless, necessary work decreasing its efficiency. We are less focused when the rewards we receive for our actions are not immediate.

“You should change your way of thinking. In Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Tom was obliged to paint a fence and he made his friends do it, and even got paid. He set up a table outside fence, saying ‘I will allow you to paint if you pay me a dollar.’ Tom convinced his friends that painting the fence is something fun, and they were glad to do it,” said Taverna.

Still, we shouldn’t pay others to crack the books. Instead, try to turn studying into something fun and rewarding in itself—take satisfaction in acquiring knowledge.

“Immediate reinforcement is much stronger because contingency is established and correct behaviour is reinforced,” said Taverna. “Perceived value of a reinforcer decreases exponentially when the reinforcer is delayed. At a certain point, the value of short-term reward is higher.”

The main reward for studying is obviously good grades. However, our marks appear a few weeks after school starts, whereas we need to start studying ahead of time. Without the stimulus of grades at the beginning of the year, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation of a night out with friends. But, there are a few solutions to help you build study habits against the problem of delayed reinforcement.

First, devise a system with short-term rewards for studying.

“Quizzes are fairly immediate,” said Taverna. “They test on recently learned materials and provide grades quickly.” If you get a good grade, it acts as a reinforcer. You’ll feel good about it and you’d be more likely to keep on studying. If you do badly, it acts as a punishment, perhaps encouraging you to work harder.

“Raise the perceived value of long term reward, have a goal in mind. Visualizing what it will be like can help. When I was student, I had a picture of a Porsche on the wall and associated it with good grades. Motivational signs, pictures of luxuries, and pretend MD degrees can help you bridge the gap between reinforcement,” said Taverna.

One last strategy is to provide a nurturing environment to reduce distracting stimulus. The famous behaviourist B. F. Skinner had few ways to do it.

“One of B. F. Skinner’s methods is physical restraint,” said Taverna. “Throw out the TV. Set rules for yourself: have the TV in a certain room, and study in a different room without distractions.”

Dr. Taverna is a lecturer in the psychology department and a specialist in the areas of perception, cognition, and cognitive neuroscience. He researches in John Roder’s Lab at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Dr. Goldstein is also a lecturer in the psychology department and teaches several courses including developmental psychology. He is a research associate at the Kunin-Lunenfeld Applied Research Unit at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. He won U of T’s Outstanding Teaching Award in 2006.

Ryerson prez says school is big enough

Universities across the GTA are preparing themselves for an expected enrolment increase over the next 10 years—all except Ryerson, that is.

Last week, Ryerson President Sheldon Levy told Ryerson’s student newspaper, the Eyeopener, that despite the anticipated boom the university will not make room for more undergraduates.

“We haven’t got the operating budget to do it. We haven’t got the faculty hired to do it,” Levy said.

A report released earlier this summer by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada predicts national university enrolment will grow by 70,000 to 150,000 full-time students over the next decade. The AUCC report mainly attributes the increase to a growing proportion of youth wanting to pursue post-secondary education.

According to Levy, Ryerson would need to add between 6,000 and 11,000 spaces to help accommodate the surplus.

The former polytechnic institute is already coping with a flood of applications. In 2006 it saw a 20 per cent spike in first year applicants, despite creating no additional spots.

“The good news is we’re high in demand. The bad news is we’re going to have to say no to a lot of people that deserve the opportunity,” Levy said.

However, a Statistics Canada study released in November shows that Ryerson’s stance may not be that problematic.

The study examined Canada’s changing demographics while maintaining the same rate of post-secondary participation and found that enrolment would only grow until 2013 before reversing. By 2026 enrolment rates would be nine per cent below those of 2013, due to Canada���s shirking youth population.

To help institutions and policy makers counteract this decline the study offered some hypothetical solutions.

According to StatsCan, one possible way to hike enrolment rates isto attract more students to post-secondary institutions, which would result in participation numbers closer to those of the AUCC report.

Whichever report proves to be true, Toronto- area universities will make sure that there is enough room, even if this means building a fourth university in the GTA.

Although Levy said that Ryerson will not expand at the cost of quality, the university does support the notion of a new institution

Pressing questions for Glenn Jones

Racking your brain to buy a gift for the cool lady who has everything? Need to impress your new arty boyfriend so he’ll never know that you still aren’t sure exactly who Toulouse-Lautrec is? Fret not, students. Threadless.com is here to get you through those holiday gift buying hurdles.

Started in 2000 by Chicago design whiz-kids Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart, Threadless is the latest in design’s fusion with the Internet community. Anyone can submit a T-shirt design, and many do: the site now gets an average of 125 submissions per day. The public then votes, on a scale of one to five, which designs are worthy of becoming a reality. Each week a winner is chosen, and the designer gets $2,000 as well as store credit, and the best prize of all: seeing their vision printed on 100 per cent cotton distributed around the world. The shirt is then available for a limited time for $17 to the public.

Designer Glenn Jones has won the Threadless contest a whopping eighteen times, and has become a celebrity around the site. Known for his clever and artistic shirts—such as “Calling Home” (featuring E.T., naturally) and “What Would MacGyver Do?”—he ranks as a favourite among the site’s submitters. Yet Jones says he was not initially attracted to the fashion element of the project. “I didn’t really think about the clothing side of it,” he admits about his first few submissions. “It was more the illustration.”

Like many of the site’s other winners, Jones’ T-shirts often contain quirky references to the media. “I think the people who like my work enjoy it because it has a link to stuff they grew up with,” he said. In terms of advising other applicants, Jones agrees that having a pop culture muse usually foreshadows success. “A lot of my work is inspired by pop culture and a lot of people go in that direction when designing on Threadless, mainly because it usually creates a connection with the voters,” he said.

Threadless, which now rakes in millions each year, has come a long way since Jones first began designing for them. “In those days, it was $150 for the win,” he recalls. But he remains grounded about his considerable fan base. “My reaction to my first win was the same as it is when I win today: excited!”

When he’s not thinking up nifty tees, Jones toils as a creative director for the firm Dashwood Designs in Auckland, New Zealand. Jones’ success hasn’t gone to his head. He proudly wears other Threadless designers’ tees around and is quick to credit their talent. For the budding illustrator or designer, Jones suggests checking out notcot.org, where he often gets inspired. “I constantly have new ideas,” he says. “It’s just a matter of sitting down to draw them.”

As far as shopping goes, Threadless makes it seem almost painless. The site, which has a massive sale on until December 16, allows you to pick the category of designs your gift-receiver might want (“ironic,” “monsters,” etc.) and a variety of colours and sizes for your sweetheart. If you’re feeling like a big spender, you can throw down $200 for a 12 club membership, where you get a shirt per month. Seal the deal with a radical card from Glen Jones’ website: glennz.co.nz. Sure beats a tie clip and some black socks.

Meet Reza Satchu, before you’re fired

Everyone arrives early for Reza Satchu’s Friday afternoon seminar. His students sit in assigned seats. No cell phones ring. When Satchu enters, there is instant silence. He launches straight into his lesson, singling out students for rapid-fire questions on this week’s Harvard Business School case study.

“The key to entrepreneurship is putting yourself in situations of discomfort,” he says. “If you’re comfortable, you need to move on. Look for maximum discomfort.”

The 30 undergraduates enrolled in Special Topics in Entrepreneurship are hand-picked from a pool of hundreds. After a term’s worth of guest speakers and case studies, they each hand in a business plan, and the top student wins a $5,000 scholarship endowed by Satchu.

If you’re in economics and looking for discomfort, you couldn’t do much better than this class. It’s been compared to “The Apprentice”–the Globe and Mail called Satchu “Toronto’s answer to Donald Trump,” and “the jerk millionaire professor.” The millionaire bit is indisputable. A Kenyan immigrant raised in Scarborough, Satchu graduated from McGill and went to work on Wall Street for several years before attending the Harvard Business School. After founding and selling several businesses (one for more than $1 billion), Satchu returned to Toronto to run his hedge fund Stellation Asset Management and give back to the community. He isn’t paid for his teaching: he sees it as charitable work.

For the most part, Satchu’s students are grateful—his retake rate is nearly 100 per cent, and many students call the class as the best course at U of T, a life-changing experience. But Satchu’s methods can be brutal.

“It’s very hostile,” says one student. “If you get your answer wrong he tells you very specifically, and earlier in the year it was much worse. He’d be like, ‘You were doing so well and then you gave this terrible answer, what were you thinking?’” Others complain that marks are too low for a course full of top students. A handful have dropped out.

“I’m not a touchy-feely guy,” admits Satchu, “but the only reason I do this is because I actually care about their success.”

“Success” is a word that comes up a lot in class. If you want to be successful, you need to start investing young. If you want to be successful, you need to be willing to take risks. A guest speaker on developing economies references Baron Nathan Rothschild: “The time to invest in countries is when blood is on the street, not when it’s been cleaned up.” After awhile, it all starts to sound a little ruthless, but Satchu insists that the course is not about making money.

“Success is about having a positive impact on your community. Success is about having freedom to do what you want to do,” he says. “Whatever you choose to do, you’re better off doing it well.”

Ultimately, this millionaire professor is looking to build a course that would have helped him as an undergraduate at McGill, where he says he coasted. He worries that Canadian universities still don’t prepare their students to compete with ambitious Americans.

“Kids from Harvard and Princeton and Yale are no smarter, but they have far bigger expectations than most Canadians coming out of undergrad,” he says. “I think knowing where the goal line is and pushing it out even further is half the battle.” If that battle involves asking one student whether he has “come up with any smart ideas” and then staring through an awkward silence, then so be it.

“Business environments are like this in the real world,” says one student. “No one is going to baby you, no one is going to tell you that your idea is good when it’s stupid. It’s such a weird experience, but ultimately it’s the only course that I’ve taken in the entire economics department that I’ve seen as truly useful.”

Savage love

There’s a scene two thirds of the way into Tamara Jenkins’ film The Savages that sums up why it’s so good. Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) are siblings entering middle age, neither achieving much success as playwrights or in their personal lives. When their abusive father is diagnosed with dementia, they have to work together to put him into a home.

Jon and Wendy walk in during a presentation for children of the demented at one of the prospective hospitals. As the presentation takes place at the front of the room, Jon and Wendy sneak in the back and, on the way to their seats, help themselves to a few cookies off the snack table.

“Excuse me,” says the presentation leader, in a voice that mixes annoyance, patronization, and phony cheerfulness. “We haven’t served the refreshments yet.” A withering silence follows, with fifty sets of eyes looking straight at Jon and Wendy. Dumbfounded, they tentatively place the cookies back on the table.

The Savages belongs loosely to the dysfunctional family subgenre, taking its place next to the best of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. It’s a film about disappointed, isolated characters, with a strong air of melancholy, but it’s also one of the funniest movies of the year.

This is Tamara Jenkins’ second film, her first being 1999’s Slums of Beverly Hills. Why the long wait? The same old story: studios scared by a realistic plot, even with Hoffman and Linney, two actors of high regard but modest box office potential, attached. (“They’re superstars to me,” says Jenkins.)

The Savages has the feel of something at least partially autobiographical, but Jenkins hesitates to draw direct parallels to her life. “The story came together as a mosaic made out of all these little fragments of ideas, some of them from my own experiences, some of them from things I observed around me,” she says. “Then, it really started to come together through the characters of Wendy and Jon, these two adult siblings who have such completely different ways of dealing with the world and yet are thrust into this completely primal experience in which they’ve got no choice but to rely on each other.”

The film is anchored by two great performances by the always-reliable Linney and Hoffman (who, incidentally, is having another good year with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). Also worth noting is the cinematography by Mott Hupfel, who makes a rich palette out of grays and browns, and, occasionally uses harsh, bright lighting in a way that effectively suggests forced cheer.

“I really love these characters,” Jenkins says. “They’re terribly human and incredibly flawed and completely screwed up and I adore them for it. They’re these two mismatched, damaged people who are both in a kind of arrested development. Even though they’re in middle age, they really aren’t finished people yet, and that makes them very interesting.”