Students at locked-out school demanding refunds

St. Thomas’ University has achieved a dubious record. The small liberal arts school in Fredericton, New Brunswick, is the first post-secondary institution in Canada to lock out its faculty in anticipation of a strike vote.

The school’s nearly 3,000 students, who expected to return to class on Jan. 3, have had the start of their winter term postponed indefinitely, and some are demanding compensation.

“To have to pay back a student loan on an education I didn’t receive would actually make me very angry,” third-year student Laura Darrow told the Canadian Press.

In an open letter released on Dec. 31, STU’s president Michael W. Higgins called the lockout “an effort to fast-track our negotiations and minimize the impact on our students.”

Higgins’ letter laid blame for the lockout on the Faculty Association of the University of St. Thomas, for not accepting the university’s latest offer and voting to leave the bargaining table. Faculty, however, have said that the offer ignored their stated concerns and that the union did not leave negotiations, but only announced a strike vote and asked for extra time to consider the university’s proposal.

Dawn Morgan, an English professor at STU and spokesperson for the FAUST, blamed the university for bringing negotiations to their current impasse. “We are ready to bargain, once the administration considers our concerns and priorities beyond their final offer,” she said.

The Students’ Union of St. Thomas University supported the delayed start of term. SUSTU president Colin Banks told students in a Dec. 18 letter that the move will prevent individuals from hijacking class time to advocate their views on the negotiations. He also applauded the extended break for “preclud[ing] either Faculty Association or the University from using students as leverage during this situation.”

The university announced the lockout on Dec. 26, when negotiations over a new contract broke down. STU has sought to put its latest offer, which faculty negotiators rejected, to a direct vote by the union’s membership, allowable under New Brunswick law. According to Morgan, the union has never moved to block the member vote, but believes it a waste of time because they have advised their constituents to reject the offer.

Morgan accused the university of not being earnest at the bargaining table. “We met with them on Thursday and Friday but they didn’t negotiate. They yelled, taunted and employed sarcasm,” she said.

STU administrators have said that FAUST’s demands are impossible to meet. Higgins claimed that they amount to a 43 per cent increase in salaries and benefits over three years, which he translated into an “immediate revenue requirement” of $1,450 per student. Morgan has said the union is only demanding parity with faculty salaries at peer institutions in the Maritimes.

Throughout negotiations, the union has pushed for health insurance and office space for the school’s 59 part-time faculty, who have no supplemental health care plan and who all share a single office. It is also demanding a reduction of its members’ mandatory teaching load from three to two full courses per term.

STU employs 106 full-time and 59 part-time instructors, most of the latter sessional teachers. The Canadian Association of University Teachers paid FAUST $1 million from their defense fund to support faculty and cover costs, largely those of renting temporary office space in downtown Fredericton.

On Monday, the 167 locked-out faculty voted to go on strike. FAUST released a letter to its members telling them that striking would strengthen their position at the bargaining table by giving them control over when classes will resume.

Turn it down!

Every year there are certain releases that are either so ill-conceived or utterly disappointing that they deserve a special mention. Here’s our list of what totally missed the mark in 2007.

Raine Maida — The Hunter’s Lullaby (Nettwerk): Dear Raine Maida, I can empathize with your desire to “do something different” on your first solo record. I mean, does the world really need another nasally, middle-of-the-road, alt-rock rehash? But seriously, this collection of beat-poetry and spoken word-inspired songs is just a little bit worse. Also, if you’re going to profess a personal connection to the late Syd Barrett, at least spell his name right in the liner notes.

Matthew Good — Hospital Music (Universal): A whole album of whiney acoustic ballads is bad, bad medicine. Hospital Music makes me long for the days of his cookie cutter (intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, quiet chorus, build-up, loud chorus, outro) anthemic alt-rock songs. Welcome to your self-prophesized status as a has-been.

Bloc Party — A Weekend in the City (Vice): After showing loads of potential on their fabulous debut, Silent Alarm (Some were saying they could be the next Radiohead—in fact, Radiohead turned out to be the next Radiohead… weird) Bloc Party chose to cut their irresistible urgent energy on this sappy and flaccid follow-up. Aside from “Hunting For Witches,” this album should have never left Kele Okereke’s bedroom.

The Killers — Sawdust (Island): The biggest transgression on The Killers’ latest moneymaker is their glossy cover of Joy Division’s classic track “Shadowplay.” If only they had applied the simple WWICD (What Would Ian Curtis Do?) principle they would have known to leave this gem alone. At least now we can see The Killers for what they really are: the McDonald’s of diluted indie rock.

Sebastian Bach — Angel Down (MRV): This nuclassic- metal offering is proof that there is a place worse than Skid Row.

Hedley — Famous Last Words (Universal): Let’s hope they take this album title seriously.

Ted Nugent — Love Grenade (Eagle Records): To really understand the quality of this recording, let’s examine some lyrics from the title track: “I crave you so bad, it drives me insane, if I don’t have you I’ll die / I am a dangerous weapon baby, I’m your machinegun man / Don’t make me shoot you down baby, I just wanna be your love grenade / I’m comin in, love grenade, pull the pin, love grenade / Look out below, love grenade, I’m about to blow.” And blow he does.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah — Some Loud Thunder (V2): Talk about squandered potential. After exploding onto the indie scene in 2005, CYHSY followed up their solid debut with this hookless snooze-fest. If someone tries to make you listen to Some Loud Thunder, shake your head, say no.

Korn — Untitled (EMI): Do I really have to tell you that this record really sucked? Well, it did.

The Higher — On Fire (Epitaph): R’n’B and Emo need to stay the fuck away from each other forever. Period.

Report reveals need for better data on schools

In any given year, according to the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, between 40 and 55 per cent of students drop out of their post-secondary institution. Of course, those aren’t all dropouts: many of them simply transfer to another school or switch from university to college. How many? Don’t ask the government.

As the Canadian Council on Learning pointed out in their recent report Strategies for Success, Canada’s federal government collects little data on the post-secondary education system. That puts us behind other countries, says the CCL.

“We found that almost all other developed countries have built not only the national information systems required to optimize policy, but have also—in both unitary and federal states—provided themselves with some of the necessary national tools and mechanisms to adjust, to act and to succeed,” reads the report. “Canada has not.”

This needs to change, argues the report. It recommends a “national data strategy,” which begins with a single student number that would follow students between degrees and institutions, and across provincial borders. Reliable statistics could lead to benchmarks and goals. For Joey Coleman, a writer for Maclean’s education blogs, it’s about accountability.

“Nobody is collecting the data. We’re spending $36 billion a year, and there’s no goal, and no measurement of the outcome,” he said. “We have a system that is facing difficulty but we don’t know what that difficulty is.”

Strategies for Success also hints at integration in other areas, from a national e-learning strategy to better acceptance of transfer credits.

If that comes, it will be too late for Tammy Sprung, who transferred from Dalhousie University after her second year. The fourth-year history student has spent much of the last two years dealing with the fallout of her move. Many of Sprung’s transferred credits came with long lists of U of T courses she was excluded from taking, which complicated course selection and prerequisites later on. She was also forced to go back and take extra 100-level courses.

“I essentially chose my majors and minors based on what kind of deals I could cut with department heads when I transferred,” she said. If she had realized the battle ahead of her, Sprung said, “I don’t think I would have come to U of T.”

Abstinence goes all the way

There is something more than cheeky about a Tom Perotta novel. Although marketed as popular fiction with a big screen adaptation around the bend, they also play host to a mean literary streak. This doesn’t destabilize his output; rather, it makes Perotta exciting and slightly unpredictable. He’s got what you might call authorial moxie.

In previous novels like Election or the terrific Little Children, Perotta demonstrated his knack for blurring the line between adult and child, moral and immoral, grim and funny. He lays out plot and characters so intelligently and sensitively, we navigate his perfect world the way his suburban protagonists cruise their leafy-green neighborhoods in shiny SUVs. This is part of what distinguishes Perotta as a marvelously vigilant writer, but his hand appears maddeningly in the frame. Sometimes, things are too pristine, as if he couldn’t quite let go. The Abstinence Teacher does not differ in this regard, but feels more liberated, partially because the shifting character perspectives work better than they did in Little Children.

At the hub of The Abstinence Teacher is lonely sex-ed teacher Ruth, your liberal-minded, intimacy- promotin’ divorced mother of two. Add one addiction-recovering Born Again named Tim, a regressive new high school curriculum, and what do you get? Ethical hijinks with a light dusting of sexual tension. In spite of this formulaic pop rock of a setup, Abstinence works because the refreshing way in which the “odd couple” cliché is dismantled: it never explodes, but rather keeps simmering to the very last page. Perotta revels in writing about middle-class educated suburbanites with a piece missing from the existential puzzle—he draws it so well—the language, the school politics, the soccer matches. When I finished the book, it was hard to believe I was Canadian, not some Midwestern sap. Perotta handles the so-called “adult world” like a slightly more forgiving John Cheever. He lays the hypocrisy down on the table for all to see, but never tortures his characters for their flaws. All of the villains, like Joann Marlow—perky-breasted advocate of an ABSTINENCE ONLY, CHILDREN! sex-ed program, are viewed in a generous light, ridiculous, rather than nefarious.

Where Perotta shines is in his ability to write children. They are adults without the double-dealing; ingenuous but also cynical. Through the eyes of their floundering parents, they are both sources of delight—as in the way Tim views his daughter, and the team of girls he coaches and objects of mystery and pain, such as Ruth’s response to her teenage daughter’s desire to “want to know Jesus.” Maybe it’s not a stylistic or thematically subtle book, but what it does, it does effectively.

Get nowhere, faster

At the Hart House indoor track, keeners huff and puff—or, more intimidatingly, sprint with blithe ease—as a colony of machines hum along. For adrenaline addicts, the gym is a haven in winter. But what about the rest of us, with our freshly-minted New Year’s resolutions, completely clueless about how pursue them and scared of public workouts?

Your fear might not be completely irrational: Gym class has been used for mind control. “The notion of the state enforcing physical education was part of fascist ideology,” said John McClelland, professor emeritus at the Faculty of Physical Health and Education. He explained, “It’s the idea that you can make a nation strong by making its young people physically strong.”

To the scrawny kids we once were, state-sponsored phys ed may have seemed like torture. But at least the workout was free. For cashstrapped U of T students, it still is—both the Athletic Centre and Hart House offer a number of free drop-in classes and exercise machines, just a T-card swipe away.

Last year, Hart House welcomed 13 new stationary bicycles to the hive. The house already had Lamond and LifeCycle bikes, but these gleaming Schwinn Evolution “racing” stationary bikes are a different beast.

Indoor cycling doesn’t sound like much of a rush. Jason To, OISE student for math and biology, is an athletic services attendant at Hart House. Asked what he thought of stationary bikes, To waxed metaphysical.

“It’s a little strange ’cause you’re pedalling but you’re not going anywhere. It deceives the mind,” he drawled. “It’s a good workout, though.” To said he uses indoor cycles once in a while.

Not so for his co-worker, U of T student Ryan Kerr. “I prefer biking for real,” he one-upped. He agreed that stationary bikes had their benefits. “They’re fantastic for knee reconstruction, because they’re low-impact,” he said. “It’s good for your lower back—it makes you sit up straight and develop core strength. The smoothness is very good for your body.”

Nevertheless, he concluded, “It’s still not going anywhere.”

For Karen Anderson, Hart House’s assistant director of athletics, indoor cycling is going places. Cycle Fit, a class offered for years at the Athletic Centre, recently debuted at Hart House, in a studio near athletics that was left empty when the U of T bookstore’s lease expired. “It’s a program we’ve been missing,” said Anderson. “A lot of people would ask for it.”The first semester’s registration, though, was what Anderson called “modest.”

“It’s a new program. Some people are intimidated, and they have no reason to be.”

Cycle Fit is a descendant of Spinning, the late ’80s brainchild of ultra-endurance athlete Jonathan “Johnny G” Goldberg. Spinning offered high-intensity cardio that is gentle on joints, unlike exercise machines such as treadmills. The low-impact factor makes stationary bikes a favourite for physiotherapy and winter training.

Spinners, sweat-drenched and leaning forward like they are in an indoor Tour de France, don’t need to learn complicated moves or steps. More importantly, especially for couch potatoes—and, er, university students—participants set their own pace. Based on their heart rate or level of exertion, riders experiment with different rhythms and degrees of resistance as they ride over simulated terrain. From the front of the room, the instructor-cheerleader shouts out encouragement.

Spinning is a bona fide brand, complete with branded equipment, accessories, and trademark infringement lawsuits. Soon, though, it garnered the sincerest form of flattery, as group cycling courses rolled Goldberg’s ideas into their own programs.

To entice the reluctant novice, Hart House is offering free “try-me” courses until Thursday, Jan. 17. Commitment-phobes can sign up at the membership services office for a 45-minute workout, gratis. In their subterranean enclave, the Schwinns are waiting.

NFL Playoff Preview

Jacksonville at New England

The question that has been repeated ad nauseam all season: can the Patriots be beat? While an answer is coming soon, cracks in the Pats’ armour have been exposed. A narrow win against the Ravens in week 13, and a record-setting game against the Giants in week 16 both showed that with a strong defensive effort and solid offensive production, a disciplined team could destroy New England’s flawless streak. The problem is that Jacksonville does not look to be that kind of team. Surrendering an 18-point lead against the Steelers in the wildcard matchup is an obvious red flag, especially against the explosive and seemingly unstoppable New England passing game. The silver lining here is David Garrard’s ability to make plays on the run and a potent, two-dimensional ground attack featuring Maurice Jones-Drew and the unexpectedly productive Fred Taylor. Expect the Patriots to load up the box and blitz the run, limiting the yards the Jaguars will get on the ground. Considering Jacksonville’s anemic passing game, the Jaguars face an uphill battle—and this hill is more like a mountain. This one is a no brainer: pick New England.

  • Pick: New England
  • Bet: The farm

San Diego at Indianapolis

The last time the Colts and the Chargers met, Peyton Manning threw an uncharacteristic six interceptions and Adam Vinatieri was certainly not his usual self. However, don’t expect Sunday’s game to be a repeat of that week 10 matchup. The Colts were missing many playmakers due to injury, but all of them, with the exception of Dwight Freeney, are expected to play on Sunday. Though Indianapolis will miss Freeney’s presence, Robert Mathis and Josh Thomas should be able to step up. Like any good defence, the Colts will be looking to stop LaDainian Tomlinson from getting anywhere with the football. Bob Sanders will be a huge threat, especially when he’s the eighth man in the box, playing more like a linebacker than a safety. Containing Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne will prove to be a tough task for the relatively young San Diego defence. But the Colts will need to look out for Chargers defensive back Antonio Cromartie, who led the league in interceptions, three of those coming against Indianapolis in week 10. Philip Rivers will need to take command, especially when it comes to managing the play clock. Due to a sprained toe, Antonio Gates will likely be a game-time decision. If he does sit out on Sunday, San Diego will lose their best receiver. Last time, the Chargers’ special teams were critical in the win over the Colts. However, this time around that may not be enough to stop the defending Superbowl XLI champions.

  • Pick: Indianapolis
  • Bet: The profits from Peyton Manning’s commercials

New York at Dallas

How about them Cowboys? Tony Romo and company had a banner year and their post-season looks to have legs. Against the unreliable Eli Manning, Romo has the upper hand in this quarterback matchup. To be fair, Eli has silenced some of his critics with an exceptional game against New England, and a solid, mistake-free game against the much underrated Buccaneers. Their last meeting in week one was a shootout and all indications show that this game will feature some similarly high scores before it’s over. Terrell Owens is debatable due to a sprained ankle, and Plexico Burress’ tough physical play will be a key asset for the Giants. Jason Witten’s soft hands and ability to find open turf have been utilized well by Romo all season, so expect some game-breaking plays from this young tight end. The running games on both teams compare favorably. Brandon Jacobs’ size advantage over Marion Barber shouldn’t factor in too heavily thanks to the solid play of the Dallas line backers, ranked sixth against the run in the regular season. Provided Jessica Simpson doesn’t show up to pose a distraction to her boyfriend, Tony Romo, Dallas should get the win.

  • Pick: Dallas
  • Bet: This month’s beer money

Seattle at Green Bay

Matt Hasselbeck’s famous last words outline the Seahawks’ ideology best: they want the ball and they’re going to score. Look for the Seattle offense to spread out the Packers defense with multiple wide receiver formations, and then use the draw play to pick up a lot of yards on the ground. Unfortunately for Seattle, Green Bay defensive back Al Harris isn’t afraid of getting physical at the line of scrimmage, which could prove detrimental for the Seahawks’ pass-heavy offense. AJ Hawk and Nick Barnett will be instrumental in stopping the runs, forcing Hasselbeck to throw when he doesn’t want to. Naturally, the Green Bay offense will look to the always impressive Brett Favre to lead them to victory. But Seattle Pro-bowlers Julian Peterson and Patrick Kerney will be ready to sack Favre at every opportunity. The Green Bay offensive line will need to be on their A-game, maintaining the pocket long enough to let Favre do what he does best. To lessen some of the pressure on their veteran quarterback, Green Bay will need rookie running back Ryan Grant to step up and out-run the fast Seattle defence. If the Packers can hold it together like they have all season, they should be able to come away from this close matchup with a win.

  • Pick: Green Bay
  • Bet: A Cheesehead hat

Is democracy truly dead in Pakistan?

The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27 has left many Pakistanis trembling from the shock of her death and the uncertainty that has succeeded it. Even though I have no direct relationship to Pakistan or even the Middle East, even I’m left troubled about the the region’s future.

Given my lack of personal ties, I’ve decided to talk to the students on campus who do have such connections. Reactions have been anything but apathetic. “Bhutto was a symbol of democracy, and despite death threats, decided to return to Pakistan to fight for something she believed in” said Alina Rashid, co-president of the U of T Pakistani Student’s Federation. “I feel that even living thousands of miles away, every Pakistani in the world is feeling the loss of a martyr of democracy,”

“For me,” adds continuing studies student Safia Habib, “the fact that she was prime minister of a Muslim state, and a woman, was incredible. We all expected [her assassination], but it was still a shock when it actually happened.”

Students without personal ties have also put forth interesting insights, given their emotional distance. Second-year political science and history student Jeremy Andrews remains cautious about the events. “I am, by nature, highly skeptical of the ‘official’ story when big events occur overseas. I am aware of the West’s prior interference in the matters of other states, and it usually fosters doubt. I can only speculate at what might have been occurring behind the scenes.”

In the wake of the assassination, shock has been superseded by apprehension, as the future of Pakistani democracy remains uncertain. “My fear right now,” said Rashid, “is an endless cycle of military dictatorship if emergency rule is once again reinstated and the country is bullied out of democracy.” These are not unfounded fears as President Musharraf has shown little interest in upholding democratic tenets such as free elections, party pluralism or civil rights.

But is democracy in Pakistan dead? Perhaps Bhutto’s death may serve as an impetus for those who wish to continue the dream of democratic reform. Given the outpouring of regret for her death, it might not be surprising to see a revived passion for democracy spurred on by the desire for retribution. The country’s love for Bhutto, combined with their hatred for Musharraf, is a telltale sign that authoritarianism is nearing its end. Granted, one must always be speculative of the story told by the mainstream media, but the circumstances nevertheless seem straightforward.

Baliwal Bhutto Zadari, the new leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party and Benazir’s son, spoke appropriately when he said that democracy is the best revenge. The next few weeks will decide if the nation and its popular leaders will crumble from this blow to their cause, or rise up to defend Bhutto’s legacy and demand a better future.

Canadian law not equipped for the Facebook age

By now, thousands of people know the names Toronto’s first murder victim of 2008 and the two young people accused of committing this heinous crime. But we’re not supposed to.

As young people in this city increasingly move their social lives to the internet, it’s apparent that their online interaction isn’t limited to idle chatter and amusing blog posts. Even a formerly private rituals like mourning the passing of a loved one, have become public events.

A day after her murder a memorial page was set up on Facebook for Stefanie Rengel, so that her friends and family could share their memories and sadness. In setting up the webpage however, Rengel’s friends actually committed another crime. The Youth Criminal Justice Act stipulates that it’s illegal to release the identities of under-aged victims or accused criminals. Many visitors to the page posted comments declaring that the accused are guilty, and some even reportedly express their desire to avenge Rengel’s murder. Rengel’s step mother posted a message describing the two accused teens as “bastards.” Now the police are declaring that this information has jeopardized the accused’s rights to a fair trial.

With the fairness and the credibility of the legal process now potentially damaged in this high-profile case, the question must be asked why Facebook, which polices the site stringently for obscenity and other offensive material, did not remove Stefanie’s memorial pages. You could claim that the site moderators simply weren’t aware of the specifics of Ontario’s youth criminal justice laws, plain and simple.

I personally believe that Facebook hadn’t removed the comments because Facebook was intended as a social networking site first and foremost, not a media source. Those who released Rengel’s accused killers’ identities believed that they were simply showing their collective grief at losing Stefanie so suddenly, and discussing the people responsible for the loss of a dear friend. It was akin to a bunch of friends getting together in a coffee shop and discussing their grief and anger over Stefanie’s murder, except their conversation was posted online. Obviously Facebook’s administrators felt it would be wrong to deny Rengel’s friends this important interaction.

But due to its impact on day to day life and its pervasive presence in the public consciousness, it seems Facebook can no longer be seen as just a social networking site. This case may force the community at large, as well as our legal institutions, to recognize Facebook as a bona-fide media source, a medium capable of reaching a wide audience and conveying vital information. In fact, in some situations, sites like Facebook are actually more effective in spreading breaking news, the “insider’s story” or the most up to date news.

To avoid similar gaffes, lawmakers need to update the Youth Criminal Justice Act for the techno-savvy 21st century to explicitly include a publication ban on social-networking sites (and just throw in MSN Messenger and Myspace in there too for good measure), against releasing the names of under-aged criminals and their underage victims.