Just the Facts: Get on Governing Council

Though cynics might have you believe the big decisions at U of T are made in smoke-filled rooms out of sight and off the record, this has not officially been the case for some time.

The Governing Council, U of T’s highest decision-making body, is holding its annual elections to seat eight elected student representatives. Students, whether they be ambitious resume-padders or fiery reform advocates, have until Friday, Jan. 23 to enter the race.

With students holding eight out of the 50 seats, the student voice has traditionally been muted at best. Despite years of efforts, student representation on the council has been pegged at 16 per cent of the vote ever since 1972, when the university balked at the original plan to give equal representation to faculty, students, and staff on the council. The group’s 50 members consist of the president, the chancellor, two presidential appointees, two staff members, eight students, eight alumni, 12 professors, and 16 provincial appointees. Needless to say, the annual turnover of student governors means many come into the job behind the curve set by the council’s more permanent members.

Despite students being a small bloc, a seat on GC is a serious chance to change the university. Student governors must build alliances if they’re to make their voice heard. However in recent years, even they have not provided a meaningful dissenting voice. Only one of your representatives was opposed when GC voted to increase your fees by a 4.6 per cent on average last year.

Just this year, the university’s controversial 21-year Towards 2030 plan passed without opposition amidst protest from student unions, approving drastic changes to the school’s basic direction and funding structure.

Student governors will vote on everything that comes before the council. Take the time to read the many packages of privileged information you’ll receive about upcoming votes. You’ll have a say about the (very) big money at U of T, and in the policies that shape everyday life on campus.

Any domestic student can run for GC. You can nominate yourself until Jan 23 by contacting GC. They keep a list of rules for running a campaign. and The Varsity will print your statement (basically, your platform boiled down to a paragraph).

To run, or if you have any questions, contact the election’s Chief Returning Officer Nancy Smart at nancy.smart@utoronto.ca.

Top of the class

The prospect of seeing a film in which an idealistic teacher spreads the gift of knowledge to a troubled, lower middle class school is not an enticing one. There are enough “inspirational teacher” movies to fill a whole section at Blockbuster, and not a single one is convincing. Thanks, but I’ve had plenty of fine teachers in my day, and all of them have had the courtesy to a) not stand on their desks, and b) not be Robin Williams.

Laurent Cantet’s The Class, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, is an adaptation of François Bégaudeau’s book about his difficult experiences as an idealistic teacher, starring Bégaudeau as a fictionalized version of himself. The Class begins with François’ struggle to earn the respect and cooperation of his seventh grade class—particularly a troubled, disruptive boy named Souleymane (Franck Keita)—in scenes that practically set the audience up for a French-language version of Lean on Me. But The Class doesn’t take the easy route. This is a film that follows François’ experiences as they would almost certainly occur in real life: uneven, sometimes inspiring, but often simply frustrating as he struggles to control and motivate his class.

Among the greatest virtues of The Class is its authenticity. In contrast to the clichéd school age characters we see in most movies, the children in The Class are deeply rooted in reality. In an interview with Laurent Cantet, I mention that the character of Wei (Wei Haung), a studious Chinese boy whose parents face possible deportation, is particularly vivid.

“Originally in the script the way it was written, there was a Chinese character, except his name was Ming,” says Cantet. “And he was a very shy boy, and he wouldn’t speak for fear of making mistakes in French. And then we met Wei, who was totally the opposite, because he loves to talk, and he loves a good argument, and he loves to speak, period. And there was no point in asking Wei to shut up and become somebody he’s not, so what was Ming in the original script became Wei based on the real Wei.”

Cantet used elements of improvisation for most of the major roles, explaining that he developed characters “by working with the students for a very long time, getting to know them, and respecting who they are. And also by creating the characters on the basis of what the students put forward.”

The drama about Wei’s parents’ deportation takes place largely in the background, operating like an intrusion on the school’s closed universe. “The idea was to show that the school was neither a sanctuary nor a fortress, and therefore everything that happens in the country has an effect on the school,” says Cantet. “The school is a wonderful place because it enables you to integrate these kids into the adult world, but at the same time it excludes a lot of the kids. This co-existence of the two is on the one hand inevitable, but at the same time is tragic. This is what I felt when I made the movie.”

While François means well, he never becomes the “inspirational teacher” he clearly desires to be. I suggest to Cantet that the film is ambiguous in its depiction of François—is he really a good teacher, or does he fall prey to corruption (for example, downplaying his involvement in the film’s climactic conflict)?

Cantet is more forgiving. “François is an idealist. He tries to create a level playing field between himself and his class, but it is the system that’s stopping him. If he’s got a dilemma, for instance, he keeps asking whether there should be a meeting of the disciplinary committee. But ultimately, he knows that he’s got the last word because of the way the system’s set up.”

The Class opens Friday, January 16.

York strikers to vote on latest contract

The 10-week-old TA and contract faculty strike at York University could end as early as next week if a vote passes to accept the latest contract offer from the school’s administration. CUPE 3903, the Union representing the striking employees, is asking the 3,300 striking employees to reject the offer, calling it “substandard.” York admin claim that the new offer effectively increases wages by 0.7 per cent through benefits such as child care and professional development. If the offer is accepted, students could be back in class by the following Monday. If not, the academic year may be in jeopardy for 50,000 undergraduate students. In the meantime, the York Federation of Students is offering financially distressed undergrads $100 each as part of a relief fund.

Jerry Springer: The Opera scandalizes Hart House

Perhaps most wouldn’t normally brag about watching four adulterous lovers shred each other to ribbons before a group of screaming onlookers. But Hart House’s Canadian debut of Jerry Springer: The Opera promises to bring prestige (or at least an inbred cousin or two) to the gladiatorial freak show of daytime television. The opera’s first section is exactly what you might imagine from the title, complete with a high brow musical squabbling between an aspiring stripper, diaper fetishist, and, of course, a dangerously enthusiastic audience. But the play takes a real turn for the freaky when the show’s host is drawn from the world’s underbelly to the underworld. Forced to mediate disputes between Biblical characters, Jerry and his legendary conflict resolution methods suddenly assume roles of Wagnerian grandeur.

So how do Jerry Springer and his guests, who inspire disgust and schadenfreude in all who watch them, become the subjects of such an aggrandized art form as opera? To make sense of it all, I sat down with soprano Jocelyn Howard, who will play such characters as “Baby Jane” and “Peaches” (don’t ask).

“It’s a show to force us to examine our current culture—what we value and what we tolerate, and what we see as entertainment,” she says. “The characters in this show are not just white trash—they’re complex.” One of Baby Jane’s songs, “This is My ‘Jerry Springer’ Moment,” looks into what’s behind their desperate exhibitionism and makes these characters not merely pitiful, but sympathetic. “A ‘Jerry Springer’ moment is your fifteen minutes of fame,” says Howard. “It’s your moment in the spotlight, and you want to make it as sensational, memorable, and shocking as possible. We see that with a lot of these characters. I think of it as a moment where people think, ‘Hey, this is what my mark is going to be. This trashy and tragic thing is the most important, most significant thing I’ll ever do.’”

But soaring arias and quests for immortality aside, the show drops a ton of F-bombs (BBC chief Mark Thompson estimated around 300 expletives in the evening’s entertainment). There’s also plenty of sex and gore. “Nothing was changed or removed for fear of offense,” says Howard. “We are as offensive as possible. In a sense, that’s what the show is about, because it’s forcing people to reevaluate what we put up with.”

Thankfully, it’s clear from reading any of director Richard Ouzounian’s reviews (he is, incidentally, the theatre critic at the Toronto Star) that he has high standards. “I was worried about that at my audition,” says Howard with a big smile. “Not only is he a big cheese in the critiquing world, but he’s a really high-profile director and an artist himself. So I was imagining someone pompous, self-centered, and demanding and all of that. But he is incredible. He is amazingly creative and he makes his decisions so clear to everybody. But at the same time, he knows how to work with actors and singers, because a lot of artists are very sensitive. He really encourages us to explore and experiment on our own.”

The idea of mixing sex, swearing, and song seems to evoke South Park more than Madame Butterfly. However, composer Richard Thomas’ treatment of opera is far from dismissive. “There is definitely some mocking of opera…but in order to mock, you really have to understand the genre,” says Howard, a fourth-year voice student at U of T’s Faculty of Music. “He has a wonderful command of classical composition. Some of the music is more contemporary…but there are fugues and there are really intense counterpoints, and choral settings that are very complex. And so he does knock opera, but he really goes all in and totally understands the form. I think that’s what makes it a successful satire.”

But it’s not just opera that Springer sweeps off its pedestal. The show’s previous productions in London and New York inspired massive protests for its not-so-subtle comparison of prominent Judeo-Christian figures as petty narcissists willing to literally poop their pants to get the attention of the masses. However Howard points out that the purpose of this plot point “is not to be jerks—it’s not to say, ‘Jesus is a shit.’ It’s to put them in a new light, and say, ‘We have to question these figures that people trust without caution.’”

Although it may not be for everyone, Howard encourages skeptics to take a chance on the play. “I’m hoping that lots of different kinds of people come to it. I think it’s really important that we get an audience whom we can challenge.”

Get paid to go to school

Education think-tank says cost of education should consider tax rebates

The full length of the bars (above) represent what each student paid in tuition from the years 1997 to 2008. The Education Policy Institute argues that the real cost is denoted by the black portion of the bar—what students don’t get back from tax rebates.

The cost of education is not rising as fast as your student union would claim, says a recent study published by international think-tank, Education Policy Institute. Adjusted for inflation, Ontario university fees have risen 31.2 per cent on average since 1997-98. That number drops to 22 per cent once you subtract tax rebates available to students. Last year, the rebate for full-time students in Ontario was $2,073. The study argues that the real cost of university education is better reflected in a measure it refers to as the “ENT” or Everybody’s Net Tuition—total tuition with available tax returns deducted. By this measure, Manitobans were paid $51 to go to school in 2007-08.

UTSU VP external Dave Scrivener doesn’t agree that the ENT figure is a more effective measure of the cost of education. “The upfront cost of education is still what students are paying and what they’re seeing on their bills and what’s effecting people and what people have concerns over […] The cost of education’s going up and it’s still going up faster than inflation in a lot of ways,” he said. Scrivener adds that many students didn’t actually go through the procedure of claiming tax returns.

The dinosaurian roots of fowl fatherhood

Repeated discoveries of well-preserved dinosaurs in breeding postures atop their nests have long fascinated palaeontologists. These fossils wield strong evidence that dinosaurs incubated their eggs in a bird-like manner. However, a recent study lends evidence to an even more intriguing suggestion—that the egg-sitters were males.

David Varricchio of Montana State University and researchers from three other institutions reached this conclusion through information gathered from the creatures’ egg clutch volumes and bone tissue. Their results have been published in the journal Science.

To deduce what dinosaur parental behaviour would have been like, scientists examined modern birds, their closest living relatives and descendents of small, feathered dinosaurs. They also looked at dinosaurs’ next-of-kin, the crocodilians. The team noted that the ratio of adult body mass to total egg volume in these animals can be related with statistical significance to which sex was the primary caregiver.

The scientists studied Troodon, Oviraptor, and Citipati, three fleet-footed, bipedal, and bird-like dinosaur species that made nests. These dinosaurs laid batches of 22 to 30 big eggs, a similar number as birds that display predominantly paternal care, as opposed to those that have maternal care, or where both parents share the job. The species that engaged in full-time fatherhood had more voluminous egg clutches than the other two parenting styles.

Although statistics support the paternal care idea, they do not determine whether the dinosaurs sitting on their eggs were actually male. However, bone histology offers a clue. Laying eggs is a heavy drain on calcium and phosphorus resources. Female reptiles, such as crocodiles, extract these minerals from their bones. This leads to the formation of re-absorption cavities in the bones when their eggs are developing. In the case of mother birds, calcium and phosphorus is stored by depositing a complex of irregular bone tissue along the inside surface of long bones, called medullary bone. Although mostly reabsorbed for use during the egg-formation and laying, some of this bone tissue can linger for days to weeks afterward.

Medullary bone has been found in the bones of female dinosaurs as well, including species such as Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus, which are less related to birds than the dinosaurs focused on in the study. When the team analyzed long bones from eight nest-brooding adult Troodon and Citipati specimens, and no medullary bone or reabsorption cavities were found, the egg-sitters were concluded to have been either male or non-reproducing females. This is consistent with male care and at the least, does not falsify the fatherhood hypothesis.

The idea that dinosaurs were dutiful dads supplies some answers to questions about the evolutionary history of bird parenting. It has been observed that birds seem exceptional among vertebrate animal groups in their degree of male care. In only five per cent of mammal species—even fewer in non-avian reptiles—do fathers help raise offspring at all. For 90 per cent of birds, both parents contribute.

A particular group of predominantly flightless birds belonging to the superorder Palaeognathae, which includes ostriches and kiwis, is unique for a behavior system in which males mate with many females and then take responsibility for the eggs the females leave behind. This set of birds is the most primitive living branch of the avian family tree. Consequently, scientists wonder if their reproductive behaviour was present in the original ancestor of modern birds. This recent study of dinosaurs may suggest a paternal role in egg-rearing was not only an ancestral state, but one that evolved early in the line of dinosaurian ancestors leading to birds.

Bucks for smarts

Ontario’s budget comes out this spring, and student groups hope to cash in.

The province’s Standing Committee of Finance and Economic Affairs welcomes budget suggestions from groups and individuals until the end of the month. Both the upcoming provincial and federal budgets will face tough scrutiny under the current financial recession.

Yesterday, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance called for the McGuinty’s government to shift its focus and funds towards a knowledge-based economy.

In its report, OUSA called for up-front access grants, regulated tuition, and a rehaul of the OSAP system. It also suggested a one-time additional funding package to help universities deal with increased enrolment from recently laid off employees returning to post-secondary education.

The report continually mentions that Ontario’s government contributes less to universities than any other province. But Ontario isn’t the only government being pressured.

Last Tuesday, the Canadian Federation of Students took part in pre-budget consultation in Montreal by presenting an open letter to Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty. That same day, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations posted its own open letter with similar suggestions on its website.

Demanding a way of halting tuition increases, CFS proposed a tuition regulation system similar to the Canada Health Act with provincial and federal involvement. It also called for an increase in graduate research funding, to be issued indiscriminately as programs such as the humanities currently receive less than sciences.

The letter, which applauded the Harper government for replacing the Millennium Scholarship Foundation with a grant program and increased funding for the Canada Social Transfer, also suggested funding summer jobs to stimulate economy and a redesign of RESPs.

CASA suggested that the grants be targeted to low-income families hit by the recent financial crisis.

In a December 30 Toronto Star commentary co-written by Roger Martin, Dean of the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at U of T, tuition freezes were strongly discouraged.

“This simply reduces the resources available to develop our future skills,” said Martin. He also proposed new efficiency systems.

“We need to find ways of getting more students in our crowded post-secondary schools. Can administrators extend classroom hours or use weekends? The province ought to consider special loans and grants for qualified high-school students to register at specific schools.”

Understanding the genomics of brain diseases

Imagine personalized medicine, where treatment is created specially for your own genetic makeup. Think of the possible eradication of certain diseases like cancer or AIDS, or of foods designed to protect us from disease. While the study of genetics is highly controversial, it could provide the solution to many issues facing modern society.

McGill neurologist Guy Rouleau specializes in identifying and cataloguing the genes associated with brain diseases. In a recent lecture at the University of Toronto, he described his current project, nicknamed Synapse to Disease, or S2D for short. This study deals primarily with schizophrenic and autistic patients in an attempt to identify the genetic components contributing to these diseases.

S2D is based on the hypothesis that brain diseases are caused by “de novo” mutations—gene expressions that have never previously occurred in the family. Rouleau postulates that these mutations prevent the synapse from functioning properly, resulting in neurodevelopmental diseases. The study collected DNA samples from patients with no family history of mental disease, low age of onset, and the availability of parental DNA. The expectation predicted that afflicted individuals would prove to have a gene that was not transmitted from their parents, but instead the result of a mutation.

Once the appropriate models were selected, the S2D team reduced the expression of the gene in order to obtain a physical expression of the sample in the form of a protein. They experimented using normal human genes to rescue the patient’s gene. If the protein continued to function improperly, they would try to rescue it with a mutated gene. If the second rescue was a success it was a sign that a mutation had taken place in the gene, thus contributing to the disease. Using these methods, Rouleau successfully identified and catalogued a number of genes associated with neurodevelopmental diseases.

Although the S2D program has yet to be completed, it is estimated that the results could be significant to the genomics field. After only two years, scientists have already identified 10 to 20 genes associated with schizophrenia and autism. Rouleau predicts that by the time the project has finished, his team will have identified 3.4 million genes, including 11 stop genes and between 34 and 126 de novo genes.

Rouleau hopes that diagnostics could be vastly improved due to the development of new technologies. The accuracy of diagnoses is essential, providing peace of mind to patients suffering from a known and definable disease—a reassuring thought when dealing with afflictions of the brain. Accurate diagnoses also ensure that the proper treatment is given and early intervention may be possible. It is also possible that treatment of particular diseases may be able to aid affiliated diseases that share essential brain mechanisms.

Genetics counselling would be affected, as many family members are interested in the risk of transmitting diseases to their offspring. Currently, these inquiries receive limited response due to technological constraints and insufficient professional assistance.

Rouleau’s research affects more individuals than just those suffering from autism or schizophrenia. The field of brain diseases includes epilepsy, bipolar disorder, and even migraines.