June 17, 1958: Vancouver's Second Narrows Bridges collapses.
Twice in my academic career I was employed by Engineering Faculties, who required my writing skills. I spent a summer at McGill’s Faculty of Engineering mostly just admiring the architecture, but also writing a booklet about its illustrious past. I didn’t want to be impressed. I didn’t want to spend an entire Montreal summer writing about engineers. I was hard up for money, and I was starting to get a chip on my shoulder, a new one anyway, as it finally dawned on me that PhD studies were intended for the children of the middle classes and not for me. I don’t know if the exclusion was intentional or oblivious, but McGill felt like it had been designed by a whole lot of people who had never once conceived of bouncing a rent cheque. I hated being so desperate for money that I had to seek employment from a group of professionals I had a bunch of misgivings about. The only things I’d ever thought about engineers and the university were negative: engineering faculties sexualized women--the shame of UBC’s Lady Godiva ride. They belonged, in disproportionate numbers, to The Greeks: the Greeks had a rapey reputation that tainted the lot of them. I kept all those misgivings in mind, but even still, I got pretty impressed by the depth and breadth of improvements wrought by Canadian engineers. My thinking became this: could I design, and then oversee the building of, a bridge to span the Saint Lawrence? Fuck, no. Therefore, they who can impress the shit out of me.
The McGill Faculty of Engineering gig helped get me some more work a couple years later—out in Saskatoon. I got hired out there to teach my first ever course, to engineering students in the University of Saskatchewan’s Faculty of Engineering. It went really well. But they’d hired me only for one class, one term. I was facing the prospect of January in Saskatoon, unemployed, living in the basement of my brother’s family home. But something strange happened. My predicament was communicated to the Dean’s office. I was a one-term, one-class replacement hire: Worse still, I taught professional communications (barely!), in the shadow of hundreds of highly qualified and fully tenured engineering professors at one of the best and most rigorous faculties in the country. So when Malcolm stopped by my office and offered me a full-time paid position for the Winter term and through the summer, I assumed that the delirium tremens, that so many former acquaintances have assured me would be my fate, had finally arrived along with the inevitable hallucinations. Malcolm was close to retirement. He’d been in Saskatoon for twenty years without losing very much of his northern England accent much at all. He was also the associate dean, and I didn’t even know he knew my name. There was absolutely nothing for him to gain by helping me out. Malcolm asked if I would edit and update the Faculty of Engineering’s Professional Evaluation and Review (this isn’t the real name because I don't really remember it, but I still thought the capital letters lend the project some well-deserved gravitas). No corollary existed in my field, Communications Studies, so I needed some serious briefing to begin with: basically, every four or five years, each Faculty of Engineering in the country has to submit a motherfuckingly comprehensive document explaining in detail what each and every professor in the faculty, as well as the faculty as a whole, has been doing and plans on doing in the future. It’s a serious thing. The faculties remain governed by a professional body: that body can, and does, shut down anything that lacks rigour and science or in any way seems likely to pose a future danger to society in the way of poorly trained engineers. It can stop certain professors from teaching certain courses, if the board feel they haven’t kept themselves up to date in their field. It can remove certification from entire programs and entire faculties.
We’ve definitely reached—a while back—a point when Arts programs in this country ought to start thinking about creating and enforcing more oversight of what regional universities and colleges teach. So much of the things I’ve seen taught in places far away from the prestigious universities that taught us, make a mockery of what the field actually is. In the absence of effective national regulation, you’d be surprised at the extent to which disciplines mutate by institution. I guess since we’re not engineers society at large doesn’t keep tabs on us in the same way thinking what’s the worst thing that could happen? I don’t know. Only that it’s a good thing we don’t build bridges, because if we did, at our current national standards, it’d be Michael Bay-level carnage. I left the UofS after that one year, and on my last day, Malcolm stopped by again and took me and a couple of the other professors out for a few pints. I was in my eighth year at my last academic position—full-time and continuing—before I first met my boss. It’s not surprising that rigour is found more often in people who care, and in institutions who insist on such people. It should be surprising how fast that version of academia—the real one—has disappeared. And it should be alarming what has re-emerged in its place. “All these scenes of shattered glass/every system in collapse,” is how Dan Boeckner sums up the modern world: What’s happening in academia seems to be happening to a lot of our institutions. Like I was saying, I’m no engineer but even I can tell you this much: The whole edifice is unsound: it can’t help but tumble down.