Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

These seemingly grim lines may be the most optimistic in modern literature: life feeds into life, change is constant, and the spring’s rain helps complete the cycle.

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Brave

2017-04-20

in Photo of the day

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Most undergraduate students would really benefit from an intensive one-on-one tutoring program in writing essays. Even among third and fourth year students, it’s something most of them can’t or don’t do competently. While U of T offers some writing resources, you can’t really turn up at a writing centre with an unstructured, ungrammatical, and unconvincing draft and have someone teach you the basics of being credible and convincing in an hour or so.

It would be better to find a subject that is of particular interest to the student, and then begin with some lessons on what distinguishes credible sources and how to conduct research. The tutoring could then progress to a review of the basic essay template people should have learned in high school or earlier: an introduction with a clear thesis and a basic outline of the argument, body paragraphs with organized and coherent lines of evidence and argumentation, and a conclusion that wraps up and perhaps points to some broader implications.

They need to be guided away from both mindlessly vague claims with no substantive content and from the wild extrapolation and hyperbole where ludicrous statements are made about how the small topic of their paper will have vast, automatic, permanent, global effects. This one little UN initiative will save the world’s oceans, or one tweak in parliamentary procedure will save Canadian democracy, etc.

They could also be taught to edit. Clearly, most of them don’t even skim through their own writing looking for awkwardly phrased and ambiguous passages or language problems. They could, however, be taught to go beyond that to really think about making an argument and being convincing: evaluating whether each sentence and paragraph is serving their overall purpose, and how to hold the interest and win the respect of the reader.

Doing all this one-on-one would overcome the limitations of drop-in writing help, where the tutor doesn’t know the student’s strengths and weaknesses and can only provide ad hoc suggestions and corrections rather than a broad and coordinated program of improvement. A bespoke approach would let tutors avoid boring students by rehashing things they already understand, while letting the student focus on subject matter where they have actual passion.

Such a program of tutoring could do a lot to enhance what is almost the only tangible skill developed during an undergraduate program in the humanities or social “sciences”, and it would be a small investment of time and money compared to the undergraduate program as a whole.

Related:

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At lunch at Massey College today, the closest available seat was beside a fellow Junior Fellow and photography client who was having lunch with Carolynn Benett, the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

We were soon joined by a climate change advisor from the Ontario provincial government and ended up talking about carbon capture and storage; the dangers of sea level rise; mitigation pathways for meeting the Paris Agreement climate change targets; the lack of a sufficient climate change plan from any Canadian party or government so far; the imperative not to invest further in long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure; renewable energy options; nuclear power; ways to reduce and replace diesel use in remote communities; and passive houses.

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Ages ago I submitted a photo essay to the Canadian Labour Congress for their “Workers’ Rights and the Struggle for Social Justice” project.

It was meant to be funded as part of the (at least dubious, and almost certainly offensive, given that people have lived here for many thousands of years) Canada 150 celebration.

The call to photographers in June 2016 explained: “The CLC invites photographers to participate in a historic exhibition on workers’ rights, social justice, and equity.” They went on to say:

Workers have historically taken the lead role in fighting for social justice issues, which have had an impact far beyond the workplace and into every part of the daily lives of Canadians. Therefore, the exhibition will be both a celebration of victories and an opportunity to take stock of the continuing struggles for social justice. Where have we succeeded as a social movement?

In the end, the people behind the proposal (Vince Pietropaolo and John Maclennan) told the photographers that it’s not going to happen due to lack of funding.

As such, I am making my photo essay submission public: Victories and continuing struggles.

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As far as weather goes, this is the nicest time of year in Toronto. The days are long and bright and the temperature mostly varies between warm enough to be comfortable in a t-shirt to cool enough to be comfortable in a light jacket. It’s easy to spend hours outside, whether undergoing physical exertion or just sitting and reading. I keep the windows of my room open most of the time.

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I think I have mentioned before my revulsion for some standard practices with dead humans: embalming with toxic chemicals, burial in elaborate coffins, and efforts to isolate corpses from the outside world through concrete burial vaults and similar.

All that runs fundamentally against my self-understanding as one animal in all the multitude of nature. When my time comes — and I hope it won’t be for many years — I would like to be buried in as little as possible, for instance in just a cotton or linen wrapping, in a place where the molecules of my body will become the bodies of plants and animals and return to the great circulation that has been ongoing for billions of years. This would be after any usable organs or tissues have been donated.

Any kind of religious ceremony would be an insult to my conviction that those who think the universe or ethics can only be explained via the supernatural have no evidence to support their case. I would appreciate a gathering of friends which should be pleasant and well-catered, maybe a few musical performances: Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” has been a long-time favourite and is well suited, as is Radiohead’s “Exit Music”. A bit of Antonín Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” would speak to being Czech and North American. Mourners should have a snootful of a decent whisky, beer, or wine while listening to the music.

If one or more people want to “speak my death” in the Orson Scott Card sense of the words, I hope they won’t choose flattery or comfort over honesty.1

An advance directive to address the horror of being alive but unable to reason or communicate would also be prudent for me. The simple version is: if there is no prospect of a reasonable quality of life and my life is being sustained by external means like a medical ventilator, I would prefer for those means to be discontinued. If I end up in some sort of long-term vegetative state, I would be grateful for a never-ending stream or loop of folk music played at a suitable volume through headphones.

1. Anybody wanting to do this, including my parents and brothers but also any other people who I have met and any strangers to me, should perhaps read the first two books in Orson Scott Card’s Ender series. I definitely do not endorse the author’s politics, but I like his ruthlessly honest concept for a death ritual.

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