Winter semester, 1990

Touch wood
The alloyed coin
No exit
No-name society
To purposes fickly faithed
Interlude: Lesson from Leo
Pulex in the rapids
In the brass's spittoon
The whited sepulchre
All-terrain vehicles
Salomé in the buff


Thirteen weekly letters written in 1990 reflect personal observations and feelings about Dawson College at that time. They are reproduced here in the autumn of 2017—with a few editing touches and footnotes for clarity.  0

Dear Colleague:  2

I am told that some of you are wondering why I do this, writing these letters, and also that one colleague has found an answer in Freud and Angst. Freud sounds harmless enough, but Angst has a fearsome ring. At any rate, you may find in this and in the next few letters some background whence this rite is being wrung.  3

First a thought recurring:  4


A story has
            a beginning,
            and a muddle,
            and an end;
and the aim of the muddle is
to reach beyond the enD  

Context is of some importance to me; the context of what I do and the context of life itself. Connectedness adds interest—is inter est, literally—to whatever I engage in. Not unlike you, I imagine, I enjoy it when my work goes well, and if it does not then I want to find the reason for that and try to fix things. Sometimes I get frustrated, of course, especially when my beliefs are constrained from governing my personal style; when someone tries to cap my soul, for example. Freud? Maybe.  5

* * *

As soon as classes begin it is well to do a quick-and-dirty background check. "What academic program are you in and what was your last chemistry course?", I ask students to jot down, and "where did you take it?" Unfortunately, answers that earlier met official registration criteria may now forbode failure.  6

A teacher's next move is to adapt to the givens fast because time flows relentlessly. That Ol' Man River, he just keeps rolling along. Small wonder that a certain desparation is a silent companion for many teachers. I sense that some even feel guilt for a crime in which they have been unwittingly made partners.  7

What choice, what measure of control does a teacher have when facing classes with much too variable entry behavior, as they say in the bizz, far too wide a range of knowledge and skills as has become increasingly common? What is he or she to do with classes that are parts of a multisection course with a common final examination?  8

What is a just response to an unjustifiable situation? What, for example, is one to do when tests begin to show, one-third through the term, that there are three students in a class making around 90% while most others hoover between 30 and 60%?* Add more challenge for those three and jack up everybody's grades? But that is not what the good students want; what they want is enough elbow room to get top marks in all their courses, marks that keeps alive their dream of one day entering med school. And besides, does that stratagem not worsen the underlying problem of passing underprepared students on to a next course (see Mascara, March 4)?  9

While trying to device ways for spurring on the less mature to study and practice, and doing so without knowing who among them stubbornly won't and who actually can't, nor knowing the demands placed upon them by their other courses, what does one do for a mature student, one who had the courage to quit a career and go back to school and now finds himself or herself mired in difficulties? Anyone who has never faced these kind of conundrums does not know what it is to be a college science teacher, or college teacher period.*  10

The old saw that one must teach to the middle of a class, which probably is not all thàt keen anyway, is no longer of any use at all— and I am not even quibbling about the implied educational ethics nor will I invoke here the constructivist theory of knowledge. This middle is supposed to be in the center of a reasonably narrow, bell-shaped distribution curve of assumed mental inventories. Typically, the kind of classes many of us meet today lack such curvature. By their educational history, by their social and cultural backgrounds, by their ethnic and ethical origins, and, not in the least, by personal conduct, study habits, the means employed to achieve higher grades [cheating] and how innocence is professed in defence of these means, by all of these and more they make wild quilts of bimodalities. Anyone who has not lived with these things is not in a position to tell teachers how to conduct their classes.  11

These problems probably do not strike all teachers throughout the college the same way, and with the same intensity. Things will depend on what program one teaches, and at what level in that program. Nevertheless, they are serious and much in need of resolution. In the meantime, teachers, perforce, make their own accomodation for coping, accomodations that may include the devaluation of grades, self-enforced non-involvement, the maintenance of strict rules that are blind to individual differences and student concerns, what have you. Then, caught unaware, comes into the office a student with genuine difficulties and once again the teacher is caught in the old trap of becoming more human than he or she wished to be. Anyone [some junior administrator, say] who has not had these feelings is utterly incapable of judging teachers other than counting complaints that came to his ears.  12

* * *

There ia hex's brew abrewing and, true to tradition, it is poison. Cyanide and ultra-sweet, essance de putois and a hint of stale garlick. God-awful it is. I should know. I've tasted the stuff before. I intend to give you a taste of it in my next letter, but for now, here is a whiff of that similar concoction.  13

Was it Pulp & Paper Magazine's October 1966 issue that was the first issue I put to bed as its newly promoted editor? Or was in November's? It must have been around 200 pages, half of them technical contributions, feature articles, a Woodlands Section, and Departments. I had worked on the publication for seven years as a technical editor. I don't know why, but the former editor had suddenly decided to leave. He gave me the key to his desk at a hastely arranged small farewell party at my home, during the evening of his last day on the job. The next morning I unlocked the left-hand drawer where I expected to find a three-month's supply of features—scheduled and spares. But it was empty and in a flash I had to decide whether to inform the owners, National Business Publications, of this disaster or quietly work my way out of trouble. By sounding the alarm, I would have them crawl all over me, nervously interfering, and thus making it impossible for me to maintain my composure and get on with the job, which was the source also of my income. Telling them, I felt, was not a viable option.  14

Among my problems was a new assistant I got saddled with, young and ambitious and just rearing to remake the magazine into a slick business publication, gradually pulling away from that dull technical stuff. That would diminish the need for my services and open up a fine avenue for career advancement. He had some experience on Canadian Doctor, down the hallway and thought he knew all about the business. He, and some buddy, did a lot of scheming.  15

Those must have been eighty-hour weeks I worked, in a climate of rug-pulling and backbiting. Months on end, fatigued, and without reward of any kind, but I saw no other way out. I used to take some pride in the thought that I saved the magazine, but that means nothing now. Who would have believed the story anyway?  16

And what does all this have to do with Dawson or teaching, you ask? Well, I hate working in a climate where there is no respect and trust.  17

Henry K van Eyken  18

            in unending hall

            yellowishly lit

            and barred

            by grey doors

            locked on

            an emptiness.

            Red sauce

            in frozen flow

            down faded tray

            at slanted rest

            up against the wall

            in unending hall

            yellowishly lit

            and barred

            " STILLED LIFE "  

Footnotes, added in 2017

The minimum grade for passing a course is 60%. I understand that many teachers jack up lower grades to give students a pass.  *   fn1

Well I remember that single mother, surely more than 30 years of age, who came to me deeply depressed about her foray back into school. I told her that I greatly admired her and so would her child for what she dared to undertake and that I was ready to help her with my and any other course she was taking. She seemd somewhat relieved, but I never saw her again. Hard to forget.  *   fn2

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