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

Mind is what brain does. And brain is what mind makes of it. Literally. Here, condensed from popular books by Richard M. Restak, are glimpses of the two forging ahead together.  3

Newborn kittens were placed in chambers lined with either vertical or horizontal stripes. When the "horizontal" cats were removed from their bizarre world, they had no problem jumping from the laboratory table down to the floor. The "vertical" cats, in contrast, were able to avoid walking into the chairs, but were incapable of jumping across from one table to another of the same height. It was as if horizontal surfaces did not exist.  4

Inplanted electrodes showed hat the "vertical cats had no horizontal feature detectors, As a result these cats literally didn't see any object in the horizontal plane. The "horizontal" cats, in contrast possessed no vertical detectors, hence their inability to perceive chair legs and other vertical objects obvious to any normal cat.  —The Brain, Warner Book, 1979, pp.94,95  5

Restak does not tell us how much harder the underlying wiring is for the kittens' visual realities than is, say, that for human religious fervor, or for a cultural trait, or for ordinary understandings and prejudices. Cortical dentritic wiring is quite soft. Inter-cell connectivity can deteriorate with aging; new connections grow from thought. Matter over mind over matter.  6

In a chocolate chip experiment, William T. Greenough trained rats to reach for this treat with a specific paw. Microscopic examination revealed that the brain hemisphere that controlled the trained paw shows a dramatic increase in dendritic branches. More learning, more synapses.  7

And wrong learning, wrong synapses, educators might suspect and thereby more clearly envisage the need for a good learning process distinct from, say, exam performance.  8

Further, dentritic branching is increased in animals reared with play objects. Most exciting of all, this plasticity isn't confined to young rats. "We can offset and even reverse late brain aging in rats by providing changes in experience on a reguar basis."  9

Many of the things that have been learned about the human brain have come from judicious comparison between animals and humans. "I think that the rats are trying to tell us something, sais Greenough.  —The Mind, Bantam Books, 1988, pp.76–79.  10

There can hardly be doubt that a person's specific experiences can leave such material marks on the levers of mind—endow it with such physiological properties—that he or she is readily at variance with others. Ordinary, academically formed teaching staff may well be incapable of understanding many minds of inner-city youth, who, we now find, are coming to Dawson with increasingly varied backgrounds. Or understanding adult students' minds with personal histories quite different from those in circles they are more familiar—read: at ease—with. Could this incapacity inhibit the bridging of gaps in those vital and vitalizing human qualities: having and showing inter–est? Or with faculty degraded by treadmill work for fickle purposes or organographic significance rather than helping minds improve?*  11

* * *

I left the publishing business because, for one, I wanted to meet people with a wide range on interests and be closer to the purpose of things human. (I also wanted to avoid a move to New York where I was offered opportunities for further growth in a field in which I was well respected.) From the outside looking in, education seemed a good choice even though this required becoming a student again for the equivalent of nearly seven years of scheduled academic study. I had just signed up for evening courses at Sir George Williams University when I got that promotion I mentioned before from technical editor to editor. Just at the wrong time.  12

One course was English 222, world literature. That ought to have been fun. But you know the "system." It has a way of taking care of such an aberrant notion. (Did not Shaw wish to keep his works out of schools to avoid the aversion accorded Shakespeare?) The lecture hall performances by Prof. Ram were entertaining alright, but to be treated by some T.A. as an illiterate nitwit after a hard day's work made the return to studies quite disagreeable. Even so, I found all sorts of intriguing detail i the course's literary smorgasbord, but, then again, I must have misjudged badly because my discoveries rated an F by midterm. Thàt, and being too busy at the magazine, made me sign off at S.W.G. War on two fronts was just too much.  13

Thinking back now, how many students have I myself discouraged? And was Madeleine one of them? Ah yes, I have forgotten all about her, didn't I? That I must not do.  14

* * *

For the next year I arranged to become a consulting editor (same pay, less work) and gave the studies a hard push. Meekness, I had quickly learned, improves academic standing—such as a shift from a potential F to a B in lit for opinions not essentially different from those I held before.*  15

Still, I found being a student, at forty, hard to take. From editor with an excellent reputation (except among the backbiters at the home office) I had become a nobody, subject to the wiles and tempers of whatever faculty crossed my path. For eight years I had publicly reported on information gathered from business people, in industrial plants, and at presentations to convention audiences. But as a student I seemed less capable of getting my stories straight. Was this just fatigue or was my mind too dim? Or could it also have had something to do with the quality of some lectures? Don't ever let on you suspect such a thing!  16

A few professors allowed favorite undergraduates from day classes to use desks in their labs—which gave them access to such information as the chemical compositions of "unknowns" given to students for analysis (and grades!) as well as intelligence about upcoming exam questions. This information circulated only among a chosen few because student grading was done "on the curve" and the insiders did not wish to jeopartdize their own grade standings. Believe me, with such cards stacked against you, and with a faculty not keen on receiving complaints, return to school can be quite disconcerting and damaging to one's health. It can drive one around the bent.  17

Why am I telling you all this? Well, it is part of the context of these letters, like I intend next week's Interlude to be. It may engender thought about what life is for, what value to attach to education and what it is for, or, at least, what some courses are for or, at the very least, what some lessons are for.  18

* * *

One professor I would rate triple A is Glenn Cartright, of McGill. I took his course in educational psychology as part of a program toward teaching certification. Bob Peters, Alex Melnyk and Maria Zamora, chemistry teachers at Vanier College, were also in the program. Even though we didn't work together much, the social aspect made life at school more agreeable. I think that the four of us concurred that Cartright was talented and tops. He assigned the textbook for independent study (and examined his students on it), concentrating his efforts instead on marvellous performances replete with carefully prepared dramatic multiple projections of overheads. He knew how to breathe life into his subject.*  19

But appreciated he was not. Soon many people—elementary and high school teachers—had become apprehensive because his course was demanding. "They are finding out that they can actually fail," I remember Bob saying. I guess he was right. Maybe they had become spoiled by Educ. 503S, Language & Other Media, for which the instructors had agreed that everybody would get a B for lack of a rational standard, a sound-enough reason in itself. (Alex was not satisfied with that cosy arrangement. He negotiated for, and received, an A.) We all had to put in some final performance in front of the class. One group of teachers held up a big carton box with torn-out advertisements pasted on its sides. They named it Communications and were awarded, as agreed, a B each. If only the S.G.W. chemistry program had been a bit like that.  20

* * *

I now feel that the professors at S.G.W. were not so much to blame as I once thought some were. They had heavy work loads, teaching day and night, doing their research and looking after graduate students, participating in committee work, consulting, what have you. The "system," I am sure, must bear the brunt of the blame. Be all this as it may, though, to become subject, after irrevocably ending a career, to the fickleness of fate and of personalities who have undue power over one's life is an unsettling experience. And the availability of a trusted mediator might have done much to relieve unnecessary anxiety.  21

* * *

After the term's grades had been posted, Madeleine came to my office to find out how I rated her final exam. She felt that she should have had a higher mark than I had given her. And, indeed, she may have performed better if I had addressed myself more to the interest of the better students and had concerned myself less with those fated to fail.*  22

As to her anonymous letter, whatever one might think of it, fact is that it should have alerted us to a problem, something that might have been taken care of one way or another. It may have simply been a cry for attention. It might have been helpful if the ombudsman had been permitted to function as a person who makes it his business to delve into things a little and help.  23

I believe that a capable ombudsperson, trusted and respected and functioning in that role, would be a valuable asset.  24

Henry K van Eyken  25

Footnotes, added in 2017

There is an experience, still vividly in my mind, of a very bright Vietnamese student, slightly older than most of my other students, who told me that a humanities teacher was giving her a failing grade for cheating. But on hearing her out it became evident she was not a cheater at all, at all. What had she done? She had helped a fellow student, Vietnamese also, with some assignment. I imagine that not doing so would be an affront to her Vietnamese perception of ethics—not necessarily entirely corresponding to Western values. She had asked me to write a letter of recommendation to accompany her application to McGill University's Med. School. Of course I would.

It took me a long time to figure out how to go about it. Then, at the last minute, so to speak, of the Med. School's admission process, I went to the admission committee's secretary to hand-deliver my letter of recommendation. Doing so would make her application stand out. I had written about that "cheating" and my view of that. I had written further about her having served people in Vietnam as a medical assistant. I had written, moreover about an experience which showed me that she was far brighter than I am.

She was admitted and I believe she has become a practicing physician. The highlight of my entire teaching career.

July 31, 2018. Cleaning out my files, I recently came across a note she left on my office desk:
      Dear Henry,
      I missed the chance to thank you at the convocation this year as I left for Europe early in the summer. I came to school today in order to visit you, my dear professor. but you are not here, unfortunatrly. I would like to thank you for your nice reference which has helped me a lot to get into medical school at McGill. I hope I'll have the chance to see you again some time in the future.
      Your student,
*   fn1

One of the reading assignments I found especially interesting was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. We used the Norton edition in which the story was supplemented by critical commentaries. One thing missing, though, was an understanding of the author's background, notably that he also spoke German, that he lived at a time of rapid technical changes, such as welding, photography, that he was interested in various schools of psychology, that he was critical of Christian practice. My T.A. didn't have a clue about those things! Short stories take a long time to read, I read once. True enough, for they invite attention to what's between the lines—an aligning of (some) personal experiences with some of the author's.  *   fn2

Glenn Cartright's course was about the behaviorist approach to educational psychology, a school he, on again meeting him many years later, utterly despised. Cognitivism had taken over. Cognitive psychology holds that problem solving is fundamental to learning. Shouldn't teachers fed on behaviorism be recalled for a make-over? Like automobiles are recalled when found to have dangerously faulty parts?  *   fn3

That last sentence may not make much sense. Most likely reason for a grade lower than on her final exam was poor performance in her laboratory assignments.  *   fn4

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