Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dad and the Academic Life

Grief ambushes you. It doesn’t come up in the places you expect it. It leaps out at you and clobbers you in your chest when you aren’t looking.

I went to a funeral recently expecting to find it difficult but it wasn’t. It was sad. I liked the man who had died. It was obvious his family really loved him. Afterward I realized that I had been bracing myself for extreme emotion but it hadn’t come. I was glad I went.

The first week of classes I went to the university to pick up my mail and start getting ready for a new school year and I was so overwhelmed by an awareness of Dad and of grief that I couldn’t wait to get off campus. It was partly the pile of sympathy cards in my mail which I hadn’t checked all August. But mostly it was seeing all the students walking around. I hadn’t realized how much my sense of Dad is tied up with the university, any university.

My relationship with Dad has been shaped from the very beginning by the university. He and Mom were students at the University of Saskatchewan when I was born. I was raised on stories of their student days, the poverty, their involvement in the Folk music revival, the many moves. We lived in Saskatoon, London (the real one in England), Vancouver, Victoria, and then Vancouver again before finally settling in Winnipeg when Dad got his first permanent teaching position at the University of Manitoba.

The Economics Department was a wonderful place to be in the early ‘70s. My sister and I seemed to be the only kids our age in the department but all the adults seemed to take us under their wings. And we saw them a lot. Those early days were filled with toboggan parties, and skiing parties, first down hill and later cross-country, and corn roasts and Grey Cup parties. Always it seemed these events were followed by chili and onion soup mix dip with crinkle chips and Dad’s home made beer. Dad also played on the departmental hockey team and then curled in the Saturday morning faculty curling league. We seemed to socialize a lot with Dad’s department and when I asked him about it recently he said my memory was correct. He said that Clarence Barber, who was then chair and who had hired him, had brought together a really interesting department of people from diverse backgrounds and approaches. He really enjoyed being a part of that department and although there were opportunities for him to move to other places over the years I never had a sense that he seriously thought of leaving.

As I grew older I became more interested in the academic side of Dad’s work. Dad thought of academics as a form of craft and believed in the old guild system when apprentices worked alongside masters to learn their craft. So he apprenticed me. In those days before computers he would sometimes have me do calculations for him of columns of figures or mark the true or false and multiple choice portions of his exams. Later he began to teach me how he graded essay questions and have me read answers and tell him what I thought they should get and why. He began to explain to me how he did research and gradually gave me little projects for him. I would take his library card and go over to Dafoe Library and find articles or Statistics Canada tables for him. I loved to go to his office at University College on Fridays because the college had a lunch in the Senior Common room and then every one would sit and talk about their work and ideas and things they were reading. Even though I didn’t understand much of what they were talking about I loved the atmosphere and longed to be a part of it when I was older.

By the time I was in high school we lived on an acreage outside of Winnipeg so sometimes I would drive into the university with Dad in his ugly turquoise Mazda diesel truck. We’d talk about his work and my classes and sometimes he’d lend me books to read about things I was interested in. It must have been really annoying to teach me history in High School, particularly anything that related to a left-wing topic. I was the one who caught the errors in our grade 11 textbook’s treatment of the Winnipeg General Strike and I had a lot to say about Franco when we covered the Spanish Civil War too.

In those days Mom and Dad had a tight circle of friends who sang folk music together. Dad taught labour history and John taught war history so once a term they would do a history of the labour movement in song and war songs for their respective classes. It was my responsibility to help carry their instruments and remember the words when they forgot. When I sing to my classes or use music to bring religious history alive I’m conscious of carrying on a family tradition.

When I was an undergraduate his publisher told him that he needed a woman to co-author a book he proposed to them on women in the labour force so he asked me to write it with him. I was finishing my degree in Religious Studies with a minor in History and had done some work in labour history. Dad proposed that I write the historical sections and he would write the economics sections and I would do a lot of the research for his sections since they were about 75% of the book. Theoretically it meant we were dividing the work in half but in reality he was mentoring me through the whole process. It was an incredibly generous opportunity to give a young student. From the early research to proofing the galleys he pretty patiently guided me through the writing of the book and it was an incredible experience. Then when it was published we flew to Toronto and did a day of media interviews. At the beginning of the day I was so terrified I could barely talk but he knew when to step in and bail me out when an interviewer put me on the spot. By the end of the day I was an old hand at it and we had fun switching who answered which questions. We did two more editions and worked on another couple of projects together.

Recently we had worked with another friend to try to get a project going on employment issues in the church. The project didn’t get off the ground but it was fun to talk about it with Dad and plan how we might approach it. And I enjoyed being able to initiate projects with him now. He had treated me as a partner in the writing of the book and it felt good to have grown into that role.

In recent years we’ve talked about our projects when we’d get together. We managed to drive everyone away from campfire at a family reunion by getting into an animated discussion of church state relations. And I’d send him postings from the blogs I read and he reciprocate by sending me discussions from his Progressive Economist listserve. It is hard to get my head around not being able to do that any more. I still read something or hear something on the radio and think, I have to tell Dad about that.

I learned a lot about university life from my father. He worked hard and he worked long hours. The two of us were the family night owls and I would often come down at night to find him reading at the kitchen table. He also took his briefcase with him on holidays and while we read mysteries or played cards he’d be reading a book he was reviewing or using in a class that fall. Yet when I said how much I loved Paper Chase with its depictions of students pulling all nighters he told me that that was unhealthy. He always managed to combine his academic work with a wide variety of hobbies and community involvements.

He also told me once that there were two kinds of scholarly writers. There were the ones who wrote one book, often some seminal study, but only the one book because it had to be perfect. He admired a number of scholars who were these kinds of perfectionists but he also lamented that their ideas didn’t have the broad impact they should have because they weren’t accessible enough. The other kind of writer was the kind of writer he was. They published often knowing that there were more things to consider, other things to read, because what they published was part of a conversation. Those other things would be integrated into the next article or the next book. Dad saw the intellectual life as a communal life, and he was very much a part of that community.

That community also included students. He was generous with his time, and kind to his students. He wasn’t impressed with students who cheated but he was gracious to students who made mistakes or ran into troubles. And he never spoke badly of poor students although he was impatient with lazy students. He was tolerant of many of his colleagues’ foibles but he was completely intolerant of those who abused their authority over students.

His sense of community included secretaries and staff. He told me how frustrated he would get with some of his colleagues who would talk about solidarity with the working class and then treat the secretaries badly. His sense of community reached wide and included many people of different disciplines and politics. When he retired I wrote some words of tribute for him and asked a mutual friend to read them for me. When I told the chair of his department who I had asked to read it, he was surprised. He said it wouldn’t have occurred to him to invite this particular fellow. He and Dad were in different academic areas, were members of different colleges and had rather different politics. Yet I knew how much Dad liked him and how he would think to include him even though the department chair didn’t.

After Dad died I was checking his email for Mom and letting his colleagues and students know that he had died. I was struck by how many of them spoke of his graciousness and generosity. Of all the things I learned about the academic life from my Dad I think the thing that I will always value most is that it is a life lived in community, a diverse community, held together not only by a shared concern for ideas but a shared concern for the welfare of others.

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