Ivory Tower, Iron Door.

Being a relatively naive PhD student, I can still recall what life was like as an undergraduate.

According to the media coming out of the universities,we have been facing an unfortunate epidemic of plagiarism and academic dishonesty. Every class of more than ten people it seems are being forced to sign agreements (I signed mine in red ink, not a legally binding colour), or complete online “quizzes”, not really for their own education, but to cover the administration from the charge that the students “didn’t really know what academic integrity was” so that they can get pulled before this committee or that, at worst ruined and at best scared.

In the worst case I’ve ever heard of, the students in an introductory biology course were terrorized, spending more time trying to figure out how not to get put before an academic dishonesty panel than learning the material itself.

Like most punitive measures, it’s not really for the student’s benefit that this is done, but to prevent the cost of a degree from this or that institution from being cheapened. Advertisements on buses and subways loudly declare, even for the most ill equipped of potential students, that they need a degree to succeed in life. There is big money in promising good jobs to those who might not otherwise be able to get them. But only in the promise.

I’ve been marking assignments ever since my third year of university. I was the same age as most of my “students”, but the course was the moneymaker of the department and they didn’t have enough T.A.s to process them all. I was also in the uncommonly favorable position of not being seen as a “student” by the professor of the course. A designation that he did, at times, use as a pejorative.

It was a writing requirement for science and business students with a no fail policy. What it did do, though, was come down hard on plagiarists who couldn’t speak English. You’d be amazed at just how many really couldn’t. Oriental and middle eastern students who were studying business and science because that’s were the money was, and just needed to get this writing requirement out of the way so they could go back to their own, anonymity-inducing departments. Students who didn’t even know what the word “academic integrity” could possibly mean were filling out forms because it’s what they had to do to get the credit, to get the degree, to get the job and be happy, someday.

And who could really blame them for this? It’s what was being tacitly advertised by the administration.

And it is a lie.

The students don’t care about education because the structures that claim to teach them don’t care either. The only difference is, that they are punished for failing to collaborate with it. Not everyone who is brought before an academic dishonesty committee is quite so innocent, of course, but the worst offenders are those who have the family connections to get the lawyers to adequately defend them. Again the unspoken lessons of children are taken from the lives of adults.

Teaching assistants are the dreaded middle management in the corporation. Very quickly in grad school, last years undergraduates learn a kind of contempt for people who no longer seem to be their pears, but instead a kind of resource used by the department. They get paid to process them. In a way it is understandable, a kind of soft-core intellectual version of what happens to police officers and paramedics when they see too many bloody train wrecks and breakdowns of the social order.

Courses with hundreds of students, many of which should have options other than university for reasonable professions, are filtered through the hands of teaching assistants, whose ideals about the academy, if they had any, are soon whittled away after the hundredth or so essay. And the students, knowing just as well that the education is secondary to the grade, often connive and cajole for marks in a hundred surreptitious ways. The kind of people entering grad school are the minority who in fact do not start off thinking this way, and when confronted with it on a daily basis lash out by dehumanizing the undergraduates, setting themselves apart from them. The worst essay quotes of the month are put up on black boards, are talked about and fumed over amongst the graduate students, are mocked, because they know of no way to educate.

Chances are, if you’re in a first year course and not a particularly adept student, your T.A. is laughing at you to stop themselves from crying.

Yet the undergraduates, even if they don’t necessarily belong in a university setting, are not stupid, and understand that they are being treated cynically. So why not return the cynicism?

Because that won’t change anything, it won’t make the schools better, or people’s unique skills more valued by society. It will just give you a quick fix of scorn, like a drug, and pass away again into nothing.

And whatever you are, you are far from nothing.

For More Information:


Songs Unsung, Poems Unspoken

I am pleased to be able to announce the publication of my poetry collection “Songs Unsung, Poems Unspoken”, from Gypsy Shadow Publishing. Here’s the blurb on the back:

Songs Unsung, Poems Unspoken begins with an inevitable departure from home and ends with the finitude of things, traveling a gauntlet of conflicting emotions to get there. From the dark, the drunken, the whimsical to the ecstatic, it struggles to give voice to silence, and a presence to absence.

Right now it’s available in e-book form as a down-loadable PDF for $2.99. It features poems like “The Last Man” which I recorded for the Starry Messenger, and will (in the unforeseen future) be available in audio-book format!

Check out the website here: http://www.gypsyshadow.com/EdmundSiderius.html#Songs

Beneath the Moon

Beneath the Moon is a graphic novel that I wrote some years ago, but have never successfully found a suitable author to help me get it published. Some suggest that I abandon trying to get the work made in this way, that it would be easier to re-write it as a novel, but I believe, perhaps stubbornly, that it was meant for this medium more so than any other.

Here’s a brief overview of the beginning that I’ve used on occasion to attempt to “sell’ the idea to artists:

“Matthew O’Byrne, a burnt out recluse who was once prominent in the east coast arts scene for his works on synisthesia spends his days tricking people into preserving his solitude, brooding over his redundancy, or drinking with the one person as aware of his own redundancy as himself, Paul Montainge a wealthy heir who fills his time with literature and parties.

Then there is Dr. Sverre Winograd, the awkward single father and ingenious computer scientist. He is the lead developer of Zeroth, a prototype of a recursive self-improving AI program designed to initiate a technological singularity and go beyond the limits of human thought. Plagued by the untimely death of his wife, he broods on the memory of what was lost, and puts all his energy into his work and in supporting his synestheatic daughter, Cara Winograd.

The development of Zeroth takes an unexpected turn when Dr. Winograd tries to unify these two segments of his life. When introduced to Zeroth Cara asks the question: “what does the colour neon-pink taste like?” Zeroth perceives that this question surpasses any she has been asked before and becomes driven to find a way to find the answer. Matthew, given his work and insight into the human mind, then seems as likely a candidate as any.”

Oh, how I long for the day when I can see this work complete, but to stay true to it I’ll probably have to wait until I get a larger, more conventional repertoire of publications behind me.

Among the Obelisks 1

Here is the first installment of my second “mural” piece. The actual story features footnotes and a brief introduction by the translator. I’ve been told that this was necessary otherwise the audience would have no idea what I was talking about. This assessment maybe fair, but there is something about inviting your readers to look things up that I think has been generally under-appreciated in contemporary writing, particularly since the advent of the internet has made this so easy. For the audio version I decided to skip these asides since it would be too jarring on the continuity of the piece, and I hope the atmosphere nevertheless shines through.

The Grey Men

The Grey Men of the Desert of Dust 1:

The Grey Men of the Desert of Dust 2:

The Grey Men of the Desert of Dust is one of my few “Mural” pieces. The narrative of the story is driven more by an archetypal series of images and concepts than by characterization, creating an effect of a long, perplexing mural.

I’ve been told that works like this are almost unpublishable in the current reading environment because of the nonexistent use of character driven plots. That probably won’t stop me from writing them though, and I have some hopes, some day of writing an entire book in this mode.

It would be my own Sistine Chapel of the weird. It would also be an attempt to take the “weird” or “uncanny” story and do something with it that I do not think has been successfully done to date. It is a characteristic of these kinds of stories that they start to flounder past a certain size. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath always seemed to fall a little flat of my expectations, and I have yet to find a truly “weird” novel.

I might record and post another one of the mural pieces at some point.

The Last Man

I first encountered The Last Man in an art galley in Liverpool, England. It was painted by the English romantic John Martin (1789-1854), and I was immediately struck by the vastness of it. Often in the course of my scholarly or literary studies I am given cause to contemplate the end of things.

The poem “The Last Man” emerged many years later while I began collecting pieces for my upcoming collection Songs Unsung, Poems Unspoken and it also features in an issue of Fantastic Horror, a lovely community of eerie and horrific works that can be accessed in the Links of Interest section of this blog.

I do hope you enjoy it, even though I know it may seem macabre to some readers.

More information on John Martin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Martin_%28painter%29