America, the Confounded

Published 7 October 2014 ~

The American government has closed up shop. October 1st marks the start of a new fiscal year in America, but Congress has so far failed to pass a budget. Lacking a budget to pay for all it does, the federal government has entered a state akin to hibernation: all non-essential functions have been shuttered (’furloughed’), and in the meantime no-one gets paid.[1]

Why is this happening?

‘Obamacare,’ otherwise known as the Affordable Care Act of 2010 mandating every American to purchase (heavily-subsidized) health insurance, has become an effigy encapsulating everything extreme conservatives loathe and fear about Obama’s presidency. They fear this new ‘entitlement’: that, like public education and Social Security, having once possessed it Americans will refuse to ever give it up. To those who view any government as a regrettably necessary evil to be kept as minimal as possible, this is grounds for war. But, being outnumbered, the ultra-conservative ‘Tea Party’ fringe faction of the Republican Party has chosen to fight by other means.

It just so happens that the Affordable Care Act was set to begin its implementation on this very same October 1st. Having failed to repeal it, the tea partiers’ last ditch effort is to hold the nation hostage by refusing to pass a budget through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives – unless it includes an amendment repealing, or at least delaying, the Age of ‘Obamacare.’

How can they do this?

In America, the dominant political party of the moment is able, once every 10 years, to redraw the boundary lines of political districts – in a basically arbitrary manner.[2] The ‘Tea Party’ insurgency in 2010 helped Republicans gain control of most state legislatures, and they have since redrawn the boundaries of their districts to maximize the electoral clout of more conservative regions, making it easier for Republicans – even End Times-chanting mouth-frothing tea party Republicans – to get elected, while bunching moderate and liberal regions into massive districts, as large as possible, to minimize their representation in Congress.

Republicans from ‘safe’ (i.e. heavily conservative) districts know the only threat to their re-election is the prospect of an even more outrageously conservative tea party Republican beating them for their party’s nomination. There are only 30 or so hard core avowed acolytes in the tea party fringe faction of House Republicans[3], but there are many more who feel pressured to toe the tea party line lest they should face a primary challenger from amongst the tea party faithful.

John Boehner, the Speaker of the House and Leader of the Republican majority, only just recently barely survived an attempt by the tea party faction to replace him with someone more obedient to the fringe’s whimsies. Even though there are enough (relatively) moderate Republicans to pass a clean budget through the House with Democratic support, Boehner knows the price of doing so would be his ouster as leader of the band.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Here’s where things get really scary. October 17th is the approximate deadline to raise the ‘debt ceiling’ – the limit on how much money the US Treasury can borrow to pay the government’s expenses. The US federal government has run a deficit in every budget passed since 2001, which means that the amount of debt owed by the government to creditors is continuously increasing.[4]

Once or twice each year – 77 times since 1962[5] – Congress goes through the theatrics of arguing, bemoaning and occasionally haggling over the state of the government’s debt – and then they vote to raise the debt ceiling, so the government can continue to borrow money.

This must be done again by (approximately) October 17th. Were Congress to not raise the debt ceiling, the federal government would either have to drastically and immediately curtail spending, or temporarily stop paying off its debts – leaving the government in default on its loans.

This has never happened before, so it’s hard to say exactly what the consequences will be – but for certain the government’s credit rating would drop and it would become more expensive for the government to borrow money.

Depending how long the default lasts, it could also send America into another recession – and potentially drag down other nations in a cataclysmic economic chain-reaction. At the least, it would be very, very bad for Canada.

The only other alternative is for the president to instruct the Treasury to ignore the debt ceiling and continue borrowing money. Which would be against the law. For which he could be impeached.

How will it all end?

It’s extremely unlikely that Congress will fail to raise the debt ceiling, and when they do so they will probably also pass a ‘continuing resolution’ authorizing the government to borrow enough money to resume full functioning – for a little while. Congress will meanwhile go back to haggling over the budget, and America will stumble drunkenly onward from crisis to crisis.

Speculation is rife that this fiasco may turn the American public against the tea party extremists and usher in a decline in the far right fringe’s political influence – a result so desirable it might make the whole ordeal seem worthwhile.

I fear that this is far too reasonable a response to expect from our flummoxed, contorted cousin, America. Stay tuned.

[1] Except of course the politicians (and other VIPs)! – See Reuters, “Factbox: What happens in a U.S. government shutdown?” –

[2] M.S., “How can Republicans be both safer and more numerous?” –

[3] Robert Costa quoted by Ezra Klein, “Why Boehner doesn’t just ditch the hard right” –

[4] Interest paid on existing debt also increases the amount owed – and there’s a lot owed – and the economic ‘downturn’ following the 2008 Wall Street implosion and bailout ballooned budget deficits dramatically.

[5] Ben Morris, “Q&A: What is the US debt ceiling?” –

Part-Time Faculty Strike Looming

cupe logo

Published 24 March 2014 ~

[Update: CUPE 3908 and Trent have reached a tentative agreement.]

Contract faculty at Trent, also referred to as ‘Sessional,’ ‘Adjunct’ or part-time faculty, have been working without a contract since September, 2013. Due to lack of progress in contract negotiations with the university, they will be in position to legally strike as early as March 28th.

Negotiations continue, but according to Stephen Horner, president of the contract faculty’s union CUPE 3908 and a member of the negotiating team, substantial differences continue to stand in the way of an agreement.

Under labour law, these part-time faculty have been working under the terms of their previous agreement since its expiry. They are currently among the lowest paid faculty in the province – more than 10% lower than the provincial average.

To put this in real dollar terms, contract faculty represented by CUPE are limited to teaching 1.5 credits of courses per year, for which they are paid a maximum of $18,000. These faculty, most of whom have PhDs or are in the process of completing PhDs, must often hold down simultaneous contracts at multiple universities just to make a living wage.

Currently there are roughly 250 contract faculty at Trent, teaching approximately 25-30% of the courses offered here. These courses account for $28,000,000 in incoming revenue for the university.

The rest are taught by permanent faculty who make a dramatically higher hourly wage than their part-time peers – as much as 3x higher for tenured faculty, in addition to many other benefits contract faculty do not have access to.

(Graduate student Teaching Assistants belong to Unit 2 of CUPE 3908. Their separate employment contract will expire in August.)

Whereas permanent faculty, represented by the Trent University Faculty Association (TUFA), have relative job security, contract faculty are only hired on a semesterly basis, and must re-apply for jobs every term.

Trent’s current labour agreement with TUFA calls for replacing only half of all tenured faculty retirees – so the proportion of classes taught by contract faculty is virtually guaranteed to steadily increase, as it has at other universities.

According to the union, Trent’s negotiators’ were asking contract faculty to accept a net freeze on wages, which means that any salary increases (even to match annual inflation) would have to be offset by cuts to their existing negotiated benefits. Contract faculty’s existing benefits already amounts to less than 1% of total compensation, whereas the average for public sector employees’ negotiated benefits is around 20%, and the average for other employees of Trent between 20-30%.

To put this in real numbers again, contract faculty can only receive a maximum of $600 in annual health benefits – for themselves and any spouses or children they may have. That’s drastically less than even full-time students can claim under their TCSA-negotiated health benefits plan.

Contract faculty’s current Health Benefits Fund has a maximum annual budget of only $30,000 – for all of its 250 members. Once that fund is exhausted, no more claims can be made. The university proposed a further reduction of this fund by 17% – to $25,000.

Contract faculty’s wages are also not indexed to the rate of inflation, so a net freeze would actually amount to a 1-2% pay cut every year.

Trent’s Operating Budget for 2013-14 – totalling over $91,000,000 – included a projected $2,293,000 increase in the wages of instructional faculty. Contract faculty’s wages currently account for just over 5% of the budget total and only 10% of total faculty salary cost.

The university proposed in negotiations an increase of $16,600 in total compensation for all part-time CUPE faculty – total, not per person. The union countered with a proposal of 3%, which would amount to just over 15% of the already budgeted increases to faculty wages.

A 3% increase (which after inflation would actually be less than 2%) for all part-time contract faculty would cost $150,000. According to CUPE, Trent already saves more than that for every retiring tenured faculty replaced with part-time instructors earning a fraction of the retirees’ wages: “savings […] for each full-time faculty member replaced by part-time faculty exceeds $150,000.” Under the previously stated agreement, half of all retiring faculty will be replaced in this manner.

The vast majority of funds slated for faculty wage increases will go to full-time faculty, under an agreement already negotiated by TUFA. Meanwhile, Trent’s new incoming President alone will likely make over $300,000, before benefits. Compensation for senior administrators at Trent is slated to increase by an average of 4.5% annually.

Faced with this disparity, contract faculty voted resoundingly (92%) in favour of a mandate empowering their bargaining team to call a strike should the university and union negotiators be unable to reach an acceptable agreement. That doesn’t mean there will be a strike – it just makes that a possibility.

Mindful of the chronic underfunding affecting all publicly-funded educational institutes, Horner suggested the union’s modest demands need to understood in the context of a larger struggle to resist the increasing use of ‘part-time’ or ‘casual’ workers making dramatically less than the full-time employees they’re replacing. The university should not be trying to save money by short-changing already precariously employed workers.

Many of the issues still to be resolved are not about wages, but rather workload and access to marking support on par with what’s available to full-time faculty. According to Horner: “on a per-student basis, we receive less than a quarter of the teaching and marking support that is provided to our tenure-track colleagues.” The union demands that faculty doing the same work be given access to the same level of support, regardless of union status.

Issues like these affect the quality of students’ learning environment and their education. Professors forced to take on more and more work on multiple university campuses have less time to spend with students, to provide detailed feedback or to make themselves available in person.

Low wages and restrictions on the number of courses they can teach also means the university has trouble retaining outstanding faculty members, a problem Horner says the university has at least acknowledged.

At the time of publication, the university has not responded to a request for comment on the ongoing negotiations and the prospect of an imminent strike. The administration’s last public comment spoke of “significant progress … on a number of outstanding language and monetary issues.”

Horner cautiously agreed with this sentiment, allowing there’s been “good progress on a number of issues and […] some productive discussions on those that remain.” Both parties appear to remain optimistic that a negotiated settlement can still be reached – hopefully without any interruption of the academic semester.


Who’s a Contract Faculty member?

A Familiar Face in CUPE 3908


Michael Eamon, Principal of Lady Eaton College, is also a contract faculty member. He has a PhD and MA from Queen’s University and an M.Phil from Cambridge University in England, where he studied the history and philosophy of science. He is past editor of the history of science journal Scientia Canadensis. As a contract faculty, counting all the hours he actually puts into teaching courses and engaging with the students in them, Eamon estimates he makes less than minimum wage.

Software Tips to Help You Rock Your Education

Published 9 September 2013 ~

Screenshot of Evernote for Software Article SMALL

Software’s somewhere in the running for the least sexy topic I could possibly write about, so I’ll assume if you’re reading this it’s not for the titillation factor – you want to learn how to be a better, more effective student. Learning to use the tools mentioned here can help you get your life organized, avoid the distractions that are every student’s worst enemy, and save your bacon when the sh*t hits the fan.

Get Organized

Note Taking

More than likely your first reaction to Evernote will be to wonder what all the fuss is about. That was my reaction too until I realized the vast potential and capabilities of this cross-platform note taking/organization tool. Now I use it to save content from the web, store and organize important files, write down those ephemeral and spontaneous ideas wherever and whenever they occur, take pictures of random awesomeness, annotate images and PDFS – its potential uses are nearly limitless.

That’s not to say it will please every user: as with Apple’s iconic products, making the most of Evernote’s rich capabilities hinges on whether you can adapt yourself to its particular ways of doing things. Given its very low learning curve, though, your future self will thank you for taking the time to figure it out – it’s the best program of its kind, and you’ll likely find its usefulness grows the more you use it.

OneNote, part of the Microsoft Office suite, is perhaps the most comprehensive and flexible solution for serious digital note-takers, particularly if you take handwritten notes using a stylus. It too has it’s legions of devotees – particularly among students – and I’m finally starting to appreciate why. You can clip and embed virtually anything into a Note, including audio, video, emails, images and spreadsheets, and it’s now been more completely integrated into the Office ecosystem, meaning you can easily swap contact back and forth between OneNote and Word, PowerPoint, Excel and the rest.

The interface is structured just like a physical notebook would be, but the major advantage (apart from portability and the fact that your notes are synchronized across all your devices) is that everything you put in a note is indexed and searchable. OneNote definitely seems perfectly made for the task of keeping track of all of those concepts and ideas scribbled (or snapshotted) during lectures – that’s how I’ll be using it this year.

Document and Reference Managers

There’s something about the idea of a reference manager that first year students have difficulty appreciating. Perhaps the fluidly hyperlinked nature of the web makes the idea of keeping track of your sources quaint and antiquated, but trust me on this: you will not make it through university – much less land a professional career – without learning how to be rigourous and exact in documenting the sources of your ideas and written work.

Thankfully there’s tools that have been specially designed to make this otherwise daunting-task easy. Evernote and OneNote are good at clipping information from the web, but when you get to upper-year classes and find your syllabi packed with dozens of sources, many of them PDFs, you’ll appreciate having a tool that can corral all that information into some semblance of order. Check out Zotero, Mendeley and Papers. I prefer the former but they’re all capable of getting the job done. The library recommends using RefWorks, but unlike the previously mentioned programs it doesn’t store copies of the actual documents themselves, just references to where they can be found. Zotero and Mendeley also make it easy to send documents back and forth to your iPad/tablet.

Mind Mapping/Information Graphing

As a Humanities student I never found much use for mind-mapping/relationship-graphing software, but now that I’m in Computer Science I suspect I’ll find more use for them. There’s dozens of options in this category, and since I have no personal experience with them I’ll just point you to some reputable sources that can help you find the right one for you: check out LifeHacker’s “Five Best Mind Mapping Tools”.



University’s a great opportunity to have lots of sex, party immoderately and do other outlandish things you’ll later tell your kids about, but if you’re looking to come out of this with a degree at the end you do eventually need to get down to work, and when you do, it’s crucial that you keep those cute cat video study breaks to a minimum. Take 5 when you need to, but make sure that 5 minute break doesn’t stretch out to 40 minutes or 5 hours – your future self will want to kick your procrastinating present self’s ass.

Distraction-Free Writing

Unfortunately our world’s become an opium-den of potential distractions, so you may find some of the following programs useful to keeping you on track. There’s a whole genre of ‘zenware’ writing programs designed to help you shut out the rest of the world and just focus on what you need to do: write! They all have similar functionality, so choose whichever you like that’s available for your operating systems. FocusWriter is a fully-featured and free option available for Mac, Windows, and Linux, as is TextRoom. WriteMonkey, Q10 and ZenWriter ($9.95) are Windows only, while WriteRoom and iA Writer cater to the Mac, iPad, iPhone crowd.

Finally, for the serious writer, Scrivener (the program I used to write this) is a specialized writing suite designed to help you organize and structure long pieces of writing, whether they be essays, dissertations or novels – and it also includes a distraction free full-screen mode. It’s not free, but if you’re entering a field where you’ll be expected to produce lengthy, complicated essays or a thesis, I highly recommend checking it out.

Music Without Words

I’m serious – check out contemporary classical, symphonic metal, ambient, whatever works for you and keeps your mind stimulated but not distracted. It’s not going to help you if you’re singing along to your favourite catchy lyrics. You need music to zone in to.

Time Trackers

I’ve you’re really having trouble staying on task, you may nee to resort to more drastic measures. First you need to identify where your time is being wasted. This might seem obvious, but it’s not uncommon to come to the end of the day having achieved little of what you set out to do, without a clear idea of where that time was spent. A time tracking app such as RescueTime acts as your own personal watchman, keeping track of exactly how much time you spend in each application and on each website you visit, and gives you detailed reports of how much time you spent productively and unproductively.

Just as a personal trainer can keep you motivated to hit the gym even when you’d rather stay in bed, simply having a program monitor your behaviour and quantify exactly how much time you spent watching cat videos may be enough in itself to help you stay on track.

If that’s not enough to curb your time-wasting habits, the pro version of RescueTime, the Chrome add-on Time Warp and many similar programs can be as hard a taskmaster as you need them to be – even blocking access to the sites you waste the most time on. Ultimately, if you’re determined to waste away your day no program can stop you from doing so, but if all you need are some helpful reminders – or more forceful nudges – to get back to work, time trackers can be very helpful.

Back It Up!

I assume that as rational beings you all have a redundant backup system for your important documents already in place. No? Then that’s your #1 priority before you do anything else in university.

Dropbox, SkyDrive and the like are nice, but I prefer something a bit more advanced, like SpiderOak – these allow you to keep multiple folders in sync so that you don’t need to keep all your current works in progress in your Dropbox or, worse, try to remember to save occasional backups to your email like I did in my first undergrad. It’s also end-to-end encrypted so no one can read your files (unless your computer’s been compromised). Most premium backup/sync services also keep a version history of your documents in case you ever need to see any earlier version of a document you’re working on.

For those with more than one work computer, BitTorrent Sync is the latest and greatest way to keep all your files and folders synchronized across multiple computers. It’s also encrypted, and uses the peer-to-peer (p2p) BitTorrent protocol so your files sync directly, without passing through anyone else’s servers. It’s still in early Beta stage, but I’m using it on a regular basis and so far have not experienced any glitches.

Remember that none of these options are fail-safe, particularly if you’re only keeping your documents on one computer and the cloud. The best, safest practice is to use these services but also perform regular backups to an external hard drive or USB stick.