Quest toward a new kind of university

"Squamish Chief" by Flickr user BigA888

I’m not going to lie, I originally signed up for an autumn weekend in Squamish, B.C. because, well … have you ever seen  pictures of Squamish, B.C.? It’s I-must-be-hallucinating stunning out there.

But scenery aside, the real point is that a small group of Green College residents (myself included) will venture up to Squamish on October 1st to meet Quest University‘s first graduating class.

In case your eyebrow just shot up, no worries, I had never heard of Quest University before today. More importantly, I’d never heard of a Canadian post-secondary school like Quest either.

Turns out it’s Canada’s very first independent, not-for-profit, nonsectarian university of the liberal arts and sciences.

It offers only one degree, a Bachelors of Arts and Sciences, and has been specifically designed to challenge the mass model (or diploma factory) style that many universities employ. (And the only kind I’ve ever attended, by the by.)

Quest undergrad students have had 20 person classes for their entire post-secondary career. I didn’t have classes that small in my fourth year seminars at York University. They also focus on one topic area at a time instead of balancing five different courses every semester.

We’re going to talk to Quest students about “interdisciplinary pathways inside and outside the academy,” as Green College principal Mark Vessey so eloquently put it. We’re also going to eat, hike and hang with them. I kind of wonder what the catch is, seriously.

“Quest U is a radical experiment in post-secondary education, not without affinities with Green College,” Vessey explained in an email invite. It was founded in 2002 by former University of British Columbia president Dr. David Strangway, who was also one of the founders of Green College.

As a member of the mass-educated crew, I’m excited to spend some time with students who have never made “just a number” jokes or devoted expletive-laden Facebook groups to hating their school.

Are they mountain-top flower children or trail-blazing academics? Stay tuned…

Check out the comments below for a bit of nuance!

The Urban Aboriginal Community Kitchen Garden Project

A lot of people depend on the garden 52 weeks of the year–because even if we’re not growing anything, they come out to get a piece of nature, see the eagles, listen to the coyotes howl, have lunch, get connected with themselves and go back home–Mary Holmes, Program Coordinator.

I’m currently working on a multi-media package about this half-acre of fertile land at the UBC farm. The project aims to shrink the distance between the garden and the grocery store, placing special emphasis on celebrating aboriginal traditions around food within an urban community.

I thought I’d post up this short overview by Lemongrass media, as I think it does a great (and gorgeous!) job of representing the project.

By the end of the week, Lewis and I will be adding to the conversation with a text story, a slideshow, a video and a special secret menu.

Robertson wants citizens to lead way with city’s open data

Mayor Robertson wants to be more open-handed with city data || Photo by Flickr user kk+ //BY-NC-SA

Vancouver’s mayor says he doesn’t know where his city’s open-data policy will lead. He expects you and your fellow citizens to help show the way.

“The overall frame here is that we don’t really know exactly where this is going and we shouldn’t pretend to,” said Gregor Robertson as part of a panel discussion today during Open Data + Culture Day at W2, the independent social media hub located in Vancouver’s lower eastside. “We want to open it up, we want to make it possible for people to develop these next steps and encourage that.”

The panel — which included Coun. Andrea Reimer, techno-anthropologist Jon Husband and David Eaves, a technology blogger and mayoral advisor on open government — was held to swap ideas on citizen engagement, digital media and remix culture.

Reimer proposed the city’s open-data policy, approved in May, which among other things allows people access to certain city-collected data and city-created software.

Reimer added: “The number one business of the city of Vancouver is collecting, analyzing and responding to data… If the tremendous collection of data, paid for by tax dollars, is inaccessible, expensive or unusable, “there is no way that you can run a representative democracy.”

When citizens make use of information, the results may be minute, like setting up email reminders of garbage day, or momentous, like modelling sea level rise in Vancouver.

Eaves said it “isn’t just about applications, it’s also about citizens analyzing what their city is doing.”

All the panelists agreed that ordinary people can and should be involved in crafting solutions for the future. Mayor Robertson added that politicians must keep in mind the platforms on which citizens voted, striking an appropriate balance between elected leadership and community contribution.

This morning’s panel discussion, however, was not opened up to the ordinary people in the audience, though some attendees did have questions.

“Who’s collecting the data?” asked Gillian Young, who has been sleeping in the Olympic tent city nearby. She also wanted to know who and what was being counted, emphasizing the importance of collecting stories that inform hard numbers.

The Open Data + Culture Day began at 10 a.m. and caps off with an open-source-sensory mash-up party tonight.

The Tyee recently described W2 as “a red-hot node of influence and information, providing a space for non-accredited journalists, writers, tweeters and bloggers to expand the Olympics overview past the corporate hype.”

Check out corresponding video by Justin Langille, embedded in original post

Low-income B.C. seniors lose homes to Saturday fire

Their homes went down in flames on Vancouver Island on Saturday, just outside the international media spotlight.

Residents of Kiwanis Village, a housing complex for seniors, were forced to evacuate their homes after a devastating late-night fire in Duncan, B.C. The flames affected one building, or 28 of 90 units, in the four-building complex, leaving many low-income seniors without homes and most of their possessions.

“[The fire] was under control at about 2:30 in the morning,” said Deputy Fire Chief Rob Laver, who received the emergency call at 11:53 p.m. Saturday evening. Forty-five firefighters in four engines promptly arrived on the scene; two sustained minor injuries. Although all the seniors escaped unharmed, they still face uncertainty in the long run.

“We have 27 residents out of the apartment complex long term,” said Dan Derby, general manager of public safety for the Cowichan Region, “We’re trying to develop, with B.C. housing and the Kiwanis Club, a long-term strategy for housing.”

The seniors are currently being housed at two local hotels by the provincial emergency program.

“They were forced out with just the clothes on their back, and some didn’t have any shoes or slippers, so we’re dealing with even the most basic [items] — right down to the toothbrush,” said Dave Clark, president of the Duncan Kiwanis Club, to the CBC. Derby said that the fire department was back at the scene on Sunday, and were able to retrieve a few items, such as walkers and special medical equipment, from the lesser-damaged units.

The investigation to determine the cause of the fire begins today.

“I suspect that at the end of the week we’ll have a definite answer,” said Laver. “At this point if anybody wants to help they can contact the [Duncan] Kiwanis club.” He added that what they really need are “27 rooms for the long term.”

Searchlight artist calls own project ‘obscene’

Click above to watch the video at

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, the artist behind the prominent searchlight art installation that is currently illuminating the Vancouver skyline, has called his own project “obscene” given the projected cuts to provincial arts funding.

“As I do this project and I learn more about the dire situation of the arts in B.C., I’m outraged by the complete lack of vision that has been expressed for after the Olympics,” said Lozano-Hemmer.

Lozano-Hemmer’s installation, on display from Feb. 4 to Feb. 28, was commissioned by the 2010 Cultural Olympiad and the City of Vancouver.

The B.C. Liberals are expected to slash core provincial arts funding by more than 88 per cent over two years, to $2.25 million in 2010-’11 from $19.5 million in 2008-’09.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Lozano-Hemmer of the cuts. “This is important not just economically, because culture brings in a net worth, but also in terms of quality of life.”

Yesterday Stop BC Arts Cuts posted footage of Lozano-Hemmer in which the artist makes several critical statements.

Such comments from contracted artists are infrequent, likely due to a contentious clause in their VANOC contract: “The artist shall at all times refrain from making any negative or derogatory remarks respecting VANOC, the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Olympic movement generally, Bell and/or other sponsors associated with VANOC.”

But the artist’s public comments are no slip-up.

Lindsay Brown, a representative with Stop BC Arts Cuts, said Lozano-Hemmer was enthusiastic about putting the footage online. “He definitely meant to make these statements,” she said.

“I don’t know why Rafael decided to speak out, except that I guess he may have felt that his international stature gives him the security to do so,” said Brown, who explained that Lozano-Hemmer made the comments without prompting.

And the artist didn’t mince words: “It’s very romantic, I know, but I hope the Olympics will reactivate the dull minds that are running this province into giving money to the arts,” he said.

The footage of Lozano-Hemmer was shot after his speech at the CODE: Dialogue conference at Emily Carr University, during which he addressed several public arts students.

Lozano-Hemmer’s reference to 9-11 in the video is in response to a criticism that his project is “an environmental 9-11” because it uses so much energy, a point he contests in the full transcript, available here.

Schooling Ignatieff on talking to University Students

Image from Michael Ignatieff's Flickr photostream

Before I say anything about Michael Ignatieff, I should mention that I’m not a Liberal. Neither do I shroud myself in Conservative blue, NDP orange, or Green–uh–green.

(This doesn’t mean that I don’t have political opinions, but more on that later.)

Still, when Mr. Ignatieff comes to UBC campus on January 15, I’m willing to head to the Norm Theatre to hear the man out.

Young people don’t exactly vote in droves, and some say it’s a risk to focus on us, since “a tour such as this one might not be as prominent or as interesting to the media” (see Rebooting Michael Ignatieff). And, I admit: I find it interesting that Iggy is about to tour the country to talk to students, specifically, and that he’s targeting campuses at this crucial time.)

Those born after 1979 are probably used to being called cynical, apathetic, disaffected or simply too self-absorbed to follow federal politics and periodically make our way to a ballot box. But I think we deserve a bit more credit than that. If we had a Facebook relationship status with Canadian politics, I’m sure it’d be set to “it’s complicated.”

Anecdotally, I feel that the vast majority of my peers do care about several, though often specific, issues…but I do wonder why relatively few of us take active interest in the feds and their antics,… err, actions.

In an attempt to make sense of this disconnect, I’ve read through a report by the Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN).

Are today’s youth indifferent or just different?

Some friends get playful with protest signs. I believe I took this picture in 2007.

The report addresses the question: are today’s youth indifferent or just different? They make a strong case for the latter.

According to CPRN, we are largely indifferent to formal (or big “P”) political institutions and practices because they do not speak to our interests as young people.

Instead, we get involved with various small “p” political initiatives that seem to better reflect our concerns for different local, national and global issues. Compared to previous generation, we’re less likely to be card-carrying partisans and more likely to get civically and politically involved through NGOs or specific causes. Many of our actions are individually based, as opposed to institutionally based.

Unfortunately, our avenues of involvement are barely recognized by traditional research methods and academic discourses, which mostly use traditional definitions of political participation, like voting in Federal elections. The result: we are broadly labelled apathetic, and even we ourselves don’t always identify our choices–like buying fair trade coffee or partying at a gay bar–as political decisions. The CPRN report features this bold statement in their conclusion:

“Youth are not disconnected from politics; it is political institutions, practice and culture that are disconnected from youth.”

But wait, before we congratulate ourselves for doing our own thang, we can’t forget that the big P-people make immense decisions that affect our lives, our nation and our planet. Maybe we don’t engage them because  we’re more accustomed to what Journalist Michael Valpy called a Catch 22 situation:

“… the political parties don’t pay much attention to young people and their concerns because so few of them vote, and possibly one of the reasons why so few young people vote is because the political parties don’t pay much attention to them.”

So, during this tour, will Ignatieff set out to pay attention to us or just to try to get attention from us? We’ll probably know within the first ten minutes of his speech. By the time he gets here, UBC students should expect to see him at his best. (He’ll have plenty of stops along the way to make mistakes.)

Either way, this tour will be an important one for Iggy: monumental for his party if he gets it right, disastrous if he doesn’t. I’m not making any predictions yet, but I do think he needs to start by getting genuinely interested in this generation and seeing us as more than potential Liberals.

So far, I’ve seen him quoted in a Toronto Star article as saying it’s important to “preach to the unconverted” and adding that “University students are the future of Canadian politics and we have to get to them.”

We’re not just the future, Iggy. We’re the present. And if you want us kids to take you seriously, you’d better leave words like “preach” and “get to them” in the past.


Related: Prorogation Provokes Online Uprising
Full story in The Tyee

I think the following except further illustrates the point I tried to make above. The person quoted is Christopher White, a 25-year-old grad student and creator of the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament.

“I am not a card-carrying member of any political party… I have never volunteered for a candidate or party,” White said in an e-mail. “The last rally I went to was five years ago during my undergraduate degree to protest tuition increases.”

He was, however, profoundly frustrated when he learned that Harper had prorogued Parliament for the second time in two years.

“To me, prorogation was indicative of a much larger issue in Canada — of how disconnected many of us are from politics, and how our elected leaders use that to their advantage,” he explained.