Razor-sharp sarcasm and astute criticism pierced a packed Humanities lecture theatre during Tuesday afternoon’s teach-in Reading the Mandate Letters, hosted by the University of Alberta’s Department of English and Film Studies.
In front of two empty chairs draped with posters of Premier Alison Redford and Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education Thomas Lukaszuk, a panel of nine professors picked apart the recently released draft of the provincial government’s letter of expectation, analyzing the document’s language and attempting to unravel its meaning.
The letter of expectation, previously known as a mandate letter, came in the wake of a 7.2 per cent cut to the U of A’s operating grant from the provincial government and includes a series of instructions for the university administration to follow as they navigate through the worst of the budget cuts.
English professor Katherine Binhammer kicked off the event by openly blasting the provincial government as well as the university administration for recent actions taken, which she said have undermined the pedagogical purposes of the institution.
“This government has singled out universities and colleges above every other public institution to attack (in the budget). What is it? Is it scared of an educated populace?” she said.
“This government — and perhaps we can say sometimes the administration of our own university — seems to think knowledge only counts if it can be sold or if it serves business, and we’re here today to educate them on how universities function in a democratic society.”
Each panellist delivered a short analysis of various components of the letter. English professor Dianne Chisholm criticized the letter’s use of coercive rhetoric and hidden meanings, and presented a word cloud of the most frequently used words in the letter’s draft, pointing out that the terms “Alberta” and “campus” were the most prominent, while words such as “creativity,” “thinking” and “democracy” were not featured at all.
“I’d like to stress that as university employees and free agents, we faculty do not buy the idea of Campus Alberta or the idea that our research and teaching are to be valued solely by market indicators,” she said.
“We read the province’s mandate letter against the corporate grain in which it was dicatated, and we read it as an exercise of democratic intervention.”
English professor Cecily Devereux attempted to deconstruct some of the terms used in the letter and devised 10 questions directed at Lukaszuk regarding the Campus Alberta brand.
“The Oxford English Dictionary provides many definitions of the word ‘brand,’ ” Devereux said.
“Does the Campus Alberta brand mean ‘brand’ as in, ‘The mark made by burning with a hot iron?’ Or, ‘A sign or mark ... usually with reference to the practice of branding criminals, conveying the idea of disgrace, stigma, or a mark of infamy?’ ”
Another speaker, English professor Eddy Kent, tackled the importance of language in influencing the world, and emphasized the harm inherent in its misuse.
“In English studies we teach our students about genre and audience — or, at least, I do. This is a letter written by government administrators for university administrators,” he said.
“The university has given us a gift in releasing this document. I think they’ve given us a gift in allowing us to provide feedback for that document — it means we can actually shift the terrain, shift the audience of this letter of expectation.”
The university has asked all interested parties for feedback by April 5.