Sunshine and students

There are three semesters at the Balsillie School, and across Canada. The Autumn term starts in September and ends just before Christmas; the Winter term is from January to April; and we are completing the Spring term which lasts from May to July. The terms are longer than in the UK and Europe at 12 weeks.

I taught two courses in the Spring and will teach two in the Autumn. Next calendar year (January 2020 to December 2020), I am on sabbatical and am very much looking forward to this. This is the first time I have been in Waterloo for the Spring term, and while it might have begun as spring it ended as summer – which is the one term we do not have. My word it was hot and humid for weeks at a time. Fortunately there were occasional thunderstorms that roiled across the region and brought some relief.

It has been very hot across much of Europe as well. We have a friend who has been in hospital in Norwich for some weeks now. The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital was opened in 2001. It was built on a greenfield site near the University, which means that UEA is able to offer medical degrees which was not the case when I was a student. It replaced a Victorian establishment in the centre of the city.

The new hospital is ‘state of the art’, except that there is no air-conditioning! This is OK for 10 months of the year. When there is a heatwave, as there was in July, it means that everyone from the consultants to the patients really suffers. It is miserable and sadly I don’t think there is any way that AC can be retrofitted into the building. The other major problem is that the hospital is not easy for the public to get to. It is an expensive and inconvenient bus journey, while those who drive have to pay car parking charges.

It has been an interesting term. On Mondays I had six students taking my elective course on the Economic Development, with case studies heavily drawn from HIV and AIDS. On Tuesdays all the Masters in Public Policy students (15 this year) did the Interdisciplinary Seminar. I treated it as a professionalization programme. This means they have had guest lecturers talking on a range of subjects from writing policy briefs to public speaking to negotiating skills.

These students are mostly destined for the policy world, so this makes sense for them. Bascially, I asked myself what I would have wanted to know when I started work as a Planning Officer in Botswana. Many of the topics are still as valid today as they were then. There was one topic that is not, and this came as a surprise to me. Mind you if I had thought about it, it would have been evident.

The Ministry of Finance and Development Planning in Gaborone had an extensive registry where files were kept. There were mountains of papers and, in theory, all decisions could be traced and were documented through memos and notes. I thought the art of recording and filing would be useful for the students, but the world has changed. The Freedom of Information Acts in many countries now mean that anyone has the right to access files. As a result people are very much more careful about what they record and how it is kept. That section of my knowledge is now redundant and consigned to the archive, assuming there is one.

Because I was not here for the previous two terms and this is a one year course I did not have an opportunity to get to know the students before I taught them. The last class was on the 30th July when they presented their policy briefs. I had three colleagues attend the event, which took just over two and a half hours. I was absolutely delighted by the students’ presentations. They were well thought through and quite compelling – I asked them to write on issues that mattered to them and they all did. It seems they can do convincing work, and it was not just the words but also the PowerPoints and their verbal presentations including the body language.

These briefs need to be written up and submitted so I can mark them. I will also have six essays to grade, then the academic year will be over. This cohort of students now graduate and enter the job market. A few have places to go, including unpaid internships in different parts of the world. This upsets me as I think it is exploitative. I am not at all sure what the destinations will be for the rest of them and the Balsillie School does not seem to follow up on the alumi.

What was really interesting about the policy briefs was that although the subjects were varied and depressing there was optimism. There were 15 presentations, one for each student. Subjects included the decline in pollinating insects; India’s national water shortage; obesity in Mexico; the inability of Ontario to react to forest fires at night (the water bombers can’t fly); electricity generation in Namibia; and toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, to name just some of them. I guess identifying the problem is the first step to solving it. I also believe, if you are in your early twenties, you have to be optimistic, after all, in all probability, most of your life is ahead of you.

The political situation continues to be a major source of concern. Who would ever have believed that Boris Johnson would end up as the Prime Minister of the UK. Of course one of the immediate impacts of this is that the pound is going down the tubes. This means that my career of collecting pensions in various parts of the world seems like hedging and was sensible. It was not, however, planned that way.

I shall, in due course, get a Canadian academic pension, my South African University pension, a small British civil service pension and about £12 per year from the Swedish Government for consultancy work I did for them decades ago. I am glad about this as I am extremely concerned about the direction of travel of most political groups and governments, including that of South Africa.

In Canada, Ontario has a government under the leadership of Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. There is nothing progressive about this party. They are attacking University funding. The Centre for International Governance Innovation, the other group funded by Jim Balsillie, and our landlords, have just had to lay 21 people off because of a major cut to their budget. This is a harsh lesson about being too dependent on one source of funding. I was particularly upset to see one of the computer technicians and a receptionist made redundant, both were really nice and helpful people.

Films

There are some really nice but not very popular cinemas in Waterloo. I went to see a superb comedy a few weeks ago. Late Night stars Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling. Thompson plays a late nice TV host with an acerbic attitude and a writing staff of exclusively white men, who have been working her for years. She is compelled to employ Indian-origin Kaling, and the story goes from there. It is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time and was very funny indeed. There were many lessons in it for everyone. The comedy was sometimes black but was sustained to the very end.

Books

I have not done so well with books. I battled through Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, a 2018 book by Beth Macy. This describes how the devastating opioid crisis spread in America. The New York Times describes it as:

“a harrowing, deeply compassionate dispatch from the heart of a national emergency”

I strongly recommend this book to anyone concerned with the Trump world and post capitalism. The depth of compassion is quite remarkable.

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