The plastic brain

Dr. Norman Doidge
Dr. Norman Doidge

At Centennial College where I work in Toronto, this past week, I faced new students, people with different destinations than my students last fall. As I asked them about their aspirations for the course I was about to teach, one asked about what I do. In passing, I mentioned I’d be interviewing a doctor who believes the human brain can change, adapt, and even heal itself. Curious, I asked the class if anyone had ever had a traumatic brain experience.

“When I was young, I had a stroke,” one student said. “It took away my speech. I couldn’t talk.”

I nodded that her current speech suggested a full recovery. “What happened? How did your speech come back?”

“They taught me Italian,” she said. “I didn’t know a word of it. But in learning the Italian I got my English speech back.”

Handling the handlers

Toronto mayoral candidates (l-r) Doug Ford, Olivia Chow and John Tory.
Toronto mayoral candidates (l-r) Doug Ford, Olivia Chow and John Tory.

She started looking and listening from the moment she entered the room. Almost as if she were a bomb-sniffing canine, she was casing the space in which Olivia Chow was about to participate in a mayoral debate, Monday evening. I was the moderator and introduced myself. She had a raft of questions about where Ms. Chow would be sitting during the debate, and what the order of speaking would be. Then, just before her candidate entered the room, the handler approached me with one final question.

“How will Olivia know when her speaking time is up?” the woman asked me. “Have you got signs to count her down to the end of her time?”

“No.” I said. “I’ll just tell her she’s got 30 seconds left.”

“I really think you ought to have visual signs for her,” she insisted.

“Don’t worry. I’ve moderated a lot of debates. I don’t think we need visual signals. I’ll just find an appropriate moment, a breath pause in Olivia’s comments, and I’ll gently say, ‘Thirty seconds.’ It should work just fine.”

My “famous” friend

Howard Walker never considered himself a wartime hero. But he was to a lot of Centennial College students.
Howard Walker never considered himself a wartime hero. But he was to a lot of Centennial College students. (Photo courtesy Matthew Wocks.)

With some people I know, there are delicious rituals enjoyed when we meet after not seeing each other for a while. For some it’s a real bear hug or a genuine slap on the back. With others it’s a heart-felt handshake. Then, there is one friend with whom I’ve established a unique greeting, in this case an exchange on the telephone. Depending upon who’s calling whom, our phone conversations always began the same way.

“Is this the famous Ted Barris?” he would ask.

To which I’d respond, “Is this the famous Howard Walker?”

Why we teach

Each spring, when students graduate, those of us who teach get to share their sense of accomplishment.
Each spring, when students graduate, those of us who teach get to share their sense of accomplishment.

It came out of the blue. I hadn’t really expected to hear from this former student ever again. But there she was, contacting me by email several years later. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. The college year is just about done (as are we the instructors at the college done in more ways than one). But her words made all the tough teaching moments of the year evaporate in an instant.

“I’m not sure if this will reach you,” she said. “I just wanted to say thank you for not giving up on me and giving me more determination than I could have imagined.”

Janet was one of those college students for whom nothing ever came easily. Whenever my colleagues at Centennial College and I asked Janet and some of her classmates to come up with story ideas, it often proved as difficult as teaching them to swim in deep water. Then, there was the problem of finding sources for her stories; nobody was ever available and none of the leads we offered seemed to yield the information she needed. In addition, there was always plenty of adolescent angst swirling around her as she battled to balance schoolwork with life.

And deadlines always loomed large for her; there was more than one occasion when just one more extension for delivery of the news story was one concession I wasn’t prepared to give and she wasn’t prepared to lose. As her editor, I found that Janet required attention and coaching nearly 24/7. But she eventually passed the course. She went on to enroll in yet another course in corporate communications and public relations and she eventually landed a permanent job in the public service sector.

That’s not to say that teaching young people is ever totally rosy. This past winter semester proved a trial for a lot of my fellow journalism instructors and their students. Many more students than I care to tabulate had psychological difficulties, including such illnesses as attention deficit, depression and even post-traumatic stress. A number of our students had to cope with oppressive home situations – perpetrated by a dominant parent, a troubled sibling or sometimes even an out-of-control roommate.

More and more these days, the problems of the home end up in the classroom and those of us who’ve emigrated from being journalists to teaching journalism are not always up-to-date on the latest effective techniques for dealing with student psychoses or trauma.

I guess my least favourite moment involved an undergraduate student (not Janet), studying both university level academics and journalism at the same time. She was struggling with a news story about a long-standing strike in Toronto. I had suggested to her, in order to deliver the perspectives of both management and labour in her story, that she ought to go to a corporate representative for the management view and then to walk the picket line to listen to average employees explain their side of the story.

“That seems like an awful lot of work,” she said.

“Journalism is often like that,” I said. “You wear out a lot of shoe leather trying to get close to the subjects of your story.”

“But I’m just here for the marks,” she said. “I don’t want to be a journalist. I want to go on to law school.”

I didn’t quite know how to answer that one. But if she was paying attention, the young woman must have sensed my frustration at trying to steer her in the right direction only to learn she was only studying journalism like a minor subject and really just wanted the quickest way out.

In truth, we teachers often complain among ourselves. But what helps those (who’ve been teaching many more years than I) come back to the front of the lecture hall or the classroom semester after semester, is the hope that among the freshmen in the class will be gems in the rough.

As some of you know, I’m a stickler for the proper use of language. Just ask my daughters or my writing students. Some call me a “CP Style fanatic.” All journalism in Canada begins with the “Canadian Press Stylebook” for proper spellings, grammatical forms, rules of punctuation, structure for quoting sources, methods of attributing interviewees and when to use abbreviations and when not. The smaller version of the 500-page CP Stylebook is a companion volume called “CP Caps and Spelling” for thumbnail references to all the correct English usage in Canadian journalism. For some, including my former student Janet, coping with the rigid rules of language was never easy. But as she concluded her email to me last week she paid me the ultimate compliment.

“I am now the content manager for (a large Canadian charity,)” she said. “Sitting on my desk … are my Stylebook and Caps and Spelling. I use (them) every day.”

Sometimes, it’s the small victories that mean the most.

Friend in need

Mustafa Ahmed in a spoken word performance. Photo SpeakOutPoetry.

Five days from now, he and a lot of young people in Canada will wrap up their summer holidays. They’ll all be putting away their T-shirts, cut-offs and flip-flops and starting to wear school shirts and pants again. Instead of baseball gloves or tennis rackets, they’ll all be carrying their smart phones and backpacks full of textbooks again. Only this teenager I met from Toronto’s inner city, last week, has something in addition to school on his mind.

“There are friends out there who bring real benefit to your life,” he said this week, “and there are friends who don’t. It’s important to know who your real friends are.”

When heroes let you down

Dr. Allan Dafoe and the Dionne quintuplets on display at Corbeil, Ontario, in May of 1934

It was a new idea at the time. In the late 1990s, students in college were certainly used to attending classes during which experts lectured them. But perhaps not quite the way I envisioned such a thing. I was interested in having the journalism and broadcasting students I teach at Centennial College meet contemporary media figures, who were highly visible in the profession. One of the first to agree to come to engage my students was quite eager.

“I truly enjoy, and still feel flattered when I’m asked to chair a symposium, referee a debate, or give a speech,” she told me in March 2000.

My guest speaker was Pamela Wallin.

Peace, order and good information, please

Centennial College in Toronto recently asked me to organize a roundtable discussion during several days of lectures, study and debate on human rights. I agreed and have approached several acquaintances of mine in the federal civil service to participate. I was hopeful, in one case, that an expert on federal law might join the roundtable to offer a Canadian perspective.

“I’d love to, Ted,” he said. “But I’ve been told not to speak publicly on anything.”

“Not you too,” I responded. “Not like the scientists.”

Work and loyalty

The original “Barris Beat” my father wrote as a staff columnist for Toronto newspapers. But he preferred freelance, non-staff work most of his writing career.

The other night just before I gave a presentation to a historical group in north Toronto, a number of people with the volunteer organization were recognized for their service. In particular, the group recognized a woman who had served the Richmond Hill Historical Society as its secretary.

“Mrs. Monkman is leaving her position,” the president said, “after 26 years of service to the society.”

Leading change with kindness

June Callwood worked as a professional freelance writer for 66 years. "It's All About Kindness," a new book, offers reflections on her care and concern for others. Photo by David Henderson.

On days such as Victoria Day, and its anachronistic connection to life in 2012, I wonder about how change happens. Is it just the passage of time that helps us recognize that monarchs are people too? Is it just greater access to information that brings down a Berlin Wall? Is it just mellowing that makes a Toronto mayor realize gay lifestyle is a fact of life? Well, yes, time, knowledge and acclimatizing help. But change happens because some push to make it happen. Or, as writer June Callwood observed during a 2002 lecture:

“The profession of journalism enjoys its finest moments when it speaks against oppression and greed.”

More than bookworms

TWUC authors (l-r) Greg Hollingshead and Susan Swan as well as library rep Michael Smith hold high the books they treasure at the reference library demo on Sunday.

Towards the end of last Sunday’s Books ‘n’ Brunch event, staged by Shelley Macbeth and her Blue Heron Books staff, I turned to the audience. I had been interviewing successful crime writer, Giles Blunt, author of six books featuring fictitious Canadian detective John Cardinal. Having asked all my questions, I invited some from the audience. One of the first questions came from a librarian from Sandford. The second came from a former librarian in town. It occurred to me that in a room of about hundred avid readers, a goodly number of those in attendance had served in the libraries of local schools and branches of our public library.

When author Blunt later commented on the quality of the audience’s questions, I pointed out how arts focused and well read this community is.

“We’ve got something like 25 or 30 book clubs here,” I told him. “And it’s probably no surprise that at the heart of those clubs are current or former librarians.”