Category Archives: United States

Self-Help and Sociology

On a recent episode of his video podcast, ze frank made some parallels between “changing your life” and “being perceived by others”: the show with zefrank: most popular.

To me, ze’s ideas connect the sociological perspective on “labeling” (especially in Howie Becker‘s approach) with the notion of “networking for social mobility” in the context of “self-help” or “self-improvement” (typical of U.S.-style Calvinism).

What struck me is that these ideas are quite related to what I perceive to be at stake in much craft beer culture, especially in terms of cultural and social identity.

Defending Quebec's Cegep System

Disclaimer: So far, I’ve taught at six universities and one college in Indiana, Massachusetts, New Brunswick, and Quebec. In Quebec, I’ve taught at Montreal’s Université de Montréal (French-speaking) and Concordia University (English-speaking). This entry is mostly about my teaching experience in Montreal in contrast to my teaching experience in the MidWest and Northeast regions of the United States. Having spent some time in Mali, Switzerland, and France, I do realise that many education systems outside of Canada and the U.S. work pretty much like Quebec’s.

It’s partly my bias as a Québécois, I’m sure. Or it’s the weather. Yet I can’t help but being amazed at how well-prepared my students at both Concordia University and Université de Montréal have been, so far. Though personal characteristics could conceivably play a part, I usually see my Quebec students’ preparedness in relation to the Cegep system that we have here in Quebec.

“So,” I hear you ask, “what is the Cegep system anyway?” Well, it’s the educational system that we have, here in Quebec. It includes Cegeps.


Yeah, I know. 😉

“Cegep” or “CEGEP” (pronounced “sea-jep” or “say-jep”) is a Quebec French acronym which stands for «Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel» (“College of General and Professional Education”). A Cegep is a post-secondary institution («Collège») which serves both as a comprehensive («Général») transitional period between secondary school and university as well as vocational («Professionnel») training («Enseignement») in fields like nursing, robotics, or computer science. People in the U.S. could think of it as a blend of a vocational school, a community college, a prep school, a continuing education program, and a two-year liberal arts college. A Cegep’s degree («diplôme d’études collégiales» or “DEC,” pronounced “deck”) can be compared with things like the French «baccalauréat» or the Swiss «maturité», but less Euro-hierarchical. (Please note that «baccalauréat» (or «bacc.», pronounced “back”) is used in Quebec to refer to the bachelor’s degree.)

Though I haven’t been in direct contact with many Cegep students for quite a while, I find the Cegep system to be one of the best features of the Quebec education system.

Of course, I tend to idealise things a fair bit and I know many people whose opinion of the Cegep system is much less enthusiastic than mine. Still, through both informal and formal discussions with many university students and faculty in Canada, France, Switzerland, and the United States, my positive perspective on the Cegep system keeps being reinforced.

One reason this issue keeps being relevant is that provincial politicians, school board administrators, and some other members of Quebec society occasionally attack the Cegep system for different reasons. On the other hand, I have yet to meet a university professor who has very negative things to say about the Cegep system. They might come out with this blog entry, but it would take a fair bit to get me, as a university instructor, to see Cegeps in very negative a light.

Cegeps were an effect of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution (late 1960s through the 1970s). They’re a somewhat recent phenomenon, so we can’t really see all of their social effects, but have existed for long enough a period of intense social change that they have really taken roots in the fabric of Quebec culture. (I love mixing metaphors! 😉 )

I’m a little bit unclear as to whether or not the requirements have remained the same since my own time as a music student at Cégep Saint-Laurent (1989-1991), but here’s a description in the present tense of how Cegeps worked when I went to one almost twenty years ago. All Quebeckers younger than 21 who wish to go to a university in Quebec need to complete at least two years’ worth of Cegep courses after secondary school (grades 7-11, here). “Professional” (vocational) programs last three years and also work for university requirements if a Cegep graduate wants to go to a university. For those 21 or older, life experience usually counts as equivalent to the Cegep requirement for applying to Quebec universities (at least, that’s the way it was, way back when). Even then, most university applicants go through Cegep even if they are old enough to enter a university program without a DEC as Cegep is an efficient way to prepare for university. Many programs at Quebec universities use representations of Cegep grades (kind of like a normalised GPA) as admission criteria. It wasn’t the case for my B.Sc. in anthropology at Université de Montréal (1991-1994). Unlike the United States where standardised tests are so common, Quebec students don’t take SAT-like general exams before going to university. To an extent, comprehensive training in a Cegep achieves some of the same goals as SAT scores do in the United States.

As far as I know, non-Quebec students need to go through specific requirements before they can begin a Bachelor’s degree at a Quebec university (B.A. and B.S. programs usually last three years, here). I’m not really clear on the details but it implies that even non-Cegep students are specifically prepared to go to university.

Even with students who never went to Cegep, the existence of Cegeps makes a large difference in the Quebec education system as it raises the bar for university behaviour. In Quebec, the kinds of mistakes college students tend to make in their “college years” in the U.S. are supposed to have been done during Cegep years in Quebec. So Quebec’s university students are less likely to make them

Unlike pupils in secondary schools, Cegep students enter a specific study program. On paper, course requirements in a typical Cegep program look quite a bit like freshman and sophomore requirements at a North American university or college outside of Quebec. Students choose their own courses (possibly with an advisor, I can’t remember) and usually get a fair bit of “free” time. At Saint-Laurent, my weekly scheduled only included 15 hours of classes but I also had 15 hours of Big Band rehearsal every week and would usually spend thirty hours of individual instrument practise as well as thirty hours of study every week. Yes, that was a bit much but I feel it really prepared me for an academic career. 😉

The equivalent of “General Education Requirements” in Cegeps include philosophy and physical education courses. The philosophy courses are quite basic but they still prepare students to think about issues which tend to be very important in academic contexts. And, at least in the courses I’ve had at Saint-Laurent, we did read primary texts from important thinkers, like the complete text of Nietzsche’s Zur Genealogie der Moral (translated into French).

As compared to most North American universities, Cegeps charge almost nothing. When I was at Saint-Laurent, we had administrative fees of about $80 and no tuition fees. It has probably changed since that time, but I’m quite sure Cegep fees are nothing like the outrageous tuition fees paid by college and university students in many parts of the United States. What this means to students is that the financial cost of a Cegep program is fairly minimal. Of course, there are many costs associated with going through school during that time. For one thing, a good proportion of Cegep students live in appartments, which can be fairly expensive. And it’s difficult to work full-time while doing a Cegep degree. But, as compared to the typical situation in the U.S., the stakes in dropping a Cegep program or switching to a new one are low enough that students use this time as an opportunity to get to know what they want to do with their lives.

In other words, Cegep students who may look like they’re “wasting their time” are going through the period of socialisation associated with late adolescence in different parts of the world. If, as is quite common, they find out that they don’t necessarily want to get a university degree or that their original degree program was nothing like they planned, they still got something out of their Cegep experience at little cost. Given the functioning costs of universities, such shifts in learning orientation carry very high social and individual costs if they happen in universities. “Wasting” a DEC in Natural Sciences by then moving on to become an artist is nothing as compared to dropping a pre-Med degree to join the Peace Corps. In cases where public funding to universities is important, the difference is extremely significant, socially.

For many people, Cegep is in fact a way to experience student life to see if they like it. As painful as it may be for some academics and prestige-hungry parents to learn, many people don’t really want to spend that many years (and that much money) as college/university students. In fact, there are those brilliant students who, one day, realise that they just want to learn on their own while working as, say, a cashier at a university cafeteria. My guess is that social pressure and diploma prestige are the only reasons such people ever go through post-secondary education in the first place. I also feel that they should have a right to choose the life that they want. You know: “Pursuit of Happiness” and all of that…

As some would be quick to point out, there are some people who spend years and years in Cegeps, unsuccessfully looking for the perfect program for them, and end up working at low-paying jobs all their lives. These may sound like lost souls but I really think that they are more likely to contribute to society as a whole than the equivalent long-term “undecided majors” in U.S. universities.

Because Cegeps’ individual costs are relatively low, Cegep students often do experiment a lot with courses in different fields. It may seem like a stretch but my hunch is that this experimental tendency might be one of the reasons is so productive in creative domains like musical productions and circus shows. If it weren’t for Cegeps, I would never have spent two years of my life in intensive training as a musician. I already (since age 13) that I wanted to become an anthropologist and my DEC in music wasn’t necessary for anything I ever did. But it greatly enhanced my life more than many university programs ever do.

Cegeps often count significant numbers of what U.S. college people tend to call “non-traditional students” (older than the “typical” post-K-12 undergrad). These include fascinating people like mature women who are getting a Cegep degree as part of a life-changing experience (say, after a divorce). Because of this, the average age in a Cegep can be higher than in the typical U.S. graduate school. It also means that Cegep students coming directly from secondary schools are getting accustomed to interacting with people whose life experience may involve parenthood, career development, and long-term personal relationships.

For diverse reasons, Cegeps are the locus of most of the active student movements in Quebec, some of which have led to important strikes and other forms of student protest. Student strikes have had a deep impact in Quebec’s recent history. Not that students have forced long-lasting policy changes by themselves but many members of recent generations of Quebeckers have gotten a taste for political involvement through student protest. Though I was living in Indiana at the time (2004-2005), I have seen important effects of the most recent student strike on some dimensions of Quebec society. At the time, around 200 000 Quebec students went on strike in protest of the provincial government’s changes to the financial aid system. At one point, 100 000 students had taken to the streets to march as part of the student movement. The government eventually backed down on the changes it was implementing and people still talk about the effects of this strike. It is likely that the strike will not have any effect on any specific political party and political scientists would probably say that the strike failed to produce a “political class.” Yet, and this is an important point, the target of the strike wasn’t a political party but a perceived discrepancy between the ideals of two generations. In my personal opinion, such a social movement is much more important than partisan politics. In such a context, it isn’t surprising to see many young Quebeckers become social activists, may it be for environmental causes or to fight some global inequalities. They become like this in Cegeps. Since the majority of secondary school students eventually go to Cegeps, this social involvement has nothing to do with the elitism of “Revolutions” of the early nationalist era. Cegep students are the perfect example of individualistic (one would say «libertaire») social engagement.

Not only are Cegep students socially involved but they are usually considered to be socially mature.

Quite significantly, many young adults in Quebec learn how to drink by the time they finish Cegep. Drinking age is 18 here and people usually start Cegep at age 17. As has been happening in different parts of the world for the longest time, cafés and bars around Cegep and university campuses tend to be important meeting space for students. Coffee is the drink of choice for many students during the day but alcoholic drinks (including craft beer, nowadays) bring students together for long discussions in the evening and nights. Because student alcohol consumption is widely accepted, students never feel the need to hide in residence halls or “greek houses” to enjoy each other’s company.

In such a context, it’s easy to understand why university students in Quebec are very generally seen as responsible adults. In the U.S., I’ve heard both students and professors describe university students of any age as “kids,” a term I find very symptomatic of tricky educational and academic issues. As I see universities as a place to do serious academic work and not as a place for parents to drop their kids until they grow up, I have many reasons to support Quebec’s Cegep system or anything which may achieve the same results. 🙂

Individualism, Freedom, and Food

A surprisingly superficial podcast episode on what could have been a very deep subject.

Open Source » Blog Archive » The End of Free Will?

start a conversation about manipulation, persuasion and freedom from choice

To summarize the main issue of that episode: is marketing and "upselling" by restaurant chains undermining the individual freedom to choose quality food? Apparently simple a question, but billed as much more than that.

Maybe they refrained from delving deeper into any of those issues because philosophical discussions, perhaps aesthetic ones especially, are off limits in "polite company" in U.S. media. Too bad.

Actually, I’m genuinely disappointed. Not necessarily because restaurant chains are very important an issue for me (in Montreal, they don’t seem to have the exact same type of impact and I love to cook). But because the show’s participants all came very close to saying very important things about individualism, food, and freedom. The first two are too rarely discussed, IMHO, and the third could have been the "hook" to discuss the other two.

Ah, well…

If you want to know more about my thoughts on this podcast episode, check out some of the tags below.

France and Higher Ed

[Yet another older draft…]

Choses Vues » Blog Archive » Higher education in France

(That link now leads to a paid article. Here’s another link to the article.) Perhaps typical of NYT pieces these days, this article is rather detailed without being edifying and somewhat provocative without being thought-provoking. It’s also very ethnocentric. Too bad, though, as the issue would merit a thorough analysis. Coming from French-speaking institutions outside of France and currently connected with academic institutions in the U.S., my personal perspective is quite different. Not that the issues with the French system are at all surprising to me. But comparison with the United States doesn’t really bring the issue forward. As Paul says, Scandinavian institutions could provide more interesting models. My experience in Switzerland and Quebec is also significantly different from what is described in the article. Not that any one of those post-secondary educational systems is perfect. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. But post-secondary education is not limited to France and the United States. In fact, France and the U.S. are isolated cases in today’s educational world. What might even be surprising to many people is that those two countries are often much more similar than different. For instance, the extremely high prestige afforded a precious few institutions is a striking feature of both educational systems (Grandes écoles, Ivy League…). It might exist in other places (say, England) but, at least, it’s not characteristic of universities in Quebec. In Canada generally, most academic institutions have much of the same status, despite attempts by MacLean’s to rank universities every year (à la Princeton Review). While the rankings have some effect, they are much less restrictive than what exists in either the U.S. or France. Also, faculty members across Canada get almost exactly the same salary for the same position, irrespective of their host institution. Disparities in salaries exist at many other levels but they usually don’t distinguish one institution from the rest. Will probably post a blog entry about this pretty soon.

Adding It Up

Been thinking. Yes, it’s dangerous. But it does happen to any of us.

Starting up with my own comments about Yu Koyo Peya and Jared Diamond’s Collapse. It’s no secret that Diamond’s approach often clashes with the anthropological tendency toward critical thinking. But still…
From The Matrix, Agent Smith saying that humans are a disease. The YKP on-screen message that “civilization” (however defined) is the disease. A further claim could be that a specific civilization is a disease. Fun to think about. Where does it lead us, exactly? And, really, what do we mean by “civilization” in those cases? State-level “democracy” based on the illusion of national identity and individual autonomy, and motivated by market economy? And that’s all so important why, exactly? After all, there are alternatives of different types and in different places

Haven’t read Diamond’s books but it’s quite likely that Collapse in fact describes the decline of a specific social model. Actually, to a Québécois, the recent tribute to Rémy Girard’s career makes the analogy even more salient. Some have asked what year the U.S. were stuck in. Some date between 410 and 476 would be many people’s guess. But it could be later.

It might be the end of Occidentalism. Or, simply, perceived radical changes based on a series of significant events.

It reminds me of a well-known Swiss novel and a movie made about it. English-speakers would likely think of Chicken Little. Again, windmills and shelters.
Many events are connected to these times. From the end of the Cold War to Hurricane Katrina. From a climate of terror and paranoia to the rise of Chindia. From the Washington Consensus to notions of terrorists and freedom fighters,

There’s no conspiracy. Just a bunch of loosely linked social changes on a rather large but still very limited stage.
What are we to do?

Look further than the end of our collective nose?

Changes in the Vlogosphere

First learned about Rocketboom through This Week in Tech’s TWiTcast. In that episode, Rocketboom founder Andrew Baron was (in)famously involved in a rather heated exchange with Weblogs, Inc. CEO Jason McCabe Calacanis in which Baron unveiled “plans for world domination” (there was a comparison to Rupert Murdoch).
As it turns out, Baron and Rocketboom partner Amanda Congdon are splitting.
What seems to fascinate people so much about the Rocketboom split is the drama. A bit like “celebrity gossip for the geek crowd.” Learned about the split through CNET’s BuzzOutLoud podcast where they made a passing reference to the notion that the Congdon-Baron duo might have been more than a simple business partnership.
Congdon posted on her own blog both a video about the split and a commented email exchange with Baron. The same Calacanis who was having that exchange with Baron on TWiT has blogged about the Rocketboom split (and followed up with another entry teasing Baron).

Already, some are thinking about TikiBarTV‘s LaLa as a replacement for Congdon.

Lala -

Some, like the BuzzOutLoud cast, are trying to think about the implications for what Tim O’Reilly calls “Web 2.0.” Can vlogging, vidcasting, and other forms of content distribution still work? How is it that just a few individuals in the United States can have such a big impact on such a broad phenomenon?
In a way, the whole situation might generate a lot of “buzz” for Rocketboom which already had a fairly big audience. So this “geek buzz” might make vlogging more similar to television in the United States. Some (especially in the U.S., one might guess) could see the transformation as a way for vlogging to become a viable business model while others (possibly outside of the U.S. “mediascape”) might deplore the transformation of free, open, and community-oriented models of content distribution into generic “mass media.”

On the other hand, this might be a way for the aforementioned “geek crowd” to assess itself as an important part of U.S. popular culture.

Ah, well…


 Pics5 I 20060305 5 6 0 5607C201F97C05859C102584D8E129220 Mid
(It’s me, a couple of months ago.)
Was editing some older entries with ecto to add categories and tags. Saw this old one (from late March, 2k5) which was meant as an introduction/blurb. Was teaching at IUSB then. Time for an update or three.
Since then, been teaching in Massachusetts (BSC and Tufts, during the Fall 2005 semester) and Montreal (Concordia during the Winter/Spring 2006 semester). Came back to Tufts to teach during the first summer session. Currently (06-06-14 13:19:34) in Cambridge, at a condo that belongs to some friends who are spending some time in Paris for academic reasons.
So, many of us, in academia, end up moving around quite a bit. Been moving more than twice a year for the last six years. Looking forward to a bit more stability. In fact, because my wife is in Northampton, MA (doing a post-doc at Smith), my time in Massachusetts has typically been divided between the Western part of the state and the Boston area.
Speaking of my brilliant wife, she’s in Montreal right now to defend her dissertation! Can’t go myself, because of my course, but it’ll very likely be an extremely good defence (Catherine knows her stuff in and out!).
Whew! It’s weird to post entries like these but it’s probably what people expect from blogs. Even wanted to start blogging while in Fredericton, NB, in 2003. Kept sending messages to my wife instead (she was in Moncton, NB at that time). Should eventually report back on some places where my semi-nomadic lifestyle has led me in the past (Somerville, Lausanne, Baguinéda, Bloomington, Sienna, Northampton, Kassela, Zinal, Bamako, Fredericton, Mandelieux, Markala, Edimburg, Moncton, South Bend, Brockton, Hyères, Montreal, and, of course, Poggibonsi).

Brewing Cultures: Craft Beer and Cultural Identity in North America (Draft)

Here's the draft of my presentation for a food and society conference at Boston University this past Thursday.

Brewing Cultures: Craft Beer and Cultural Identity in North America (draft)
And associated slides.

A blog version should follow. Comments are deeply appreciated!

Beer and "Ethnicity"

[Ugh! I lost a first version of this post because of Blogger maintenance… Now I know why people complain…]

The very first comment on my young blog is an extensive excerpt from Bob Skilnik's book on beer history. Thanks!
The relationship between beer and "ethnicity" is really a fascinating issue. Some say that the movement leading to the federal prohibition was related to anti-German sentiment. Others associate it more closely with the growth in the political influence of some woman groups. The events were probably a combination of both and other causes. Similarly, the MADD lobby group probably had a large part to play in rising the drinking age to 21.

All of these seem to relate to what Ruth C. Engs calls Clean Living Movements. Engs also has interesting articles available on health, alcohol, and social issues. For instance, binge drinking is a major problem on some US campuses and seems to be linked to a negative attitude toward alcohol.

One concept that I'd like to explore a bit more is that of "moral entrepreneurs" who seem to be at the center of those movements and are trying to get ahead politically. The first exposure I got to the concept was in Mezz Mezzrow's Really the Blues. In that book (on Jazz musicians in the US between the two World Wars), moral entrepreneurs are associated to the change in legal status for cannabis in 1937. A Wikipedia article on cannabis associates the criminalisation of the herb to both DuPont's interest in plastic and to anti-Mexican sentiment (with the word "marihuana" resonating with that sentiment). No idea how accurate this explanation really is (it's always safer to take things with a grain of salt) but the associate with xenophobia is illuminating.

Not that the US are the only place where sentiments against foreigners
are brought forth. In fact, many parts of the world deal with issues of
xenophobia, especially where the notion of a "nation-state" is still
believed to mean something. What's interesting about the situation in
the US is the fact that xenophobia seems to be so intimately linked
with political, legal, and social issues. In a "country of immigrants"
which recognizes itself as such, the situation is quite striking.