“Name the picket line, and I’ll be there”

John Blaikie (Matt Berry / The Quill)

Veteran English professor John Blaikie, a widely-known figure on campus whose career at Brandon University spans 25 years, will be going on sabbatical from January to September.  When we asked him the official reason for his sabbatical, he said, “Well, I told them I had to finish two books that I’ve been working on for a long time…and it worked.”  We thought now would be as good a time as any to chat with Blaikie about a number of student issues past, present and future.

We initially wanted to follow up on a letter Professor Blaikie sent to The Quill last February, where he called for students across the country to “take a term off” as a form of protest. “I still believe it,” he told us. “It’s going to take a year out of your life if you do it, maybe only about six months. But what would happen if every university student in the country decided to go on strike? We don’t pay any more tuition. And we get all of these administrators and professors and the unions – what happens when they don’t have anything to do?”

This led to a more in-depth discussion on student protest in general, including the ones that took place in Quebec this past summer. “In the 1960s we almost got rid of tuition fees, and that’s where we should go,” he said.  “And we’re not doing that. Students are not pushing for that anymore. Students are willing to take on a major debt load in hopes that they’ll fit in to a society that I don’t find all that comfortable.” He went on to explain that, “They really have to stand up and say, look, let’s research the Scandinavians, research the Russians – those people don’t pay money to go to school; a little here and there, but not the same ways you guys are getting gouged.”

Given the increasing digitization of the literary world and the decreasing emphasis on subjects like English in post-secondary institutions, we were quick to quiz Blaikie on his thoughts about the future of these departments. “That’s kind of the reason why I’m sticking around when I don’t have to, because we haven’t been getting any promises from the administration that my job will be replaced.” As to the future of English studies in general, he says, “The major literary mode may give way to television and movies, and then English is going to wind up as a sort of feeder subject in places like Education. Even dentists and doctors have to take at least one English course because they have to really communicate.”

“Everything’s going to be digitized eventually,” he went on to say. “So books are going to go, although I don’t think that’s necessarily a disadvantage. I like books, but my day is pretty much over.” Further, he theorizes that, “[What] we’re going to wind up with is a lot more collaboration with people through the digital communications system. What’s going to happen, as far as I’m concerned, is that we’re going to lose individual creativity and we’re going to gain collective knowledge and collective money. We’re going to get socialism whether we want it or not.”

A more specifically BU-related topic we wanted to ask Blaikie about was the future of long-dormant Journalism courses. He told us they would be finally returning next spring, taught by Education sessional professor Dr. Glen Gatin. “I tried to get him going last September, but then they said he’s ‘too education’. So then I switched journalism into creative writing, but I didn’t get that done fast enough to get those courses offered in January.”

For our last question, chosen on a lark, we asked him what book he thought everyone should read to become a better person. His answer was Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “’Don’t Panic’… That’s what the Bible and the Qu’ran are all about, too,” he said.

Reflecting on his teaching career (“I’m already past retirement age,” he told us. “I’m double-dipping.”), Blaikie explained to us the one thing he enjoys more than anything else is to see students develop and improve themselves. “What’s fun is watching someone who comes into your first-year class write a really lousy essay, and then they write a good one,” he said. “They just didn’t know exactly what they were doing, and then they learn. They keep getting brighter and brighter and brighter, as long as they get a little attention and a reason why they should.”