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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for August 2012

Friending students on Facebook

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A recent article in the magazine University Affairs cautions professors against accepting Facebook “friending” invitations from students.

Uh oh, I thought.  Not only do I accept invitations, I ask students to friend me.  Current students.  I’m in trouble.

The article (in French only) notes that few universities have a policy on the subject, which may be problematic.  The wake-up example provided is the now infamous case where two students from University of Calgary created a page dedicated to the criticism of a particularly unpopular instructor. After being expelled from the University for so doing, the students fought back and won.  A victory for free speech, say some; an encouragement to slander, reply others.

According to the article, Serge Desmarais, associate VP at Guelph University, states that universities must develop a code of conduct, and cautions that instructors should avoid becoming Facebook friends with their students (he suggests LinkedIn as a more appropriate network).

All true, I don’t disagree with what’s reported in the article.  But it struck me as missing an opportunity to describe some key factors where joining Facebook can provide an amazing new tool for education.

LinkedIn is all fine and good, and we (my program) encourage students to join and make professional contacts.  But I seldom go there – I don’t find much content that interests me, unfortunately.

Facebook, on the other hand, I use all the time, for personal and professional reasons both.  That’s right, professional – the two blend in.  Let me explain.

I joined Facebook very reluctantly.  Leanne, a former student then in charge of SAFE, our university environmental club, faced me with this dilemma: “I’m not emailing news and events anymore, it takes too long.  I’ve created a Facebook group.  Join up, or you’ll be out of the loop.”  I was the club faculty liaison at the time, so I joined.  Cursing.

Some of the consequences were predictable, and not all good; I was now privy to some of my students’ postings such as “I got so sh**faced yesterday”.  I gave discreet advice that prospective employers may check Facebook profiles (not all that legal, but it happens), so it’s best to keep a straight profile along with your party animal profile, if you must share embarrassing posts – which some of my students have done (or have sobered up – not sure which).  And, of course, it taught me not to post anything embarrassing myself – which is the key to using FB in academia, I think.  After all, everything posted in FB is public – that’s the rationale for caution, but also the reason for its power.

Thanks to Leanne, I discovered a world of possibilities.  Sure, like all FB users, I found that it’s a great way to keep in touch, including with past students: the new baby, the photos of a trip to Nunavut – you don’t get those on LinkedIn.  And sometimes it’s the best way to get hold of them.  “Tee hee”, posted one, “I got a meeting call on Facebook”.

But I’m also “friends” with my favourite magazines, from Grist to Scientific American – I’m less likely to miss an important article, and it’s more efficient this way.  And, as a teacher of environmental science, and an environmentalist, I discovered that friending groups like Sierra Club, or individuals like Ben West of the Wilderness Committee, is a very efficient way to keep abreast of developments.

Now I’m not personal friends with Ben.  I may have met him once at a meeting, if at all.  But I friended him as a public personality, because his posts – news, links, musings – provide context to new environmental developments.  And his posts are interesting, and most often controversial.  When I need a topic to generate a spirited class discussion, I’ll turn to his page.

Or I’ll go to David Suzuki’s.  Or IPPC climatologist Andrew Weaver’s.  Or environmental artist Franke James’.

Or I’ll go to Paul Beckwith’s.  Paul is a climatology PhD student at the University of Ottawa.  I have not met him – but I kept reading his posts as they were shared by friends.  So I decided to ask him to friend, and boy I am glad he said yes.  His postings are like candy to a climate news junkie like me (He can be reached here on facebook and on twitter at PaulHBeckwith).  But, better yet, his postings, and the comments they generate, are like eaves-dropping on a conversation in a lab between passionate, opinionated scientists.  Here’s a sample (from late August 2012, as the arctic melt was beating all records):

 Paul Beckwith’s posting:

Sea ice yesterday…large ice destruction over last few days; 3 fingers that were apparent previously in the NE section of the ice pack are being sheared off and quickly melting (similarly to several ice islands that sheared off during large cyclone in early August)…for some reason the ice flow images that I used in yesterday’s presentation were not available?

Sea ice, August 29 2012


Paul B Not sure what is happening on left side of ice pack to significantly weaken it there, apart from influx into Arctic basin of warm Pacific Ocean water through Bering Strait. Will be able to tell when I get hold of ice flow images..

Stephen B F***!!!

Liliana MG wow

Paul B Just looked at the 10 day GFSx long range meteorology forecast, perhaps some weak cyclonic activity on Sept. 2 that is directly over the ice. Need to look at other sources and try to get a better feel for met. conditions that caused the previous cyclonic activity…

Paul B Since weak cyclonic activity is affecting the ice even now (for example a weak cyclone on Atlantic side of Svalbaard is causing cyclonic flow that is pushing ice out Fram Strait) it appears to me that only ONE more large cyclone and its deep water churning would completely finish the sea ice off…

Bienvue C The rate of ice melt looks to have entered a decline so my guess is not this year unless another huge storm brews up?

Bienvue C They have “battened down the hatches” 😉
Nmap scan report for (
Host is up.  All 1000 scanned ports on ( are filtered

Bob J This is quite remarkable. I usually just view the MSC ice analysis at: which does reflect the Bremen data. MSC does not however show the entire Northwest Passage (above Banks Island) as open. This area was always very tough, clogged with multi-year ice which thwarted many an old-time explorer.

Now I have no idea what some of the more arcane comments mean.  But how do you get students interested in science?  I can’t think of a better tool than being a fly on the wall, witnessing these scientists swearing in awe at the story they see developing through their data.

And, yes, what is happening is amazing.  (There!  As I’m writing, Paul just posted a link to an article that does a good job explaining what’s at stake).  The arctic melt is causing all kinds of erratic patterns in the jet stream, and that goes a long way explaining the weather weirding we’ve been experiencing.  And this represents a huge change, enormous news that the general media doesn’t quite know how to handle.  It’s a development that I am privileged to witness from front row seats, thanks to Paul’s postings.  And one I can share with my own students.

So please, new academic policy on social media, whenever you materialize, don’t try to take my Facebook away from me.   I would just have to ignore you.


Written by enviropaul

August 29, 2012 at 6:48 pm

Something that bugs me about Vancouver’s Pride Parade…

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…no, no, it’s not what you think – stop cringing, already.

The parade is upon us – BC Day’s long weekend, and once again it promises to be very successful. After all, it is one of the oldest (first in 1978) and biggest Pride Parades in Canada.  Judging by previous years it will be quite a show, and a lot of fun.

So it’s not that I have a problem with the event, far from it.  But the thing I deplore is: the blue metal fences.  Last year they were everywhere, along the parade route, as well as in the street drinking areas – separating the sinner from the innocent, as it were.

Are the fences really necessary?  Take a look at this photo taken last year, on Robson, after the parade.  The message is clear: pride paraders on the street, onlookers on the sidewalk.  Us versus them.  It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you’re on; a fence creates sides.

Robson Street, after the parade

I know, I know, there are no doubts excellent reasons why these blue fences are there.  But I haven’t managed to find out why.  Security?  Ah yes, one must protect the marchers from the unruly crowd.  But is the risk so high?  Just a few days ago, I saw the Olympic cyclists race through London streets amid crowds of cheering fans.  No fences – yet the cyclists risk life and limb should they collide with a distracted onlooker.  For that matter, I don’t remember a continuous fence perimeter in other crowd events, like the Vancouver Sun Run (sure, there’s one in the starting area – but not throughout).  In New Westminster, a few years back, I remember watching the marchers of the Hyack parade get organised in the staging area, without the benefit of blue fences.

Maybe the gay pride parade is different?  Maybe the city fears attacks?  I’m not naïve enough to think that all’s well with gay rights in Vancouver.  Last year, one of my friends got attacked in the skytrain on his way to the parade.  He was carrying a rainbow flag – apparently that’s a crime, in the eyes of his aggressor.  Hearing stuff like that depresses me to no end.  It should never happen now, in Vancouver, because it should never have happened anywhere, ever.  But it did, and still does (don’t get me started on the Ugandan government!).

And maybe it’s the organisers themselves who insist on the fences?  If so, maybe they are wise and cautious, given that gay bashing is still with around.  But I don’t think it’s the organisers.  They may be cautious, but I don’t see them being that paranoid.

I could be wrong.  Still, consider this: if I were into gay bashing, I would be rather worried for my own safety should I ever think of being fresh with, let alone attacking, one of the marchers during the parade – it just defies common sense (ok, common sense is not a strong feature of gay bashers, but still…).

So I don’t think the fences are there for the safety of the marchers.  Surely, the city can’t be thinking that the safety of the on-lookers is at risk because of over-enthusiastic and rambunctious marchers?

No, I didn’t think so.  So what is it?

I’d sure like to see the blue fences go.  They are dumb at the best of times, but they particularly rankle in the context of the pride parade.  I can’t think of any event better designed to promote diversity and inclusivity.  In my happy, fantasy world, the parade would take on a New Orleans Mardi-Gras character, where the public cheers along, sings along, and marches along the floats – a bit drunkenly, sure, but what a good time we have.  In my fantasy world.  Here in the real Vancouver, I’d be stuck behind a blue fence if I want to watch the parade.  Unless I choose to join a group of participants – in which case I’m still stuck behind a blue fence, can’t even high-five friends I see among the spectators.

In cities all over the world, there are amazing marches, sport events, and pride parades that don’t feel the need to separate the on-looking public from the marchers behind blue fences.  And it’s more fun – speaking as a tourist, anyways.

And all over the world, I have seen people drinking beer and wine in the open without – gasp – being enclosed behind fences.  So, c’mon Vancouver…


Okay, maybe I got it all wrong.  I didn’t walk the whole parade route.  Maybe there are sections that don’t have these godforsaken fences, say along the wider Beach Avenue.  Maybe I got fooled by seeing that fenced-off section on Robson.  Maybe I got cranky because of the blue fences all along Davie (they’re not there for the parade, they’re there for the drinkers).  Maybe, just maybe, I owe the city and the organisers an apology for my rant.

Still.  I don’t like the blue fence at public events.  I don’t think a real city would fence off its streets from its people.  Hurray for the pride – boo for the blue fences.  So there!

Written by enviropaul

August 2, 2012 at 5:49 pm