An Open Letter in Support of Divest McGill

by Jonathan Sterne on March 31, 2016

As I’ve mentioned before, McGill students have been organizing a campaign to get McGill to divest from fossil fuels.  This seems eminently sensible to me. This past week, the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility released a report to the Board of Governors recommending AGAINST divestment because (among other things) oil companies have not cause “grave social harm” through fossil fuel extraction. The claim is outrageous.  And the “experts” they consulted are anonymous.  Which means nobody is willing to sign their name to this ridiculous position. While I would accept disagreements about strategy for fighting climate change, the report is based on some very suspicious ideas about causes.

In response to the CAMSR and the Board of Governors, Divest McGill has organized a series of actions on campus, and they’ve set up a website where you can get caught up on what’s happening and why it matters: .

I just sent the following letter to Principal Suzanne Fortier (, Chairman Kip Cobbett (, and Secretary-General Stephen Strople (, copied to

I urge you to join me in writing in support of Our Future, Our Choice.

Dear Colleagues,

I was very disappointed to read Principal Fortier’s letter to the McGill community regarding the decision not to support Divest McGill’s proposals regarding McGill’s investments.  While I am pleased to see both a respectful tone toward student activists (lacking in the Principal’s communications regarding the BDS movement) and an acknowledgement of the consensus among climate scientists, the conclusions of the CAMSR’s report utterly bizarre from a social theoretical point of view.

I will return to those in a moment, but I am equally concerned that the CAMSR and McGill administration consulted “experts” anonymously.  If they are claiming their consultants are experts, should we not be able to evaluate their expertise?  Are there experts on climate science at McGill who would sign their name to the CAMSR’s claim that

Climate change is an injurious impact primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels by end-users rather than activities of fossil fuel companies.

In general, if the CAMSR consulted experts on either climate change or the social impact of business practices, don’t we deserve to know who is willing to stand behind claims like this? If no McGill faculty members are willing to stand behind these kinds of claims, do they deserve to be in the CAMSR’s report?

Here’s where the social theory comes in.  Fossil fuel consumption does not simply exist because of consumer demand or research into possible uses of petroleum.  It also is a function of active work on the behalf of oil companies to limit research into and diffusion of alternative technologies: this is well documented in histories of public transit and electric cars.  It is also a policy matter, since oil companies (and other companies whose work depends on destroying the environment) routinely lobby governments against policies like Extended Product Responsibility, which would turn the environmental impact of disposing non-recyclable consumer goods, like mobile phones, from an externality into an economic factor in the manufacture, sale, and consumption of those goods.In my research on computer disposal, I found that companies intentionally designed disposal of environmentally hazardous materials into their business models. Of course, they don’t think in those terms.  They think in terms of product life-cycles and planned obsolescence, aka “upgrading.”  The environment is very much a part of modern business strategy, even when it isn’t spoken about in those terms.

Let us compare this to other areas of policy regarding things generally regarded to cause “grave social injury”: we know that smoking is bad for people, but the governments of Canada and the US (and other countries) have found that the companies were also responsible for the social injuries caused by smoking. We know that nuclear power is potentially quite dangerous, and in the case of nuclear accidents, it is the companies that are responsible, not just the end users of nuclear power. We know that trans fats are bad for us, which is why they must be labelled in processed foods sold to consumers, and why companies can’t claim foods high in “trans fat” are good for you.

My colleague Derek Nystrom, in his remarks to the Board of Governors, compared climate change to a ticking time bomb under the table.  It has not yet caused “grave” harm to millions of people by some definitions of “grave” — but it is highly likely to do so by any reasonable definition of the term.  In my letter from last October, I quoted anthropologist Stefan Helmreich’s claim that “the problem of the the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the water line.”

The just-reported climate predictions regarding the Antarctic Ice Shelf are a good example.  http://www. . Whether or not this particular climate model will turn out to be correct is not the issue. The issue is that if it is correct, the damage it predicts cannot be undone.  Even as the Times engages in a little fantasy work to “save” New York City, the impact on the oceans worldwide would displace millions of people at best, and at worse, have a much higher human cost.  It is not something that could be undone, but it is something we could help prevent by committing to alternative energies.

Yes, the CAMSR is right that many petroleum-based consumer products have brought about social good.  But in almost every case today, petroleum could be replaced. In fact, if we look at the diffusion of petroleum-based consumer products over the course of the last 100 years, we see that in many cases petroleum replaced other, less environmentally-damaging materials. Consider one example — the shift from shellac to vinyl records (as documented in Jacob Smith’s new book Eco-Sonic Media).  Vinyl was cheaper and more efficient, but it wouldn’t have been considered to be so if its environmental cost had been included in that calculation. Shellac’s virtues aside, researchers (and artists) all over the world have experimented with making records out of other materials, and many could work.

For these reasons, and many others, I echo Divest McGill’s three demands:

  • That the University hold public hearings on the discredited report of the Committee to Advise on Matter of Social Responsibility (CAMSR).
  • That CAMSR publicly discloses all expert testimony gathered in the course of its consideration of the petition.
  • That Principal Fortier makes a statement acknowledging what the CAMSR Report did not: the activities of fossil fuel corporations cause grave social harm, through the exacerbation of climate change and the devastating impacts on frontline communities.

In short, they are asking for informed public discussion (of the sort that should have preceded the Board’s decision), they are asking for transparency, and they are asking for reason.


–Jonathan Sterne

Read the review here:

This was a great read over breakfast. I want to leave aside the intra-Derridean sniping and draw some bigger lessons from this review:

1. It’s dangerous for scholars to cut corners: look at the text, not your notes on the text. Advice for students and super stars alike. (or rather, we are all always students)

2. Publishers are cutting corners more and more. This is equally dangerous. We need proper fact-checking, reference-checking and “continuity editing” to make sure references are consistent. As budgets for copyediting are slashed, this work is being outsourced to scholars, who are neither qualified to do it, nor able to manage it on top of all the other things that are now outsourced to them.

3. Deep expertise is still necessary to engage in high stakes humanities argument, whether it is linguistic, historical, philosophical, or “other.” The old-fashioned language learning evidenced in this fight, which is the part of the humanities probably most suffering from cuts to the humanities in general, is a great example of this. If you want to argue across traditions and national contexts, there is no substitute for language learning. 

4. Any kind of erudition takes time to do well. The calls to speed up humanities PhDs will insure our future work will be less intelligent and less sophisticated. Expect more misreadings, more mistranslations, and more corners cut for professional rather than intellectual reasons.

5. Whether you write accessible prose for broad audiences, or intricate prose aimed at specialists (or try to do both and other things too), you should be able to read, discuss and work through difficult texts. That’s part of the job description.

6. Ok, a little intra-Derridean sniping. I don’t have the French chops to take a position on the translation, but I’m still not sold on the reading of Derrida that takes his expansion of terms like “text” too literally, including Bennington’s.

…or at least the dissertation in Communication Studies.

How do you improve the dissertation and the defence?  A few weeks back, the faculty members in Communication Studies at McGill met to talk about the graduate curriculum and these topics came up.  But some changes we would like to make would be impossible in the current system.  Right now dissertations and defences at MCGill are governed by a set of regulations imposed by the Graduate and Professional Studies Office at McGill.  In addition to writing to Dean Martin Kreiswirth (who to be completely fair, seems quite open to reform–I don’t want to make it sound like we’re “fighting the man” here), I decided to post these comments publicly in case they would be of use or interest to others either at McGill or at other institutions.

I want to be clear that a) our proposals for the COMS PhD are still in the discussion stage–nothing’s been adopted yet (and some may be impossible to do) and b) the opinions expressed below are solely mine. (I am not speaking for the CS faculty.)

Background for non-McGill people: McGill’s thesis rules are an interesting hybrid of American and European models.  So some of these rules may seem bizarre if you come from one or another system.  But that’s McGill for you — a strange hybrid of American and European bureaucracy.  Within our own universe at one time or another all these procedures made sense.  Some still do, like the pro-dean, and some do not, which is the purpose of my discussion below.  I’ve got full details on some distinctive aspects of the McGill PhD and defence process after my comments below if more background is needed.


1. At our retreat, we discussed restructuring the defence as a public talk.  The student would give a 40-45 minute talk that would be more like a dissertation summary that could be used in a job talk or as the basis for a précis-type article. I  realize not all doctoral students are going on to be academics, but a public lecture would be a more substantial way to honour the expertise they’ve earned, and it would also allow community members (friends or other students) real grounds to participate.  It’s also a good bet they will have to make presentations no matter what they do in life.

The idea would be: the student gives a public talk, committee members each ask a question in turn, then we move onto broader audience discussion.  Perhaps committee members would have to provide at least a short written response as well that the student could digest in good time.  The internal report and external report would stay the same as they are now and students would be able to revise their theses after the defence as per current custom (when needed).  This ventures pretty far from the guidelines sent to pro-deans at the moment (I just read the new ones while pro-deaning in cosmology) and we couldn’t do it unilaterally without pro-deans arriving with proper instructions.

Right now, defences are organized under the illusion that they are tests.  But after something like 60 dissertation defences, I can’t honestly say that I believe testing is their primary function.  They are largely ceremonial, though often they do help guide suggested revisions to the thesis. (Our proposed formal still provides for that.) And often students aren’t in a position to really hear or make use of the feedback they receive in defences. The event itself is an exceptional exercise, unlike other things they will be asked to do in their careers. The proposed idea above makes it more like other kinds of academic work in the humanities, and public work besides.

2. Because of the committee and funding systems we are moving to, GPS needs to get rid of “not close” requirements for committee members or at least relax them.  Right now, McGill requirements are that a majority of the dissertation defence committee members must not have been closely involved with the student or thesis research.


The “arm’s length” requirements are based on the idea that only people not involved in a student’s education can be objective enough to judge a thesis.  This is out of step with common practice. Most American and Canadian humanities programs expect that a committee (or  large portion of it) has been engaged seriously with the student at many different times before the defence, and in some cases, consistently throughout the program.  This also appears to be the norm in humanistic Communication Studies programs in the US and Canada.

Right now the “arms length” requirements lead to a situation potentially detrimental to the student.  For example: Communication Studies is moving to a 3-person committee system so the student cultivates relationships with faculty members (this has been happening informally but it is something we aim to formalize).  This is not a “supervisory committee”–we maintain sole supervisors–but simply a supervisor and two other faculty who are charged with “looking after” the student for progress tracking and consultation purposes throughout their program–again, something that is super common in humanities programs in US universities.

While not all students go on to academic jobs, I know of no situation where a student would not benefit from having references from three people who know that student well and are interested in that student’s progress during in-program time.  Under current rules, you have a situation where either letter-writers must not be present at the defence, or you need a 7-person committee.  Neither is a good idea.  Both are bad for the student and bad for the professors.  A 7-person committee leads to too many cooks in the kitchen for the student, and in small programs like ours leads to either a lot of work by core faculty or a lot of calling in favours (or owing them).

Additionally, the conflict of interest guidelines for internal reports are too strict, especially as we are moving to a 4-year funding guarantee.  It is entirely conceivable that in the new committee and funding system, a student might work as a research assistant and even co-publish with two committee members besides the supervisor.  Many of us in Communication Studies are getting more and more likely to credit RAs as co-authors or even actively collaborate with them in writing–more of a science or medicine model for publication (and again good for students).  Suddenly, none of those people can write the internal report because it is a “conflict of interest,” even though the internal report is a great first draft for a letter of recommendation.  Again, we’re in a position of wasting faculty labor and removing people most qualified to comment on the thesis from commenting on it.  I can hear a potential response being “but the student should hear outside opinions.”  Yes, of course, they should, which is why we encourage all of our students to publish and present their work at conferences and almost all of them do.  After over 60 defences, I know for certain that the defence is not the best time or situation for that, and it’s tremendously taxing on faculty resources in a high-achieving department like ours where faculty are working with lots of students and colleagues, traveling all over the world, and in high demand from professional organizations, all while maintaining a significant graduate program.  If this was actually for the purposes of mentorship or education of the student, I could see doing it, but that is simply not the case.

3. Current guidelines about the form of the dissertation are much too strict.  We need more flexibility about format and a strong commitment to fair dealing on the part of the thesis office.  
With multimodal platforms like SCALAR coming into wider use in the humanities, it is entirely conceivable that a student could write a solidly argued, coherent and smart humanities PhD thesis that does not follow a linear, consecutive pagination model, and which actively incorporates audio-visual material other than still images, some produced by the student and some produced by others and marked up under fair dealing.  Although all dissertations at McGill are primarily digital documents at this point, there is no provision for these kinds of things to be in the document, and the GPS guidelines for dissertation format are so structured and limiting that they actually mitigate against multimodal scholarship.  I just taught a digital humanities oriented seminar on sound studies and visual culture and with the existing guidelines in place, I’m left in the position of telling students “this is the direction your work should go if you’re working with multimedia material as a research object or if you produce it as part of your research, except for the dissertation.”

Finally, none of this last paragraph is relevant to the discussions above, but I’d add that there some other working assumptions about the PhD in our unviersity-wide discussions that aren’t true.  For instance, in the recent IPLAI report on the future of the PhD (and note that I would have been at that public discussion had it not been scheduled again a Media@McGill conference I had organized), it is clear that the assumption is that dissertations are not generally completed under some kind of deadline duress.  But most appear to be.  Not all by any measure, but especially with the drastically shortened times to completion we now expect (because of Quebec funding, not pedagogy), more and more theses will be completed under deadline duress. I am also concerned about the abandonment of scholarship recommended by some parts of that document (a teaching portfolio is not a PhD), but that it for another conversation.

[end of edited letter]

Some provisions that might be unfamiliar to people not at McGill (you can skip this part if you work at or attend McGill):

–> we have something called a pro-dean, a person from another faculty who runs the defence.  This separate the event-management from the intellectual dealings, which is great.  Assistant profs don’t have to reign in cranky senior colleagues (yes, I’ve seen this happen at other universities without the pro-dean).  That’s why I ran a defence last week in Cosmology–which was really cool to do and I had some great conversations with scientists afterward.  Yes, we still don’t know what happened before the Big Bang.  Glad I cleared that up.

–> Our theses all have to have reports written on them before the defence.  One report comes from an internal examiner who is not the supervisor and one comes from someone at another university.  This insures that theses are defensible before they are defended.  It is a big hassle and a lot of work but I kind of like it anyway, and the student gets substantial written feedback, which is important (and let’s face it, by the time you submit, you know what your advisor/thesis supervisor thinks).

 –> dissertation defences are governed by a strict set of rules.  Committees have be a majority of people not connected with the work leading to the thesis, and dissertation defences must follow a fairly standard protocol, involving a public introduction by the student, followed by two rounds of questions from committee members, followed by (sometimes) audience questions.

–> provincial funding is tied to student enrolment here, which means PhD student have very strict deadlines for completion.  In other words, Quebec gives McGill a certain amount of money for each grad student enrolled, but only for a fixed period of time.  That means that the university has a financial interest in short times to completion.  While I’m not a fan of the 11-year-thesis plan, the administration now considers it aberrant (to the point of kicking the student out) if the thesis takes more than six years from initial enrolment in the PhD.  While students can still finish (and re-enrol to deposit the thesis), this has drastic implications for students’ access to deferments of loans, acquiring additional financial aid, and let’s face it, getting kicked out of school is bad for self-esteem.  The last study I saw said it’s 7 years on average to the PhD across the humanities, and some kinds of PhDs take longer.  Language learning, for instance, is not something that can be “hurried along” and archival research and ethnography take time and money.  I moved through my MA and PhD in six year combined, but I don’t actually expect my PhD students to be the same person I was.  Personally, I really regret not being required to (and fulfilling the requirement to) master another language for scholarship.  My career is poorer for it, though I am good at statistics (we had a quant methods requirement, but I learned most of my stats as an undergrad).

My contribution for last summer’s “5 Minute Manifestoes” plenary for the 2014 Encuentro. It’s pretty self-explanatory.


Now that I have a Vimeo account, I am posting some stuff that’s been sitting on my hard drive.

(Not) Her Master’s Voice

October 8, 2014

Roughly two weeks ago, Wolfgang Ernst came to Montreal. I missed both talks, as I was at the University of Michigan.*  But we did meet up on Saturday for a visit to the Musée des ondes Emile Berliner, whose back areas are filled with old media technologies, as well as many versions of the His […]

Read the full article →

New Text: The Low Acuity for Blue: Perceptual Technics and American Color Television

August 28, 2014

(coauthored with Dylan Mulvin) “The Low Acuity for Blue: Perceptual Technics and American Color Television,” Journal of Visual Culture 13:2 (August 2014): 118-138. This piece is the first of a pair of articles on colour television that Dylan Mulvin and I wrote together (the second has been accepted to Television and New Media and will appear in 2015 […]

Read the full article →

What Is Music Technology For?

May 13, 2014

(x-posted on the Social Media Collective Research Blog) In late March and early April, I attended three events that together signal some interesting shifts in thinking about music technology and sound.  The first, a day-long symposium on March 24th I co-organized with Nancy Baym, was entitled “What Is Music Technology For?”  It came after a weekend-long […]

Read the full article →