Author: barbarageiger

universities are their policies

A university is not a bunch of old buildings in the middle of a very expensive neighbourhood. It’s not any one group of professors, instructors or learners. It’s not even the board, president or senior administration. A university is the ideals it holds that make operating an organization as a public academic and research institution possible. To be worth that amount of public trust, any university must hire meatsacks who will fulfill the duties of their office beyond reproach.

University of British Columbia’s officers only serve as officeholders. While meatsacks are hired because they can do the job their position requires, they are interchangeable when it comes to the duties of their office. Any meatsack who holds the provost’s office must have investigated my complaint to the best of their ability. The Investigations Policy does not give UBC provosts permission to come to a conclusion before investigating it.

The University of British Columbia did not care what Andrew J. Szeri thought about my complaint. As a legal entity, it only cared if the complaint had merit. The only policy-mandated way to determine if a complaint had merit is to investigate it. My complaint involved the damage of a methodology that violated academic freedom and was not designed to allow its learners to learn anything that they didn’t think they knew when they enrolled.

Szeri could complain to the cows coming home that he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong. Most people in his salary range and position of power usually rely on the “I was completely incompetent!” defence when their attempt to get away with improper conduct fails.

But to believe Szeri was “completely incompetent”, the University of British Columbia would have to accept he randomly orchestrated the exact sequence of events that allowed him to silence a nonemployee’s criticism. And, of course, officers at his previous salary band and authority are held to what they should have known.

And let’s not forget, those sequence of events required UBC lawyers who had already determined lawyers get to decide how institutional definitions are interpreted went looking for legal justifications that said they could make policy changes without going through the very controlled process of making controlled policy changes in a controlled environment.

When looking for the lost spirit of a policy, the recorded reason *why* a policy change was made matters as much as the change in wording.

Neither British Columbia nor the federal Canadian government have an opinion on how public organizations may define their terms. So University of British Columbia’s university counsel decided they had legal permission to change UBC’s institutional definition of “improper conduct” to only its legal definition IRL.

If I had known the whole story and the proper legal jargon, I could have told the Law Society that the University Counsel treated a limited scope retainer as full service without indicating the limits of their professional opinion on a non-legal matter they knew less than nothing about. But let’s be honest. All they ever would have heard is “interpersonal conflict” and “didn’t like way class was taught.”

UBC defines spreading malicious lies/rumours that cause lasting harm as personal harassment even as a single event but well-written policies only matter if well-trained people follow them.

All I knew in April 2022 was that Mark Crosbie decided an officer who had violated multiple policies could decide his decision was unappealable. Any lawyer who worked for the University of British Columbia has a professional code of conduct expectation to serve that institution’s best interest. When Crosbie backed off like an obedient dog, he only served Andrew J. Szeri’s interest to keep a complaint against himself off any official record.

And since UBC had to report errors on the official record to outside regulatory agencies, Szeri’s potential “I didn’t know what I was doing” defence still managed to accomplish the exact outcome he needed so that no one knew what he wrote. No one officially knew he told the student in writing that UBC’s program’s “pedagogy” was total academic freedom violation. He gave himself the authority to have the final say that the student’s official complaint was just not liking the way class was taught and then worked the system to ensure no one would listen.

No employee should be blamed for following what their boss and their university counsel advised them. UBC and the Law Society of British Columbia stood behind the improper conduct they advised other UBC Officers to commit.

But that’s why PFO letters must never be read at face value. I wasn’t allowed to have my say at any point because — as the Lackey Who Should Have Listened assured me — I did not have the academic freedom to be heard. All I could expect from the University of British Columbia was the Freedom of Expression to tell my truth to a void that did not have to listen or respond.

However, “A non-employee student does not have the academic freedom to have their side of the story heard in any official capacity” didn’t show up on a single PFO. They said that Andrew J. Szeri and UBC itself did their best to assure this student that their complaint boils down to not liking the way class was taught.

That’s not against any institutional policy UBC has.

But due to the legion of institutional policy errors UBC created that dated back to the 90s, its officers believed they had permission to control who can speak.

Even if UBC wasn’t an academic institution that was supposed to give academic freedom to anyone participating in its forum, it would still have violated its policies by refusing to investigate my original complaint. Assuming what an investigation would have found and acting as an institution on that assumption would not have been permissible in any controlled environment no matter what it produced.

But this controlled environment was expected to hold itself to this expectation:

The members of the University enjoy certain rights and privileges essential to the fulfilment of its primary functions: instruction and the pursuit of knowledge. Central among these rights is the freedom, within the law, to pursue what seems to them as fruitful avenues of inquiry, to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic constraints, and to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion.

puppet academia: the department of being told your problem

It’s quite obvious ME is in hell. Anything to make a literary audience think man, that’s so 9th level. ME must have dug themselves all the way down. They are baffled as to why the door reads Department of Being Told Your Problem until she looks up and sees DEMON. DEMON huffs loudly over a tiny desk, though he comes up no higher than ME’s waist. The Demon still manages to look down on ME as ME approaches.

DEMON: What the hell do you want?

ME: I thought this was the Department of Complaints.

DEMON: Were you given the keys to the actual Department of Complaint?

ME: It said it was an EMPLOYEE DOOR

FLASHBACK if necessary. EMPLOYEE DOOR PUPPET was really quite rude about it. DEMON stares, not sure what, exactly, the student is getting at. He sighs and pulls down an organizational University Chart. It’s done in various methods of puppetry. There’s a clear stone wall between those to who the policies apply and those who have the power to say oh, just fuck off already. Some do, in fact.

ME: But you’re a public institution! Your funding as a research institution should matter it matters!

DEMON snaps gum he clearly doesn’t have.

DEMON: Did any of those regulatory services you tried even care what we did?

ME: The Provost told them my problem was I didn’t like the way class was taught.

DEMON: Wasn’t it? At least the Ombudspeople have just left you in an emotional hell while you wait.

FLASHBACK IF NEEDED. LEVEL SEVEN IS FUCKING HELL. ME BARELY ESCAPES ITS GRASP.

DEMON:The PROVOST said you just didn’t like how the class was taught. That is your complaint because we tell you it is.

ME: But I never said that!

DEMON SIGHS LIKE HE HAD NEVER, EVER, EVER BEEN SO PUT OUT.

Demon: FINE. Let me see your paperwork.

ME GIVES IT OVER. DEMON PEERS AT IT. AS SOON AS DEMON REALIZES THE DOCUMENTATION SHOWS ME IS TELLING THE TRUTH, DEMON BECOMES FURIOUS AT IT.

ME: Respondents cannot dismiss complaints about themselves.

DEMON: THEY ABSOLUTELY CAN!

ME: Says who?

DEMON: The RESPONDENT!

ME: So the provost gets to decide what a student’s complaint is regardless of what their complaint is?

DEMON LEANS BACK.

DEMON: So you DO get it! You just play ignorant.

ME IS SHAKING AT THIS POINT.

ME: That’s not this works.

DEMON HANDS ME A DIAMOND SHOVEL COVERED IN SHIT.

DEMON: You can keep digging, but not a single SHITSTAIN in this institution cares to know the truth. The sooner you learn powerful men can just tell you what your problem is the better.

ME: For whom?

DEMON DOESNT FEEL THE NEED TO SAY IT.

End SCENE

So what is deliberately practicing writing?

Anders Erikson‘s co-theory of the ten-thousand-hour rule depends on those ten thousand hours being deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is only rocket science to rocket scientists. Writers must work on what they can already do well while pushing themselves out of their comfort zone with excellent tutelage over years. Without instruction, they can practice through deliberate trial and error, which takes even longer.

But that creates a problem when it comes to public critique. Angela Duckworth talks about the problem of associating making a mistake with fear, shame or embarrassment. I will always remember the growing heat of embarrassment that started at my core and radiated outward as I realized that if I wanted to learn a second language in another country, I had to be willing to make mistakes out loud. Even though I never had a bad experience trying to communicate, it still took months of constant positive responses for the fear of one to go away.

Contrast that with the act of public critique, where shame, embarrassment and fear is unavoidable when a table of your peers are carving up every mistake the draft has, publically. I don’t wonder why “there are no rules” as a complete thought took such hold in the community. It’s a safe thought in the harsh reality that writers must learn to use their craft before they can hone it.

The first requirement of a learner in an instruction-based approach is to hear what was said and not what was wanted to be heard. “The character must be meaningfully challenged” is the most important critique aesthetically-focused writers must hear. But writers who have practiced for years to take their aesthetic-based skillset to almost publishable levels must feel safe enough in their learning environment to share something still imperfect. It is not easy to learn to create a series of events that will push their protagonist from their startling point to their turning point to their point of meaningful change (or lack thereof.)

But between “there are no rules” and the desire to shoot the message through the messenger, underpublished writers don’t hear “this draft of this work requires meaningful conflict to drive the tension to create the need for character change.” What they hear is “this critiquer doesn’t understand I didn’t intend to do any of that.”

It is true that famous, internationally award-winning stories do not require a moment that sets the character on a new path to the point where they must continue, ready or not. The story’s events don’t need to drive the protagonist to change something about their world and/or their lives and/or themselves to succeed, fail miserably, or meaningfully come to a draw. But to quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Movie, One vampire is always easier to kill than ten.

Writing a meaningful work in which a likeable character who wants something sets out to accomplish it and either wins, loses or draws isn’t easy. It is only easy compared to the effort required to write a meaningful work in which an unempathetic character wants nothing and doesn’t try to accomplish anything. It is difficult to tell a story from its beginning. It is even more difficult to start a story in a middle spot that requires backstory to catch the reader up with the events that have already passed. The reader will never know who the protagonist was before the dragons attacked. The character growth the reader will experience starts with the character already in their crucible with the furnace blasting.

Underpublished writers should try to shoot the moon and do more than that with less than that. But learning that way requires hearing constructive criticism for what it is worth *and* being able to structurally rewrite the work up to a second draft as an open-new-file rewrite.

To deliberately practice creative writing, it is necessary to practice what has not been perfected. In a peer review environment, the author has to be strong enough to be willing to take risks in their work that may not necessarily pay off to learn from them. But with “there are no rules” as a methodology, if the author’s peers and instructors can’t see a lack of story-building in the strong descriptions and discussions as a problem, it can’t even be considered one.

Anders Erickson specifically says deliberate practice must be uncomfortable. A provost of a major university told me specifically that their program was designed to be as gentle as possible to not cause the learner discomfort. If those two statements are incompatible, I’m guessing the one who was an engineer is wrong about pedagogical approaches.

If a learner decides that whisking in the cheese is as effective as folding it in, they may never understand why their sauce is silky and smooth occasionally, but most of the time it’s a grainy, oily mess. They are going through the same motions over and over again. Whether the method produces work that falls into place and engages the reader is outside of their control.

The author may meet the right person or hear the right piece of feedback that breaks through to them. Or they may enroll in the wrong program that assures them there is no difference between a broken sauce and an unbroken sauce if the author made it break themselves. Once that happens, they will never reach for a spatula instead of a whisk again. Once a confirmation bias has been confirmed with enough authority, the concrete errors they brought into the program become diamonds that nothing natural can cut through.

I remember how fast I ran into my wheelhouse after my first professional critique. I never wanted to leave it again. I was only ever going to do what I was good at for a story slated for public critique. After three years of only writing the safest way I knew how, I realized I’d turned my greatest passion into a chore I had to make myself do. Taking risks meant the possibility of bigger failures, but I had to accept that was as much a part of the learning process as forcing myself to speak in a second language in front of first-language speakers.

A change in pedagogy requires a change in ideology. For creative writing pedagogy to work, the learner has to be motivated to improve across all aspects of writing, be it structural writers focusing on the aesthetic nature of prose or aesthetic writers focusing on structure.

Or — as I tried to explain to the former engineer-provost — without the sensation of discomfort, there is no potential for growth.

vulnerabilities, not weaknesses

It’s been a while since the first time I heard a writer tell me that they did not want to give their character a weakness. But since then, it’s something I hear quite frequently.

The problem is that “weakness” is a terrible word for the vulnerability a character needs for there to be a story that exists beyond “competent character does thing competently.” No matter what kind of story is meant for which ideal reader, vulnerabilities maintain the tension necessary for the protagonist (and the reader) to be unsure of future success. In the story of the upper-middle-class protagonist trying to get into Julliard, the work only has uncertainty if something internal or external challenges the protagonist before their acceptance or rejection.

External conflicts can come from anywhere in the kid’s life. Their parents could get a divorce in their final year of high school. A friend or sibling could get sick, addicted, hurt, or fail in a way that could drag the protagonist down with them. Even if it “just” distracts them from the multiple hours of practice in addition to all the character’s other obligations, the vulnerability has a cost. Their mentor could even die if the author wanted to do a full hero’s journey.

But as long as what is holding the Julliard kid back is external to their mental state, the character can still succeed if they buckle down and work harder while dealing with the external conflict. It’s only when another dancer joins the dance school and the protagonist sees what a truly “gifted” (read: a person who developed the talents they were given even harder) dancer can do that they can struggle internally with their decision to dedicate their lives to get into a school with a 7% acceptance rate.

A character without weaknesses is a character that can be played by Vin Diesel or Jamie Lee Curtis. They are so strong going into the story that the plot revolves around a crucible that will test their metal. But those characters still have vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the author (and the antagonistic force.)

To return to Samwise Gamgee, Sam didn’t need to change who he was or what he believed to help Frodo do his thing so they could go home. So while he didn’t change or needed to change, the world went from being infested with the armies of Mordor to not being infested with the armies of Mordor. He did have plenty of vulnerabilities.

For one, he was just a Hobbit in a world full of Balrogs and Nameless Things. He wasn’t trained to fight, but he loved his Mr. Frodo so much that letting him go off alone was inconceivable. The task Frodo accepted seemed impossible and against all odds. Failure at any point would lead to total war taking over the entire world. He and Frodo survived until the good guys won, but Frodo had changed so much by what happened that he could never go home again even after his mentor got ununalived.

Sam was such a strong character that he could weather the storm and be unchanged by it. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have vulnerabilities that made doing so the hardest thing he’d ever done. The Julliard kid still has to learn that getting into that 7% acceptance rate is nothing compared to standing out in a class full of equally talented, equally skilled and equally driven classmates.

A character’s vulnerability doesn’t have to be something they are bad at that they have to get better at in order to accomplish their goals. It is what separates the illusion of false conflict from the obstacles the character has to overcome in any genre that could actually stop them from achieving their objectives. Conflict isn’t arguing or space blaster fights. It’s what keeps your character from what they want or need.

I’ve read so many stories over the last decade where the character’s greatest fear and hope are revealed through dialogue like the author is checking that off a list. I have never read a single scene where a character explains to someone else exactly what they are afraid of that was anywhere near as effective as a character showing the reader their vulnerabilities through their actions.

But as long as “there are no rules” is taught to mean “first drafts are structurally perfect” learners learn telling the reader something is as effective as showing them it on an emotional level.

the startling point

Writers don’t just stand on the shoulders of giants. They exist in a community that doesn’t have to be a giant yet to know what they have learned themselves. I have never heard a better definition of where the story begins than my friend, Leslie Carmichael.

Stories can start with the author shooting the moon. Great or very lucky writers can create a perfect moment to seamlessly braid enough worldbuilding into the actions of the now so that the reader is given exactly as much information as they need to contextualize the story’s stakes. They are near-instantly engaged with the unfolding events.

Most other writers just need to start with something that shakes the character out of their everyday life and into the part of their life the story exists to capture. Starting at the beginning of what started that landslide means having two and a half more chapters to do what the first beginning must do in a few paragraphs.

But there’s an added factor of difficulty with stories that start in the middle of the third chapter. It is always easier to start small and build than it is to start large and build larger. If the action created in a stunningly effective in media res opening is followed with chapters filled with world-building, the initial momentum slows the first chance it can.

Stories that open with big, emotional stakes must build bigger, more emotional stakes from that point. But stories that start with a moment of change can provide the most opportunity for character growth to the story. Starting after the character has already made difficult choices robs the reader of experiencing the cost of making them firsthand.

But more importantly, it robs the reader of witnessing the first decision the character ever makes in which any outcome still has a cost. They never see who the character was before they already decided their path. The character growth possible in a story that starts in the middle of the action is already less than what it could have been had their whole story unfurled.

Once the story starts, telling the reader who the character once was is only exposition told through backstory.

tension does not mean what a lot of writers think

It’s another post where I mention Donald Maass, but this time, it’s about the one thing I think he got less than perfectly accurate. I’ve been to two of his workshops. In the workshop regarding Writing the Breakout Novel there were two things you had to walk out of the session knowing.

The first is, there should be no backstory for the first thirty pages. I agree 98% with this. To paraphrase Maass loosely, he said that reader doesn’t have to know about the character’s then to care about the character’s now in the now of the piece.

Those thirty pages are your book’s entrance. By the end of the third chapter, the world, stakes, character, and the character’s problems should be firmly established. There is no room in doing all of that to waste the word count needed to inform the reader of the why the character yet. They are who they are. Tragic past reveals can wait until the character has established who they have become because of it.

But, the 2% that doesn’t agree thinks that the author can hide any bit of backstory as long as it is attached to a sense. What a character smells, hears, tastes or sees (if they must) can remind them **BRIEFLY** of the same memory elsewhere in their history. I can’t even remember where I heard that.

It was his other piece of advice that I agree with in principle but not how he says it. He says there should be tension on every page. And he’s right. There should be. His suggestion of printing off the book, scrambling them so that the pages are non-sequential and then reading for a moment that matters is a great one.

My issue with the statement is about the “on the page.” Tension does not exist on the page. It exists in the reader as they put pieces of the story together in their head and realize the consequences of choices independent of the character’s understanding. Sometimes the realization is parallel to the character’s. Sometimes it can race ahead of what the character can’t grok yet. It can also lag behind what a character understands but isn’t ready to acknowledge yet.

But the word “tension” has the same problem “conflict” has. They mean different things IRL than in creative writing. Conflict isn’t arguments, it’s what the character has to overcome to accomplish their goals. Even a story where the only thing stopping the nicest character in the world from doing what they want is how it will be perceived can have as much conflict and tension in it as a Vin Diesel action vehicle.

It’s just a different kind of conflict and a different kind of tension. The reader knows what the character ought to do but they can still invest in the journey of a character who has to overcome who they have become as a person and tries to assert boundaries that must be respected in a healthy relationship.

No spaceship needs to explode to be a gripping story. The conflict is internally motivated by the character’s conflicting desires. The tension of watching a character struggle with the consequences of their choices while trying to change their expected outcome — for better or for worse — is felt inside the reader without a single space station imploding.

I realize that “there should be a moment on every page that impacts the reader as they put together for themselves how what is happening matters to the story” is a larger mouthful to say than “tension on every page.”

But if most underpublished writers’ working definition of tension only means the summer blockbuster kind, then only a fool would agree that a planet needs to stop existing on every page. It’s why teaching from the summit is so dangerous to learners. Experienced writers may know that conflict is what the character has to overcome to accomplish their goal and tension is how the reader feels about it, but their colloquial meanings are being taught in the MFA classrooms that produce the next generation of writing instructors.

If tension only means “the pacing of Sixth Sense or better” to a writer, they are not going to even try to have moments in their work where what is happening means more to the reader than the character experiencing it.

If tension is one thing, it’s that.

slideshow for yesterday’s word on the street presentation

I got a second piece of advice that said each slide should be a week’s worth of class. They are not wrong. The presentation is meant for writers who have tried their best for an extended period of time and have not achieved the results of their instructors.

But my entire theory revolves around the fact that it isn’t enough to actually know something. Knowledge that isn’t practiced and honed by the learner remains in the theoretical realm until it is.

The King/Sawyer method of thematic management

In On Writing, Stephen King’s method of thematic relevance is to write the first draft as is and then find an organic theme, and pick out the threads of it in the rewrite. The Robert J. Sawyer method is to write to the specific purpose of setting the protagonist against a pre-determined thematic question.

A lot of writers will benefit from combining the two methods. I do. While writing Kakotopia(prime), the first draft of the piece had a theme for one of the two protagonists and their POV unfolded better than I could have possibly hoped.

The other protagonist existed to serve the first character on their thematic journey alone. The first character had been the kind of character that appears in the first chapter and then starts running the show. The second character had no character arc at all in the first draft.

I had to read through the second character’s story to find a hint of thematic relevance to pick out. When I found one that worked for the character and the structure of the story, I realized the work was going to need a near-total rewrite for thematic tension.

Kakotopia(prime) wasn’t a well balanced piece. The organic character written to a theme had taken over and the non-organic character only had about 30% of the story. I had to create the story beats that would bring their stories on par with each other.

For the first 60,000 words, I was able to keep the existing structure mostly in place. But by the time I crossed over the halfway point, the second half of the first draft stopped working. I could either try to perform a line-by-line complicated surgery to make what existed fit with what had to change, or I could cut 40,000 words and rewrite the ending that brings both the character plots and themes to a second, more organic for both characters’ conclusion.

I’ve cut 40k from work before and agonized over the decision for months. This was an easy snip. In fact, I had cut 40k, wrote 12k, realized the scenes could be told over a 2k bridge and cut another 10k in the same week.

King’s method isn’t easier than Sawyer’s. Going back and picking out a theme means being willing to murder actual darlings if required for the structure of the piece.

But for most writers, including myself, using Sawyer’s method of writing to a theme is still not effective enough for me to produce the level of writing I want. I work best when I use Sawyer’s method for my first draft and King’s method for the second draft/thematic tension rewrite.

It was never easy to write in a 2k story beat in the second character’s POV where no beat had existed before. To know the scene had to progress the plot meaningfully one way or the other without making significant plot changes to the overall story was difficult. But I seemed to always find something I still needed to establish in the second draft that hadn’t been established yet to fill that void with.

But it was still hard work. I had so much empathy for all the people I’ve edited work for. It’s easy — as an editor — to point out a story’s pacing is off. It’s terribly difficult — as a writer — the recognize that problem with the pacing is so severe that if changes aren’t made to it, the final work will suffer for it.

But it’s even more difficult as a writer to know exactly what changes would be required at the story level to rebalance the work so that it doesn’t feel like the tale of a protagonist and another character that just follows them around on occasion.

There were times I wanted to just pretend I didn’t see the need for any change at all. A 2k scene was an entire day’s work. I wasn’t going to get any rewriting done and it was going to add to the amount of hot copy in the third draft that was going to need careful line editing.

But if I wanted Kakotopia(prime) to be the best story I could make it so thee change had to be made. Writers who do not know how to manipulate a work’s structure to build a better reader’s experience do not know how to reach their work’s fullest potential.

puppet academia — the policy slaughter scene

To honour UBC Lawyers loving to triple down on their inability to ever consider they might possibly be wrong about something as serious as which UBC policies the UBC actually has to care about, I’m bringing back my favourite of the puppet academia series.

PROGOAT waits in their PJs and slippers STAGE LEFT. Behind them, a door is marked “SC Kennel”. The policies are singing as close to the Smurf theme song as we’re legally allowed to from behind its closed doors. There are oversized flowers and rainbows decorating it. If you look, they all have a stamp indicating the date they’ve been approved to be displayed. A giant sign, also stamped, warns to “BE EXTRA NICE IN THE CONDUCT POLICY KENNEL” The clock over their head says it’s late o’clock. Even with the time, the PROGOAT looks very uncomfortable to be standing where they are.

On the other side of the wall separating the two stages, CREW are dancing around STAGE RIGHT with puppet policy hand puppets in bird cages. Each “cage” has three adorable policy hand puppets (one on a fake hand) to make 18 policies. In the center of the room, the Respectful Environment Statement is clearly “conducting” the song.

Lawyer rushes in, looking like they’ve had a three-day bender. Pieces of yellow legal paper and dot matrix tractor feeder are stuck to their rumpled suit. One foot has a shoe but a shredded lower pant leg and no sock. The other foot is bare.

PROGOAT: Did we have to meet here?

LAWYER says nothing. They hand over oversized plastic gloves and ear plugs and puts theirs on. PROGOAT holds theirs awkwardly.

PROGOAT: (raises voice) What are these for?

LAWYER: (loudly) I solved our little policy problem!

LAWYER pushes the door open. The music grows louder, but this isn’t the reason for the ear plugs. PROGOAT is struck for a second by how adorable all the policies are while they’re singing and dancing.

Enough light is reflected as the actors dance in circles to semi-reveal a large cage with velvet ropes keeping it roped off from the dancing. It’s draped in black and is meant to almost disappear into the darkness. The PROGOAT hasn’t seen it yet. The LAWYER isn’t looking at it. There is very little chance anyone has filled out the variance required to store whatever it is in the SC Kennel, forget filing it and then waiting for the non-emergency approval to come through and get signed off on.

Or at least, it is not stamped as all the other cages are.

Lawyer throws open the trap door. The stage glows red as lightning flashes from what is reflected from below. Blacklight messages over the sterile background flash warnings to abandon hope and all policies float down here.

As the lid rises, distant screams mix with the policies’ song for a moment. A curl of deep laughter comes from the pit, but much closer than the other sinister sounds that come from the bottom of it. If we can swing it, the smell of struck matches is pumped in.

LAWYER: Scholarly Integrity Policy.

PROGOAT: What?

LAWYER: (sighing at having to spell it out) Open SC 4-6, Grab the Scholarly Integrity Policy, strip its hand away, and throw it into the “these policies can’t matter if we want to just decide we’re right” pit.

The PROGOAT is horrified. They didn’t sign up for any of this. The LAWYER grabs the back of their pyjama shirt and drags them over the pit, facing it.

LAWYER: DO YOU WANT TO ADMIT THE STUDENT WAS JUST EXERCISING THEIR ACADEMIC FREEDOM?

Even the sounds from hell silence at the crack of thunder that follows the LAWYER’s words. The policies stop singing. The PROGOAT stares down at the pit as the ABYSS PUPPET pulls itself up from the pit and stares back. Two marionettes dressed as knights duel it out in the background. They are marked Morals vs. Ambition. Ambition is winning.

The silence grows.

Eventually, the ABYSS nods and retreats below, taking with it the red glow and the sounds. It is just a trap door.

PROGOAT: …I’ll do it.

The Lawyer lets them go and takes the time to straighten the PJs.

LAWYER: (voice firm) Scholarly Integrity Policy.

PROGOAT: But we need that to do the science stuff!

LAWYER: (unaffected) And the Director should have been honest when they explained what the student’s concern was. “I couldn’t explain our pedagogical approach” is a different conversation than “the student just didn’t agree with my harmful lack of pedagogy I’m calling a pedagogy.” LAWYER (or at least someone) pauses for dramatic effect. Scholarly Integrity Policy.

The PROGOAT’s shoulders slump as they open the first cage, reach in and pull out the first violated policy. Naturally, it tries to fight back. But just being a concept, it has no actual teeth or claws and depends on the person protecting it for its right to exist.

As it is slowly, screamingly, stripped from the hand, it reveals the red jello it had been stuffed full of. The naked, “bloody” hand flays around in the cage, puppetless as the PROGOAT drags the puppet itself to the edge of the pit and throws it in. The horrified silence of the policies around them break as the last of its poor screams echoes through the audience.

The PROGOAT looks at their hands. Some of the jelly has stained their skin.

Lights dim.

Narrator: Two hours later —

Lights up as the sound of a “final scream” in its last echo shakes the theatre. Its silence settles. PROGOAT stands there, covered in policy gore. Six bloody hands hang limply as the policies that survive cling to the other survivors and whimper.

PROGOAT: Is that it?

LAWYER: In the SC kennel.

PROGOAT: but this is all conduct bullshit. What else has to die so I can get my way?

LAWYER: Well…

SPOTLIGHT ON: the last cage. CREW whips off the covering and it’s PUPPET ACADEMIC FREEDOM. Blue ribbons cover its cage. PROGOAT rushes to it to “pet” it. It’s now their hand puppet.

PROGOAT: NOT GEORGY! Anything but Georgy!

GEORGY cooes and giggles in their protector’s hands. The rest of the surviving SC policies can only whimper and console each other in their cages with the bloody hands still hanging loosely. They’d once been the following policies:

  • Conflict of Interest Policy
  • Scholarly Integrity Policy
  • Discrimination Policy
  • Investigations Policy
  • Retaliation Policy 
  • and the Respectful Environment Statement 

The LAWYER clears their throat, threateningly.

Fade to black.

Spotlight on: STAGE LEFT. Puppet Progoat wakes in bed, screaming and drenched in sweat from the nightmare. When they pull out their human-looking hand from under the covers, it is covered in ultra-realistic gore. This time, they don’t stop screaming even as the darkness fades in and the audience goes on an intermission break.

how the ubc discussion should have happened: Puppet Theatre returns

ACT ONE:

(CW: PUPPET gore, obvs)

UBC: Hey, Any Competent Trainer, can we violate policies?
ACT: What? Like for real?
UBC: Yeah for real. Can we?
ACT: No.
UBC: Why not?
ACT: Because it’s against policy to violate policies.
UBC: Yeah, but if we did it anyway?
ACT: There is no anyway. There is no violating policies. Violating polices is improper conduct, and UBC Persons cannot commit improper conduct.
UBC: But —
ACT: Do you understand you cannot commit improper conduct, sir?
UBC: I sure do!
(UBC exits stage left. A lightning bolt flashes, foreshadowing the only window on set. ACT watches him go, but they are not convinced. They reach for the PUPPET POLICY ON POLICY Binder. It’s very fluffy.)

ACT TWO

UBC: Hey! You were totally wrong, ACT! I asked this lawyer guy–
ACT: –You can’t ask an institutional lawyer how do you violate institutional policies!
UBC: — Well I did! And the lawyer said —
ACT: — An institutional lawyer can’t advise a UBC Person how to violate institutional policies!
UBC: He said we could totally violate policies if we want. They’re not *legally protected!*
(ACT grabs a notebook called: So you did an institutional error and hits the Puppet Union Rep Button that CREW brings out for them. The large red button does not want to take this call.)
UBC: (Still thinking they can get ahead of this.) Wait! We just don’t want to hear this student’s criticism of their program —

(A non-copyrightable Academic Freedom flying mammal signal starts flashing across the theatre.)

ACT: You’re attacking a student’s academic freedom?!?!
UBC: Yes?
(ACT bite their tongue to not ask any more questions until a union rep is found, but they can’t pretend they didn’t hear that. UBC walks backwards until they exit stage left.)

ACT THREE:

Error reports overflow ACT’s desk. As the lights dim, a silent CREW brings another box of error reports and dumps them over their head. ACT has their arms over their head, silently sobbing until the stage is dark.

A PUPPET RAVEN flies across the stage and taps on the unlit window, stage left. Another flash of lighting shows the RAVEN and the skinned corpse of Puppet UBC dangling from its beak. It coughs once and crows in victory.