Meeting the Minds – Interviewing Dr. Tony Simmons


The following is an interview with Dr. Tony Simmons, a self-defined Hysterical Materialist. Dr. Simmons is a member of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and, as his self-written AU faculty listing says, he “has pursued a troubled and an undistinguished career at Athabasca University since 1981.”

What are some of your most memorable awards, positions, or acclamations?
I am going to be really honest with you. I have never had in my life any award or any acclamation. That’s the God’s truth. I’ve never received an award for anything with the possible exception of when I was younger. I used to be quite active in athletics and sports. But, even then, I don’t really recall getting anything other than a school award perhaps for track and field.

Academically, I’ve never won anything or distinguished myself in any way. That’s the truth of it.

Do you want me to keep that question or take it out?
Put it in. It’s the truth.

What were some of your childhood passions?
I am originally from Northern Ireland. We played soccer, and even though I was brought up in the Catholic community, we played cricket. We had a certain kind of apartheid in Northern Ireland back in those days. So, as a Catholic, we played Gaelic football, which you probably don’t know much about over here.

I practiced Judo. I got to the level of blue belt.

The other passion was what we used to call “angling”, which is called fishing over here.

Mostly sports and recreational fishing and things like that.

If you could instantly learn one thing in its entirety with no obstacles and no time constraints, what would that one thing be?
I should have done it when I was a kid. Because the teachers were a bit brutal, I never quite did it. What I’d like to do is to learn Latin fluently. The reason for that, of course is that it constitutes the linguistic infrastructure for all the romance languages in Europe.

French, Italian, even Romanian.

Would you like to also learn those languages, too?
It would be a lot easier. I have bits and pieces of some of those languages because, before I came to Canada, as a kid, I used to hitchhike across Western Europe. it was a lot safer to do it in those days, and I went all the way down to the tip of Spain through Germany, France, Netherlands, Luxembourg hitchhiking.

If you had omniscience, what book would you write?
I was wondering if you’d accept this as an answer: I think what I’d like to do, more than write a book, is to write an algorithm, which in a sense resolves the problem between what I call entropy and empathy.

Entropy, as you know from the second law of thermodynamics, is the fact that, within a closed system, we have to experience a degradation of available energy. Ultimately, we are going to run out of energy.

That problem is made even worse by the greater need for empathy because empathy on a global level requires greater transportation and communication.

I would like to write an algorithm which finds a solution for the need to combine growing entropy with growing empathy and do for that what Einstein did for e=mc2.

Have you looked into the scientific method for approaching that? Have you actually looked at how to use a method for making the algorithm?
To a certain extent. Social scientists are not physical scientists. The concept of entropy has been imported into the social sciences to increasing degree.

For example, a book was published not too long ago called The Empathic Civilization, by Jeremy Rifkin. Rifkin actually discusses the problem of entropy and empathy. He doesn’t go as far as searching for a kind of algorithm. That’s really the implication for his work.

In economics some time ago, a Romanian economist called Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen wrote a book, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. I read the book two decades ago. We are talking about the unsustainability of human life on this planet. It’s a big issue.

What is your greatest purpose in life?
I’m not going to give you a trivial answer to that. I’m tempted. I think, for my purpose, to be really honest, I would have to say the acquisition of self-understanding through my relations with others.

There is a great quote from Boris Pasternak’s famous book Dr. Zhivago. Zhivago says at one point, and I remember this quote from the book, “The soul of man is man’s presence in other people.”

As a social scientist, I’m deeply concerned to improve the lives of humanity in whatever modest way I can. In order to do that authentically, a person has to have acquired a certain level of self-understanding with the realization that self-understanding is not a kind of solipsistic process. You don’t do it by sitting in the middle of a room by yourself. Real understanding comes from understanding your relations within the larger human context.

What is your favourite hobby?
Solo mountain backpacking. I mean like the North Boundary Trail, ten days without seeing another human being. Or the South Boundary Trail, another ten days. I’m talking about trails beginning in the Jasper area. Those are well known trails.

The reason why I like it is because it tests my limits and re-injects a sense of adventure into my life.

Tell us about one of the most memorable things that has ever happened to you.
In 2011, I got into a very serious situation while solo mountain backpacking. On the Skyline Trail, I hit very early season blizzard conditions in late August. I hadn’t eaten properly the night before.

I was hyperglycaemic and hypothermic and dehydrated?without any fluid in my system. I was fortunate another hiking group came along and rescued me and incorporated me into their group.

The next year we went back and hiked the same way. The weather was a lot better.

In the last book I published in 2013, I dedicated that book to the guys who rescued me from the Notch on the Skyline Trail.

What is your book called?
It’s called Revitalizing the Classics: What Past Social Theorists Can Teach Us Today.

Who is the one most influential person in your life?
Take a guess.

God?
[silence]

Yourself?
I don’t believe in God. Sorry. You can write that down.

My wife. She has taught me humanity and empathy?the two greatest values a human being can aspire to, I think. That is the truth.

What does your ideal student look like?
I think my honest answer to that would be I don’t have a template for students. I start with whoever is there. I learn from them. They maybe learn from me a bit. But, I don’t have preconceptions about students.

How do you aim to stimulate student motivation in online learning environments?
A couple of ways; I find students get very motivated when they receive a fast turnaround for their work. They also appreciate it when I give detailed feedback.

I give quite detailed feedback not only on the content of their work, but on the form, which is their compositional writing skills.

Most students appreciate it, but ?and you can print this?when I did look myself up one time on the “Rate My Professor” website , one student referred to me as a “grammar Nazi”, but they spelled “grammar” with an -er at the end. I felt vindicated.

What kind of writing style do you want to see from your students?
I like students who are able to express themselves clearly?often simply: clarity, simplicity, and what I would call “parsimony”. Parsimony means using the most effective way to directly express yourself without it being cumbersome, without being longwinded.

I used to send students an attachment for George Orwell’s essay “The Politics of the English Language.” It’s a nice essay. He warns students or readers against writing in the passive voice or with multiple clauses in a single sentence. He advises them to get straight to the point.

What is your approach to giving feedback to students to help them with their learning objectives?
The feedback should be detailed, both form and content. It should be fast. Sometimes I’m even able to get assignments back within a 24-hour period. I like to do that.

Once I outline my assessment criteria, I try to reinforce it. If I find that students have learned from my previous comments that, for example, they should pay more attention to how they put the possessive pronoun?they don’t put the apostrophe in the wrong place?then they get points for the fact that they paid attention (and corrected the mistake). If they continue to make the same mistakes, even though I take the trouble to outline the nature of the mistake, then they lose points.

And finally, I always insist that students have the right of reply. If they think my assessment is unfair, unjust, inaccurate, I want them to tell me. we’ll discuss it in a professional manner.

What do you purport to be the role of technology and multimedia in your online environment?
I don’t have a really good answer for that. I am not technologically sophisticated. In the courses I’m now developing?for example, my graduate course for MAIS?we videotaped twelve half-hour lectures?six hours of video lectures.

I also use video and audio clips from a variety of sources. I use digital readings. And for undergraduate courses, I do sometimes use automated quizzes. I do believe in the importance of mixed measures for assessment.

The more measures you use to assess someone’s performance, the greater the validity and the reliability of the scores.

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