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McGill Reporter
April 28, 2004 - Volume 36 Number 15
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In focus

Pete Barry: Believer in civilization

His mother still thinks he should move to Ottawa and get a real job in the computer sector, but Pete Barry looks pretty happy with the career he fell into at McGill. The phone rings several times on this relatively calm April morning in his office on the Macdonald Campus. "The students are in exams," he explains. Still, there's one at the door. "Just have to make sure I get that wild course," says the young man, agreeing to come back later for advising.

Caption follows
Pete Barry, McGill School of Environment's student advisor and program coordinator
Owen Egan

"Wild" refers to wildlife biology and the student is in the McGill School of Environment's (MSE) domain (their term for an area of specialization) in renewable resources. Part of Barry's job is to make sure the students get the courses they need in order to graduate.

Barry is student advisor at the MSE as well as the school's program coordinator. He's held the position since the school's inception in 1999 and before that was a part-time assistant in the now defunct Environmental Studies Program, the MSE's predecessor that was based in the geography department, where Barry did his master's with Arctic specialist Wayne Pollard.

All of this means that Barry has been both actor and witness in the evolution of the MSE. He laughs, remembering the months before the official opening in the fall of 1999. "There was lots of effort going into the program but no one had scheduled the courses! And then, not knowing how many students we would have made it hard to gauge the room size needed."

Barry started with 42 students in two domains. Today, there are 300 students in 12 domains but still only one Barry, and he must split himself between both campuses of the university. That part of the job pleases him, especially his two days at Macdonald, where it's quieter.

"This is where I can get things done," he laughs, listing some of his many tasks: answering the "hated" email, preparing the lectures on mass extinctions and the formation of the solar system he gives in the MSE team-taught course "The Evolving Earth," providing computer support, creating recruitment materials and helping steer through program changes, such as the MSE honours program now being created.

While he complains jokingly about the many claims on his time and skills, Barry clearly enjoys his position. Not one to book appointments with students, Barry prefers keeping office hours daily from 10 am to 12 pm so they can drop in at will. "It means that I'm constantly interrupted, but that's okay. I leave my door open."

It's the contact with students that Barry likes best about the job, and he will consult with them regarding changes to the MSE and help them find space and support for their many projects. At the moment, for instance, he's working with them to find funds for the McGill Urban Community Sustainment project, dedicated to the creation of a sustainable urban residence and community centre that will be an educational space for McGill students and Montreal citizens.

While Barry cares about the environment, "because we're all part of it," it's not his passion. He values the mandate of objectivity at the MSE, which is "an academic program, not a crusade."

"I'm not an environmentalist, I just work at the MSE," he muses, adding that he believes that his contribution to the environment, aside from hardly using his car, is working with the students who will make a difference.

"More than the environment, I'm concerned the long-term viability of our civilization and I realize that here is a place where you can play a positive role in the development of civilization."

While Barry didn't begin his university studies in geology with an idea to working with people, when he looks back upon the formative experiences of his life, he finds that his summers as a camp counsellor may have started his love of working with young people. "I loved to see the change in the kids over two weeks, as if they were recharging their batteries."

Outside of the MSE, Barry's big interest is a long way from Earth. "My first passion is space," he says, clarifying that he's talking about outer space, not finding space for the MSE. "I read lots of science fiction and academic papers on space. I like hard science fiction, like the works of Gregory Benford and Connie Willis," he says, explaining that hard science fiction portrays the plausible and is often written by scientists.

As we're nearing the end of the interview, Barry admits that one environmental issue really does anger him. "Factory pig-farming infuriates me. It's not right treating animals in that way. So, now I don't buy pork anymore and I eat a lot less meat now than five years ago."

See you in the funny papers

When psychology professor Daniel Levitin was a kid, lounging around reading Superman or Archie comics, he fantasized about growing up to be a cartoonist. "I always thought that would be the coolest thing, but I didn't know how to draw," he told a group of students last month at the talk, "My Life as a Syndicated Cartoonist," sponsored by the Inter-Greek Letter Council.

Ah, drawing, who needs it anyway? Levitin managed to sneak around that requirement for comix glory thanks to his pestering of Bizarro creator Dan Piraro. Now he occasionally writes for the (usually) one-panel cartoon, having furnished Piraro with about 10 percent of the ideas over the past year and a half.

Bizarro took over the newspaper syndication daily slot left by The Far Side, and is about as weird and wonderful as was Gary Larson's anthropomorphic skew on life. Levitin, who used to be a stand-up comedian, quickly became a fan.

Piraro used to publish his email address on the cartoon, so Levitin thought he'd drop him a line.

"I wrote him and said, 'I have some ideas, do you want to hear them?' He wrote back asking what I do."

"'I'm a research scientist' I told him.

"'Well, I've got some ideas for some experiments, would you like to hear those?'" Piraro shot back.

Undeterred, Levitin fired off his first idea. There'd be this fenced-in schoolyard, see, with all these identical kids in it. A clown approaches, but the principal tells him, "I think you've got the wrong place, this is the clone school."

Showed promise. Piraro turned the joke around and worked it into a panel showing anti-cloning activists picketing outside of a building. A guy in a red nose and funny shoes calls out from the gateway, "Hey Einstein, this is a 'clown' school." The reader can just make out a sign in the corner that reads "Levitin Clown Institute."

This was the start of Levitin sending ideas regularly, about half of which would end up being used. His dog, Spike, was a great source of inspiration. Levitin would imagine what dogs would spell in a Scrabble game (bark, arf), or what kind of trophies they'd mount on a wall (a Frisbee, a sock, a postal envelope).

Occasionally Piraro contacts him for brainstorming, like when he decides to tackle a theme for a week, such as the iconic man-stranded-on-a-desert-island motif, or a superhero series, or funeral caskets designed especially for the client (a jumbled up one for Picasso, one wrapped in chains for Houdini).

It was in this last series that Levitin inadvertently created a bit of a kerfuffle. For noted gun-rights advocate and actor Charlton Heston, the casket won't close due to Heston's unbreakable grasp on his beloved rifle. An onlooker tells another, "They can't close this casket until they pry this thing out of his hands." By coincidence, this comic (which was submitted a month before publication) came out on the day it was announced that Heston had Alzheimer's. Letters poured in decrying Piraro's tastelessness. No more controversy, Piraro declared, which meant that Levitin's concept of an octogenarian Mr. Potato Head in tin foil diapers was nixed.

Levitin's favourite is the one that imagines what would have happened if Chuck Berry, father of rock and roll, played the tuba. The Beatles would have appeared on Ed Sullivan with tubas (Paul on a left-handed sousaphone, of course), Jimi Hendrix would have been known for lighting his tubas on fire on stage, and the pop sensation of the '80s would be named U2ba...

His payment? Nothing monetary, but Piraro sends him the original cartoon. So for a guy who can't draw, Levitin's now got a pretty neat collection of art.

To see some of the Bizarro cartoons Levitin collaborated on (not to mention a nifty shot of him wailing on a flaming sax), go to ego.psych.mcgill.ca/levitin.html. Look in the media links for a CBC interview including a musical snippet from his '80s punk band, Judy Garland that played with Bad Brains, Sonic Youth and Flipper.

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