Tuesday, March 29, 2016

'Climate of Fear' or 'Fear of Commitment'?

There are lot of strong statements these days about a climate of fear at UBC or the categorical dismissal of any such thing. Truth often lies somewhere in between.

Over the course of my own life I have often heard people say they feel they can't do this or that for fear of some kind of social sanction being brought down upon them.  From school to work to family life the are formal and informal mechanisms at play to shape social behaviours and attitudes. My disciplinary guild, anthropology, has studied these kinds of social pressures in kin-ordered societies - cultures within which there are no formal state institutions.

Generations of anthropologists have found that indeed human societies (within or outside of states) create rules and mechanisms for enforcing them.  Each society creates particular ways to try and constrain those who deviate from the accepted norms.  From joking and teasing to outright coercion, humans work hard to ensure that group members toe the line.  Anthropologists studying non-state small-scale societies have realized for a long time that group formation and a sense of identity and belonging has been a critical aspect of human sociability cultural stability for millennia.

Pushing social norms is often seen as a threat to social stability. But it is also an important source of innovation and change. In fact, pushing norms and challenging sacred truths is a critical aspect of human resiliency and is part of what contributes to our success (so far) as a species.

So lets turn back to this "climate of fear" at UBC.  It seems to me that it is simultaneously true and false. It is true in the sense that there is much pressure to conform as a faculty member at UBC.  It is false in the sense that if one meets the technical requirements for tenure (grants, publications, teaching) allowances are given for norm pushing behaviours.

Conforming as a faculty member means to do one's work, not cause too much of a fuss, publish and get grants. Going along to get along is a general aspect of most human work environments and it's been my experience at UBC. That's not to say people don't appreciate dissenting voices, but rather that the prevailing work place culture is one that prefers people focus on a narrow technical range of activities that define the workplace.  This breeds a form of workplace conformity in which more junior people try to ascertain (not always correctly) who the power brokers are and then to curry favour.  Conformists, it would appear,  are more likely to be afraid that if they step outside the norms they will be punished.

Ironically so-called 'excellence' is partially measured by innovation - that is, norm breaking. And it is 'excellence' that brings tenure and promotion.

The false side of the "climate of fear" perspective is that the reality is as long as a faculty member does publish when and where it counts, does get grants, and does meet the standards of teaching one can  push norms on the political front - to be a dissident- and still get tenure and promotion.

While it may be true that there are academic administrators who might wish that faculty just shut up and focuss on research I think that most are more interested in finding ways to get us to publish more, get bigger grant's and keep our students happy.  I think that UBC would be an even more interesting, exciting, and engaging place if more people threw away their perception of fear and realized that in the University of Excellence we have a lot of freedom (as long as we publish) to engage in legal acts of political dissent.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Twitter, University Politics, and Critical Engagement

"Hey Menzies don't you have some boring lectures about fishing villages to get back too?" 
 (A Twitter Admirer)

It's not the first time my twitter path crossed threads with student advocates who take umbrage with my commentary.  On the eve of the Paris Terror Attacks last fall UBC's  AMS was engaged in a massive tweet out of Drake Tribute videos. Long before any of us knew what was taking place in Paris my stray comment on the sorry state of student politics had started a mini twitter storm that ended up with a satirical take down of me in the venerable Ubyssey.  World events overtook the AMS video, but not before my twitter feed had been spammed by hundreds of tweets explaining how wrong I was, or a massive nasty facebook dissection of my academic work (mostly ill-informed and ad hominem), or someone in a reditt page (ironically more supportive of my views) found the space to call me a d**k-h**d.

More recently my tweets supporting Nassif Goussoub's and Professor Jennifer Berhdal's perspectives on the sorry state of UBC governance generated some pushback from the author of the "boring lectures" tweet and from several other student luminaries.   

In the old days political critics and opponents may have stood facing each other at a debate, over a picket line, or may have exchanged barbs in the letters page of a local newspaper. Twitter is both a more immediate and intensely public forum of short (easily misunderstood) comment, dialogue, and snark.  The delight of twitter as a forum is it's immediacy.  But that's also it's downside.  In the moment of squinting at small type on a phone, trying clever abbreviations to fit more into the 144 char limit, or just getting in a timely response, a lot of sideways slippage in comprehension can occur. 

We shouldn't overlook the ephemeral aspect of twitter (even as it lasts apparently for ever in a databank somewhere).  The form is ephemeral, the comment's effects ideally fleeting, and the response proportionally ephemeral. This is part of the charm of twitter as a social space. 

The various twitter threads that have led me to this reflection all involve aspects of university politics. My interventions arise from my own history and experience of activism, though history is not well transmitted in the twittersphere. 

A while ago I reflected upon the possibilities for activism and the conditions of work within the contemporary university of excellence. I drew upon my experience as a student, and then as a faculty member, in North American universities of excellence (a la Bill Reading: The University in Ruins). Unlike the earlier university of 'culture' in which what one might say had a potential impact, the measure of success in the contemporary university of 'excellence' is more focused upon how much one might say (in print, in the 'right' journal). My paper, "Reflections on Work and Activism," presents three linked, but autonomous stories that offer counsel to an interested audience on the ways in which engaged progressive political action might intersect with the realities of everyday work and life in the contemporary university of excellence.  It is from (and against) these personal experiences of activism that I measure and consider the actions of other actors in our common political world.

I have always taken a dim view of the career resume padding set of politicos who find power in currying favour with the even more powerful.  One of my own early student political campaigns featured the campaign slogan, "Not another smiling bureaucrat" in the place of my own 'smiling' face. I didn't win, but that wasn't surprising given my campaign was a critique of careerists, fun-advocates, and service oriented peers who saw student government merely as a place to pad resumes, meet business/government/university leaders and generally have a great time doing it. Of the many things that may have changed about me over the past 35 plus years, that sense of intense disdain for the careerist is not one of them. 

So when it comes to twitter I will occasional express a critical opinion of political leaders and actors of all stripes and stations. So don't feel singled out. I am very equitable in who I critique. 

I also complement and endorse activists, like participants of Idle No More and the Occupy Movement, or the activists of the Quebec Student's Movement.  These young people are visionaries who are willing to take real risks to make a difference in our world; the kind of difference that does more than pave the way for personal advancement. 

At UBC we have also had generations of hard working, committed activists who have strived to make real differences.  Since I have been on faculty at UBC we have seen students organize the No to APEC protests (1997), an occupation of the president's office (2002), the 2003 TA Strike, support actions for public school teachers (2002, 2005, 2012), and a host of related political engagements focussed on transforming our world into a more socially just place.

Ultimately, what matters more than any 144 char tweet are the actions of many acting in solidarity to create a better world for all.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Visual Assault on the UBC Campus

For three days now I have been compelled to either alter my path or shift my gaze to avoid the “Abortion Awareness Project” (formally called Genocide Awareness Project) [news links] as I walked from my home to my office in the Anthropology & Sociology Building.

On the first day, Wednesday of this week, I had no warning or prior notice of what I would see or that I should expect anything disruptive. I found the entire display profoundly disturbing.  It is racist, it is violent, it is aggressive.  Yesterday and today I found the same group now installed on the mall in front of Koerner Library. 

I do not know whether or not the images that are on display were previewed by anyone in UBC’s administration prior to their being installed on the campus. I can not image that any reasonable person viewing the images would find them appropriate for public display without some kind of warning, shielding, or other indication of what an unsuspecting viewer might be confronted with.   Nor can I accept that any amount of cash payment would be worth allowing the display to be erected publicly.

To hide behind a veil of free speech allows UBC to exempt itself from dealing with the violence of the particular imagery.  These are deliberate images designed to horrify, shock, and to create unease and anxiety in the viewer.  It is fundamentally a form of assault. What has been permitted on campus for three days now is not about free speech; it’s a public display designed to assault.  It is fundamentally a form of harassment that makes me, colleagues I have spoken with, and students that I know feel threatened and violated in our work place.

Combatting Academic Imperialism: Making space for a Canadian Anthropology #CASCA16

Roundtable: Saturday, May 14, 2016 8:30-10:00

Co-organized: Charles Menzies & Max Forte.

The academic and cultural imperialism of the US, the UK, and France has a long history in Canadian and Quebecois post secondary institutions. The impact and implications vary according to region and type of post secondary institution. This roundtable is designed to create an inclusive pro-active dialogue for Canadian anthropologists to collaborate in combatting academic imperialism.  Many of us have noted the long-standing colonial mentality whereby Canadian doctorates are compared unfavourably with those from the Imperialist heartland. This colonial mentality intrudes into teaching and graduate instruction. This colonial mentality affects hiring practices and job opportunities. Then to further complicate matters we, as disciplinary practitioners, have in turn have participated in an internal colonization of Indigenous Knowledge and peoples. Drawing from Indigenous, Metis, and Progressive Settler perspectives we invite our colleagues and students to join with us in this roundtable on combatting academic imperialism.