Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Moving Beyond Campus Politics These Days

To read any commentary on campus politics these days one could be forgiven for thinking it's an acrimonious battle between two forces: the majoritarian New Puritans versus beleaguered Free Speech advocates.  Any casual web search will reveal scores of articles documenting tales of some misanthropic faculty member shutting down the free speech and free thinking of some student or another.  Dig deeper and we find accounts of student groups demanding that their faculty decolonize themselves. Further down we can learn about emotional labour and how women and people of colour are doing a disproportionate share.  This is all then placed in the frame of an epic battle between a crazy marxist post modernist cabal in control of our universities shutting down a small, but vigorous movement for free speech.

Something is really wrong with this picture. It's not accurate. Campus politics are not riven by ultra left students and their faculty mentors stifling free thinkers. Truth be told the lines of adhesion are between student activist and students politicians and university administrators.  Typically it's front line faculty (of all political stripes) who are the targets of this neo-liberal university alliance.

There has been a change in the nature of student and campus politics in which alignment between students and administrators is closer than at almost any other time over the past fifty years.  Of course, collaborationist politics in which student politicians aligned themselves with university administrations is not new - there is a long history of that.  To be fair this is, for many,  a reasonable approach to take. If one is generally pleased with the shape of the world then it is reasonable to assume that one would align one's politics in such a way as to accumulate as much social capital as one can. Yet from the 1960s into the early 1990s campus politics included far more variation and a lot less reliance upon administrators to act as a 'progressive' vanguard.

One can peruse the pages of the 1980s era student newspaper The Ubyssey and find story after story of anti-tuition protests, petitions, and occupations of the president's office and of the Board of Governors meetings.  One can still find the student politicians who are quoted saying things like quiet lobbying works best or that the administration does care about students. But, the tenour of the day found administrators to be opponents, not allies.

The 1970s and 1980s were materially differnt political and socially from our current period. Economically speaking the big post-world war II economic boom had come to and end, left-progressive politics were being out manoeuvred by a new brand of conservative (represented internationally by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Francois Mitterrand and locally by Bill Bennet and Brian Mulroney). At the same time student progressive politics was still being lead by activists who considered fundamental social change possible. This was a politics focused on direct action, mobilizing public protest and using the instruments of governance as tactics to transform the fundamental economic and social nature of society. But defeat has its cost and demoralization resulted in new forms of politics emerging that were less coordinated,  inconsistent , and more libertarian and individualistic.

The post soviet collapse, the irony of the People's Republic of China being a leading capitalist power, and the total annihilation of most progressive social movements leaves little room, it seems, for any kind of politics other than accommodationist. Clearly the official representatives of student voices on university colleges works within the accommodationist mode. Here at UBC it is very clear that the effective student leadership is all about finding accommodations with the university administration. Where they do disagree it more about a matter of degree than kind: for example, not whether there should be tuition fees, but how much they should go up. Even the erstwhile critical protesters are not arguing for expanded democratic practice and fundamental structural change, but rather they ask for alterations and modifications of administrative policies.

The material conditions of the current moment are shaped by low & stagnating wages for the working classes combined with accelerating incomes for the business & managerial classes. In this context the university's ideology of producing leaders obscures the reality that we are producing labourers for the machinery of business. Like most capitalist ideologies the university's promotes an idea of unlimited success. The ideology producing units highlight notions of innovation (turning research into commodities), valuing diversity (the promise that anyone can become a member of the managerial class), failure is ignored by the constant focuses on success (never truly define),  and through all of this a constant messaging to students that their experience, their feelings, their voices are what matters before else.  Like all ideologies - which are simply idea systems tied to structural power- there is a germ of truth in all of this, most especially that one's experience and sensibilities are important - but when the entire edifice that such experiences are premised is falsely constructed it leads to a problematic politics that merely reinforce the hegemonic structures.

Yet, it is the ideology (not the reality) that the mainstream student politics operates within and for some of them the payout is that ideology becomes reality and they are able to leverage their experience of accommodationist politics into positions within the managerial class leadership of capitalism.  The current movement of student politics reminds me of an older debate within the socialist movement: "is the union leadership the right wing of the working class, or the left wing of the ruling class."

Is there a strong countervailing, counter-hegemonic ideology motivating an alternative student politics?  It doesn't really look like it.  Even those activists that present themselves as opponents of the administration remain locked with an individualized politics framed by the ideas of personal power and privilege.  Accommodationists (those in leadership positions who seek accommodations with administrators) and Oppositionalists (those who agitate against administrators, but expect administrators to change policies) are linked through a similar individualist theoretical approach rooted in ideas of intersectionality (though some more explicitly than others).

Many see intersectionality as in some ways a critical, progressive, paradigm. Some even consider it anti-capitalist. All of this is generally correct in terms of the initial formulations and application.  However the deployment of intersectionality in popular practice has reduced the meaning and utility of the theoretical model.  Intersectionality highlights the intersections of differnt personal identities with a notion of power (often framed as a kind of privilege) and how that shapes an individual's experiences and life possibilities.  While some variants of intersectionality root it analytically in Marxist concepts of exploitation and oppression, vernacular rhetoric and politics has rendered it down to just aspects of personal identity, power as privilege, and thereby produces a set of moral principles about the value of particular types of people and forms of speech.

Oppositionalist political discourse is replete with references to privilege that attaches to individuals as a result of their identity. A great deal of the policy changes the Oppositionalists propose are aimed at undermining privilege that might accrue to race (i.e. being white), gender (being male), seniority (being old), or sexuality (being straight).  This is tied to a moral hierarchy that is considered an inversion of the standard power structure in which older white straight men are seen to be unfairly vested with all of the privilege and power that a society might grant.  Even though social class might have been a component in earlier configurations, in the Oppositionalist politics class is simplistically equated with personal income and wealth.  The policy changes that Oppositionalists agitate for involves replacing the actually existing privilege hierarchy with their transitional inverted morally just hierarchy (ultimately the notion of a hierarchy would disappear as the ill effects of privilege are disassembled).

In practical terms Oppositionalist calls to action urge a redistribution of 'emotional' labour (considered to be disproportionately carried by black, indigenous, women of colour), a removal of special privilege based on gender or sexuality or race, and a realignment of proportions of identities on decision making bodies.  This is very much the same demands the Accommodationists make, except the Accomodationists frame their demands differently as a call for 'diversity.'

Both forms of student politics don't fundamentally challenge the operations of the capitalist economy nor the ideology of individualism - in fact, to varying degrees both approaches validate current structures of power while calling for a redistribution of rewards within the context of the existing power system.  While Oppositionalists will decry an over representation of white men in the professoriate, their solution is not to transform the organization of post secondary education but rather that the ranks of the professoriate be rejigged so that historically marginalized groups are more adequately represented amongst the ranks. There is little talk of undermining the very idea of a ranked professoriate.

Accommodationists call for greater diversity within the professoriate. While less insistent about overturning the rule of white men, Accommodationists call for greater diversity amongst the general student body, on governance bodies, and among groups they refer to as role models.  The arguments here are based on the idea that social and ethnic diversity improves general outcomes (such as productively, wellbeing, effectiveness, etc).  While Oppositionalists call for a similar outcome, they base their argument upon a moral claim of equity - that is all groups, but especially historically marginalized groups, deserve equal inclusion in all aspects of society.  The success of these politics are measured by the number of differnt types of individuals found in the various social groups and categories.

Both Oppositionalists and Accommodationists expect power holders to shift the policies and procedures. There are no calls for self-organization, direct action policing of power elites, or independent organization. Rather, both strands of the dominant campus politics call on the administrators to make all the changes.  This creates intersting alliances in which the parties that end up outside of the power of decision circle are more likely to be working class staff and faculty  and the organizations that represent them.

Capitalism is an amazingly resilient and flexible system of exploitation.  Capitalism cares little as to the race, colour, gender, or age of a worker. Capitalists will use such differences if it works to keep workers weak and divided against ourselves.  If they can get an diversity bonus for being inclusive they will.  But adding a bit of diversity to the mix in the centres of power doesn't change the fundamental basis of exploitation or oppression To address the root problem we need a politics that doesn't make accommodations with those in power nor engage in oppositional  tactics that simply targets individuals as proxies for system change.
  • We need a revitalized progressive politics that is not about what is wrong, but rather argues for what can be better.  
  • We need a class politics, not based on subjective identities, but rooted in our common experience as workers in a capitalist economy.  
  • We need to organize collectively to take power directly, not waste time petitioning administrators to act for us.
It is time to build socialism from below.  If we really want a better world we must imagine what a future without capitalism is and build our politics around that.  Pointing to differences between us and celebrating these differences works well when there is no effective progressive movement. It helps us feel good about who we are and gives us grounds for a sense of moral superiority, but it doesn't help build a better world. To make things better we have to find common ground amongst us.   That commonality is the way in which value is extracted from our labour.  This is also our strength - as the grand majority we are the ones who make the economy work, it is our labour that drives the system.  Without us nothing can happen. But as long as we fight amongst ourselves over scraps from the bosses' table, as long as some of us keep trying to curry favour with the bosses, nothing will change. It's time to reject both versions of campus neo-liberalism: accommodationism and oppositionalism.

A future without capitalism is conceivable. We have the power. All we need to do is act upon it.

For a good explanation of exploitation and oppression, that avoids many of the pitfalls of Oppositionalist discourse, see: Abigail Bakan. “Marxism and Anti-Racism: Rethinking the Politics of Difference" in Bakan & Dua (Eds) Theorizing Anti-Racism.)

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Controversial Events on Campus: a review & reflection

Last man standing. That was my thought as the workshop "Controversial Events on Campus," hosted by UBC's Equity & Inclusion office, drew toward its close. After nearly two hours of conversation the majority of participants were now seated around the edge of the room leaving a lone woman, the moderator, standing  alongside an elderly gentleman with the two of them facing a small group of young men.  Wow I thought - this is a stark example of the problem.

The workshop had begun with an overview of of UBC policies, ideas of free expression, and the standard discussion of the agenda.  Participants, of which there were around 60 or so, were seated in a big circle and the moderator, Dr. Aftab Efran stood at the nominal front of the room. It wasn't long before she had us all in the middle of the room engaged in what she called a "soft shoe shuffle:" a moving conversation that allows all voices to be heard. The process starts with someone making a statement or asking a question and the group either moves towards or away from the speaker according to each person's agreement or disagreement.  It's a facilitation technique that has the potential to work well with a rather diverse set of perspectives.  I am unclear, though, to the extent that this can actually reconcile differences of perspective when they are deep, profound, and fundamentally antagonist to each other.  That said we all seemed willing to give the process a try.

We compliantly shuffled around the room shifting one way or they other through a range of fairly generic topics. The Ubyssey has a nice review of the topics in their article. As time went on people seemed to become comfortable with floating ideas potentially more controversial or provocative. With these more explicit expressions of perspective the room started to clearly subdivde into one larger, quieter, gender mixed group and then one smaller, louder, predominantly young male group.

At one point one of the young men, in response to a question as to why more people don't speak up, said something along the lines of "they have an obligation to speak if they object. We can't respond to what they don't say."

At which point I spoke about how  amongst the Tsimshian peoples on BC's north coast silence is not quiescence nor agreement. Rather, silence and non-participation is a profound statement of disagreement.  The young man interjected "that's just one culture." Without stating it the young man revealed his own cultural bias - the idea that a certain type of speech is universally dominant in a way that removes it from the notion of being 'culture.' Indigenous protocols and governance procedures are, for him, 'cultural' and thereby particular and (I assume for him) problematic and flawed.

To assert one cultural norm - "speak up or forever hold your peace" - over another without any other reason except a bald assertion this is just the way it is is a profound form of tunnel vision. It is tied to a variant of eurocentric thought (say we cay 'culture'?) that aggressively projects itself as the only civilized way of organizing human societies. It's the same set of beliefs that contributed to european elites expanding globally in one of the largest smash and grab operations the world had ever seen. But it takes a certain kind of blind arrogance to ignore the myriad of ways human beings can (and have) organized themselves.

There has to be something profound to learn from a society that has remained socially stable, healthy, productive, and creative for millennia. I don't mean the Europe that languished on the margins of the old world in relative isolation from the centers of cultural innovation until well into the middle ages. I am talking about the world here, a world within which UBC is located. 

UBC is situated on Indigenous lands. That's a legal fact - title has not been extinguished. No treaties have been signed dealing with the land UBC sits on. The young men from the workshop can complain, can say has history has moved past, they might even point to how Indigenous cultures are primitive and people just need to get over it (and cite a person they mentioned at one point, Frances Widdowson, whose published work equates Indigenous societies to the era of savagery).  The material facts, however, challenge their assertions.  The detailed scientific record documents long lasting societies in which massive cedar frame homes existed in the same place for centuries. It wasn't perfect (tell me a human society that was or is ... ), but it was one way that human beings found to live engaged, creative, productive lives that respected an interplay between collective and individual wellbeing. But our young men appeared unwilling to hear the possibility of other ways beyond their own way of doing things.

As a man, as a father of young men, as a university teacher I feel for the angst these young men expressed during the workshop.  But I am pretty sure they have got it wrong. They seem to feel that other people are getting an advantage over them - by other people I think they mean women and people of colour.  But what they are experiencing is in fact having to compete with a group of people who had previously been excluded from the competition in the first place and in comparison, many of them come up lacking (not all, but enough to motivate a movement).

One of the successes of second wave feminism involved dismantling a lot of the barriers that women faced. My late mother, who was a school teacher, used to talk of how she came out to UBC as a young women to talk with faculty in the horticultural program about studying there (keep in mind this was the late 1940s or early 1950s).  They sized her up and said, without even discussing academics, women aren't good horticulturalists, maybe you should consider becoming a nurse or a teacher? Her experience was not dissimilar among women of her generation.  Second wave feminism attacked those false boundaries. Admission requirements (formal or informal) based on gender are no longer supposed to be tolerated. In this context, and despite the expansion of post secondary opportunities, young men are finding themselves at a disadvantage - not becuase of unfair advantages granted to women, but becuase they just don't measure up now that the special advantage of being male has been removed. 

Now before anyone suggests I selling my gender out or that I might be suggesting no young man is smart enough to make it, let me be clear that is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that even as the barriers to women's full participation in post secondary are coming down the messaging to young men hasn't yet caught up. The old message implied that being a boy and a young man gave you something a little bit special. The new message is that being a human being in our various and marvellous forms is what makes us special - not the gender assigned to us.  But while young men are still hearing the old whispers about how special they are, they aren't seeing as many special rewards as they might think they deserve.  In fact some of them rather feel like they are being made fun of, dismissed, rated down and discriminated against: but they are not.

And there we were at the end of the workshop with a half dozen young men stading in a half circle facing down the moderator and one elderly gentleman. It was as though they thought that if they expressed their feelings enough times, if they shifted their circle a bit tighter, if they said it loud enough, then all of us sitting quietly around the outside might somehow change our minds and "say you're right, it's so terrible that your special privileges are being taken away." But that isn't going to happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

Building a better future in the university

a partial manifesto for moving forward.

The struggle for social justice has no intrinsic direction. With every step forward we seem to find ourselves pushed back. In moments of success those who take advantage of the victories at times were those most silent during the struggle. Yet we can maintain hope that it is in the partial victories, the half steps, and the hesitant actions that foundations for fundamental change can be laid. This is a partial manifesto for a better future in the university.

A better future in the university must build upon a better future for the working class.

A better future in the university places improvements for working people at the heart of the movement.

Workers, not customers, not donors, not managers, workers must be at the center of the movement for a better future.

A living wage for all workers is the principal upon which all compensation for labour in the university is to be based.  This means:

  • an immediate freeze on all salaries in excess of 150,000 per year until the lowest salaries all exceed the minimum living wage for Vancouver (currently 42,000 per year).  
  • establish compensation grid for all staff in which the difference between top salary and bottom salary is no more than 3:1.
  • shift from 'funding' graduate students to employing them as full time workers with a living wage represented by a trade union. 

This builds and elaborates a set of comments I previously posted on twitter.

Previous social justice posts.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Calling on #UBC to step up and support our alumna Loujain Al-Hathloul (Arts, 2014)

29 May 2018

Lindsay Gordon, Chancellor, UBC
Santa J, Ono, President and vice-Chancellor, UBC

Dear Mr Gordon and Dr Ono:

“Pursuing excellence in research, learning and engagement to foster global citizenship and advance a sustainable and just society across British Columbia, Canada and the world.” – UBC’s purpose per Shaping UBC’s Next Century: Strategic Plan, 2018-2028

A UBC alumna, Loujain Al-Hathloul (Arts, 2014), has been detained without clear charges and without ability to contact her family in Saudi Arabia.  Ms Al-Hathloul is a well-known human rights activist in Saudi Arabia. The nature and timing of her detention strongly suggest that it is part of a crackdown on human rights in Saudi Arabia.

We, the undersigned, are deeply troubled by the following official response to a request that UBC comment on Ms Al-Hathloul’s detention:

“A spokesperson for UBC declined to comment on the case, saying the university has over 300,000 alumni and that it would be ‘inappropriate’ to comment on actions unrelated to their time at UBC.”

As a degree-holder from UBC, Ms Al-Hathloul is a life-long member of UBC Convocation.  In this sense her time in the UBC academic community has not ended.  We as faculty members at UBC (and thus as members of Convocation also) expect and demand that UBC show more concern for the welfare of all members of the UBC community—and certainly those whose human rights are actively being violated.

Moreover, we do not believe and would be entirely chagrined to discover that Ms Al-Hathloul’s human rights work is “unrelated to [her] time” as a UBC student.  UBC endorses human rights in many of policies and statements.  We expect that these values will be instilled in all of the members of our community.  When alumni lead in the effort to advance human rights around the world, we must actively support them.  Otherwise we cannot fulfil what our new strategic plan claims to be our university purpose—the advancement of global citizenship and justice around the world.

We, the undersigned, call upon the President, the Chancellor, and the Board of Governors to fulfil their obligations to Ms Al-Hathloul: to actively and publically demand that she be treated justly in Saudi Arabia and to work to assure that she is so treated. 

Dr Ono is quoted in Shaping UBC’s Next Century as saying “This is our time to inspire.” In this matter UBC has been anything but inspiring, anything but just.

  • Alan Richardson, Professor, Philosophy
  • Nassif Ghoussoub, Professor, Mathematics
  • Charles Menzies, Professor, Anthropology
  • Sima Godfrey, Associate Professor, French Studies
  • Ayesha Chaudhry, Associate Professor, 
  • Judy Z. Segal, Professor, English
  • Anthony Paré, Language and Literacy Education
  • Jennifer Berdahl , University of British Columbia, Sauder School of Business
  • John Stockie (UBC Alumnus), Simon Fraser University, Mathematics
  • Carla Nappi , University of British Columbia, Department of History
  • Don Baker, University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies
  • Siobhan McElduff, University of British Columbia, CNERS
  • Miranda Burgess, University of British Columbia, Department of English
  • Michael Krisinger, University of British Columbia, Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology
  • Tal Jarus, University of British Columbia, Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy Department, Faculty of Medicine
  • Brian McIlroy, University of British Columbia, Department of Theatre and Film
  • Adam Frank, University of British Columbia, Department of English Language and Literatures
  • Sheryl Adam, University of British Columbia, Koerner Library
  • Stephen Guy-Bray, University of British Columbia, Department of English
  • Sebastian Prange, University of British Columbia, Department of History
  • Juliet O’Brien, University of British Columbia, Department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies
  • Alfred Hermida, University of British Columbia, School of Journalism
  • Stephanie van Willigenburg, University of British Columbia, Mathematics
  • S Dollinger, University of British Columbia, Department of English Language and Literatures
  • Miguel Mota, University of British Columbia, Department of English Language and Literatures
  • Maureen Ryan, University of British Columbia, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory
  • T’ai Smith, University of British Columbia, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory
  • Bruce Rusk, University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies
  • Thibault Mayor, University of British Columbia, Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Michael Smith Laboratories
  • Elyse Yeager, University of British Columbia, Mathematics
  • Hotze Rullmann, University of British Columbia, Department of Linguistics
  • ND Ruse, University of British Columbia, Dentistry
  • Patricia Badir, University of British Columbia, Department of English
  • Tai-Peng Tsai, University of British Columbia, Mathematics
  • Carolyn Gotay, University of British Columbia, School of Population and Public Health
  • Alan Mackworth, University of British Columbia, Department of Computer Science
  • Joshua S. Mostow, University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies
  • Sam Rocha, University of British Columbia, Department of Educational Studies
  • Ross King, University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies
  • Joseph Stemberger, University of British Columbia, Department of Linguistics
  • Christian Schoof, University of British Columbia, Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences
  • Michael Zeitlin, University of British Columbia, Department of English Language and Literatures
  • Ignacio Adriasola, University of British Columbia, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory
  • Judith Paltin, University of British Columbia, Department of English
  • Kellogg Booth, University of British Columbia, Department of Comupter Science
  • Thomas Kemple, University of British Columbia, Department of Sociology
  • Alla Sheffer, University of British Columbia, Computer Science
  • Richard Froese, University of British Columbia, Mathematics
  • Gordon Slade, University of British Columbia, Department of Mathematics
  • Sunera Thobani, University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies & Social Justice Institute
  • Joy Dixon, University of British Columbia, Department of History
  • Nathan Hesselink, University of British Columbia, UBC School of Music
  • David Kirkpatrick, University of British Columbia, Computer Science
  • E. Wayne Ross, University of British Columbia, Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy
  • Kurt Huebner, University of British Columbia, Institute for European Studies
  • Tina Loo, Department of History
  • Jessica Wang, Department of History
  • Andrew Rechnitzer, Professor, Mathematics
  • Michael Tenzer, Professor of Music
  • Suzana K. Straus, University of British Columbia, Professor of Chemistry
  • Susanna Braund, CNERS, UBC
  • Bill Winder, French, Hispanic and Italian Studies, UBC
  • Stephen Petrina, Professor, Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy, UBC
  • John Roosa, Department of History, UBC
  • Bruno D. Zumbo, Professor & Distinguished University Scholar, Department of ECPS, UBC
  • Stefan Taubert, Medical Genetics, UBC
  • Anne Gorsuch, Professor, Dept of History, UBC
  • Gunnar Ólafur Hansson, Associate Professor, Department of Linguistics, UBC
  • Jennifer Love, Professor, Chemistry, UBC
  • Sven Bachmann, Assistant Professor, Mathematics
  • Alexei Kojevnikov, Associate Professor, Department of History, UBC
  • Cristina Conati, Professor, Department of Computer Science, UBC
  • Scott Anderson, Associate Professor, UBC Department of Philosophy
  • Mark Mac Lean, Department of Mathematics, UBC
  • Rik Blok, Lecturer, Integrated Sciences, UBC
  • Lisa Matthewson, Professor, Department of Linguistics, UBC
  • Jude Walker, Assistant Professor, Educational Studies, UBC
  • Ed Perkins, Department of Mathematics, UBC
  • Katherine Bowers, CENES, UBC

We have this letter on two blogs and there are signers adding their name here.  I will add names to this copy as well, as time permits. 

Colleagues are invited to send me their names if they wish to be included as signatories to this letter.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Faculty Governor By-election

Voting will begin for the position of a replacement faculty governor on May 14, 2018. UBC-V faculty will have an opportunity to select one person out of the field of however many candidates there might be.

UBC is at a critical juncture.  We are emerging from a series of governance related missteps: the forced resignation of President Gupta, mishandling of a series of sexual harassment allegations (including the public dismissal of a faculty member), an egregious interference into a business faculty's academic freedom, and the list seems to go on.  We seem to have reached a turning point with important advances, such as President Ono's apology for UBC's complicity in residential schools and the Board of Governor's setting up a special committee to advance aboriginal engagement on campus. We also see potential improvements in the internal governance of the board emerging. As with all critical junctures the path forward is not preordained.

Faculty governors can play a significant role in shaping the outcomes of such moments. During the Gupta affair our faculty colleagues on the board appeared to sit back and do nothing but go along. Becuase they operated under a veil of silence we may never know if they acted appropriately, but clearly it is widely believed they, and the entire inner circle of the board, did not.

We are at a juncture point where we need a colleague widely know for the courage of their convictions. We need a senior colleague who has local, national, and international standing to be elected to the board. We need a colleague who understands, through their own experience of life, that respecting diversity means action in practice, not tokenism.  We need a colleague who has done more than simply grow their own 'leadership' skills in dean's offices or highly ranked labs. We need a genuine, hard working, experienced colleague filled with compassion and motivated by passion.

I know there is at least one such person who has put their name forward. I will be voting for them and I urge that colleagues do the same.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Departure of Dr. Chaudhry from the #UBCBoG

The seat for an elected Vancouver faculty member on the Board of Governors that is currently held by Ayesha Chaudhry will become vacant as of June 30th, 2018.  To fill this vacancy, this is a by-election for one (1) eligible faculty member from the Vancouver campus to serve for the remainder of the 2017-2020 triennium, for a term beginning July 1, 2018 and ending on February 29, 2020.
It is a disappointment to lose a scholar and public intellectual like Ayesha Chaudhry from the Board of Governors at UBC.   Over the year that I have served with her on the Board at UBC I have found my own understanding of our world broadened. Not a scholar of religious studies or classics I will confess to having been unfamiliar with her research prior to meeting her on the board. What a revelation, what a privilege to get to learn from her through her engagements on the board and through exploring her publications.  When the university publicity people talk about excellence at UBC it is colleagues like Dr. Chaudhry who give actual meaning to that often empty term.

In the discussion of her departure colleagues have speculated as to why she has left.

Dr. Chaudry has pointed to her coming sabbatical as the primary reason for her departure. 

Sabbaticals of course are not guaranteed. At the start of the year we might apply and not know the answer for some time.  Sabbaticals take time and require our focus on research.  When we are provided with a sabbatical opportunity it's important we follow up on it and make it productive. In addition, when we take leave for a sabbatical we are supposed to step aside from our various administrative commitments.

We do get a hint at Dr. Chaudhry's impression of work on the board when she tells The Ubyssey that
she plans to apply what she has learned at the Board to her research “turn[ing] historically white, heteronormative institutions into spaces that celebrate diversity in a way that is equitable and sustainable, without tokenizing and exploiting the very people who are brought in to diversify a space.”
I can't help but wonder had the Board acted differently might Dr. Chaudhry still be a governor.

Dr. Jennifer Berdahl posted a comment to her blog earlier today that compares her own experience on the Presidential Search Committee to what she imagines Chaudhry experienced on the Board.  At the heart is the way the current power structures create a sense of futility for those of us intersted in effecting real, meaningful change.  As Berdahl notes: "If Prof. Chaudhry’s experience was anything like mine on the UBC Presidential Search Committee, she quickly realized how alienating it is to be one of only three faculty members on a 21-person corporate-controlled Board. It was likely even worse for Chaudhry as a woman of colour. Combining this with the Board's shenanigans that are designed to manipulate information and process to achieve desired decisions and minimize academic voices, a sense of helpless futility can set in."

It is too soon to say whether anything will change with the new board chair, but the experience over the past year (from my perspective) has been fatiguing.  For Dr. Chaudhry and myself, who were elected on a platform of change it takes a lot of emotional energy to engage in an environment where what we say is either ignored,  dismissed, greeted with an obfuscational answer, or we are explicitly told we are wrong.

Reviewing governance, tinkering with procedures and rules of order for meetings, are all well and fine.  However, if the cultural practices of racialized discourse, gendered power, and inherent valourization of wealth over intellect remain unchallenged no amount of tinkering with rules and procedures will create a better outcome. If the board is serious about engaging honestly with all faculty (not just those that agree with them) and sincerely wants to create the capacity for real diversity, then they will need to address the cultural practices that fundamentally exclude and demean those of us who are not members of the corporate elite.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Privatization, Student Housing, and UBC

UBC quietly announced last Friday the 13th, through a report to the UBC Board of Governors, that they are planning on privatizing aspects of student housing through the creation of Government Business Enterprise. The Ubyssey reports out UBC's argument for privatization.

This new GBE would be joining UBC Properties Trust (UBC's real estate developer) and IMANT (UBC's investment management firm). Both of which operate outside of the view of public scrutiny. Even though they are whole owned by UBC, normal freedom of information requests (FOIPPA): that is, they have no obligation to divulge information in the same way that UBC must comply. Another aspect is that as a GBE these entities are able to raise private debt that does not show up on the government ledger and in ways that UBC itself is legislatively constrained from doing.

As presented to the Board on Friday the 13th last Andrew Parr, UBC's head of housing, described how the management plan would essentially be restricted to managing the physical assets - specific details of the presentation, which was presented in open session and shared with governors, cannot be located on the UBC Board of Governor's web page as of today's date. Nor is there mention that any info on this project will be brought to the April 19th Board meeting as posted on the web page.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Enhancing the Student Experience

For the first time ever at UBC the contributions of student tuition fees exceede provincial government contributions to UBC’s core budget. This startlingly fact was the backdrop to a strenuous grilling of UBC’s VP Finance and Provost by governors at the Friday the 13th meeting of UBC’s Board of Governors standing committee for finance.

Given the fact students contribute more to UBC’s budget than the provincial government,  governors asked why more wasn’t being done to enhance the student experience.  By way of explanation the provost reiterated UBC’s commitment to the student experience. In a back and forth with a governor the provost outlined a range of programs that focus on enhancing the student experience. At several points the chair of the board would intervene pressing the provost for more explanations and elaboration. For his part the provost responded in measured and deliberate tone outlining the programs in play, conceding more could be done, and affirming the importance of students in the overall process.

As a faculty member listening to this I wondered about the background discourse undergirding the discussion.  How is focussing upon a student’s experience at UBC related to our core mission: education and research?  What is actually being meant by experience. Why is no one questioning the inadequacy of the government’s core contribution? What about our contingent colleagues? Our part time precarious colleagues pick up a great deal of the teaching responsibilities across our campuses. Is there not something we can do to improve their working conditions? Remember faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.  From my perspective all these questions received short shrift.

I did take the opportunity to ask the provost, given how financially sound our university is, why more funds couldn’t be directed toward improving the living and working conditions of contingent faculty. “I’ll take that under consideration” he said with no further elaboration.

More questions followed highlighting how the student experience needed to be enhanced as a priority to which the provost engaged in lengthy and detailed elaborations of how that might be accomplished.  One could be excused for concluding that it seemed that since students pay so much their experience was to be front and center.

We all come from particular experiences and backgrounds.  Student reps build upon a time horizon of their studies and their annual terms of office. Appointed reps come from outside the university and have varying degrees of familiarity with UBC. Faculty governors tend to be lifers. We often have one, two, even three decades of experience at UBC by the time we consider getting involved at the Board.  We do see things differently than our colleagues on the board.  Some of us are quiet – preferring to speak softly from the margins. Others are more brash and outspoken. But we all share a fundamental material experience of actually working at the front line of the student experience: in classrooms, laboratories, and our units.  We do so from the vantage point of years of hands on experience – we are not transitory visitors on our campuses.

Part of our experience is to see the various fashions of student politics and administrative plans come and go. Sometimes these movements have real effects; often they are fleeting and disappear almost before they are fully deployed. 

There is much about the university as a total institution that seems driven to cultivate experiences. A lot of board discussion circles around ideas of reputation and brand.  Who pays and how much they pay (be they governments, donors, or students) is also a big deal at the board. Cultivating a good experience for students is central to many of these discussions.

What is this experience that everyone is talking about? I hear about classroom experience, residence experience, and student experience writ large. Very little of it seems to be specifically tied to learning (unless it’s about more engaging, entertaining, learning with technology).  While I’m sure board colleagues will disagree with this conclusion, it does seem to me that the experience being touted is really the experience of a customer seeking fulfilment through the purchase of a service. What is seen as important is not what is learned, but the grade; not the productive struggle of learning but the validation of self in a great experience as a member of an imagined community.  A good student experience very likely leads to a productive alumni relationship - one where the alumni feels good about giving money.  

If one is seeking an experience take a year off and hike the Continental Divide Scenic Trail. Go to a circus. If you want an education then head on over to a lecture, read a book, join a seminar. Let’s focus on the real learning that is made possible by your faculty (tenure stream and contingent). Want to improve the student experience? Then bring on board more faculty to teach courses with smaller class sizes. Pay contingent faculty living wages. Better yet, create meaningful job security for contingent faculty.  

If we are interested in improving the student experience then we have to make sure that faculty working conditions are attended to. Our working conditions are student learning conditions. Can't have the latter without the former.   The solutions are pretty simple: reduce class size, increase support for faculty in terms of teaching (in class and for course development and professional growth), reduce reliance of customer satisfaction surveys and delink from performance evaluation (otherwise called student evaluations of teaching), decrease focus on star recruitment, and  improve working conditions and employment security for contingent faculty.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Time for New Faces on the #UBCBoG

With the departure of several current members of the UBC Board of Governors either announced of imminent the time is right for a community wide discussion of what kinds of governors do we want shaping the future of BC's Flagship University.  Currently, outside of the elected reps, most governors come from either a legal or corporate background of one sort or another. But there are many other critical sectors of society that can offer expertise and considered advice. Over the past 16 years those voices have been excluded.

The board often has had a corporate human relations type person.  Why not a person from the trade union movement.  In the past we have seen major union leaders appointed to the board - they too are important leaders in society. I hesitate to suggest actual people, but imagine if the current BCFed President, Irene Lanzinger was appointed tot he Board! What an amazing person she is. The former BCTF President as a long history of involvement with public education leadership and has wide connections through out BC.  Organized Labour is a critical voce that needs to be heard.  Especially given the range of decisions UBC's Board is engaging.  To make these decisions without the expertise, experience, and sensibilities of Labour is crying shame.  

Another sector absent from the boards current composition is a person from a civil society organization. Perhaps from an environmental non-governmental organization or an agency.   Given the perspectives of many British Colombians about sustainable economic development it seems problematic that we do not have someone who can speak knowledgeably at the Board level on issues of ecology.  We especially need the knowledge and expertise of those who work in the environmental domain but do not have their roots in figuring out how to make money from it.  One of the recent appointees to the board, Joel Solomon, represents the clean capitalist (his words) approach to the environment.  We need a complementary voice that is not tied to business. What better place than from an ENGO like the David Suzuki Foundation, for instance.

Another important sector would be from First Nations leadership in British Columbia. There are Indigenous members of the board.  We are here for our areas of professional expertise, not necessarily for the fact of our Indigeneity (though, in my case I was elected by my peers as a faculty member).  Reaching out to First Nations leadership and asking for a prominent leader to participate is one important way of recognizing and affirming UBC's commitment to reconciliation and implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions call to action.  UBC constantly issues land acknowledgements before official meetings stating that we are standing on unceded traditional First Nations territory. It's time to put meaning behind those words by brining onboard leadership from the First Nations community. Rather than acknowledging, Musqueam and the  Okanagan Nation Alliance, for example, invite the Chief Councilor of Musqueam or the ONA Chair to participate in governing UBC.

These three leadership areas of society have been excluded from UBC's Board of Governors over the past 16 years. Isn't it time for new faces?  Let's put some action behind the words. Let's bring onboard people who in fact represent more than a narrow slice of the elite.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Teaching Intro: "Am I the one to do it?"

Am I the right person to teach an introductory anthropology course?

I've taught cultural anthropology introductory courses at least a dozen times since arriving at UBC in the mid-1990s. First I was assigned it because I was the junior colleague.  Then I volunteered for it because no-one else seemed to want to teach it.

I always enjoy teaching the intro course - especially if I get to teach it in the fall term.  I find it rather special to be there at the start of the year with several hundred excited eager new students. There is an energy in the air.  It is as though we are setting off on a new adventure of learning together. But just becuase I enjoy the students, the class, and the opportunities for my own learning doesn't mean the students share my sentiments.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that a significant number of them end up disappointed for one reason or another with their experience.  Thanks to student evaluations of teaching I know all about my multifaceted flaws and faults - they are legion. But lest one thinks it's all depression inducing snark, it's not:  there are almost as many students who are complimentary as are snarky and a good bunch whose commentaries fall into the grand middle zone.  But I know that there are students who finish the class feeling disappointed with their experience.

It hasn't always been this way, and there are courses (like my courses about First Nations Issues, Social Inequality, or Local Ecological Knowledge) wherein the students express strong positive feedback and search out other courses I am teaching to take.

Early on, when I taught introductory anthropology like the majority of instructors teach it - a cross cultural tour of the varieties of human experience- the student feedback was far more positive about the course content. As I matured in my teaching I became more confident in breaking away from a mold that I find colonialist in it's approach. Yet the young students signing up for the course have been quite clear - for many of them they take an introductory anthropology course to learn neat things about peoples all around the world.  If they want to confront issues of contemporary North American society they'd rather take a sociology course they tell me.  This is compounded by the reality that the majority of anthropology courses, especially introductory ones, sell themselves as a kind of tour of human variability, exotic cultural habits, and then slip in a bit of small 'l' liberal sentiment about what an amazing thing human cultures are - a kind of many coloured path of difference and delight.

That's not what brought me to anthropology. Truth be told, I've always held a healthy sense of disregard for the cultural tourists who seem to flock to big sections of anthropology. I've been motivated by making sense of our world - not to be able to delight in difference but rather, to make meaningful changes in our society here and now. Anthropology, as an approach, provides a methodological view on how people create meaning and organize our relations (social, economic, material, and intangible). To make change one needs to understand this.

Is the only answer simply to step away from teaching introductory courses?  Couldn't I just teach a "critical anthropology" introductory course?

I suppose I could. In fact once or twice I did try that.  However, to teach a critical course one needs to teach the basics of what one is critical of. So one must first present the global cultural tour that anthropology normally does and then take it all down one piece at a time.  There are ways of doing that but I wonder if an introductory course is the right place to do that.  If the problem is with the way anthropology is done and taught then why, even for the sake of critique, teach a problematic content and approach? Wouldn't it be better to simply drop the problematic way and teach a new anthropology (if such a thing might be possible)?

Okay, so if the solution is to teach introductory anthropology in a new way what might that look like? We might call this the decolonized model- pulling the imperialist intentions and connections of anthropology out and focussing on the inner social scientist focussed on identifying how the world works and what is required to change it. I've tried that too (many of my upper level courses are very much cast in this mold). The difficulty here is that then the course can be read against the other sections of the same course as critique of the other sections or (more likely) failure of my section to deliver.  As critique it gets under colleagues' skin - it is a de facto critique not just of anthropology, but more personally, also of them.  It's not the intent of decolonizing approach - but it is an effect. As failure it just brings up the snark side of student evaluations.

Ideally we would collectively change our curriculum - but I know my guild well enough to appreciate that the majority is not really intersted in fundamental change. There have been attempts to do this.  Paul Durrenberger and Susan Erem's Anthropology Unbound is one example that draws upon a political economic framework and bases things firmly in our contemporary world. Another is Eric Lassiter and Elizabeth Campbell's methodological approach - here the focus is on doing anthropology collaboratively.  Lassiter also has a somewhat more classical text, Invitation to Anthropology, that while more aligned to the traditional approach, does shift direction to one more contemporarily focussed.  Yet I find these and related solutions partial and unsatisfying in their application as they are still rooted within an anthropological discipline.

I think the underlying issue is more fundamental - it's the adherence to a thing called a discipline. I have been known to half jokingly say "Marxism is the discipline, anthropology is just the method." It's a tongue-in-cheek kind of way to draw attention to the idea anthropology is only a partial view of our world and without the discipline of seeking to improve it it is simply a method.  It is also to suggest that a more wholistic view of humanity is needed than is provided by our contemporary disciplines.

Anthropology is the child of European imperialism - it was born on the decks of expeditionary ships sent to survey, map, document, and incorporate the worlds beyond Europe's shores.  More than that it was a method fully formed in the crucible of an expansionary economic system called capitalism.  Anthropology shares this history with the cognate disciplines of Sociology (designed to study the dangerous folks of the capitalist heartland) geography (to demarcate and enclose landed property on behalf of capital), and political science (the means to exert authority and control over subjugated people).  These fours sisters of capitalist knowledge production equally stand in need of a transformative reconnection.

Realistically transformation of core disciplines is unlikely at this juncture. One can hope. Over the years there have been many attempts to reconfigure disciplinary practice - we are currently in a moment where trans/multi/inter-disciplinary practices are encouraged.  My contention though, is that the fundamental factor that needs to be changed is the way these disciplines are configured to the structures and processes of capitalism.  From the ways in which research is funded and directed (heavy emphasis on impact, utility, and 'innovation' as commercialization),  the structures of the academic workplace (two tier labour contracts with privileged stable categories supported by underpaid/overworked contingent labour), to internal departmental funding (typically based on student enrolments and revenue generating capacities). All this highlights that transformation of disciplinary practice involves transformation of our universities and the societies within which they operate. This brings me back to my opening question.

Am I really the right person to teach an introductory anthropology course. Yes and no.

On the no card. I disappoint many of the students: most of whom want the cultural tour of the exotica of human cultural variation. I disappoint my department head: as the disappointed students drop the course once they realize it's not a cultural tour of the exotica of human cultural variation.  I disappoint myself as I hold back halfway between doing the tour and deconstructing the discipline.

On the yes card. There are students who step up to the challenge and find themselves growing through the experience. Like the student who found themselves examining the social conservatism of their upbringing - not by rejecting it, but by seeing it as one of several ways they could honour their cultural heritage without remanning enslaved by it.  There are those who speak out in class - picking up the challenge to engage, debate, explore, and examine received wisdom (mine as well as society's).  Then there are students I run into years after they have taken the course and they tell me how much they appreciate the course now, some say they didn't like it at the time, didn't get it, but as they thought back on it they were glad they had taken it.

I think that the yes card outweighs the no card - at least in the long run. But in the context of the neo-liberal university of excellence the no takes it. In a world where teaching is considered a delivery of a commodity to meet a client's expectations I'm not the person for the cultural survey of exotica.