Saturday, March 16, 2019

Making the Case: Recognizing and Assessing Indigenous Scholarship in Higher Education


The follow are my speaking notes for the talk I gave as part of the "Making the Case" presentation, hosted by the Faculty of Education, UBC. This is not a word for word script - but it does cover the essence of what I said!

The experiences that we have, -the things we do, the way we act with and against them- these are all part of what shapes our perspectives. I am speaking about recognizing and assessing Indigenous Scholarship in Higher Ed through the vantage point of three specific types of experiences.

(1) As an Indigenous Faculty member
(2) As a former member of our faculty association executive
(3) As a current member of the board of governors

Each of these kinds of experiences lends it own unique view of the matter before us today. 

Our university Board of Governors is interested in making changes, yet from the vantage point of the top it is often hard for a Board to move with clarity or comprehension as to what actually needs to change. Information is filtered through the presentations of senior administrators. They hear through their chains of command particular pieces of information - but there is no actual direct way to bring the experience of those at the frontline into the board room in a way that might fundamentally shape outcomes. There are signs that show the board is opening to listening.

Our board currently has an indigenous engagement committee.  This is an important place to intervene and submit ideas to. It's membership includes three First Nations members of the Board of Governors - which is itself a notable moment in our history as a university), two First Nations community representatives, and the requisite students, staff, and administrators. Given the structure of board committees it is difficult to get info in that doesn't come via a committee member or a member of the universities top administrators. That said, I urge people to send ideas and suggestions on how to authentically expand Indigenous participation at UBC.  

The board moves in response to the political climate. Under the provincial Liberals, Indigenous issues were not in the top drawer, they were down the priority list. The current political climate is more open. Melanie Mark, Minister of Advance Education and her NDP colleagues have been very clear that advancing Indigenous issues is of critical importance. Hearing that, the university has moved on some issues. It is a rare presentation to the UBC Board of Governors these days that does not include some reference or other (large or small) to Indigenous issues.  But these are all things that can change and unless clear structural changes are made now with the change of political winds so to will the university's top level directions change.

As individuals our vantage points are unique and particular. We understand our specific case and we see decisions made immediately proximate to us. However, even though we often share and compare notes between colleagues across the university the way are units are constituted often means that our particular experiences and advice does not translate across units.  

I have, just the same, noted how the qualitative descriptions of my files for contract review, for tenure, and for promotion have a had a tone that resonates with other Indigenous colleagues across campus and the country, but differing substantially from the tone of files prepared for non-Indigenous settler colleagues.  When it is just one person's file it is simply that, just one person's file. But when the comparisons with others in similar situations turn up with similar experiences, having faced similar criticisms, it becomes apparent that we are looking at something that is structural, not particular. While we might experience it as personal, it isn't - it is systemic and fundamentally discriminatory. 

Over the years I have noted a structure in reports that have had a tone that sometimes seemed to imply surprise that I had done so much, or it conveyed an underlying sense of critical evaluation of the "it isn't quite right but we'll accept it kind," or even the outlining of inadequacies in ways that mirror popular stereotypes of indigenous peoples. When speaking with other Indigenous colleagues I have heard of similar experiences. 

Standing in contradistinction have been the qualifiers used in describing white colleagues’ files. Here one finds a discursive structure  that is qualitatively different. 

This all happens within a technical formal context where the criteria is called 'excellence.' Wherein a publication in a US disciplinary journal is understood to hold quantitatively more of that intangible quantity 'impact' than a paper published in the Canadian Journal of Native Education, for example. Calling out the inherent biases lying under the technical indicator of 'Impact' unleashes several types of responses: confirmation that one doesn't understand how the university works (something that is often said of Indigenous faculty), defensiveness on the part of white colleagues who say we are being aggressive or disruptive or unkind to make such assertions. Technical communications hide the underlying motivations and intentions - they only way to call them out is to violate the rules of decorum and the normative structure of communication. 

I have seen cases where, for example, a white candidate had a slim file, yet the language is celebratory and expansive. An Indigenous candidate went through a similar process with an empirically more extensive file that was described as just meeting the grade. 

These are forms of cognitive bias. They are not overt discrimination.  They occur within the technical language of evaluation and assessment using the criteria’s of ‘excellence.’  I find no overt racialized prejudice, but rather the lurking unconscious forms that require individuals to engage in self-critical review.

This reveals one of the difficulties we have with collegial governance. The first line of decision making and mentoring is in the unit, that is where the documents are assembled, the reports produced, and the 'narrative' of the file created through the discussion of the unit level promotion and tenure committee.

Collegial governance is important to maintain, but it is also important in what goes wrong for indigenous faculty as this is the first and most crucial level of support and evaluation. The underlying cognitive bias, the feelings of defensiveness settler colleagues often succumb to, play a significant role in this process.

As a former member of the faculty association executive I have had opportunities to observe cases that have gone wrong. I can say nothing about any particular case. But I can say, based on my experience and my observations from other universities, what I think is going wrong on a general level. There is a fundamental problem where many colleagues accept it would be a great idea to do more about Indigenous issues, but when confronted by Indigenous colleagues often find us lacking, disruptive, troublesome, or just not team players (unless of course we say nothing critical).  By the time a situation ends up in a grievance I think that we have all failed and, to a great extent, missed an opportunity to make a real difference.

When I consider the situations I have seen here and elsewhere in Canada I note that each case is always unique. That said, there are commonalities. For example there is often a record of attempts to provide mentorship, persistent lack of formal approved scholarly accomplishments, and then a process of social marginalization for the Indigenous faculty member. There are other things, but these three strike me as the most relevant as they reveal a key ingredient of the problem.

Mentorship, even when provided, is often in a coded form that doesn’t necessarily assist a junior Indigenous colleague. The mentor's assumptions about cultural similarities, misunderstanding of how one's intergenerational history of colonial displacement might shape how one responds to certain forms of support/criticism (and the list goes on), can turn 'well intentioned' mentoring into a record of the Indigenous faculty member 'not taking advice well.'

Often in cases gone wrong the record documents a persistent lack of scholarly accomplishments.  Perhaps the record will indicate that there was an attempt to mentor the candidate, but that they paid little heed. Perhaps the unit lead will have documented meetings with the candidate in which they review and explain what the candidate needed to do.  Not recorded in any of these records will be the sense of marginalization, despair, sense of not belonging, and the feelings of inadequacies.  There is sufficient scholarship to show that a lot of these sorts of feelings arise out of a colonial culture of Indigenous displacement - to a certain extent our wider colonial society is designed to render incompetent Indigenous peoples. White privilege and settler entitlement act sub-textually and below the level of technical communication and formal process to subvert and undermine Indigenous colleagues. It takes a a rather unique, obstinate, brilliant kind of person to stand against these sorts of pressures. But wouldn't it be better if the university as a whole stood up against the flaws (of colonial systems), acknowledged that they existed, and excised them from the body politic? 

Self-preservation is important in all of this.  I have two things to say on the topic. 

Firstly, self-preservation can mean withdrawing from the core functions of one's unit (which can have negative consequences for our careers, but positive implications for our wellbeing). It can mean seeking out support outside of one's department (but if there aren't a lot of Indigenous faculty around, or they are displaced across a giant campus, that might not be possible). It can mean deciding one has to leave, to find a place that is better able to support oneself as an Indigenous person. 

Secondly, self-preservation also leads to a realization on our part that we are going to have to be better workers than our non-Indigenous colleagues if we are going to meet their evaluation criteria of us.  As a kid I recall a fishermen's union organizer telling me that in order to make a difference I had to be a good worker so when the bosses fire me they at least have to fire me for my political organizing, not for being incompetent. There’s something to that. While we argue and advocate for changes, we also have to figure out how to comply with the current standards so we can be here to work to change the terms. 

Dealing with collegial governance requires changes in the overall structure and I would advocate for embedding such changes in our collective agreement. 

From my vantage as a former executive member of the faculty association I strongly advocate for the following:  

(1) Our association needs to create the space for an Indigenous caucus that is external to management and supportive of our role as individual faculty. There has, from time to time, been an Indigenous Academic Caucus. What is required is a structure that can support, enable, and maintain the autonomous space for Indigenous faculty as workers to gather. Some past caucuses blurred the line between administrative functions (i.e. becoming a conduit to pass information from management to faculty & staff) and autonomous self-organization.   
(2) Provisions for equity representation on the executive has to managed (and created) to ensure proper attention to supporting Indigenous faculty.
(3) We need to negotiate protections of Indigenous faculty and support for increasing Indigenous faculty into our collective agreement.
(4) We need to change the criteria for evaluation to include a wider range of work that respects the different ways in which Indigenous scholars do 'work.'  

At the university administrative level the following mechanisms and processes should be put in place:

(1) Our university needs to put in place mechanisms that can undermine the cognitive biases they (as non-Indigenous humans) share with the front line faculty and unit heads.
(2) Ensure structured funded mechanism for culturally safe and aware mentorship (from undergrad through faculty tenure stream & promotion).
(3) Put real funds in place to recruit and retain faculty and do it in a way that values and respects where we are (at UBC-V: on Musqueam land; at UBC-O: on Sylix land) and the Indigenous neighbours up and down the coast and into the interior. The University's central administration has made tactical allocations for priority projects in research and faculty hires in the past, it should do more of this on the Indigenous file.

We are standing at a moment in time when we should be able to make real, lasting changes, that authentically respect and advance Indigenous colleagues and relations with Indigenous peoples. The time to act is now.