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.

Indigenous Engagement Committee

I'm now a member of the newly created indigenous engagement committee as a vice-chair. The aboriginal committee has not been set up as a standing committee, but rather as a subsidiary committee reporting to the People, Community, International (PCI) standing committee. Given the importance of the work of this new committee it may have been better to link directly to the board without passing through a standing committee. That said, it is a major step forward for this board.

Other changes of note: one of the student governors has been appointed as a standing committee chair (placing them onto the executive committee) and another as the vice chair of a standing committee. Only faculty chairing a committee is the UBC-O rep.