Thursday, December 24, 2020

Ubyssey interview on UBC security and defunding the police.

In late November, 2020 I was interviewed by the Ubyssey about the external review of UBC's security force and the place of the RCMP on campus. The article was published in December of 2020. The interview took place over zoom. What follows is the interview transcript behind my quotes in the article.

[00:00:02.270] - A.H.

And I'll just be recording on my phone.

[00:00:06.270] - Charles

I think it saves both an audio and a video file, but I'll only keep the audio file. I'll delete anything else.

[00:00:13.590] - A.H.

Thank you. I appreciate that. So basically, for this story that I'm writing, I'm doing a follow up to the 2016 Campus Security External review. There's a whole document of recommendations and stuff. And one of the kind of recommendations was that UBC should kind of establish a relationship with the RCMP because there's currently no agreement with Campus Security and RCMP. And so now that there's this new external review happening, and in light of the racial profiling incidents that happened on campus, I'm just trying to write a story about that.

[00:00:53.560] - A.H.

So that's why I wanted to talk to you about this.

[00:00:55.170] - Charles

Right? Well, just one quick thing. That was a surprise to me when I first learned about this. The RCMP just can't necessarily come onto campus unless they're invited or called on or believe that there is a crime or something that is being engaged because UBC is private property. So how does that work? And this was brought to my attention as long ago as 1997, when the No to APAC protest protest was going on, and when students were being arrested for doing such things as painting the pavement and I walked up to an RCMP officer who was on the ground photographing something.

[00:01:46.910] - Charles

They had a fire truck up above, and they're photographing the paint, the chalk lines actually over by the flagpole by the rose garden. And I asked him, what are you doing here? And they said, well, we've been asked to investigate a crime. And anyway, to make a long story short, they basically said they were invited in by the University of British Columbia. And the agent who invited them was this campus and security. Then it was security and parking. It was all one unit. And he explained to me that they really can't enter campus because it's private land unless there is some particular reason to go through here.

[00:02:24.760] - Charles

And so it's kind of interesting, because for most of this year since the Pandemic and the University was shut down, I can't go to my office unless my Department head, who has authority granted through the Dean's office, gives me permission to enter my office and to enter my office. I've had to go through a whole procedure, a set of rules and stuff. I'm just thinking of the one case at [Buchanon Tower]  and the issues that are around there that the prof who gave permission really didn't have the right to, as far as because,  I don't know what the full story is.

[00:02:58.100] - Charles

But if that had been in the building that I operated in, I couldn't just give my graduate students permission to enter the anthropology sociology building. In fact, because I have no inherent right to do that, because as an employee, I don't have a right to access or enter my building if my employer decides I can't operate that even though we all operate under the notion UBC is this big public park that we can all roll through and use it our own. It's a public good, and it is owned by the public, the province of British Columbia, in that sense.

[00:03:31.640] - Charles

But we're a Crown. We are a constitutional monarchy. And unlike the US where it is the people who are essentially the government in Canada, we're subjects of the Crown, which is the kind of ironic. And, of course, as an Indigenous person, one knows this very much, of course, being placed as wards of the state that relation to the fiduciary responsibility the Crown to deal with Indigenous communities. So there's a kind of interesting thing when non Indigenous people confront the fact of the Crown or the private landlord basically saying, you don't have a right to be here.

[00:04:02.270] - Charles

There's always a kind of wistfulness in that kind of you look at that and you go, yeah, that's just the way life has been. And imagine if it's your is, in fact your land and you can't go on to it, you have to sneak by because some outsiders stake claims and now brings the police in to protect them. Anyway. That's a little bit beyond your story. But when you mentioned about the relationship with the RCMP, I could help but think at one level because this is like a big house of the yard around it.

[00:04:37.290] - A.H.

Yeah. I'm glad that you brought that up because for the Savoy incident, it was campus security only. I believe there was no RCMP involvement, but rewind to 2019 with Shelby McPhee. That was when campus security and RCMP became involved. And that was like a whole thing.

[00:04:56.950] - Charles

And then that crazy white couple who got bent out of shape and assumed, and I don't even think they were attached to the conference, where one person was and one person wasn't. The whole thing sounded really well, besides the unfortunate and the inappropriate aspect of it, the whole instigating element seemed just completely bizarre. And the whole untold story sitting there wondering what is going on with those two people that just seemed so shocking in the banality of their stupidity.

[00:05:30.410] - A.H.

Let's talk about that. When you hear about how that kind of escalated to campus security being called RCMP being called, what do you think about the actions of the cops and the security units there?

[00:05:42.050] - Charles

I was at the conference myself, and so it was bubbling all around. People were talking about it, and it was really strange. You think it's such an over response in one level. I mean, some of the tweets that I had and I was looking through one. And there's one of these angry white guys downtown yelling or something, and it's not like I want the cops to beat them, the shred out of them. [But the cops just stand there and do nothing] But on one level, I'm thinking if it was an Indigenous group doing that, that wouldn't have happened [there would have been violent police action.]

[00:06:16.790] - Charles

And so you kind of get this juxtaposition where there's a disproportionate force applied. And so you think, how many times do we have to go down this path? Repeated over and over and over and over again, because on one level, the conference event around the Congress caused emotional upset and disruption for the people, the person involved who was falsely accused and brought in that way. But there's many people who don't have the kind of middle class position and clout and this actually can cost them their lives and their health.

[00:06:58.690] - Charles

So we need to really I think think about how we do that and whether training makes a difference. I'm not sure. Right now everyone talks about training people. And so I'm not quite sure if training really does actually make a difference. I have a friend who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York in the CUNY system. He works with police officers. He's an anthropologist, he works with police officers. And he actually points out that changes in management structure and types of policing tactics that are deployed from management can change the adverse effects, the impacts on black and people of color in the city of New York.

[00:07:42.320] - Charles

And so he says, irrespective of the cognitive bias the individual officer might hold depending upon the type of policing techniques, strategies the police force uses, can have radically different outcomes. Avi Bornstein is the man's name who's written about this. And he's worked with police officers. But he recently did a dissertation research in Palestine, looking at the implication of the Green Wall and the effects of violence in that area. 

[00:08:23.580] - A.H.

I think it's interesting, completely unrelated. But on the implicit bias thing I was reading online and I saw this article, and I think it was Scientific American or something that says, like implicit bias training aren't actually shown to have any long term effects. 

[00:08:40.830] - Charles

Many years ago, I got asked to teach a course up in Kitamat for SFU's business program. They had people working for one of the local industries up there. And these are people who wanted to move up management. So they were funding a business degree for these people who are at the lower echelons of management. And they figured, great, we'll have them do one elective, and that's going to be a First Nations content course. So I figured this is quite an opportunity. I'm going to do this really good course with detailed research, the best information you can find, talking about the history well researched, unassailable.

[00:09:16.310] - Charles

So I filtered out all the more radical stuff and the weaker stuff. And I thought good training will make a difference. And that course was a real kind of epiphany for me. It really was brought to head when one guy who was one of the trades foreman's came up to me and he said, "I don't f'ing give a damn about all this hippie history stuff. They lost the war. We're in charge."  and the 'They' were Indians and the war, I don't know what that war was, but his whole point was I realized that he didn't care.

[00:09:53.220] - Charles

He didn't even care about the content of the information. I could be right for he cared. He wasn't changing his attitude because this is the way it is. And so it seems to me that just training people and advice doesn't work. You need structures that compel people to act in particular ways. And that's I think the sad reality is some people are going to resist those structures, and some people won't .By and large, as long as they're not, like super onerous or massive violations of people's sense of dignity. It's pretty good.

[00:10:32.920] - Charles

But what dignity is lost to treat, say, Indigenous or black people fairly when facing a social problem or an issue when there's a conflict. The only thing he's lost when you apply violence or when that young woman up in Kelowna was dragged out [of her residence room]. You don't see what happened before, just a matter. That whole actor. I wouldn't want my child experiencing that. And no parent would want that. And it seems that there's all kinds of reasons that I'm sure the officer thinks they might give for what they were doing, but there has to be a better solution.

[00:11:16.970] - Charles

It just has to be a better solution, obviously.

[00:11:19.680] - A.H.

Yeah. I mean, I was going to bring up the Kelowna case, too ... , obviously very hard to watch that video. I'm curious as to whether you think that campus security or RCMP actually keep us safe on campus. Obviously, the Kelowna incident happened in a residence kind of like on campus. But the Savoy incident and the Chelsea incident, they were on campus. So I'm curious as to whether you think campus security.

[00:11:44.230] - Charles

I don't know if campus Security's, job or role is to actually keep people personally safe. I think their primary,  and I could be completely wrong. Maybe the mission statement begins with keeping people safe, I can't say, but it seems to me that their primary role is ensuring that the property of the University is protected and not damaged or harmed in particular ways. And then around that is a role of maintaining, interacting with people in some ways. So I'm not sure that that's the role they've actually even been asked to perform, is actually protecting people.

[00:12:29.050] - Charles

And the RCMP, for that matter, as a police for especially with its colonial history, wasn't about protecting people. It was about preserving territorial authority. So the Northwest Mountain police's role was to get in here before the Americans did, and to secure the Prairie Provinces. What was Rupert's Land at that point in time when they were formed in? I think it was 1873 or four or five somewhere around there. They really were an Expeditionary force to secure land and basically secure that land, keep American military people, government forces and military forces out and to control Indigenous use and clear the way for the railway to come across.

[00:13:09.330] - Charles

If you think of the cases with the pipeline up in Wit'suwet'en territory, they're just doing what the RCMP have always done. The fact they've evolved to do other things, too. That's correct. But all the way along the RCMP we've had issues. We had way back to the McDonald Commission, and I guess the late 70s, early 80s with this one called Barn Burning in Quebec, where they infiltrated Quebec trade unions, became Agent Provocateurs and actually incited and created criminal acts. And they were doing this to study terrorism.

[00:13:40.930] - Charles

And then we got thesis gets formed. You see the recent report about the toxic culture of sexism and racism within the RCMP and the violence that's perpetrated against women within their own force. I think an argument could made that the RCMP needs to be reformulated, taken down, and something else put in their place. I'm not saying remove all policing. I think we do need some kind of police type agency in contemporary society. But I think that the RCMP as institution and as a culture has run its path.

[00:14:18.550] - Charles

It's come to the end of its life and it needs to be disassembled. I don't think it can be refixed or controlled. I remember a friend of mine from many years ago said they just referred to the RCMP,  as basically just the biggest and best outfitted biker gang in the block. And there's an element of which well, that's not factually true, but there's an element of which that's symbolically and metaphorically correct.

[00:14:54.850] - A.H.

Yeah. It sounds a lot like when people have been saying defund the police throughout the summer. It sounds like you're saying something more like abolition. What do you feel about defunding the police?

[00:15:08.120] - Charles

Well, I think for the RCMP, we need to reconstruct what they're doing and divide the services out in different ways. So, for example, when you go to help for somebody who's in mental distress, we shouldn't be sending people with guns to meet that person's needs. That is just not a human thing to do, because that's not going to help, if anything, that's going to escalate the situation. So there's a whole category of social needs that we do need to have some kind of group of people at one time, people thought to be social workers.

[00:15:41.490] - Charles

But social workers, essentially, when they come into a house, they typically arrive with a police officer. They're apprehending somebody. But we need something that can actually come almost like a paramedic who's trained to come to arrive because these are emergency calls. So that category thing, the issue of policing say public protests and maintaining control over access issues about private property and things like that okay, you need something there. But that's a different kind of source. So I wouldn't personally say abolish the police totally or completely.

[00:16:19.510] - Charles

But I think we need to take a lot of the services that have accumulated on the backs of police forces out of their purview. Other agencies that don't carry guns need to be doing that kind of work.  Just over my own lifetime, just seeing the ramp up of the police officers. So you used to have the image of this kind of six foot six, Scottish accented RCMP officer kind of roll up. And he just had an old six shooter strapped somewhere on his side. And these officers today, they got automatic rifles, shotguns.

[00:16:53.510] - Charles

They got great big heavy black outfits and heavy vests. They've got automatic pistols. They've got Tasers. I'm amazed they can even walk under the weight of all the crap they've strapped to themselves. Which is the other thing, too. This is my little sideline critique. I think that society's in general needs to be in better physical shape. And I think some of the violence that occurs at the intersection of police and people is because the police officers aren't sufficiently physically fit. And so because their breathing is going up, the heart rate is accelerating.

[00:17:29.890] - Charles

Their own mass is too much, and they've got the stuff on them. They're actually afraid physically for themselves. And their response is to use the of course the authority of their uniform. So as I said, that's my little theory. It's probably completely crazy. But I've seen enough political demonstrations where you see this line of sort of middle aged folks in heavy uniforms and somewhat overweight approaching a line of young protesters. And then the next thing you know, the police are banging people in the head. And it's like just maybe if they were.

[00:18:03.320] - Charles

But I don't know, I'm way off track now.

[00:18:07.470] - A.H.

No, I mean, it was a fun tangent. I'm just curious as to whether you think that this reform could apply to campus security, because, as you said before, campus security definitely not like RCMP. They don't have guns.

[00:18:21.100] - Charles

No, I think they have a lot of retired RCMP officer or former police officers who are part of their institution and the staffing. And if my memory serves correct, some of the senior leadership are former RCMP. My memory may be faulty. I would actually look at that angle. And I think that would be a problem if you had too close of a kind of thing. If you've recruited out of a problematic organization, your leadership ranks, they may not have the cultural capacity to actually see a different way of doing things.

[00:18:57.540] - Charles

Now, as I said, I could be wrong about that. I do encounter some of the people who are into security. Campus security. I wouldn't say any of the top of my friend list, but basically people who I know enough to say Hello to, reasonable folks. Of course I come because I'm a faculty member and I might be known in the Museum or whatever. So people aren't going to single me out unless I'm at a demonstration. The other thing I noticed is the campus folks, there does seem to be, at least from what I've seen and a few people I've spoken to occasionally a fair degree of both cultural, ethnic and gender diversity within security, which is a little bit different than you see in, say, the RCMP, which tends not to be as diverse as even the Vancouver of the police force, is far more diverse, even though I still think it's predominantly people of European descent.

[00:19:53.360] - Charles

But I could be wrong with that number first would have to look. Some of these police forces have been trying to change the composition, so that doesn't necessarily change the actual encounter experience of violence by changing the demographic distribution of officers in the police force. It doesn't necessarily change things. I think in some of the earlier moments it did. But I think some of the research shows that it's not really a solution, even changing personal demographics. But I don't think security on campus is really analogous because they don't have the same legal authorities they can't arrest.

[00:20:30.110] - Charles

If there is a crime underway, they have to call the RCMP in to actually, because they really don't have authority to hold or secure people. As far as I understand, it's not like some American campuses that actually have legal police forces.

[00:20:47.090] - A.H.

Yeah, I'm curious about that, too, because like I said before, there's no memorandum of understanding or anything between UBC and RCMP. But do you think that that should be kind of, like, set out specifically, so that when we do come to a case where we need to call the RCMP, it's very defined, and we're not calling them when we don't need to be like, do you think that agreement needs to be?

[00:21:10.130] - Charles

It's really hard to say, because there's also a non student residential community on campus. I live actually on campus here in what's called Hawthorn Place and there's Wesbrook , Chancellor, East. And I forget a couple other. There were four police cars sitting down the street the other day. There obviously on a call. So there's private residence that will call upon the police. And there are certain things, if you had some memorandum that these things had to run through the University security in some way, that would be a problem, because there are normal functions.

[00:21:44.170] - Charles

Certain functions of the policing that need to occur, needs to be addressed. So I really don't know for me, I'd be more interested in knowing, it would be like, what is it that triggers the security calling the RCMP? I think we need to have policies about when does campus security,  when do they actually call out to bring the police in and who's making those decisions? Because in some of the issues, my gut feeling is the decisions to call are coming from administrative positions outside of the security.

[00:22:24.790] - Charles

So you go back a few years before the Student Union Building was torn down, before the nest was built, there's a whole sequence of political protests that occurred by students with bonfires and things like that, which I'm pretty sure that those calls came, weren't security calling those in, I don't know for sure. And clearly the issue around APEC, the was policing of that was coming from outside the University, the control over student protest that probably had the federal government's eye on that because they really wanted to contain the kind of political disruption and they didn't do a good job of containing it.

[00:23:02.810] - A.H.

So for this upcoming external review, what do you hope to see out of it?

[00:23:10.490] - Charles

I haven't actually seen any of the, aside from the article in the Ubyssey about it, I haven't seen any of the kind of formal documents in terms of reference to what they're actually going to be doing. I hope that what's happening is that people, like individual workers who work on security, who might be decent, reasonable people, I hope they're going to be kind of made to be the scapegoat for universities wanting to declare that it's on the right side of history. Sometimes that's what happens. It's like they're not actually addressing the actual fundamental problems to say, oh, well, it's security's fault here's the issue.

[00:23:48.950] - Charles

Whereas I would think there's a heck of a lot of issues going on in this campus in terms of the structures of microaggressions within departments, about how people Indigenous, black people, color are treated by faculty colleagues, how the lack of recruitment in certain departments are the bias and stereotype languages around discussions about which students is a better student to bring in when you're talking about graduate student applications and all this kind of stuff that's floating out there. And so my only worry is that the security, because of its tie to kind of linking to policing, becomes the kind of scapegoat where the University is able to kind of clean house in a certain way to do something, then takes the heat off the really difficult issues, like some of the polite pushback around equity, diversity and inclusion that you see where people are talking about it being equity provisions, being an infringement of their free expression, an infringement of their right to achieve.

[00:24:57.060] - Charles

So I think that's the more pernicious problem that we actually face is that kind of argument. [The idea that some suggest that dealing with equity, dealing with diversity, dealing with inclusion will basically undermine the excellence of the University. [Those people and their arguments are] far more [of a problem] than the security [folks on campus], though I clearly don't want people facing untoward unpleasant experiences trying to go about their normal business and life as a student or a faculty member or staff person. If there's problems there. It needs to be dealt with.

[00:25:29.450] - A.H.

I mean, go ahead. I was just going to ask another question. What do you think that like you were talking before about how RCMP is kind of meant to defend land. So if UBC wants to commit to Indigenous reconciliation. Do you think that there's a place for an RCMP presence on campus? What do you think ideally, that relationship should look like on campus?

[00:25:55.260] - Charles

Well, I don't necessarily think there's a place for the RCMP per se. I think there's a societal role for having some kind of police force that doesn't pack automatic weaponry with it. I think more if we actually move to the notion of a peace force or peacekeepers, I think that there's an important role there. So for the RCMP in particular, I think there's a problem. But for having that societal role of people who ensure the laws are obeyed, the protocols are followed. We need to have something there.

[00:26:36.020] - Charles

Normally most people just follow the rules. We're reasonably polite. But there are moments in times where human beings, you need to actually intervene. So I know that's not a simple answer, not even a straight answer. It's kind of convoluted because it's tough one. I mean, I think the thing is, if it's framed, like, does the RCMP have a role? I think the RCMP is implicated in its own history of colonialism. And I think we need to disband the RCMP and restart a new kind of national police force that meets whatever needs the nation state thinks they need.

[00:27:15.690] - Charles

Is there a role for policing of some sort? Yes. But I think it needs to be carefully thought out about what kind of things are done. And so if it comes to issues of wellness visits, as they call it, a euphemistic thing, it's when a person is in crisis and needs support and help, you need the right kind of people to come to the door to do something, and they shouldn't be coming with guns on their side. And it's like if you have a heart attack, an ambulance turns up.

[00:27:45.820] - Charles

I think we're really looking. We need to expand our paramedics and move that into a different role, that kind of first responder role, or even the paramedics attached to the fire Department who in those kinds of roles. There are thefts, and there are violent acts that do kind of occur, but they are going down. If you actually look at crime statistics, despite what the Vancouver Police Department recently published in this survey. Crime statistics, violent crime has actually been dropping during the pandemic, and it's been dropping historically for many years.

[00:28:17.990] - Charles

So the types of crime that people are worried about occurring really are diminishing. That raises all kinds of questions about why is it that we need to have an armed Constabulary rolling around almost like looking for a fight? I mean, that's not fair to the people who are in the because, like all occupations, there's many people going to these occupations with sincerity and good intentions. And I go back to Avi Bornstein's work I mentioned at the beginning, often the structures under which they're placed in order to do their job.

[00:28:56.460] - Charles

that makes violence become the shortcut to get the job done. And that's a problem.

[00:29:04.950] - A.H.

Do you see any analogues between the RCMP and then campus security, then if crime rates are dropping and of course, on UBC, crime is less than off campus. Right. Do you think that I guess the role of campus security should be rethought as well to kind of be more community focused.

[00:29:23.020] - Charles

Potentially because I suspect it's useful to rethink what's the role this unit plays. It used to be when this campus had fewer students, fewer people living here, that it was a kind of empty space that you needed to be concerned about physical wellbeing of property. It's like the Museum, the security guards at the gate of the Museum. Part of that process they watch the access and control access, and the Museum is contractually obligated by its insurance company to have a proper security force because they carry certain goods. The insurers say

[00:30:06.550] - Charles

if you want these goods, to keep these artifacts and objects and you want them insured, you have to have the proper type of security system here. And there's other units on campus that have that kind of thing, and that's reasonable. There's programs that, like Safewalk, which is run as a volunteer thing through the AMS, I believe. I think it's volunteer.

[00:30:33.730] - Charles

 But those kind of services. There was a time when security was running used to run the shuttle buses on campus, which is now run by BC Transit. And so UBC ran those shuttle buses because they realized there was a problem with people's personal well being. So the UBC administration said, okay, we'll run two shuttle busses around campus, and then they realize that this is a pretty good thing people are using them, and then they want to offload the cost because it was a free shuttle bus.

[00:31:07.090] - Charles

And now you have to have a card. So BC Transit runs it on a contract basis. So I don't know anything in the past, campus traffic, it used to be traffic and security or security and traffic or parking or something like that. I think they split those. But there was almost more community orientation in the past, and it might be interesting looking at how it's evolved and the people making the management decisions about running it. As I said, I had to back my mind. They're former or retired RCMP officers, which could structure how you think about things, becuase that's your training, right.

[00:31:46.750] - Charles

I'd almost like somebody who's more a community organizer to be in charge of something like this or what they call community development officer or something.

[00:31:55.990] - A.H.

Yeah. I think that as a campus community, we're all really keenly looking forward to seeing what happens with this Journal, because I think the public consultation just closed, like last week or something like that.

[00:32:08.600] - Charles

That was cool.

[00:32:11.530] - A.H.

It really struck me. It was very soon, because in the story that you mentioned, I guess we'll see what the results come from, but, yeah, there was everything that I kind of wanted to ask. Is there anything that you wanted to get on the record?

[00:32:30.490] - Charles

Sounds pretty good. It wasn't something I was on top of my mind to begin with. So you kind of maybe have to ruminate on it a bit?

[00:32:38.630] - A.H.

No. I mean, it definitely fell off the radar for a little bit, but with this external review, it kind of came back. One kind of personal question, though. I'm curious to your name.

[00:32:54.290] - Charles

Hagwil Hayetsk. You can use Charles Menzies, but no. Hagwil Hayetskt is my Gitxaala name. 

[00:33:08.530] - A.H.

Yeah, no Board of Governors. It said Hagwil Hayetskt. So we were just like, oh, what do you call them? Which can we still call you?

[00:33:17.240] - Charles

Oh, yeah. Charles is fine.

[00:33:22.950] - A.H.

All right. Well, thank you so much for your time, Dr. Menzies, I really appreciate that.

[00:33:26.390] - Charles

You're welcome.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

"If you Aren't Scared Sh*tless, You Aren't Learning"

"It you aren't scared shitless, you aren't learning," the prof said to us.

We all laughed. The prof doubled down, "Learning should shake you, disturb you, confront you and make you sit up and pay attention."

Today that prof would likely provoke a class walk out. Someone would file a complaint. Everyone in today's class would prefer to continue engaging comfortably and unchallenged in their bubbles of learning. But at the time we did sit up, we thought about it, and considered what it meant if the normal experience of learning was to be anxious, worried, or as the prof said "scared shitless." 

Learning takes work.  Learning involves taking risk. Learning forces us to come to terms with what we can't do as much as what we can do. Learning requires us to realize when we need to walk away, even if there are consequences. That's the thing though, we seem to be in a society that wants to live consequence free. That's not totally true, but in the education world it does seem to be a thing in which students and their advocates (teachers, parents, students themselves) accept there are consequences for many things in life except not doing well on an exam or an assignment. 

Education exists in a peculiar ideological world. Success is said to always be possible, second chances are legion, and the primary cause of one not doing well is intrinsically external to the individual.  At the same time, there is a heightened sense the individual is measured by a grade (hence the many claims, that grade doesn't really represent who I am and what I can do or how much work I put into the assignment ...). Grade competition is facilitated by the rhetoric of excellence. The highest grades are considered to measure the best and the brightest. This drives grade accumulation ( the practice of focussing effort on doing what gets a grade, not on learning itself). This also drives the gatekeeping activities of the professoriate who have been charged with measuring who is brightest and most excellent. Yet the grade game directly contradicts the educational ideology of second chances and success for all. 

Throw a pandemic into the mix and it becomes a recipe for ramped up social hysteria and anxiety. We all feel it. Its a chronic noise playing just on the edge of hearing and damn it's annoying. Unlike the normal kind of emergency this knows no real limit or end - its always there.  Even if Dr Henry's marathon was several decades ago, she called the feeling right - after the exhilaration of the start, the pace settles down into a grind, and then a feeling that there is no end descends, finally as the finish seems to appear one gives a bit of a push to stumble chaotically over the finish line.  

In the midst of this pandemic social marathon it makes sense that people are looking for relief from the pressures of accumulating grades. Some people do it by cheating. Others seek to find ways to keep up the standards and revenue.  Some instructors are finding their own in class solutions. Still others are seeking concessions and waivers through more formal mechanisms.  Thing is these are solutions to the wrong problem.

Administrators worries about standards, or instructors concerns about 'covering' the content, or students fears of bad grades, are all linked to a practice of education that is divorced from learning. It's about assigning grades to sort people into appropriate categories; categories that determine their social utility for industry. We in fact have a recent UBC example of a Dean extolling their new arts degree as focused around giving students the skills industry wants.  The shared understanding of education as training plays into debates over administrative processes like when should students be able to withdraw from a class.

Being able to withdraw at any time, up to or past an exam, helps students in the grade accumulation game - it allows them to avoid risk. When a provost argues against such a chance they are arguing for the integrity of the employer oriented sorting program. When a faculty member worries that allowing late withdrawals will skew grades positively thereby inflating class average they too are expressing concern about the integrity of the sorting mechanism. The opportunity to withdraw is seen as key to defining linked but contradictory attributes of excellence and compassion. Excellence demands failure and strict adherence to consistent rules. Compassion, however, tends to follow situational - not procedural- rules. Administrators prefer discretionary mechanisms to incorporate ideas of compassion. Students and their allies demand consistent non-discretionary rules that essentially removes discretion by making the procedure more open. It's the withdrawal equivalent of universal versus income tested social benefits.

There is no simple answer to these issues. But neither is the answer complicated. On the withdrawal issue can simply allow it up to the 12th or 24th week of class - class averages be damned. 

We can also change the message to students about learning being a fun experience - it's actually hard work.   No one just steps out the door and runs a marathon with training (unless they're a character in a movie). Training to run takes real work, planning, and time. Life can get in the way of training, but on race day one either runs or doesn't run, finishes or fails to finish. The time on the clock is what it is. And this can be an excruciating experience. Rather than saying keep going, you can make it, we sometimes need to say perhaps you should sit this one out. Rather than pretending you actually ran the race, accept that this is not the race or the time for you. Try a different race, try a different year.  You'll be a better person for it. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Men, Check Your Privilege.

My father is in his early 90s. That is one amazing privilege to have. He would be the first to say being old isn't easy.  But he is privileged to have lived so long and to have lived when he did. But these aren't the types of privileges folks normally refer to when exhorting men to check our privilege. They're talking about those unspoken sensibilities that permit us to move through our physical, social, and emotional spaces untrammelled by worry, anxiety, fear, or worse.

Check your privilege is about individual acknowledgement of what one might have and how it might advantage one in ways that are not readily obvious to oneself.  Check your privilege speaks to wider structural imbalances, but places the responsibility of changing it onto the individual. Change is thus motivated by individual repudiation of privilege.  It's the equivalent of finding oneself at the front of a line, acknowledging that positionally as privilege, and then walking to the back of the line in order to let those marginalized by front of line privilege to advance more fairly.  Yet the material fact of the line is left fundamentally unaltered. 

We need to start thinking about how to reconfigure the 'line' not have the people at the front bumped to the back.  This is hard to do. It requires all of us compelled to stand in the line to act together in ways that will feel unsettling. It means taking on trust that we can create a better way to line up.  But this isn't where current cultural politics has been taking us. Instead we are focussing more and more on individualist experiences, emphasizing personal responsibility over social action, and in so do merely replicating late capitalist culture of individual choice. 

Capitalist cultures prioritize ideas of self-reliance, choice, and individualism. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said there is no society, only individuals. Here is the exact quote: 

“…there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.” 

This effectively encapsulates the core values of capitalist culture. Individuals, defined as men and women who form families are primarily responsible for their own care. Individuals most attend to themselves first. Then individuals have a have a duty to look after one’s neighbours. This is a case and an explanation of why there are no societal effects or issues of structural beyond individual dynamics. The crux of the matter when facing social inequality, according to this cultural expression, is a failure of individual responsibly to look after one self. 

Thatcher's summary of capitalist culture stands at one end of the social spectrum.  Many who support the 'check your privilege' perspective may consider themselves totally opposed to Thatcher's view of the world.  However, if one steps away from the partisanship of 'no society' and 'check your privilege' one can appreciate these views as being part of the spectrum of the pro-market and pro-individual autonomy culture of late capitalism.  Individual choice and autonomy is a key element of capitalist culture and is shared by both right and left wing elements. It's encapsulated by key words like freedom, choice, autonomy, experience, identity, and self-actualization.

While Thatcher would suggest the man or women at the front of the line earned their place. The left cultural activist would say that same individual was unfairly advantaged and needs to step out of the line to let others more deserving, due to their experience of oppression, to step forward. Both Thatcher and the activist would agree the solution is individual and underplay the existence of any underlying societal structure like social class that might create societal effects.  Both Thatcher and the activist would argue line placement is the result of individual attributes - drive and initiative for Thatcher, identity for the activist.  For Thatcher the problem is the lack of drive embodied by the end of liners. For the cultural activist it's the unfair identity privilege of the front of liners. In both cases the resolution is individual. There are differences, of course. Thatcher version would advocate for policies that facilitate individual advancement based upon merit removing potential restrictions on market mechanisms. The left cultural activist would advocate for policies that undermined unfairly gained identity privilege so that individuals can achieve based upon their own merit. Neither of them, however, are actually arguing against class power or for the transformation of capitalism itself. 

My father continues to enjoy the privilege of having been a working class man who made a life for himself in BC's resource extraction industry. His entire capacity to exist as he does today is an outcome of what gets called privilege. He was a man during a period in BC's economy where he was able to work in the relatively high paid resource industry - an industry with few openings for women. His transit through this world occurred in the post-world war two economic expansion. Rising prices, rising wages, rising global integration made it possible for many industrial working class men to, if they were so inclined, save money and invest in productive property - for him this meant a fishing boat. Then the ecologists came with their ideas of the tragedy of the commons. Who would have predicted that a pro-capitalist resource management ideology of privatization would create an ostensible pension plan for the men who happened to own boats and fishing licenses in the 1960s and 1970s when these men started to retire in the early 2000s. This is all privilege as understood by the 'check your privilege' ideologists.

Checking privilege in this case doesn't solve anything. It doesn't address the contingency of life and lack of strong social supports for working class people. It doesn't address the fact that privatized and for-profit elder care creates a system akin to prisons. It doesn't alter the fact that home care is provided by mostly older women with a life of labour and no adequate pensions or immigrant women trying to create a better life for their families. Checking privilege fundamentally ignores large scale social inequalities created by capitalism reducing 'progressive' action to individuals engaging in acts of self admonishment. 

We need to move beyond the pro-capitalist identity politics of our day. The time has come to transform popular protests to acts of social solidarity set to undermine the real problem privilege - class privilege.  We need to move toward elevating all people to the same real freedoms of life lived well. To do this we need to remove the profit motive from education, healthcare, and the provision of core human services. We need to, as it were, remove the need for line ups fundamentally: its time to put people before profits.


Friday, August 7, 2020

Lessons Learned in Online Summer School

 This May & June I taught three summer session courses: Intro to Cultural Anthropology [ANTH 100, 120 students], Contemporary First Nations Issues Canada [ANTH 329, 145 students], and Ethnographic Film Methods [ANTH 478, 18 students].  Each course had its own unique attributes and requirements.

I used the UBC provided learning management system (Canvas) for all assignments, course readings, discussion forums,  and course communication. For the two large enrolment classes (ANTH 100 7 329) I used collaborate ultra (through the canvas interface) for synchronous lectures and to record these sessions for students to view later. Throughout the course 40-60% of the students participated live. For the small project-based course (ANTH 478) I used zoom for lectures and discussions. I recorded audio from those sessions and made them available for students to review later at their leisure.

These courses were scheduled in the fall of 2019 long before we had any inkling of the coming pandemic and thus were originally planned as face to face in person courses. ANTH 100 and 478 enrolled at the levels anticipated. However, ANTH 329 jumped in enrolment from a planned 50 to 145. Many students explained that they enrolled as a direct result of the pandemic.  

As the course started I polled students on their learning needs and set up to determine if there were structural or technical adjustments that I could make to adapt the learning environment better. Mid-way through the course I ran a 'check-in' survey via google forms to learn how students were doing - not simply with the course, but in their lives (n=111/285). 

Global distribution of students.

I learned that my students were spread all across the globe. They covered almost every time zone and region of the world. This underscores the importance of providing asynchronous learning opportunities, not making live attendance a requirement, and considering scheduled live sessions at non-standard times.

I also learned that a good proportion of students do not have a dedicated home work space or even dedicated computer. One student talked about how they had had to move home but there was so much going on around their natal home that they weren't really able to study or work effectively. When it became apparent that they were going to be able to effectively complete the course were were able, with the help of Arts Advising, arrange a concessionary withdrawal.

Four big obstacles students noted were: finding motivation in the new learning environment, technical glitches, lack of social interaction, and social anxieties related to pandemic work, and family.  Some of these issues are beyond the scope of an instructor's ability to mitigate. We are all sharing in the increased social anxieties for example. But we can, I think at least be honest and direct about what we are doing and what we can do. 

The things that students felt worked included the following:

  • Reducing lecture/online times and supplementing with resources such as videos and podcasts.
  • Roundtable Q&A (with teaching assistants and instructor) after each lecture.
  • Flexible deadlines permitting a hybrid do at your own pace model.
  • Regular short assignments marked on a completion basis.
  • Blended synchronous/asynchronous with sessions recorded.
  • Students appreciated mid-term check-in that asked them how they were doing overall (not just about the course).
Some general observations: 
  • First year students were the least tolerant of learning environment issues, more critical of delivery/teaching techniques than more senior students.  I have no clue as to why this might be, but also have the similar situation with in person teaching. I suspect the adjustment from high school to university is part of it and going online as we did would likely accentuate these issues.
  • There was a high degree of social anxiety across all year levels.
  • In classes with teaching assistants it becomes even more important than usual to ensure that TA's are on the same page as instructor with respect to marking/assessments and intellectual orientation of the course. A certain amount of dissonance is useful, but the online learning environment requires a degree of clarity and scripting that can sometimes be skipped in person. 
  • Important to acknowledge the unusual context and to be honest about what one can do and is doing to provide a structured learning environment.
I would say that I enjoyed this experience doing a full load of courses online during the summer term. But I would be less than honest if I said I would love doing online teaching for ever. I missed the chance to be there in person with the students.  There is a lot more that is possible face to face. However, I have also picked up instructional techniques and approaches that I intend to continue irrespective of whether I am teaching online or in person.  Finding ways to shift my contact hours with students to being more interactive and participatory is one thing this experience has provided an opportunity to reflect upon. I do this already, but now I have some hard skills to make it even more effective.


Formal SEoT – end of term. Selected comments related to pandemic learning.

ANTH 100  n=13/122.  3/19 comments specifically discuss COVID-19 teaching.


With the coronavirus, Dr. Menzies did a great job teaching the course on Collaborate Ultra and the examinations were able to be taken any time within a 24 hour period really helped since not everyone is currently living in Vancouver.


I found that the recorded lectures were a big help as I was living outside the Vancouver time zone and the weekly assignments helped keep me on track with my studies. Additionally, I loved the relevance of this course to current events happening in the world right now. I think it was an essential asset to my understanding of systems of inequality and I'm grateful for this opportunity to learn.


This is the kind of course where in–person discussion and the first year course tutorials are valuable. Hard to find alternatives for large, online course format.


ANTH 329 n=23/145.  5/17 comments specifically discuss COVID-19 teaching.

I thought it was very generous that Prof. Menzies had a suggested due date for assignments and then a final due date and there was no penalty for missing the suggested date. It was really helpful to have the buffer.


Professor Menzies taught with patience and clarity. The chat feature on Collaborate Ultra allowed students to ask questions and I appreciated that he took the time to address them within the class period. If a question was unclear, he would wait and allow students to clarify their ideas so that he could address their questions fully. He also presented unique topics in a way in which people of all different levels of knowledge on First Nations issues could still learn something new. His personal background brought insights into the material and topics, especially the topics of fisheries and food production. Given the circumstances of the class being moved online, he is a very compassionate teacher who seems to genuinely care about his student's understanding and well–being. Though I never used the extended submission windows for assignments, I wish other professors would be as understanding as Professor Menzies and use this format (of a due date and a final submission date), as it gives students flexibility in times of uncertainty. His teaching style is effective yet understanding and I really enjoyed this class.


Instructor was exceptionally knowledgeable, presenting an engaging, thought–provoking and important course. Current events were part of the course, news items, films, excellent readings and essays to read. Every aspect of the instructors teaching style, content shared, information and assignments was excellent. Enjoyed the assignments, challenged me to think critically. Learnt important issues regarding First Nations in Canada and provincially, as well as internationally. I looked forward to every class, every reading, every assignment, a new tool to learn. Inspired by instructor. Encouraged creativity, independent thinking, knowledge and conscience. Provided exceptional awareness. The TA's were both a great asset. TA and Instructor always available. Instructor created a 'check in' questionnaire to see how each student was doing mid–way through course, not simply academically, but on a caring and concerned level. respectful, relevant, informed, a gifted instructor. The course was valuable and gave much more than I anticipated. On–line resources were excellent as was the instruction, despite limitations from Covid–19 and the instructors need to adapt the intense and detailed course from an in–class format to an on–line format in a short amount of time. Thoughtful, progressive, contemporary teaching style. Excellent communicator, listener, and instructor.


First off, I would just like to say thank you. You were one of the only professors who continuously checked in with us to ensure that we were managing well during the incredibly stressful pandemic. You made the course extremely accessible and that took a lot of stress away. Not only that, but you created such an interesting and engaging course, despite the challenges of being online. I really enjoyed the course and found a lot of my own views and understanding on the issues facing Indigenous peoples have expanded and developed more. I am leaving the course with a much more in depth view of the systems in place that continue to limit Indigenous peoples––and as a result, can be a better ally. I really appreciate that you provided so many extra, optional readings and materials for us to look at on the wide range of topics. Being able to further research and read the commentary on certain issues that interested me really elevated my course experience. Likewise, the assigned material was always interesting and featured a broad range of voices. Your own contributions with your own knowledge and research with Gitxaala also enriched the course, as well as brought it closer to home for us from BC. Overall, the course was so well done and I am really thankful I had the opportunity to take it. Thank you



ANTH 478  n=6/18.  3/10 comments specifically discuss COVID-19 teaching.


Small group teams were very beneficial as I felt comfortable asking them for tips or their honest opinions as I assembled my video, and acted as a sort of friend–support group since we were unable to meet in person. Thank you for being understanding and patient as we all adjust to online learning, especially for a course that is very hands–on. Despite being online, Prof. Menzies made it very accessible and I am confident in how my project came out.


I greatly appreciate how supportive Charles has been throughout this process. It has been a challenging class to do with COVID–19.


Instructor contributed above and beyond what I expected. Instructor extremely knowledgeable, engaged, informative, generous with comments, excellent listener, encouraging, supportive, inspiring, dedicated, creative, excellent communicator and writer, exceptionally well–versed in Ethnographical film and Anthropology, superior teaching style. Always participated in group conversations, continually checked in through the course to see how students were doing – not simply on an academic level. Touched all the bases teaching, care, keen observations, quality instruction. All with limited resources due to Covid 19 parameters. Honourable, respectful, kind. Learning structure was excellent. Textbook suggestion excellent. Always available. Created an intense, 6 week course from in–class to online in an excellent manner. Worked with the students, building students. Productive learning sessions daily. Humourous, great speaker, gave excellent instruction. Superb course!