Friday, March 19, 2021

UBC-V boots Proctorio off of Campus.

I have never used these kinds of invigilation software for any of my classes. They violate civil liberties. They invade personal privacy way more than is acceptable.

I can also appreciate the problems for instructors who have been assured by the entire management system at UBC that these systems are okay to use, until they're not okay. There is no real support for the few faculty using these systems to make a change that won't cost them large investments of time that they likely don't have. It is unreasonable to say to them -'too bad, should've known better.' [I essentially heard people say words to the effect during the debate in senate]. But UBC should never have been using this system in the first place. There is no way that the university should be enabling such a massive violation of civil liberties with this kind of surveillance.

Cheating is embedded in the culture of capitalism, but most people follow the normative rules and punishing the majority for the willful violation of a minority does not strike me as warranted.

I am fortunate to be able to teach in a discipline where I can create examinations that do not require tight controls or lock down. My approach is that the exam questions should be evident from the course outline and lecture/seminar discussions. I have found over the years that even when I permit fully open book exams and provide students with questions in advance, the resultant output still conforms with the faculty of arts grading guidelines.

No one likes an exam (well, almost no one), not those taking it, not those writing it, not those marking it. I am not sure exams are even a necessary evil. However, as long as we run industrial scale courses scaled up to the hundreds or thousands of students exams will be a necessity. What we really need to see happen is a banning of giant courses. If we had student enrolments at a human scale we would be able to assess and evaluate knowledge acquisition directly. We would have no need of testing students over and over again. But I can dream and run my classes as humanely as I can manage given the constraints under which I work.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Year in the Rearview Mirror

A year ago today things already felt unsettled. News of COVID-19 was spreading. The early January news feed about outbreaks in China had now been surpassed by the growing health disaster in Italy. Indications were clear this was no longer simply a regional concern, it was going global.

In late January I returned from what I now know to be my last pre-pandemic conference. The international arrival terminal at YVR was a strange place to be. I could tell by how people were acting - way more face masks, even one man with a big water bottle cut to sit like a space helmet on his head - that things were changing.

By March social media was filled with heated arguments about wearing masks or how the flue was/was not worse. I had stopped using public transit and avoiding going into shops unless absolutely necessary. In my classes  students were asking me if I thought UBC would shut down. At that point I said "I don't think so, but who knows." By the end of the week UBC's President had sent a message to the community that classes were moving online and all on campus activities were to shut down. 

I wrote about some of the shift online (also here) entailed, I also took issue with some of the ways the university dealt with anthropological research and some thoughts on responsible anthropology in the pandemic. As the year has continued on I've noticed a lot of expressions about harm and disruption, but also opportunities for people to recenter and find better live balances.  

The impact of the pandemic has been experienced differentially. This should not be a surprise. Crises typically reverberate along cleavages of societal weakness and fractures of inequality.  The pandemic has been no different. The industrial manufacturing sector (including heavy industry and construction) has done okay. It's the service sector that has been hit the hardest, especially the social components (bars, cafes, clubs, and theatres). On the university campuses some categories of workers continued with modest alterations in intensity (construction, maintenance, landscaping, etc). Some categories of workers continued under remote work provisions (white collar, clerical, and instructional). On campus, as in the wider society, workers in our service sector (in the food and housing divisions) faced major layoffs.  Once can plot out the likelihood of losing one's job at UBC based upon one's salary pre-pandemic. The lower one's pay, the higher the likelihood of having been laid off of terminated. Hundreds of workers in the student housing and food services sector at UBC were put out of work by the pandemic.

I've seen a lot of virtual  complaints about how tough academics have been finding the pandemic. Yeah, it's not like it was pre-pandemic. For most profs with regular jobs and regular pay things have been disrupted, but not destroyed. The first shift to emergency remote teaching was tough for most of us. It was an adjustment. Then the year of teaching online all the time - that took making adjustments. No picnic, that's true. But I have a point of comparison in my household, a partner who is a public school teacher. It gives me pause when I start to list my complaints when I then think of the work that they are doing and the seriously significant difference in degree between their work load and my own as a university faculty member. To be honest, it is humbling.

My partner found themselves tossed into full remote online teaching of the standard high school course load (7 class of 30 students each) immediately after spring break last year.  They didn't know this would be the case until some way through spring break (though the writing was on the wall, so to speak).  Meanwhile, my two seminar classes were already moving toward the close and it only involved some modest modification plus the willingness to be magnanimous to my students.  There just was no comparison between my situation and my partner's.

Like many people my age I have responsibilities for parents and offspring. Caring for one's adult parent comes with many complications.  Things have worked well this past year for my father. I feel fortunate he is not a resident of a long term care facility as I seriously have doubts he would have survived the year.  Our kids are old enough to look after themselves, but as my father says we still worry for them just the same.

Our household has been fortunate (economically) during this period.  For that we are all grateful. There have of course been increased stressors in our lives, but they may well have been here pandemic or not. There are pandemic changes - perhaps the biggest have been on my partner with their work in a public high school. Next could be mine with my research and conference travel cancelled for a year. Our other two household members have had fewer pandemic changes - just the standard nowhere to go outside the house except work or household tasks or exercise.

One can't discount the prevalence of stress caused by uncertainty:  this is something we all share. One of our biggest worries we have is, like everyone, becoming infected with the virus. Our biggest point of contact is my partner's worksite, which the government constantly tells us is safe. Yet, the notices of school-based exposures arrive on a regular basis. We worry that each cough or sniffle or slightly off feeling might be the onset of an infection. To our knowledge we have skirted the virus, but that doesn't settle our minds at all. The fact my 91 year old father is scheduled tomorrow to get his first vaccine reduces one source of worry, still the concerns lurk.

The passing of a year of pandemic hasn't really changed much existentially - we live, we grow older, things change, things stay the same. It has created a space where for some of us things have slowed down, kept us closer to home, opened up new opportunities to grow. For others the world has closed in on them making life harder to bear.  I want to focus on the strengths that have grown and sprouted over this past year -it's a way to find one's way beyond the stressors.  


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Michael Marker - Indigenous Scholar

Oct 20, 1951 - Jan 15, 2021.

Last time I met Michael he was scootering down Main Mall through the athletics' fields. Over the course of the pandemic I'd encountered Michael a half dozen times this way. We laughed about how it took a pandemic for us to start having regular meetings.  

His thoughts weren't on laughing matters though. He was troubled by the intersection of what he saw as misandry and racism. As a man he felt his moments of righteous anger were being called out while it seemed to him 'angry' women were being given a pass. Few of us are able to avoid the occasional tangental comment in a meeting; Michael was chaffing at being disciplined for speaking off topic (he has written about this in the journal Workplace).  He was feeling increasingly marginalized as an Indigenous scholar in his academic home. Added to this were personal life disruptions that weighed heavily upon him.  In our meetings this past pandemic year I felt for him, he seemed seriously in need of support. I worried for him. Despite it all he seemed optimistic, he assured me he was okay and had people to talk with. Yet I worried. When I learned of his untimely death (by natural causes) I was overwhelmed with sadness at the early departure of this wonderful person and valued colleague.

I have known Michael Marker since I started at UBC in the mid-1990s. Over the years I was invited to speak in his classes, served as university examiner on student committees he supervised, and collaborated with him and other indigenous colleagues to make UBC a better place for Indigenous people. We didn't always agree. We did, however, share the view that our world will be better when Indigenous people do better and are at the center of decisions that affect our lives. 

Michael was a force to be reckoned with. He was unafraid to state unpopular truths. Being principled and outspoken can, despite university claims of academic freedom, be a risky business. The brethren of the outspoken can all share stories of having more senior colleagues come to us to suggest a change in demeanour, a more polished tone, or a more restrained intervention. I recall quite vividly worrying that my public acts in support of a series of illegal public school strikes would lead to administrative discipline. I had attracted the attention of my Dean who sent me a volley of late night emails ranging from asking how these activities fit within my career path to suggestions on changing the name of a particular public event. It is no easy path to be outspoken. My advice, if asked, is to try (as best one can) to stay consistent with one's principles, to have the courage of one's convictions. What Michael, and many others, have come to realize is that being outspoken is today considered an act of aggression. 

As a serving member of the UBC Board of Governors I observed how power was deployed through the fulcrum of civility. Public 'niceness' hid what could best be called backroom verbal brawls and artful displays of institutional power. When those of us elected dissidents spoke out in public the push back was intense. But, it was not framed around what was said, only how it was said.  Our tone, our gender, our assertiveness was called out. The acts of dismissal, overt and explicit subterfuge of management was ignored. We have arrived at a moment in time were the form of communication displaces the value of content. I hasten to add I am all for civility, but there are moments when academic freedom does trump niceness. The problem is when management and their allies control what is nice, dissidents will almost always lose. 

To honour Michael's memory I have searched out his published academic work. As I have been reading his work I hear his voice, not simply the 'voice' of an author, but his voice.   It is, perhaps less present in his earlier pieces, but it is unmistakable in those published over the last decade. It is as though I am sitting in a big house listening to him speak; the cadence, the choice of words, the imagery, it resonates.

Each piece has a lesson drawn from the intersection of Micheal's life and research. We are brought into the story. We could be sitting around a kitchen table, in a seminar room, a lecture hall, or on Main Mall surrounding by the athletics' fields at UBC.  There is a warmth in the telling. But don't be fooled - there is an underlying message and a theoretical frame. These are stories of settler colonialism AND Indigenous sovereignty. They are hopeful stories as they don't just dwell on the harms of settler colonialism, they speak to the present and future of Indigenous authority, jurisdiction, and creativity.

I am glad that I had the chance to see Michael so many times during this pandemic year. It makes my heart feel good to know that I had these opportunities to talk unfettered and with passion and warmth during a difficult year for all of us.  Wherever Michael is now I see him surrounded by those who support and value his sense of play and justice.


Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Unintended consequences - graduate student funding at UBC-V

There is a lot of variation in how graduate students at UBC-V are funded. One of the biggest differences is found in how research Master's and research Doctoral students are supported. In 2017 UBC-V's senate passed a resolution to mandate a 4 year minimum funding program for all research PhD students. At the time, the proponents of this plan said it would have a neutral effect on other graduate certificates and funding programs. 

The PhD funding program places the responsibility for ensuring each PhD studnets gets the 4 year package into each individual graduate programs hands. There is no centrally coordinate funding source but rather: "Funding sources can include any combination of external or internal scholarships, research assistantship, teaching assistantship, or other academically-related work at UBC (e.g., Graduate Student Academic Assistantship, lectureships)" (Faculty of Grad Studies Handbook). 

Because there is no central funding mechanism, just a hodgepodge of sources quilted together case by case, a lot of variation and questions of inequity emerge. In STEM programs, where it is more common for faculty supervisors to have significant core funding to operate laboratories, graduate admissions is often based upon finding a supervisor willing to put the money forward for the student. In these cases, as long as the student meets the standards of the program and have a supervisor with cash on hand, they are accepted.  

In other programs where faculty lack the large core funding programs (like humanities, for example),  departmental committees have more control over admissions decisions but relatively less funds to play with. Here they cobble together funding offers from teaching assistantships, funding envelopes provided by central offices, research assistantships if faculty have surplus research funds, and anything else that the department can find. It's not really an effective system, but it has been working (sort of).

In between the two models described above is a spectrum of variations in amount PhD studnets get, source of their funding, and relative control over their income by research supervisor or department committee.  

I have noticed that MA students appear to be facing increased funding deprivation.  For one thing there has been an increased pressure at UBC to increase PhD student numbers as this is understood to be a metric of excellence.  Some faculty originate from education systems that only offer professional Master's programs or see the Master's degree as an enroute degree.  UBC has had a great Master's program that has served generations of students well. Master's students have never really received sufficient funding attention. However, it looks like Master's students are receiving even less funding attention these days. Programs without large STEM grants seem to be concentrating their meagre resources into funding PhD students at the expense of Master's students. Some programs have apparently even closed their Master's programs in favour of only admitting PhD students.

This unindented consequence could have been predicted four years ago when the policy of PhD minimum funding was enacted. But we were all too excited to be meeting the needs of potential PhD students and ratcheting up the rankings from excellence to eminence.  A master's degree is an important degree. For many professionals it is the certifying degree, not the phd. I've worked with over two dozen amazing MA students over my years at UBC. All of them are engaged in occupations that relate to the social sciences - from government agencies, to NGOS, to the private sector these MA students are making a contribution based, in part, on their time at UBC. It seems a major shame that our funding programs are creating the unintended consequences of diminishing the possibilities for future master's students.

Its time to reshape our graduate funding system in a way that is fair and equitable, and that prioritizes student learning over university rankings or individual supervisor preference.