Recent Posts



Engage (Address to the incoming students, UBC Arts, September 7th, 2010)

Imagine that it’s your first day at the University. You know almost no one. You’re lost, and you have to ask directions everywhere you go. You’ve just moved into an apartment, and you’re surrounded by cardboard boxes and unpacked Scandinavian furniture. You’re deathly afraid of making a mistake, and of course you’re anxious about the challenges that lie ahead of you. But enough about me and my problems – I want to find out more about you!

Seriously, today IS the first real day on the job for your Freshman dean — and so the Freshman class and I will share a steep learning curve in the weeks ahead and go through our first 4 years together. I’m eager to meet many — if not all — of you and to share notes. As we progress along the way, I’m going to ask of you the same question of you that a former mayor of New York used to ask, “So how am I doin’?” And I’m going to look to you for an honest answer and for your feedback, suggestions, and ideas. Please come to the dean’s meetings with students that we’ll set up, starting in a few weeks.

I have to say that I’m honoured that you’ve chosen Arts at UBC as your academic home. You may notice that I’m wearing a purple button that staff from the Centre for Arts Student Services (or CASS) gave me. It says, simply, “engage”/UBC Arts. You should have received these as well, and I’m told that they get you a discount at the new café in the bottom floor of Buchanan A. Now, I couldn’t help but notice that the boldface part of the word spells out my first name. I don’t know if this is a coincidence or whether someone’s trying to flatter my ego. Still, it is a word that I know something about, and that I have always found appealing. To engage in a bit of etymology, “gage” is an old French word for a promise, a challenge, or a commitment. A slap in the face challenging one to a duel could be called a “gage”. A promissory note to pay off a debt would have an end date, called in French a “mort-gage” (the “death of the commitment”). But I digress! More importantly for our purposes today, to “engage” is to take part, to become involved, to commit. And this is the message that CASS and I want you to take away today. Education is not a spectator sport!! UBC Arts is your new home, your new community (just as it is my new community, too). We want you to take pride in being a part of this very special and important educational mission, and to participate fully. I hope you’ll find the Dean’s Office, the faculty, and the staff in our many departments and programs to be similarly engaged as partners with you in this educational journey.

Having chosen a major, you may experience a moment of dread or anxiety about that commitment. What if you don’t like it? What if it doesn’t lead to a job? What if you fail? I would like to encourage you to not worry too much about this right now. If it’s not right for you, you can change, and students do this all the time. And I know a little something about this, having dropped out of my university program in Forestry only to come back at another university eight years later as a major in ethnomusicology! If you’ve chosen something you love and for which you have a real passion, your chances of excelling are that much greater, as are your chances for finding a meaningful career and life path. I’m not telling you to avoid practicalities, but I am saying that this is a good time to explore and to follow your curiousity. You’re life will be immeasurably richer for not having been afraid to do so.

What do you get from an Arts degree? Your UBC liberal arts education will be both broad and deep. You will become a more articulate and informed communicator, know how to identify and solve problems – in other words to do research, and to develop a cultural and historical sensitivity that will enable you to work productively in a global and multicultural environment. Your critical skills and constructive reasoning will be enhanced, as will both your teamwork, and self-direction. All of this will prepare you for life after your undergraduate degree, whether that will involve graduate education or a direct path to a career. A liberal arts education provides the kinds of skills and competencies that are valued and sought after by employers, even as it helps to create more informed citizens with better judgment.

The Arts are essential to human survival. Take any of the headlines from the media on a given day, and it is likely that our arts professors are involved in some related angle. If you’re concerned about poverty, drug addiction and the sex trade, it’s likely you can find scholars in sociology, political science, geography, economics, women’s and gender studies, anthropology, psychology, social work, history or even philosophy who are researching the topic and applying the knowledge gained—often through cutting edge interdisciplinary teamwork. In Arts at UBC, we undertake the study of what makes us human, how we interact as a species, and how we express ourselves through creative activity. We provide a foundation for a lifetime of learning and responsible citizenship.

As one of the world’s great arts research units, we’re also a living laboratory. If we study governance, can we govern ourselves better. If we study sustainability, can we build a more sustainable culture here at UBC? If we study the psychology of learning, can we structure our educational pedagogy better for student learning? Let’s practice what we preach and build a better educational community.

I have never been more sure of being in the right place than when I signed on to be your dean and learned that orientation day at UBC is called “Imagine Day.” I remember giving my first welcome speech to students after becoming the Dean of Music at my former university, and after I finished, a student came up to me and asked me if I realized that I had used the term “imagine” seven times in my talk? I explained that our ability to imagine was the necessary precursor to our ability to change and innovate – and that imagination was the bridge to the future. If my former faculty was ever going to change, innovate, and transform itself, the process had to start with an act of the imagination.

I have some personal aspirations for UBC Arts, and they blend well with the goals of the university’s plan, called “Place and Promise”. I want to further our leadership in student- and learner-centred education. I hope that you’ll receive an education that doesn’t just fill you with knowledge but that helps you to transform yourself. I hope you’ll attend the workshop today on “High Impact Learning Experiences” led by Assistant Dean Allen Sens. I hope to renew our commitment to, and focus on, teaching, even as we continue to rise up the ranks of the world’s great research universities.

I want to increase our commitment to First Nations and Aboriginal studies and partnerships. I want to build our capacity to provide an intercultural and international education and experience for our students, and I certainly hope to increase our community involvement. A great public university needs to be dedicated to public service, producing knowledge and translating it or mobilizing it for public consumption, helping to solve the difficult problems we face as a nation and species. Through service learning, experiential learning, global learning, co-op, and a range of other means of enhancing the educational experience, we will help you to become leaders in your professions, fields, and communities. I’m inspired when I imagine the contributions that you (collectively) will one day make to your communities, to Canada, and the world, and it’s heartening to know that UBC Arts will play a role in helping you to reach these goals.

I said a few moments ago that I hope you have a transformative educational experience. What do I mean by transformative? Well, we have to be pretty pleased with you as you are, or we wouldn’t have accepted you into one of the world’s great research and teaching universities. However, and I’ll be honest with you, I’ll be pretty disappointed if you haven’t changed profoundly over the next four years. Some of that change will result from things extrinsic to your studies – from the web of relationships you form, from your continued encounter with family, physical activity, faith or with volunteerism and service. But the principal reason you’re here is to learn and discover, and it’s my deep hope that you’ll be inspired by discoveries in the classroom, that you’ll open up to new ideas, that you’ll interact with committed professors who will help you to grow and to find your unique path in the world, and that you’ll discover new things about yourselves as well as about the world. With luck and some hard work, you should emerge from this experience in four years more confident and accomplished, more focused on your future, more socially aware, tolerant, committed, and perhaps even more humble.
I’m not partial to giving lots of advice, but let me leave you with a few thoughts. You will need to take the courses required for your majors or minors, but even after you take our breadth requirements, take a course or two simply to introduce you to new subjects or to step outside your comfort zone. Don’t necessarily write off big lecture classes. Big lectures with great teachers can be life altering. But also consider our leading edge first-year programs with their smaller seminars. Take advantage of the opportunity to work on a research projects with a leading researcher and pursue writing intensive courses to improve your communication skills.
To put it simply, take at least one course just for the heck of it; get to know at least one professor well; and while you’re at it, learn at least one new language. And don’t forget the two terms at the heart of our orientation experience: Imagine, engage!
Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Spam prevention powered by Akismet