Tag Archives: the big picture

Anti-racism in the academy work

Just in case this obvious thing needs to be said: I know I’m going to make mistakes in this work. But I can’t let my ego get in the way of trying to work against racism. So let’s talk.

After Tweeting and Facebooking off and on this topic for weeks, I’ve realized it’s time to start *actually* writing about it. This first post isn’t meant to be exhaustive or complete or perfect, but to help me organize my thoughts a little bit more deeply. And I post this publicly because maybe it’ll be of use to others, too.

I’m really thinking a lot about how decisions get made in my higher ed context (UBC) and in my discipline (psychology). In the 17 years I’ve been working and learning at UBC, I’ve seen countless decisions depend on opaque, hidden, unpublished, squeaky-wheel-gets-the-grease, kinds of processes that have bothered me since the very beginning. I’ve always known they are unfair, but couldn’t really pin it down, or feel any ability to change things. These processes privilege those who already feel privileged in this institution, and they form barriers for people to enter/succeed who don’t know how the system works or don’t have the right connections. And now I see these decision-making processes as fundamental to the maintenance of systemic racism… at an institution physically situated for the last 100+ years on the unceded traditional territory of the Musqueam Peoples

I am grateful to everyone who has contributed to recent calls to action in society broadly (#BlackLivesMatter, #IndigenousLivesMatter), in higher education specifically (e.g., #BlackInTheIvory). Although sorry I didn’t see this connection sooner, these calls to action have helped me draw the link between systemic racism and decision making processes in higher education. 

Also so grateful to the people with whom I have been able to dialogue in (socially-distanced) person and online (especially Dr. Amori Mikami and Isobel Allen-Floyd), as I continue the journey into anti-racism work.

It’s important to acknowledge that I have learned to play these games, to find out how decisions really get made here and to insert myself in those spaces. I have benefited from this system. It did not come naturally to me at all. I had to learn this game because I am first generation in the academy. But I’d be naive at this point to think that being White didn’t help me out here. I could go under the radar, get free passes, was assumed to be “one of us” who comes from a long line of scholars. Also relevant for the timing of this work: I received my promotion to Professor of Teaching last year, which has been liberating.

A few resources…

Here are a few snippets from my more recent readings that have really stood out to me:

From Chun & Feagin (2020, Ch 4 “Reformulating the concept of “microagressions”: everyday discrimination in academia”): “A forward-looking and flexible analysis shaped by changing new social and demographic realities should address the impact of covert racial and gender discrimination whose intentionality is hidden within highly nuanced institutional processes and cleverly disguised in vague “meritocratic” justifications” (p. 129, emphasis added). This chapter also led me think on why the concept of “micro-aggressions” is so problematic, including Scott Lilienfeld’s paper “Microaggressions: Strong claims, inadequate evidence” (2017, in Perspectives on Psychological Science; as well as his essay version).

In an interesting twist, our own UBC President Dr. Santa Ono tweeted about Chun & Feagin’s book last year:

The role of “Department Chairs as transformational diversity leaders” by Alvin Evans & Edna Chun (2015, in The Department Chair), https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/doi/pdfdirect/10.1002/dch.30001

In psychology: (almost) exclusively white journal editors and editorial board members on prestigious journals is linked to fewer authors who are POC and to fewer participants who are POC and to less published research in those journals that examines race. This link marginalizes a crucial variable (i.e., our science is worse for it, conceptually speaking) while simultaneously hurting the careers of people who examine the impact of race (who are more likely to be POC). See Roberts et al (2020 in Perspectives on Psychological Science)  https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691620927709. See also

And some key sources that I have found inspiring/helpful over the last couple of months:

Action

The upheaval resulting from COVID19 is creating an opening for meaningful change in so many ways. People are throwing their hands up and acknowledging we have to re-make pretty much every decision about how we do things anyway… so why not use this moment to build better? Do I “have time” for this? [insert obvious answer] But how can I not? When will we ever get another chance like this?

So, I have begun this work over the past couple of weeks by examining and questioning decision-making processes, particularly as I see them play out in my Department. This is not because I think my Department is any better or worse than any other unit — I’m operating under the assumption that systemic racism is everywhere. Instead, it is where I think I might have the most potential to have some impact in the short-ish term. I can use the bits of power and privilege that I have accumulated through decades of game playing to speak loudly and advocate for change.

Drawing most directly from Chun & Feagin’s work, but informed by many, I am identifying processes that (1) lack clear criteria that are made explicit to those who will be judged by them, and (2) nonmeritocratic job access (i.e., facilitated by or depending on who you know), especially when clouded by rhetoric that decisions are made based on merit.

I’m looking these decision making process as they operate among faculty members (e.g., teaching assignments), and among students (e.g., mechanisms for entry into research assistant positions in labs, including the fact that the first ones are almost always volunteer). Changes made in these areas might actually increase some efficiencies while making them more accessible more broadly.

What am I missing? Where would you start? Are you with me? (Please!?)

And just in case it needs to be said (again): I know I’m going to make mistakes here. Maybe you’re reading this and thinking I’ve already made a bunch. I can’t let my ego get in the way of trying to work against racism. So let’s talk.

What My Promotion Means to Me

I have been promoted to Professor of Teaching! Woohoo! Since sharing the news about a week ago, I have received a wide variety of reactions from friends, family, and colleagues, on Twitter, Facebook, in person, and over email: congratulations ranging from ecstatic to calm; variations on “well, of course we all knew that was coming” and “aren’t you too young for that?”; as well as confusion (“weren’t you already a professor?” “didn’t you already have tenure?”) and inquiry (“does this mean your work will change?”)… and so on. Reflecting on this life transition, as well as such plurality of responses from others, has led me to this post. What does my promotion mean to me?

The Technical

  • The body of Teaching, Educational Leadership, and Service I have completed, as summarized in a dossier and CV I submitted one year ago (~200+ pages including appendices) has been reviewed and deemed worthy of promotion according to these criteria by individual reviewers outside UBC, teams of reviewers at the Departmental then Faculty of Arts then UBC-wide levels,  and the UBC President himself.
  • Here’s what I sent to my family: “Because my job is focused more on teaching than on research, my titles (starting with Instructor and then Senior Instructor with tenure, which I received in 2014) haven’t matched the usual “professor” titles (which start at Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor with tenure, then simply Professor). So although my job has been “equivalent” to a professor for a long time, my title has not reflected that. Until now. My new title, as of July 1, is Professor of Teaching!!! There are only about 35 or 40 of us with this title across the whole institution (about 1000 or more profs of various ranks)….”

The Little Things that Add Up to Feeling Valued and Respected and Authentic

  • When a student calls me “professor” — as has been happening throughout 12 years of teaching — for the first time it’s actually true. My title is Professor of Teaching. That voice inside my head that says “well, not really” can just shut up now.
  • For the first time, when someone at a conference asked today what I my role was at UBC, I had the option to quickly say “professor” or “professor of teaching” and they instantly knew what I meant. I didn’t have to choose between the generic “faculty” or fully explain my former title thusly: “Senior Instructor — which is UBC’s title for a tenured faculty member who specializes in teaching.” This new option gave me an exhilarating sense of authenticity.
  • For the first time, the institution at which I work formally recognizes that the work I do is Professorial. I feel a greater sense of respect for the work I do.
  • It means I don’t have to keep adding “(tenured faculty)” beside my title when I sign reference letters, so that the people I’m endorsing aren’t potentially harmed by my ambiguous title.
  • It means I’m done synthesizing my body of work in a package for my work colleagues to evaluate (unless I choose to do so for some particular purpose).

The Relieving + Scary + Overwhelming + Exciting

I have jumped through the last hoop that Academia has laid out before me.  Any title changes from now forward are because I’m actively choosing to shift my career focus. This is it. Since graduating from kindergarten, I have been in a seemingly (until now!) endless pursuit of the next diploma, the next degree (x3), the next title (x3)… but this is it. This is just starting to settle in. I am a person who still owns and can locate within about 10 minutes the achievement/outstanding student/excellence award plaques received in Grade 2 and Grade 8 and Grade 12. I am a clear example of how the education system can be considered a giant operant conditioning machine. But this is the last hoop. (If I want it to be, I suppose, but that’s different.)

This realization started out relieving, is currently sitting as rather terrifying, and I’m sure will shift more to exciting and empowering. Earlier today (at STLHE) I was at a session about mid-career faculty and a table-mate offered me this metaphor: I’ve been climbing a mountain and suddenly I’m staring at a plateau. This is helpful and overwhelming. I have 20+ years ahead — which is as long as it took me to get here since starting undergrad — to navigate without a finish line, a benchmark, a guidepost or a pathway provided by the educational institution. What do I do now? Of course I have courses and projects and priorities on the go, and perhaps more vision for the coming years than what I’m implying here. But for now, I’m allowing myself the discomfort of sitting at the top of the mountain, looking out onto a vast plateau.

On Returning from Sabbatical

I’ve had many conversations lately about what it’s been like to return from Sabbatical. My year away from the hectic pace of my regular teaching and service schedule gave me space to think big, to write, to follow my curiosities in work and life, to travel, and to prioritize care for myself and my loved ones. I learned to appreciate that I am not the sum of my work, what it feels like to be truly well-rested, that actually I am not that important (lots of amazing things still happen without me — this might sound arrogant, but it was an important realization for allowing myself to unplug and say no), and that I don’t have anything left to prove to others–so I can start building my career on my own terms (thanks therapy for this last one!). I developed an Educational Leadership Statement (triggered by the SoEL Certificate program) which helped me to evaluate my suite of commitments/projects and set two priority areas (faculty development and curriculum) that I can use to make decisions about what to say yes to. Before sabbatical I had never in my life taken time away, and I am forever grateful for that chance to catch my breath and re-evaluate my life.

Returning was, as expected, a bit of a shock. I taught about 500 students each term, and I had lots of energy for large-scale renewal of lessons (including switching a textbook in one case — something I’d been putting off for a while). Lesson and course planning consumed me. Lessons that used to take an hour or two to prepare often took closer to 5 — which is not easily sustainable for 6 different hours (9 total) of class prep per week! I felt I became even more accessible for and responsive to my students, which also takes time and mental and emotional energy (including ~daily decision-making that has logistical + ethical implications).

But here’s where I think the effect of sabbatical came through: I let myself do this essential work of good teaching and let other things go. I wasn’t very good at responding to email most of the time, instead taking more of a triage approach (spend about half an hour once or twice a day putting out fires, and let the rest accumulate until I could schedule more time to deal with it). I resigned from at least two committees. I said no to various “small” things like giving workshops or reviewing. I worked Sundays (teaching Monday at 9, 10, and 12 requires that for me), but I still left work at 3 on Mondays and Thursdays so I could get to my yoga class on time because I had learned yoga improves my well-being.

All this saying no had some noticeable effects. I still didn’t work evenings or Saturdays to “make up” for the work I needed to do during the day. My job (JOB–not my life) is teaching first, and I am not obligated to work 60 hour weeks to make everything else also equally first. I got used to disappointing people, which is something I have tried to avoid at much cost throughout my life personally and professionally. I regularly began emails with apologies for tardiness, I failed to call meetings that should have happened but were not actually absolutely essential, I declined invitations regularly. But I also learned to re-frame that “no” as an opportunity to nominate someone else. People think of me for roles, and that’s amazing and wonderful — I’ve worked really hard for my work to be respected! But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other people around who could do a great job and learn/build their CVs too. I now think of a no as a chance to mentor someone into a new role for them. I became (professionally) lonely. As I wrapped up various commitments and longer-term projects (deliberately without replacing them), removed committees and other work from my days, I realized that a growing discontent inside me was loneliness! Teaching is (mostly) fun and is (for me) very social with students… yet I realized more than ever that sitting at tables with colleagues who also love teaching is essential professional fuel for me. As I rebuild my smaller suite of commitments, I am paying keen attention to joining tables where conversations and initiatives are energizing.

As I realize it’s time for me to do other work this morning, I’m left with feeling a sense of extreme gratitude for my job and my career. Being an Educational Leadership (EL) faculty member at UBC means I work really hard to do the best work I can do for my students, colleagues, and institution–just like everyone around me. And it also comes with tremendous opportunity and autonomy to continually craft and re-craft my own teaching-focused career. I think everyone deserves a sabbatical, and I’m grateful to be among those who get one.

About the new banner image

Suddenly it dawned on me… my website is woefully out of date. Time for a renovation! I’ll try not to let it get so dated next time. Well, I’ll try to try. There’s always next sabbatical in 7 years!

I chose as this site’s banner the image of the Hohensalzburg Fortress in Salzburg (Austria) because of how I felt while taking that photo (and because I like the look of it). I was travelling on sabbatical (March 2017), and had uncharacteristically ventured off by myself up the mountain in the middle of the city on a sunny spring day. All morning I simply followed my curiosity and was rewarded by stunning views of mountains, ruins, forest, city, and the medieval Fortress. I learned about that place and myself in equal measure that day.

Reflections from Yoga Class

One of the gifts I have given myself this sabbatical is a commitment to yoga class. For the past 10 months or so, I’ve been going to yoga class pretty much twice a week (basically whenever I’m in Vancouver). I’m not sure my mind is calmer for it (but maybe it is?), but it’s allowed me to sneak in stretching and core strengthening into my exercise routine — two things I have trouble doing on my own. Recently I’ve been thinking about my yoga classes as adventures in teaching and learning. Here are some of my observations:

  • I enjoy learning in the social context of a class. SURPRISE of the century, I know. But spending all this time in a class has given me the chance to really reflect on that, including my role as learner. I find it motivating to share a physical space with other human beings who also want to learn something I’m interested in learning. I find it motivating to be guided by someone who has deliberately planned a sequence of activities to help me learn and practice skills (whether or not they’re fully “expert”). I’ve met people who are able to practice yoga on their own with videos, but that’s just not me and I’m ok with that. I probably have assumed that my students are motivated by the collective experience of class. What if they’re not? What options can/do I give for students who might be motivated like I am by the collective classroom experience, or motivated differently?
  • As a teacher, I can offer activities and opportunities, but I must do it in such a way as to allow students to go deeper or shallower depending on what they need out of that class/course. That also involves helping students learn to listen to their own needs and trusting that they will make the choice they need to make that day. What’s tricky here is that yoga is optional and there isn’t a final exam. That’s not true in my classes.
  • My regular yoga teacher is inspirational. Her best classes are creative, based in the fundamentals of hatha, and build an arc that begins with warming up specific muscle groups and finishes with a corresponding challenging pose. She explains how movements link to each other, making explicit her pedagogical choices. She brings positivity, and encourages students to listen to their bodies carefully. Her prompts have helped me learn to accept where my body is and what it needs in each moment.
  • Even she gets tired and overworked. She’s been teaching other novice yoga teachers recently on top of her regular teaching. Her classes are still good, and I can tell she’s choosing to focus on what she knows best: the basics of hatha. This is good, but — and I say this lovingly as a fellow teacher — not her best most inspirational teaching. Noticing this about her is helping me reflect on how burnt out I was a year ago and how much I needed a break from the classroom. I love teaching students. It’s fun and creative and in my best moments I’m helping my students create and re-create their understanding of the world. But it’s also exhausting. And after my Aunt died last February I was crawling every day toward sabbatical break. Now more than ever I’m certain it showed in the energy and creativity I wasn’t able to bring to class. Self Care isn’t optional in this line of work.
  • Learning from substitute yoga teachers, novice or experienced, helps me to think a bit differently about my practice. Always learning from the same person–even if she is incredibly skilled and I really enjoy her classes–doesn’t mean I can’t learn insights from someone else, even if I don’t fully love the whole experience (but sometimes I do and that’s great too).

I’ve signed up for a yoga pass that continues indefinitely. My goal is to continue making it to class on Mondays and Thursdays, even after my own classes begin in the fall. Please forgive me when I won’t schedule a meeting that runs past 3pm on those days. I need to engage in this Self Care so I can keep bringing my best.