Grant Adjudication Process for UBC Grad Students

Issues, concerns, and anxieties around grant adjudication process abound, as evidenced in a previous post on this blog. Awards and competitions are inherently stressful.  Applicants, often working with limited understanding of the various processes going on behind the scenes, often assume their failure to gain a grant is more a failure of the process then of their own application.  That might be partial true, but rarely in the manner that applicants think. It is hard to accept that a near perfect application just doesn’t get funded.  But that’s the issue with competitive based funding mechanisms.  Ideally funding would be need based and equitable in distribution.  All learning community citizens would receive the funding that they need to be successful learners.  While that is an end goal that I share, I am enough of a realist to accept that for the moment our system is a competitive normative one.  It is a system in which the ideals of ‘excellence’ are defined by mandated failure of the majority.  For those who would like an informed critique of excellence and the corporatist no-liberal trajectory of the contemporary university look here.

Early May 2014 the Faculty of Graduate and Post-Doctoral Studies at UBC hosted a workshop on grant and fellowship adjudication processes for faculty advisers.  They have shared their presentation and have given permission to share this with graduate students.  I’ve attached it here: UBC Adjudication Process Slides. The presentation is quite informative in laying out the procedures and the criteria for awards.  One of the key items here is that students should note that there are a limited number of awards offered – far fewer than the number of applicants.  Thus ‘success’ is necessarily restricted and designed to engender individualistic behaviours within applicant groups.

These types of competitive processes undermine social solidarity and, in my opinion, do nothing to engender high quality reserach.  What they do is train and inculcate participation into the high culture of competitive capitalism. Bertell Ollman, in How to Take and Exam and Remake the World, said it best when he described university and college exams as tools to teach working class compliance.  He offered tips to deal with both surviving the testing process AND changing the world.  Key to the process was figuring out how to navigate college classrooms and simultaneously to understand what lies behind the industrialized competitive classroom.

Competition can be healthy.  In sports like running a competitive spirit drives individuals forward through the seeking and setting of personal goals.  The measure of success is a matrix between absolute performance (time over distance) and age category. Academic competition for graduate awards and fellowships, however, has been unnaturally transformed into a poor facsimile of free market capitalism.  Rewards are restricted and deliberately constrained, all ‘competitors’ are encouraged to compete against each other within a mythos of a meritocratic level playing field.  Mentors blithely give advice on how best to succeed while nearly always turning a blind eye to the fact that they are ultimately encouraging failure. Departmental and Faculty experts give presentations in which the message seems to be that everyone can be a success, everyone will be excellent:  all one need do is follow the advice and work hard.

In a society based upon equity and social justice each learner would have the needs and supports to meet their personal bests – the point of comparison would be their own last success, not whether or not they grabbed one of the paltry prizes dangled like carrots.  This is a world that still awaits us.  We can achieve it.





Archaeology in Laxyuup Gitxaała: Connecting with Community through Teaching

I went to my first North West Anthropological Conference today and thoroughly enjoyed myself.  I only participated for one of the conference’s three days of programming, but it was well worth it.  However, before heading over to the conference I did a slow and easy 6km run along the Fairhaven to Bellingham waterfront on a fabulous running trail (see route details at bottom of post).

Most of the papers that I watched were on wet site archaeology.  Informative and engaging.  In the session that my paper was in there were two herring papers and one on clam gardens: all quite informative.  My own paper focused on the archaeological work that we have been doing through the Gitxaała Environmental Monitoring office for about five years now.  My primary focus of this paper was on community engagement through teaching and learning.

ABSTRACT:  Since 2009 Gitxaala Nation and UBC have been involved in a collaborative archaeology and traditional knowledge research project.  This project builds upon a long standing socio-cultural research collaboration.  As part of the project, which involves documenting Gitxaala village sites not previously recorded or describe in the archaeological literature, project team members have engaged community youth through hands on applications of research techniques.  This presentation documents the nature of the engaging, highlights some of our research results, and explores the importance of making connections with youth and community members as a driving force in new archaeological investigations. 

[PDF of the powerpoint presentation.  Photo credits: John Irons and Charles Menzies]


The Bittersweet Truth of Award Adjudication

One of the hardest things to take as a student and an academic (forget that – for all of us) is the bitter taste of rejection and denial.  It’s hard to hand out rejections too, but receiving them is way harder.  We all know that.  It’s part of the price that is paid for supporting and being part of the neo-liberal market economy where competition and excellence rule the day (you can find my critique of the university of excellence online in New Proposals)

Recently I read a comment about how a student found the process of fellowship award adjudication unfair.  I appreciate that feeling.  It was sincere and heartfelt. Oh, and yes, I do sometimes read what students post online – it’s a public place- I don’t go looking for these things, but it is amazing what one stumbles across on a causal jaunt through the blogosphere.   That said, I think that some of the conclusions and information that the student had been provided with aren’t quite accurate. 

The student’s concern was over what they had been told about the granting process and the likely outcome of this process.  Then, to make matters worse, the explanation for why their file didn’t actually get sent up to the next level of decision making was even more innervating!

You should know that over the course of a couple of decades I have sat on local, national, and international adjudication panels for graduate students and faculty.  I was a member of the doctoral fellowship national adjudication panel in Canada for about 6 years and even chaired the committee one year.  I’ve also reviewed faculty grant applications (as both a member of adjudication committees and a peer reviewer on behalf of granting agencies) for a range of national and international grant awards.

So here’s my gloss on the local process for grant awards . 

The faculty of graduate studies gives each department a quota of how many applications for each award that can be sent forward to the university-level selection committee.  This quota will vary from year to year, but this year (for example) the department in question was only allocated one space for international student applications for affiliated awards and eight spaces for Domestic & Permanent Resident applications to  SSHRC MA fellowships.  Departments have nothing to do with setting the quota.

The selection process involves each member of the departmental committee individually ranking all applicant files.  We are provided with clear criteria (as are students when they fill out the forms) for assessing each file. I personally create a quantitative rubric that includes research proposal, student record (i.e. publications, presentations, employment history, and consider that relative to stage of career), reference letters, and transcripts.  I personally tally up those scores and then rank applicant files accordingly. Other committee members may have different approaches, but we are all expected to follow the criteria set by the granting agency and/or UBC (as the case determines).  Then the rankings from each individual committee member is combined and tallied up to created an overall ranked list of applications.  The outcome thus involves  a combination of factors and no one factor can be singled out as ‘the’ main factor.

[Note, I am very deliberately saying applications, files, etc.  These are rankings of the FILES, not the STUDENTS.  Semantic point?  I don’t think so.  To be fair and honest rankings should look only at the material in the files that we are provided with.  That’s the application, that’s the data we have to work with.]

The SSHRCC MA fellowship applications are considered separately from the MA affiliated award applications and are not compared against each other. The department in question had 20+ applications for the SSHRCC. Our quota to send up to the university level committee was 8. Perhaps 2/3 of those will ultimately be funded. The Affiliated pool was much smaller and only 1 space was allocated to be sent up. Only when there are cases in which the number of applicants equal the quota set by the university would all applicants be sent up.

I also know that no amount of explanation or empathy will make a difference as to how one might feel about the outcome.  Say what one might, rejection is always a bitter pill to swallow.