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Welcoming Mohamed Fahmy to UBC

Posted: November 9th, 2015, by averillg

On October 21, UBC got to welcome and to pay tribute to an extraordinary Canadian, journalists Mohamed Famhy, who was recently released from prison in Egypt. Imprisoned largely for reporting on Egyptian politics for Al Jazeera, Fahmy is now at UBC as a Visiting Professor in the School of Journalism, sponsored by the Global Reporting Centre and by the W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics. My remarks below are from that ceremony at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.

From left to right, Professor Peter Klein, Fahmy’s wife Marwa Omara, Mohamed Fahmy, me and President Martha Piper.

I want to thank President Piper for addressing in her remarks the central importance of academic freedom within universities, something I’m certain that everyone in this university holds dear. But academic freedom is a limited and more specific variant—local to the academy—of a broader principle: the right to free expression. Of course, free expression is rarely an absolute. In Canada we limit free speech by prohibiting hate speech, libelous expression and plagiarism. Academic freedom is intended to ensure that researchers can freely publish their research without interference, and the right to free expression exists so that journalists can report on the unfolding of history without censorship from the nation states within which they report and that artists can express deeply held views in controversial, provocative or evenly disturbing works of art without fear for their person or freedom.

We know that such rights and principles are precarious or non-existent throughout much of the world—we know that journalism, for example, is a very dangerous profession (President Piper just spoke of the 66 journalists who lost their lives last year as a result of their work), we know that that artists and intellectuals sit in jail cells around the world, and we know that activists too often meet with brutal ends, and scholars too may find themselves unable to secure funding if their research conflicts with entrenched interests. Today, we come together firstly to welcome and to celebrate a new member of our community, Professor Mohamed Fahmy, but we are also celebrating and recommitting ourselves to the principles of freedom of expression and of academic freedom.

I am fortunate to be allowed to lead a Faculty devoted to the study and nurturing of the “human” and the “social”, and so our researchers, instructors and students are steeped in the issues on which Mr. Fahmy reported from the Egypt Bureau of Al Jazeera during a period of revolutionary social transformations, political change, and ideological and spiritual challenge. He was in a very right place and time for capturing these extraordinary events, but unfortunately in the wrong place when the repressive Egyptian military government went looking for scapegoats. I doubt that there are many students here (and certainly no faculty) who have not followed his wrongful imprisonment and re-imprisonment, kangaroo trials, and subsequent release with a mix of fascination at the events unfolding, sorrow at the human cost and the deprivation of liberty, and admiration for the way that Mr. Fahmy and his family have comported themselves and dealt with the circumstances of his imprisonment.

I’m delighted that there’s been such interest in Professor Fahmy’s residency: departments such as Political Science; Geography; Sociology; Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies; Theatre/Film; Creative Writing; the Liu Institute for Global Issues– have all expressed interest in having Professor Fahmy as a guest lecturer – so I’m confident that we can make one absolute commitment to him: that we will keep him exceedingly busy while he’s here at UBC!

Mohamed Fahmy’s visit fits well with the interest stirring across the campus in the initiative to build a policy school around the new MPPGA program, with its links to the School of Journalism and its Global Reporting Centre. I’d like to give special thanks to Dr. Alfred Hermida, Director of the School, who, along with Peter Klein, has been outspoken about Mr. Fahmy’s plight, and has contributed School funds to support this visit.

It’s rare for me to quote scripture, but some of you may know the quote in Luke that says: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded”. We find this notion woven in Western moral economy of social status in the West as the concept of “noblesse oblige”, meaning to be born into nobility obligates the individual to do service in the world. Another memorable variant is found in—of all places—the early Spider Man comics when Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

But I’ll offer up a variant on this aphorism: it is sometimes the individuals from whom much has been taken, who respond by giving so much. We all know of those who have suffered deeply, and yet who have turned their suffering into grounds for social, moral, and political action. It is humbling when people in that position step forward as Mohammed Fahmy is doing in the wake of his release, and we thank him and his family for focusing their attention – and all of our – attention on the continued precarity of journalism in zones of conflict and in areas of the world characterized by totalitarian rule.

Universities enjoy significant privilege: public funding, prestige, tenure—and, yes, academic freedom. We have been given much, and much is demanded of us. I’m deeply grateful to everyone who has worked on bringing Mohamed Fahmy to UBC – you have helped us live up to the obligation of the university to stand up for freedom of expression.


Posted: October 4th, 2015, by averillg
The Imagine Day Pep Rally

The Imagine Day Pep Rally

I get to welcome our entering classes each year at “Meet the Dean” on Imagine Day. This year our entering class was so large that we used up all the seats in the Chan Centre for both ceremonies and had to seat hundreds of students on the stage!

Introduction: Making your own history

We begin all official ceremonies at UBC with this short declaration:
“UBC is located on the traditional, ancestral and un-ceded territory of the Musqueam people.” The Musqueam are a Salish First Nations people who remain our neighbours, and so we take advantage of these moments to recognize our debt and our close relationship – I hope that during your time at UBC you’ll have the opportunity take advantage of their hospitality to learn some things about First Nations cultures or languages, perhaps in the new Institute of Critical Indigenous Studies, or you could start just down the street at MOA, a museum of aboriginal and global arts and culture that is one of UBC’s – and Vancouver’s – leading attractions.

But first, let me welcome you to UBC, and welcome to its largest and most diverse faculty, the Faculty of Arts. It’s an auspicious year to be joining UBC. It’s our 100th birthday, and all year long we will be celebrating the incredible achievements of the last century, and envisioning the possibilities for the next 100 years. We’re 100 years old but still growing strong.

This is where you come in. You are creating the next part of our history as well as your own— you are the first entering class of the next hundred years!! We invited you to join UBC’s Faculty of Arts because we believe you have what it takes to succeed, grow and flourish here. We expect that each of you will make a great contribution to our remarkable community.

I was reminded just last night about the contributions our students are making in the world. My daughter, my niece and I were out kayaking, trying to squeeze in one more bit of summer enjoyment, and afterwards we stopped in to our neighborhood convenience store. The owner, whose son graduated just last spring from UBC in Arts, asked me about the start of school. In turn, I asked her about how her son was doing.

It turns out that he went to Europe to teach English in Spain—I remember him telling me this on stage as he graduated—but as he was travelling in Serbia, the Syrian refugee crisis began to peak. He found himself volunteering in Belgrade, providing food and clothing to this massive movement of people through Europe fleeing conflict zones and overpopulated refugee camps. Apparently he is heading soon to Budapest in Hungary to continue in his volunteer role before starting his job. His mom is very proud of him—as am I. You may not all find yourselves helping in the middle of a global crisis, as he has, but you should find yourself with new skills and a new worldview, ready to engage with the world.

Overflow students on stage at the Chan Centre break the ice.

Overflow students on stage at the Chan Centre break the ice.

Let’s get acquainted

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Clever tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts aside, I can assure you that virtually everyone here is at least little nervous — myself included. I’m a bit shy by nature and it’s not easy to talk to 2,000 students at once on stage at the beautiful Chan Centre.

So let’s break the ice. In a minute I’m going to ask you to turn to someone to your right, or left or behind you — someone you don’t know — and introduce yourself. Tell them something about you… maybe your current Netflix binge-watching obsession, your pet’s name, something about your family, or your 10-second take on the meaning of life.

I know it can be uncomfortable to talk to a total stranger, but Arts UBC is a place where we take risks and stretch out of our comfort zones, so let’s start today. I’ll get the ball rolling. Here’s some things few people outside my family know about me (except you, now): I cut my own hair. My favorite song: probably “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads (before your time), and when I was a very little boy my father called me “A walking compendium of useless facts and trivial knowledge”, anticipating, I think, that I would someday be a professor.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Find a neighbor or two, introduce yourself and tell them something about you. Great—that was the easy part of my talk – I didn’t have to do anything! Now that we all have someone we can say hi to, let’s get down to why you’re here.

Making a difference

Show of hands — how many of you know what you want to do with your life? My guess is that even if you do know, you may have no idea what that actually looks like, or how you’re going to get there. That’s okay. Actually, that’s fantastic, because it means that you have the flexibility to grow and change along with your interests and the rapidly changing world around us. Most of us don’t have a long-term vision of what we want our lives to look like or a plan to get there.

I still ask myself what I’m going to do when I grow up. I started out in Forestry, before dropping out of university to become a community organizer, and then radio deejay, festival organizer, musician, and tractor driver. Eventually, I went back to school and found my passion for ethnomusicology, the study of the world’s music in its cultural and social context. When I discovered ethnomusicology, I knew I had found something that I could do for the rest of my life and not get bored.

Whether you have a plan, or are open to taking a circuitous route like I did, one thing most of us do know is that we want to be relevant, we want to make an impact on the world, make a difference and make our lives count, and we also want to enjoy what we’re doing. Asking yourself through your university years how you can build on your passions and interest to make a difference will help you to fashion the path ahead for yourself. Your Arts UBC degree will ground you in new ways of thinking. It will give you the latitude to explore your interests and to sharpen your focus. It will power your life and career.

The Pep Rally in the year of UBC's 100th Anniversary

The Pep Rally in the year of UBC’s 100th Anniversary

Exploring your interests and passions: toward a personalized education

An Arts education is a powerful tool in your arsenal as you consider your future career and lifetime of learning. We don’t know which specialized skills will be in demand in the future. But we do know that as technology and economies change rapidly, general intellectual and analytic skills are at a premium.

Here at Arts UBC we are not training you for your first job—or even for a job that exists now! — but rather giving you the skills you’ll need to be prepared for a lifetime of successful transitions and new challenges.

An Arts UBC education will heighten your cultural sensitivity, carry out research, organize your thoughts and communicate them clearly, effectively and persuasively. Whether you go onto graduate school, a professional program like Law or Business, or seek employment after graduation, an Arts education is the edge that will position you broadly and allow you to make a real contribution to your community.

The diversity of Arts is an advantage: it will allow you to create your own personalized program to emerge from the university life-ready and world-ready. There are countless options to choose from. We are home to four institutes, five schools, 16 departments, 750 faculty and thousands of courses. You can choose majors and minors from dozens of options in social sciences, creative and performing arts, humanities, interdisciplinary programs and more—and you are encouraged to take courses in other faculties. From this extensive and diverse platform, the opportunities for a unique educational journey are literally innumerable.

Let’s say you’re interested in helping communities preserve and make sense of their cultural resources – you might consider combining studies in History, Anthropology and some Computer Science courses. A degree that combines Political Science with Religious Studies will prepare you to understand regional and international conflicts. Putting together Economics and Asian Studies, you could contribute expert perspectives on trade and globalization. Seriously, the possibilities are endless. The secret is to take control of your education.

I’m not trying to scare you. My goal is to excite you about the possibilities the next few years hold and your chance to design and chart your own course. This path most likely won’t be a straight line, but I promise you that it will lead to a deeper understanding of yourself and the world around you.

You are making a huge investment in time and resources to be here, so by all means take some time to stretch yourself and explore your interests – our programs let you do that. These are the years where you begin to write your own unique story. If you are intentional, if you actively take a leadership role in your education, if you pay attention to your interests and take advantage of the unique power of an Arts education, opportunities will unfold.

You have four years in front of you to learn about what you’re interested in, leverage your talents, explore your ambitions, develop priorities and set goals. You have the privilege to do so alongside some of the very best minds out there — not just your professors and TAs but the students all around you today. We’ll do our best to create a safe, supportive environment where you can take academic risks. I challenge you to do so, and to have the courage to get back up when you fail.

Arts and employment

Employers want to hire people who know how to communicate, who have the ability to solve problems, and embrace teamwork. One third of Fortune 500 CEOs have Arts degrees. A recent survey on employer priorities showed that not only do employers recognize the Power of Arts, but wish more university graduates had the unique toolkit that an Arts education provides. In that survey, 82 percent of employers wanted universities to do exactly what we do here at Arts UBC — place more emphasis on teaching how to learn, including analytical reasoning skills. In addition, 80 percent wanted more emphasis on written and oral communication skills, and 91 percent wanted to see more emphasis on problem solving in diverse settings. This is not just abstract talk. There are more and more global business leaders pointing to the benefits of an Arts education.

Tony Golsby-Smith, founder and CEO of Second Road, an Australian strategic planning firm, noted in Harvard Business Review that if corporations want innovative thinking, they should hire Arts graduates because they are experts at answering “What if” questions, and because, in his words,

“People trained in the humanities who study Shakespeare’s poetry, or Cezanne’s paintings, have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in

Wrap-up: Making the most of your time at UBC

Make the most of everything UBC has to offer. This is a truly unique and formative time of your lives. Believe me, it goes by quickly, so soak it up. On the academic side, exploit opportunities to apply what you’re learning in the classroom out into the world. Not only will this help you to retain information, but it will also give you the opportunity to make sense of it in real-life situations.

You’ll find that many of our programs put an emphasis on experiential learning. We offer Community Service Learning Courses where you can explore and contribute to our local communities. If you want to go further afield, Go Global exchanges can take your education around the world. You might also consider applying to the Arts co-op program where you can integrate work experience into your degree.

Of course, it’s not all learning all the time. Make sure to take the time to develop a social life — make new friends, join clubs, explore the Arts and Culture Quarter and everything it has to offer, from music to theatre to outdoor feasts (come to concerts in this great concert hall!).
And please — if you find yourself struggling, first, be kind to yourself. Next, ask for help. The Arts faculty and staff and most importantly our student advisors are here for you. We truly care about your wellbeing, and we are deeply invested in preparing you for your future. I encourage you to talk to an Arts Advisor — it’s a great place to start.

I’ve touched on just some of the many things this amazing, 100-year-old institution has to offer you as you lay the foundation for creating a rewarding and relevant life and career that will be powered by Arts. I wish each and every one of you the best for the coming year. Thanks for listening. I hope to see you later at the pep rally.

Convoke For Broke 2014, the exit poll results…

Posted: May 24th, 2014, by averillg

A recent graduate fills in her major on a white board

Buzzed, pumped-up, enthusiastic … these aren’t the adjectives one expects to hear after shaking 2,300 hands and talking to 2,300 people, but they were the ones I was using after our last Arts Convocation on Friday. For three days, I had congratulated each of our graduates and asked them a variety of questions, the most common of which involved getting to know their plans for the next phase in their lives. Trying desperately not to hold up the line, I still try to get in a little banter with each student – it’s my exit poll regarding their education at UBC and their hopes for the future!

Those around me on the stage often ask what I’ve learned, and I have to admit that it’s difficult to summarize. But I try to recall the really different and interesting things our students are off to do as well as the general trends. So let’s start with some of the choices that were less common, more “off-the-beaten-path”.

• We’re graduating at least three professional athletes (this year we had a football player, a hockey player, and a baseball player all headed to the professional leagues), a swimmer training for the Rio Olympics, and someone just back from the world competition in cheerleading!

• I met a couple of future police officers, a fire fighter, someone headed to the armed forces, someone hoping to join the UN police, three who were off to become pilots, and one who was planning to work in the gas industry in the North.

• A few of our graduates are already working in government (MP offices) and one for the Liberal Party of Ontario (stepping right into an election cycle!). Not a single one of our students intended to work for Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto.

• At least three are working in aquariums (!) and a surprising number are working, at least for a while, at UBC (for example at MOA or in various central offices).

The jam-packed Flag Plaza

And now let’s look at some of the trends:

• Of our graduating librarian and archival students, one was working in the Vancouver Public Library, one for an archives, and another for a Vancouver area library. Similarly, our journalism students were heading to the CBC (2), to CTV and to a variety of print and electronic media. Most of these professional school students seemed to be already working! We know our co-op students are 90% employed by graduation, but I was heartened by the job prospects of our professional school students.

• Many of our Economics students were already working in banks or in finance or as brokers. Quite a significant number were heading to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo or Singapore with jobs already in hand.

• Many are off to do graduate or post-baccalaureate work in their fields, and a quick poll of where many were going turned up Oxford, the California system, NYU, Stanford, McGill, UofT, The University of Chicago, Columbia University, or to universities in Australia, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Germany, mainland China, and beyond. The most popular post-BA destination seemed to be Law and Education, both accounting for at least 100 students. One, though, was going on to seminary to become a missionary. For those wanting to combine something closer to technical training with a BA, they most often mention BCIT as a destination (a few were becoming designers of one sort or another). We have a few who are going on to Nursing, many to Occupational Therapy, Accounting (typically here at UBC), and many to Human Resources, and among our geographers, some were getting additional training in Global Information Systems (GIS). In theses cases, the combination of an Arts degree (perhaps Psychology, Economics or Sociology) and a technical training component will likely prove to be a strong combination for their rise to leadership in their fields.

• And one student mentioned her graduate studies in “forensic linguistics”. Okay, so as background, let me say that I work (on the side) as a forensic musicologist, providing expert witness testimony for music copyright cases, but I confess that I have absolutely no idea what a forensic linguist would do! Someone help me by writing into this blog to clarify please!

• A number of our students planned to work in their family’s business (very true of some of our students from China) or to start a business (some had started businesses already) and one was already working in a start-up and hoping to move up with the business.

• Sometimes the students don’t talk about their detailed plans but state ambitious goals: “Change the world!” or “The world is my oyster!”, and sometimes they respond with a much shorter timeframe in mind: “Sleep”, “Party”, “Lunch” or even in one case “Sushi!”. And although the following answer does not impress the Provincial government, some of our students shrug their shoulders and say: “We’ll see!” But the odd thing is that this was never said in a downbeat or pessimistic fashion but more along the lines of “We’ll see what great things come my way!”. Another variation on this was the decision to take a year to travel and work before getting onto more permanent work or graduate school.

• And yes, just because this is an Arts faculty (and here I’m playing with the stereotypes!), one student did say “barista” and one was continuing to work as a server at a restaurant on West Broadway, and indeed one said “unemployment”, but it seemed to be said lightly.

Only one student tripped (on the way down the stairs) but several lost their mortarboard hats on stage (it is one of my duties to pick these up!). There is no logical explanation for the design of mortarboards, but if future graduates are reading this blog, my recommendation is to bring bobby pins to keep them on your head!

Along with the handshakes came a few high-fives, a couple fist bumps, and a few hugs. I got to pose for selfies, turn around for pictures by parents, and comment on some interesting choices in footware or body adornment or on the relative merits of the students’ professors, who were sitting behind me. And of course I followed it up with a quick trip to the Purel dispenser.

But there’s nothing like a sea of excited students and proud parents, a rendition of “O Canada” led by our Opera Program Director Nancy Hermiston, some stirring march music played by the School of Music brass students, a sea of flash cameras, and the sheer exhaustion of it all to leave one, strangely, wanting more. I was buoyed considerably by a comment to me by our outgoing Chancellor, Sarah Morgan Sylvester, who finds Arts students much more optimistic and full of spirit than she did five years ago.

Can I conclude this little sampler blog about our Convocation with the biggest props possible for our outgoing Chancellor as well as our outgoing Vice-Chancellor and President, Stephen J. Toope, both of whom do about 22 convocations every spring with unflagging enthusiasm and dedication to our students as well as the heartfelt and thoughtful speeches that they compose for each convocation season. Their stamina and commitment to students continues to inspire.

Congratulations to the extraordinary UBC Arts Class of 2014. I’m exhausted and exhilarated just thinking about it!

Hire Education

Posted: March 23rd, 2014, by averillg

Arts Co-op student, Alex Chen. Photo by Martin Dee.

The Vancouver Sun on Saturday ran a wonderful feature story about an Arts Co-op student, Alex Chen (International Relations, minor in French), recently named “Student of the Year” by the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education. Alex, who also received the “Student of the Year” award from our own Co-op program, spent eight months last year at the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development in Ottawa, helping to advise the ministry (research, write briefs, prepare presentations) on issues and events in East Asia.
(see “Higher education elevated by co-op program’s working-world placements: Co-op degrees allow students to explore career options while building their skills and completing their schooling”, by Tracy Sherlock, Vancouver Sun March 21, 2014 at

This last week, Astronaut Chris Hadfield made a splash at the Vancouver-based Ted Talks, explaining how he overcame his fear when his suit malfunctioned during his space-walk. While he was aboard the space station, his web conferences, podcasts, and his own consumption of news and entertainment were managed by another Arts Co-op student, Eva Kwan (Psychology), whose role at the Canadian Space Agency could basically be described as keeping Astronaut Hadfield happy and psychologically grounded (See

Arts Co-op student Eva Kwan at the Canadian Space Agency (from UBC Reports)

Arts’ Co-op Program turns 15 this year, and so it seemed like a great time for me to express what an essential part of our education I think this program occupies. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you’ll know how passionate I am about active, experiential and transformative learning. In the last four years, we have striven mightily to increase the global learning opportunities in Arts; to provide our students with greater possibilities to study and research in the community; to change the nature of the classroom itself to emphasize problem-based learning; and to enhance career preparation for our students. Central to this is the innovative strategy of integrating learning and work so as to better prepare students for life after university.

Three stats that bring the Co-op program into relief: more that 4,000 UBC students participated in Co-op last year; Arts Co-op students earned more than $3 million dollars in the same year; and most importantly, some 90% of our Arts Co-op students were employed within three months of graduation!

Now that I’ve got your attention… I just returned from a trip to three cities in China, and while in Hong Kong I visited a handful of our Co-op students at their workplaces. Let me tell you about a few of them. Tim works with Time-Warner, the media and film company, and is handling much of their research on intellectual property rights in Asia. Mandy has had a very successful 8 months with the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia, using her French, Mandarin, and English to arrange conferences, translate documents, and engage with entertainment industry executives. Her supervisor says she is doing junior executive level work, and Fox Searchlight Pictures has asked her to work for them for two months before she goes back for her last year at UBC. And Hilda has helped Sino Credit Management expand their client base in Europe, the US and Canada. All of their employers have stressed that UBC students are ready to engage with the world and in business at a top level, and a couple of the employers only look to UBC for Co-op students because of the quality of students they’ve encountered. Can you imagine how well prepared these students will be when they’re ready to look for work?!

I was especially pleased to learn about how these students are assessed and about the tasks they’re given while on assignment. Students write up a set of goals, describing what they want to learn and the experiences they hope to have. They are asked to interview a professional while on their placement, something that furthers their network of professional contacts and provides them with an expanded view into the world of professional work. Students prepare LinkedIn sites with their cv’s and build a network of contact, and students also prepare a description of the work they do to aid future students at the same placement site. Site visits are conducted to assess how well things are going for both the student and the supervisors. The whole package strikes me as the ideal circumstances for integrating what one has learned into professional practice. One student described her Co-op experience as “lighting up” her education, allowing her to make sense of her classroom learning.

We’ve committed extra resources to Co-op, and have seen about 15% growth in placements per year in the last few years. In 2012-13, the job postings doubled. So here’s a salute to Alex Chen, to Eva Kwan and to all of our Co-op students and staff in the 15th year of a very successful, and very important program for Arts. The Faculty of Arts Co-op Program uses the tag line “Hire Education”, which is just so clever that I had to steal it for the title of this blog posting.

A Fire to Be Lit/Kindled

Posted: November 24th, 2013, by averillg

I gave a keynote over the weekend for the Golden Key International Honour Society here at UBC. Given the Society’s emphasis on Academics, Service, and Leadership, I talked about how education can serve to transform students and light a passion for life and learning.

The title of my talk, “A Fire to Be Lit”, comes from a saying attributed to the Greek-born philosopher of the 1st century CE, Plutarch, a passage often pithily paraphrased as: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lit/kindled.”

The actual quote is a little less of a zinger, and it comes in Plutarch’s essay called “On Listening”: “For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.” (1927 Loeb Classical Library Edition).

Plutarch’s dichotomy, the “vessel to be filled” and the “fire to be lit” captures a millenia-old battle over the meaning of education that still roils the waters until today.
Just yesterday, The Globe and Mail featured an op-ed column by Gary Mason that derided the new British Columbia K-12 curriculum, a curriculum that allows students of different ages to study and learn together; it allows for different paces as well as different styles of learning; and it brings students together to learn in groups focused around big issues and problems. BC’s goal is to stimulate curiosity and passion for learning. Mason dismissed this approach as “laissez-faire”, disparaged what he termed the “edubabble” that constituted the theory behind the proposal, and he weighed in squarely in favor of “rote memorization” and frequent and stringent testing as the core of primary and secondary education. In other words, he revealed himself to be a devoted partisan of the “vessel to be filled” approach.

Classroom problem-based learning

Is there any evidence that the rote-memorization-and-testing approach generates among students a passion for learning, moreover for lifelong learning? In my experience, it often produces the opposite—a lifelong aversion to learning, an “ardent desire” perhaps only to be entertained. I see it from where I sit: students who come to university having mastered the arts of short-term memorization and test-taking too often fixate only on getting the best grades possible in order to position themselves for the highest-paying jobs possible, and they emerge from the university experience unsure of their interests, shallow, unformed, unprepared to live rich and meaningful lives or to follow their hearts into a career that mirrors their passions.

Mason complained that the new curriculum will not allow students to get into university, but he is seemingly unaware of the move towards broad-based admissions at many universities, UBC included. Such processes take into account the whole student, his/her motivations, interests, readiness, and love of learning.

Mason also criticizes the new BC curriculum for failing to prepare students for the “world that awaits them”? Where in the world are those jobs requiring workers to memorize facts and to do well on tests? The employers of which I’m aware more often ask that their employees work together to solve problems, and that they know how to research, to come up with creative solutions, and to communicate those solutions and their findings. So which approach: the “fire to be lit” or the “vessel to be filled” truly prepares students for the world that awaits?

As Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most creative individuals in recorded Western history, said: “Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” Again, like Plutarch, da Vinci focuses on desire, or “passion”, as the essential requirement for true learning, the precondition for lighting that fire.

I will argue, based on a long experience as a learner and as an observer of learners, that learning is deeper and more profound when students are active, not passive; when they are able to frame and ask questions rather than hearing answers; when they can speak as well as listen; and when they engage their curiosity and partake in a discovery process that, at least to me, appears closely akin to play. And study after study backs up my experience and observation, showing that university students learn better with these forms of pedagogy than they do from the lecture, long the staple of university education.

So why do some university professors still depend so thoroughly on lectures? Perhaps because their own professors lectured and they have remained with the model that some call “chalk talk” or “sage on a stage” out of inertia or simply comfort. It was never a great way to teach, but knowing what we know of the data from the last 20 years, it is increasingly difficult to justify it as a pedagogy. From lectures, students typically recall less than 30% in short-term memory, and much less is processed into long-term memory. I’ve recalled in materials before the comedian who went by the name Father Guido Sarducci who used to present a stand-up routine that he called the 15-minute university. His point? Students only remember about 15 minutes out of all of their university lectures, so in his university, they would just teach those 15 minutes – then they’d give you a cap and gown, a piece of paper, and a glass of champagne and out the door!

And this is an important point. If one’s goal is to fill the vessels, the goal will be constantly undermined by how leaky those vessels are.

I mentioned play earlier in relation to learning. We’re born with an aptitude for play and in our youngest years—and this is true of most mammals—we take joy in exploring the world, testing our limits, engaging in light roughhousing with others, learning to feel and sense our place in the world, and all the while exercising not only our bodies but our curiosity. Our learning in those years is yoked to the proclivity for play. And play helps to form that truly human capacity to see what is not in front of our eyes, but what is metaphorically called “the mind’s eye”: I’m speaking of the imagination. As children grow up and go to school, we subjugate learning to sitting in seats, listening to someone in the front of class, and taking notes, and we run roughshod over that playful impulse and its relationship to the formation of our mind and to imagination, losing the opportunity to light a fire.

A leading critic of contemporary education, Sir Ken Robinson, views our current forms of K-12 education as counterproductive of creativity, imagination and intellectual growth. He has argued that, “Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement. And it’s the one thing that I believe we are systematically jeopardizing in the way we educate our children and ourselves.”

As a species, we humans face a troubling set of challenges, so many of which are global in scale. We are eradicating species on a daily basis; hurtling towards a climate catastrophe in the span of decades; deepening the divide between haves and have-nots; facing virulent pandemics as well as poverty, famine, and tyranny … everywhere we look we encounter crises of our own making. Governments across North America, whether Federal, State or Provincial, or Municipal, proclaim the need for innovation in the face of these challenges. And yet we continue to teach in a fashion that bears little relationship with the stimulation of innovation through the cultivation of the imagination and the desire to learn. We have created a fundamental disjuncture between our needs as a society and as a species and our system of education. This is as true of university education as the K-12 level.

Allow me to take a short excursion: I’ve long been fascinated by the career of the late Walt Disney, and I’d like to relate a little-known part of his life and career.

The train station at Disney World

In the 1930s, having had great initial successes with his black-and-white cartoon shorts featuring, among others, the character who became Mickey Mouse, Disney was experiencing setbacks in his business during the Depression, and he faced competition from others, including his former partner. Experiencing creative malaise, he retreated to his property in California that he shared with his wife. To combat depression, and to indulge a childhood fantasy, he built a 2/3rds sized railroad steam engine and track on his property, and much to his wife’s concern and dismay, he spent a lot of his time riding around their property in that steam engine wearing a conductor’s hat. This is where most partners would call in the therapists to prescribe the antidepressants. Riding around this way one day, though, Disney began to wonder how many other people might want to escape in the way he was, to explore themes right out of their fantasies? Was there a business in providing this escape? And in his imagination a new form of form of entertainment, a theme park, was born: Disneyland in Anaheim California. The world’s most successful entertainment franchise born out of the childlike imagination of a grown man playing with trains.

Parenthetically, Disney later named his team of engineers, designers, and innovators the Imagineers. In that team, Disney for a time created the kind of atmosphere that fosters the kinds of creativity that can shape an era, and atmosphere that encourages absurd ideas to be given daylight, one that doesn’t bureaucratically strangle the future by quashing innovation. The Bell Labs of the 1950s and ‘60s was another such place; so were Apple and Google for periods of their history.

University faculty and students can and should be the ultimate “Imagineers” and a university education should be able to nurture creativity, imagination, inspiration and innovation in this way. We have all of the right people and resources to do it.

Disney’s genius was to use his own passion and to generalize it to incorporate others into his world. He took a problem, his own escapism, and reframed it in a new context. This is equivalent to the well-worn phrase “thinking outside the box”. In the country of Haiti, where I do my research, it is common to talk about this process as “gade yon bagay an kan” (looking at something “on edge”). Back in the 1960s a young teacher, Sunny Decker, wrote about her experiences teaching in a poverty-stricken community in a book called An Empty Spoon, and she wrote, “part of the art of teaching is the ability to rearrange the world for students…to see things in a new way.” It’s when that new way of looking at something takes hold that the spark is lit.

Inspiration can emerge from this novel way of thinking about a problem—you can overcome intractable problems if you approach a problem with a fresh perspective. There is no menu for how to do this, although it may help to have people with different backgrounds, disciplines, and perspectives in contact with each other to enrich the dialogue and the resources that are brought to bear;

In the term that I prefer, active, interactional, and experiential learning can be submerged within the rubric of “transformative learning”, where the learner by having various switches turned on, becomes someone new over time. You’ve experienced this, haven’t you? It’s a form of learning that is deeper, and that sticks with the learning longer than the material crammed for a test ever could. In talking with students who have done service learning and research course around the world, almost all of them talk about how putting their learning to use transformed them and their ideas and even their worldviews.

How do we make these forms of learning available to all students? You may have noticed more courses at UBC using real-world problem solving exercises at the heart of the syllabus; you may have found your instructor encouraging the use of iClickers, or more sophisticated devices, to register student attention, opinions, or suggestions in the classroom. You may have found the more rote aspects of a course – its basic lecture content – delivered through video while classroom time is devoted to interaction, role-play, question-and-answer or other types of learning that require face-to-face contact with an instructor. Screens, projectors, and real-time-videoconferencing can bring the world into the classroom while forms of lecture capture can broadcast or podcast the classroom activities to the world.

At the same time, more classes are using the community as their laboratory, engaging in service learning or in community based experiential learning; others may travel the globe to combine international learning and research. And why shouldn’t undergraduate students be doing research – this is essentially the process asking and finding ways to answer new questions. Research is curiosity-in-motion and it should occupy a prominent role in postsecondary education. Cumulatively this points to an emerging style of education that is more problem-based and more active and interactive and that integrates learning in the community and around the globe. I believe this is transformational learning.

If done right, this is a form of education better calibrated to lighting a fire. In his magical book, Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has the Prince say, “The only things you learn are the things you tame”: the active, experiential, and problem-based learning, facilitated with technology, is the kind that allows the learner to tame and to incorporate knowledge, and it is the kind of learning kindles the fire.

Of course it takes lots of discipline, persistence, and practice to master a subject well enough so that inspiration and imagination can be useful in problem solving. The Russian composer Tchaikovsky reminded us that, “Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.” So I want to stress that transformational styles of learning don’t reduce the work you have to put in – if anything, the hope is that they inspire you to hard work and that they reward you more for it.

On the Horizon, Part Deux

Posted: September 22nd, 2013, by averillg

Immediately following UBC’s uplifting Pep Rally on Imagine Day, I rushed to the airport for a flight to Munich, then to Nice (France) to catch a ride to the small city of Menton, France, on the border with Italy. Menton is one of three cities in which Sciences Po, one of France’s leading universities, has developed branch campuses, and which are now part of a UBC-Sciences Po dual degree. To give you a sense of the importance of the university, Sciences Po, which specializes in the social sciences and in law, has trained every President of France since Charles de Gaulle!

A walkway in the old city of Menton

The Dual Degree has proven wildly popular in its launch this year. It admits students into both universities and rewards them with degrees from both universities at the successful completion of their studies. Students interested in the social sciences take two years of courses at one of the Sciences Po campuses where the language of instruction is English. Then they come to UBC in time to declare a major and to spend two years on the Vancouver campus (with two additional courses in August): we guarantee access to three departments presently, but the students can apply to get into any program we offer. In the process, the students will be exposed to two different traditions of instruction on two continents, develop contacts in their cohorts with students all over the world, and emerge with degrees from two globally leading universities. As a bonus, they have automatic acceptance in Sciences Po graduate programs. These are students who will have, I think, unprecedented global experience and mobility.

You can read about the partnership on the Sciences Po website at:

A view from the Sciences Po campus in Menton

Menton is a shockingly beautiful city on the French Riviera, but although many tourists flock there for part of the year, it has little of the glitz associated with Nice, Cannes, Marseilles and other well-known destinations on the coast. Narrow and winding walkways meander through a steeply raked medieval and early modern city, and the city overlooks a sparkling bay ringed by beaches, with a rich mix of restaurants and markets. Some of the students live in dorms on the beach! I kept wondering what it would have been like to attend university in such an extraordinary location. I met with students in the program and with students interested in joining the dual degree, even though they had just enrolled as normal Sciences Po students.

From Menton, I travelled to Paris and then on to the city of Reims, located in the heart of the Champagne district (and yes, students were sipping Champagne on the first day of school). Reims is also a beautiful small city, and Sciences Po occupies a lovely former Jesuit seminary, which is being renovated with great reverence for the historical buildings.

In each of the towns, I attended the ceremony that starts the French university year called the Rentrée Solennelle (hard to translate, something close to “solemn return”) and I gave the opening lecture at Reims. Frederic Mion, the Director/President of Sciences Po, and the Director of International Programs, Francis Verriaud, and I also signed the agreement that formalizes the dual degree, the product of hard work over a number of years by our wonderful partners at Sciences Po and by a UBC crew led by Senior Associate Dean Janet Giltrow. The UBC-Sciences Po agreement is the first international dual degree involving any university in Canada, so it is historic in its way.

To give you a sense of how international our dual degree program is, I took note of the national origins of the students gathered around the table in Reims and in Menton, and here is my recollection of what I jotted on a napkin: Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Zaire (by way of Bangladesh and Singapore), Pakistan, the US, and yes, there were two students from Canada (both with the same first name, both of whom grew up on Bowen Island, and both of whom attended the same high school in West Vancouver!). I will have forgotten a few, but you get the picture! I wasn’t able to visit the third campus of the Sciences Po-UBC dual degree, Le Havre, but I intend to visit the next time around. In the meantime, Associate Dean Giltrow will visit in October to be followed in spring by an academic advisor from UBC.

We will continue to develop exchange opportunities for our students, but I was impressed at how much more complete an international experience the students in this dual degree program will be getting. They will be supported by two institutions that know each other, remain in contact, solve problems, and that have designed a nuanced and finely coupled degree program. We are already talking with other potentially strong partners in Europe and Asia about building similar dual degrees.

On the horizon

Posted: September 1st, 2013, by averillg

In transit in the Beijing airport. Photo by Yves Tiberghien

I stole the title of this blog from the global music radio show I hosted in the 1970s in Madison, Wisconsin, but it seemes a fitting title for a rumination on universities in the global era.

As I write this, I’m on the highway from the downtown of the mega-city of Chongqing to the Sijuan Fine Arts Institute. The weather here in Chongqing is humid and 40 degrees, but I feel quite at home, having worked on-and-off through my adult life in the Caribbean. Indeed, even the spicy Sijuan food is a natural for me. I’m here as part of a UBC delegation to the municipality of Chongqing to sign a wide-ranging memorandum of agreement with the municipality and with the city’s many universities – it’s the first agreement of its kind in China where an entire city pledges to work with a foreign university for research, faculty exchange, student exchange and public impact.

Chongqing is often thought of as the gateway to the west and southwest of China. With 32 million people, it’s the size of Canada, so imagine that UBC is now working with the universities and a political entity the size of our entire country! Nestled along the bend of the great Yangtze river with the Jialing river and its tributaries running through and around the city, and ringed by mountains, this is a huge manufacturing city and the only city run directly by the central government that’s not on the Eastern seaboard (the others are Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai, and Hong Kong now falls in this category too). The universities with which we’re meeting include the comprehensive universities of Chongqing University and South West University as well as some more specialized universities: the South West University of Politics and Law (SWUPL), Chongqing Medical University, the Sijuan International Studies University (SISU), and the Sijuan Institute of Fine Arts (SIFA). Among them they present a rich set of opportunities for researchers collaborations, and some will make great partners with which to create joint and dual degrees or with which to exchange students for short-term study.

With the deans of the South West University of Political Science and Law. First row, L to R: Senator Jack Austin, Dean of Law Mary Ann Bobinski, me, and Yves Tiberghien, Director of the Institute for Asian Research.

I’ve believed for decades that North American universities need to look out on global horizons: no great university can be anything other than a global university. For our students to be competitive in a world of international travel, trade, and communication, they have to be world-ready, proficient in intercultural communications, and intellectually cosmopolitan. They need the opportunity to learn as they travel and to engage with international students in and out of the classroom at UBC. Our professors, whose research interests already span the globe, need good quality partners, co-researchers, and supportive institutions abroad. They need to travel, collaborate with leading researchers in foreign universities, present their findings in global contexts, and publish in other languages, and so we need to find ways to smooth their path and to facilitate exchange.

No country in the history of the world has ever invested more in postsecondary education than China has in the last decade and a half. Starting in the late 1990s China built from scratch more than a thousand universities, which joined many already established universities such as Tsinghua, Shanghai Jiao Tong, Beijing and Hong Kong University. The Chinese are investing to bring their leading universities upwards in global rankings, and China will, within a decade or at most two, be a major importer of students from all over the world. Chinese universities are determined to make sure that their students travel as part of their studies to learn from the experiences of universities abroad, and they are keen avoid the isolation that characterized the period before the 1980s.

I knew that many of the facilities would be new and impressive, but what was most surprising in the trip was the advanced sense of pedagogy among university administrators and faculty. They have limited lecturing in many places to less than 50% of class time and have converted traditional lecture halls into practicum facilities for simulations, debate, and problem solving. At SISU, I toured great facilities for Model UN meetings, negotiation-simulation rooms to train diplomats, and very contemporary computer-classrooms. This is right in line with our own goals, but the Chinese, as usual, seem to be able to turn the ship faster.

UBC is Canada’s Gateway to Asia, and agreements like this one with the Municipality and universities of Chongqing will deepen and broaden our engagement with China and with Asia in general. You may have also heard that we’ve launched the China Council at UBC (, with our Vice President Research & International and former Senator Jack Austin as co-chairs. This too will help UBC to collaborate, coordinate, and communicate on China much more efficiently and effectively. Arts is perfectly poised to be the key player in advancing our Asian interests, with both the Institute for Asian Research and the Asian Studies Department within the Faculty, but also with key Asian-focused researchers in Economics, Political Science, History, Art History, Sociology, Anthropology, Geography, Music, Philosophy, Social Work and more.

As a visitor to Chongqing, the trip can sometimes feel like a long sequence of banquets, with many, many toasts, but the reality is that these visits build friendships, partnerships, and concrete plans for advancing our collaborations beyond the standard language of memoranda of agreement (MOUs). The Chongqing hospitality is legendary, but more important is the optimistic, open, spirit of cooperation with which we’ve been met. The 21st century may turn out to be the Asian Century, but initiatives like this are intended to make sure that Canada, and especially BC and UBC, are key players in this Century. And of course our strategic interests with Chinese universities aren’t confined to a city, and our international collaborations span the globe. For example, on September 3rd, after Imagine Day festivities, I take off for Menton and Rheims, France, to meet and engage with the first of cohort of dual degree students between Sciences Po (university) and UBC. But right now, I’m thinking about all the ways that this partnership can help our students and faculty, and, as always, thinking about how we keep our eyes on the horizon.

Is this not your Father’s Oldsmobile?

Posted: April 24th, 2012, by averillg

Over the course of a year, I typically attend a few meetings of Deans from various universities – each with its own geographical “catchment” and each related to a different decanal portfolio. For example, in March, I went to Salt Lake City to attend a conference of the Deans of Arts and Sciences in the Pac 12 + 3 (the Pac 12 “football” conference universities plus UBC, Hawai’i and Alaska-Fairbanks).  And recently in April, I attended the meeting of the Canadian Deans of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (CDAHSS) in Victoria. These are great opportunities to discuss the issues confronting deans these days (diversity, general education requirements, distance education, budget challenges, interdisciplinarity, and so on) but I also find it particularly encouraging to encounter people struggling with the same kinds of issues.


At the latter meeting, I participated on a panel called “Strategies for promoting and advocating for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences”.  The following are my remarks followed by a brief note about the presentation by my co-panelist and the discussion amongst the deans.  (full disclosure: For anyone who has read my previous posts, they will likely encounter a few repeated themes!)


THE PROBLEM.  Imagine that we’re the Oldsmobile Company in the late 1980s.  The world is changing and our brand is tired and in decline.  I’d be up here saying that, sure we have a branding problem, and I have a great new idea for a campaign slogan.  Here it is: “This is NOT your father’s Oldsmobile”.  Clever, huh?  But we have another problem – the car still looks and feels like your father’s Oldsmoble.  So we have to change the advertising, sure, but first we have to start changing the design of car.


We’re in a similar situation with postsecondary Liberal Arts education in North America.  It still looks a lot like your father’s Liberal Arts education.  In the early 20th century, Liberal Arts was the alternative to professional training – it was the gentleman’s education, and it aspired to the enoblement of character and of mind.  But we have no more “gentleman” in the old sense, and yet we’re left a residual version of this distinction.  How often does a professor say something to a student akin to: “Hey, it’s NOT practical – don’t worry about getting a job, don’t decide soon, explore the curriculum, become a critical thinker.”  Do we really think that this appeal has a heartfelt resonance for the bulk of today’s students or their families?  Too often we sound cartoonishly academic.


The audience for postsecondary education in North America (and this is perhaps even more true in nations with emerging economies) has become much more instrumental in their interests in education, especially as postsecondary education becomes more expensive, exacerbating the tension over value for investment.  When I face thousands of new students at our Imagine Day Meet the Dean event – on the first day of school – I’ve asked “Now how many of you have had your parents say something to the effect of ‘An arts degree – what are you going do with that?’” and laughter ensues and hands go up all around the room.  The parents and their children are full of anxieties about the future and they want security – most want recruiters standing at the door at career day.  And they are seeing the Arts degree as not particularly well calibrated to the needs of the market.  So my first suggestion today is to recognize and not dismiss that anxiety.  It is played out in the steady decrease in the proportion of Arts majors in universities from the 1970s to today.  Students and their parents are voting with their feet and their pocketbook.


I know this is a panel intended to promote and advocate for Arts education, not on reforming it, but my second point is this: that we can’t change the brand unless we change the product.  There is a persistent and intergenerational concern about the value of an Arts education and for the value of Arts research, and although out-of-date and exaggerated, some of it is based in fact.


What are the concerns of critics of Liberal Arts education, however mis (or partially)-informed?


  • They see an education delivered almost exclusively in bricks-and-mortar environments and using an outmoded delivery system (the lecture), failing to capture and apply advances in technology and the understanding of learning.  This is a university-wide problem, but it sticks to the Social Sciences and the Humanities in the public imagination.
  • They see some faculty and departments being dismissive of students going on to professions and careers, focusing primarily on the minority who will attend graduate school.  They’ll point to a lack of career preparation that leaves students wondering what to do with their lives in the months or even years following graduation.
  • They view our research as narrow, too-specialized, and not productive of social and economic value, and they become especially worried if they think that these narrow specializations are being translated into curriculum to produce a host of boutique courses that aren’t well-integrated into an intentional curriculum.
  • They see a lack of focus on teaching, and a system oriented to doing less of it and producing buy-outs and releases for the best research faculty members.
  • There are of course a myriad of criticisms about Arts education out there in sectors of the public consciousness, but most will cluster around the notion that what we do is trivial and useless.  Instead, the public views the STEM disciplines and business education as the engines of value and innovation – what we need more of if we are to grow GNP and become a world-leading economy.

Of course my Faculty — and I assume almost all of yours — is working hard to address the problems that do help to encourage these views, and in fact much of what I’ve just enumerated is at best a minor echo from the past.  But there’s still work to do.


We’ve all seen the cataclysmic changes roll through the music industry and then the publishing industry in the wake of the digital revolution.  This level of change is coming to postsecondary education.  We have, I would argue, a small window within which to both change the product and change the brand.  We are still viewed as conferring enormous advantage to our graduates as a globally respected postsecondary system.  We’ve also been lucky to have provincial governments that still see themselves involved in the provision of postsecondary education, so the proportion of government funding is still often around 40% as opposed to, say, the 5% it has become at some American so-called-public universities.  Will this last forever?  One cannot be sure, but it will be sure to decline or to decline more quickly if we’re not seen as delivering high-quality and relevant liberal arts education in a reasonably efficient manner.


In my Faculty, we’re refocusing on undergraduate education, enhancing the method of delivery, incorporating educational outcomes and renewing the curriculum on an ongoing basis.  UBC stresses Enhanced Educational Experiences, which include global travel for research and education, small-class and one-on-one research experiences from the first-year on, community learning initiatives, co-op, internships, and career training, all of which, when applied to an ever-changing Arts education, can help to produce students ready to engage with the world on graduation, more quickly able to navigate a global, competitive environment, or, as I often put it, “life ready.”


THE MESSAGE.  As we renovate the education we provide, we need to develop a much more focused message about what it is we do.  Of course one of the benefits of an Arts education is that it is an education in thinking that is not tied to specific career or profession.  With the global economic landscape and the “ideascape” changing so rapidly, narrow training becomes obsolete.  So we’re caught in a paradox that, just as we need more than ever a flexible education geared to critical thinking, problem solving, and communicating, this kind of education should receive such a bad rap.


My spiel is simple, and this is my third point – it’s that an Arts degree is the degree for the 21st century.  There was a pretty good distillation in Globe and Mail op-ed from October 2011, an article critical of contemporary university education, and it encouraged universities to “spell out what an undergraduate education is good for.  Here’s one definition:  It ought to produce critical thinkers, scientifically and culturally literate people who can assess evidence, connect the dots and communicate with clarity – the key skills that, in a fast-changing economy, prepare people for the jobs that haven’t been invented yet.”  Not bad, but I think we would add that the same training should help to produce people who will be curious throughout their lives and for whom learning doesn’t stop at graduation.


If you think of it one way, we’re training lifelong children – people whose brains are stimulated for lifelong neuroplasticity – people who wonder, explore, play, create and innovate.  Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of consumer products said last year “We’re going through a period of unbelievable growth and will be hiring about 6,000 people this year – and probably 4000-5000 from the Humanities or liberal arts.”  Why?  Because Google is looking for “people who are smart and get things done.”  As another article recently pointed out, it was no accident that the founders of Google,, and other innovative engines of technological and economic growth were trained in Montessori schools where play and creativity and the arts were emphasized.


It is more likely that the chief contributors to social, cultural, economic and even technological innovation will come from those with a powerful Arts education than it will from those with a limited, technical, and careerist education.  This is a great message and one that resonates with Canada’s focus on innovation.  In Business schools around the country and in the US and Europe, programs are emerging to put commerce and business students together with philosophers and visual artists and historians, videographers, and geographers to help stimulate creativity and innovative thinking amongst the business students and to ground the creative thinkers in the means of applying their work, being entrepreneurial, and in developing (dare we say it?) business plans.


These are powerful messages about arts education, but how to get them out – how do we tell the story?


STORYTELLING. It is certainly a useful strategy to attempt to capture the economic impact on the economy and on regional economies from the creative industries, but it is immensely difficult to quantify all of the activity of social science, humanities and creative arts graduates, and it is certainly not enough to use this kind of rather reductionist approach.  We need to show productive, successful arts graduates in their careers.  If you were going to promote one image, my recommendation would be that this be that image: graduates of Arts programs serving as leaders changing the world and living rich, full lives.  And everywhere we communicate, we can tell this story:  in discussions with students and their parents, on the web in your deans’ messages, in your blogs and in op-ed pieces, and in encounters with government ministries.  Find your own way to express the power of an arts degree for the 21st century and for its capacity to stimulate creativity, change, citizenship, and innovation.


Presentation from the Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciencs.  My fellow-panelist, Jean-Marc Magnin of the Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences, noted that while Government is interested in jobs and innovations, most faculty are allergic to the terms.  But the facts work for us.  He pointed out that 50% of Fortune 500 employees have Arts degrees and that 60% of influential people identified in a survey in the UK also had Arts degrees.  Studies have also shown that after five years from graduation, the income of Arts grads is equivalent to those with professional degrees (there is a differential in the years in between, however).


Mr. Magnin also noted that all of the major issues before the public  that require public policy and decision-making as a society, are informed by Arts scholarship.


Most of the deans who spoke up saw that updating and enhancing Arts education goes hand-in-hand with the need to aggressively promote the enduring value of a Liberal Arts education.  It’s encouraging to note that there are lots of great ideas out there in the front trenches of Liberal Arts on how to do both.  I look forward to a day when proponents of the Arts no longer have to argue defensively but instead can simply point to the myriad ways in which the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences influence, transform, and improve lives and society.

Reading Railroad

Posted: April 15th, 2012, by averillg

Last summer I was contacted by someone working on a website about what people at UBC were reading over the break, and so I shared my then-current reading list. Someone asked me recently what I read, and then she followed up with, “Well, if you have time to read.” But I do. And so here is my winter-spring reading, an update on last summer’s list. I have to admit that I don’t read a lot that has obvious relevance to my job as Dean, in part because reading provides me with a chance to exercise other mental muscles. And I’ll preface this list by noting that I’m notoriously undisciplined in my reading, picking up books at airports or in Indigo just because something speaks to me.

I’m just wrapping up an extraordinarily good book, historian Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010, W.W. Norton & Co.). Although Foner has written extensively about the period, this is his first solo-authored book to focus on Lincoln (although he edited a book recently on Lincoln and his world). Of course Lincoln is one of the most written-about figures in history, but Foner takes as his core narrative a single issue: how Lincoln thought about and responded to the issue of slavery. A cautious constitutionalist, a compromiser by nature, and with a political history devoted primarily to extending free markets, Lincoln made a most reticent revolutionary. But Foner’s great gift is to show the steady growth in Lincoln’s political thinking as he grappled with what became the dominant issue of the day. In the end, both Foner and his readers are struck by the remarkable capacity for political and philosophical growth on the part of Lincoln, a Lincoln much more pleasingly complex and elusive than the one handed down through history as the Great Emancipator.

Last summer, I savored Keith Richards’ Life, and followed it up in late Fall with Bob Dylan’s 2004 autobiography entitled Chronicles: Volume One (2004, Simon & Schuster). This was a lavishly praised book when it appeared, and indeed it has some lovely accounts of Dylan’s early years in New York City. His recounting of his recovery from his motorcycle accident leading to the recording sessions in New Orleans with producer Daniel Lanois is detailed and intimate. Still, his chapter on his battle with fame, fan expectations and the music industry comes off a bit juvenile. Throughout the book, there are startling scenes and revelatory moments, but even in his memoirs, Dylan has a capacity to evade. Sometimes infuriating, sometimes charming and humble, Dylan can still somehow slip right out of focus, and for this reason found the book a bit unsatisfying in the end.

Continuing in the music vein (and after all, occasionally I still delude myself that I’m a music scholar), I picked up Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap Stories. I’m a huge fan of Randy’s radio program on the CBC where he sits with his guitar and spins both records and stories about rock musicians and the industry. Drawing on his experiences with the Guess Who and the Bachman Turner Overdrive, Randy has a brilliant ability to bring the listener into a recording gig at the end of the ‘60s or into the variations on a bass pattern played by a range of artists, or even his favourite “mondegreens” (mis-heard song lyrics). This book is a set of expanded stories from the show, woven with some autobiography and descriptive-historical portraits of musicians and events. It’s not great literature, but it’s a good read if you love rock ‘n’ roll.

My winter fiction reading started out with Jennifer Egan’s a visit from the goon squad, a complex novel that moves around in time exploring a network of relationships that are tied in various fashions to the music industry. It’s a book about aging (the goon squad in the title), loss, memory, and the silences in recordings but also in relationships. There’s a great commitment to the power and the freedom of music that drifts through this book. Egan’s characters make terrible choices and show their wounds in distasteful ways, but one understands their motivations and occasionally, and often by accident, they create wonderful things. The chapter made up of Powerpoint slides is unlike anything I’ve encountered in a novel before. Perhaps if Melville lived in a Powerpoint era, he would have done something like this about whale anatomy. This is a book that had me wondering throughout if I was reading a cleverly crafted bit of pop fiction or an unassuming great novel. I’m still not sure where I land on this question.

Then I picked up (in an airport) Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which, surprisingly, is over 10 years old now (2001, now published by Vintage Canada). As anyone who has heard anything of this book knows, it follows an extraordinary young boy from Pondicherry, India, named Pi (Piscine) whose family owns a zoo. The bulk of the story takes place after they leave for Canada, only to be shipwrecked. Pi’s subsequent life adrift in a lifeboat at sea with various zoo animals (including a tiger) appears like a work of magical realism until the story fractures in two under the clumsy interrogation of two Japanese insurance investigators in the final chapter and the reader is left with a terrible choice of interpretation. This is a rich thrilling book about the imagination and about storytelling, and about God, humans, and animals, fate and choice.

I have now waded a few chapters into Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84 (2011 translation, The Bond Street Books), at least enough to encounter the characters whose stories will, or so I am led to believe, intersect and intertwine throughout the book. I haven’t read Murakami’s previous novels, which have been celebrated in recent years, and so decided to start with the most recent and work backwards in time if inspired by this one.

I also read through some free historical fiction on my iPhone as I drift off to sleep. Having read a few of Burroughs’ Tarzan novels, some of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries, and re-read Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels in this fashion, I’m now plowing through Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. And before I put my daughter to sleep (age 9), I read her novels as well. We’re currently on Book 3 (This Isn’t What It Looks Like) of The Secret Series by the nom-de-plume’d Pseudonymous Bosch. Although they’re basically children’s mysteries, I love this series for its extraordinary use of complex vocabulary, its clever footnotes, and that each book is devoted to a different medium of sensory perception (in order; smell, hearing, taste, sight, and touch). On her own, my daughter is deeply into the second series by Rick Riordan about Percy Jackson and the Olympic gods. And I suppose I shouldn’t be embarrassed to admit that I’m also reading through Scott Tipton’s Star Trek Vault: 40 Years from the Archives, a present from my wife to this lifelong Star Trek enthusiast.

This is what I read when I’m not reading the reports and dossiers that I consume for my day job. Feel free to send me suggestions for books!

Luke, Come to the Dark Side: The Joys of Dean-ing

Posted: February 15th, 2012, by averillg

I was having lunch the other day with a former dean, and once again the conversation veered into the motivations for doing this job. My colleague missed being at the table and in charge. Why does someone become a dean? I do get asked this a lot, especially by colleagues in my own discipline who wonder why I would want to do less of everything that they’re trying to do more of? It is an oft-stated truism about deanship that no one starts out in academia wanting to be a dean, and essentially no one is trained to be one!

For my part, I think it’s related in the first instance to my background. In high school I directed plays and managed my town’s nature centre. By the time I went to graduate school, I had already run a tenant union and large music festivals. And from 1976 onward, I’m a little embarrassed to say, I’ve crafted six-month goals and objectives for work and all aspects of my life. So what we in academia call academic administration came more naturally to me than to some colleagues, for whom it’s akin to wearing a rough wool garment and flogging oneself. And let me be very honest: I like the responsibility of running things. I’ve said on a few occasions that if I’m going to have to put up with living inside a bureaucratic institution, I’d at least like to have a say in how it’s run.

I recall one particular interaction that crystallized my dissatisfaction with having no say. When I was an Assistant Professor, I was working with another professor to develop a long-range and encompassing fundraising plan for my Music Department, but it was scuttled when the Chair decided instead to approach our major donor for a piano. A major opportunity lost, I regretted that I was on the periphery of decision-making and had no effect on strategy. So a few weeks later, when another university came calling for a future Chair of a Music Department, I was primed to want to try my hand. I wanted to be in the conversation, not screaming from the periphery.

As a chair, I discovered an interesting thing about administration: when it works it can create the same kind of magic I used to think I could help to create as a musician, festival director, or teacher. At my own festivals, for example, I would go from stage to stage to sample how my programming was working with the audiences. After months of scheduling artists on particular stages and linking performance thematically, I could see if my imagination had been effective, and I would get a thrill if the audience was reacting as I had imagined, or even if moving and unpredictable interactions were occurring. My guiding principle was to create an event so well run that its architecture was invisible, and to all the world it looked like a great, spontaneous party.

Let’s extrapolate that to university administration! What if the machinery of recruitment, admissions, orientation, advising and course registration worked seamlessly for students, and they didn’t have to spend their lives standing in line and being bounced around from office to office? What if the process or recruiting faculty, mentoring them, assisting their teaching, enabling their research, and facilitating great interactions with colleagues were friction-free in terms of guidelines and approvals? What if we could achieve a truly diverse, intellectually challenging, collegial atmosphere for debate and the free flow of ideas? What results when some of this is in place can also be like magic. Students can be turned on by ideas and experiences, people innovate and work with others to solve intractable problems. This is idealist thinking, I recognize, but when we’re effective in solving the everyday problems and overcoming the irritants and frustrations of academic life, we get a little closer to the functioning of an ideal collegium. This part of the job I love, and it thrills me to every once in a while to see a bit of magic take place.

Speaking after I was given a toilet plunger by a department, a metaphor for the job of dean.

Let me raise another aspect of the job that’s immensely appealing to me. I had a particularly difficult time in coming to know what I wanted to “do with my life”, at least on a long-term basis, because I’m by nature an insatiably curious person. I was lucky growing up on a game farm where my parents indulged my curiosity with Time-Life Books and National Geographic Magazines and whatever they could get on astronomy, archeology, calligraphy, or, to cite my favorite: animal tracks and spore! As I’ve written previously, my early adult life was characterized by a string of very different jobs. In fact, one could describe my current job as “therapy for the insatiably curious”. On a given day, I might read cases or have conversations about tourism in the USSR, Shakespeare’s innovations with vengeance plays, Coast Salish language revitalization, sustainability in China, Aristotle’s philosophy of nature, the relationship between political parties and development in a village in Rajasthan, or the use of drone bombs in contemporary American warfare. And in a small way I get to contribute to sustaining the foundation for all of this great research and teaching to happen.

I’ve realized over the years that I’m a visual thinker and a systems thinker, and that I’ve always been attracted to the challenges of solving problems. In fact, I’m a sucker for challenges. As my wife is fond of reminding me, every academic job I’ve taken has been at a smaller effective salary than my last job, but they’ve always resulted in bigger challenges. And a deanship might be viewed as a succession of challenges, generally scores of them every day: structure a spousal hiring for retention of a faculty member; review and respond to an external review; figure out how to fund a construction project for a department; seek out donors for an endowed professorship; cancel a professorial search to reinforce the importance of diversity; determine the routing of a difficult tenure and promotion case; try to solve the long-term insolvency of a unit; consider a major new program with another Faculty; review appointment letters; review proposals to Senate; convince candidates to serve as Heads; see if we can assist in a retirement … that’s just culled from a portion of the docket on one day this week.

Every once in a while, I even get to teach a class, and thankfully I get to interact with students much the time. And if I’m ridiculously disciplined, or maybe selfish, I can eke out a little time to work on research and publication – I’m setting up a research lab/office, and I escape there whenever I can. In the most enjoyable moments of the job, I’m surrounded by and interacting with smart and creative people, I get to explore ideas and solutions and plan, maybe even laugh at some of the absurdities of institutional life, and I even get to help a little magic to happen. Being a part of the decision making, indulging my curiosity, helping some good things to happen that affect student’s lives and that can have a beneficial impact on society – these are the core attractions of the deanship for me. This is what makes putting up with the pace of the job and the stresses of having to make hard decisions and the constant strains on Faculty finances all tolerable. My lunch partner the other day talked about how much fun it had been to be a dean, and mentioned that in her current work she was having to find out how to influence the course of academic life and programs without having the authority to make it happen. I can relate — it is fun! It can also be incredibly stressful and consuming, and to use a word beloved of deans these days: relentless. But it is never boring.

I remember an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education many years ago that looked at what people do after serving as a dean. Less that a quarter of them went back into the classroom as full-time professors. Most have been too far removed from the literature and the changes in classroom technology and pedagogy to feel that they are the still the kinds of effective instructors that they looked for in their faculty. Most either retire or go onto other academic administrative positions. I have no idea what I will want to do when the time comes around, but it looks like I will once again have to ask myself the question: “What do I want to do when I grow up?”

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