Why I returned my 2014 Lecturer of the Year (College of Business and Law) award

Returning my Award

Returning my Award

It is with deep regret that this morning I returned my Lecturer of the Year award for the College of Business and Law 2014. Before I tell you why I gave back this honour I want to assure you that these are my words and my words alone. I am writing this in my capacity as an academic who has the responsibility to be the critic and conscience of society. Unfortunately, the society in question is also where I work.

Now, to my reasons for returning my award. The University of Canterbury is a wonderful organisation and I have enjoyed my time here more than any other appointment I have had. I am supported in my teaching and research as well as have great friends here. However, there is an underbelly of hate that raises its head from time to time. My earliest experience of this came in my first semester of teaching at UoC when I was reading the anonymous feedback from students. In the section where it asked “what should be changed to improve the course” one student wrote “his ethnicity”. I’ve been brown all my life, so I’m used to racism. Whether it’s the ignorant throwaway comment or the overtly aggressive act, I’ve seen it and experienced it and I know one day my daughters will see it and experience it. This is why I’m taking a stand. Because I don’t want my girls to live in a world where hate exists and I know I’ve done nothing to try and stop it.

A few weeks ago the Engineering Society held the RoUndie 500. Participants of the event were encouraged to decorate their cars and come in costumes and that the more inappropriate these were, the better. This led to a series of costumes that were undeniably racist and sexist.

My race is not inappropriate. The gender of my daughters is equally not inappropriate. But for people to jump on these old chestnuts in order to cause offence just continues to highlight this ugly underbelly. This is offensive and inappropriate.

The University of Canterbury, to its credit, has taken the complaints to heart and come up with some swift actions. I am told that the Uni’s representative on the day censored the most offensive content before participants left campus. I’m glad this was done. But it does not address the fact that the organisers purposefully wanted to cause offence and be inappropriate.

What was missing from the final report was any apology from the organisers or participants or promise to not behave in this manner again. I will not deny that I’ve offended people in the past. I am often told I’m am the least PC lecturer students have had; however, I do not purposefully go out to offend and hurt people. If I do, I sincerely apologise and I change my behaviour to ensure I do not hurt someone again.

I am not confident that the UCSA’s response will ensure that the behaviour is not repeated. As a result, I have no proof that the UCSA has taken the matter seriously. With no apology and no guarantee of ensuring similar behaviour does not occur again I believe that racist and sexist behaviour will continue.  Indeed, this is not the first time that the ENSOC has acted in an overtly racist manner and despite the UCSA’s actions after that matter (the use of blackface to promote a cafe) nothing has changed. This does not make for a safe and inclusive workplace for me.

It is for these reasons I cannot be associated with the organisation that gave me the award. If the UCSA is unwilling to take a strong stance against racist and sexist behaviour by students then I cannot be seen to benefit from them. As such, I returned my award along with $50 to cover the cost of the prizes I received. If you need more money to cover the costs, please let me know and I’ll give you more. I don’t want you to be out of pocket for my decision.

Some will tell me to harden up and learn to take a joke. Nothing seems that funny when you’re the target of divisiveness and hatred.  It’s like the bully telling the victim “we were just having a laugh! It was all fun!”

Some will say that I don’t understand satire (a common argument used against those offended by the group’s actions). Satire can offend, but that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to ridicule and critique – being inappropriate and offensive is not, in my mind, being satirical.

Some will say that because I didn’t see it, then it doesn’t affect me. I didn’t see Malaysian Airline’s disasters, but my heart still breaks for those involved – to see images of the victims mocked by ENSOC is, in my mind, bad taste. I don’t have to physically see something to be affected by it – it’s simple empathy and decency.

I will lose favour with many for my actions – I know that. I may even be damaging my career. I may never win another teaching award. All of this is worth it to take a stand. As I said at the start of this piece, I can’t look at my daughters knowing I stood by and did nothing.

I want to thank all the students that voted for me for this year’s award. I hope my actions are not taken as a disrespect to the generosity you have shown me. If you voted for me and feel let down or betrayed, please do get in touch and I’ll happily sit with you and explain my actions in person.

Much love

Ekant

I want to assure people that I am not represented by any society on campus nor have I been contacted by any member of any society.

Is Academia Broken? Parochialism

It seems more and more apparent that the words ‘real research’ encroach in to judging academics’ contributions to knowledge.  It’s a thinly veiled insult that doesn’t demean the recipient, but shows the insecurity of the deliverer.  The idea that someone’s work is more ‘real’ than another’s is laughable.  There may be more appropriate ways of carrying out research to answer a chosen research question, but determining one person’s work as being more important than another’s simply because they do not use your chosen theories or methods is simply not true.  In my mind, this animosity between academics can be explained by one of two factors: A disagreement as to what constitutes valuable knowledge, and a lack of respect for alternative expressions of knowledge, which is often driven by parochialism and ego defence.

What is Valuable Knowledge?

Anything (yes, anything) that advances knowledge, even just a tiny, tiny bit, is valuable.  Yeah, even the stuff that seems obvious is valuable – it may not be valuable to you, but it is valuable.  It is valuable to the field – it is valuable as a set up to a larger study – it is valuable to the individual who created the knowledge – it is valuable – the value may not be high, but it is still valuable.

Don’t dismiss a piece of work just because someone has used a methodology different to your preferred one to create the knowledge.  Argue that the chosen methodology is poorly carried out or that the methodology has been applied inappropriately (e.g. using qualitative methods to create findings that are generalizable to a population or an inaccuracy in how a model is calculated).

Equally, don’t dismiss a piece of work because it isn’t using your pet theory. Not every piece of knowledge needs to be framed around a singular trend that you (and your colleagues) are touting.  However, this aggressive defence of one’s own preferred methods and theories seems to be increasingly common and, in my mind, seems to stem from a simple foundation – the academic system promotes parochialism – so much so, that academics are fighting with one another about what the best way to create knowledge is.

Parochialism and Ego Defence

Why are some academics so defensive of their own turf? Why do they care so much about defending how they create knowledge to the extent that we attack others for deviating from their course – as if the chosen course is the best and only course? Because the academic system encourages an aggressive publication game – and to ensure that our chosen research path is publishable, some academics feel it necessary to attack anything that could be seen to counter their world view.  Rather than excel in one’s chosen field, it’s often easier to discredit those in different fields.

The idea that one’s life work could be carried out in a different (and potentially better) manner is difficult for some to swallow – especially when academics are known for their eccentricities and egos.  We are so closely tied with what we do, that an attack on our work is counter-volleyed with a salvo of attacks in defence because an attack on our work is like attacking our creation– our children – and our poor, indefensible children need to be defended – well, that seems to be the justification for acting like an ass.  But our work is not who we are – our work is not our children – our work is simple that – our work.

So, who fired first? Does it really matter?! What matters is that life is too short to care about what others think of you, especially if the other group has little or no bearing on your career.  IF you face defensiveness from an editor of a leading journal or your Promotion & Tenure committee, then you have a different battle on your hand.  Knowing how to defend your work (and promote its benefits) is a crucial skill – but jumping in to every fight in order to promote your value is draining and likely to build heightened animosity between groups who are all trying to do the same thing – create valuable knowledge.

So, when should academics bite?  When you see someone using the wrong methods to answer a chosen research question; when you see someone using a method inappropriately; when you see theories inappropriately applied; when you see holes in the research, and, when you have evidence of research fraud.  Just because someone does something differently isn’t worth your time or effort.  If your entire career teeters on public opinion of your research, then perhaps re-evaluate your career direction (and life priorities).

Why students MUST NOT be treated like customers

Originally posted on Bestthinking.com on Jan 13, 2012

I’m not sure who I’m writing this entry for. Professors who struggle with demanding students? Students who think Profs should follow them around ready to answer their every query. Perhaps administrators who have been reading management books on being Customer Focused and assuming students are our customers. What I do know, is that I’m often confronted by students who claim that they are my customers and as such, I should be willing to do anything they demand. I’m usually quite willing to sit with diligent students and aid them with their studies. But this sort of “I pay your wages” approach doesn’t inspire much sympathy in me, and let me tell you why.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a customer is “a person who buys goods or services from a shop or business”. In this sense, my students are one of my customers. If my students were my only customers and my job was to satisfy their needs, then surely the easiest option would be to award all students an ‘A’ regardless of attendance of performance in assessment. This way, students who wish to gain knowledge can attend classes, do the readings and study for the various assessment, and those that don’t care about learning anything can just drink their way through the semester and still get an A. This would be the rationale answer if students were my customers…but guess what, they’re not. The objection from me is when a student assumes they’re my only customer. Notwithstanding the hundreds of other students I have, there are many other customers; most of whom are far more important than students themselves.

Their future employer, their workmates, their corporate clients, their parents, the taxpayer that funds their education and the systems that enable them to receive an education, the government that allocates funding to support their education, the builder who put his or her sweat and blood into building the lecture hall they now sit in and tweet about the contents of the vending machine, the University that houses them while they study…all of these are my customers as well. All of whom I have a lot of respect for. By giving my students everything they demand in class, I disrespect a huge number of other customers who have enabled their education and could, one day, benefit from their education. If I just think about my students’ wants, then I’m not being customer focused at all.

Possibly the customer who is of most concern to me, as a lecturer, are my students’ future employers and the people my students will one day work with. I could be a glorified babysitter for my students and teach them nothing of any value, and hand out ‘A’s to everyone. Their future employers, who trust me and my institution to provide an education, are not exactly going to be satisfied. Indeed, future hirings from my classes may drop if this pattern becomes too widespread. If I don’t push my students to their very limits in class then how will they possibly stand up to the vicious world they emerge into once they’ve left the safety net of University? If I pander to their every whim, will they have a realistic opinion of their line managers when they’re expected to make a profit for their future employers?

No, students are not my customers. Students are more like a product to me…let’s say, a car. When they enter University they are a stock car with a standard engine, plain paneling and the most basic accessories to enable them to work. My job as a University lecturer is to supercharge those cars and have them ready to compete in the race that is to come. This process hurts. It is tough on the car. It might even mean stripping the car down to its most basic elements and building it up again. We do the same with students’ thinking sometimes. We challenge the way they think, we encourage them to critically assess what they know and creatively solve problems they face. Most students can’t do this straight out of high school.

I’m not a nice lecturer that hands out extensions, that listens to them whine or spends hours repeating myself because students couldn’t be arsed turning up to lectures. I’m a mean, mean man, but my students come out supercharged. And guess what, they like it. My students humbled me by voting me the Lecturer of the Year for my Uni, both years I have been employed here. Handing students an education on a silver platter is not only doing them a disservice, as they are unprepared for the cold light of life, but also disrespects the many, many other customers we have.

So no, students are not my customers. Students won’t get everything they want…they will get everything they need, and, if they fully engage with what Uni has to offer, they will be well prepared for when they walk out with their degree.