State of Grad Studies:
an opening gambit
Mera naam Ashok Mathur, and as some of you know, and I’m finding out with increasing regularity, I’m the new Dean of Graduate Studies here at OCAD U. As of today, I have been in the dean’s seat for two months now, adjusting from a very creative (and relaxed) administrative leave from my position as Head of Creative Studies at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. And, to be frank, I would still be there, enjoying the second part of my leave with its unrestricted freedoms, had I not been enticed by a number of forces and sources to relocate to Toronto and take on what amount to considerable though by no means insurmountable challenges at this, the largest art+design uni in the nation. Why did I come here? Onto that in a moment, but first, a bit about myself, stuff that goes beyond what you might have read in formal press releases and promo materials.
I was born in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, barely more than a decade into post-independence India. My mother, now passed, was a Parsi, a formidable woman with a dedication to heart and life, and my father, a Hindu of the Kyasth caste, a community often engaged in various professions of a bookish nature. Their mixed marriage, contested to various degrees by their families at the time, convinced them to carve their futures abroad. This eventually brought us to the eastern shores of this continent, Mi’kmaq territories, then west to the Prairies where we landed at the intersection of Siksika, Tsuu T’ina, and Stoney nations. After growing up in a small city and watching it mature from a culturally monolithic to considerably diverse cosmopolitan centre, I began teaching at the Alberta College of Art and Design as well as at Old Sun College (a University of Calgary satellite campus, converted from a one-time residential school, on the Siksika nation).
After a few years of teaching itinerantly, I earned a doctorate in literature at the University of Calgary, focussing on art and racialization that commensurated with my then-experience working with artists of colour and Indigenous artists. I returned to ACAD for a brief sessional stint, but soon after accepted my first tenure-stream position at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design (now Emily Carr University) in Vancouver. I was excited by this shift as I knew many Indigenous and other racialized art-colleagues in Vancouver who had been active on an equity front for years, some of them teaching at Emily Carr, others known voices in the city. When I accepted the position, I suggested to the Provost that I initiate a working group of racialized artist-instructors (a precursor to the more recent BIPOC movements). While she was supportive of this gesture, the Provost informed me that at that time I would be the only non-white tenured or tenure-stream professor in the entire institute. This came as some surprise since I knew the demographics of the undergraduate student body represented a far more diverse population, and it was one of many indicators I have encountered over the years to suggest that institutions shift at glacial paces compared to their student intake and regional populations.
I realized that in order to see progressive shifts, I had to work with the institution to change hiring practices, adjust curriculum, and otherwise make the space more welcoming for a radically diverse faculty, something I dedicated my time to as I took on the Headship of Critical Studies and endorsed multiple initiatives to these effects. By the time I left Emily Carr, these changes had started with the hiring of several Indigenous and racialized faculty, and while slow, at least it was a steady move in the right direction.
Following my time in Vancouver, I took on two different posts in the interior of B.C. The first was as Canada Research Chair in Cultural and Artistic Inquiry for the brand new Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops. I set up a centre for innovation in research-creation, working with numerous artists and collectives regionally, nationally, and internationally, and producing work that fed my interests in anti-racist and anti-oppressive change. Following this, and my last move before coming to OCAD U, I took up the Headship of Creative Studies at UBC Okanagan, a dynamic department that combined performance, visual art, creative writing, and various elements of computational graphics and design under one departmental roof (a rarity in the Canadian postsecondary landscape). The major reason for taking on this most recent posting was that UBCO had been hosting a most remarkable Summer Indigenous Institute on its campus and I was delighted to join that team, helping to grow it over the past four years to become one of the largest such intensive curricula in the country. Indeed, I still retain an adjunct professorial post there and hope to develop continued affiliations between UBCO and OCAD U, as I have noted further down this message.
So, why did I leave such a rewarding post, you might ask? Well, there are a number of contributing factors, including my solid interest in graduate studies in creative environments and the challenge of a new situation, but perhaps the most pressing is that when the hiring firm contacted me to ascertain my interest in this decanal post, I asked them point blank about OCAD U’s intended practice. As I noted then, I wasn’t interested in moving to an institution that was speaking the right language but not committed to doing the right thing. This is all too common in organizations such as government agencies and postsecondary sites, and too many of us are too familiar with this practice! But upon conferral with the hiring firm, and then with colleagues at OCAD U, and finally with hiring committee, I became less leery and then quite excited by what I saw as an agile and forward-thinking creative-based institution that was taking a big step forward where others trepidatiously feared to tread. And so when the offer came, I realized this was a chance for real and critical institutional movement in precisely the areas I have cared about throughout my academic and artistic career.
As might be clear from the rolling out of my history, I very much want to engage BIPOC and other marginalized communities at the student, faculty, and regional level, not just to foster a greater awareness of issues faced by our communities, but to determine ways to strengthen our position within the university. By this I do not mean integrating into a mainstream, but making this mainstream more accountable and responsible to those of us who inhabit what are variously determined precarious spaces of identity. And I emphasize here that such precarity is not uniform by any stretch of the social fabric we at one time called identity politics in Canada. Anti-black racism is a serious blight on our consciousness and needs to be addressed at all levels including the institutional; colonial oppression that resulted in the residential school system amongst many other atrocities continues to damage and deny basic human rights to Indigenous individuals and communities; Islamaphobia is becoming rampant at home and abroad; refugees are unfairly criminalized and incarcerated in a state that purports to welcome immigrants; and if we look back at our history, from the Komagatu Maru to the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Toronto Bath House Raids, to incidents both legal and customary and far too many to enumerate, we begin to see the patterns of social oppression from which we must necessarily disentangle to create a just future. With this in context, I come to the present, then, and the path ahead.
First, I’d like to increase the availability of financial support for graduate student research, particularly for first generation students and those from outside the GTA. One way in which grad students can benefit from their studies is by travelling and sharing their research with colleagues in the region, the nation, and internationally. To this end, I have instituted a new graduate student travel fund with multiple annual deadlines. The monies may not be large, but they will get students to places where they can perform or disseminate their research. I anticipate we will be able to fund about ten projects at each of the competitions which will be held three times per year.
Second, to engage with OCAD U’s academic plan and its first stated priority to enhance Indigenous education, I am implementing a Graduate Studies Indigenous Innovation fund which is intended to support projects around teaching and learning at the graduate level. This may be development of new programs, enhancement of existing ones, or any other innovation that can engage Indigenous ways of knowing and encourage Indigenous participation, including other BIPOC communities, at the student to faculty level.
Third, and somewhat related, I want to encourage partnerships across institutions to engage in Indigenous learning, and to that end I will be supporting a program this year to enrol up to five current graduate students in an independent study and residency that will take our small group to the Vancouver Art Gallery’s inaugural exhibition by its first Indigenous Curatorial Fellow, and to the Summer Indigenous Intensive in Kelowna at UBCO. This will be a portfolio-driven course which means rather than readings and regularly scheduled lectures, the students will engage with the exhibitions, guest artists, visiting speakers, and each other over an intensive 16-day trip, at the end of which they will have a learning experience quite unlike others they may have undertaken in their masters education. I am in the process of rolling out an information session followed by selection criteria, and the successful candidates will be asked to deliver a presentation in the Fall 2018 about their experience.
Fourth, I am working with my fellow Deans at finding ways to direct more teaching assistantships to our current graduate students. As we all know, one of the strongest elements of professionalization at the graduate level often comes with such GTAs, plus it has the added benefit of further albeit limited financial support for students, many of whom cannot afford to come here or stay here without such support.
Fifth, any graduate studies program in art and design needs to look toward its community to find mechanisms for support, and I will be working with the Advancement Office to encourage benefactors, alumni, and philanthropists who want to support OCAD U’s graduate studies through scholarships, bursaries, and other financial means, again to ensure that this is a place for all including those who haven’t the privilege or access to attend.
Sixth, upon reviewing many international contexts of art and design graduate education, it is apparent that we need to further investigate a doctoral program to complement our seven and growing existing masters degrees. To date, Canada does not have such a program, though there are a few places where practice-based research can lead to such a degree in some limited fashion. It would be impressive to see this take off at OCAD U, particularly with a socially-progressive mandate, and it looks like there will be a will at the school to pursue this in some capacity.
There are, of course, many more avenues of approach to what Graduate Studies can be at OCAD U, and needless to say, the day to day operations are also very critical to student satisfaction and a pursuit of best practices. So that too is at the forefront as I enter into the third month of an extremely challenging yet unrelentingly rewarding task. I look forward to travelling this road with many of you in the days ahead.
Dean, Graduate Studies