utopian dreaming (1): equity, diversity, inclusion

While sorting through some old files, I came across something that I wrote in November 2020 that seems relevant and worth sharing. I’ve edited it very slightly. It’s a prologue of sorts to the next posts, on European identity (not in the icky sense that immediately comes to some minds) and haunting, ghosts and glowing.

They will take a little more time: first drafts from January have changed shape, most notably, as you might imagine, in the last few days. I thought that I’d throw them away; what was the point, or the point of anything. Anything that I might write or be thinking was trivial. Fellow humans suffer unimaginably, their world changing day to day, uncertain if they would still be alive tomorrow or have a home to wake up in. In everyday horror. Under daily increasing threat and encroaching invasion. I can try to imagine, and I have a moral obligation as a fellow person to imagine. But I also have an obligation to respect others’ uniqueness, difference, and unimaginability; for humility, to avoid hubris; and to recognise my limits, the limits of imagination, that which makes and keeps it human. We, too, wherever we are, live in uncertainty: here in Vancouver, as in most of the world, we’re in striking distance of an intercontinental missile, we live next to nuclear powers, and some of our neighbours are politically unstable.

But tomorrow could be death. So: write. Anything. Good, bad, indifferent; personal, embarrassing, absurd; useless, useful, disregarding and regardless of anyone else’s use-value it might have some human value in its very triviality. Write to live. In solidarity with Ukraine and Ukrainians. In hope for peace on earth, goodwill to all, life, and love.


I have worked with UBC students for 13 years, and am still learning from them every day. I hope never to lose sight of moments when students change my teaching, and I hope in ways that help other students too in turn: learning how for example Chinese expresses past tenses and names months, having students compare their languages and see French and indeed English as languages within that larger ecosystem—smaller, yet bigger as integrated parts of a greater whole—through work on boards (and now Zoom whiteboards). Most of my students are multilingual. Every year, more of my students are at least learning about First Nations and other Indigenous and endangered languages, if not learning the languages or even (in the case recently of Nahuatl and Dene) expert practitioners and knowledge-keepers themselves. These are the richest and most enriching classes in which I have been, as a teacher or student, and that very fact serves as a constant reminder that we are all learners and, as such, we are all “seekers” of knowledge and wisdom; we owe “seekers” and “seeking” to the brilliant anarchist polymath Ken Campbell (https://metametamedieval.com/2020/08/31/31-august-is-ken-campbell-day-diddling-and-doodling-seekers-radical-education-as-seeking-learning-outcomes-and-punk/ ), and as distinct from language learning that focusses on metaphors of exploration, colonisation, mastery, use, exploitation, and domination.

I learn. In so doing, I make mistakes. I learn from mistakes, in public. It is vital that students see their instructor learning, in live action and slow motion, in front of them. Expressing wonder and modelling wonder, so often—too often—lost or excised, through K-12 schooling and some of the non-humanities areas of a university. Delighting in students’ multilingualism, and in monolingualism—discovering language, including “their own,” through this new world—especially with beginners. Opening French and literatures up to students who hadn’t had the opportunity to learn before, including for environmental reasons beyond their control: a privilege for some, taken for granted, not questioned. My ambition is never to lose sight of that wonder, as part of never ceasing to question privilege and working instead to open up knowledge, all part of “seeking” and of a learning-centred learning that unites students and teachers.

A diversity statement can be a risky proposition, for its maker and audience alike. It resembles “affirmation of faith” statements required by faith-based institutions. Like them, it risks being exclusive rather than inclusive (a paradox in our case). Like them, it risks lip-service to a dominant orthodoxy, in the interests of self-promotion or appearances or conformity or fear, though as such it can also be as a way of veiling and protecting individual private conscience. And, like any declaration of (the) faith, it risks becoming a formal religious credo: the glib parroting of a catechism “learned” by rote, repeating its exact words, the statement as a whole and every individual word in it and its very utterance as a speech-act emptied of meaning. Rendering the whole statement hollow and senseless, and all that lies behind it, the deep true sense of it and reason for it risking erasure. That is, to my mind, the greatest peril of all.

I offer therefore, as a supplement, three vignettes from my own personal history, around three ideas: religion, compassion, and intersectional social justice.

Philologically, “religion” is about the ties that bind, but that should be voluntary and considered: legally, politically, socially here in Canada and in UBC and on Musqueam land. I am writing here as a child of exile and migration, of generations of religious mixing (inc. assorted dissenters) and movement, of larger communities. I owe a debt to the dead, protecting the fragile including immaterial objects and knowledge, a duty of care, promoting peace and harmony and toleration (within Popperian limits), with acceptance and openness to difference. In addition to the complications of longer family history, I had the bad and good fortune to be a child of The Troubles, brought up in exile in Belgium as an experimental European, anti-nationalist and transnational, multicultural and plurilingual, in the European Schools system. I had the fortuitous privilege to spend my formative years in an utopian experiment in post-war reconstruction. I say the following, as a declaration of faith in remembrance of a secondary teacher who died recently and who influenced many of us to continue as learners and become teachers: for us alumni europae, diversity is in the bone and the blood and the flesh built atop them over the decades.

“Compassion” is a word with deep roots related to “religion,” and that like it can be considered in an intermingled personal and philological way. It is crucial to academic integrity, to late work and possible cheating, and what lies behind and around them for all concerned: in every case, deploying the imaginative muscles built up as a reader and literary scholar to do my best—within my own limits—to understand. To suffer with and stand with a student, a fellow suffering living person. The fundamental principle of academic kindness. Believing a student who says they’re ill, says they got tested for COVID-19, and has a negative test. Listening, as a first step in academic integrity, trusting fellow members of the university, and working with students from all backgrounds—including when cultural factors might influence choices of action (or inaction, or unreflecting non-choices)—hoping to help them to remember and rebuild their shared humanity. Keeping the humanist faith. Material creatures living in a material world. Suffering and hurting, in need of consolation and contact, especially right now; may the etymological “compassion” of suffering together, that fellowship and sisterhood, be affirmed in “the new normal” to which we look ahead as our future earthly paradise.

“Intersectional social justice.” Course design and course coordination should be built around, and flexibly adaptable to, what sounds superficially too pejorative as “the lowest common denominator.” Or, access- and accessibility-first. That felt right for a long time, but only became really real during these last two years: acknowledging how much work I have to do in learning about disability-centred design. My most recent case: what to do with oral exams in a French language course that’s “delfic” (it cannot be DELF proper in current teaching and learning conditions … but perhaps these can change, speaking as a lifelong utopian). I worked with colleagues and students, aware of and sensitive to their histories and circumstances; and to their embodiment of intersections of race, gender, class, violence and power, and beliefs. Some are exiles too; and worse, having left as scarred adults. Living in fear, cowed or compliant, or depersonalising themselves to be aggressively competitive in the name of a cold uncaring professionalism. In solidarity and alliance, and acting as an example to students, we have a moral duty to fight—in however small a way, however absurdly, remembering ancestors fallen in the failed revolutions of 1798, 1830, the First International, the 1910s, and the aftermath of the General Strike—the ingrained bullying and harassment of necroliberal neocolonialist competition. And to work, with colleagues and with students, on doing and being and living complaint, consideration, consent, a trauma-informed sensibility, human sustainability, and feminist killjoy values.

I hope to knit principle into practice. I hope that they get well and truly and inextricably tangled up together, in homage to major influences in my thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion and their own entangled and entangling writing and thinking: Ken Campbell, Montaigne, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Sara Ahmed. Keeping questioning. Myself. My own preconceptions and prejudices. Others. The world. Ideas. Everything. Montaigne, Ken Campbell, seekers and seeking, philology; never losing sight of wonder (“philosophy begins in wonder and continues forever,” in Plato’s Theatetus) and the very
serious “never lose touch with silly” (Humphrey Lyttelton), for while there’s delight and its potential for infinite increase through the sharing of its joys: there’s life. Or, a culture of equity and inclusion.

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