When I first began working at the University, I was absolutely terrified of making an idiot of myself. I had graduated ten years earlier with an honours degree in Psychology, and had done very little of academic note since then. And while I still don’t relish the idea of broadcasting my ignorance when it happens to come up, I have realized that faculty and administration do understand that everyone comes from diverse educational backgrounds: one person’s expertise in bats does not make another’s knowledge of tree rings any less significant or noteworthy.
Now, I have very little knowledge in either of the above areas (though I have sat through enough thesis defenses and colloquia presentations on bats that I feel like I could achieve a passing grade if tested - “torpor rates,” “white nose syndrome” and “myotis lucifugus” were certainly not phrases in my vocabulary prior to three years ago), but I certainly have an interest in and willingness to learn. I find sitting at committee tables absolutely fascinating – when academics from completely different areas come together, the diversity in language and discussion styles that occur could be a study in and of themselves.
But now that I am less shy about speaking to faculty, I take advantage of the myriad of experts at my disposal. I had an Economics faculty member come to my office the other day to ask some administrative questions, and I was absolutely delighted to have her stop by. I impatiently answered her queries, and refused to let her leave until she explained the Occupy (Winnipeg) movement to me. After looking slightly taken aback, she very kindly explained why it wasn’t hypocritical to consider donating to their cause– a concept I hadn’t been able to wrap my head around until that moment.
I am now friends with a handful of faculty members on my personal Facebook account. Occasionally this is somewhat disconcerting, but has also proved to be unexpectedly useful. A few weeks ago one of them posted a link to a book review on hegemony, and I made a comment about how I would only read it if it explained the concept to me in more detail, as my rudimentary grasp of it was proving insufficient for my needs. A Politics faculty member joined the commentary and said that I could stop by his office anytime and he’ll go over it with me.
I was invited along to a group event one Saturday visiting various artist studios around Manitoba. The Chair of the Indigenous Studies Department came along and she was kind enough to sort out my confusion around what it means to be a “pipe holder” and what the significance of tobacco is in ceremonies. Not only did she take the time to explain all this, she went out of her way to assure me that I was being in no way culturally insensitive by asking the questions – indeed, I think she appreciated my interest.
The University is a hierarchical institution, there’s certainly no denying that. But I am consistently struck by the openness and collegiality of those I deal with. I so often hear other staff members taking about “diva-like” members of faculty or administration, but I can’t say I experience much of it. Even those that I have the odd run-in with still make up for it in subsequent encounters. Perhaps it’s how I approach them, or perhaps it’s how my fellow staff members treat them as well. It’s easy to feel mistreated and patronized when you’re lower down the ladder – but it’s not always easy to not hold a grudge, or examine your own behaviour and how you may have provoked it yourself.
When I have curiosity about the research that many faculty members are experts in, they are usually genuinely pleased to have someone take an interest in the area where they feel a profound investment and passion. Why would I not want to encourage and share in that? Yes, maybe I have to send them the same email ten times, and maybe they just cannot remember how certain forms should be filled out. But in the grand scheme of things? We’re all working together on a common goal, and I love the fact that I have the ability to take part in some of the brilliance and scholarship surrounding me.
Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada
Deanna England is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.