The cost of academic freedom violation

In my second last week of participating in an MFA class, I spent six of the days arguing with a white, male student about his planned project. He wanted to tell a story of trauma on black bodies using spirit animals. We had an FNMI author in our class who objected to spirit animals being used, but the author told them not to worry, that he was only going to use the sacred concepts as “literary devices.”

For six days, I told him that this was not his story to tell. But considering the sheer amount of work from the perspective of a white person looking in, I could see why just telling the story of his involvement in the subject wasn’t appealing. There are practically no more ‘white male character doing their job’ stories to tell without a significantly unique spin on it.

But the next week, I said that the draft of the work we were reading might need the situation the characters were facing to be introduced earlier. The first section we read was just character introductions. Someone argued that “they liked it” and in the UBC’s MFA program, stating that you liked something was supposed to end all arguments that the work might still need revision.

I, however, pressed on. The class was an extremely commercial genre of writing that puts a very high premium on the viewer’s time and money. I said that I liked it too, but that the problem should start at the beginning, too.

My instructor had finally taken a stand on day 6 the week before that perhaps the white professional student should write the story of a white professional. But after I stated that plot and character development should really happen at the same time (forget mentioning that they should also have a causal relationship) I got my last “Dear Barb” email.

This email, for once, did not tell me I should be less craft-focused. At that point, it was hardly possible. This letter said I “defended my opinion too much.”

That was the one time I lost it at an instructor. I demanded to know if they really wanted me to finish off the semester doing absolutely nothing but writing critiques with ‘heaps and heaps’ of praise in it while trying to include the absolute smallest aspect of craft.

The UBC has managed to create a program in which the vast majority of the student body are convinced that they may have to spend tens of thousands of dollars and put years of their time into appreciating other writers’ work, but they certainly did not come to the UBC’s MFA program to improve their craft.

I’d spent three years getting shit on by almost every instructor I had for daring to suggest that maybe conflict and tension are important for works meant for a commercial genre. Three years of combing through my critiques to make sure that nothing — even out of context — could be taken the wrong way. It was my fault if someone read my words with malice and found their own. I removed my humour because at the UBC, if something could be squinted at until it could be taken a wrong way, it absolutely was. Sarcasm was far too risky.

It was hell.

I learned to take out anything that was just my opinion. I learned to remove anything that might suggest a rewrite would be necessary at the start, but then even suggesting a rewrite might be beneficial soon followed. This meant I couldn’t talk about anything structurally wrong with the story at all. Any suggestions for improvement had to take almost no effort to fix. I stuck mainly to a character’s motivations because I could discuss the same issues the work needed without using the writing terminology that triggered the instructors.

I felt an acute lack of academic freedom every week of class and I still did my very best to work with my instructors. I assumed they had a reason for controlling what was said, how it was said, and how much of it was said. To discover there was no reason was my own personal trigger. For all that bending over backward to help the program run smoothly, I was shat on even worse by the higher ups trying to find redress for the abuse.

The UBC should feel humiliated with the way they treated a student who dared assume that they had academic freedom. But the way they attacked academic freedom to do it should be punished to the fullest extent possible.

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