Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Part 12: Second Open Letter to the Dance Program

Today we posted a second open letter to the dance program (text below - click on link).
We also posted comments and responses to all the comments on the blog thus far. Text of our responses to be added to this entry.
Photos to be added to this entry.

From Part 12

Second Open Letter to the Dance Program

On March 10, 2009--three weeks ago--we posted our first open letter to the dance program, stating the reasons we were protesting.

Our goal with the open letter, as with the parts of the protest preceding it, was to make our voices heard, and to provoke a community response that addressed the issues we were protesting. We hoped that our faculty would initiate open dialogue about institutional discrimination and positional power, and the specific oppressions those issues perpetuate.

In these past three weeks, it has become clear that although our protest has received attention from within and outside the dance program, the dance program administration appears either ill-equipped or disinclined to meet our protest with any measure of responsible, concrete action. The Town Hall that was called was a beginning, but the behavior of the faculty before and since has not indicated concrete action but a defensive reaction to our protest.

In light of the lack of honest negotiation from the administration, we are forced to broaden the scope and intention of our protest. We had not wanted to assume spokespersonship for the student community, or dictate actions to the faculty, but given the frequency with which the faculty has been asking, “But what do they want?” we will provide demands.

Observing the faculty reaction to our protest has been illuminating--we do not think that anti-racist awareness is the fundamental issue they are grappling with. Rather, what we see is that there is an endemic resistance to addressing positional power, and the silencing of any dissent and criticism. We are therefore extending our agenda to demand a dismantling of this hierarchical abuse, and asking for actions that make the dance program a fair, equitable, just and safe space for all forms of dissent to be voiced in, including but by no means limited to the discourse on racism.

We preface the following list of demands with the emphatic note that it is only a starting point, and meant to describe broadly problematic areas and accompanying incremental steps towards fixing those problems. There is no such thing as a comprehensive list of ways to combat abuse of positional power and racism, and our demands certainly should not be interpreted as one. The faculty must continue researching their own methods of combating overt, covert, and systemic racism until there is true equality, even if it takes years or decades or generations.

A Statement about Values

We believe that the faculty of the dance program share with the students certain core beliefs in the values we want upheld at our program. We would like to state our values clearly, so that we can have a fundamental agreement as to the mutual agreement of our goals.

• Respect for diversity – The dance program must be a space where diverse experiences, voices, bodies, histories, philosophies and artistic endeavours are respected. This respect must be the foundation on which debate and dissent can be built.

• Assurance of safety – For active learning to be possible, the dance program must commit to doing whatever it takes to create a safe space not only for the bodies, but also for the hearts and minds, of every single one of its students, staff, faculty, and visitors.

• Recognition of inequality – As an educational institution equipping students to survive in a professional world, the dance program must explicitly, continually, and openly address the imbalances of power that are perpetuated by the social and political systems it is a part of. Flaws must be acknowledged in order to discuss the work-in-progress nature of social justice.

• Appreciation for dissent – A healthy society is one in which multiple and contradictory views can co-exist without coercive silence. A constructive tension born from passionate debate should not be mistaken for violence, and should be valued over the repressive ‘peace’ of hegemony. Those in power should, especially, welcome criticism as an educational opportunity to learn how to do better.

• Commitment to social justice – While art need not be bound by morality, an educational institute must be committed to ensuring that its artistic vision never supersedes its legal, social and moral responsibilities to its students, staff, faculty, and neighboring community.

• Eagerness to learn – While the desire for self-improvement and growth is routinely demanded from students, as part of a university that prides itself on its emphasis on research, the dance program must demonstrate a conscious and systematic willingness to question, doubt, reassess, and change itself.

• Fostering trust and honesty – There needs to be an acknowledgement that trust is not automatic and unconditional, and that it needs to be purposefully earned and respected. While trust cannot be earned without honesty, it is the responsibility of those with power to recognize that confidences cannot be forced, and that transparency, accountability and openness are owed unconditionally to the people they have authority over.

• Dismantling hierarchy – Issues facing a minority are the problems of the majority. One of the ways the dominant, entrenched power structure remains ensconced is a direct result of a dearth of scrutiny. The White community should be held responsible for the problems of racism, males should be grappling with sexual assault and feminism, and straight and cisgendered people should be addressing their privilege in regards to GLBTQ issues, etc.

Immediate Responses to our Protest

Our trust in the institutional engagement with our protest has been severely eroded by the official and unofficial reactions of the dance program administrators. We ask that they demonstrate that they are willing to engage with us in good faith by taking the following actions:

• Make a public and official statement, in writing, regarding the departmental stance on criticism of official policy and faculty actions.

• Immediately distribute to the dance and theatre list-serves the group discussion notes from the Town Hall meeting on Friday the 13th, 2009 as well as this—our second open letter. Make hard copies of both available for students to read and take home; we suggest using the system of distribution used for the Backstage Pass.

• Openly and publicly announce each action, response, and plan the administration has in regards to our protest; not only via email to the list serves, but also available in hard copy so that every student can access the information without additional effort.

• Invite the Student Conflict Resolution Center to act as mediator and neutral researcher for the program. We trust Josh Casper, the Ombudsman currently involved with this case, to listen confidentially and respectfully to every viewpoint, and we demand that the program dedicate the resources needed to bring him in, so that students, affiliate faculty and staff can safely and without repercussions talk to him about their perspectives.

• Use facilitators from the Office of Equity and Diversity to guide initial discussions about race in groups that separate students from faculty and White students and faculty from those of Color.

• Invite an external commission to assess students' perception of institutional hostility towards criticism, and faculty abuse of positional power—this should include the situations that lead to our protest.

• Set a time frame for negotiation with us within which concrete action will be taken before the end of the Spring semester 2009.

• Restore our first open letter, with the Addendum, and Statement about the Protection of White Walls to the glass walls of the Barker, and agree that removal of any protest material constitutes a censoring and silencing of our protest.

Faculty Development

• Facilitators from the Office of Equity and Diversity should be brought in for intensive training with all faculty, affiliate faculty, and staff, and the program should accept offers of assistance and resources from both the University and the outside dance community.

• All faculty and staff who advise students should be provided with enough regular training and resources to equip them to meet any student’s concerns about program policy, voicing dissent, and issues including but not limited to racism, sexism, ableism, sizeism, and GLBTQ issues. All advisors need to be educated about the diverse issues their advisees might face because of their identities, and have to be proactive in offering all resources to their students to help handle them.

• Dance major advisors should also be provided a clear and comprehensive list of CLA courses where the student demographics are more diverse than the average class offered by the dance program, and which can educate students in ways the dance program is not able to provide. The list should include suggestions of how students may fit these classes in their dance schedules, and should be updated and amended with student input. These courses should be considered appropriate for meeting the dance elective course requirement.

• The hierarchy between affiliate and core faculty needs to be dismantled. Affiliate faculty and staff musicians are one of the program’s biggest strengths, and most varied assets. They are often the ones engaging with the widest and most diverse demographic range of students. Their commitment is often demonstrated by the frequency of unpaid extra time they give to their students. Any discussion on the departmental response to the protest must include them, and they must be remunerated for the extra time they are asked to invest in this process.

• A concrete system for the expression of dissent needs to be set up and publicized. No faculty member, especially affiliate or international, should ever feel afraid of negative repercussions for voicing dissent. The burden of their fear should not fall on students--no student should have to silence their criticism of a teacher for fear that it will lead to that teacher losing their job. If faculty are feeling so insecure that they have to admit to students that they cannot say something in public that they might agree to in private, then the University is not meeting its basic requirements of providing our educators the safe space they need.

• White faculty members need to be made aware of how they can reduce the burden of racial education on the faculty of Color, and straight teachers need to be clear that their GLBTQ colleagues should not be the only speakers on problems surrounding GLBTQ issues. Those without personal experience of a problem need to undertake more self-education and work if they are to support their colleagues.

• All faculty and staff need to be instructed on the University policies regarding student confidentiality and privacy. Student-teacher conferences should occur in a private, closed space.

Student Resources

• Institute a mandatory series of workshops for incoming freshmen and transfer students where a baseline curriculum is taught which includes terminology such as White privilege, heteronormativity, sizeism, positional power etc. Students should be familiarized with on-campus resources and it should be made clear that discrimination is an issue in the university as it is in the outside world, and is a topic that should be talked about in the dance program and beyond.

• The Peers and the Student Dance Coalition should use funds they get and apply for to create regular student-only meetings where problems with faculty or with the department as a whole can be discussed, and where a neutral representative or spokesman can report student concerns to the faculty—these meetings should avail of the external resources available to students such as an Ombudsman or facilitator.

• While the increasing racial diversity of the incoming freshmen classes is laudable, students of Color should never be exposed to the accusation that their talent and ability is valued differently and is secondary to their racial identity. These accusations are already made; the program must prepare itself to be able to support students who face such insinuations.

• White students should be provided with resources and compassionate spaces where they can process coming to terms with White privilege and educate themselves on how to be more effective allies.

• Students of Color and other minority identities should be acknowledged as having to deal with a continual additional burden of being a minority in an unsafe system, and should be provided space where they can safely speak about their experiences, without the burden of assuaging anyone’s guilt, or educating anyone’s ignorance, or being held responsible for generating solutions.

• The dance world places relentless pressure on bodies. The program needs to acknowledge this, and provide counsellors and interventions to deal with eating disorders, weight and size issues, and the mental health issues surrounding body image.

• Multiple channels of communication should be available to students, and anyone in authority over a student should make explicit what those alternative channels are.

• Students should be able to easily and privately access their records containing feedback from their faculty, before their second year reviews and mid-term conferences.

• The dance list serve needs to be unmoderated and allow for immediate posting (spam can be checked with the authorization system the theatre listserve implements).

Program Policies and Conflict Resolution

• The decision making process for Cowles Artists should be made open to student representatives who are present in meetings throughout the process, as they are in the theater program for meetings regarding Mainstage Productions.

• Student representatives should be on every hiring committee, whether for faculty or staff.

• Any administrative meetings regarding curriculum, scheduling and policy should be public, and the minutes should be easily accessible (a departmental moodle site is one solution).

• When requesting a meeting to discuss a conflict, students should be told very clearly about the topic of discussion and the resources accessible to them. The dance program should adopt an opt-out policy where an offer will always be made for an ombudsman, advisor or trusted supporter to be present at any meeting.

• All dance students, faculty, and staff should be allowed to request to have public conversations documented via recording or transcribing. In the case of private conversations, the party with less institutional power should always be able to document the conversation, with the understanding that all legal and moral rules of confidentiality will be respected.

• A comprehensive and rigorous conflict of interest policy must be adopted regarding faculty availing of student services whether as employees, apprentices or interns must be formulated and made public.

• The program must form and/or regularly invite a watchdog group whose job is to specifically point out any potential race issues within the department.

• The official hierarchy of the department and the individual responsibilities of each faculty and staff member must be made public and clear.

• The agendas for all official meetings and Town Halls should be disseminated in advance, so that attendees can prepare themselves. There should be a system established for requesting agenda items.

• Anonymous and pseudonymous methods of expressing dissent must be respected, and even encouraged, especially given the intimate, personal nature of the dance program.

• Teachers need to acknowledge that when they are in a conversation with a student, they are in a position of power. By giving students the power to hurt, but not to question, they are silencing students. Teachers need to respond professionally to questions and critiques, and doing so does not include explaining how hurt they are by being questioned.

Casting, Auditioning and Performances

• The casting policies need to be made completely clear and consistent, and should be on paper, and handed out to students before any auditions. If there is any indication that students are being selected on basis of height, weight, costume size, race, or gender, this needs to be openly stated and explained, with mechanisms to allow debate on the casting policy beforehand, as well as challenges after the audition.

• All choreographers should do their own audition and casting. If flying them in earlier is impossible, hold the auditions later in the year, and create a system to allow students to be able to register for credit after regular CLA deadlines have passed.

• If the faculty are in any way going to offer an opinion or advice to the choreographer about a student's ability or suitability, they must do this on paper, in records the student can access.

• The policies for understudies' rights and responsibilities need to be clearly stated on paper, and available to every performer and choreographer. They must be given enough time and attention to be equipped to perform, and costumes should be built assuming the understudies might need to step in. If any dancer is unable to perform, a system must be in place to allow the understudies to perform in their place.

• If the Dance Revolutions rehearsal and performance process is distributed across two semesters, it must be increased to a minimum two-credit opportunity. Dancers in more than one piece should receive an additional credit for each additional piece they are in.

• At least one Cowles Artist should be brought in to teach a workshop class that is accessible to all students who register, and that can culminate in a fully-produced performance (one that is either a part of Dance Revolutions or a separate concert).

• Dance traditions that work at the level of the participants' abilities should not be considered less aesthetically or pedagogically valuable than those demanding an intensive audition process.

• Stage managers and dramaturges should be involved from the beginning of the choreographic and rehearsal process, and should be accessible as alternative mediators with whom students can discuss problems.

• Performances in professional pieces in the dance community outside of the University should be accepted as performance credits. The standards of these pieces can be judged by a panel that consists of a multi-disciplinary selection of faculty and student representatives, but performances in tap, ballet, hip hop, jazz and musical theater pieces should be accepted, and even encouraged, given the lack of such performance opportunities within the structure of the modern dance program.

Pedagogy and Curriculum

• The entire format of the dance history sequence needs to be overhauled, with significant student input. History must be taught before historiography is introduced. Technique teachers, including affiliate faculty, should be involved in determining which dancers and choreographers need to be covered.

• Education about social justice and diversity should be incorporated into all classes, so that the burden of educating students does not fall on the academic classes that then become bludgeons to inculcate one specific approach to critical thinking.

• The BA and BFA mandatory academic classes must include a history of American vernacular dance forms including jazz, tap and hip hop.

• There should be classes within the dance program offerings that meet the CLA liberal education core and themes requirements. If this means opening up enrollment for these classes to non-majors, find the resources needed to make this possible.

• The program needs to have a rigorous, in-depth discussion to figure out methods that bridge the divide between the “shut up and dance” way of teaching where the teacher is an unquestionable authority and task-master, and the academic pedagogy where students are expected to be active learners who use debate and questioning as tools to engage.

• Technique teachers and academic teachers need to share their knowledge and engage in the debate needed to generate a comprehensive approach to problematic terms and practices in dance. Right now students face an enormous amount of cognitive dissonance because of the contradictory and incomplete information they are given in individual classes, leading to a compartmentalization that is unhealthy and divisive.

• Cultural appropriation needs to be part of the dance discourse, and technique teachers should be provided with resources to be able to address the problematic aspects of the material they are teaching.

• The faculty needs to process their individual aesthetic preferences to find a genuine respect for genres and techniques different than theirs. No dance style should even privately be snidely alluded to. Especially, the popular dance versus high art divide needs to be broken down.

• Academic knowledge should not be privileged over bodily knowledge, and technique teachers should feel equipped to defend their positions without having to conform to academic standards of debate.

• Classes and workshops should be offered during the UDT rehearsal time slot that work around the schedules of students who are absent during the period that they are working with a Cowles Artist.

• Hip hop technique classes need to be offered as a regular course, with an urgent intention to make it part of a multi-level track.

• Change the pictures on the walls of Studio 300 and Classroom 301 and add photos in 200 and throughout the building. Use them as a means of education, and fill the building with representations of the diversity in the dance world. The building currently has a minimalist aesthetic, and of course the unmarked minimum is white, so change the decor to be non-minimal and diverse. If every teacher, staff, musician and student provided the names of two mentors or inspirations that they wanted students to know about, our walls would be filled with information.