The Professor Profile series at The Phoenix aims to help UBC Okanagan students get to know professors more intimately and learn about their interests. This time, we had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Anita Girvan (she/they), an assistant professor in the faculty of English and Cultural Studies, new to UBCO. However, Girvan’s research interests are interdisciplinary to fields such as ecology, languages, Indigenous Studies, Black Studies, philosophy, and political studies.
Ainslie Spence: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your research interests?
Dr. Anita Girvan: I study and teach environmental justice and cultural studies. I'm interested in stories, metaphors, and how they orient us to think about and act upon the world: both human and non-human. I started out critically analyzing the carbon footprint metaphor as my doctoral research. My research expanded from that, especially thinking about decolonizing stories, or how land-based understandings of social and ecological relations shape how we work within and against the norms that shape this critical moment we’re in. Recently, I've been reading Black feminist orientations around ecology and Indigenous women's orientations around ecology. So, just thinking beyond Western binary paradigms of human and non-human, around social and ecological justice.
My undergrad was actually in languages. I studied French and Spanish, Italian a little bit, just very surfacey. In that process, I read books and creative texts across languages — so literature was part of that “thing.” I started thinking about how different languages and stories orient us differently in the world. Then I did a Bachelor of Education. And I was teaching in elementary school for a while–kindergarten, grade one, and grade two. And that was a lot of fun. My story is similar to many Gen Xers and following generations, where job opportunities and constraints dictate where you go along the way. I was teaching sort of precariously — a maternity-leave type of thing. Then I went to Japan to teach English as an additional language at the high school level because that previous job ended, and this job also provided the opportunity to travel. I taught in Japan for three years, developed my interest in culture and language studies and teaching English as an additional language, and then I went to do a Master’s degree at Carleton around that field — teaching English as an additional language. In the process, I got introduced to discourse studies, which is a field that looks at language and politics. Discourse studies broadened my understanding of how languages really do interact with politics.
My Master's thesis ended up looking at the first iteration of the Disney film, Aladdin (1992), around the first iteration of the Gulf Wars (1990-1991). So, I was looking at Aladdin as a study of what Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said calls “Orientalism.” Through this frame, we can see how Aladdin comes to be the well-loved figure representing American hegemony, while all the “evil ones” are expressions of Orientalist discourses of barbarism and darkness that still, to this day, plague geopolitical relations of and with the Middle East.
So, that was my Master's degree. I took a long time out of studies after that — to teach English for academic purposes to international students at Carleton and to have children — and then wanted to get back into that idea of language and power. That led me to do a PhD in cultural, social, and political thought at the University of Victoria. I was thinking with the metaphor of a “carbon footprint” that was emerging suddenly in 2007 and became the word of the year, so when I started my PhD in 2008, I wanted to dig into what I thought was interesting: the notion of a footprint and carbon, how it was orienting us to the increasingly urgent cultural politics of climate change.
From then on, I’ve been trying to make up the gaps in my studies because there was a lot within this cultural, social, and political thought programme that reproduced Euro-Western forms of knowledge. So, since then, I’ve been looking at Indigenous, Black Feminist, and People of Colour Knowledges that were really not part of my PhD.
AS: How did you land at UBCO?
Dr. AG: I saw the call for the job — which was called “cultural studies and environmental justice.” And, these are literally the two things that I am passionate about, and have taught and studied. A number of people sent me the job advert saying, “This seems to be describing you!” So, I had to apply. And I'm really excited to start here. I started in January, online teaching a special topics course entitled “Cultural Studies from Birmingham to BLM and Beyond.” That was a good experience, and then I moved here in the summer. I’m really excited about being face-to-face with all of you!
AS: What courses are you teaching at UBCO this year?
Dr. AG: I’m teaching two courses this term. One is Cultural Studies 101, which is an introductory course in practices and methods. That course is really about introducing students to the field of cultural studies and the key notion of “hegemony” — which is about all the power relations that are around us that we take for granted, that we quietly consent to, without really understanding what they mean. So, whether that’s about climate change, or racial politics, or colonization — cultural studies has different flavours.
It’s quite exciting because we get to think with the moment. Cultural studies is about the “conjuncture” — or the moment we’re in — as a bundle of histories and politics that have come to shape what’s happening now. I’m teaching that course again next term.
My other course is the environmental justice class, Cultural Studies 390A, which is a new one for UBC. We’re looking at environmental justice, but also epistemic justice — or knowledge justice — because, for me, the two go hand-in-hand. For example, we’ve been thinking about the conjuncture of what it means to go through wildfires, and to question who or what is being protected (and what is not), and whose knowledges count (and whose don’t). These questions do really help us critically wayfind the moment we’re in.
AS: What kinds of teaching and learning pedagogies do you use in your classes?
Dr. AG: I think centering embodied knowledge in the students is something I really have learned over time — that all of you students come with understandings that don't make you like an “empty vessel” when you come here. You students have ways of wayfinding through the world yourselves. And, that's what makes it rich for me to do group discussions or group work.
I am someone who has just come from an online university after being in face-to-face universities prior. I find it so dynamic in the physical classroom. Sometimes, things can just shift. For example, a really provocative question that a student asks can shift you to go down a path that you couldn't have possibly planned on your own. So, group learning is a central pedagogy for me. I have a love-hate relationship with evaluating through grading, because it does shift relationships with students as soon as marking happens, but I try to remind students (and myself) not to get caught up with marks. You are not your marks!
Also, scaffolding within the course. Each assignment, hopefully, will build upon the last one so that students don't have to grapple with something new, and they're building their muscles throughout.
Decolonizing of courses is something I’m trying to think with too. So, learning a lot with students about the place we are in Syilx territory, doing my homework, and sharing with students that I’m also a new learner in these spaces. We’re humbly moving together on that front of decolonizing.
AS: Can you describe a dream course or a form of pedagogy you would like to teach in the future?
Dr. AG: I've been thinking a lot with coalitional understandings of ecology and place. Right now, I'm doing — with some faculty — a Black feminist and coalitional ecological thought reading salon. We're reading some texts together, and I'm hoping that it informs a future course that is about Indigenous communities’, Black communities’, and People of Colour communities’ orientations around place. In this Syilx territory, we have a lot of richness. So the dream course, in time, would be a land-based course–where I have enough background, and I have done my homework enough — to take students, with guidance, onto the land.
AS: Do you have any forthcoming research or projects that you’re excited to share?
Dr. AG: I’ve been working on a couple of things with grad students at my previous institution. We just wrote a paper for the Journal of Canadian Studies called “Tracing E-race-sures, Finding Reclamations.” It’s co-written with Métis Albertan graduate student Mikayla LeSann, and Priscilla McGreer from Black communities in Alberta. We wrote this article together, using the notion of “E-race-sures”— to flag the stories that we didn’t grow up with in Canada. So, Métis stories, stories of Black Albertan community — you just don’t think of that when you think of Alberta. So, McGreer, LeSann, and I are tracing the erasures of distinct communities and then reclaiming stories from these perspectives. The article is coming out, hopefully, in the next few months.
Through my broader Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded project called “E-Race-sures, Renovictions and Reclamations: Cultural-Material Production in Canada.” I’m working with other people, including at UBCO, Dr. Rina Garcia Chua, who’s been working on something called migrant eco-criticism and thinking from her Philippinx perspectives, “How do migrant communities negotiate socio-ecologies here?” So, we have some ideas around learning more with Syilx understandings of land — and also migrant workers here in extractive agricultural industries. This is emerging research we’re thinking with, and we are hoping to collaborate with others.
A lot of my work right now is co-written with other people. I have another draft article with Astrid Perez-Piñan, a University of Victoria colleague — “Ecologies of De/Colonization: Embodied Perspectives from Caribbean Diaspora.” We’re thinking with walking and talking as a methodology of wayfinding on Vancouver Island on Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ territories as Caribbean diasporic people attending to global-local traffics of de/colonization.
I’m really thankful to be in this position so I can work with others and collaborate. There’s this beautiful notion of peer review that’s built into academia, where we always send our research to others to help shape our projects. One of the things that’s underplayed in universities when we celebrate individuals for their “heroic knowledges” is that we're always, in hopefully good ways, collaborating and peer reviewing each other's work.