Reflections on the CanLit controversy
I am grateful to the CanLit writers. I am grateful to Andreas Schroeder for giving up a job that he loves to take a stand for something that he believes in. I am grateful to other writers associated with UBC who signed that letter. For the first time in a year, I feel a little safer as a writer.
Like everyone else in the program, I have been grieving. But, unlike most people, I have felt afraid. I have felt afraid to ask questions, for fear of hurting the women who made the allegations or hurting the good people who stepped up as co-chairs. I have been afraid not to ask questions, for fear that a life might be destroyed. I have been afraid to post anything slightly critical of the treatment Steven Galloway has received on the student forum. And, other than the assignments I’ve done for one course, I have not been able to write.
I have lain awake nights worrying that Steven Galloway might kill himself, and that my silence about the way the university handled things would have contributed to that. The CanLit writers gave me the opportunity to express my criticism of the way that the investigation was conducted. I posted it on Facebook, said that I supported it, and was instantly condemned. Friends who are writers have ended their real-life friendships with me. But still, I feel relieved to have done it. Friendships can be repaired more easily than lives.
A writing program is a place, above all others, where we should value dialogue. We should be able to express our thoughts and expect that people who disagree with us will say that respectfully, not call us names or post that they are ashamed of us or say that because we have not gotten the wording of our concern exactly right we must be a monster. Can we change the way that we have these difficult conversations?
Absolutely, I support women. Specifically, I support Sierra Skye Gemma, who is one of the bravest writers I know. (I don’t know the other women who have spoken out.) I am a rape survivor, but you don’t have to be a rape survivor to know that universities are harsh, unsupportive places for victims of sexual assault. UBC’s treatment of the women who made complaints against Steven Galloway was a case study in what not to do, and I hope that the new sexual assault policy improves things in the future.
My concern about the way that the allegations were investigated comes from this: Last year, all on-campus students were called to an urgent meeting. Many of us were up all night, checking on people to see if anybody had committed suicide. Ahead of the meeting, we were told that Steven Galloway had been put on leave and there were services available to us if we feared for our safety.
That is the part of the process that should not have happened. At the time, I wrote a letter to the university saying that their communication strategy was going to harm the unnamed people who had made the allegations, Steven Galloway, and the department’s reputation. My letter was met with near silence.
The CanLit authors asked for an investigation of the way that the allegations were investigated. I support that. I disagree with those who say that the CanLit writers are telling students, women, and people of colour or without power that the doors of influence will be closed to us. I think they are demonstrating how to open those doors with words.
But as a student in the Creative Writing program, I wish for more than what the CanLit writers have asked for. I wish for an end to arbitrary secrecy. When early on I told a faculty member that I was wondering if Steven was a violent sexual predator or a pedophile, given the safety warning, I was met with silence. Not even a shake of the head. I have spent a fair bit of time imagining the worst of Steven Galloway.
When I met with faculty this summer and protested the sudden policy changes such as course caps, I was told that the department hoped that students would understand why they couldn’t discuss the reasons for them. By then, Steven Galloway had been fired for breach of trust. Had he breached trust by letting Creative Writing students use more of the university’s resources than we were entitled to, I wondered? But, how would that warrant a concern for our safety?
When we cannot even talk about why our course credits are capped, we are being silenced by the university. But we are silencing each other when we shame each other for expressing our views on our private forum, or when we create threads that make it almost impossible for someone to post a contrary opinion. I think that shaming the CanLit writers by saying that their complaint about the investigative process is harmful to women or to students in the program (when they have stated that was not their intention) makes it less safe for us to be open with each other. How can we workshop our stories and articles about rape, about politics, about anything, when we cannot be open with the same people on our own forum?
Writers should stand together against censorship, even the censorship of shaming, and set an example by exchanging views rather than crushing them. This is mine.
I support an investigation into the way that the allegations against Steven Galloway were investigated. I support an examination of the way that university has handled communications and secrecy, while fully understanding that missteps may have been made by people who had the best of intentions. The effect of Steven Galloway’s firing has affected everything about our program—particularly for this year’s first and second year students—and we have, largely, not been allowed to know why.