What Are You Working On?
What Are You Working On? is an ongoing series aimed at getting to know exceptional UBC staff and faculty who are doing anything but the typical day to day as they contribute to making UBC an inspiring place to be.
Linc Kesler began his career at The University of British Columbia in 2003 as the first director of the First Nations and Indigenous Studies Program. Before he came to UBC he was a professor at Oregon State University for twenty years. He received his bachelor’s from Yale University in English and his master’s and doctorate from The University of Toronto in early modern English literature and semiotics.
Linc designed and taught the three innovative core courses in the FNIS program and in 2009 he took on the roles of Director at the First Nations House of Learning and Senior Advisor to the President on Aboriginal Affairs.
As an experienced educator and accomplished researcher, he has put his skills towards developing initiatives on campus that contribute to the interests of Indigenous communities. Since 2011, Linc has worked tirelessly to establish the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSC) at UBC’s Point Grey Campus. The IRSC will serve to be a place where students, alumni and the public can access historical records and recognize the effects of the Indian Residential School system.
UBC Communications & Marketing met with Linc and discussed the influential work he’s achieved at the university.
You have taught students in a wide range of subjects. What do you find most fulfilling about teaching?
LK: I’ve always enjoyed working with the material that I have been teaching. I have been really fortunate that even though I have covered quite a range, it has always been things I have been quite interested in. I also really enjoy thinking things through with a group of people who are coming at the material from different places than I am coming from. The opportunity to develop a group approach to things that includes many different angles is always exciting to me and I always feel like I get something out of it. I think that’s the part I enjoy the most. It’s different and interesting.
When designing the FNIS courses (310, 320, 400) what factors did you consider?
LK: For me at that point in my career the opportunity to develop an approach for curriculum in a program from scratch was very exciting. I was anticipating what projects people might do and thinking about what kind of thinking might not be already available at the university. Students were taking most of the courses that constituted their degree in other existing programs and departments. Some of those courses were great and worked really well for them but some of them were difficult because the approach taken in the courses was not congruent with their understanding of things. That was challenging. Overall, I think the major questions students were having was how to think about their university experience in a way that made it relevant to their interests and their aspirations. So I thought, those were things that the core curriculum in the program could do well if it was carefully designed. I began working with the students and talking through different issues and getting a sense of how things worked for them and how they might work with each other.
Could you talk about the work you have done with the FNIS Initiatives? What does each initiative strive to accomplish?
LK: The curriculum was the main initiative, but our use of video has also been important. I was working on Klamath Termination project when I arrived, but then developed the interactive video transcript viewer here, in part because it was part of the long term planning for the Klamath project. Its purpose is to make larger video archives more usable. We did a speaker series here in 2005 on land claims. We decided we would record it and decided we should stream it. We generated 18 hours of video, but realized that very few people would sit there and watch eighteen hours of video, especially if they were looking for something specific. In the end, though we at one point hired a programmer, I programmed the interactive transcript viewer myself and finally got it to work. It links the video with the transcript and it allows you to search the transcript and go to the exact point in the video.
The Indigenous foundations website was created for a couple of reasons. We realized that our students in the program were developing some ways of thinking about a whole set of issues, but then finding themselves in other classes with students who were starting with no information at all. That was very challenging for professors, and for our students who had to sit through a couple of weeks of the instructor going through very basic information. We decided it would make sense to create a web resource that instructors could send students to learn about basic topics without taking up class time.
How has your own personal background and history affected your career?
LK: My family is quite mixed. My mother was Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, which is very important in American-Indian history because it was the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. It’s a place that has a lot of history but it’s also the poorest county in the United States. It’s a place that has a lot of substantial challenges. My mother went to boarding school, which was the equivalent of a residential school in Canada, back in the 20s and eventually finished her high school education off the reserve, in a non-Indian high school. At that time this was quite a challenge.
In the late 20s, she got on a train by herself and went to Chicago to enter nursing training. For a young Indian woman at this time, that was unbelievable. That’s not only a thousand miles away, but also a transition from one of the most remote areas in the US to the centre of one of its largest cities! It was a completely different world. She met my father there who was a medical student at that time. He had become a medical student because he had developed type one diabetes. He was going to be a schoolteacher but became a doctor to manage his condition. My father was from North Carolina, which at that time was still a segregationist state. My father never really moved too far beyond his views on race, so there were some significant issues in our household. Every year we went in the spring to North Carolina and spent time with his family. Then we would spend the summer in South Dakota. All my life I have been trying to figure out and put together this span of experiences.
When I went to college there was no curriculum addressing those issues. I changed my major five times as an undergraduate and eventually completed my degree in English, with a minor in Russian. Then I went to grad school at the University of Toronto.
My wife and I worked in China for a year which was interesting in all kinds of ways and when we came back I went to teach in Oregon and got involved in a whole set of things there because there was a little more connection between Oregon tribal communities and the university. We established an ethnic studies department there and a set of initiatives for American Indian students that other groups then picked up the models. A friend of mine who was working at UBC sent me the job posting for the FNIS job. After some very interesting discussions in the interviewing process, it worked out and I came here.
Could you describe your day-to-day work as Director of the UBC First Nations House of Learning?
LK: The FNHL is a strategic planning and coordinating unit for Aboriginal initiatives across the university. I spend most of my time in meetings or on the phone or responding to emails or writing documents that are going to be used in policy discussions. It’s very different from teaching and research and working with students. I do none of that anymore and I miss it. I really enjoyed that part of my career. But this is interesting too. It’s been a chance to really think about how Aboriginal initiatives can be formed in such a way that they can be successful in the university and much more integrated into the university’s core functions than they have been in the past. I saw a chance to develop a curriculum that would continue and I am really happy to say it is.
I’m not teaching anymore but it’s still going on just fine. I’m really happy about that. It’s also part of my job to think about how to accomplish similar things elsewhere in the university so that they really became part of what the university is doing and what it was known for, and how the university thinks of itself. I think we’ve made some progress in that. It’s been satisfying. I hope it will affect how things continue.
Linc works in tandem with the university, and is constantly responding to nationwide and campus events. Throughout his career he has pioneered essential programs that have had both an academic and social effect at the university level. Simply put, he helps create new opportunities for students and faculty on campus. He hopes to make a useful and substantial difference through his work at the First Nations House of Learning.
On Monday September 12th, Linc and UBC President Santa Ono announced the start of construction of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSC). The center will be a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Act and be a significant step towards further historical awareness on campus.