Creating a safe space for everyone
October 16, 2023
Michael V. Smith
Creative and Critical Studies
Creative Studies, Creative Writing
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
Master of Fine Arts, Creative Writing, UBC Vancouver
Bachelor of Arts (Honours), English and Drama Studies, Glendon College
"I’m always trying to make space for other people in my classroom. I want to help them have greater access to language, ideas and tools, so they can articulate their own understanding of the world."
TUCKED AWAY IN THE CREATIVE AND CRITICAL STUDIES building at UBC Okanagan, Professor Michael V. Smith is doing more than just instructing students in creative studies.
For him, creating a welcoming space for all students is crucial to the concept of teaching and learning; somewhere people can find their voice, passions and interests.
While this sort of focus on inclusion may not be writ large in every classroom, it’s something Smith says openly on the first day of class. Not only because it’s where his research interests lie, but also because it’s what he truly believes in.
“I grew up in a blue-collar home in a small town, and I was quite regularly bullied and humiliated by my community for not presenting appropriately for the gender other people assumed I was,” explains Smith, who is gender fluid and goes by the pronouns he/she, him/her.
“My favourite colour is pink, and it’s hard to be a man who likes pink in North America.”
As a result, Smith says he always found the idea of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) a motivating theme because “through diversity, we understand there’s more than one way of being in the world. And then we also recognize that our way of being is unique to us, so we can’t make assumptions about other people based on our own experiences.
“That’s why I’m always trying to make space for other people in my classroom. I want to help them have greater access to language, ideas and tools, so they can articulate their own understanding of the world.”
A Professor in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies since 2008, Smith is renowned on campus for his work in the EDI realm, both through his actions in the classroom and his research work. A writer, performer and filmmaker, he examines issues of class, identity, community and belonging.
Smith can trace his passion and conviction for the themes of EDI to his own experiences growing up in a culture that clung to stereotypes and preconceived notions of gender. This awareness about the power of stereotypes and exclusion became a starting point that still infuses Smith’s work to this day.
“A mantra of mine that came out of the 1990s AIDS crisis was, ‘silence equals death and action equals life.’ Whether it’s in the classroom or my own writing and art practice, I’m always looking at voicing the silences in the world.”
He adds: “That’s an equity piece because, as a queer person, I’m trying to make more space to allow me to be my best queer self in a culture that doesn’t like queer people. My work in teaching and research—and who I am as a person—aims to give voice to those experiences that have gone unnoticed or unwritten about.”
One such experience not often discussed by society is the complex and multifaceted relationship between body and gender navigated by those who transgress gender signals.
In his 2022 film The Floating Man Smith examines the false narratives he’s faced about his body over his lifetime; his students are also featured in the film and share how Smith’s work and teachings in class have helped them through their own gender journeys.
Another project, The Body of Text, involved Smith wearing a black body suit and posing against a white background, simulating a Rorschach-type test.
“It’s the same body making different shapes, and we’re reading those shapes,” explains Smith. “There’s imagery and assumptions associated with those shapes, just as there are with gender. I’m interested in how to undo those assumptions and humanize the idea of otherness.”
For Smith, sharing such stories makes for a far richer and more complex understanding of the world. It’s something he’s trying to emulate in his teaching while creating a space where everyone belongs.
“We’re not a monoculture. And even though we may feel safer when we’re a monoculture because there’s less to negotiate and it’s easier to navigate, we’re not healthier because of it.
“As a society we need a robustness in diversity because, ultimately, that’s how we’ll thrive.”