Ralf St. Clair reflects on eight years as Dean of Education

We caught up with Ralf St. Clair to discuss and reflect on his time as Dean of Education at UVic, which comes to an end this month after eight years. 

What’s at the forefront of your mind right now as you wrap up your time in this position?

I think the most important thing right now is trying to ensure the faculty is in the best possible shape to pass across to a new person. This means stability and resourcing. When I came into the Deans’ office, for example, there was no communications or development capacity. We’ve built those up over years, and it would be too bad to lose them now. We also have a great team of unit heads who are collaborative and supportive of each other, and that’s an enormous asset to our faculty community.

What is a standout project, event, or moment from your time as dean?

There are two. One is more formal, and that’s the creation of the first Indigenous Education department in Western Canada, Indigenous-led and community-facing. I am delighted we were able to help that happen, and I’m pleased with the growth of the department. Currently, there are two Indigenous teacher education programs in that department along with a range of language programs. They do great work.

The other is an opportunity we had a few years ago. We heard about an individual who was dying tragically young and who had always wanted to be a teacher. We arranged a ceremony where we gave them an honorary teaching certificate in front of their family and many members of our faculty. Shelagh Rogers was there too, as Chancellor, and brought real dignity and warmth to the event. I will never forget the look on the face of the certificate recipient and the appreciation of the family. That one event was the highlight of eight years.

What were the most enjoyable aspects of serving as dean? Any challenges?

The most enjoyable aspect was being able to work big picture, both within UVic and more broadly on the provincial and national stage. UVic is a pretty remarkable institution and while we may sometimes stumble, the authentic commitment to doing the right thing, at every level, is extraordinary. Our Canadian education community is similar in many ways, with the nicest people you could hope to meet taking the job of education absolutely seriously. We are in good hands.

I found the biggest challenge lack of clarity around the role of Dean. Over the last few years it has changed considerably, but there is still a need to have complete awareness of a ton of detail while at the same time trying to work away quietly at strategic imperatives. It’s a lot!

What brought you into the field of education? What’s kept you in it?

I came into education because of the John Lennon song “Power to the People”! I have always seen education as a critical building block in increasing people’s ability to shape the world, and by this, I do not mean K-12 and university. Learning is, to me, the hallmark of our species and our super-power. Wherever and however it happens, it matters. Forty years later I remain fascinated by that.

It follows that my professional agenda, to the extent I have one, is about making the lines between different forms and locations of learning as fuzzy as possible. Obviously learning in the community and learning at a university are different experiences, but we need to think carefully about the value of each and both together.

What kind of changes or evolution in the field of education have you witnessed during your career? During your time as dean?

When I began working in education there was a far more progressive impetus in education than there is currently. Of course, as in all areas of human work, there is a pendulum swinging between change and continuity. Right now, I see continuity being far more strongly valued, and I put that down to the “quality” movements of the 1990s and early 2000s. These movements tended to assume quality could be measured fairly directly, and assessment was formalised. The modern inheritors of this philosophy are instruments like the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). BC scores pretty well on PISA, but this may lead us to overlook the need for a more complex understanding of educational quality.

The biggest change in BC over the last eight years has been the absolute centering of Indigenous presence in our education system. There is still a long way to go, but conversations about what we can do together are now everywhere, and the need for change in this regard is not controversial anymore. Reflecting on my previous comment, it does remain controversial whether the outcome we expect is for Indigenous learners to score better on standard measures or whether the system needs to change how it thinks about learners.

What kind of change do you think is most needed in education right now and why?

This is incredibly nerdy, but I think there is one change that would unlock a whole cascade of positive developments. That would be the adoption of a qualifications framework supporting the accumulation and laddering of learning. I think we need to move away from the idea that graduation from high school leads to a Bachelor’s degree (perhaps via college) and so on. We have the capacity, with technology and personal education numbers, to map each person’s path to capability wherever and however it leads, even to the level of recognising and building on micro-credentials. It would take political will and time, but Europe shows it can be done.

What’s something that not many people know about you? 

Not many people know about my secret love of Euro-Trach dance music, and I’d like to keep it that way...

If you could present a lecture on anything, what would it be about?

About knowledge and specifically about how we know things. This has been one of the biggest questions of philosophy for millennia, and continues to intrigue. That or Kraftwerk.

What words of advice would you share with students in the faculty of education?

I think it should be the other way around! I’d like to continue to learn from them.

Any other thoughts to share?

As post-modern people (perhaps) we tend to think we live in the fastest-changing, most-challenging circumstances that have ever existed. Whether this is true or not, it obscures the continuity of the human experience. We struggle with the same questions as people have for generations: What does it mean to be a good person? How can my life have meaning? How can I balance my giving and taking? I think it’s helpful to acknowledge the extent to which we are all asking these questions and the extent of that commonality, even though our answers are hugely diverse and individual. We are walking this path together.

Finally, I think kindness matters a great deal more than we often realise. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but just a simple choice between using one word or another can change everything.