Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 150: Dialogue & Social Change — with Mark Winston

Speakers: Paige Smith, Am Johal, Mark Winston

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Paige Smith  0:02
Hi, I’m Paige Smith and you’re listening to Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

This time on Below the Radar, our host Am Johal is joined by apiculturist, award-winning author, and SFU Professor of Biological Sciences Mark Winston. Mark discusses his experiences with dialogue and lessons learned as former director of SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue and the founder of the Semester in Dialogue program. Enjoy the episode!

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Am Johal  0:44 
Hello, welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted you could join us again this week. And we have with us today, our special guest, Mark Winston. Welcome, Mark.

Mark Winston  0:55 
Thank you. It is such a pleasure to be here and have a chance to chat with you again, Am.

Am Johal  1:00 
Yeah, Mark, maybe we can begin with you introducing yourself a little bit?

Mark Winston  1:07 
Well, that's a really interesting question. My standard introduction is, I am a professor and Senior Fellow at Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue. And I'm also a bee expert and entomologist. And have had bees in my life for well over 40 years. And I've had dialogue in my life for most of that time as well.

Am Johal  1:27 
Mark, we've met so while you were in your role at this Semester in Dialogue and the Centre for Dialogue, maybe we can begin there, if you could just share your story of how you got involved in both the Centre and in the Semester in Dialogue, which has been running now for almost a couple of decades, not quite a couple of decades, but pretty close.

Mark Winston  1:50 
Well, the Semester in Dialogue, it's a full semester, full-on, 15 credit intensive program for no more than 20 students at a time that focuses student attention on the public issues. And I got involved with the Semester, because of the mistaken impression that I had about SFU students. I was used to getting up and lecturing, and giving those sort of standard teaching things. To be honest, I found the students uninvolved in the communities around them, didn't seem that interested in politics or anything beyond the subject I was lecturing. And I grew up in the United States in the 1960s and 70s. When, you know, when you were a student, you were really active, and you were marching for things, and you were advocating for this and protesting against that. And I thought our students were quite dull. And I thought, well, we need to really engage them more with public issues. The other reason was very personal, I was just getting bored of standing up and lecturing, and I wanted to find something that was a lot more interactive. So I happen to come downtown and realize that the Centre for Dialogue, the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue building, was about to open. And there was nothing programmed for undergraduate students. They had nothing programmed for students at all. And I thought, you know, this is a great opportunity to try to engage students more with their communities, and came up with this idea of a semester-long program to do that. Once the semester started, I realized that I had been wrong. It's not that students are unengaged, it's that when they're sitting there in classrooms with their bums and seats, listening to Professor pontificate, they're really not particularly engaged with the world around them, except to take notes about the particular details of the subject. But when you put them in a situation where they're able to engage with each other, and with community, you know, then they're real selves come out. And it was just been a marvelous, marvelous 20 years to see that unfold, and recognize that the fault was not the students. The fault was ours, and how we engage them with their education.

Am Johal  3:57 
Mark, how many times have you taught in this Semester in Dialogue?

Mark Winston  4:02 
I've probably taught... At least a minimal amount, even just one or two days, in virtually every semester that's been run since 2002. So at about three per year, I'd say somewhere 50, 55 Semesters in Dialogue? I was the lead professor and organized the courses and taught in probably 15 of those.

Am Johal  4:27 
I've had the real pleasure of being involved in three semesters now, one that just finished and I have to say, as an instructor, as well, the capacity to be around students for that period of time, to be with a small cohort, and to go through that journey with them, it's really transformative for the instructors, as well. You learn from your students, and that to me, it's been a really special part of my involvement in the Semester in Dialogue. This year was the first time doing it all over Zoom. And that had its own sort of benefits and drawbacks, but also was interesting in its own way. But wondering if you can share some memories, or what are things that you remember of your times being in the classroom, or the parts that you continue to be inspired by in terms of being in the classroom in Semester in Dialogue?

Mark Winston  5:20 
Well, with just so many students and so many moments, and both this collective memory of how students enter the semester, not fully understanding what they've committed to. And they leave the semester having made so many just really, really substantial life transformations. You know, I remember one student was just angry. She was really angry at the world around her. And she had no idea what to do about it. And by the end of the semester, she had learned to focus that anger into action. And not only action through activism, but action through really picking some way that she could be effective in the world, something the size and scale that she was capable of doing. And, you know, she went on to do a lot of really wonderful environmental work. I remember another student who was in the first Semester in Dialogue. She was a molecular biology major. We get a very few molecular biology majors in our program, although that's a subject that has great, great public and community importance. But she was pretty much an A-plus student in molecular biology, really, really deep scientists. And she came into my office one day, midway through the semester, she sat down, and she started crying. And she said, '"All my life, I've thought I wanted to be a scientist. But I don't want to be a scientist, I want to be an artist." And this is the first semester, every student has to do a final project. I had always imagined their final project, they would write something like a magazine article. But she said, "Could I do a final project creating a piece of art?" And I thought, well, I don't know anything at all about how to evaluate and judge art as a professor or a grader. But sure, why not? Let's do it. And she created her first painting, which is fantastic. It hung in our classroom for many years. It was her feminist view of what humans have done to the earth. Very, very deep environmental focus. And in doing that painting, she learned a tremendous amount about her own perspectives on women and on environment, and grew her feelings to be an artist. She did go on to become a fairly successful artist. And then recently, she brought back her science interests by going to architecture school, and has just graduated as a fully fledged architect. I think of her a lot because first it reminded me and taught me that we can learn a lot from students about what they need and what they want to do and how they can best express themselves. And from the first semester on, we've had students do final projects where they did art, where they had videos, where they wrote things where they put on one-person plays. One group of students, for a final project did a guerrilla theatre thing where they asked a whole bunch of friends and everybody in the class just go to a particular floor of a parking lot, and look out across the way in another parking lot. And they at the other parking lot, this student group showed up with sod, and they put sod down on the parking lot, kind of a guerrilla theater activity. So that was one thing I learned from her, was to be more expansive in how we allowed students to express themselves. And the other thing I've learned, which I never forgot, is, university is not about information. It's about figuring out who you want to be in relation to the world around you. And we just do very little at university to help students do that. And the Semester in Dialogue is that opportunity for students to figure out who they want to be. Not only what they want to do, but how they want to do it.

Am Johal  9:08 
Mark, what drew you to dialogue in the first place? Both in terms of you know, setting up a program, but what do you see as the possibilities that dialogue has to offer that, say, some other methodology doesn't, or a way of being together or in conversation with each other?

Mark Winston  9:31 
So many things come to mind. Probably the deepest answer of what brought me to dialogue was bees. I am a bee expert. I've spent well over 40 years studying bees. Met you that time with my head immersed in honeybee hives. And, when I'm in a honeybee hive, when I'm, you know, opening it up and looking around, see what other bees are doing. Time just slows down for me. And I'm just really attuned in to the social behaviour of bees which are highly interactive, extremely communicative, constantly passing on information, trying to work as a collective. In my book, Bee Time, I wrote three words at one point that really stuck out to me: solitary becomes communal. Bees are about how individuals find their own meaning in the world by contributing to the society they live in. And that to me is what—all those things are what dialogue is about. Dialogue is about listening to each other, which bees do. Dialogue is about slowing down and paying attention to all the things going on around you. Dialogue is about communication, using all possible modes to understand what the other bees are telling you or what the other people are telling you. So when I'm in a room with students, or facilitating something, to me, it's like being in a beehive. Time slows down and just lots of verbal and nonverbal communication happening. So that, to me is... The real power of dialogue is not only is—well, first to help us understand each other, and appreciate. Not understand to debate or criticize, but understand to appreciate. And, second, to use that understanding, to favour the collective. To understand that we, we we too, as humans are communal, we live in communities, we live in societies. And I think our highest achievements come when we devote our individual achievements towards the common good.

Am Johal  11:44 
Now, Mark, I wanted to ask you about you being a bee expert. When I met you, I've known you as a dialogue person. So I don't know as much about your bee work. But I know that you won the Governor General's Award for nonfiction for the book. I'm wondering if you can talk about some of the research work that you did with bees, but also your capacity to be able to communicate that to a broader public in the writing form, and what that felt like to communicate with a broader audience about your work.

Mark Winston  12:13 
Yeah, I don't know why, but I have always been interested in communicating outside of academics. I spent most of my life in school, I've really only spent a couple of years of my life not in some academic environment from elementary school up till now. So I love academia, really respect it. Love the rigor of analysis, but I don't like the inward looking aspects and the ivory tower aspects of academia. I feel very rooted in so many communities. I spend a lot of time as beekeepers, who are the most varied and diverse people around the planet you could imagine. They are just really quirky. And I love that quirkiness. And perhaps an appreciation of that quirkiness was kind of what led me to do a lot more writing for public audiences. Because there's lots of stories. And I have stories to tell, and beekeepers have stories to tell, and the bees have stories to tell. And as a big reader, I really love stories. So I think I've just really enjoyed interacting with a much wider spectrum. When I ran a bee research lab, and my students have studied everything from pheromones, to bee management, to aspects of how bees pollinate, to things about some of the fundamental social behaviors of bees manifest. I always made my students go out and give talks to beekeeping audiences, because by talking to a public audience, it really forces you to think about the simple and important things that you've learned, and learn how to communicate them. And I think my students always had it. My graduate students and undergraduates that work with us always had a reputation for being strong communicators, because of that experience they had talking to beekeepers.

Am Johal  14:00 
Mark, you've done facilitated dialogues around the world in many different contexts. And wondering if you could talk about, you know, some of the more difficult places where you've been facilitating a dialogue where you've seen its capacity to transform or bring people together in a way that might not otherwise have happened? You've also said numerous times that sometimes dialogue isn't the best tool in certain contexts. And I'm wondering if you can speak to that as well, in terms of, you know, both the transformative possibility that dialogue might offer, but contexts in which it might not be the right tool in a particular context.

Mark Winston  14:45 
Yeah. Actually, I'll start with that question. There are communities and individuals that are just not yet in a position to listen to each other. And if you're not really willing to listen, and all you want to do is debate and argue, you're really not ready to have a dialogue. And dialogue is not always the best, the best tool. When I was young, late teens and my early adulthood, I was a protester. I spent a lot of my time protesting the war in Vietnam in the United States, and the corporate culture that I was appalled at at the time. And the war in Vietnam was—particularly was a place where dialogue was not—was not, that issue was not at a stage where dialogue was useful. It really needed politics, it needed adversarial interactions, it needed protests, to bring the issue to public attention. As I've gotten older, I've seen dialogue as being more of an effective tool for solving issues, for bridging those gaps. But you have to be ready to talk to each other in order to, to be effective at dialogue. And so I think that's the key. I have currently—recently been involved in a lot of set of national dialogues across the country that have to do with a health-based and human rights approach to substances use, as a health, kind of, as a health issue. And in that project, we've been conducting dialogues with everyone from people with lived experience across the spectrum of business and police and other community members. And some communities, the they're just not ready to have that conversation. Because there's so much anger, and there's just not willingness to get into a room and really talk honestly and deeply. I'd say that was the switch point between debate and dialogue is when people are really willing to listen to each other, and it has to be all sides of an issue that are willing to, willing to listen, not just one.

Am Johal  16:48 
Mark, I know when you've spoken to classes, you mentioned oftentimes that you started off as a terrible student with low grades. And somewhere along the way, you switched and turned into a good student, and went on and did a PhD and had a great career inside the academy. But wondering if you can speak about that transformation from not doing well in school to all of a sudden, making a switch somewhere in there in your life?

Mark Winston  17:15 
It involves the key component of the Semester—one of the key components of the Semester in Dialogue, which is experiencing your education, experiential education. Doing things rather than just hearing about them. I was a terrible student, I had possibly the lowest grade point average of any faculty member, any current faculty member that I've ever met. And did not look like I was going to have much of a, certainly not much of an academic career. But one summer, I needed a job. And I was a biology major. And I understood that sometimes biology faculty hire students. So I knocked on a bunch of doors, and one of the doors I knocked on was a woman named Lynn Margulis—who, unknown to me, was one of the most famous evolutionary biologists of the last century and into this one. And she just took an interest in me, you know, I had long hair and wore overalls and, and nothing to show for myself academically. But she saw some spark that interested her. And she hired me. So as an undergraduate, I had a very, very low C average. But I published three papers in scientific journals, because of the research I did in her laboratory. And it was working in her lab and publishing those papers that made me see that getting more education could lead to a place I'd want to go. And it was that, like, I just had no interest in school because I didn't see what use it would be for me. And it was boring. But doing hands-on research was fascinating. So once it clued in that in order to do a higher level of hands-on research, I would need more education. I went on to graduate school and was quite a good student. Though,  it was just I found school boring. But I had this subset of school, that came as a job while I was an undergraduate student, that really turned me on to the value of education.

Am Johal  19:11 
Yeah, as someone who was a 63% average, PE student in university, I appreciate your story very much. I was definitely an oddball inhabitant inside the academy until I found other routes to find myself in. But the experiential part just certainly resonates with me, as well. Wondering, Mark, as you've seen dialogue unfold in its various ways, technologies have also come in and been used in dialogue, and how do you see the kind of limits and also the opportunities and possibilities with technology as they come into a dialogue space?

Mark Winston  19:53 
Well, oddly, just a few months before the pandemic hit, some people in a Centre for Dialogue were experimenting with Zoom. And they did a dialogue over Zoom, and then we had a lunch-and-learn meeting to learn how it went. And I was quite cynical about it. I thought, well, you know, it's nice experiment, but you just can't have the kind of meaningful interactions on Zoom that you do in person, and there's always going to be a bit of a sideshow in the dialogue world. Then the pandemic hit, and we all had no choice. If we wanted to keep working and we wanted to communicate, we can have to learn Zoom. And I've discovered that you can have some really, really meaningful, deep transformative interactions on Zoom. In facilitation and workshops and teaching. And certainly through the Semester In Dialogue. It has to be used in a different way, you know, you have to be careful of how long you spend on Zoom and make sure people get into small groups and talk to each other. But it's very, very effective and has the great advantage of being able to bring in people from all over the world. And people from many, many places that would not normally be able to interact with. You know, it's not my—I wouldn't want to do this for the rest of my life. But there's something about the in person, the spontaneity, the added nuance of communication that we get when we're in person that I think is still highly valuable. But we have learned over the last, well over a year now, that we can be ourselves on Zoom. We can do deep and important things on Zoom, or other, or other platforms for that, I mostly use the Zoom one. And I think that's going to really transform us in dialogue as we move probably to what will turn out to be a more hybrid model of dialogue that mixes online situations with in person.

Am Johal  21:48 
Mark, with the pandemic period, which we're still not quite out of, and it's still a lot of question marks around what the Fall might look like. You know, we just went through a quite an intense period, and certainly see it with students and the multiple levels of stress that they're carrying with them as well. And not to mention the kind of political polarization of the last year and a half, not least of which the American political situation leading into the election, but has reverberations that continued to this day and into the future. Just wondering, from a dialogue perspective, what you might see as important conversations that we need to get into, as we come out of the pandemic. We have a lot of our social infrastructure and systems that, some of them work really well during the pandemic, but others didn't. And so I think there's a lot of question marks around what our future world looks like. You've been wondering the kinds of thinking that you're doing as we come out of the pandemic, the kinds of conversations that you think, need to be elevated.

Mark Winston  22:58 
I think the first conversations we all need to have when we get back together, is how are you? How have you changed? What are you still suffering from, you know, everything looks great now, we're back in restaurants, we're back at work wherever, when, when that all happens. But we're all carrying scars, we're all traumatized to some degree. We need to talk about that. We need to realize that this has not just been a little blip in our lives, but it's... It has, you know, a very, very substantive effect on all of our mental health. Then I think we need to think about how we learned how quickly we can implement major changes in our societies. So many things changed so fast, so many things developed that weren't here to support us all. When we were in, you know, in the pandemic, not the least of which was a lot of government support programs that supported people economically, we need to think about how do we translate that into a future for Canada, that is more compassionate and more understanding for those people who are marginalized. I think we also learned a lot about the lack of equity in our societies. It was coincidental that Black Lives Matter, became a real... Really was reinvigorated as an important movement during the pandemic, when we were all paying a lot of attention to what we saw going on in front of us. And it wasn't only Black Lives Matter, but it stimulated all, so many of us to be thinking more about, "Gee, we thought we had a pretty fair society, but you know? We're starting to—now that we're listening, we're really starting to hear from a lot of people who are so marginalized. You know, everyone from substance users, to people in particular racial or ethnic groups, to those who have low economic status. People with mental health issues, you know, the amount of marginalization in our society just became much more apparent. And I think coming out of the pandemic, I love to see us couple an increasing compassion for equalizing Canadian society with the understanding that we can succeed at major initiatives that really disrupt the status quo that we had before the pandemic. So, dialogue to me has a super important role to play in that. In again, got to listen to each other. We have to start understanding each other and not rejecting things outright, just because of some stereotype we might have developed that has no bearing on what's the right thing to do in the future.

Am Johal  25:47 
Mark, I'm wondering what are some research or writing projects you're working on now?

Mark Winston  25:56 
Oddly, I'm not working on any research or any of my own writing projects. In the last couple of years... My last book was called Listening to the Bees, which came out in 2018. I co-wrote it with Renée Sarojini Saklikar, the poet. It has her poetry and my essays in it. And it was my seventh book, I had a number of other books in mind, but my interests have really shifted from writing books, or writing anything, to mentoring other writers and teaching writing. So for the last year, I've been, I was SFU's inaugural Library Non-Fiction Writer in Residence. I spent a good part of the year hosting workshops and doing consultations, the students, faculty and staff about their writing, I do a fair bit of editing for people. I work with a group in Vancouver called Vancouver Manuscript Intensive, which is for writers who are fairly far along in projects that could use some mentoring to get them down to the finish. It's run by two poets, Rachel Rose, and Elee Gardiner, originally founded by Betsy Warland, who was a legend in town for her work with SFU and Writer's Studio. And through that, I'm also mentoring writers in the community. So I'm finding that's where I'm getting my greatest satisfaction these days more from mentoring writers and working with other people's writing and helping people generate ideas, put manuscripts together and learn how to pitch. I'm finding that's of greater interest to me than starting my own writing projects right now.

Am Johal  27:37 
Wondering, Mark in starting this Semester in Dialogue, because it's an interdisciplinary program, just trying to get all the requisite institutional approvals, the administrative kinds of things to embed and keep the program going into the future, you must have had to deal with a lot of meetings and things over the years to get it approved at the Senate and those types of things. I'm wondering if you can share any stories related to that kind of complicated nature of working inside of an institution and trying to do something new that isn't necessarily legible inside the institution?

Mark Winston  28:19 
Yeah, well, I've done a very few wise things in my life. And one of the ways things I did with the Semester in Dialogue is not try to embed it in the current structure of the institution. But I put it outside of any department or faculty. So the Semester reports directly to the Vice President, that we're not stuck in the usual politics that happened in departments and faculties. And we're not bound by the academic silos that departments and faculties represent that we were able to be truly interdisciplinary. I also insisted that I was not going to start the program unless it was fully funded. I did not want to spend my time applying for money. I wanted to spend my time teaching. And I was fortunate, we had a very, an academic Vice President at the time who—John Waterhouse—who was really intrigued by the idea, and he put some university money behind it. Then I really did spend well over a year meeting with endless university teaching committees, meeting with Senate Committees, revising the document, I was just very proactive about including everybody and anybody who might care about, about things, about this sort of program. And so by the time we got to Senate, it had really been vetted through every possible vetting place you could imagine. And even those who didn't necessarily support it, didn't think it was going to do any harm. And so it is an interesting story to me, which maybe says a lot about academia, about how it passed the Senate. The night that the Senate vote happened to approve the program—far as I knew there was no resistance at all, all the committees had recommended it. I was not expecting any problems. But you know, I was there to present it and have any questions. And in the Senate, there were four or five SFU faculty members, who to my great surprise, just tore a strip off the program. They found every possible way to criticize it. They were very dismissive. They just asked all kinds of probing questions, not of the healthy type but the type that suggested that, I was probably a raving idiot and why was they wasting their time? And I thought, "Oh, no, when the vote comes, we're gonna be in trouble." So the vote came, it was unanimous. Like 100% of the people in that room that, including all the naysayers, voted yes. And it was just such a window for me into the academic mindset that you just have to criticize. You have to find things to pick apart. That moment is really stuck with me as not the high point for me in academia, but idea that they approved this Semester in Dialogue in the end. Well, you know, that was quite remarkable because there's never been—there are no programs like it anywhere in the world. And to have a teaching program that's outside of a department or faculty is highly unusual. So that set up, having that independence really has allowed us to do things we never could have done in the more constricted academic environments that I heard represented at the Senate that night, even by those who voted yes.

Am Johal  31:25 
Mark, is there anything you'd like to add?

Mark Winston  31:30 
One of the things I've always respected about SFU was... You know, Andrew Petter got us to use the phrase "the engaged university." And it's a nice brand, but I think we are the engaged university. I think it really does reflect—it wasn't a brand that we made up and started to grow into, it was a brand that we already had, and were able to expand. I think this is a very interesting university for the way it does engage more deeply with community. I don't know that there are many universities that a Semester in Dialogue ever have been approved in. And one of the reasons that we're so successful at being the engaged university comes through the work that you do. You know, it's just, I just have huge respect, and just always marvel at the great, great depth and breadth of your relationships with community. Now you're able to take university in the community, and really put them together into just some really fantastic programs, and just creating that vibrancy that keeps the university from being the ivory tower, and makes the university are very important member of a much wider community. So if there's anything you want, want ahead, it's, it's the thank you for the, just the amazing work that you have done and you keep doing.

Am Johal  32:46 
Oh, that's very kind of you, Mark. You know, I think one of the things about... The good, you know, there's all this marketing and branding around engagement and the university, but I think what it does do is for people who are outside the university, it draws a lot of people, both academics and otherwise at the staff level to want to work at SFU. And so it actually kind of reproduces itself in the sense of people wanting to do this type of work and believing that this is an institution where you can still do that. And in as much as it's a big university and has all the flaws that a bit institution might have, institutions are full of people trying to do good things and the engagement side. There's a great, wonderful collaborative group of colleagues here, like you and many others, that this makes it a place to want to be and hopefully also draws the types of students that want to do that work in the future, as well. And I know in my own involvement in the Semester in Dialogue, I certainly want to thank you for inviting me in to teach and be there. It's really been transformative for me to be around students and seeing how they are doing out in the world right now, as well. So thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar.

Mark Winston  34:01 
It has been such a pleasure.

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Paige Smith  34:07
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to our conversation with Mark Winston. As always, you can find links to his writings and other projects in the description of this episode.

Stay up to date with Below the Radar by visiting us online at, or following us on our various social channels; on Instagram and Twitter @sfu_voce, or on facebook @sfuvoce. Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you next time on Below the Radar.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
December 14, 2021

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