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Australia OCS program canceled amid investigation, restructuring concerns

May 27, 2018
By Dylan Larson-Harsch '19, Editor-in-Chief

This year, 74 students applied to the Biology department’s Ecology in Australia Off-Campus Studies (OCS) program—the highest number of applicants that had ever applied. Led by Lecturer in Biology Annie Bosacker ’95, the trip would run during winter term 2019, and advertises on its website the opportunity to experience “the open, unpredictable wonder of one of the world’s greatest outdoor laboratories.” On May 14, however, applicants were notified via an email from Helena Kaufman, the Director of the Off Campus Studies Office, that the trip had been cancelled.

“I was pretty disappointed,” said Cameron Meikle ’20, an applicant for the program. “For a lot of people it was their main choice in studying abroad … It’s a bummer that they had to cancel it, especially this late.”

According to Kaufman, the Australia program was founded in 1986 and has been run by a variety of professors, including Bosacker, who took over in 2010. “As you can see, the program went through some curricular and leadership changes over the years. A program that has such longevity needs to be modified and renewed periodically,” Kaufman said.

According to Kaufman, there have been contingency plans put in place for students looking for other options—either students had made their own backup plans before the cancellation, or were able to meet with OCS advisers to be placed into other abroad programs in the fall, winter and spring, both at Carleton and outside the school.

“Because the program has been popular in the past and always had a waitlist, we have routinely advised students to develop a personal plan B—apply to another program in case they are not accepted to Ecology in Australia. Fortunately, many of this year’s applicants did just that. Those who did not, met with OCS advisers over the last week,” Kaufman said. “While this situation is far from ideal, we are quite confident that most students found solid options and will be able to study off campus.”

“She didn’t provide any answers about the Australia study abroad but she did give some alternatives,” said Meikle. “She seems like she’s doing a good job.”

Review Process and Program Cancellation

According to Kaufman, the decision to cancel 2019 trip was made in collaboration with Dean Andrew Fisher and Chair of the Biology Department Jennifer Wolff.

“The program has been cancelled for winter 2019 to make changes to the program’s structure and direction,” Kaufman said in an email. “Following the college’s review, we attempted to implement these changes in time for this winter’s program but were unable to do so.”

Fisher, who led the review process, said it consisted mainly of interviews with students.

“This review included reviewing formal student feedback and speaking with participants about the program’s curriculum and their experiences. The decision to cancel the 2019 iteration was reached once it became clear that the program could benefit from some modification,” Fisher said in an email. “Revisions to the ‘Ecology in Australia’ program have not yet been fully decided, but may include the introduction of new field sites, changes to our local partnerships and services, and other alterations.”

According to Anaïs Boyd ’16, a participant on the Australia trip in 2015 and the program assistant in 2017, the program review was initiated after two anonymous negative student reviews were brought up to Dean Bev Nagel and Dean Fisher during the standard review Bosacker went through as a non-tenured faculty member. Boyd also said that the review process fell short of obtaining a full picture of the program.

“I cannot speak for other interviews, but during mine, Dean Fisher did not ask me to corroborate specific events and basic facts stated in these anonymous reviews, when I could have easily done so as a student on the 2015 trip and a TA on the 2017 trip. They also made no attempt to contact local instructors who were present during the program,” Boyd said in an email. “It seems to me that Dean Nagel and Dean Fisher made no attempt to understand the truth behind the events and views expressed in the anonymous reviews, and blatantly ignored the dozens (literally, dozens) of glowingly positive reviews Annie received from other past participants in the program that concerned the exact same events at the heart of the negative reviews.”

Student A, a senior who went on the 2017 program, said they were interviewed by Fisher as part of the review, but that the outcome of the process has remained murky.

“When I asked specifically what was going on, I wasn’t given any information,” Student A said in an email. “I wish I could tell you what was going on with the investigation because I wish I knew myself. I held off on a formal complaint because I was told an investigation was already happening, but the lack of transparency has been frustrating and does not make me confident that the college is handling this appropriately.”

According to Kaufman, the college plans to offer the Australia program for the 2020-2021 academic year, but the biology department has not yet handed in a proposal for it.

When asked about the specific complaints of the program, Kaufman said she was unable to comment on personnel matters. Fisher declined to comment on the merit of the investigation. Wolff, Bosacker, and Nagel all declined to comment as well.

Specific Complaints About the Program

Student A said they had problems with how Annie Bosacker led the 2017 program, including pressuring students to participate an Aboriginal ceremony called a corroboree that they said required less clothing than they were comfortable with.

“The pressure to undress at Aboriginal Camp was overwhelming and highly uncomfortable. I didn’t want to see my professor and classmates dancing without clothing, nor did I want to be in that position myself,” said Student A. “When I asked what clothing I was allowed to wear I was told that no one had ever worn clothes before and that wearing clothes would be disrespectful of Aboriginal culture. I was also told that wearing clothes would make my professor and others who choose not to wear clothes feel awkward. It felt like my professor’s desire to be naked for the event was more important than my desire to feel comfortable and safe. I did wear very minimal clothing in the end, and felt incredibly self-conscious, uncomfortable, and spent most of the night trying not to cry. Afterward, we were told by our professor not to talk about it with anyone who wasn’t there because they wouldn’t understand. There was so much secrecy surrounding Aboriginal Camp, I asked Annie many times before camp what was going to happen once we got there and she refused to share any details. The whole experience was traumatizing and one that I hope no one is ever put it again.”

Student B, another participant from the program, voiced a similar concern about the pressure put in place by Bosacker.

“Many of us were turned off by the pressure we felt to get essentially naked for Corroboree, an Aboriginal dance ceremony. Our group was the first of any group Annie Bosacker had had where some people refused to strip naked and instead wore spandex/boxers and sports bras. As much as I love Annie and the program, I too had a lot of issues with this aspect of the program,” Student B said.

The opinions of students who went on the program, however, are far from unanimous regarding Bosacker’s conduct. Boyd, for example, said that the uncomfortableness that comes from immersion in a different culture can often be productive.

“Our time living in an Aboriginal community is perhaps the most challenging—and also the most rewarding—part of the Australia program, because the students are interacting with a culture and a way of learning they have never encountered before,” they said. “Immersion in a new culture is never a comfortable thing. Asking the Aboriginal community we spend a week with to change their customs in order to make us (and our Western values) more comfortable would be incredibly inappropriate, and would be a smaller echo of the violent colonialism that has been enforced on these people for 230 years.”

Program participants also said that there was no complete nudity required for the ceremony, and that students were also allowed to wear extra clothing if they wished.

“[The group of Aboriginal Australians] requested that we create and wear traditional adornments for this event. We spent the greater part of the day before corroboree preparing these adornments, which I believe could effectively cover a person if desired,” said Student C, another program participant. “To state this clearly: nobody was nude at this event. Everyone wore traditional adornments. People who wanted to were freely allowed to wear clothing they had brought with them.”

Boyd voiced a similar opinion.

“The form of dress that the students take during the … corroboree that occurs on the last night of that week is their decision, and Annie has never told anyone that they need to dress in traditional Aboriginal garb during the ceremony,” Boyd said. “I understand that students have felt pressure to participate in the ‘nudity’ of corroboree (please note: Aboriginal people do not consider their traditional form of dress to constitute nudity) because they do not want to feel like they’re disrespecting the elders by not participating in the ceremony dressed fully in traditional garb. I do not think it is fair to attribute this pressure to Annie because she is the Carleton faculty member in charge of the program, when she has actively encouraged students who approached her with concerns to participate only in what they were comfortable wearing.”

“The Aboriginal camp experience is a delicate one. But I will say that I personally did not participate it the event in question for personal reasons and felt no way pressured to do so nor did I feel like my lack of participation was ever counted against me,” said Student D, another program participant.

There were also different experiences of what happened at the ceremony. According to Student E, another participant, participants were separated into two groups ostensibly by gender for the ceremony, which could have led to different experiences.

“I identify as he/him/his and went with all others (went with them for this “ceremony”) who also shared that identity and a couple others. It seemed as though our group did not face significant ‘pressure’ to undress, but most of the people with me at that time understood that was sort of expected and were more than happy to go along with it,” said Student E. “Most of us were well aware of what to expect—I do not know how people did not pick up on this much further in advance… I felt like there were lots of people in the Aboriginal camp part of the program that just didn’t understand why things were the way they were and how these events/traditions are viewed.”

Boyd also underscored the personal relationship Bosacker had cultivated with the Aboriginal community who invited Carleton students to participate in the ceremony.

“The people who are kind enough to host us do not conduct ‘Aboriginal camps’ for other programs or colleges—they tried that in the past, and decided years ago that it was too exploitative for them to continue doing. Instead, they host us for a week because they have developed a strong relationship with Annie, care deeply about her and the Carls she brings to Australia, and trust the way that our time with them will be communicated to the Carleton community at large,” Boyd said. “Additionally, when interviewing students for the 2017 program, in every interview, Annie told them that there would be nudity on the program.”

Student C also addressed the cultural encounter aspect of the experience.

“A bunch of primarily white, Western students were invited to participate in an aboriginal cultural event, which requested that they do things outside of their normal experience,” they said over email. “This made many of us uncomfortable, which is an extremely valid response. This discomfort was an opportunity for all of us to examine our own Western concepts and ideology. This was not an opportunity for us to decide what constitutes acceptable dress at an aboriginal cultural event to which we were all invited to attend. This was not an opportunity for us to completely reject traditional aboriginal clothing outright, and certainly not grounds to invalidate the entire OCS program for daring to expose us to it. OCS programs are meant to expose students to new cultures and ideas.”

Other Complaints

Student A also said Bosacker facilitated a drinking culture on the program and did not pursue academic rigor.

“Annie was very permissive about alcohol and made specific stops for students to get alcohol. She also was aware of and condoned students sneaking alcohol onto substance-free research stations we stayed on,” said Student A. “Annie had very specific visions for all of our experiments but didn’t give us very much guidance on them. The program requires no experience in ecology or experimental design, so I was definitely in the dark about what Annie wanted us to do, and she didn’t give us very many guidelines or expectations. I don’t feel like [I] learned very much about ecology or how to design and conduct an ecology experiment.”

Student E strongly refuted the idea that a drinking culture was a problem on the program.

“The drinking age there is 18, we were all legally able to drink,” they said. “If you take a look at almost any other OCS program, almost every student drinks—and quite a lot. Drinking did not lead to any serious problems for anyone on our program, and I would say that the drinking was done in a much safer manner than what is typical on Carleton’s campus.”

Student C voiced a similar opinion. “A professor sitting down to have a beer with students who can legally drink in the country is not ‘facilitating an excessive drinking culture,’” they said.

“It was never my experience, as a student on the 2015 program or as a TA on the 2017 program, that Annie facilitated or encouraged excessive drinking culture in any way,” said Boyd. “The difference in this program is that the students are living together in close proximity all the time; those students who do not partake in the consumption of alcohol—and who may otherwise put a little distance between themselves and Carls who drink on the weekend because the size of campus affords them that space—are living very closely with students who do drink … Annie cannot and should not be liable for the drinking habits of students who are legally allowed to drink unless their drinking is affecting the comfort of other students.”

In terms of academic rigor, other students interviewed expressed satisfaction with the program and its coursework.

“We knew it was going to be field based, and it was,” said Student E. “During almost every stop along the program, we talked to people who were either experts or very knowledgeable of the system/environment/situation we were in… If people didn’t get anything out of that, they were doing things wrong entirely.”

“It is true that a student could make it through the course with minimal work but I don’t think students who are unwilling to push themselves equates to a ‘lack of academic [rigor],’” said Student D.

“The opportunity to go out in the field and practice designing, conducting, and orally presenting original research is invaluable to me,” said Student C. “It has prepared me for other research opportunities, and helped me realize my passion for field research… I don’t see why this program is getting the rub for characteristics that apply broadly to most programs.”

“I think, because students at Carleton are raised almost exclusively in academic settings devoted to traditional white/Western styles of learning, they think that this project-based curriculum is inherently less ‘rigorous’ than test-based curricula,” said Boyd. “There is a lot of data, in fact, that supports the idea that project-based learning can contribute to students’ social, emotional, and intellectual development much more strongly than a traditional test-based learning system.”

Boyd expressed displeasure both with the investigation as a whole and its treatment of Bosacker as a non-tenured professor.

“I think the investigation into Annie and the Australia program would have been treated with much more respect if Annie were a tenured professor,” they said. “To be frank, I am fucking pissed about the lack of interest the Deans of the College have shown towards even moderately understanding events that took place last year during the program, and the lack of respect they have shown towards understanding Aboriginal culture during the investigative process.”

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