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UBC professor, Dr. Richard Cavell
April 22, 2019
4 mins read

A conversation with Dr. Richard Cavell

Dr. Richard Cavell is who we talk about when we talk about professors. He dresses sharply, speaks quickly, and laughs often. Both inside and outside of the classroom he’s affable and thoughtful.

This past term, I enrolled in Dr. Cavell’s “Approaches to Media” class, English 332. I had never encountered him, and knew next to nothing about media studies. I quickly discovered that Dr. Cavell is an incredibly engaging professor with a plethora of interesting anecdotes, and that his course was amongst the most enjoyable I have ever taken.

So, I thought I’d speak with Dr. Cavell—to find out how campus has changed, to discover more about his role, and to learn some UBC history. When I asked him if he had time for an interview, he replied with his typical courtesy: “I always have time for students.”

How one prof discovered media studies

We meet in a sunny room in the Buchanan Towers, where Dr. Cavell busily prepares to move offices.

I begin with a straightforward question to get things going: “What exactly is media studies?”

Dr. Cavell pauses, and responds: “What’s Asian studies? What’s English studies? It’s the study of all those things that can be called Asian, or all those things that can be called English, or all those things that can be called Media.” It is immediately apparent that our conversation will be as lively and dynamic as each of Dr. Cavell’s lectures.

When I inquire next as to how he became interested in media studies, his eyes grow bright: “Well, it was an encounter with [Marshall] McLuhan,”—the legendary Canadian academic largely credited with establishing media studies as a formal discipline. Dr. Cavell crossed paths with the scholar while completing his dissertation at the University of Toronto, and, as he says, “That’s what started it all.”

Since that pivotal encounter, Dr. Cavell has completed several works on McLuhan, including McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography (2002) and has curated an archive related to McLuhan since 1981. He would also go on to become a co-founder of UBC’s own Media Studies program.

UBC of the past

Having begun his journey as a UBC student over half a century ago, Dr. Cavell has incredible insight into the many ways the campus has evolved. He notices that much of the change has been the size of the school itself. When he arrived here, he recalls the campus “was just a few buildings and the forest.” Given this, he says it “was very much separated from Vancouver out here on Point Grey with very little to do with the city.”

Dr. Cavell also remembers the days of student protest in the 1960s, and launches into an account of political activist Jerry Rubin’s visit to campus in 1968:

“At the end of Jerry Rubin’s talk, he says, ‘What’s the one place we can’t go into on this campus?’ and one person shouted back, ‘The faculty club…’ He said, ‘Let’s go and take it over.’ And I can tell you that was an exciting moment: 3,000 students rushing to the faculty club at lunchtime so it was filled with faculty. To see the professors running from the room, some of them running to their cars and locking the doors, and these thousands of students going there and liberating it…yes, that was an amazing moment.”

Around the same time, UBC was also the sight of an experimental art movement: “We were a focal place for visual artists and literary artists who were interested in radical poetics and radical artistic practices,” Dr. Cavell notes. “Each year we had something called the Festival of the Contemporary Arts…it was the very cutting-edge artists of Vancouver who took part and this has had lasting effects up to this day.”

With the Belkin Art Gallery, the Hatch Gallery in the Nest, and student art displayed all over campus—it’s easy to see the continued impact of the Festival!

UBC of the future

As for the future, Dr. Cavell believes UBC will greatly benefit from the presence of the growing tech industry in BC, with global companies such as Electronic Arts and Hootsuite having bases in the Lower Mainland. “I think we’ve got it sewn up,” he comments with a smile.

Dr. Cavell also foresees remarkable changes within the classroom. According to him, schooling is moving towards “a multi-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary, project-based understanding of education, where it’s no longer about memorization, no longer about strict disciplines—it’s about interactivity.”

He excitedly imagines an educational environment with “open spaces [and] everyone interacting in very small groups,” concluding that “this is the future of education.”

Upcoming work

In mid-October, Dr. Cavell is set to release his next book, SpeechSong, which looks at the work of both Canadian pianist Glenn Gould and Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg. The project features a fictionalized play centering around an imagined encounter between the two musicians. Dr. Cavell deems the multi-genre work “a critical performance piece, so it’s partly critical because there’s a long essay afterwards that I write. And at the beginning, this short play.”

The book will be launched in October at the Modernist Studies Association, which, according to Dr. Cavell, "is the largest association on the study of Modernism in the world,” where he will also deliver the keynote address.  

After going outside to take some photos, Dr. Cavell dons a dapper cap and scarf, and we part into the afternoon sun.

UBC professor, Dr. Richard Cavell, outside of Buchanan

Dr. Cavell is one of many engaging and inspiring professors here at UBC. As I discovered, there’s so much to learn about our school—and life beyond—by reaching out and connecting. So stick around after class and get to know your prof!