February 2015

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“I love this university. I love my faculty. I believe in what my faculty does,” says Dr Heather Cateau, Senior Lecturer in The UWI St. Augustine’s History Department and recently appointed Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education (FHE). In July of 2014 it was announced that Dr Cateau had been made Dean following the retirement of Professor Funso Aiyejina. Joel Henry sat down with the new Dean of FHE to discuss growing up in the UWI, the faculty’s well-developed team and the pressing need for the humanities to prove their relevance.

JH: Dr Cateau, how long have you been with the Faculty?

HC: About 20 years.

JH: And you have been deputy dean for quite some time as well?

HC: I was deputy dean for four years and then I was head of department for an additional four years, approximately.

JH: That’s a considerable amount of time. How do you balance your academic work with all of your administrative duties?

HC: It’s difficult. I think my academic work may have suffered in some ways. I make sure that at least every year I manage to publish something, but in terms of larger projects it has been difficult. You keep telling yourself that you will get to it and it doesn’t happen. It’s a delicate balance but I believe that as lecturers we also need to contribute to our institution in more than one way. It’s not just about you and your research; it is also about contributing to the unit. At certain times you need to give precedence to one thing and at other times to other things. I haven’t perfected that balance but I’m still working on it.

JH: Why did you accept such a demanding administrative position?

HC: I have been with this university for a long time. I started in fact as a tutor, then went on to research assistant, lecturer, senior lecturer, deputy dean and then head of department. I worked as residence manager for Milner Hall for six years. I have literally grown up in this institution – we won’t go into the years before as an undergraduate and graduate student.

I love this university. I love my Faculty. I believe in what my Faculty does. I have been part of the Faculty management team for the past eight years – and we really had a team. I worked closely with the previous two deans. So when they came to me and asked if I wanted the position and expressed support for my deanship, it meant a lot to me that they would see me in that light. I felt I had the necessary administrative experience and the support of a very powerful team. I believed that together we would have what it takes to take the Faculty through the next four years.

JH: You worked with Professor Aiyejina for quite some time. What do you think his legacy will be?

HC: With all the talk of mentorship we bandy about now, I think we do so without truly understanding what it means. When I look back I have been well mentored. What made it so good was that I had no idea that I had been well mentored. I have been a lucky person to be mentored throughout my career in university without even realising it. It started in the History Department through Professor (Bridget) Brereton (Professor of History). Professor Aiyejina is an excellent mentor. He built a team which has really changed this Faculty and the way we function. He knew where we would be best positioned and left our portfolios for us to handle. I have inherited a dream team and he was the one who built that team and prepared me for deanship even when I didn’t realise that is what he was doing. I think that is his most powerful legacy.

JH: And what is your vision for the Faculty?

HC: My vision is to change the perception of what we do in the Humanities. We have to be honest, I think few people are thrilled when their son or daughter says “mommy I want to do history.” We still want our children to be doctors or lawyers. That is the only way we see a meaningful contribution to our society. That is as a consequence of people not understanding what the Humanities are about. They don’t understand how our Faculty has expanded and the extent of the things you can do with the humanities.

We need to rebrand ourselves. People think that all historians do is memorise dates; not understanding that we analyse society. I want to change the perception of what we do. I want people to understand what the Humanities and Education are about. And to understand that our societies’ concentrations in the past have not made the world a better place. I think our societies are in crisis and I think we need to shift focus to what I call the “human sciences”. And understand what is required to create the meaningful changes that this society needs. I think my Faculty has to be at the centre of that shift in focus.

JH: What kind of resources do you think the Faculty needs to make that vision a reality (in a perfect world)? What would you like to have?

HC: Twenty more lecturers (laughter). I think two things. We have done a lot but we have to be better at sharing what we do. Part of it has to be marketing and communications because many people have an understanding about the Humanities and Education from about 20 years ago and it is very limited. We need some professional assistance in positioning ourselves to the world outside. We are good at what we do internally but that is not enough. We need to get ourselves out there.

We also have to show the practical applications of the Humanities and Education to society – how we can influence policy, education and social systems in society. We have to focus more (we do it somewhat already) on applied research, because people need to see how we can affect their lives. We can have all the books and theories but we need to work on showing that applicability.

We at the Faculty know what we have to do and we accept that responsibility. But it can’t just be up to us. The university has to understand as well – the importance of new positions, the importance of something like philosophy, how these things deepen, not just the Humanities, but every other faculty in The UWI. The space we occupy is important. Staff working in the Humanities must feel valued. Therefore there has to be investment in the Faculty in terms of human resources and the nature of the space.

JH: What kind of challenges do you anticipate?

HC: I am practical. I’m a new dean. That is always going to be a challenge. Two, I am youngish. On a personal level I need to find my space as dean. It’s one thing to have people support you, the other thing is that you have to deliver. I am developing my own style of leadership. I’m not confrontational. I don’t think it helps anything. I think we have too much confrontation and negativity. I have no intention of joining that game. But I have to develop my space; where you are respected for the quality of what you do and not how loud you speak or the contacts you have. My approach is going to be simply – work hard. I intend to work extremely hard. I intend to respect others and I intend to focus on the issues and not get side-tracked. I intend to take advice. I have a former dean whose support is there even though he is determined not to interfere (laugh). I have my colleagues. I don’t think I can do it all alone. I think my biggest challenge is me (smile) in the context of who I am in the deanship right now.

JH: At the end of your tenure, what would you like your legacy to be? What is your most ambitious vision?

HC: I would like every organisation and institution in Trinidad and Tobago and the region, when they are working on a policy paper, you think “hold on, there are relevant resources in Humanities and Education”. I would like them to understand what the faculty has to offer – Linguistics, History, Literature, Creative Arts and Education – these are not just things people enjoy and do casually. We have significant contributions to our society. At the end of it all I would like to position this Faculty to be a major player in the development of the university, T&T and the region. That is what I would like my legacy to be.