Meet UBC Sauder’s new faculty – Kevin Lee
This year, UBC Sauder welcomes eight new lecturers and tenure-track faculty to the school. In the second of this series, we introduce you to Kevin Lee, Assistant Professor in the Organizational Behaviour & Human Resources Division.
At UBC Sauder, faculty members are more than just ‘professors.’ They conduct impactful research that is changing how society views the world while also inspiring students to pursue their academic passions and become the thoughtful, values-driven leaders the business world needs.
Where are you from, and what brought you to UBC Sauder?
I grew up in the Seattle area, and then spent my entire adult life up to this point in New York City. There were a few factors that brought me to UBC Sauder. For one thing, coming here felt like a sort of homecoming to the Pacific Northwest – a chance to return to this extraordinarily beautiful part of the world, to be closer to my family, and to be once again a part of the “rain culture” I missed so much while away. I was also drawn to the fact that UBC Sauder, in a rather unique and special way, had cultivated both an international reputation for research excellence and a deeply kind and collegial culture, which I remarkably felt even over Zoom during the interview process! This is all to say, I believed that I could thrive as both a person and as a scholar at UBC Sauder, and was ecstatic when I was offered an opportunity to join the faculty.
What are your areas of research?
My research mainly revolves around the changing nature of work and organizing: the dramatic transformations brought about by our societies’ push toward the future, often embodied in our embrace of technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship. I pay special attention to a question emblematic of our lived experience of these changes: caught as we are between yesterday and tomorrow, who and what have we been defining as valuable and worthy enough to take with us, as opposed to leave behind? Pursuant to these interests, my dissertation was an ethnographic study of music composers who were developing an AI technology that composed music, in essence threatening to cannibalize their own occupational community. I was drawn to this area of research by my own experiences: having lived in places that have so enthusiastically pushed toward the future, it felt unavoidable that I would spend my life disentangling how people have been making sense of such change and with what the consequences were for society.
What fuels your research – what prompted you to research this area?
When asked this question, I often point to the fact that I never found it odd that we had more computers than books in the house while growing up. In retrospect, I realize how peculiar that sounds. And yet, at the time, it seemed completely normal, situated as we were in the Pacific Northwest on the edge of the dot-com boom. Technology was a way of life for us; for my engineer parents, as for so many others around me, their work at the very edge of this boom had been their escape from immigrant poverty and their pathway towards achieving the “American Dream.” And yet, I also began noticing that such a way of life did not necessarily benefit everyone equally: the dramatic social changes brought about by the rise of disruptive technologies, the end-state of which was embodied in places like where I was born, have enabled some to win while others lose. Considering this binary between that which we have increasingly valued in our collective push toward the future and that which we have begun letting go and even erasing in our attempt at remaking our societies has since fueled my interest in what I study.
What inspires you to teach?
I find it particularly special when time in class allows students to suddenly see the world – which they experience daily – in a completely different way, revealing things that had been right in front of them, but which they had never considered or even seen before. There’s something rather magical and certainly inspirational about those kinds of moments. Our job as professors, particularly in environments like business schools, is to give our students the tools to analytically break down situations they face, so that they can develop appropriate and perhaps even innovative ways of solving whatever problems come their way. An important dimension of this is their ability to see their world in nuanced ways, beyond the grip of conventional or “buzzword”-y ways of approaching it. This has become all the more important in this current era of dramatic change and unprecedented challenges.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered through your research?
I’d like to answer this in the context of my dissertation. It is organized around a central puzzle: the fact that the music composers within the startup I studied cannibalized their own occupational community through an AI technology of their own creation. Specifically, while these composers began by claiming that they would help their community through this technology, developing it as a tool to be used in the hands of composers to expand their creativity, the composers developing the AI ended up being placed in a situation where their technology was being used to replace composers. That is, the AI was being used to compose music for the background of video content, substituting for the humans who had previously composed this music. I found it really fascinating how these composers made sense of this all: they drew on hierarchies of worth native to their community, basically saying that the people who composed the music that they were automating were widely seen as not being valuable to the community and that it was thus justifiable that the company was automating these people. I think that these dynamics speak more broadly to social processes at the heart of our societies’ response to change: be it occupational communities like composers or other kinds of communities, we are constantly having to decide what is worthy enough within our communities to be protected as opposed to discarded on the frontier of the future. This is to say, at stake in these decisions is a question fundamental to very architecture of our societies: the question of what we owe each other.
What do you believe is the future of your industry?
The future, as I’ve figured out, is incredibly difficult to predict. What I have found, though, is that studies again and again have demonstrated how resilient humans can be in the face of change, such as that brought about by disruptive technologies like AI. Amid age-old fears that humans might be replaced and/or completely wiped out by advancing technologies, studies at the coalface of change have showed that we human beings have constantly been able to retain our relevance and find a place for ourselves and our humanity amid an ever-shifting present and future. I take this faith with me into my research, teaching, and life.
Can you tell us an interesting fact about yourself?
I wanted to be a classical violinist for a rather long time and have since continued my deep love for music, be it as a violinist, a conductor, or as an audience member. In particular, I’ve completely fallen for opera: something I picked up while in New York. There’s a moment in opera when a singer, singing out all the grief, pain, and heartbreak that they’ve experienced up to that point in their (usually cruel and brief) life, cultivates a sound world in which you lose track of where the sound ends and you begin – an all-enveloping moment in which the sound and you become one, and you, even for the briefest of moments, are completely shaken to your core, embodying as you have the full ecstasy and sorrow of their aliveness. I absolutely live for those moments.
What else are you looking forward to in Vancouver?
There is so much beauty here in this part of the world, not least of which I have found in nature: the water, mountains, and beaches are all breathtaking! I’m very much looking forward to experiencing it all.