What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom: Anti-Colonial Workshop: Ottawa: Jan 27, 2009
Really wish I could go to this. If any Ottawa babblers are able to go, please let the rest of us know how it went.
Social Location and Indigenous Issues
Tuesday, January 27 at 7:00pm
Carleton University, Tory Building
What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom
Classroom discussions of Aboriginal issues often leave students feeling alienated and angry. Though troubling, these situations often go unreported and unresolved, affecting students' abilities to function in classes and in their coursework. To make these situations visible and to find ways to have more professional and productive classroom discussions, two undergraduate students in the First Nations Studies Program at the University of British Columbia, Karrmen Crey and Amy Perreault, developed What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the classroom. This project asks students, instructors, and administrators at UBC, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to share in videotaped interviews their most memorable classroom experiences where the discussion of Aboriginal
issues became difficult, and to share their reflections on the dynamics underpinning these situations.
Social Position Module
As a facilitator, it is crucial to understand who you are and what your social location is, and how your social location is perceived by others. Acknowledging your social position defines the parameters of your experience and the specificity of your position in a discussion. Clarifying social positions can help many conflicts that happen in discussions of politically and culturally sensitive material. When you state your social position, you define the scope of your ability and authority to speak to certain social, cultural, and historical experiences
for students and others. It can assist to minimize conflicts that are based on assumptions of authority or expertise in relation to the subject matter being discussed. By acknowledging your social position, you model a way of entering into discussions of politically and culturally sensitive material for others, who may feel that they do not have a right to speak, or that they don't have anything to contribute to such a discussion.
What I Learned in Class Today -Background
Karrmen Crey and Amy Perreault are graduates of the First Nations Studies Program (FNSP) at the University of British Columbia. FNSP is an interdisciplinary program, which means that in addition to FNSP's core courses, students take courses from many different departments and programs within the Faculty of Arts and across the university. One day in a senior FNSP class, a group of us sat around and compared ignorant and racist comments that had been made by students about Aboriginal content in
our other classes. For most of us who were there, these situations were familiar, even typical, and by telling each other about them, we were doing something we'd done many times before: trade stories and then laugh at how ridiculous they were as a way for us to deal with the pain that they caused.
In this particular class meeting, someone suggested that we should record our stories, pointing out that our experiences were identifying serious issues around the level of discussion of Aboriginal content in classrooms at UBC. While we may have been laughing about ignorant and racist comments when we told them to each other, at the time we experienced them, these comments were alienating, and in some cases, traumatic enough to prevent us from being able to attend class or do our coursework. We discussed creating a public record of these experiences in the form of videotaped interviews would make these situations visible, and help identify the dynamics underpinning them. These records could also form the basis of discussions about how to best address these situations across postsecondary institutional levels.
More About Social Location Module
Students have discussed being in a Aboriginal-focused class where the instructor, a non-Aboriginal man, did not discuss how he entered his field of study, and how his background informed his research, his curriculum, and how he teaches Aboriginal content as a non-Aboriginal person. By not stating his position in relation to his field of study or the course content, students looked to him as an "expert" on Aboriginal subject matter and did not question his authority to speak freely about Aboriginal issues. He would frequently be asked to speak about specific Aboriginal cultures and histories that he did not have the experience or knowledge to answer. In order to respond to students' inquiries, he would call on Aboriginal students in the class to answer those questions, not recognizing that their own social positions did not necessarily qualify them to respond; in fact, because he did not perceive or respect the specificity of those students' social positions, he created an alienating classroom environment for students.
By contrast, other students discussed an instructor teaching a course with an Aboriginal focus who consistently discussed her social position in relation to the course curriculum in terms of how she approached readings and interpretations of the material, and what limitations her social position placed on her engagement. By acknowledging her social position, she took responsibility for her perspective of Aboriginal issues, and modeled for students a way of engage with the course material in a way that encouraged critical and in-depth discussions. For example, she would discuss experiencing "white guilt" when she began learning about the history of colonization in Canada and it's impact on Aboriginal peoples. However, her critical self-awareness about her social position allowed her to interrogate what "white guilt" is and how it functions. She would question who benefits from white guilt, and would ask ironically if Aboriginal people benefit from white guilt, or if white guilt only serves the person feeling it. She would note that while experiencing white guilt is a common reaction to learning about the history of Aboriginal people, it is a limit to a person's ability to engage with the issues in a meaningful way that does justice to the material being discussed. In this way, she created an environment where students could move beyond the limits of white guilt in order to engage with the course content with the critical attention that it deserves.