Integrating Indigenous knowledges in teaching: When will we be ready?


On May 2 the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology held a panel discussion on integrating Indigenous content and perspectives in the classroom. The event brought together five settler scholars from departments across the university to share their experiences and to discuss, “When will we be ready?”

Jenny Peterson, an instructor in the Political Science Department and one of the panelists, teaches a fourth year seminar on critical peace studies. In her course, she addresses Indigenous politics in the last week of the term. “I don’t just parachute that topic in; there’s a lot of framing and preamble that goes into it. [In the final week] we go to the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) and students are asked to find something in the collection that speaks to one of the themes that we’ve talked about in the weeks leading up to that, and present to the class on what they’ve found,” she said.

To her surprise, the group of students who had, for the 12 weeks prior to this activity, answered questions, come up with new questions and pushed the borders were now silent during their visit to MOA. When Peterson pushed, she learned they felt uncomfortable a sentiment she sometimes shared when introducing Indigenous perspectives into her course as a settler instructor.” They were afraid of making mistakes. They felt it was ethically important to get it right. They felt invested in it and that was causing them to have anxiety about discussing this.

This experience motivated her to create a community-based research course, which she will be teaching for the first time over the summer. Students in the course will be working with community partners to create projects that focus on research on indigenous politics.

“The response I’ve gotten from [Indigenous] colleagues when I ask whether I should be doing this is, ‘Yes, you should be doing this. This is not something that only First Nations and Indigenous scholars should have to do.’ I thought: I don’t think I’m ready, but then I realized I might never be ready and that isn’t a good reason not to do it,” she concluded.

Persist despite feeling uncomfortable

Neil Armitage, a sessional instructor in the Department of Sociology, was assigned a 200-level Sociology of Family course at the same time the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was giving its findings. He had to prepare a syllabus for the class and wanted to include Indigenous content, but he was not a specialist and that made him feel uneasy.

“I was looking through the readings and textbooks. I wanted to approach it from a different angle. So I decided, how can I integrate without making it a topic? I decided one of my themes was going to be the politics of family and just show how policy shapes family life and structure,” he said. He juxtaposed readings and a case study on the Sixties Scoop with the one-child policy in China and avoided making it a topic that tokenized Indigenous issues into a separate topic. It was a success.

As time progresses Armitage feels an increasing pressure to do better but there is a lot he is still learning. That feeling can sometimes be paralyzing, he says. “You have to force yourself, you have to push yourself. That might create some discomfort with me and my students, but that discomfort, we have to go through.”

Stefania Pizzirani, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Wood Science, agrees with Armitage. During her Professional Ethics module within a 4th-year capstone sustainable forestry course, Pizzirani encouraged her students to talk about Indigenous knowledge and to adopt methods of meaningful engagement – How do you respectfully engage? What do communities expect from outsiders? She believes instructors should expect and embrace the feeling of being uncomfortable. “At some point it may be awkward, but to use that as an excuse not to engage is unacceptable because being inactive is far worse than being uncomfortable. Nobody benefits when you do nothing,” she added.

According to Pizzirani, it’s important to share your experiences with your students and, where appropriate, acknowledge your own ignorance and learning processes. “Throughout the course, I shared my experiences where I had made mistakes, where I was unknowingly disrespectful. I’m human and I learned very valuable lessons, just as the students are learning and so it was a really nice discussion.”

Make yourself vulnerable

My number one anxiety is taking space,” said Moss Norman, Assistant Professor in the School of Kinesiology. “I wonder if by teaching this course I’m taking more space and not making enough space because there are people who are significantly better qualified to teach this course than myself, and I recognize that.”

Norman teaches the only Indigenous focused course currently offered in Kinesiology, which he wanted to use to explore Indigenous movement. Movement is essential to colonization, he says, the restriction of movement, the displacement and dispossession of Indigenous territories, right down to the most personal level, but movement has also been critical to Indigenous continuance, regeneration and resurgence. He employed talking circles to help students learn from their peers and bring in other dimensions of learning to the classroom.

“My class was only 13 students, but the students really appreciate it when you make yourself vulnerable. I would share with students what I had learned and I would always be careful in telling them where those teachings came from.”

For Amy Metcalfe, Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Studies, understanding where you come from is crucial to the process of change. As a Canadian and American citizen, she believes she’s been miseducated in two countries. “Everything that I’ve learned is suspect. But if education is part of the problem, how do you teach education?”

Metcalfe is teaching a new course called Campus Environments, where she explores how campus itself can be a way in to understanding Indigenous relationships with UBC. According to her, in this campus in particular, everywhere you look there’s an opportunity for learning. By recognizing it we can reshape it.

“If we don’t change the way that we learn we won’t really address the insufficiencies of what we’ve learned in the past,” Metcalfe added.

This article was originally published in CTLT Dialogues newsletter (5.3).