Facilitating discussions around sensitive topics in an engaging and purposeful way can contribute to students’ learning and their understanding of Aboriginal and colonial issues. If we can promote culturally conscious classroom conversations, we can encourage students to thoughtfully reflect on and critique social injustice, inequality, and oppression. As part of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology’s (CTLT) Classroom Climate Series, Amy Perreault and Natalie Baloy facilitated a workshop to provide instructors with a pedagogical framework for approaching sensitive issues that are often fraught with a range of emotions. At the workshop, More Than Content: Working Critically with Fear, Guilt, Privilege, and other “Hidden” Issues, Amy and Natalie focused on how instructors can work with non-Indigenous students’ experiences of – and responsibility for – the learning process in courses and workshops dealing with Aboriginal topics, with the goal of creating intentional spaces for critical learning and social change.
The What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom website is a resource developed in the First Nations Studies Program that highlights the need to engage in these difficult conversations. Amy, coordinator of Aboriginal initiatives at CTLT, began the workshop by introducing two quotes taken from the website.
“I am not Aboriginal so I would have trouble speaking for people.”
It’s not the instructor’s responsibility to speak for Aboriginal people. While it is important to recognize that instructors are in a position of authority in the classroom, it might be more useful to think of their roles as being to help students think through their comments, map out their assumptions and develop more nuanced and less problematic ways of thinking and speaking about Aboriginal issues.(What I Learned in Class Today, 2007)
Natalie, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology, explained that the quotes are less about speaking for Indigenous peoples, but rather are more about “facilitating conversation around these issues for non-Indigenous students who may not be familiar with the complexities of such conversations, and helping them engage in these issues.” This involves encouraging non-Indigenous students to reflect on their own relations to colonialism and Indigenous peoples.
Amy and Natalie also noted that this process may involve rethinking the idea of creating “safe spaces” in our classrooms. Natalie explained that in past sessions of this workshop, participants had interrogated the notion of “safe spaces,” asking “safe for whom?” Not all classroom conversations may feel equally “safe” for all participants. Some non-Indigenous students may feel discomfort as they explore new ways of thinking about sensitive topics or learning about privilege. The workshop is intended to provide strategies for establishing classroom climates that facilitate productive forms of affective learning. Amy suggested an alternative model: creating intentional spaces.
Natalie and Amy explained that the workshop would address the variety of emotional aspects that emerge when sensitive topics and political issues are examined in the classroom. Preparing for and inviting affective dynamics in classrooms settings can help instructors deepen student engagement with these topics.
As part of an introductory icebreaker activity, Amy asked everyone in the room to share their stress and their joy. “This is just to acknowledge that everyone is bringing different input into the space today,” she said. Once everyone shared, Natalie pointed out that this exercise demonstrates that workshop participants bring a range of affects and personal narratives into the workshop space, just as students bring their own emotions and stories into the classroom.
“Affect refers to the responses people have towards a situation,” Natalie explained. “It’s often expressed or understood as an emotional response, though some scholars distinguish between affect and emotion.” Affects in the classroom are expressed through students’ body language – stiffening up or rolling one’s eyes – and also influence what students express verbally when discussing topics like colonialism or racism. Knowing how to engage with a range of affects in the classroom is crucial for being able to hold an open discussion around issues such as Indigenous and settler histories, relations, and identities.
To take a closer look at their previous experiences with affect, Amy and Natalie asked everyone to think about a series of questions. How is affect different than emotion? Which affects and emotions are present in your classroom or workplace?
Amy encouraged everyone to take into consideration the classroom experience for those who may not be familiar with Indigenous histories, cultures, or the ways in which Indigenous peoples have been misrepresented. The classroom experience “often becomes a therapy space for those who are entering into this conversation for the first time,” she said. However, while supporting this process of learning is important, instructors should be careful about making sure they are not supporting these students in a way that monopolizes the classroom space solely for this purpose. Instead, instructors should help students take responsibility for their own learning. The Indigenous Foundations website is one resource that students can use to help inform and educate themselves about Indigenous issues related to identity, land, legal contexts, and more.
To develop solutions for facilitating productive and affective classroom climates, Natalie first compiled a “species of affect” list based on contributions made from participants. This list contained challenging emotional responses that can arise in the classroom and potentially disrupt or negatively influence healthy classroom dynamics and discussion: resentment, anxiety, discomfort, shame, indifference, embarrassment, misunderstanding, guilt, denial, and frustration, among others. Often one emotion can manifest from another emotion, for example a student’s indifference to learning about course material can lead to their misunderstanding of the issues. Amy and Natalie then asked participants to identify linked emotions.
After dividing participants into groups, Amy and Natalie assigned each linked set of affects to each group. They asked participants to share their personal experiences with their assigned affects in their groups. “As a group, share potential and concrete strategies for working with these various forms of affect in the situations and experiences you’ve been in,” Amy said. Reflecting on these personal narratives helped everyone brainstorm strategies for dealing with these emotional responses in the classroom.
One group discussed guilt, embarrassment, and shame, and one of the strategies that came out of their discussion was creating a safe space by inviting students to share their own stories and make their own comparisons. Students may be coming from different places, but inviting them into the process of drawing personal connections to the geographical location they are situated in may assist them to better understand that there too is a history here and people continue to be connected to this land.
Another group discussed denial and frustration, coming up with a similar strategy. Students might have knowledge of certain things, but helping them identify how these issues intersect with their lives can lead to the development of a deeper understanding of these issues. Acknowledging how there are different entry points of knowledge on this topic, and unpacking the knowledge that students are bringing into the space, is also an important part of the learning process. While this may only be part of a longer process of learning and unlearning, providing students with the necessary tools, resources, and support they need is essential for creating a transformative learning environment.
Amy and Natalie concluded by providing a variety of resources that can be used to help instructors and students participate meaningfully in discussions involving colonialism and other socially contentious issues. How To Talk To Someone About Privilege Who Doesn’t Know What That Is is an article that shares a variety of conversational tools to address privilege and diversity in thoughtful and thought-provoking ways. Another article, White resentment in settler society by Carol Schick, examines the history and culture of Aboriginal peoples in white settler societies. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, is a historical analysis that helps to understand how power operates in the making and recording of history.