What I Learned in Class Today Reboot: The “I” in Relation

Welcome to the first of six articles that expand upon topics of Indigenous engagement and classroom climate at the University of British Columbia.

This editorial series is informed by interviews conducted with faculty, staff, and student participants for the “What I Learned in Class Today: Educational Experiences and Institutional Responses to Indigenous Engagement in Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Classroom Climate at UBC” renewed project. The impetus for these articles arose during the storyboarding process for our faculty perspectives film and the series will cover the following themes: positionality, Indigenous student support, tending to the affective side of the classroom, knowledge gaps and Indigenous tokenization, classroom interventions, and broad accountability in continuing this work.

The themes are contextualized by discussion topics from the original What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom project (2007) in order to provide a retrospective glance at the shifting conversations around classroom climate. We have also included recommendations for further resources and prompt questions for individual self-reflection that can be altered to better suit group discussions. It is our intention that our audience will be broad and that students, staff, faculty, and community members alike will walk away from this series holding some of the precious teachings shared with us during the interview process. Whether you are joining us to fill your knowledge gaps, to access educational resources, or to stay updated on the What I Learned in Class Today: Educational Experiences and Institutional Responses project, we welcome you and look forward to engaging with you as this project continues to develop.


Everyone Has a Role to Play

When our faculty participants were asked whose responsibility it is to take on or address questions of Indigenous engagement and curriculum, most responded with the emphatic declaration that it is “everybody’s responsibility.” The University of British Columbia holds a critical position in the national and global gaze as postsecondary institutions are seeking solutions to address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. Call 62. ii mandates institutions to provide the necessary funding to educate instructors on the respectful integration of Indigenous knowledges and teaching methods into their classrooms. Yet as instructors begin their journey of self-education, they are often at a loss of where to begin and turn to the departments and individuals who started this work long before the TRC came to be. Dr. Sarah Hunt/Tłaliłila’ogwa (Kwagu’ł of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation) outlines the common questions she receives as an Indigenous faculty member in CIS:

“I want to know more about Indigenous issues, what do I do? Or, I want to incorporate this into my classroom … where do I start?

Hunt responds with a counter question intended to incite self-reflection on one’s positionality and relationship to place: she asks, “where are you?” By compelling us to “start local,” Hunt is modelling the responsibility that all guests hold to the traditional and ancestral owners of the unceded lands upon which UBC-Vancouver resides. Hunt recommends that instructors familiarize themselves with the Memorandum of Affiliation between UBC and the Musqueam First Nation and to consider how this document of relationality impacts their engagement on campus.

Dr. Dory Nason, an Anishinaabe professor, makes the important observation that this emotionally and mentally taxing labour too often falls on the shoulders of Indigenous faculty and staff. It is past time for people not centrally in the field to step up and teach these topics in responsible ways while still maintaining financial stability and support for the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies. In addition to hiring Indigenous faculty and staff across disciplines, one of the main recommendations from the interviewees was for all members of the UBC community to consider their social position.


Positioning Yourself in the Classroom

Articulating your positionality means to locate yourself in your familial history, to discern where your knowledge comes from, and to address the lived experiences that guide your perspective in your life, research, and teaching roles. This critical ‘autobiography’ has become a common practice in the field of Indigenous Studies, especially as a means of self-location on the first day of classes. In fact, Social Position was one of four key discussion topics from the original What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom project that outlined the necessity for facilitators/professors to “understand who you are and what your social location is, and how your social location is perceived by others.” Understanding our identities exposes the lens through which we view the world. As Cree Dr. Jeffrey Paul Ansloos writes in ““To Speak in Our Own Ways About the World, Without Shame”: Reflections on Indigenous Resurgence in Anti-Oppressive Research,” “how we understand who we are often shapes how we are in our research” and by extension, in our classrooms (7).

Dr. Coll Thrush and Dr. David Gaertner describe how addressing their positionality as settler-scholars helps to decentralize the authority in the classroom. This pedagogical practice creates space for students to share their knowledge without the expectation for Indigenous students to be the experts or educate their peers. By coupling this with a rhetoric of vulnerability—an acknowledgement of the challenges instructors face in the classroom—faculty can work towards creating classroom environments predicated on principles of honesty, relationship-building, and mutual support.

This process of self-education, unlearning colonial defaults, and integrating Indigenous histories, knowledges, and perspectives into classrooms at UBC does not happen in a silo. It is by thinking in relational ways and considering how your classroom content will affect your students, colleagues, and community members that we can begin to create a more positive campus environment. In other words, we must consider the “I” in relation.


Resources for Further Learning

  • For more information on the history of positionality statements, read “The History is Personal—Redux: Positionality” by Dr. Andrea Eidinger.
  • Turn to Dr. Daniel Heath Justice’s Teaching Philosophy Statement to see a UBC professor’s pedagogical approach to positioning himself in the classroom.
  • Acknowledging your positionality means recognizing your relationship to place. The Indigenous-led resource, Native Land, offers an ever-expanding account of the Indigenous lands upon which we live and work. Type in your coordinates to see whose territory you are on and check out the Teacher’s Guide for tips and responsibilities when utilizing the map.
  • Use the Privilege Walk resource adapted by the IN/Relation team but developed by The Time and Place at UBC project to facilitate department conversations around positionality work; as a welcome activity for the first day of classes; or to encourage any other groups, clubs, or organizations on and off campus to reflect on their relationship to place. It is highly recommended that all participants complete the Social Identity Worksheet before beginning the activity.


Refining Your Practice

  • Set aside 15-30 minutes to reflect on these writing prompts developed by the Indigenous Initiatives Team:
    • Introduce yourself and where you grew up. What Indigenous territory did you grow up on? When and from whom did you learn about your relationship to this place?
    • If you were in a classroom discussing Indigenous histories, knowledges, and perspectives, how might your positionality inform your relationship and responsibilities to these topics and to others in the room? What are some of the internal pressures or emotions that may arise? How does your social position grant or limit your access to certain forms of information?

About the author, Keirra Webb

Keirra Webb, Undergraduate Academic Assistant, CTLT Indigenous Initiatives

I write to you as a settler student and peer who is finding her footing in the important work of supporting Indigenous initiatives within a colonial institution. I have been provided the tools to enter this conversation from my mentors in the FNIS department, where I am pursuing a minor alongside my degree in English Literature, and from Amy Perreault and Erin Yun whose caring guidance has been so foundational to my journey as a Work/Learn student. Growing up on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded lands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples, I only began to question my relationships and responsibilities to this truth when I entered university. Since then, I have been immersed in a process of unlearning and relearning that sometimes causes me to stumble. My teacher Coll Thrush says in his interview that we must think of the word ‘ally’ as a verb, not a noun; for it’s a way of working that we can aspire towards, not a title we give to ourselves, “that’s the people I’m trying to work in solidarity with, that’s their call”. It is this principle that guides my work and my words. Know that I intend to carry the stories shared with us for the What I Learned in Class Today renewed project with the highest care. I invite you to join me on this ever-evolving path of mutual learning as we listen to the teachings of UBC’s students, staff, faculty, and community members.

I’d like to add a point of reflection after spending the tense, cataclysmic months of Summer 2020 in my home, on my laptop, shaping these articles that find you now in their final form. Attempting to weave together the words of our interview participants and co-creating an article with influential members of the UBC community was a daunting process. My sense of responsibility became even more heightened as the cracks in our social foundation have been exposed by the pandemic, climate catastrophe, and the uprising against anti-Blackness and colonialism with the Black Lives Matter movement. But through my engagement with this project, with Indigenous literature and art, and the celebration of the 2020 ISP, I’ve realized that this fear which threatens to slow my footsteps is actually an invitation to come together in creating a different future. Moulding and holding the knowledge shared with the WILICT project this past academic year and over this long summer has changed me; it’s my hope that these articles will join the conversation of reconciliation in academic institutions to go further than just shifting our collective understanding, but calling us all into action.