Walking the Talk: A Conversation with UBC Educators on Indigenous Engagement

Indigenous Engagement in the Age of Online Learning

The transition to online learning during the Covid-19 pandemic has compelled UBC educators to reconsider their now-virtual classroom environments in order to ensure student wellbeing and academic success.

For members of the Indigenous Initiatives Learning Community, a peer-driven professional development group for participants who have completed the II-Design Series, this attention to classroom climate is a continuation of the important work that began before the University-wide shift to remote learning at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year. 

On June 10th, CTLT Indigenous Initiatives (CTLT-II) invited members of the II-Learning Community, Dr. Benjamin Y. Cheung, Dr. Catherine Douglas, and Dr. Liane Chen, to a panel discussion entitled Walking the Talk: Sharing Our Practices. These UBC educators shared stories of their engagement with critical classroom issues that center Indigenous voices, experiences, and initiatives in a period of profound pedagogical shifts.

The event began with an introduction from Amy Perreault, Senior Strategist, CTLT-II, who acknowledged UBC’s occupation of the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓-speaking xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) people. Amy noted that the panelists exemplified their commitment to Indigenous initiatives at UBC through their long-term engagement and continual efforts to seek out new connections and learning opportunities, for themselves and their students.

Dr. Cheung on Creating a System of Support for Indigenous Psychology Students

The first speaker, Dr. Benjamin Y. Cheung, recounted his pathway into the role of Indigenous Initiatives Coordinator in 2016 as a new faculty member in the Department of Psychology. Aware of the paradox of teaching cultural psychology in Canada without incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing, Dr. Cheung began his learning journey by consulting with his mentor, attending workshops facilitated by X̱wi7x̱wa Library and CTLT, and by connecting with Indigenous staff and faculty across the University. 

Dr. Cheung recognized that change was needed at a classroom- and department-level in order to appropriately engage with Indigenous content and to better support Psychology’s large cohort of Indigenous students. In response, he facilitated the creation of a working group funded by the Program for Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) with the goal of creating a positive environment for Indigenous psychology students through support building and policy change. The slower start to this working group forced Dr. Cheung to unlearn his understanding of research design in order to put relationship building and trust first; it also created more time for students to become involved in the creation of the project.

Dr. Douglas on Moving from Minding the Gap to Mending It

In a short presentation entitled ‘Minding the Gap,’ Sessional Lecturer at the Vancouver School of Economics, Dr. Catherine Douglas shared how she shifted from minding the disciplinary gaps in engagement with Indigenous initiatives to mending them. Motivated by contemporary events such as the Idle No More movement and the prominence of the Four Host Nations from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Dr. Douglas began questioning the settler framework guiding her economic history of Canada course as well as the biases and values upon which the discipline was founded. 

Dr. Douglas decided to address these silences by listening to and centering Indigenous voices in her professional development and her curricula. Digging deeper, for Dr. Douglas, meant attending important local events like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) sessions at the PNE in 2013, building relationships with local communities to facilitate student learning opportunities outside of the classroom space, and reflecting on positionality and place in order to lead her classes on qeqən: A Walking Tour of Musqueam House Posts developed by Jordan Wilson. 

A central takeaway from Dr. Douglas’ story is that these lifelong learning journeys are just as dependent upon our skills as active listeners or witnesses as they are upon our humility and bravery in adopting the role of educator. Dr. Douglas seeks not to speak for Indigenous voices in her courses, but to center them in order to invite her students into deeper engagement with Indigenous realities.

Dr. Chen on Sparking Indigenous Engagement in the Classroom and Across the Department

On September 18th, 2013 UBC initiated a University-wide suspension of classes to encourage engagement with the TRC National event. Dr. Liane Chen, an Associate Professor of Teaching in the Department of Botany, wanted to create a classroom environment that fostered respect and meaningful participation in these important dialogue sessions. Knowing that students would come to class with questions about the relevance of Indigenous topics to Cellular and Molecular Biology, Dr. Chen prepared by consulting with members from the CTLT-II team, attending workshops, and diving into self-directed research. 

Like Dr. Douglas and Dr. Cheung, Dr. Chen recognized that these questions around Indigenous engagement were as important in the classroom as they were to the department as a whole. Dr. Chen connected with fellow faculty about their practices in order to create a shared hub of resources and tools. Dr. Chen now works to balance case studies depicting difficult Indigenous experiences with as much or more class time allocated to narratives of hope. She engages in land acknowledgements to spark reflection on where her students are coming from and how our experiences determine our worldview, shaping our research questions and interpretation of data. 

Takeaways from the Q&A

During the Q&A period, panelists responded to questions about the tension of integrating Indigenous ways of knowing into a colonial education system, shared their recommendations for faculty new to Indigenous engagement, and commented on the balance between non-Indigenous instructors adopting this sort of curricula with the need for more Indigenous faculty across the University. 

The panel collectively emphasized the power instructors hold in determining the focus of a course and pushing back against the canon so as to create space for voices outside of the white male norm. They encouraged faculty not to consider Indigenous content as secondary and to be added to syllabi, but to ask themselves: “how would you rebuild this course so that Indigenous content is inherent and integral to that process?” It is also important, the panelists shared, to acknowledge the biases of your department upfront by making students aware of the disciplinary gaps and perspectives that are framing the content. These gaps can be counteracted by presencing Indigenous voices throughout the curricula and by highlighting Indigenous-settler histories surrounding the course content. 

By adopting a holistic and community-minded approach, all UBC faculty can take the deep dive into Indigenous engagement to create a University climate more in line with the calls to action from the 2020 Indigenous Strategic Plan.

Stay Connected

To learn more about the Indigenous Initiatives department and the II-Learning Community, turn to our website for upcoming events, summaries of our recent work, and contact information. We welcome anyone interested in digging deeper to join one of our Virtual Coffee Drop-In’s to chat with members of the II-team.  

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