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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Bortolin

Educational Developers as Allies in Supporting Indigenous Perspectives in Higher Education

Updated: May 20, 2020

Note: An edited version of this blogpost was published by University Affairs on January 30th, 2018.  This is the original post.

The report has been written and the calls to action outlined.  The meetings may have finished and the microphones turned off, but the momentum of reconciliation continues.  It has taken on a new energy, piercing the national fibre, tangling itself up in the yarns, reworking it, reweaving it.  Embedded within that fibre are institutions, is higher education, and behind these ivory walls the conversation is continuing, emerging now with an even more focused presence. In faculty meetings, in lecture halls, in classrooms.  With colleagues, with students, with ourselves.  Variants of the term “Indigenization” are punctuating strategic documents and academic plans, those exalted reservoirs of calculated discourse, ushering higher education toward something, somewhere, and this time hoping to go beyond political platitudes.  Perhaps this time the discourse intends to raise us to our own calls to action. Many of us have some idea of where we are supposed to go, but a less clear sense how to get there.  Some of us are impatient.  What’s taking so long?  Others wade carefully into uncertain waters, ever-afraid to offend or, more grievously, betray ignorance, a near unforgiveable offence in these spaces.  And don’t forget that most of us are not Indigenous.  We are settlers.  Settlers with a vague, well-meaning desire to get somewhere not completely defined and without a clear way to get there.  Crossing a plain to a better place, hoping desperately not to mess it up.  Again.

Situated in teaching and learning centres across the country as this momentum shifts and builds, educational developers are well-positioned to be allies in the face of faculty uncertainty.  Here and now in this place in time, teaching and learning centres are being called to go beyond drawing rubrics and flipping lectures.  We now have faculty asking us questions like, “How do I incorporate an Indigenous perspective into my Computer Studies course?  My Geology program?”  So what can we do?  Especially given that few of us have any credibility at all.

Situated on the traditional territory of the Snuneymuxw people, The Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Learning, Vancouver Island University’s teaching and learning centre, is moving slowly, gently, with respect, and a little uncertainty.  But we are eager and well-intentioned.  We want to be allies.  Not experts.  The following are some of the steps we are taking as we move across this plain, and may be helpful to others emerging along this journey.

Learning over

We have a lot to learn.  Because what do we know?  Not very much.  Many of us came through systems where the curriculum was void.  Hollows that we’re only now crawling out of it.  But. We work at universities and colleges. We are lifelong learners.  We really have no excuses given our access to courses and books and webinars and MOOCs and people and stories and community.   A few years ago when our university’s Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement offered a full year cohort-based learning experience called “Learning how to be Together: Indigenous Ways of Knowing in the Academy,” I signed up.  18 of us met monthly on campus and off, engaged with fellow Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars, listened to Elders and community members.  I heard their stories and I learned how to listen. Really listen.  I read articles and wrote reflections that shared what this all meant to me and my position at the university.  I went into the community.  I listened.  And I started to learn a sliver of what I didn’t know. I stared back at the void.  I made friends and connections.  And started to understand the importance of trust and relationships alongside the knowledge and the understanding.  I started to think a little more with my heart.  I wasn’t given a tidy set of 9 principles to hand out in chart form to faculty knocking on my educational developer’s door.  I was given so much more.  An opportunity to develop myself more fully as a citizen of higher education.  How this understanding affects my role as educational developer is for another blog post. But it’s been powerful.  And there are opportunities everywhere.  Start with your own institution, your offices of Aboriginal Education or Departments of First Nations Studies or your Gathering Places.  Go there.  Introduce yourself.  Sign up and see where it takes you.   Because it will take you somewhere.

Building relationships and establishing trust

The discourse.  It’s powerful.  We can talk and we can write.  But all the pretty words are vacant without relationships to hang them on.   Without trust.   We cannot sit in our offices, in isolation, staring into screens and designing answers.  We need to connect, really connect, in authentic and vulnerable ways.  We should be immersed in those difficult conversations, listening and speaking, witnessing and being witnessed.  We need to connect with  Indigenous and non-Indigenous colleagues and community members, moving forward mingling voices with hands, words with action.  Constantly building and rebuilding trust.  In this way, all of the educational developers at our Centre have participated in faculty learning circles.  Within these circles, difficult conversations emerge and relationships and trust begin to evolve.  They are powerful spaces in which to learn and connect. But all of this takes time.  So slow down.  Makes some friends.  Trust someone.  Let them trust you and don’t mess it up.  Relationships and trust will inform our words, holding them up even higher, and taking us further toward that somewhere we are trying to get to.  You don’t become an ally overnight.  Especially given the long night we’ve had.


And then slowly, while all of this is happening, amidst the learning and the building of relationships and the establishing of trust, maybe, just maybe, a shared path and a shared vision will begin to emerge.  Maybe we can begin to see meaningful opportunities to partner with others across campuses and within communities.  For me, while immersed in all of this, a faculty member came to me.  He asked me what he could do to incorporate an Indigenous perspective into his class.  As an ally, not an expert, I was able to broker a meeting between him and the Elder Support Lead at our Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement.  Because she and I had a relationship and some trust.  As a broker, I connected these two individuals and they began down their own path, discussing ideas about land-based teaching and learning opportunities that might be facilitated by an Elder.  Opportunities that aligned with Indigenous ways of knowing on traditional Snuneymuxw territory and with the content and  learning outcomes from the course. I was an ally and a partner, and was able to facilitate another partnership, and maybe even inspire another ally.

Moving forward

Slow down.  Take a breath.  Check that overwhelming desire to put together a faculty handout or webpage with a tidy list of 9 principles of Indigenous ways of knowing.  This is not a rubric.  Or a course redesign program.  As leaders in faculty development we need to model how to hold up two or more epistemologies, hold them in tandem, balancing them on an uneven plain.  It’s a feat.  Our ways of knowing and being and doing, those principled lists, those case studies, those pretty words, they work, but maybe not right now, maybe not right here.  Our challenge is embedded in our privilege--the privilege of existing in this space within higher education amid a monumental shift in knowing and being and doing.  We in turn must shift our knowings, beings and doings, balancing the inherent tensions in doing that in both hands, relearning, retrusting, refriending.  But I believe as we move forward on this path, we will begin to see opportunities that meaningfully integrate our emerging understandings with our existing ways of doing.  The yarns will continue to tangle and mingle and be reborn.  And we will be richer for it.  And so will our institutions.  Something has begun and we are part of it.  So let’s go slowly, and gently, with respect and a little uncertainty.  But with eagerness to be an ally.  Not an expert.

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