Monthly Archives: October 2016



That’s Mount Royal in fall glory at the top of the street. I was in Montreal a couple of weeks ago for the annual council meeting of Vice Presidents Academic (NATVAC). Sometimes these national meetings gel well. This one did, thanks, in part to being in the exciting city in which I was raised. Montreal, a perennially romantic city, always fills me with a bit of longing–so much on offer, especially the food. Concordia University performed the hosting duties with total class. I don’t know who caters for them but the meals were major highlights, breakfast, lunch and dinner. As the host said to our swooning over the choices, if Montreal can’t boast about having the best conference food then who can?

Another highlight was a plenary session by a visitor from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Vice Provost Randall Bass. Dr. Bass is the author of several books and articles on transformation in post-secondary education, with an emphasis on the intersection between technology and learning and scholarship. He has a lot to say, much of it already on the tip of our minds. Concordia had contracted him to help steer their two-year strategic planning exercise. I can see why. He is really good at process, explaining plainly just how difficult it is to get consensus on strategic directions. But he is especially clear when describing the very nature of the changes we are all currently experiencing, whether we recognize them or not.

The theme of his talk to us was “Integrated Learning, Designing the Future(s) of the University.” The great institutional tension of our time, he said, is between integration and dis-integration, two fundamentally competing notions of education. What can we say education will look like by 2030? What do we want it to look like? Integrated is the easy answer. The devil’s in the details, natch.

His argument: the great tension of our time is between integration and dis-integration. It’s about two fundamentally competing visions of education, with one giving way to the other. We have been moving for the last few years, perhaps with only a dim awareness, from relying on emerging digital tools to embracing a new learning ecosystem. What does that mean? That we are shifting from unbundling programs to rebundling, and at the centre of that shift is the concept of the whole individual—the whole student, not just the one who studies for exams and purchases course packs.

The new digital ecosystem, Bass said, is an incredibly explosive space into which 4 billion in venture capital investment has been pushed. There are a lot of people starting to make a lot of money in that space, and so there is a big knock-on effect on the post-secondary environment. How do we scale it properly, adapt while trying to reduce costs of retooling? We know the priority: students need more connectivity. Again, it’s all about educating the whole person.

A disintegrative learning strategy moves in the other and less fruitful direction. It favours a design of discrete or granular learning experiences. It inclines towards seeing education as a commodity, leadership and experience as separate learning modules. It sees the curricular and the co-curricular agendas as different parts. It talks of skills, dispositions, and values as distinct pieces of the learning experience.

As we trend, especially now in the undergraduate curriculum, towards emphasizing experiential learning, work placements, cooperative education, learning through community engagement, online instruction, collaborative problem-solving, and so on, we are (voluntarily) drifting away from traditional paradigms of learning and the tired spaces in which we did Old School. The big question we face as we move into the future is how do we design the ideal environment—intellectual and physical–to satisfy these demands? And so back to Bass’ theme: Designing the Future(s) of the University.

Most of this seems pretty obvious but it is important to be reminded that the times they are a changin’. Memorial’s Teaching and Learning Framework was conceived only a few years ago but parts of it already sound dated in view of the above. I’ll soon be establishing a review committee to assess its impact and recommend how best to go forward—to redesign–after its expiry date in 2017. Seems to me that we have an opportunity to ensure our university’s priorities lie squarely in an imagined new learning ecosystem. Lots to do.










Last week, Memorial’s Advisor on Aboriginal Affairs, Catharyn Andersen, and I attended the 2nd annual Building Reconciliation Forum at the University of Alberta. The Forum followed on last year’s first nation-wide response to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission Report and its Calls to Action, specifically for post secondary education. The Edmonton Forum was a full two-day event, rich in content, intense in every way. Toward the end of the second day I tweeted that it was one of the best conferences I had ever attended—and I hadn’t uttered one word in public.

Indeed, the Forum was an opportunity to listen and learn. I knew this was not going to be an ordinary academic conference from the start. First agenda item was an opening prayer led by elder Jerry Saddleback whose reputation and important role among the participants became ever so clear. As he began his incantation in his native language everyone stood up and bowed forward slightly, as you would. I noticed that two people in front of me weren’t standing. One, an older man, was clearly Indigenous, the other, a woman, her affiliation not so clear. Was this some sort of Kaepernick move, I wondered, a protest against something … but what? When the prayer was done and people resumed their sitting positions, the man who had not stood up took to the podium to explain. Why did you stand when the prayer began, he asked us. Because the Church told you to, he continued. An elder once told me, he went on, that the proper thing to do upon hearing a prayer is to stay seated. That way you are closer to the earth, where you are supposed to be.

Feeling at once a bit sheepish and relieved to hear his explanation, I wondered what lay ahead. Another elder appeared at the podium. I am hard of hearing, he announced, and everyone tells me to get a hearing aid. I will, he continued, when it can translate into Cree. Bada bing. We were now into it, two days of moving testimonials, witty observation, expressions of anger and shame, disappointment and hope. Over the two days, the Forum alternated between keynote speakers (TRC Commissioner Wilton Littlechild, who had been to Memorial in March for our own Forum; the indomitable Marilyn Buffalo; silver-haired Phil Fontaine who needs no introduction; Wab Kinew, MLA, Manitoba, novelist, and native hipster; emotionally charged Lorna Williams, Professor Emeritus, UVic; Peter Irniq, the self-described “not angry Inuk” and former Commissioner of Nunavut; Steven Newcomb, Founder/Director of the Indigenous law Institute) and several panels populated largely by Indigenous academics, experts, specialists, students, and teachers—almost all Indigenous/First Nations/Aboriginal/Native/Metis. To be sure, the whole question of what those specific identifying terms mean was put before us, as was the overriding question and raison d’etre of the Forum: how do we indigenize the academy? And what would the academy even look like if we did?

It’s hard to capture in this blog the power of the stories we heard, of the eloquent expressions of survival from the residential school victims, those who carried the legacy of abuse forward their whole lives but who had almost miraculously transformed their lives through community support, strong mentors, and the sheer will to live well. All of these stories added up to a tragic narrative of Canada’s colonial history—and colonial present. How to bust the myth of (white) cultural superiority, was one of the overarching questions of the Forum. The answer—through education, the great irony being that education—residential schools–is what generated the damage in the first place. But we were there to learn how education could also help the reconciliation process—and not reconcile people to the past so much as reconcile with the present in order to move into and change the future. A tall but increasingly necessary imperative.

We were attending a Forum while sitting in a room on stolen lands. Don’t do things for us, we were told; don’t set out a plan for indigenizing the university. We will do it. What has been written about the north is largely a fairy tale, another noted. Instead of investing missions in uncovering the mystery of the Franklin expedition, how about investing in badly needed housing for our peoples? The unassailable logic of that question wrapped itself around the room.

We heard voices of wisdom and voices of rage. A lawyer offered a sobering critique of reconciliation itself, rhetorically challenging its very possibility in a world still dominated by the multinational bullies of capitalism. Why reconcile ourselves to an unjust form of dominance, he argued, to a world where native waterways, cultural practices, forms of ritual and belief were discounted or trampled on. Another observed that the calls to action of the TRC were in direct conflict with capitalism, and therefore the challenge of responding to the calls would take courage and bold action. We processed these comments, stark in their inevitability, as organizers in this province were planning their own resistance, demonstrating against further development of Muskrat Falls outside the Labrador Aboriginal Affairs office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

We heard from university students who have been struggling in Indigenous courses where non-Indigenous instructors are in charge and who sometimes say really stupid or insensitive things. We heard about the strangeness of university holidays that typically honour Christian traditions, ignoring those sacred days Indigenous students observe. We heard both the boast of universities requiring courses in Indigenous Studies and the argument against making such courses mandatory, feeding tokenism and turning students off the subject entirely. We heard about the pervasive ignorance of many Canadians, however well meaning; we heard of the need to reject assimilation—the intent of residential schooling—and the need to shift the paradigm to integration, not the same thing at all.

Throughout I kept reflecting on how Memorial can step up its commitment to the TRC calls for action. It’s different out in western Canada. Land acknowledgments are now a common ritual of any public gathering. I lived in Alberta for a time, a very different time. I was struck by how much has changed, how conscious people at the university are of Treaty history, of whose lands they are occupying. The presence of Indigenous culture is palpable. This province has an entirely different history. We are evolving our understanding of what sort of land acknowledgment we ought to be reciting before our own gatherings. There is considerable debate among Aboriginal peoples about what that acknowledgement should honour. Our history is as colonial as the rest of Canada, perhaps even more so, but the history of white settlement of Newfoundland and Labrador in relation to Aboriginal peoples is largely shrouded in ignominy or ignorance. We know we wiped out an entire tribe of Beothuks, but do not necessarily feel any shame or remorse for it. It happened too long ago and there are no conspicuous reminders of Aboriginal culture in our face. It’s different in Labrador, of course, where our Labrador Institute is embedded in the community, but our main campus is located here, not in the Big Land. The challenge upon is therefore huge, and so to return to the question raised earlier: what would indigenizing our academy look like?

Someone invited us to imagine a Canada that acknowledged more than “two founding nations” when we celebrate our 150th birthday. In that Forum not only could we imagine such a Canada but we recognized its necessity.

Memorial is committed to building an Aboriginal House on the St. John’s campus. After extensive consultation with the community we have the bold designs, and we are dreaming of its real and symbolic value. I am now more impatient than ever to see it materialize. We have come a long way since I first joined Memorial but we have a hell of a long way to go. The lasting effect of the Forum was that it compelled me to look at the academy—and the world at large for that matter—through a completely different lens, one that changes everything.