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What Learning Again Taught Me: Indigenous Studies MOOC with University of Alberta

Previously I wrote about what teaching in these strange times has given me- both as an academic and as a human. And so, it also seems right that I write about what learning at the same time did for me. 12 weeks ago, I started a course with the University of Alberta. And for the last three months I’ve used my Sundays as my ‘back to school time.’ and it’s been a revelation in many ways- both in terms of the vital learning the course provides, but also in a broader way in thinking about how I continue to learn, and to work as an academic (forgive me we can never quite turn that bit of brain off can we?)

Am I as proud of this as my degrees? damn right.

It’s their free course in Native Studies called Indigenous Canada. And really the whole point of this post is to tell you, whoever you are, to sign up. You can do that right here. And while we’re here, you can learn more about the Faculty of Native Studies here or donate to their work here.

The course is a 12-lesson Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that has been in existence since 2017 and designed to give an introduction to Indigenous experience in Canada. (First thought, British Universities, we need to get on this idea, being massively behind the times until 2020 forced us online…) You can do it in around 21 hours, which is about giving up an hour or so of Netflix or a little less doom scrolling on twitter. In practical terms, it’s 12 lessons covering everything introductions to key topics; from an introduction to Indigenous societies, through to contemporary life, art and activism. It takes around 21 hours with video lectures and weekly quizzes alongside reading. Basically, you can spend an hour or so a week less on Netflix, or doom scrolling Twitter and take part. Alongside the original MOOC for the last 12 weeks every Sunday, there have been live YouTube discussions about the week’s module.

Starting ‘sales pitch’ done. If that’s enough for you, then just click on the above and get going. But if you’re curious what I got out of it, why I’m talking about it…read on.

I also want to put front and centre a thank you to Dr Tracy Bear and Dr Paul Gareau and Sarah Howdle who created the original course and/or worked on providing 12 weeks on invaluable weekly discussions alongside it. Acknowledgement both as busy people giving up their time for that, but also undertaking the time and labour to facilitate people’s learning about Indigenous culture. 

Why start in the first place? partly, as a British person that decolonising is part of my cultural responsibility. Partly, my personal connection to Canada, having lived there, having relatives who still live there. It seemed a logical area to continue my decolonising of my own learning from.  In theory I should have a head start. I have a history degree actually a joint one in American and Canadian Studies degree. But it will probably come as no surprise that my education was lacking in diversity, decolonisation and specifically, given the American/Canadian element, Indigenous history. (McGill, where I did my study abroad, has had an Indigenous Studies programme since 2014 -far later than I was there- and Nottingham, where I did my BA still offers no specific modules on Native Studies at Undergrad level, which is frankly, unacceptable). I can’t fix what I didn’t do then, but I can do the work now. 

And so, when this course crossed my Twitter timeline, despite it being many (ahem) years since my Undergrad degree, I thought it was a good opportunity to fill in those gaps. And I hold myself to account that, righting that gap in my knowledge in any meaningful, detailed way that hadn’t really crossed my mind. 

Why not just read a book? Well why not actually take the opportunity to learn from experts, to learn in a structured way as this course allows me to build a foundation that I can go away and, yes read a book around. But also, the ability to listen to a range of experts talk about these topics, and challenge me as a learner, was also so valuable. So much of what I learned felt vital. And urgently applicable to the world we live in. And also important for me, as someone who works as a writer, as an academic, was finding those parallels of understanding and intersections with my own work, to go forward and work better. To adjust my own world views. Oh and to the slightly snotty attitude I’m sure some academics I know had, let me first say; if you lack the ability to see that all learning is good learning, or ability to see where intersectionality of learning is missing, or the humility to admit to your own gaps in knowledge, you need to maybe consider your place in academia. (Slightly fighty words? Maybe, I’m simultaneously tired of the academy’s bullshit towards BIPOC and other minority areas of research and teaching, and as an unemployed, possibly ‘failed’ academic one with nothing to lose so…fight on).

So, what did doing some structured learning for the first time since, what, 2007? Give me? Firstly, in all honesty, a whole host of Imposter Syndrome. Worried I’d fail a quiz (my dyslexic brain does not enjoy multiple choice!). I would sit there, feeling like a first-year undergrad again frantically trying to get every note down from lectures- I filled two notebooks in this course, frantically worried I’d miss an important point. (even though everything is online, and I can revisit). My personal highlight was frantically scribbling notes on Queer Theory before remembering…I teach Queer Theory. 

That was a silly, funny moment. Born out of my own generally anxious demeanour and perfectionism. But in the broader picture, I did know nothing here and that humility is a good thing. In a valuable lesson Dr Bear highlighted in one of the discussions, is that we all know nothing. And that actually coming at this with that in mind- made me learn in a way that if I just picked up a book and read to ‘tick off’ Indigenous Cultures in my ‘wider learning’ list would never have done. Because learning is a challenge. Especially a course, when as a white person, your sense of the world is going to be challenged, and the way you look at yourself and the country you come from and its impact on the world in the past. (As an aside, most Brits are very aware of the utter mess our country is currently making of things, but that’s another discussion…or is it, says the historian in me…that’s the learning we should all do too). 

But insecurity, and ultimately humility aside the course for me was a combination of becoming excited about vast swathes of learning that opened up cultures and history to me. And the hard learning about confronting that history. The latter is an ongoing and important work. And one that felt supported- and pushed, in a good way, by the weekly live discussions. Forcing us learners to contextualise- often with highly recent events, but also around cultural pasts, legal impacts and how we respond to the world. As a British person I’m conscious of the role my country had in all this, but to hear the ongoing impact is vital for understanding how to support changes being made to try and counter that history.

Alongside this, as someone who is yes, frankly a nerd, the chance to engage in new learning will always be exciting to me. Whether that was finding interesting alignments with Native Perspectives on my own work- of course as writer the elements of storytelling within Indigenous cultures of course sparked my interest. Those ways of educating, of organising, of governing and the way in which I as a writer use storytelling will forever be a fascinating element. And as a Queer person, and someone whose academic work sits in that area too, there was a combination of what I would call more ‘pastoral’ learning moments, when you find parallel with your own lives, lived experience. Particularly in the discussion sessions, the parallels with LGBTQ+ people’s lives came up. But also, in learning about the language, and approaches of Indigenous people to gender and sexuality.

An unexpected, but interesting parallel for me that both gave me insight, but also allowed me to have conversations about Indigenous cultures with someone who would not otherwise have had that conversation was around language and culture. For me as Welsh person, the parallels with loss of language and culture were fascinating. As a country, and particularly my Mother and Grandmother’s generation who lost the Welsh language, through a different kind of colonialism, and its impact on our history, culture and even lives today. The idea that for my Mother and Grandmother’s generation Welsh was- and is considered ‘bad’ or ‘useless’ and my generation’s drive towards using the language and being reinvested in the more ‘lost’ elements of our heritage as a result. A fascinating parallel and a way into discussions that have divided us for years also. But also, one that opened up with my Mum discussions around Colonialism and its impacts. My Mum is a 74-year-old Welsh woman who never went to University, but she already wants to know more about Indigenous perspectives because she never previously got a chance to- she wants to borrow books I’ve brought; she’s asked questions. Without this course neither of us would be doing that. And indirectly that reminded me why learning and teaching are so entwined too.

And of course, as an academic, I have to some degree, a place to have those bigger conversations. Possibly because of the nature of my own research, I’ve always seen academia as an activist tool This course meant more than just the factual learning I did. It was about the inspiration I gained from learning from these frankly brilliant academics whom I would never have encountered without it. Primarily this aspect was from being so inspired by the discussions led by Dr Bear and Dr Gareau and all their colleagues led each Sunday. These on one hand just provided space for conversations not possible in direct ‘teaching’ but also to integrate a wealth of personal experience, current events and everything else. Think what in an ideal world a brilliant seminar or conference paper looks like-except without that one middle aged white guy at the back saying ‘it’s really a comment not a question’ halfway through. Again, what academic discussions feel like they should be. What discussions for facilitating education should be. 

 And I don’t mean it in any sycophantic way when I say; they have exemplified what academia, what being an academic meant to me when I began and inspired me to keep fighting for that. As someone from, who does work on and from a minority perspective (with my additional privileges as a white person) that felt important. It wasn’t the point of the course, but I hope it’s appreciated to say- as I know how little thanks any of us often get, that. It’s actually been a long time since I felt inspired by academics, and on a personal level, this course gave me back that. It made me want to pick that up, in my own area and keep going at a time when it almost felt most futile to.

And to loop back around to the importance of the broader discussions this course facilitated, this discussion needs to also include that a huge part of that facilitating education was also the truly insightful discussion from Dan Levy who facilitated this taking of the discussion online. I’ve left out Levy’s involvement until this point because I wanted to foreground the Indigenous scholars who led the course, and discussions. But it would be remiss not to mention firstly Levy’s role in getting so many people to sign up to and complete the course it’s both an indication of truly using a platform for activism. It is after all one thing to tweet a link to something or donate. It’s quite another to commit to doing a 12-week course, but also to actively put the work in to facilitate further discussion around it week on week. 

Levy’s presence in the discussions did far more than just bring viewers as well- numbers may well matter but what will outlast that is the impact on the quality of the discussion Levy had for those who were listening. I hope it comes across the way I intend when I say to have a non-academic voice in there, someone also just learning this work, reframing their world view, I guess what I’m saying is a ‘normal’ person’s voice. But a highly intelligent, focused voice coming from a place of wanting to learn- and help others to learn, elevated those discussions. I mean basically if all of us could distil all the attributes of the best students and the questions they ask, into one person’s discussion Levy’s questions, contributions are probably what that looks like (how do we make that happen? Next time I’ve got a room of blank faces maybe I’ll also tell students ‘Learn from Dan Levy’s approach to learning’). But what was vital was Levy’s engaged way of discussing the topics from a learner’s perspective, before giving the platform over to the experts to guide everyone listening through. And in a way of leading by example, Levy flipping the difficult elements onto his own worldview, allows those listening to think about doing the same. And we need those ways in, that nudge in the right direction

And you know what, I can hear the eye rolling from anyone who made it this far. The ‘Oh so that’s it- an actor tweets a thing, so you do it that’s so shallow’. Paralleling the academic disdain at being ‘above’ it somehow. Firstly, I say to those people we’ve all bought things we didn’t need because an actor tweeted about them (whether we admit it or not). We’ve all watched truly terrible films or TV shows because of an actor too. Some of us even accidentally became academics because of Gillian Anderson (but that’s another story) and maybe in this instance, I finished this course before I finished Levy’s TV show (sorry…but this is because used it as bribery to meet a book deadline….). But actually, my own wafflings aside on this, there’s no better way to get people to care about something, than someone they care about showing they care. And I think Levy showing all the people who came to the course because he shared it how much he cared about it, kept people engaged, furthered that learning. And that frankly is the most honest use of any kind of ‘platform’ I know of.

Using whatever platform you have for good, for change has to be positive. One key take away from one of the discussions for me was that use of the platform. So that’s what this has been a lot of words to do.  I have an extremely modest platform. But I do have a collection of Twitter followers across academia and theatre who are extremely engaged people, who are looking to make good changes for themselves and the world. So that’s why I wrote this. That’s why I tweeted weekly about my studying. I always say about my writing- academic or creative-if it has an impact on one person, I’ve done my job. So, if one person now signs up to the course, or listens to the discussions, then hopefully I’ve been able to pass this on. 

Again you can do that right here. And while we’re here, once again, you can learn more about the Faculty of Native Studies here or donate to their work here. (Universities are getting budgets slashed left and right and we know where the cuts tend to fall first) 

There’s so much more I could write about this course. From being inspired by Dr Bear’s research, work, to the brilliant outlook from Chris Anderson about Native Studies ‘making simple ideas complex’ to every brilliant guest over 12 weeks of discussions I didn’t have space to talk about here. But this blog is already way too long. So much I learned both in real terms about Indigenous life, that I wouldn’t want to try and paraphrase here, but urge people to go and learn for themselves. Alongside that, the philosophical, political and personal reflections the work gave me have felt so valuable. And I felt inspired too, about the power of supporting people to learn. About the power of activism through whatever ‘academia’ might be. And of being part of a community of learners again. At a time of disconnection, wondering about my personal, professional direction. As I tried to maintain the belief that sharing knowledge as an academic is also important, it’s not too trite a sentiment I hope to say this course inspired me on that level too.

All of this with a huge thank you to the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta for opening up their virtual doors so we can learn, and a particular thanks once more to Dr Tracy Bear, Dr Paul Gareau and Sarah Howdle and Dan Levy for giving up their personal time to support that learning for so many people. 

(And if anyone wants to start a reading group to hold me to account for my now unfeasibly out of control bookshelf, let’s do that…)