Ann Braithwaite: Hi, everyone. My name is Ann Braithwaite, I’m a professor of Diversity and Social Justice Studies at UPEI. And I’m here today with Andrew Wilson, who is a professor of Religious Studies at Mount Allison University you’re listening to Shifting Conversations a podcast about dialogue and change in higher education in Canada. Our award-winning educators have conversations that help us raise and shift perspectives. In today’s episode we speak with Dr. Shannon Dea the Dean of Arts at the University of Regina and a philosopher with expertise in academic freedom. We’ve called this episode ‘Freedom to Learn.’
Andrew Wilson: We would like to acknowledge that Mount Allison University and the University of Prince Edward Island are located within the traditional territory of Mi’kma’ki. The unseeded ancestral homes of the Mi’kmaq people our relationship and our privilege to live on this territory was agreed upon in the Peace and Friendship Treaties of 1725 to 1752. Because of this treaty relationship, it is to be acknowledged that we are all treaty people and have a responsibility to respect these lands and this people.
Shannon Dea: I’m Shannon Dea. I am the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Regina on Treaty 4 in Saskatchewan. I’m also a professor in the department of Philosophy but I’m probably here because I’m the author of ‘Dispatches on Academic Freedom,’ which is a regular column in University Affairs.
Ann: I’m Ann Braithwaite. I’m professor of Diversity and Social Justice Studies at UPEI.
Andrew: My name is Andrew Wilson, and I’m a professor in religious studies at Mount Allison University in Sackville New Brunswick.
Andrew: As a way into this, we’re going to be talking about academic freedom. And it’s such a huge topic. Well, from my perspective, maybe not to other people. But from my perspective, it seems to be if not misunderstood, then understood very differently by many people. There’s such a range of understandings of this particular term. What I’m hoping for this conversation is that we can talk about some of that complexity, some of that ambiguity, particularly with reference to the classroom with the university classroom, and how issues associated with academic freedom have a bearing on what happens in our learning spaces at the university. It just in terms of backdrop, why don’t we just start with the current cultural state of things? And I think one of the big issues that are on our radar right now is the Quebec, you know, alleged legislation or the proposed legislation on academic freedom and some of the issues that that raises, why don’t we sort of start there and see if there are any themes or trends or issues that emerge from that, that we can then take a little bit further.
Shannon: Maybe I will start and say that for those who aren’t familiar with it, this new proposed legislation in Quebec was actually requested by the kind of Federation of Quebec faculty unions. They have a union of unions, as it were, and they wanted the support from the government if proposed legislation, though, is not at all what they were hoping for. It involves a very narrow definition of academic freedom or a narrow conception of academic freedom. It excludes important things like intramural freedom. So that’s the right to criticize the institution to speak openly about the institution at silent about extramural expression. And so that’s the right to speak publicly about matters that aren’t necessarily within one’s scholarly wheelhouse, and it has some rather distressing other features. For instance, it allows the Minister to stipulate particular rules for individual institutions. It also obliges each of the Quebec universities to create an academic freedom policy, what the Quebec professors unions were looking for when they requested a legislation was, I think, some teeth to protect academic freedom at a time when it is quite vulnerable. But speaking of teeth, it’s seems to me that’s a little bit like mice, asking cats to provide some kind of protection. One of the main reasons that we have academic freedom as professors is so that we are free from the state and so the state has exactly the wrong body to be providing us with that academic freedom and those provisions that allows the Minister to direct universities in a very specific way really interfere with institutional autonomy. I could go on for an hour but that’s not the main thing we want to talk about today. So, I will stop there for now.
Ann: So, I love that the idea that this comes initially from the professoriate from academic staff who cover a range of different positions and from precarity, all the way through to sort of fully tenured and quite well ensconced, but it grows out of or reflects so many incidences that have happened across Canada, I’m not even going to touch the US in which faculty have absolutely no sense of how the university will deal with anything. Right? We’re actually by now I think we have a fairly good sense, right. And so, we know that the administration doesn’t have our back most of the time, they’re risk adverse, they’re all about brand management. Most of the time, I feel like I’m sort of parroting cliches. But over and over again, we see that happening. And all the responses are completely individual, when it comes down to like, what can I even say, in the classroom? Can I read the titles of books that have particular language in it, when that’s kind of exploded all over the place? So, we need a collective response. The Quebec bill is completely the wrong response. But I think there’s a concern for what is the collective response in the face of what is a heightened and for very good reason, awareness of the problem of language, for instance, but then when that language gets mobilised, and sometimes you cannot get away from it, it’s in the texture reading, then how is, how are we going to deal with that in the classroom? And how is the university going to deal with that when somebody invariably is going to complain about that? And I want to be clear that this is not sort of trying to find space for all of our colleagues just willy-nilly say, whatever the hell they want in class. It’s a real ethical position, how to negotiate that space. So, ethical position. I just said that to a philosopher.
Andrew: Yeah, it’s I mean, you’re right, Shannon, that this is you could speak about because I’m sure this, there’s lots to say about this. And just from your response, and it’s like, there’s a lot of complexity here. But I think it’s also very useful, because it just didn’t how you summarise the situation there. Shannon, you raised issues of Extramural expression, which I’m not sure it’s very well understood how that works in terms of academic discourse and, and one’s role in that in the university. There’s also the issue of being able to criticize your institution. And certainly institutions would be a little bit upset about that kind of thing when, when it comes to reputation and branding, and all of that type of thing. But then also the bigger questions of who defines academic freedom? And more to the point who police’s it? And what are the penalties associated with overstepping? And then there’s even a more basic question here that comes from this is, It’s freedom from what right? Is it freedom from the government, the cat and mouse analogy that you’re using, in some ways, this issue with defining academic freedom and the problems and difficulties in doing that reminds me so much of my own discipline, the difficulties and problems in defining religion, in defining culture, all of this kind of stuff. And that said, Shannon, do you have a go to if not definition, then maybe, sense of what it is that’s core to this idea of this understanding of academic freedom?
Shannon: I describe academic freedom is actually a cluster of freedoms in the service of the core academic mission of the university. And let me start with that in service part because academic freedom is not some innate inalienable right. It is a freedom that we have devised in order to allow universities to pursue their important social function through the work of their academic staff. So that freedom protects the academic staff to seek truth and advance understanding in the service of that core social mission. We require protection for those who are seeking truth and advancing understanding because the truth hurts sometimes, and sometimes it pinches the government and sometimes it pinches our donors or industry and so forth. And so we need to have that kind of protection for the folks who are doing that work. But that work takes a myriad of forms. We are teachers, we are learners, we are researchers, we are archivists, we are librarians, we are sometimes public speakers who need to speak on urgent matters, I like to say that we want our Einstein’s to be able to talk about world peace and not just physics. And so, we need to have that cluster of freedoms recognised in the very kind of work that we do advancing our social purpose as universities.
Andrew: I think that cluster idea is really useful, because it does avoid that tendency to want to come down with a singular definition for something it really recognises that complexity but also the relational nature of this, which is something I’m quite interested in as well. When you characterising academic freedom like this, and you’re talking about it as a particular kind of freedom, freedom from is there that relationship that we might talk about in terms of rights and responsibilities? Is there also a sense of responsibility associated with academic freedom?
Shannon: Absolutely. And that’s where the social purpose comes in. And that’s where it’s relevant that it is a freedom that we assigned to academic staff so that they can perform that function in order to become academic staff, you’ll need to develop expertise in an area and to publish in peer reviewed journals, etc, or be hired by a committee of peers. There are various ways that we assess your capacity to participate in that academic mission. And at every step along the way, as scholars, we continue to be held to that standard of our peers, right. And so, our performance review as academic staff relates to the scholarship that we do, but the scholarship that we do tends to be assessed by our peers, that’s the norm. It’s worth saying that the best expression and protection of academic freedom in Canada is in collective agreements on there’s a kind of boilerplate language that was created by the Canadian Association of University teachers, and you find some version of that boilerplate and most collective agreements across the country because those collective agreement because of that boilerplate, also talk about the duty of academic staff to pursue the truth responsibly, and so forth, collective agreements aren’t in the business of constraining members. And so that is a more minimalist portion of the academic freedom articles than the rest. But it really reflects that duty to maintain quality control. As a community of scholars.
Ann: I’m interested in this idea of constraints. Because I mean, the way we’ve been talking about this, we know academic freedom is not an absolute, right. It’s not like you get to do whatever you want with in whatever context, and yet the constraints come from all sorts of different places. And when you mentioned industry a few moments ago, I was thinking about the ways in which we constrain ourselves for particular kinds of grants and so forth, in the same way that we’re constrained by, you know, administration’s or credentialing bodies, or even granting agencies and then of course, we’re constrained by students in some ways, right? I mean, if there’s a kind of, I don’t know, there’s an issue or whatever. I mean, there’s just the ways in which academic freedom as much as we say that it’s this thing that we have? How do we also limit ourselves sometimes in some contexts? And are we even aware of some of the times that we’re doing that, and that’s going back to Andrews point a minute ago about policing, the policing is not always external, it’s often also internal, and how do we sort of mount more kind of robust conversations amongst us all the time, not just for scholarship, etc., but for what goes on in the classroom, right for our teaching and learning, because those constraints are never always never only external, as much as they are obviously, right? People worry about, like the Board of Governors and so forth. But they’re also often internal. And that’s the one that worries me the most in some ways that we get worried about what we can say and do. And in the face of proposed government legislation or too many issues and incidences that have happened. I mean, I teach stuff that is always going to raise issues for any number of people, and what happens if we stop being able to have those conversations in the place that needs to have those conversations. So those are just of you back to the initial point about there are lots of this is a network. This is a web and there are lots of different agendas, and they often compete with each other.
Shannon: Academic freedom is enormously complicated. It’s not one thing, it’s a bunch of things. It is not just a collective agreement, or article, it’s also the values that lie behind that academic freedom article is also an evolving tradition within higher education. So it is enormously complicated. It is poorly understood even by academic staff and university administrators, and barely understood by folks outside of higher education, and it can take a good long while to really get your arms around it, I will confess that I personally got into academic freedom as an area of study and advocacy and writing, because I was vexed about a particular campus controversy and I wanted to figure out a way to shut it down, I wanted to figure out a way to shut a particular person down who I thought was doing harm. And I came into academic freedom, wrongly understanding it as the kind of narrow definition of academic freedom that we find in the proposed new legislation from Quebec not understanding about intramural expression or extramural expression, thinking about academic freedom as a right that professors have within their areas of scholarly expertise. And based on that, I wrongly thought that some bad actors in our sector should shut the hell up and that we should try to find levers to make them do so. But the more I learned about academic freedom, the more I learned about the importance of extramural expression, intramural expression, and the danger of telling anyone to “shut the hell up” because when you start to use those provisions in that way, they’re always going to be disproportionately used against the non-traditional scholars. And so to some extent, we have to bite the bullet on the bullies, in order to maintain vigorous protections for non-traditional scholars, both in terms of non-traditional methodologies, but also in terms of participation by groups who equity deserving groups who have been excluded from higher education. But it took me a year of blogging about academic freedom every single day before I understood it well enough to change my initial view about how it ought to be weaponized, right? And most of us don’t have time to put that amount of research into academic freedom. We’re putting our time into religious studies and physics and applied mathematics and so forth, we need to do a better job of supporting both folks within higher education and the public in getting to that more nuanced place without forcing them to take on a second job or independent study, you know, to get there.
Andrew: This might be a nice segue to talking about, you know, from going from principles to practice and moving from the ideas to the actual classroom itself. And talking about the yeah, that that kind of experience of academic freedom has always been contextualised, and as a result always having a certain set of limitations, a certain set of conditions that are less than ideal. And then that’s our reality. So how do we navigate that? How do we what do we do in order to infuse that less than ideal situation with some of the ideals that academic freedom is trying to really enshrine.
Shannon: So, I’m not sure whether this is going to be a strange thing from me, given the kind of work that I do that I want to think about it in terms of an ideal of academic freedom at all, I think that universities are deeply non-ideal institutions within deeply non ideal societies. And I would rather build academic freedom for that context, rather than think that we’re always in a sort of pathological state where we would rather have an ideal, but we have to have some kind of mitigation in the meantime, I think we have to build for the world that we occupy, maybe that’s me being too philosophical, wanting to get away from the idea of striving for an ideal at all. That said, some of the ways in which I think we can do better at academic freedom can be outside of that kind of juridical realm of policing is the metaphor that you used earlier, I talked about the language in collective agreements. And of course, that language and collective agreements comes into play and grievances and arbitrations. We talked earlier about legislation. All of that is quite juridical and letter of the law, a former colleague of mine at University of Waterloo, Emmett McFarland has been doing work on freedom of expression, where he’s starting to argue that we should be seeking to uphold charter values, as opposed to Charter rights when we think about some of those controversies around expression, rather than banging your fists about what the letter of the law is, think about what the value is that the those Charter rights are meant to protect, and then go directly to kind of supporting those values rather than going the juridical route. And one of the surprising things I’ve learned since becoming a dean, you know, two years ago, I was a union leader. Now I’m a dean, I’ve switched to the dark side by some estimations, one of the surprising things that I’ve learned is how much we can support academic freedom quietly behind the scenes by having conversations that start with relationships and social justice. So there are lots of things swirling around behind the scenes in terms of classroom conflicts, and so forth, that don’t make the news and don’t make it to the level of grievance and arbitration and social media scares and so forth, where we really can intervene just by focusing on the kind of relationships we’ve been talking about and it’s a funny thing, I got into academic freedom, because I thought there weren’t enough people who are grounded in social justice, who are passionate about academic freedom. And so, it was always a means to a social justice end for me. And yet I am the less surprised as dean to learn that when I deal with those classroom controversies that are bubbling up behind the scenes, and I start with relationships and social justice, it ends up tackling the academic freedom issue as well.
Ann: I’m just going to start with a quick sort of anecdote. So, we have three deans at UPEI who are former union presidents, right? So, I was like you can have a club, right. So, I just love that kind of movement, right. And I think it’s such an important, this is a whole other conversation. It’s such an important movement though, because I mean, we need Dean’s who are well aware of, you know, the idea of working conditions. So anyways, that’s not what this podcast is about. But I love the idea of academic freedom, not as an ideal, but as a practice. And so, it’s always being constructed and co-constructed, depending on you know, what the situation what the context with nuance, you know, what’s sort of the aim who’s in the room, metaphorically, but also literally, who’s in the room. And then going back to Andrews point about academic freedom from what? and I’m also thinking but for whom? and one of the things we know, and I think this is what you were just alluding to, also is that even if you’re just thinking about the classroom, not everybody has the same academic freedom in the classroom, right? Even if you thought about it as an ideal, people are very differently empowered and disempowered, because they’re very different embodiments. And because they’re in an institution that historically has been built for a particular group of people, right? and is now kind of making space in some ways for some other groups of people who show up, but it’s not built for them to begin with. And that’s a conversation we need to be having a lot more also. And I liked this idea about sort of thinking about it as value because that for me, emphasises the notion of practice, and always being kind of constructed and how fluid it is. And you know, when you think about it as an ideal, then you do end up in the policing model, right? It becomes like, it’s good, or it’s bad, you’re right, or you’re wrong. And I like to think about it as a kind of harm reduction, right? How do we sort of use academic freedom as a way to reduce the harm that is done or could be done to all sorts of groups of people and to make room for all sorts of groups of people to have conversations that otherwise the university doesn’t have a lot of space for?
Andrew: I’m just going to jump in. Because I mean, I really like the way that you challenge the idea of principles versus practice sort of said, that’s not necessarily very useful dichotomy, to understand how this operates, in our experience. And I agree with that completely, because we are the realities, we never experience these principles without context, right? Without side of context, it’s always going to be there, like Anna’s saying, a process of navigating and negotiating what these things look like around us. And then the classroom, I also agree that the classroom is a really wonderful case study for thinking through these things, because first of all, it’s in the university, right? So, it is in the, you know, in the place where academic freedom seems to have its home, and on the other hand, is a very, potentially very diverse space. And I think I know you’ve written before about this channel about how academic freedom does vary depending on what stage in your career you are in as a professor, or whether you’re precarious in terms of your hiring, or where, whether you’re a student or this there’s all sorts of variations associated within a classroom community. And there’s also the reality that academic freedom operates within a particular discourse within a particular kind of conversation, which itself is governed by all sorts of power dynamics and particular kinds of privilege, and potentially marginalisation and some people are authorised and others are not. And any kind of discourse is going to be shaped by that. And that is also part of the context within which academic freedom operates. So again, it’s very complicated, because there are all these intersecting kinds of things happening. And there’s an impurity associated with this. And I think that that messiness is, is certainly what we need to deal with. So, when we talk about policing, it’s very difficult to police and to keep things on the straight and narrow, if you like, when it’s not clear who’s in the room, what they’re bringing with them to the room, the ways that they are able or that they’ve been conditioned to speak, and that I like this idea of relationship. I like this idea of social justice as being the bedrock for understanding how we think about academic freedom. So yeah, I just I guess I’m just responding to these things that I, I really do see as so much a part of what we’re talking about.
Shannon: It’s worth saying that we’ve come to think about academic freedom is something possessed by academic staff who are protected by a collective agreement because the best protection we have for academic freedom right now is in those collective agreements. Academic freedom is much stronger in Canada than probably anywhere else in the world because faculty unions are stronger in Canada than anywhere else in the world. So, we have that good, strong academic freedom language in collective agreements. But I think the downside of enshrining academic freedom fully and collective agreements is that it creates a misapprehension that only members of those unions actually have academic freedoms that pulls us away from academic freedom as a core value of the institution. I’m a lot of people are surprised to learn that and much of Central and South America students have academic freedom, the freedom to learn is among the cluster of freedoms that are seen as essential to the core academic mission of the university. I actually consider that freedom to learn possessed by students to be among the values of academic freedom that we should be defending in Canada as well. But it was interesting, I will say I really got into academic freedom when the whole Lindsay Shepherd controversy blew up in Waterloo, Ontario, two or three years ago, four years ago. Now, I guess she was a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University and let’s say took some liberties in the materials that she presented within a tutorial she was running. And her professors called her in for a meeting to discuss their concerns. When she recorded it, Christie Blatchford published it, it became a whole big stink at the time, the response of a lot of professors, including me early on my own thinking has shifted was that TA’s don’t have academic freedom that professors have academic freedom, I persist in thinking that it was inappropriate for her to adapt the lesson plan and the way that she did and in a way that I think was harmful to members of the trans community. But I have come to think that TA’s actually both quay students and quay teaching staff, early career teaching staff do have some academic freedom should have some academic freedom as well. So, I mean, you can see the tension in a case like that.
Ann: That’s a great example to remind yourself to write because that is a moment, like many in the last few years that have really kind of exploded of general, outside of academic contexts also write attention to this idea. And so, you know, we often hear, you know, people saying things like, I don’t have academic freedom in my job, right, I work at BMO, or something, right. So, I don’t get to say whatever I want, I don’t get to criticize the bank. And so, this is kind of a real lack of understanding of what that notion is right, taking us back to the very beginning of our conversation. So, two things that I’m responding to here, right now, I think about how reticent and I was having this conversation at a conference I was asked last week, how reticent so many academic staff faculty are to share syllabi with each other. But I think this speaks to your Lindsey Shepard example that we don’t use, there’s something on a syllabus and you have no idea how somebody’s going to use it. And so, like you put it there, and when you share it with somebody without that larger context, right, I think there’s often a kind of anxiety about what are you doing with those materials? so I really liked the way that you focused us on, you know, what are the materials, right? And then what are you doing with the materials as part of the question, but then I also, I really appreciate the freedom to learn idea, because academic freedom, I mean, even when we’re saying in the classroom, we too often think only of the, you know, the faculty member standing there, or however they operate their classrooms. What about all the people in the classroom, what happens when the conversation in the classroom goes in a particular direction that you then have to negotiate navigate in some way, and that can happen, I’m thinking of an example I heard on a CBC show like quite a few years ago now where it was somebody from Kentucky who was teaching sort of first year biology and saying, you know, 60% of his students were creationists. And here he is trying to teach evolution. So anyway, so it all just gets, you know, really mucky. But the freedom to learn is such a challenge to the way that university is set up, not just to the content, but to you know, the structure of the university, the structure of a classroom, I think about how much, you know, universities, even though they have to respond to disability, you know, legally, they do it only in an individualistic sort of accommodations model, because they can’t bear to rethink, there’s no place to rethink how we’ve set up the university to begin with. So, the, if the freedom to learn was really part of the language in Canada, around academic freedom, and really thought about students and their freedom to learn, we might be challenging everything about the university. And I think in the last couple of years, that’s starting to happen, right? COVID has exploded a lot of myths about teaching and learning. And I think I hope that it’s giving students, many students a voice that they didn’t think they had before, to demand certain kinds of learning contexts, which don’t always involve standing in the cloud, or sitting in the classroom for two hours a week that just covered about eight topics.
Andrew: It makes me, it makes me think that academic freedom and EDID is really closely related, right, that what you’re doing is you’re trying to create cultivate a really rich learning environment that’s accessible, and that’s responsive, and that is attentive to the kind of difference that we have in the classroom. And that’s, that’s, you know, that’s really good stuff to do, just generally, but to see that that is actually a way of cradling these, this notion of academic freedom, I think is useful, but to be really practical about it at my institution. Some people are reluctant to talk about things that are, that are controversial culturally, right? These explosive cultural kind of markers that we have and when they enter into the classroom, sometimes professors prefer just to kind of skirt around them altogether. They’re not quite sure how to navigate that in the classroom. And sometimes there are there’s just controversial material. That’s part of understanding the background or the backdrop of a discipline. And increasingly, there’s a reticence to address that, given the kind of, you know, response that people are fearful of. And I know this is not exactly academic freedom, but I think it might be something people think of when they’re involved in these kinds of conversations. And it’s certainly something to do with the, the dynamic of the classroom and the relational structure of that classroom. So Ann you were saying, we have to think differently about how we construct our classrooms and how we structure our learning, right, our learning contexts, and I’m wondering whether there are any practical kinds of suggestions, we might be able to have that speak to that, that help us to create the conditions where we are able to best talk about these things that are important, but difficult, that you don’t want someone to cancel you for, (laughter) for talking about something that might they might be upset by. So yeah, I’m wondering other practical things that we can that we can name here.
Shannon: I’ll start by being a little bit sceptical about the word cancel. And I know that you were just being idiomatic, but the panic about cancelled culture is just that a panic. It’s quite overblown. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t fearful people are fearful of lots of things that aren’t as dangerous in reality as they think they are. I think when you see the number of classes that are taught every day in this country on a range of difficult, urgent, painful topics, vanishingly few of them make their way into grievance or arbitration or the media in general, we still do a good job of creating teaching and learning spaces where we can have those difficult conversations. Of course, we see the stories that hit the headlines and worry about our own classrooms. I don’t think that we can do much about that. But I think that the way forward for those of us like me who teach in an anti-oppressive vein, or in Critical Race Theory and Gender Studies, what have you is really through good teaching and learning supports and preparation, classroom management, not immediately defaulting to the principles of freedom of expression or of academic freedom, but designing our Learning Spaces Designing our syllabi, right from the start in a way that focuses on the kind of intended learning outcomes. Why are we bringing this material in the classroom, I consider myself as a teacher to be a kind of Penn and Teller, I am always pulling back the curtain to show students the wheels behind the curtain and make clear to them why we’re doing what we’re doing. There are no surprises. Some people call that a trigger warning sometimes nowadays, but I just think we need to make as explicit to learners as possible what we are doing to try to support their learning in the classroom. That doesn’t always work. But it can clear the space for a more trusting conversation. But I also think that those of us who teach in areas that relate to human vulnerability what, however you conceive that have a duty to remember that we are teaching human beings that it’s not an abstract academic topic when you touch on human pain and vulnerability, and we don’t know who’s in the classroom. And we should take the time to imagine who our listeners are, who our learners are not just those who’ve been directly affected by the particular kind of phenomenon that you’re teaching, but also what kind of background preparation all the students in the class have something that I see happening all the time as a dean, I get a lot of complaints from students about something that happened in the classroom with the students are, are often 18-year-olds who’ve never met a professor before. They don’t know they’ve been told that they should speak their mind about matters they’re passionate about, but they haven’t been trained how to do it, they can they get nervous in the kind of fight or flight instinct takes over. And they can be a bit more abrupt than they intend to be. I think there’s an opportunity to help mentor them and coach them to raise their concerns in a way that is going to get better uptake as well. They don’t just want to complain. They want to be part of the conversation, but they haven’t always been trained how to take part in the conversation. We have some duty even with the students with whom we strongly disagree to help build their capacity to more constructively express their disagreement.
Ann: Yeah, just I completely agree. Yeah. Because I’m thinking about part of what we’re doing in the classroom, right, I hope is trying to teach not just here’s some content, but how to think about that content, where are some multiple ways of approaching something, you know, whatever that something is, and I think this crosses every field that we have to be able to sort of be a little bit meta and ask, you know, what are the functions? What are the implications? What are the consequences of particular kinds of content, particular ways of knowing. And so, I think about a large part of what I do, I’m just building on what you were saying, a large part of what I do is try to get people to think about nuance, nuance and context, I somewhat joke around, but I’m not joking around actually, that what COVID has done in the last two years is explode a couple of myths about teaching and learning that otherwise kind of run rampant. And Andrew’s heard me say this before. In fact, I probably said it in the last podcast that we did. But one of them is certainly the idea of the classroom is a great equaliser because everybody’s sitting in the room all together, at the same time, a sort of assumption that they must all be the same in some ways, but now that we’ve seen their kids and their cats in their bedrooms, in their kitchens and their partners and you know, and their parents wandering through they we’ve seen all of that, that’s exploded that myth. And we’ve also seen it because we know that sometimes they were zooming in from 12 hours away, right, especially in the first year of COVID. So that’s kind of exploded, this notion that the classroom is just the same, and we just kind of do our thing, but also this idea of the myths of control that somehow I’ve got some kind of control over what’s going on. And certainly I obviously I do, but I think I loved your example of the sort of Penn and Teller thing that I think about it as setting the stage, what I do is try to set the stage and setting a stage is difficult and complex work. But if you set a good stage, then the magic happens. But you have to leave like lots of flexibility, but be able to close the gaps when the gaps happen. I mean, a good stage manager, I’m running with a metaphor, I don’t know a lot about right, but I think a good I do that. But a good stage manager has to be ready for all kinds of stuff that happens so and be able to sort of think both short term like immediate What do I do now? to a much longer term, what is it that I want us to be doing, you know, three weeks from now? And how are we going to get there? But that’s all about teaching complexity. The, somebody said, I think you said earlier, Shannon, the idea of purity, it’s moving away from a kind of purity politics, you know, we must all think this by the end of all of this, and we don’t want to talk about cancelled culture, etc. And neither do I. But, you know, in a world in which many of our political parties are presenting us social issues as if they’re very clearly “either or” how do we bring a roomful of very different people to be able to think “both and” with a kind of generosity to be able to do that. And I mean, that’s for me is both the challenge and the absolute joy of teaching is embarking on that process with a group of people. But it’s difficult work, it’s work that is comes out of, you know, having taught now for a lot of years, and from teaching from a very secure position. And so, you know, going back to something we talked about earlier, 50% of our colleagues are precarious. So, it’s much more difficult to do that from precarious positions from positions that are less experienced. And it’s difficult to do when we don’t know what possible repercussions are going to be because we know that our universities, for the most part are risk averse. And everything I just talked about is risky.
Andrew: Yeah. And Shannon, I’m glad you kind of you addressed that the whole idea about cancel cancelling. And also, you mentioned trigger warnings. And you know, I could add in this conversation about safe spaces. And often those terms are not that helpful, I find at least because they get there, they’re so loaded with with ideas of students who are having being coddled or having a lack of resilience or being too sort of single minded and, and I’m not sure that’s the case, I think, what we’re what those notions go back to, especially the way that you’re talking about them, is this sense that we need to be compassionate, when it comes to the people that we’re learning with. So, as a professor, I’m definitely conscious of the fact that I’m learning with my students, I’m not just learning to them, or getting them to learn, right? It’s not something I’m doing to them. It’s something that we’re all involved in and, and that that freedom to learn that we were talking about earlier. I’m wondering whether there’s also a corresponding sense of freedom to err, right? freedom to make mistakes, to blunder, to say things that are outrageous and just offensive, maybe sometimes not because we feel we have the right to do that. And that that’s our that’s our rights as part of what academic freedom gives us. But that as a classroom, we’re in that process of figuring out as a community as a as a group, how to talk about these things, how to navigate through these things, and how to understand them. And as Ann’s saying much more complex ways, right? It’s “both, and” it’s not “either, or” so I think that idea of compassion of creating compassionate classroom communities seem has to be so important. And I like the way that through this conversation, we’ve connected the community of the classroom to this, what can be a very abstract notion of, of academic freedom. I think that’s, that’s a really important so that takeaway from this.
Shannon: I mean, it’s worth remembering that when we’re in a classroom, where with human beings and some of the things that we say whether we’re teachers or learners in a classroom, we would never say in a cafe and the idea, I mean, this might just sound old fashioned. But you know, in addition to academic freedom, maybe we need good manners as well. It’s strange to think that the good manners that help to act as glue for us in society get left at the door when we go into the classroom. And I’m not talking about any fine-tuned sense of etiquette, but just the kind of consideration that you would bring to most social interactions is seen as insufficiently rigorous somehow in the classroom, that becomes an obstacle then to authentic teaching and learning in the classroom. Because we’re somehow meant to move into some kind of objective mode and not come in fully as full human beings who are vulnerable and taking chances and being generous with each other and sometimes being ungenerous with each other, because we’re full human beings, you know, something that I have found useful in my own teaching, I spend an inordinate amount of time at the beginning of the course setting up the course before we get to any of the content. And, you know, I said I explain to students what I’m hoping to accomplish in the course, and how I hope that we’ll accomplish it together. And that can sometimes take two classes. This sounds tedious, but I think it’s a good use of our time. And then through a kind of iterative process where they’ve got some time in between to think and let the ideas percolate, I have students themselves describe how we can better achieve those intended learning outcomes. If we can hear from lots of different perspectives in the classroom, I have them imagine the different kinds of perspectives that might be there in the classroom, even though they’re invisible to them. And then I have them, as they say, work together in groups, and then as a whole class in kind of iterative stages to develop some not rules. But some good practices that we together as a class agree will help us to hear from all of those different perspectives. And so, they start at the beginning of the term. And they’re small groups trying to figure out how they will both protect students who are vulnerable when a particular topic comes up. But also put everyone in a position to be kind of fearless when there’s an opportunity to be fearless and having them come up with those good practices rather than me imposing them gives them ownership over the classroom, it gives them ownership over the good practices, it’s so neoliberal, but it gives them buy into all of that. And they’re the ones who defend those good practices. And they do so because they see that there’s a good reason to do so in terms of the environment in which they’re learning their relationships with their peers, and the kinds of outcomes they’ll have in the course.
Ann: What I love about this conversation, we veered from academic freedom, right? But what I’ve loved about this, this conversation is we’re thinking about what a pedagogy of care looks like, right? And so, Andrew was talking about compassion, so forth, I use the expression of pedagogy of care. There are lots of ways to think about this. But it goes back to the point you brought up a few minutes ago about who’s in the room? And what are you going to do about who’s in the room. And I can imagine people listening to this going well, there’s three people who teach in the humanities sort of talking to each other about difficult conversations, etc. But then I think if you start with that notion of the pedagogy of care, right, as you just laid out, a good example of and you think about who’s in the room, this applies in the engineering classroom to as people are happily talking about where they’re going to build the bridge, if they’re not thinking about how was that bridge decimated communities that may be of people who are sitting in this room, trying to figure out how to rebuild their communities, because you rammed a bridge or a dam or something through it. I’m pretending that’s all engineering is right now, for just for a quick example. So, you know that when you start with that question, you start asking, “how do we then both recognise who, who’s in the room and navigate those many differences?” And sometimes those differences come up because people are talking and what happens if somebody says something and you’re like, “oooohno,” how are we going to both recognise and listen to that point and yet reframe it in a way that makes sense or is more I hate using the word palatable, but is that least sort of not as immediately kind of, of hair raising for some other people, but all that starts with recognising that there are human beings in the room who occupy many, many different kinds of social positionality and have come to the university very differently was very different desires and agendas and that’s true whether they’re there for a professional programme of some sort, or they’re, they’re kind of doing, you know, the kinds of stuff that I and both of you teach too, right. And if we don’t approach, teaching through that kind of framework, we don’t start with, like, who’s in the room? And how am I going to recognise who’s in the room and still get some work done? then they may as well just go home and read a book, they don’t need the classroom, the classroom was there for a reason. And when I say classroom, I don’t mean just the physical classroom, I mean, any way in which we set the stage for encounters between numbers of students to engage with each other in some way.
Andrew: It’s like there’s two sort of things, a tension going on here between two different kinds of things that there’s on the one hand, we’re creating these safe spaces or this this places of trust and connection. And on the other hand, we’re aware that at various times, the kind of learning that’s going to happen in these communities of globalised classroom communities is going to be challenging and disrupting and uncomfortable and shattering possibly, right they didn’t learning can be really difficult. And, and I wouldn’t want anyone listening to think that we’re just trying to find the kumbaya moment. That’s, that’s what the goal is here. Because I think the only reason why we’re trying to create these, these these communities in the classroom is so that we can, we can learn in a way that is expansive, and responsive, and really challenging. And it’s at the most at the most difficult end of that spectrum. And to be able to push the kind of the conversation to those very difficult places, is I think, and to do that and survive, right. And to do that in a community or classroom community that’s flourishing, I think, is a really good sign that what you’ve got is a strong set of bonds there that can cope with that. And I think for me, that’s, that’s what’s important, because I do stuff in my class that you know, can challenge people’s worldviews, right. It’s, it can be pretty destabilising, and I don’t just want to do that, and then say, “okay, see you later, you know, you deal with that, and I’ll see you, you know, next class,” I want them to be able to not just get defensive, to be able to engage, to be able to build that perspective, and to be able to be aware that they’re not there alone, that there are other people in the room and that these are, this is a conversation happening between real people like you’re saying, Shannon.
Ann: I just want to add to that quickly, because I completely agree. And I think for me, the important part is, I mean, I teach outrage, right? I mean, it’s just, and then they’re depressed all the time. So, and, you know, hopefully we do other stuff also. But that learning has to be on, it’s uncomfortable, of course it is, but it’s in community. And if you have other people, it’s kind of the mutual aid of the pedagogy of care if you will, right. If you have other people, then you can work your way through it. If you just go home and do it by yourself, you know, late at night doom scrolling, then that’s when I think the outrage takes over. And the depression takes over. And you forget about community and resistance, and interdependence. And those are really for, I think, really everything you were just saying, Andrew, they’re really important components of what the classroom the, not maybe not the ideal, the classroom practice looks like.
Shannon: Yeah, I think that we need to create safe spaces to learn so that we can have brave spaces to learn the safety isn’t the end in itself. And so, I mean, it’s, I think, by way of analogy, and I think where do you have the most safety procedures and safety precautions and safety equipment, it’s in the domains where there’s the greatest risk, we’d need to have seatbelts and helmets or the metaphorical equivalent of seatbelts and helmets in the classroom, because there’s so much risk there so that we can safely undertake that risk and community with our students. And that’s why I don’t actually think that we’ve gotten off topic and talking about teaching and learning as part of our conversation about academic freedom, academic freedom, as a protection is in place because academic work is risky, we have a duty to support our students safely to engage in that risky work with us.
Andrew: Yeah, I agree completely. But coming out of this conversation, I’m wondering to what extent this the way that we’ve been talking about academic freedom in the classroom, especially and the importance of community and of, you know, connection and relationship and these types of things. Does this conversation about academic freedom pose a challenge to our understanding or our tradition of university? Right? To what extent are we, is that out of sync? because we all know that the university is a product of modernism in many important significant ways and, and that this particular attentiveness to learning, it’s not something that’s been part of its recent history, at least in in quite the same prominent way. So, I’m wondering to what extent this conversation challenges not just our notions of academic freedom, but also our inherited notions of academic freedom, but also our understanding of what the university is and who is the university for?
Shannon: I like that way of thinking about it. The universities have been evolving from the start, right, and they’ve only been around for about 1000 years, in the last 200 years, they’ve seen very rapid evolution, there’s no reason that they feel monolithic and impossible to get around right now. But there’s no reason to think that they’re going to remain as they are now. And academic freedom is evolving quickly as universities evolve as well. One of the things I’m excited about within Canadian higher education, is how rapidly University study has opened-up to non-traditional students where I am now at the University of Regina, we have a lot of non-traditional students. So that brings with it some real pedagogical challenges. And let me be really specific about the kinds of challenges we have students who on average, are working 25.5 hours a week, on average, outside of school, many of them are mature students, many of them have children, a university education can absolutely change their lives. But universities were not designed with these kinds of learners in mind, but I’m much more excited about reconceiving universities, for learners like that, who are new to the university and for whom university can make a pivotal difference in their lives than I am about providing a kind of traditional 19th century Ivy League stereotype of university education. But there’s a lot of work to do to get professors who’ve mostly had that kind of traditional 19th century Ivy League education, to get their arms around the excitement and opportunity and challenges of teaching the broad array of learners that we get to teach and learn with Canadian universities.
Ann: and I’ll add to the changing student body that at UPI. 30% of our student body comes from outside of Canada, so and then some other percentage comes from other places in Canada. But and so that’s I mean, people come with a breadth of experiences of ways of knowing, of understandings, of the world and have reasons for being not just at university, but even, you know, why UPI in the midst of all the universities that one could go to? And I think that sort of two things that are sort of being highlighted for me out of the last couple of minutes of conversation is that the university thinks of learning it never used to talk about learning, right? It talked about teaching, and that teaching was something you did to a roomful of individuals. And everything we’ve just been talking about is about sort of community and you know, learning together, we’ve even moved the conversation, some of us at least to a conversation about learning, right? So, focuses on learning, not just on teaching, and I think about how, you know, centres for like, we’ve renamed all the centres centres for Teaching and Learning with the recognition that the learning is not just them, but it’s us also right, but the minute you start focusing on learning, I think you’re changing the idea of what the university is for, because you’re really thinking then about process. You’re really rethinking the cliches about content delivery, and you’re thinking about process and learning for me captures process but it also captures the idea that we do this together.
Shannon: I want to say too… something that I often hear from fellow you know, lefty feminist, humanistic scholars, like me, is a real worry about universities as providing vocational training, there’s a worry that that’s neoliberalism. It’s managerialism, we shouldn’t be training employees. And I see the force of that, I understand where that comes from. But when I think about the majority of the international students I’ve taught, and the majority of the first generation and mature students I’ve taught, myself included, I was a first generation and a mature student with a child. And so, I walked that path, as well as the majority of them attend university in the hopes of getting a better job that will allow them to lead better lives. And it feels like a kind of elitism to me to write that off as vocational training and say, Well, maybe that should be the colleges or something. I think that our learners get to hope for better jobs and better lives, and I would like to support them in that pursuit. I also along the way want to get them excited about philosophy and curious and taking intellectual risks if they would not see obvious applications for in the workplace, but I don’t like the kind of snobbery about the ‘just writes off any kind of vocational learning’ outcomes as neoliberalism.
Ann: I couldn’t agree more. And I worry that when I hear sort of the lefty feminist, anti-racist, whatever, you know, folks using that language, I worry that we’re just replicating the 19th century university here, right where like the elite white men showed up, and they could be sort of dilettante-ish about knowledge for a few years before they went off into some inherited position. I’m completely sort of exaggerating the example there, we always work both within and against institutions that we’re in, right. And it’s okay to say that it’s perfectly reasonable for people to be here, you know, you’ve made it to the university, the University did not make that easy for you. Of course, you’re here because you want a better job afterwards. Who am I to say that you can’t have a better job afterwards? I got one. So, and it’s okay to do everything you just said to Shannon, right? Like you’d like let’s talk about curiosity and ideas. And because all of that you’ll bring to the rest of your lives also, can’t we do again, both ends? Can’t we both work with the institution for the things that it’s doing, okay, and work to make it better, and also work against some of the things that it’s dragging along, including that kind of elitism and snobbery. And we just want to get rid of that.
Andrew: Oh, yeah, I agree to I think the university is part of society, it shouldn’t be some bubble removed from the world, it should be focused to move for the people moving into the world, and the integrated into its communities, its local communities, not just its, you know, ideal communities. So, I think that there’s a place for all of this in the university, and even in terms of the classroom that we’ve been imagining, really breaking down the walls of that classroom and seeing that, that learning can take place in all sorts of, of locations, and involve spans of time that exceed a three month for semester, right? And that there’s much more expansiveness to learning, there’s much more integration between the university and the community that is possible. And that back and forth, the fluidity of those boundaries that really have been more rigid over time, traditionally, at least, I think having them to be more porous is going to it’s going to be complicated, it’s going to be a little less, “either, or”, but I think it’s going to be richer as a result. And I mean, I love the fact that, that a student would come to a liberal arts institution, thinking that they, they want to improve their ability to take that next step in their career. And because a liberal arts university isn’t typically focused on careers, and yet, I’m really interested in this idea of competencies and affect the way that our students apply what they’ve learned to a career path is always so incredibly creative, and they always get jobs. So yeah, I think it should be all of this stuff, the university shouldn’t be hemmed in to any one particular goal here, it’s part of society and should reflect its complexity.
Shannon: It’s worth saying that, getting back now in a more full-on way to academic freedom, supporting academic freedom gives us the kind of pluralism of approaches that allows us to support a wide array of learning outcomes and create different kinds of classrooms and so forth. And precisely because our learners are so varied precisely because increasingly, we are so varied, we need to do the perform the academic mission of the university in lots of different ways. We won’t do that if we all take the same approach. And I spoke at the beginning about academic freedom, as a cluster of freedoms in order to recognise the diversity of folks who are engaged in the academic mission. And so, we can come right back around to that, right?
Andrew: This has been a wonderful conversation. I’m so grateful, Shannon, that you were prepared to come in and speak with us about this. And I really enjoyed this very rich and wide-ranging conversation.
Ann: Thank you very much. That was great.
Shannon: You have been wonderful interlocutors I could do this all day. I wish you well with the podcast and I hope that our paths keep crossing.
Andrew: Oh, me too.
Ann: Me too. Yeah.
Andrew: Yeah, take care. And we’ll see maybe hopefully see you soon.
Andrew: Shifting Conversations was created by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, or STLHE 2021 cohort of the 3M National Teaching Fellows, with the expert guidance of Judy Bornais and Srini Sampalli. This project was made possible by STLHE with the generous support of 3M Canada Special thanks to the team at STLHE, Jay Adamson Natalie Smith, Tanya Botterill and Debbie Brady. Project management and technical support from Craig Fraser, social media support by Aysha Campbell additional support from Meghan Tibbs original music composed by Hope Salmonson and performed by Ventus Machina. You can find more information on our website www.stlhe.ca/podcasts.