Andrew Wilson: My name is Andrew Wilson and you’re listening to Shifting Conversations a podcast about dialogue and change in higher education in Canada, where award winning educators have conversations that help both raise and shift perspectives. In today’s episode, I speak with two other STLHE 3M National Teaching Fellows Ann Braithwaite and John Dawson, about how our experience in the university classroom has shifted over the course of the pandemic. We’ve called this episode Pandemic Plot Twists.
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.
John Dawson: Hello, my name is John Dawson and I work at the University of Guelph. I want to acknowledge that this space resides on the ancestral lands of the Attawandaron people, and the treaty lands and territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit. With these words, I offer my respect to my Anishinnabe, Hodinöhsö:ni and my Metis neighbours.
John: Hi, I’m John Dawson, and I’m a biochemistry professor at the University of Guelph. And I’m also the founding director of the Office of Educational Scholarship and practice in the College of Biological Science.
Ann Braithwaite: And I’m Ann Braithwaite and I’m professor and coordinator of diversity and social justice studies at the University of Prince Edward Island.
Andrew: Hello. And I’m Andrew Wilson. I’m a religious studies professor at Mount Allison University and looking forward to this conversation.
Andrew: So, I thought we could start by just talking about the pandemic, we’re still in it, it’s been going for two years and counting. And just maybe we can think about how things have changed in that time, and what the good stuff is maybe?
John: Right at the beginning, when the pandemic started the last day of class, I remember it was Friday the 13th. And then everybody stopped. But very soon after that, we actually surveyed our own students after about a month just to say, how are things going? What do you like, what don’t you like? And it was really powerful feedback from the students. And from that, we actually put together a pathway to remote teaching and learning to help other colleagues in the college and at the University and beyond to figure out what are some things you could do. So, things like showing your face, showing your image, if you’re doing a recording, or if you’re doing a live lesson, things like check-ins with your students, every so often continuous communication at least once a week, you know, emailing, just trying to establish a relationship with your students, it’s really hard to do when you’re not in person with them. So that was one wonderful thing that we did right at the beginning. And I’m really pleased that we released that we put that out to other people, and it was used. And so, our students here, I hope got as good as you could get because of that that work. And it all sparked once again, just from asking our students, how’s it going for you? And what’s working for you?
Ann: So, a couple of things, right? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because like we’re at the end of the second year, and we don’t know what’s coming, right? I mean, everyone’s pretending it’s over. But we might just be back doing a lot of the same kinds of things next year, or, you know, flipping back and forth and how we’re doing things. And I think back to and I know we’ve chatted about this before, but I think back to the summer of 2020, right, and the fear and the panic and the thing that I’m really good at and that I’m really comfortable at, that I’ve been doing for a long time I will not be able to do and what the hell am I going to do? right? and how much we’ve learned not just technically right I mean, how to operate, zoom and what all but how much we sort of learned or relearned and maybe even unlearned right about teaching and learning, but also how much the students have learned. And I was thinking about this talking to somebody the other day, because just one quick example in the face to face classroom when they all got their hand up to say something they don’t say things like great point that somebody else just made, but they do in the chat. And so, we say all the time teaching is about relationships, but I think that the relationship that it’s not so much that they’ve uncovered but that they’ve just been made manifest in what they’re doing with each other as well as what we’re doing with them and obviously, what we’re doing with colleagues and so forth. So, I’ve just been fascinated by the ways in which we’ve all adapted and then for a lot of us, I think a kind of resistance or recalcitrance to unadapt, right? and pretend that maybe if this lasted only six months we could go okay that was a blip and then we’re over that but two years or more in this is a lasting change. And I really want to all of us together, right to really kind of stop and think about what is that lasting change? Or what are those lasting changes? And what are we going to do with them?
Andrew: Yeah, that’s great. And I agree with everything that you’ve said. And I’ve had similar kinds of experiences. And for me, it’s interesting that we’ve had two years in this because that first jump online and the retreat to our domestic spheres was all a bit of a blur, and a bit of a panic and just trying to make things work and figure things out. And it wasn’t until the second go around, that I realised some stuff that I hadn’t, I guess I just hadn’t noticed before. So, for example, I realised that the relationships we build in the classroom are really important for learning. So that first go around, we stopped mid semester and jumped online out of the classroom. And I had in those classes, I had the benefit of those relationships that had already been formed really well. And we just sort of carried on and that sustained us in those last number of weeks to the end of semester. The next go around, though, I started virtually. And I guess I wasn’t even thinking about the need to establish relationships in the classroom. This goes back to what John was saying before about checking in. And I mean, I think that’s all part of this acknowledgment that learning happens in communities, learning happens, because people are relating to each other. And the more supported, the more real, the more effective. And the more developed those relationships are, the better.
The other thing that I noticed is that learning online and having that experience brought the domestic into the classroom. So, we’re all at home, my cat jumping across the screen, you can hear the dog barking in the background, my kids are screaming at each other. I mean, I guess that’s not so much of an exaggeration, but it might be a little bit, but what that meant for me was that my students were having the same experience, you know, a lot of them had their cameras off. But I knew that if they turned their cameras on, or if they did to speak, I could see the kitchen, or I could see their bedroom, or they were bringing into that classroom, that virtual classroom, things that they’ve never brought in before, at least not in an obvious way. And so, it kind of blew up this mythology I might have had about how the classroom is this contained space, and that all the learning happens there. And we kind of bracket out the stuff that we bring with us at the door, and we learn and then we leave. So that relational and contextual stuff was really challenged in my sense of what happened in the pandemic. And as a result, I do things differently now.
John: Sure, Andrew, I mean, there’s so many things that you could springboard off everything I was just said, I mean, about the relationships, I have an active classroom, when I’m doing flipped classroom, one of the things I do is I try and learn everybody’s name, and I put names to faces. But when we like you said through the second go, I’m teaching a class and I’m not seeing the faces, I just as an instructor, I don’t have the same relationship with those students, I could pass them in the hall now. And they could have been one of my students and loved the class, but I would have no knowledge of who they are, or that was very strange for me as an instructor. So, I think it’s not only important for the students, of course, but also for us as instructors to have that relationship. We’re all humans at the end of the day. So, this is a human experience as Ann said around the chat, I think that’s going to be something in the future where we’re going to have to adapt. I think I see that happening in the classroom a lot more now, particularly in large classes. And there’s a number of issues with large classes that raised by what you just said, around relationship. How do I have relationships with 600 students? there’s just one of me. But also, we all know with lower level classes first year, second year, if they’re really big, students are a little bit more hesitant to raise the hand in class and ask a question. So, they might leave confused or have a misunderstanding of something because they didn’t get it cleared up. But if you can have the chat open, and they can ask those questions as they arise, I see a lot of good in that. I mean, there’s also bad because of people say silly things in chat sometimes. So, there’s a lot of training perhaps about being professional and what you ask. And also the sheer volume needs to have some help, perhaps. So, there’s many things that we can do there to adapt. And as you said, around just breaking down this mythology that classroom was a contained space. Yeah, absolutely. So, I think we’re just coming to terms with breaking down those four walls of the classroom. And there’s actually a lot of good in that too. Now, like I can bring in speakers for just five minutes, who are from, you know, a world renowned research group or something to talk specifically about this issue. I see a lot of excite I’m really excited about that. A lot of great learning, having our students interacting with, with people from around the world immediately. I think that’s going to be incredible.
Ann: I love these points, right that for me, there’s two major myths that have been sort of dispelled right and one is as Andrew just said, the myth of the classroom is the great equaliser right that everybody just comes to the classroom and they’re all the same. And we’ve always kind of known that’s not true. I mean, we know that’s not true, they show up in your office, and they have life stories and so forth. But the fact that they weren’t actually physically there that you could see their spaces, you could see their context, you can see their animals. I have a list that I started, like, shortly after the pandemic started three things I love about COVID. It’s a very short list. And it’s never expanded beyond that, but one of them is the animals, right? I mean, seeing everybody’s animals is just fabulous, because it breaks down those barriers to write the kind of sage on the stage professor at the front or whatever, which I don’t think any of us do, right, but breaks that down. But the fact that students were at least last year all over the world, they were zooming in with like a 12 hour time difference. They you know, sometimes you could see like, where they were and everything too. So, the notion of the classroom is the great equaliser is just dispelled completely right, and really kind of brought to the forefront or highlighted for me even more that this is going to sound silly students are people that they have lives and families and friends and backgrounds. And I think there’s lots of I mean, we hear a lot about, you know, the not being able to see faces and videos off and so forth. Well, sometimes that’s because there’s six people sitting behind them. So, the fact that we’ve had to become so much more aware of issues like accessibility, and so forth in recognising why and how students show up in our classrooms, whatever our classrooms are, right now, my classroom is like this little eight by 11 screen, or however big my screen is. But the other big myth that I think John was just talking to, that I really had to let go of is the myth of control. The idea that somehow, as much as my classes are all incredibly discussion based, that somehow I was there managing the discussion. Well, now they’re on Moodle, having all kinds of discussions with each other, and I don’t have to jump in, they’re doing it all themselves. They’re in the chat having all kinds of discussions. And I kind of like when the chat goes in a whole other direction. Quick example, I use the idea of last semester of single size servings of cake that you can buy in the grocery store, and they just went off about cake for like, I don’t know, 15 minutes didn’t matter, right? I mean, they were just having a great time over there. I keep sort of gesturing with my hand towards the chat. They were just having a great time over there. So, I’ve loved the way in which this has highlighted the myths of control of professorial control and what it’s meant when I said earlier, but what have we unlearned, and I think about what I’ve had to unlearn. I mean, I never thought that I had that much control. But now I know how little control. And I really, I’ve enjoyed that.
Andrew: Yeah, I love those points about control and having to let go, because it’s certainly not the way I was trained to let go of control when it comes to teaching and to academics and to that whole conversation. In fact, if anything, it’s always been how can you demonstrate more control? How can you demonstrate your expertise? How can you direct the learning? How can you shape the particular kinds of expressions that you’re getting from students and fit it to a particular standard? So that was very much my background. But I agree that there’s been this whole shift, I think it was a shift that was already happening. And certainly, in my classroom, and in my field, there’s always been well, for the last little while, there’s been an increasingly this sense of well, what is the instructor here to do? What how does the learning take place? And what’s the most effective kind of learning that we’re talking about? And certainly, in religious studies, where there’s been traditionally this, this separation between knowledge of religions and practice of religions, that there’s been a real sense to try and bridge that gap in a way that walks a very fine line between academics and devotion. So, as an academic, I don’t want them to necessarily bracket out their experience and their culture, cultural knowledge. And yet I want them to cultivate and to create certain kinds of perspectives on the material that they’re dealing with. And yet, I’m not the one who’s going to be able to just direct that most effectively, the way that actually that ends up happening most effectively is if they talk to each other, and they compare notes, and they follow their interests. And they think about the complexities and the confusion and the messiness that they find themselves in and really that pandemic classroom couldn’t be any messier. And I think embracing the messy classroom is what you’re talking about. And it’s the relinquishing a certain kind of control. And in that messiness, there’s this enormous amount of creativity is enormous potency. And the challenge is to make the most of that.
John: I really liked that discussion around control, because it was It reminds me a paper will often talk to new faculty about by Peter Kugel 1993. And he talks about different stages of the development of professors and how I recall when I started, it was all about I got to get the material, right, I have to have all the right answers. So, it really was focused on me and how I had to have everything just perfect. And then over time, toward the end, sort of the more mature end phase is where we just as you said, and give up control and it’s really about the students and we’re helping, we’re just guiding them to learn on their own, the student has independent learner, there’s just less of us and more of them. And for some, it’s hard. I know, for me, it was really hard to give up that control. And I’m not there yet, I really am not, still got that I’ve got a certain amount of content to cover that kind of thing. But absolutely this idea, I think the pandemic kind of forced us to give up control that we didn’t want to before or that we weren’t comfortable giving up before. And for many of us, we’ve actually come to terms with that some are more than happy to go back. They’re really happy to be back. Others are now happy to move forward with seeing where this is going to go. And I’m excited to see where that is headed.
Andrew: What are the consequences of expanding the classroom on purpose, right? to really breaking down that traditional view of a learning space and thinking of it more expansively? and what are the consequences of relinquishing a certain kind of control and looking for other ways that learning can happen most effectively, what are the complications? but also the implications of that for not just our classrooms, but just higher education, generally speaking?
Ann: we talked about the idea of the myth of the contained classroom, right the classroom was the great equaliser and the pandemic force us to recognise the ways in which the external world is always part of the classroom also, and whether that’s because people are sick, and they’re isolating, or, you know, whatever else is happening, that we’ve had to sort of had to deal with either their own illness or somebody else’s illness, or you know, what to do with students who have to disappear for three weeks or whatever. So, the ways in which the external world has had to become part of the classroom, and that’s in terms of like classroom practices like that. But I think also for a lot of us, it’s about how does that impact our content or our curriculum? Right? And I think that’s across the board. I mean, maybe it’s clear in places or in areas like DSJ is diversity and social justice studies or religious studies, but I think it has to be a part of every classroom no matter what, that we’re dealing not just with the impact of a pandemic on people’s lives we’re dealing with, which, you know, grief and loss and hope and fear and anxiety. And all I mean, why are all my emotions sort of the negative ones, they are not the negative, but the harder ones to manage? Right? I’m going to hang on to radical hope, because we’re also thinking about what are the opportunities here, because in the midst of this pandemic, the world has exploded around us. We’re recording (this episode) three days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But we know that in the last two years for the Islamophobia, the anti-Asian racism, the anti-black racism, in Canada, the anti-Indigenous stuff that’s ongoing in all kinds of ways, the world has the issues of the world have heightened and entered the university. I mean, they were always there, but a lot of folks tried to pretend they weren’t. So, when I think about this sort of focused on content and control, and the content I teach is the world. So, all of this stuff has been part of the classroom anyways. And I get the necessity for scaffolding and you know, some kind of accumulation of certain kinds of knowledges and some classrooms and so forth. But I think that the challenge for all of us has been what is university for? and that if it’s not about giving students or all of us some necessary knowledges, and tools to engage with the messiness of the world around us, so that we become kind of good intervenors in that world, and we’re out there making good trouble, then I’m not sure what we think we’re collecting salaries for.
John: I’ve said for many years, even before the pandemic, given the internet, and just access to information that my students are essentially swimming in a sea of facts and figures, that really one of our goals is to help students discern good information from bad information. And I think that’s more important now than ever, given everything that we’re seeing. So, I think part of the challenge moving forward to Andrews point, as we expand is just that everything is expanding at an exponential rate. So, when I think about my own discipline, and I’m trying to teach things that are relevant and cutting edge, well, science is just expanding exponentially. So, the amount of new knowledge is growing at such a rate that it becomes out of control. So, we want to control that that’s part of the reason why we’re trying to focus and put limits on it, because things are growing. So quickly. Now piggyback onto that now my classroom and how classes and teaching and learning is expanding may not exponentially but it’s also expanding. And so, what I see for myself and my colleagues is it was tough before the pandemic, to balance all of the tasks that I’ve got to do as a professor, my research and my teaching service, and so on. Now, it’s even more so the real reaction is I need to control things I really do. Otherwise, this is going to get really out of control. And we’re already seeing people burnt out, they’re disengaging with different aspects of their job just because they’re done, I can’t do anymore. And so we really do need to be in the future thinking about how do we help ourselves I think one of the things that we did chat about with the pandemic is the sort of that one of the things we’ve learned is, I think you’ve touched on it, that our students are people, and we get to see them as people. The other aspect, though, is we’re people too. And I’ve learned things about my colleagues through the pandemic that I didn’t know before. Because, you know, we could put that mask on. And so now I know colleagues who, yeah, they can’t come to the university because they have a family member who’s immunocompromised, or they have a condition. I didn’t know that before. But now I do. So, I think we’re having to come to a place where we have compassion for each other as well. And I think one of the challenges and the hope is that we see our students as people, they see us as people as well. And we see each other as people. And so we can help support each other, and grow together. As we move forward. And doing all these, I think really great things with teaching and learning in the future.
Ann: I wanted to jump into that point about faculty who are burned out and so forth, right, because I think that part of that is tied to their our discussion about control. Basically, what we’re facing right now is a kind of whether it comes from the administration or ourselves or whoever, but a kind of expansion, we must do more, we must do more. Now you have to teach hybrid. Now you have to be able to do this and that and the next thing all at the same time, and we don’t know how to do it to begin with. But maybe that’s the wrong approach. When we’re asking, what is the university for? what is learning going to look like? we’re recognising,increasing very different student expectations about what their learning will look like and how they will do it. And whether they actually have to physically be there. Maybe we need to rethink completely what it is we think we’re doing quote unquote, at the front of the classroom, and not simply be trying to sort of replicate now that we’re some of us are back in the face to face classroom and also still online and just keep replicating the things we’ve been doing. But now sort of multiplying it in lots of different ways. Maybe we need to really rethink how we do what we do. Because we also have to recognise all the things you’ve just said, John, right, that all the reasons that folks have approached teaching the way they have, and now can no longer do it the way that they have. I want us to think about that as an opportunity.
Andrew: Absolutely. I think it’s a really important question, this idea of rethinking, asking the question of what is university for? and it seems to me that we’re at a point where rejuvenation is possible rejuvenation of the, of the possibility of University of the role of university and the scope of university as well. And when I hear you talk, John, I think, and it’s probably because I don’t know enough about the sciences. But I just wonder to what extent the discourse can change in the sciences in talking about the students are real people, they’re coming to class, we need to have real conversations, we need to include that fullness of who they are in their learning. And when I hear that I’m like, Yes, but then I’m thinking well, but to what extent are the possibilities for that limited by the conventions of scientific discourse, as we understand it, or as we have practised it? So, I guess the key example that I have, in my mind is the distinction between scientific discourse as we may find it in a university classroom, or in a research project or a lab or something like this, versus the junk science that we see circulating in conspiracy theories. And I think what’s become increasingly obvious is that just one side denouncing the other is not really working, the proving of junk science as wrong doesn’t seem to work in terms of resolving the particular cultural moment that we’re in and in bridging the gaps that we find, we find ourselves needing to cross. So, in other words, we’ve got those students, some of those students who are in our classes, some of those people, I mean, I guess this is an example. It’s resonant for me because it really does mirror religious devotion, and how religious people are religious, and yet they find themselves that they find that they’re scientists, and that that can have various impacts and effects on how they do their work. And certainly our students are involved in that with that as well. But this is a thorny issue, and it’s a complex one as well. So how can we, you teach science right, in a way that addresses our cultural moment?
John: Well, okay, so let me start by saying I am a scientist, I am not all scientists. But I think this this conversation, Andrew is a really important one, and particularly when, in the context of where we are now. We’re having conversations about indigenizing, the curriculum and so on. And I see, for example, that issue and many other issues four different levels, there’s the level of the university itself, and what is the university? something we’ve been talking about rethinking what the university does, but we also have to come to terms with the history of universities and universities as a colonising force as educate, education in itself as a, as a way of advocating a way of thinking for example, or ways of thinking and then science as a discipline in particular, it’s very rare to talk about epistemologies you know, because it’s generally just we’re indoctrinated into just one. The scientific method is the way to think and the way things are done with hypothesis producing and testing and reproducibility is huge, you know, these kinds of major elements that have really, if you looked historically, these, these kinds of major elements, philosophical elements have pushed our society, you could argue culture ahead. In many ways, if we got cell phones and vaccines and so on, for good or bad, that’s the second level.
The third level is maybe our own disciplines themselves. And mine being biochemistry I operate a level or think at a level that not a lot of other people groups have thought at. So, the level of atoms and molecules, a lot of other people groups have never seen that. And I haven’t either, but I believe they exist because of all of the evidence to it. And actually, now we have seen particular individual atoms as well. So that can be a challenge as well. And then the last level is each one of us individually, and how all of those elements of our lives, our history, our backgrounds, our disciplines, our training, how that all is sort of weaved together to form us, and how we all individually have to now respond or confront some of these issues in today. So, it’s going to be challenging, I know it will be. And I think, as a scientist, scientists going to have to have conversations, and some of them are going to be uncomfortable, and they’re going to be anything that’s common for everybody. Because as a practitioner of science, sometimes I would be guilty of not thinking so much about all of the other philosophy of science and the history of science. I’m just practising it. And I’m moving things forward. And I’m not pausing to say, Okay, well, what I’m doing is a particular way of thinking. So, in the future, then Andrew, I think to be more direct, we need to start thinking about how we address what scientific thinking and scientific ways of knowing what that actually is, we need to actually start teaching that and talking about that openly in our classrooms so that our students can make those decisions on their own about how they feel about these things. I think it’s been there have been other authors who’ve written on this topic that say, you know, even in K to 12 system, when we start teaching students science, one of the ways we do that is to tell them to think like a scientist, and for them, that’s tough, if you come from a culture that doesn’t have scientific ways of knowing kind of baked into it, that can set you up internally to have those conflicts. As you mentioned, scientists who are also believers in a religion, sometimes that can be set up a real conflict within themselves. And so, for our even our education system, where we tell students to think like a scientist at an early age, that can set up some pretty intense conflict, they go home, and they’re talking to their mom and dad, and they have to behave one way and then they come to school, and they’re expected to behave a different way. So, I think in the next while, we really need to talk about how do we integrate, how do we build and allow those two things to happen, either be integrated, or at least happen together without there as much conflict?
Ann: I want to add to that, because it’s not just, you know, you go home, and you’re thinking a different way, but that you’re part of a group of people for against whom science has been used, or science and medicine or whatever, or even engineering. I mean, we built highways through entire communities of people to destroy their communities, we’ve built dams, we still doing this all over the place, right, to destroy all kinds of indigenous lands in the north, etc., as well, not just in the north. So, I think that that for me, takes us back to an earlier point about not just you know, what we teach, but why are we teaching? Right? And if what the pandemic has made so clear, no point we made earlier is that the external world cannot be separated from the university classroom or the post secondary classroom, that we have to figure out how to let that in, in every way in every discipline. I mean, on the one hand, yeah, I’m, I’m well vaccinated. I believe in vaccines believe science, people say, and on the other hand, I can tell you a lot of horrid things that science has, that have been done in the name of science against all kinds of groups of people. And it goes back to something you were saying a few minutes ago, too, but sort of who universities are for. And I think about all the folks that have started showing up into universities and universities being often really flustered about what to do with them. They’re not reflected in curriculum, they’re not perfected in practices and policies. All of a sudden, people are like, hey, you know, we’re here, and this is what we need to be here. And whether that’s sort of being made possible. So, I just jumped between three different points there. Right. But I think the question of the messiness to go back to the tensions that Andrew was outlining is an important one, and we have to make those from day one onwards, we have to make those part of the curriculum, there is no scientific method. That is, look at me, I’m not a scientist. I’m going to vote to tell you what the scientific method is. But there is no scientific method that can be taught I would argue without acknowledging the horrors that have been done in the name of science, and social sciences and a whole bunch of other fields too. So, if we don’t make those part of the conversation and part of the curriculum then what is it that we’re teaching? Again, What are we getting those salaries for? but then also as who is the universe, not just what is University for? but who is University for? I mean, we must grapple with that really seriously. Because that’s not just about open the doors and take their money, often, you know, way too much money, but how are you then going to make the university for people for all kinds of groups of people who have historically been marginalised and excluded from it? And that’s about curriculum, and that’s about practice. And that’s about faculty. And that’s about massive changes, we might not recognise the university at the end of all of this, I love ideas, and I hate what gets done in the name of some ideas. So those are the conversations I want to have.
John: Ann taught me the actual definition of the word ambivalence, and I loved it. It’s not that you just don’t care. It’s that you see both sides. And that’s truly ambivalence. And I think I’m an ambivalent person.
The problem for science is there’s a scientific supremacy and Andrew, it goes to what you said before around scientific discourse, and just junk science, this idea that the way that science is done is the right way, is the truth we are discovering the facts here. So that if you if you believe something, that’s not it has not come to be known through a scientific way, then it is inferior. Not only is it inferior, it’s just plain wrong. And so that’s going to be extremely challenging, because this is a core fundamental part of science and scientific thinking.
Andrew: Yeah, I’m glad you said that. John, I think that’s a really sharp way of characterising some of the university culture that we’re having. And the legacy of the Enlightenment, especially, that we’re all dealing with, I mean, Religious Studies is this split personality between wanting to do the study of religion according to well, scientific method using the same kind of process, but doing it in terms of investigating religion and religious phenomena versus a tradition that is very much not that at all, or at least much more than that. And going back to what Ann was saying, religion has that split personality between a thing that’s good for people and a thing that’s pretty bad for people as well as history can attest. So, there’s that struggle, even just within my own discipline. But I keep coming back to the elements of our conversation that seem to be so much about that this is a community issue. We need lots of voices involved in this. And so, I think you’re right, John, that we are living in the shadow of the European enlightenment, still, we’re living in the shadow of this seismic shift in worldview from a religious worldview to a rational worldview. And that has really defined and oriented the hierarchy of values that we have in the university. But I’m also very aware just because I’m I come from a liberal arts university that the university has existed for a lot longer than that, it’s a matter of really not necessarily rejecting that particular enlightenment perspective. And you’re right, we have cell phones, and medicine, and all of these vaccines and all this wonderful thing as a result of the scientific method, but filling in the picture that not everything can fit within that rational enlightenment box. And just because it doesn’t fit in there doesn’t mean that somehow it doesn’t exist or it’s not worth considering. So, for me, it’s about I’m not asking that the scientists solve this problem, or that the scientists somehow figure out how to teach science in a way that’s attentive to Indigenous ways of knowing that may well be a broader conversation to figure out how that works. But I can just think, just from my own discipline, that when we’re talking about spirit, for the longest time, and Christianity, spirit and mind were essentially understood to be the same thing. So, in a sense, that shift of worldview, from religious to enlightenment to rational worldview is not necessarily shuffling the deck so much as just relabeling the cards and just moving a particular way of understanding a hierarchy of values from a religious sense to that of a rational sense. So, they’re actually much scientists hardcore, you know, scientists are much more aligned with religious ways of thinking than they may even realise or want to admit, I think it’s more a question of, there’s a different conversation happening. And we need to be able to include many kinds of conversations in the ways that we figure out these things or else we get trapped in one particular discourse. We think of it as then the normal way of doing things and that leads us to where we are right now with lots of potential problems.
Ann: For me, this goes back to the question of unlearning, like what do we have to undo because so much of our sort of attempts to do the kind of diversification of knowledge that you’re beginning to describe to us John is about add and stir right and result feminist thing of the 1970s add women and stir now it’s like add, you know, whatever group and stir and somehow assume that the structure of the knowledge system or the structure of the institution like the University doesn’t have to fundamentally change. All it has to do is add more people into it and make them fit into the status quo. And what does it mean to go in and think beyond and add and stir model and think about what is being reflected in our systems and structures? What is being reflected in the systems of knowledge that we’re like, you know, sort of espousing and teaching and so forth? And how do we begin to undo those? It’s like when I talk about white supremacy, I’m a white person, I talk about white supremacy, I want to focus on what are the sort of the normative structures and standards that remain invisible to those who benefit from them? And how do we undo those, I want to talk about able-bodiedness, because the entire university is built on a notion of able-bodiedness that needs a lot of questioning, I’m thinking about sort of notions of productivity and excellence that depend on certain kinds of standards that are able-bodied, that are presumed all too often the pandemic has also shown us this, that are presumed all too often on somebody else doing the child care or the elder care, right. I mean, one of the sort of first battles of the university and of science was to get folks to recognise that the only way you can spend 18 hours a day in the lab doing your experiments, if somebody’s at home, taking care of the dog and the kids and I am on a podium and a rant, right now (laughter). And that doesn’t need to be edited out. I liked that part (more laughter).
John: This idea that there’s this scientific superiority idea. If you’ve come up with something that’s not based on science, then you’re wrong. That’s just a very common reactions to, to when you hear misinformation, particular, you know, when you hear misinformation, you go, what That’s so wrong. And you know, it’s wrong. But we have to start engaging in those conversations. I think, Andrew, you made the point, you just can’t sit over here and say, No, we’re right. You’re wrong. We have to start engaging with, “okay, let’s talk about this. How did you get there?” But not like, “how did you get there? (in a judgemental tone)” It’s more of “Okay, tell me how you got there.” Let’s start at a common spot. And let’s learn about each other’s way of getting to this. Because through that, I think that’s where we learn about each other’s fears, and biases, and so on. And I think so much of what we’re seeing right now is fear driven humans are, I mean, we have adapted to change based on fear, get out of the way, we’re here to survive. So, if I’m afraid of something, it’s bad, I got to do something about it. I’ve seen during the pandemic at all levels because we’re just human beings, we’re homo sapiens, we’re still kind of animals, let’s not talk about that too much. When it comes to things that we don’t know about, we were not 100% sure about humans have a tendency to just let’s batten down the hatches and stay safe. We’re all about staying safe and being stable. So, when it came to the pandemic, and decisions are being made, everybody had a different level that they felt secure at. Because if you’re not 100% sure of how this is going to work out, people start looking for 100% sure answers. And when you can’t give that to them, then they start to say, well, we can’t listen to you. Or we need to find answers somewhere else. They look for people or piece of sources of information that are giving them those 100% sure type of answers, even if they are not scientifically sound. And I think that’s part of the problem, that’s part of the discourse that has to happen is we have to start a position of listen, I acknowledge that I don’t know everything, I acknowledged it, I’m actually afraid. And that’s hard for some people to say they don’t want to say I don’t really know. And we need to work on this together. So many examples of within our governance models within governments poor, pardon me at universities, within our classes, everyone, this is a human experience. It isn’t just isolated to the university.
Andrew: Just from what you and Ann have said, it seems to me that what we’re talking about here is a type of authentic dialogue, the ability to communicate, and to cross those kinds of divides and divisions, ideological or cultural or otherwise, that the university provides a very important context for ideally, and yet, there’s this sense that we’ve become more obsessed with expertise than with dialogue. So maybe the future of the university is a future that rediscovers what dialogue really is and how dialogue actually works and doesn’t dispense with expertise. But it understands that expertise is in some ways at the surface of dialogue. We’re not going to figure this stuff out, unless we talk to each other in ways that are authentic and meaningful and helpful. I mean, I like the pandemic of course, it’s going to be our go to example for some time to come. But one of the things about the pandemic is that it affected people so very differently. And yet our initial measures were blanket measures as though somehow we could contain things or deal with things with just one particular solution. And we realised pretty quickly that it’s a mess. It’s I mean, the pandemics of course is a mess. But there’s not really that kind of consistency that people’s lives and situations aren’t neat and tidy. And they’re not necessarily comparable, that there’s no panacea for this, but no panacea for a pandemic. And I think that to use that as a metaphor, I mean, I hate doing that, because I don’t want to erase people’s actual lived suffering and difficulties during this time. But even just to very lightly do that, I think that provides us with a really key point, if we’re to think about what the university should be, or could be going forward is that it needs to be a place where difference can come together, and where dialogue can happen. And that’s a messy and difficult and challenging thing. And I’m sure it will generate a reasonable amount of fear as well.
Ann: Actually, I think we’re in an anti-expertise moment, right? that expertise is like we live in an anti-intellectual sort of context right now. And that might connect back to this sort of, you know, the desire for surety of some sort. But I think that what all of this the sort of last few minutes of the conversation really highlights for me is that knowledge is there’s no such thing as pure knowledge or knowledge, we with a capital K, or truth with a capital T, then all knowledge is political, meaning that it’s all situated, it’s all invested at all had stakes of various kinds, and that we need to really start owning that even in the scientific method, because otherwise, we have no way to talk about or politically, socially, culturally, etc. Better handle something like what gets sort of flippantly called vaccine hesitancy, for instance, right? I mean, there are very real reasons why people are, are resistant to certain kinds of medical interventions that are very long histories, right? I really want to sort of emphasise the idea that because even in the university, right, I mean, if you sit in Senate or something, there’s a clear hierarchy of what kinds of knowledges are more valued and more elevated, even in the university context, right. And we know that because we fight for resources and recognition, and so forth. But if all knowledge is political, if all knowledge is situated and partial, then that becomes the thing that I think we also have to teach. But to say that, you know, all of our knowledge is, is partial, based on particular interpretations of evidence and events happening around us trying to factor in the messiness of both human and non human animals, and how we interact with each other trying to factor in relationality is of all kinds. And I just, I want to really highlight that idea that that there’s no one knowledge that is the knowledge that we should all be turning to because it will not lead us out.
John: It’s interesting when you are sorry to say about the truth, because that’s part of the issue is that for decades, the science and scientific knowledge has been that has been propped up as being the truth. These are the facts, this is the truth. And the truth of the matter is see is that it’s a moving target, that we continue to learn more. And as we learn more things, change some of our original ideas from the 1950s that are no longer valid, or we learn more that those are true, but there’s actually more to it now and that explain some of the other things that were experienced in the natural world. And so, I think, as a scientist, I commonly said this to my students, you know, you’re the next generation of scientists, and you’re going to have to help us as a scientific community to convey this idea that our knowledge of the natural world is expanding. And we’ve really done a disservice to ourselves by saying to the public, this is correct, this is the right thing. And then the cholesterol is always a great example, right? In the 80s. It was like “Don’t eat too much cholesterol is a bad thing.’ And then a few years later said, “well actually turns out some cholesterol is actually pretty good for you.” And so now the public is like, “really, because you told us it was not good for us. And now you’re telling us it is so Okay, since you were wrong, then you must be wrong now.” And that’s kind of where we’re at with misinformation. It’s like, “Well, you were wrong, then. So now you’re wrong. We just can’t trust you.” And that’s the real issue is, so we have to get back to the dialogue around how we get to those pieces of information and trying to explain to everyone that this is a journey, there are certain signposts, I’d say for sure that this is a fact for sure. But there’s more to it. There’s more to the story as we go. And so, you know, stay tuned. And don’t always take everything as just a blanket 100% facts, because there may be little variances here and there that we’re going to discover in the future.
Andrew: It reminds me of an example I give my students and I won’t go on about it. But I basically sat next to a philosopher during a dinner party one time, and we were talking about the nature of truth. And he very much informed by a particular post enlightenment, rational understanding of capital T truth, transcendent, and remaining unchanged over time and the possibility for all of that stuff, right. And I was sitting next to him thinking, Well, I think it’s more complicated than that, which is a response he did not like at all. And so, he came up with an example that’s basically Well, you know, what there is there are overarching objective truths. For example, one plus one equals two and that’s just all there is to it. One plus one equals two. That’s true, it will never be wrong. It will be right no matter where you are, who you are. There you go. There’s your universal truth. Of course, I didn’t Give it time I can’t characterise myself as coming up with this wonderful flourish of insight. But subsequent to that conversation, it occurs to me, Well, you’re right, one plus one does equal two. But on the other hand, twoness is so much more than one plus one because you have a pair, or do you were to polarity or binary ism, you know, a partnership, there’s just so many different ways that two is meaningful, twoness is meaningful than that equation can account for I use that example just to say, well, we need the other perspectives here, we need other points of view in order to fill out the truth that we may have put our finger on here, but it’s not complete. It requires dialogue and difference and requires people coming together, I think, and earlier in the conversation, or maybe it was John, you were talking about the K to 12 system. And I think that we can’t just be thinking about our university campuses, or our university communities here, either. And I think it was your question, who was University for? it’s got to be for more than just 18 to 24 year olds, or whatever it is, right? But and I’m in an undergraduate institution. So, we also need to be including voices that wouldn’t typically make it to campus or are too young for campus or have outgrown campus that all of these voices need to be part of this conversation, if it is going to be abroad based on authentic dialogue.
Ann: My example of somewhat corollary example of your dinner party conversation, somebody used to always say to me, like, you know, the 1000-pound rock will get you, Ann Right? The gravity is real And I’m like, yes. But let’s think about how is that being framed? What is our knowledge of gravity? What are the stories we tell about gravity? What are the narratives? What are the stakes in sort of hanging on to particular versions, 1000-pound rocks? And not what can we do about those 1000? I mean, there’s just all kinds of the social and the cultural and the political questions, I never want to say that there is a knowledge that exists in some pure form. And then everything else is simply added on to that. And that if you could sort of get rid of the politics and the social and the cultural, that you’d be back down to the pure knowledge, because the so-called pure knowledge is constructed within those systems of politics, and social and cultural values, and beliefs, and assumptions and ideologies and all that kind of stuff, right? I mean, the scientific method to go back to the example we were talking about before, right? And Andrew points out that it’s the whole notion of, you know, logic and rationality and so forth, kind of coming to bear out of the Enlightenment, I never want to separate knowledge at any moment in the university or outside of the university outside of what’s, the what are the various investments in that knowledge? Because that’s the point at which we have the dialogue, the debates and so forth, not the sort of, you’re right, you’re wrong. But how is it being framed? How are we understanding this? Because those are the moments at which we come to understand why people do and don’t buy into particular versions of the world.
Andrew: Yeah, like that. So even that one plus one equals two has been framed or as in being embedded or has emerged from a context such as a dinner party, right? But that’s significant, as a frame of reference for understanding what’s going on in that equation. It is this ideal that somehow it exists independent of everything as a pure form of reason or rationality. But in fact, that’s never how we experience it.
Ann: I think everything we’re talking about all this kind of unlearning and rethinking and everything is done in community, right? I mean, Andrews using the word dialogue, I use the word community, but these are not individual efforts, right? We don’t sit in our own offices and think, What do I know? And what am I How am I going to unlearn what I know? Right? We do it with other people. But I also think about you know, we started by talking about the myths of the classroom as the great equaliser right? and the myth of control and how we sort of been faced with that. And for me, the sort of third big myth is the myth of “back to normal.” And the back to normal. I mean, in terms of Forget everything you’ve done for like last two or maybe five years. By the time this is all over right back to the face to face classroom back to everything the same. Many of us don’t want it, many of our students don’t want it. That’s in terms of classroom practice. But everything we’ve just been talking about is also we can’t go given everything that’s come to, we’ve all been thinking about brought to light through the pandemic. I mean, one of the things that I’m constantly sort of amazed by is it took very few months into 2020, before people started recognising the sort of the racial and class inequities around the pandemic and that that was a mainstream media right? I mean, that was that’s new, that’s huge. And suddenly there’s just I mean, there’s a lot of people trying to ignore it but that’s kind of have entered our public consciousness and so the back to normal is can’t go back to being the some version of whatever you were teaching was just fine as it were, as it was, right? Like we have to be able to sort of bring in all the other kind of, of social, cultural, whatever knowledge is that we’ve if not discovered, we’ve become more aware of, and by we, I mean, sort of all of us together, including the resistances to that because boy, are we in a period of resistance of all kinds.
Andrew: I like that final kind of point of let’s not just go back to what we found comfortable before the pandemic, let’s and I think that that sense of comfort, of course we want to go, we’re going to want to go back to what’s comfortable, we’re exhausted and things have been really difficult, of course, we’re going to want to have a bit of a break from that. But it would be nice if as a community, we could lean into the discomfort that we could, we could really push forward and take that risk and be brave. And, and take our students into the community and have the community as the classroom. Right. That’s something that’s important to me, and important to the way I’m thinking about my own teaching is that we want to embed our students in rich learning environments, and that might no longer be the classroom, it might be some other space, some other kinds of location. And it’s a simple shift. But I think it’s a way of leaning into or the things that we’ve been talking about in terms of loss of control in terms of encountering difference in encouraging dialogue in terms of I’ve just thinking about how the university is integrated into a broader community, and much more as possible than we’ve really been able to take hold off so far.
Ann: And I also want to just pick up on that idea of comfort, right, that this notion that we want to go back to being comfortable. But you know, for any number of people around us that comfort with that discomfort is very real, they have lost family members, they have lost friends, they have long COVID somebody close to them has long COVID We are facing, you know, potentially some massive social changes that we’ve barely begun to talk about, that are going to force a change in the university. Because if you’re looking at 20% of a population with long COVID, they’re not showing up in your classroom. So, what are you going to do? Right? Are you going to you being sort of all of us individually, but also a university collectively, are we just going to now continue to exclude people go back to a moment in which university sort of just happily excluded people because they never thought they needed to be there to begin with? What are we going to do? So how are we going to grab a hold of this moment with all of its messiness, right? I think we’ve exposed a lot of messiness. How are we going to take this moment of absolute messiness, this crisis moment and think about what can come from it as opposed to and grab a hold of that, right? I mean, I think about sort of the argument about disaster capitalism, and the ways in which so many groups of people everywhere in the face of disaster capitalism are grabbing hold of opportunities, refusing the sort of dominant narrative that says, disaster capitalism, austerity, and all that kind of stuff and saying, no, actually, we’re going to do something very differently. And just maybe all of us together can think about what is being made possible in the midst of this moment of crisis, as opposed to what we’re losing what what’s the sort of radical hope that we can hang on to.
Andrew: Yeah, and sort of embrace, embrace that messiness, and not expect that there’s going to be a neat solution to the complexities of this of this situation.
John: It’s in doing it as a community doing it together. Right. I think, to your point and around comfort, I often say even in education, good learning is uncomfortable, because it’s stretches. And if you’re comfortable here, right now, you’re not really learning as much as you might, there’s two aspects to that comfort, and there’s, it’s the discomfort, and having coming to terms with that, and also the vulnerability, and we’re academics. And so sometimes there’s this feeling that you know, I have to be right, and I put on my facade of being a professor. And so being vulnerable and saying, you know, actually don’t know, or I’m not really comfortable with this, we have to also embrace being vulnerable and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and also allow others to be vulnerable, and be empathetic to everyone else. I think that idea of compassion, really, over the pandemic, a pedagogy of compassion, and just compassion for each other has been one of the dominant themes that’s emerged, and I see moving forward, that that’s going to be a good thing as we grow forward.
Andrew: Yeah, I love that pedagogy of compassion. Yep.
Ann: And then we all have to become involved in because the three of us are very well secure in our positions in the university. And that’s not true for 50% of our colleagues at all Canadian universities, we have to become involved in altering the structures of our universities to make space for everybody who’s already there as academic teaching staff.
Andrew: Should we bring this to a close? (laughter) What a wonderful conversation. I really appreciate this opportunity. And yeah, I really enjoyed that. Thank you so much. And thanks-
John: I’m coming to New Brunswick and PEI, I don’t care. I’m showing up in a van someday, and I’m at your doorsteps.
Andrew: Oh, yeah. We’ll go we’ll go visit Anne of Green Gables. (laughter)
John: Oh, yeah. I’d love to do that. I confess I have not been to Pei yet. So, I have to do that.
Andrew: Oh, yeah. Oh, it’s lovely. It’s a lovely place. Absolutely. Well, thanks, everyone.
Ann: Thank you so much, everyone.
John: Thanks, guys. Great to see ya.
Andrew: Take care.
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, in particular, 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.