Tag Archives: environment

Summer Reading Series: “Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning”

This is the first post in our dialogic pedagogies summer reading series; for more information and a complete list of texts, see here. Not all posts will be as long as what follows — this week’s text is just a particularly rich one for inspiring thought and practice. 🙂 

By Sarah Ropp

Title: Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning and Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (published 2013; available for free via PDF HERE)

Authors: Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff and Libby Roderick

Context of Creation: This book comes out of a weeklong faculty intensive organized through a partnership between Alaska Native educators, Elders, and community members and two Anchorage, Alaska-based public universities: University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) and Alaska Pacific University (APU). The book is a follow-up to 2008’s Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (edited by Kay Landis; free PDF available HERE). The UAA/APU Difficult Dialogues programming, funded by the Ford Foundation’s national Difficult Dialogues initiative, is considered a torchbearer in the field of dialogic pedagogies, in large part on the strength of these two open-access texts. 

Context of Reception: I read most of this book sitting in my backyard, on a pleasant May day in Austin, Texas. As the authors encouraged, I took frequent breaks to breathe, reflect, and connect to my environment, attending to the sunlight filtering through the leaves, the birdsong, the temporary drone of landscaping machinery, a hovering mosquito, some new mushrooms in the grass from the rain. At one point, barely into my reading, a squirrel ventured close to me. She rose up to rest on her back legs, made eye contact with me, and mimed eating a nut, nibbling at the air between empty paws. She came closer, and put a paw on the orange suede toe of my sneaker. I had my legs crossed, so she had to stand and reach for my foot; the pressure of her paw was delicate. I had never before interacted with our backyard squirrels. Her presence brought me happiness, and infused the reading of this book with added pleasure and significance. 

I give thanks to the Alaska Native educators and Elders whose words are featured in Stop Talking, as well as the authors of the book, for sharing their knowledge and making it available free of cost. I acknowledge that my home in Austin sits on indigenous land and pay respect to the Carrizo & Comecrudo, Coahuiltecan, Caddo, Tonkawa, Comanche, Lipan Apache, Alabama-Coushatta, Kickapoo, Tigua Pueblo, and all the American Indian and Indigenous Peoples and communities who have been or have become a part of these lands and territories in Texas, here on Turtle Island. (I also thank Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) at UT-Austin for providing the language of this acknowledgement.) 

Overview of Structure and Content: The structure of the book mimics the programming of the five-day faculty intensive and reproduces much of its content, in order to give the reader something of the experience of participating and learning alongside non-Native faculty members and the Alaska Native people who served as their guides and leaders. The book, directed at transdisciplinary higher-ed faculty, quite clearly assumes a reader who is non-Native and may be unfamiliar with decolonialist thought and pedagogy. Besides summaries of each day’s programming and content and some contextual information on Alaska education and Alaska Native issues, the chapters contain these basic elements: 

  1. Short written essays and transcripts of oral stories, performances, conversations, and talks that represent the direct voice of indigenous Elders, teachers, performers, and community members present at the faculty intensive. They speak mainly to indigenous ways of learning, teaching, and being and challenges that indigenous students face in traditional Western education structures.
  2. Index-card style graphics presenting ideas to implement some of these concepts as concrete, transdisciplinary classroom practices. 
  3. Reflection questions for readers. 

3 Thought-Starters for Teachers

I am so glad I began this summer reading series with Stop Talking, because it has prompted me to attend to the ways in which I frame the opportunities for learning and reflection that a text provides. My first instinct was to title this subsection “3 Takeaways for Teachers,” but takeaway (a word I’ve often used) suggests that I am packaging up the insights contained in the book into a kind of goodie bag of products (and the word itself is extractive: what you take away). This reproduces the transactional and reductionist approach to education that defines the Western system, in which knowledge can be parceled into clearly delineated chunks, distributed, consumed, and mastered. The indigenous approaches to learning centered in Stop Talking, however, value reflection, recursiveness, and independent thinking. In that spirit, I’ll strive throughout this book series to present not neatly packaged “takeaways” but rather thought-starters, with reflection questions rather than teaching suggestions. And although these thought-starters from Stop Talking are still separated out into three distinct ideas, please receive them and think about them as deeply interrelated and mutually reinforcing concepts. 

Place-based Teaching and Learning

Elder Elsie Mather, Yup’ik, says, in a conversation with other Elders, “In a way, it’s sad that we are becoming so dependent on reading for information. You and a book — you can closet yourself anywhere and learn (or not learn, depending on the quality of your reading material). You can be thousands of miles away from your source of information. When you have that book, it doesn’t matter where your learning takes place. . . . This dependency on books. I call it a monster because of the distance it puts between us and our sources” (57). 

This questioning of the value of written sources of knowledge may be deeply counterintuitive — even shocking — to those of us whose work (and teaching) revolves around reading. We might argue that this ability to be removed from a source or site and still learn about it is precisely the power and value of reading! But from a decolonialist perspective, if we consider how little of the literature (scholarly and otherwise) about non-White and non-Western people and places has been written by non-White and non-Western people, this critique of reading as the ultimate form of access to knowledge makes all the sense in the world. Educator Paul Ongtooguk, Inupiaq, highlights this issue when he describes his lifelong pursuit to attempt to understand “the disengagement between this enormous amount of literature about [Alaska Natives] and our complete invisibility in Alaska’s school systems” (49). 

Reading, Elder Elsie says, is “a necessary monster” (57), but Stop Talking emphasizes that one essential way to indigenize or decolonize teaching is to complement “book-learning” with place-based teaching and learning. Place-based knowledge, the authors explain, “springs from a deep and detailed experience of a place and manifests as a sense of belonging to, identification with, and awareness of everything that goes on in that place” (19). 

  • How can we bring students closer to the source of knowledge (even and especially if our content is based on sites and peoples that are geographically or historically far away)? 
  • How can we connect ourselves and our students more to place?
  • How can we ground dialogues (no matter the topic) in the communities and environments in which we are teaching?  

Affirmation and Relationships 

Educator Martha Gould-Lehe, Upper Kuskokwim Athabascan, writes that Alaska Native students “need to feel valued; and will respond only to relationships (most will not work to please a teacher if they feel the teacher does not value them)” (54).

Educator Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff, Aleut, writes: “Whenever I passed an adult, I would hear ‘aang laakaiyaax, exumnaakotxtxin. Hello young boy. You are good.’ I was never rejected, never judged, never criticized, always and only positively affirmed by everyone in my village nearly every day of my entire childhood. Can you imagine what that’s like, how beautiful that is?” (60). 

Throughout Stop Talking, the need to cultivate strong relationships between students and teachers through affirmation comes up again and again. Though it is something that the Native educators cited above speak about in the context of children receiving loving affirmation from adults, it transfers to university-level settings, even among faculty: one of the “Alaska Native Discourse Values” that faculty participants agreed to abide by in Stop Talking is: “Do not voice disagreement or use violent words; instead, say something positive about the previous speaker and then simply add your own thoughts” (7).

This may seem to be in stark contrast to “call-out” culture, or even “call-in” culture, in which direct challenge of another person’s wrong thinking or wrong behavior by peers is considered the right of oppressed people and the moral imperative of their allies. It also challenges the traditional Western view of the teacher as an evaluator, a grader, and a corrector. Instead, an indigenous approach to teaching uses indirect forms of teaching (for example, through storytelling or modeling without direct instruction) and encourages students to learn through observation and emulation. 

  • What is your reaction to these ideas? Where does that reaction come from? 
  • Are affirmation and non-violent communication necessarily opposed to “calling out/calling in”? Why or why not? 
  • What are students’ responsibilities with regards to affirming one another? 
  • What is the teacher’s responsibility with regards to affirming students? 
  • What is the role of affirmation in dialogue? 

Storytelling and Other Indirect Forms of Instruction 

One of the book’s authors, educator Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff, Aleut, writes: “Stories allow the teller to express whatever is most important and give listeners the latitude to take away whatever they are able to see or learn. Each person sees and learns different things from the same story. The story does not dictate the lesson to be learned; rather it creates the opportunity to learn whatever the individual is capable of learning. If I give you a direct answer, there’s no freedom. I am acting as the authority, the expert. But in the relationship between real human beings there is no one-upmanship. I am not the answer. I don’t know any more than you do. The only difference between us is our experience and how we use our inherent intelligence” (59). 

  • Do you integrate stories (either from your own personal experiences or literary/cultural stories) in your classroom? Do you invite students to tell stories?
  • If so, how do you guide students to make meaning of stories? 
  • If not, what place might storytelling have in your classroom? How might it enrich or add meaning to your content, even and especially if you consider your content to be very fact-based, data-driven, or objective? 
  • What is the relationship between storytelling and dialogue? Between place-based education and storytelling? 

3 Concrete Practices for Immediate Implementation:

Center Listening by Outlawing Reading & Writing for a Day

Stop Talking emphasizes the value of presence, stillness, and receptivity. At their faculty intensive, no one was allowed to take written notes. The authors write, “In the embodied, direct, oral and visual style of learning common to most indigenous cultures, there is no writing it down. Instead, you pay keen attention, listen closely and deeply, emulate the wisest and most experienced among you, learn by doing, and take what you learn so deeply into yourself that it becomes part of your identity” (4).

Prohibit students from taking notes one day during lecture or dialogue. Likewise, do not write anything on the board or refer to any written materials. Encourage them to receive and share without recording. Build moments of silence into dialogue, to give participants time to process what they have heard and/or reflect and prepare to speak. Discuss at the end of class how it felt, how they adapted, what was challenging and liberating about it, and what they believe they will remember and carry with them. 

Center Marginalized Voices through Conversation Observation

Stop Talking encourages a “fishbowl” activity, in which a small group of students, representing a marginalized viewpoint or set of viewpoints (e.g. first-generation students; LGBTQ+ students), sit in an inner circle in the middle of the room and engage in dialogue with one another. The rest of the students sit in respectful silence in an outer circle (in an online classroom, you might have the “inner circle” leave cameras on while everyone in the “outer circle” turns theirs off). They observe and receive the conversation without participating and with the intention to learn from, not critique or debate, what they are hearing. After the inner circle completes their conversation, the observing students reflect and debrief on what they have learned.

In the faculty intensive of Stop Talking, Native educators and Elders formed this inner circle and non-Native faculty formed the outer circle. However, in a classroom setting, I believe this activity would have the potential to unduly burden minority and marginalized students (whether they self-identify this way or have been designated/assumed as such by instructors) with the pressure to agree to become a spectacle for the pseudo-scientific scrutiny of their peers. Unless you have students who are eager to participate in the “inner circle,” I suggest instead showing a publicly available video of a conversation between people who represent those whose experiences you desire to highlight, or inviting guest speakers to converse with each other in front of the class. 

Center Students’ Experience with a Critical Incident Questionnaire

The facilitators of the faculty intensive administered what they called a “critical incident questionnaire” at the end of each day’s programming, in which they asked participants to  respond anonymously to the same set of questions: 

  • At what moment today were you most engaged as a learner?
  • At what moment were you most distanced as a learner?
  • What activities did you find most affirming or helpful? 
  • What activities did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What surprised you most about today?

You might administer these questions in written form as an “exit ticket” at the end of a lesson or unit, or use them as the basis of a classroom dialogue. 

One In-Depth Activity

Responding to Alaska Native Discourse Values

This is an activity that uses short excerpts from Stop Talking to foster critical reflection and expose students to indigenous discourse paradigms during conversations about community agreements for dialogue early in the semester. 

These questions can be answered independently in writing, or in oral or written dialogue with partners, small groups, or as a class. Collaborative annotation via Hypo.thesis or Perusall is one option for responding in community; one or more shared Google docs is another option. 

If you would like students to work directly in Google docs, create a force-copy version of this document, which contains embedded hyperlinks to the texts. If you would rather access both the texts and the questions in a single file to share with students, use this PDF.

Next Week . . . 

We will be reading How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide, by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay (2019). 

 

Difficult Dialogues Spring Public Forum: Health, Infrastructure, and the Environment

This spring’s Difficult Dialogues Public Forum, held on April 13, featured three of the 2020-2022 Faculty Fellows: Dr. Andrea Gore (College of Pharmacy);  Dr. Ben Hodges (Cockrell School of Engineering, Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering); and Dr. Katherine Lieberknecht (School of Architecture, Community and Regional Planning) speaking on the topic of “Health, Infrastructure, and the Environment.” Each panelist spoke briefly, followed by conversation moderated by HI Director Dr. Pauline Strong.

Dr. Lieberknecht’s presentation focused on the importance of including local knowledge in climate planning. She heads a National Science Foundation-supported collaborative project located in Dove Springs that seeks to find ways to integrate community knowledge into city efforts to contain flooding and ameliorate extreme heat. Lieberknecht identified three kinds of infrastructure planners consider when designing solutions: the built environment; the ecological environment; and the social environment. Using seasonal flooding as an example, the built environment includes structures such as levees; the ecological environment includes efforts to create green space; and the social environment includes communication networks within communities. Local knowledge incorporates information about all three. Community members know which storm drain always backs up, which route to the grocery store is shadiest in the heat of summer, and who organizes community responses. The Dove Springs project is still in its beginning stages—the research began roughly 6 months ago, and some aspects have been hampered by C19 restrictions—but Lieberknecht and her academic and community partners hope that its findings will help planners and communities design more robust climate solutions.

Dr. Hodges followed. He opened his presentation by sharing a simple fact: global warming means increasing rain, increasing rain means more floods. Floods happen for three reasons, Hodges explained. Rivers exceed their banks; storm surges overwhelm coastal areas; and “water bombs,” localized intense rainstorms. Cities are not currently designed to manage such storms. Design criteria must change. But civil engineering solutions operate almost exclusively from a cost benefit analysis.  Wealthy people live on the most valuable land, so it’s that land that civil engineers strive to protect. Hodges pinpointed a dilemma in infrastructure planning: when changes are made to mitigate undesirable circumstances, such as flooding, property values rise. Gentrification often follows, driving the original residents out. How can engineers and city planners create solutions that preserve communities instead of displacing them? Hodges suggested a few ways to change current practices. Firstly, he encouraged more interdisciplinary work to provide more holistic understandings of the problems and possible solutions. He promoted investment in ripping out concrete and asphalt to create new green spaces, and stressed the importance of building codes in addressing infrastructure inequities. He also proposed that cities begin thinking of eminent domain as a tool to bring more valuable properties into green space.

To close the panel, Dr. Gore brought a more direct focus on health outcomes. Since the “chemical revolution” of the World War II period, synthetic chemical production has increased dramatically. Many of these chemicals allow us to have products that make our lives easier or more convenient. However, their production often causes pollution that harms both human and non-human life. Gore described her research on endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, which she defined as “a chemical that interferes with any aspect of hormone action.” Hormones, she explained, affect brain development and behavior regulation, among other factors. She emphasized two points: EDCs have adverse effects on brain health, and these adverse effects can affect the health of future generations. We’re all exposed to EDCs, primarily through food. Chemical contamination harms wildlife as well as human life, which Rachel Carson demonstrated in her 1962 book, Silent Spring. As the planet warms up, the polar ice caps melt, and chemicals once trapped in the ice are released into the air and water. While it would be impossible to avoid all exposure to EDCs, Gore offered some actions we all can take in order to minimize risk. She advised microwaving in glass containers rather than plastic; drinking filtered water, not bottled water; and eating fresh produce—organic, if it’s affordable—instead of industrially processed food.

A lively discussion followed. Participants discussed the tension between local and national needs when addressing infrastructure issues, and the need for context-informed solutions. Lieberknecht cited the need to “think with equity.” Solving these issues requires thinking holistically, including conversations about living wages, affordable housing, and access to healthy food. While all agreed that community cultures of care are important, they stressed that it’s the role of municipalities to step up and address problems.

Several resources were shared by the panelists and participants in the chat. Some are linked below.

City of Austin Climate Equity Plan 

Planet Texas 2050

“Editorial: An International Riposte to Naysayers of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals” Andrea Gore

“Policy Decisions on Endocrine Disruptors Should Be Based on Science Across Disciplines: A Response to Dietrich et al.” Andrea Gore, et al.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs

The Economy of Cities Jane Jacobs

Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life  Eric Klinenberg

Thinking in Systems and other work by Donella Meadows

Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource David Sedlak

Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies Geoffrey West

 

Photo of the 2015 Halloween flood in Austin, TX courtesy of the City of Austin

Dialogue Techniques for Fostering Environmental Awareness across the Curriculum

written by Dr. Sarah Ropp

Spring has arrived to Austin–arguably its most beautiful season–and with it, growing hope for an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the devastating effects of February’s extreme cold are still evident in the landscape, perhaps most poignantly in the collapsed nopales splayed out over the sidewalks. And the financial and health impacts of infrastructural and political failures to support the people of Texas during that extreme weather event have produced a lingering bitterness in many of us. April is Earth Month, and there is no better time to consider how we can bring a greater sense of environmental awareness into our classrooms through a few minutes a week of focused peer-to-peer dialogue. 

No matter what content we teach, place-based pedagogies are important. They support students’ mental health and ability to engage in the classroom by acknowledging and attending to the ways in which our relationship to our environment affects us on a moment-to-moment basis. They break down artificial boundaries between “in here” and “out there” and encourage students to understand classrooms as an extension of communities and themselves as critical agents within their environments. They illuminate the ways in which varying experiences of restriction and freedom within environments are fundamental to understanding social inequities created by ableism, racism, misogyny, heteronormativity, transphobia, and more. Below are a few opportunities to engage your students in dialogue around the environment over the course of this month.

5 Ways to Incorporate More Classroom Dialogue about Environmental Awareness 

This infographic details 5 quick ways to foster more eco-awareness in your classroom without losing instructional time devoted to your content. 

Difficult Dialogues Public Forum on Health, Infrastructure, and the Environment

April 13, 7-8pm, via Zoom

The Spring 2021 Difficult Dialogues Public Forum features three of our 2020-2022 Faculty Fellows in a conversation about health, infrastructure, and the environment. Faculty from a range of disciplines will discuss their research on environmental contamination, climate change and climate planning, and environmental racism and injustice. The presentations will be followed by a Q&A session moderated by HI Director Pauline Strong. 

Click here to register and learn more about the speakers and their topics.

Controversy and Conversation Film Discussion of An American Ascent

May 6, 7:30-8:30pm, via Zoom

An American Ascent focuses on the first African American expedition to climb Denali, North America’s highest peak. The film also discusses what it refers to as the “Adventure Gap,” referring to the disproportionately low number of African Americans participating in nature-based recreational activities. One of the nine climbers poses: “Think about the story that mountaineering has been. It’s been mainly white male, and if a little black girl were to look into mountaineering and hear that single story, she would probably say ‘I don’t have much of a place there.’” Follow the group on their challenging journey to the summit of Mount Denali as they discuss the impacts they hope to have on their communities.

Starla Simmons, Clinical Assistant Professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, will lead the discussion. Professor Simmons’s work is rooted in social justice and racial equity. In addition to her clinical practice and  academic work, she has served as the Austin leader for Outdoor Afro, an organization dedicated to promoting and celebrating Black leadership in nature.

Click here to register and to find more information about the film and how to watch it.

Heather Houser: “Affiliating Reproductive and Climate Justice.”

Dr. Heather Houser, associate professor in the Department of English, led the February 11 session of the Faculty Fellows Seminar. Houser presented a new project she is developing, an exploration of the challenges and the possibilities of including reproduction as part of the response to climate crisis.

Influenced by her work as part of an interdisciplinary team at Planet Texas 2050 and the research and writing of her monographs Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction (2014) and Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in the Age of Data (2020), Houser seeks to write outside of the frame of a traditional academic monograph. Both literary writing and visual art that incorporate scientific information open space for artists to question western epistemologies and to entangle them with other knowledges, a prospect that she finds stimulating and challenging.  Examples of  writing she finds compelling include Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019) and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020), by Isabel Wilkerson. She imagines writing shorter, more personal pieces, such as the work of Roxane Gay and Elizabeth Kolbert.

In this initial exploratory stage, she wishes to get a sense of how conversations around family, reproduction, and climate develop. She began her inquiries with a set of questions: what are the frameworks within which climate conversations happen? What  ideas galvanize those conversations, and what  ideas or themes are taboo?

Houser decided on the term “affiliation” to link her areas of inquiry both to avoid prescriptive framings and to deflect the tendency to subordinate one form of justice to the other.  The point is to think of reproductive justice and environmental justice together. For her, affiliation gets at creating conditions for thriving, one of the central concerns of the reproductive justice movement.

Both the climate justice and the reproductive justice movements have thorny and complicated racial histories. Houser intends her work to bring a critique of white dominance to both. At her current stage of inquiry,  she finds the critiques provided by the history of Black feminism and the Black women’s health movement most valuable, citing works such as  Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present for their engagement with racial histories of science in the USA. She’s interested in thinking about particular ideas of justice, and what justice means in different communities. The project requires self-reflection and awareness of her own positionality as she works in and with traditions of thought, advocacy, and expression without being appropriative.

Houser also directs attention to the concept of “choice.” A key point for the reproductive justice movement is the ability to have—or not have— children according to one’s own terms. Her initial impression is that  “childfree” is a position predominately held, or more publicly owned and capitalized upon, by white women. However, under conditions of racial injustice and health inequities, the choices of some are limited or completely removed: communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental toxins that disrupt or impair human reproduction, and are also targeted by racist policies that pathologize certain family structures and seek to control reproduction, including through forced sterilizations.

Fellows suggested several avenues for further exploration. One possible trajectory is to question the relationships between justice and choice. How does justice differ from choice?  Is justice about making an individual choice with knowledge of the structures that shape that choice?  What would it mean to reframe the notion of self-determination in a collective sense?  The work of Eve Tuck proposes justice as an important, but limited, meeting place. Justice works within the confines of the state. It provides a space for movement building and advocacy, but the end goal of these movements is not necessarily redress within the state.

Another approach is to think along the lines of labor and care as they apply to reproduction and sustainability. What are the ideas of family and community that make care more or less sustainable? What are other versions of family? Both Silvia Federici and Maria Mies provide accounts that reconsider domestic and family labor. Perhaps different communities of care and support open new possibilities for reproductive justice and environmental justice and sustainability.