“We are differently situated in relation to this land. We didn’t all come here the same. [Land acknowledgements] get us to think about our positionalities and the responsibilities that emerge out of this recognition [of where we come from and of our place on this land],” said Dr. John Paul (JP) Catungal, an instructor in the Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice Institute, at UBC.
Issues of responsibility and positionality were central topics of Dr. Catungal’s Classroom Climate Series workshop, held last year on November 3. Understanding one’s positionality and the responsibilities that arise from these, according Dr. Catungal, is crucial when crafting the environment we wish to work and study in. The session looked at how to address campus climate in the classroom, i.e. how to initiate and sustain conversations about broader contexts of place, history, institutional policies and culture in the specific spaces of classrooms.
Dr. Catungal began the session by relating to territory acknowledgments and the importance of doing them in a way that honours the context in which they arise. He added that understanding who we are and how we got here (on this land, on this campus, in our courses) is also important, as these have profound implications for our membership in learning communities in classrooms and on campus.
Starting from this perspective can be very important because it creates a central space for responsibility and positionality in our conversations about teaching and learning. Dr. Catungal emphasizes that we all have a place in these discussions.
“Student often say, ‘I can’t speak on that issue because I am not indigenous.’ But we are all intimately tied to settler colonialism,” he said. “I am not asking folks to speak as indigenous people if they’re not, and certainly not as Musqueam if they’re not, but to think about our place here and that means different things to different people.”
Positionality doesn’t refer only to students. It also includes instructors. Dr. Catungal notes that “decisions [by teachers] around what to foreground content-wise, assignments-wise introduce particular expectations around what learning looks like and what an academic subject should be.” These expectations, he emphasized, are shaped by instructors’ understandings of teaching and learning that they bring to their teaching practice, and that are, in turn, shaped by their own positionalities and politics.
Dr. Catungal also discussed the responsibility of instructors to help craft a learning community that is conducive to productive conversations. His approach emphasizes an understanding of a more democratic classroom and the recognition that members of learning communities are not blank slates to be filled with knowledge. Instead, they each bring their own knowledges, problematic or not, into the classroom and these have the capacity to shape the tenor and content of classroom conversations.
Dr. Catungal’s insistence in understanding the classroom as a learning community requires an appreciation of the profoundly social nature of classroom spaces. It also means that teaching practice requires crafting this space in a manner that makes the classroom as conducive to learning as possible. “One practice that I’ve found sometimes useful is talking very explicitly and devoting time in the classroom to crafting a community agreement around what principles will shape how we interact with each other,” he said. “If you notice yourself taking up a lot of space, then maybe step back a little bit and let others speak. If you notice yourself being quiet but want to say something, trying as much as you can to step forward — being open to critique but also being open to learning.”
In terms of other responsibilities, Dr. Catungal stressed the importance of knowing who is in the classroom. Sometimes that can be difficult when you have a large class. However, having a sense of who is in the classroom and not making assumptions about who is not there can really shape what the climate of the classroom looks like.
The campus and the classroom
Halfway through the session, Dr. Catungal turned to workshop participants to ask about the relationship between classroom climate and campus climate.
“Conversations around campus and classroom climates get us a long way to thinking about the complicated and place-based nature of teaching and learning and why these things matter for what happens and how in the classroom,” he said.
For the Classroom Climate Series participants, classroom climate meant considering things like openness and encouragement, risk and intimacy, consent and power relationships. They also discussed diversity, not only in demographics, but also in people’s approaches to learning and how that affects what the classroom climate looks like.
Thinking more broadly to campus climate, the participants said that it’s important for instructors to consider that they are part of the institution, even if sometimes they may feel like they are fighting against it. They also said that students in the classroom may embody and experience many of the lived realities that the class conversations are focusing on. Acknowledging that these can’t simply be discussed and put away at the end of the class is something to remember for instructors.
Finally, the participants discussed how policies and concepts (e.g. the draft sexual assault policy, curriculum development and the Memorandum of Affiliation between Musqueam and UBC) play into creation of the campus climate, and consequently affect classroom climate.
“These things trickle into the classroom and really affects teaching and learning,” said Dr. Catungal. “The structural context of the campus affects the way we might be able to craft the classroom, our own classroom. The broader ideas around social differentiation that are also beyond the campus, but certainly shape what the classroom looks like,” he concluded.