Like many of you, I have spent a lot of time in the past couple of years engaging with antiracist and decolonizing pedagogy. Struggling to navigate the treacherous waters of online teaching while reckoning, as a white settler, with the unequal effects of the pandemic on students in my virtual classrooms, I found the renewed turn in conversations about pedagogy to issues of equity helpful and challenging. Many of the questions and challenges being posed in the present, in discussions such as Aisha Wilks and Eugenia Zuroski’s “Where Do You Know From? Antiracist Pedagogies” (2020), are not new. If the canon wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s fixated on books and authors, then postcolonial studies and critical race theory, among other fields, tackled questions about institutions and classrooms that put race at the forefront of their inquiry. This latter kind of analysis found its place in literary studies in Canada during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when essays such as Len Findlay’s “Always Indigenize! The Radical Humanities in the Postcolonial Canadian University” and books such as Cynthia Sugars’ Home-Work: Postcolonialism, Pedagogy, and Canadian Literature instantiated conversations about Indigenous epistemologies, programs of “English,” and classroom dynamics and racialization, among other issues. Indigenous voices were shaping those conversations—I think especially of Marie Battiste (Potlotek First Nation) and Emma LaRocque (Cree and Métis)—and their force has only grown alongside the emergence of Indigenous literatures as a field of study in postsecondary institutions.
As these scholars tell us, the analysis of literatures and cultures in the classroom can defend the status quo, shore up reactionary defences, or effect transformations in the way learning happens, knowledge is valued, and cultural difference is understood: much depends on who is in the classroom and how the material is engaged. Much depends too on institutional affordances and constraints and, as Findlay reminds us in “Always Indigenize!,” “dominant patterns of ownership of the means of production” (309). As someone who has spent time researching both the history of the discipline of English and the history and sociology of reading (namely the uses of literary cultures), I keep coming back to the ways that a meta approach in the classroom is a crucial tool for opening up questions about the conditions necessary to transformation: a meta approach is self-reflexive about disciplinary history and canon formation; about the relations of taste and distinction to class and the dynamics of racialization; and about what we might broadly call production-oriented forms of analysis. Following from this, I want to pose two questions: What do such meta approaches in literary and cultural studies classes share with decolonizing pedagogies, and how might their common interests be brought to bear on classrooms? The strategies I have in mind could generate interrogations of what has functioned as education; they could encourage active reflection on the roles literatures and cultures (and the dispositions related to them) have played in those processes at different historical moments around the world; they could generate questions about who owns culture in the present and why.
A meta approach in the classroom—as I know it—draws inspiration from a diverse range of scholars old and new. I think here of studies oriented to the history of the discipline or to the humanities more generally: Heather Murray on the conditions that shaped English as a discipline in post-Confederation Canada; Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngati Awa and Ngati Porou, Maori) on the ways that Enlightenment epistemologies, including the humanities and the very concept of disciplinary difference, enabled Western European claims to legitimacy; Gauri Viswanathan on the invention of the discipline of English in colonial India. I think also of texts that question how the literary is and has been produced as a category of value or how it has been contested as such a category: Pierre Bourdieu on distinction and literary taste or Janice Radway on the “professional-managerial class” and literary authority. I think of scholarship that probes the influence of capitalist relations of production on the meaning and circulation of cultural forms in the past and in the present. The best essay I know on this topic is Walter Benjamin’s “The Author As Producer,” but I think here too of books like Jasper Bernes’ The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization. I think of scholars like Richard So on how hierarchies of class and race in twentieth-century America have shaped the publishing industry as a whole. Diverse in terms of subject matter and geographical and temporal focus, these scholars do not share a single theoretical lens, though many of them are explicitly or vaguely Marxist. Nonetheless, this list of texts converges on a particular set of methods that are of tremendous value to the meta classroom: they share an interest in querying the material conditions of knowledge production, dissemination, and reception.
In the classroom, such thinkers and the approaches modelled in their texts offer ways for students and teachers alike to reflect actively on the conditions of their learning; they seek to disrupt the idea that learning is a process of ingesting (or depositing, to follow the banking trope introduced in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed) predetermined content by insisting that learners ask how they know (or how their instructor knows) what they know. Such texts implicitly urge questions like the following: What is the relation between high tuition costs in most Canadian universities and declining enrolments in the humanities, or between these costs and the lack of diversity in English classrooms? Between creative-economy thinking and the current popularity of the “creative” side of English studies? Between neoliberal imperatives to count and measure and “big data” approaches to literature and culture? (On this question see also Laura Moss’s insightful 2014 editorial to this journal.) Between the way a text is made and disseminated and how it is (or is not) taken up in a particular context? Between the whiteness of a given classroom and the forms of knowledge, interrogation, and critique that are privileged there? Between a “resistant” text and its recuperation by the capitalist logic of the creative industries?
One advantage of questions like these is that they encourage intersectional lines of inquiry that must grapple with the complexity of overlapping experiences of oppression and the economic structures that subtend them; they are less amenable to forms of individualization, which so often lead to “native informant” situations in the classroom or discussions in which identity politics cease to be an opportunity for collaboration and solidarity. Drawing on the work of Kwame Nkrumah and Mahmood Mamdani, Blake Stimson argues that decolonization understood in a narrowly cultural sense “contributes to the process of neocolonial political and economic exploitation by emphasizing differentiation, self-definition and other-recognition”; such emphases do not produce solidarity, Stimson contends, but lead instead to an “ever-disenfranchising ‘culture politics.’”
The meta approaches I have been describing encourage a reflective and self-conscious evaluation of the conditions of one’s learning, and this is precisely the kind of pedagogical practice that can be found in the work of many Indigenous scholars of education. Marie Battiste’s work on constructivist models of literacy instruction in Decolonizing Education offers a crucial general framework. Battiste rejects a “mechanistic” approach to textual analysis that devalues the learner’s “prior knowledge and experience,” seeking instead to recognize that “literacy is not abstract but embedded in social contexts” (179-80). Sandra Styres (Kanien’kehá:ka) has written about her experiences teaching a course dedicated to “narratives, storying, and literature” (25): like Battiste, she describes a “decolonizing praxis” based on a “lecture-light and highly reflective format that opens space for inquiry and experiential approaches to course content” (34). At the same time, theories of decolonizing pedagogy add elements not necessarily present in the meta approach I have outlined. Like decolonizing approaches to education more generally, Styres’ pedagogy depends not simply on identifying the needs and challenges of each student, but also on legitimizing Indigenous voices through place and culture; embracing Indigenous knowledge and experience; and working toward “normalized Indigenous knowledge as subject matter and ways of knowing and learning” (Battiste 176). Styres’ approach privileges Land as a first teacher—as both physical space and bearer of “conceptual principles, philosophies, and ontologies” (27). She encourages learners to ask questions about their relation to the land on which they are studying and to the land that is represented in the texts they are reading, while developing “critical consciousness about the realities of oppression and social inequities for minoritized peoples” (32).
Other Indigenous scholars who are not necessarily thinking actively about pedagogy offer resources that are very helpful, it seems to me, for bringing a decolonizing pedagogy together with the resources of meta approaches that draw attention to the conditions in which knowledge is defined, circulated, validated, instrumentalized, and owned. As many Indigenous scholars have argued, decolonization is about more than culture; or rather, it is about how culture relates to everything else. Sámi scholar Rauna Kuokkaunen defines decolonization as a struggle for “political, intellectual, economic, and cultural self-determination” (143). Glen Coulthard (Dene) pushes this argument somewhat further, insisting that without “a massive transformation in the political economy of contemporary settler-colonialism, any efforts to rebuild our nations will remain parasitic on capitalism, and thus on the perpetual exploitation of our lands and labor” (171). To realize economic self-determination, which is for Coulthard a crucial element of Indigenous resurgence, he argues that Indigenous nations “must actively participate in the construction of Indigenous alternatives to [capitalism]” (173). This is not a matter of building pipelines in the context of resource revenue sharing or more comprehensive impact benefit agreements, asserts Coulthard; such arrangements in his view “remain dependent on a predatory economy that is entirely at odds with the deep reciprocity that forms the cultural core of many Indigenous peoples’ relationships with land” (171). How then to commit in the classroom to this insistence that self-determination is political and economic as well as intellectual and cultural?
Indigenous writers are having a moment in Canada. Métis Nation of Ontario writer Cherie Dimaline’s young adult novel The Marrow Thieves (2017) remained on the national bestseller list for over three years; Indigenous writers were amply represented in the literary delegation for the 2021 Frankfurt Book Fair as part of Canada’s Guest of Honour campaign (thirteen of the fifty-eight authors were Indigenous); and Indigenous writers such as Dimaline, Billy-Ray Belcourt (Driftpile Cree Nation), Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg), Michelle Good (Red Pheasant Cree Nation), and Joshua Whitehead (Oji-Cree/nêhiyaw) are populating, even dominating, the nation’s literary prize lists. If the instructor is encouraging active reflection about questions of place, positioning, and history—including those settler-colonial policies and laws that have so deeply shaped Indigenous experiences in Canada—bringing the work of these writers into the classroom may lead to the disruption of what Styres calls dominant normative discourses or settler-colonial logics (35). Yet in the present moment, when the symbolic and economic capital accrued by some Indigenous writers is so considerable, should the classroom not also be a place to ask questions about economic structures and ownership?
In the last fifty years, a dramatic narrowing of ownership in the English-language publishing industry has produced a consolidation of capital that has left us with four giant trade publishers and a host of very small players. This is a top-heavy industry that is dominated by the English language and geographically concentrated in Western Europe and the United States. Attending to the production of Indigenous-authored texts within the contexts of contemporary global publishing offers one important means of introducing questions about political and economic self-determination. One could pose these questions with the guidance of Indigenous scholars, an approach that might be complemented by continuing to draw on the Marxist, materialist, and sociological approaches to literatures and cultures I cite above.
In “Aboriginal Publishing in Contemporary Canada” (an interview with Sabine Milz) and “‘We think differently. We have a different understanding’: Editing Indigenous Texts as an Indigenous Editor,” Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm (Chippewas of Nawash First Nation) interrogates editorial practices and cultural policy as these relate to Indigenous writers and publishers; in “‘I Write This for All of You’: Recovering the Unpublished RCMP ‘Incident’ in Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed,” Deanna Reder (Cree-Métis) and Alix Shield demonstrate why Indigenous editorial practices must be adopted by the non-Indigenous publishing companies that snap up rights to Indigenous-authored texts; in “Gathering Knowledges to Inform Best Practices in Indigenous Publishing” and Elements of Indigenous Style, respectively, Rachel Taylor (Iñupiaq and settler) and Greg Younging (Opsakwayak Cree Nation) probe a wide array of production and ownership issues, including editing and intellectual property. More general assistance could be drawn from Coulthard, whose analysis of primitive accumulation as dispossession in Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition offers a very useful set of tools for thinking about Indigenous cultures and their present use-value for the capitalist settler state.
Alongside such readings, instructors in literature and culture classrooms might also vary the palette of creators invited to speak to students: we need to hear not only from Indigenous writers and storytellers but also from Indigenous publishers, editors, and people involved in the book and culture industries. How do their organizations work? How are they funded? What challenges do they face? What conditions are necessary for Indigenous-owned publishers to publish in Indigenous languages—what Battiste calls “irreplaceable resources in any educational reforms” (Decolonizing 178)? What alternative political economies might support the cultural labours they undertake?
Bringing these kinds of questions into the classroom is one means of insisting that cultural self-determination is part of a larger picture of sovereignty—one that is deeply political and involves economic and social transformation, not just shifting attitudes to culture.
Akiwenzie-Damm, Kateri. “Aboriginal Publishing in Contemporary Canada: Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm and Kegedonce Press,” Interview by Sabine Milz. ECW, no. 84, Fall 2009, pp. 213-27.
—. “‘We think differently. We have a different understanding’: Editing Indigenous Texts as an Indigenous Editor.” Editing as Cultural Practice in Canada, edited by Dean Irvine and Smaro Kamboureli, Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2016, pp. 29-39.
Battiste, Marie. Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit. Purich Publishing, 2013.
—, editor. Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision. U of British Columbia P, 2000.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Author as Producer.” Understanding Brecht, translated by Anna Bostock, Verso, 1998, pp. 85-103.
Bernes, Jasper. The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization. Stanford UP, 2017.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice, Harvard UP, 1987.
Coulthard, Glen. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. U of Minnesota P, 2014.
Findlay, Len. “Always Indigenize! The Radical Humanities in the Postcolonial Canadian University.” ariel: a review of international english literature, vol. 31, no. 1-2, 2000, pp. 307-26.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin Random House, 1993.
Kuokkanen, Rauna. Reshaping the University: Responsibility, Indigenous Epistemes, and the Logic of the Gift. U of British Columbia P, 2007.
LaRocque, Emma. “From the Land to the Classroom: Broadening Epistemology.” Pushing the Margins: Native and Northern Studies, edited by Jill Oakes et al., Native Studies Press, 2001, pp. 62-75.
Moss, Laura. “Auditing, Counting, and Tracking CanLit.” Canadian Literature, no. 220, Spring 2014, pp. 6-15.
Murray, Heather. Working in English: History, Institution, Resources. U of Toronto P, 1996.
Radway, Jan. A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. U of North Carolina P, 1997.
Reder, Deanna, and Alix Shield. “‘I Write This for All of You’: Recovering the Unpublished RCMP ‘Incident’ in Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed.” Canadian Literature, no. 237, 2019, pp. 13-25.
So, Richard Jean. Redlining Culture: A Data History of Racial Inequality and Postwar Fiction. Columbia UP, 2020.
Stimson, Blake. “Deneocolonialize Your Syllabus.” nonsite.org, vol. 34, 2 Feb. 2021, nonsite.org/deneocolonize-your-syllabus.
Styres, Sandra. “Literacies of Land: Decolonizing Narratives, Storying, and Literature.” Indigenous and Decolonizing Studies in Education: Mapping the Long View, edited by Linda Tuhiwai Smith et al., Routledge, 2018, pp. 24-37.
Sugars, Cynthia, editor. Home-Work: Postcolonialism, Pedagogy, and Canadian Literature. U of Ottawa P, 2004.
Taylor, Rachel. “Gathering Knowledges to Inform Best Practices in Indigenous Publishing.” ariel: a review of international english literature, vol. 51, no. 2-3, 2020, pp. 205-32.
Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books / U of Otago P, 1999.
Wilks, Aisha, and Eugenia Zuroski. “Where Do You Know From? Antiracist Pedagogies.” Department of English, University of Maryland, 24 Aug. 2020, english.umd.edu/events/where-do-you-know-antiracist-pedagogies.
Younging, Gregory. Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples. Brush Education, 2018.
Jody Mason teaches at Carleton University on the traditional, unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation.
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