The Engaged Classroom

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

In Canadian Literature 124-25 (1990)—Native Writers & Canadian Literature”—Ojibwe scholar Basil H. Johnston published “One Generation from Extinction,” calling for the study of Indigenous cultures in Indigenous terms, through direct experience of specific languages and philosophies rather than the cataloguing of artifacts. One of the many exhilarating aspects of Learn, Teach, Challenge: Approaching Indigenous Literatures, edited by Deanna Reder and Linda M. Morra, is witnessing the flourishing response to Johnston’s call. In “One Generation,” he offered “w’daeb-awae” as a term signifying not only veracity but also the limitations of the human ability to express truth. In “Gdi-nweninaa: Our Sound, Our Voice,” her essay in Learn, Teach, Challenge, Anishinaabe scholar, writer, and musician Leanne Simpson responds directly to Johnston through her development of this concept: “diversity and difference are seen as necessary parts of the larger whole.” Learn, Teach, Challenge is designed around such dialogue: modelling it, tracing it, and encouraging it.

I am a visitor in Lkwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ territories, an instructor who teaches Indigenous literatures, and a scholar of literature who frets about how to communicate the relevance of literary study. I am, therefore, always in search of academic books that, like Learn, Teach, Challenge, address the reading, teaching, and discussion of literature, and particularly Indigenous literatures and oratures, with intellectual rigour, political commitment, and aesthetic excitement. Expressly a teaching anthology, Learn, Teach, Challenge grew out of the editors’ awareness that, while “studying the work of Indigenous knowledge keepers—Aboriginal writers included—is the corrective” for the colonizing forces of Canadian literary studies, this change was obstructed by the lack of teaching materials on Indigenous literatures and oratures. With collaboration and feedback from other scholars and students, Reder and Morra have created a meticulously organized and theorized anthology. Its five groups of readings—“Position,” “Imagining beyond Images and Myths,” “Deliberating Indigenous Literary Approaches,” “Contemporary Concerns,” and “Classroom Considerations”—would provide an excellent foundation for an upper-level undergraduate or graduate-level course, or, even more useful, support reading for new scholars and designers of lower-level courses.

Ajay Heble’s Classroom Action: Human Rights, Critical Activism, and Community-Based Education explores the relationships among educator, student, and community when human rights education is undertaken. Heble’s introductory account of his University of Guelph course—“Pedagogy, Human Rights, Critical Activism: Educating for Social Change”—is followed by five chapters written by former students, who reflect on their experiences in planning, developing, and undertaking community-facing projects.

Classroom Action is a book of passionate praxis, strongest when students and instructor dig into the pragmatic details of a project or course: what does theory look like, and how does it transform, on the ground in real time? Particularly engaging in this respect are the playfully self-reflective “Is This Project ‘Skin Deep’? Looking Back at a Community-Facing Photo-Art Initiative” (by Gregory Fenton) and the collaborative performance history of “Reflections on Dialogic Theatre for Social Change” (by Majdi Bou-Matar, Brendan Main, Morvern McNie, and Natalie Onuška). Useful section appendices include Heble’s own course outline and a problem/solution-structured discussion of organizing a student conference (by Elizabeth Jackson and Ingrid Mündel).

Time was one of the students’ main concerns in pursuing community art projects in an academic setting. Many expressed frustrations with the limitations of the academic semester. This problem isn’t, of course, limited to students. Time is also a rogue factor in academic publishing. Classroom Action has its origins in projects beginning as far back as 2003. Some chapter authors are therefore writing at a remove of a decade or more from the original project. Inevitably, this means that some details are forgotten and that projects must be discussed in general terms rather than specifics.

Another pleasure of both collections is watching ideas transform over time, whether across a semester or a decade, through dialogue. As reference and inspiration, Classroom Action would be of interest to any educator or student interested in community-engaged pedagogy and practice. I hope to carry Learn, Teach, Challenge into every classroom I enter from now on.

This review “The Engaged Classroom” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 157-159.

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