Indigenizing university administration or Tâwaw cî? (Take 2)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Jo-Ann Episkenew, University of Regina
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Issues Portfolio’s ‘Transforming the Academy: Indigenous Education’ series, which will be the focus of the Portfolio’s programming at Congress 2011.

Iskwêw ka-wasaka pîkiswêt niya. Kishchee tey mo’yawn aen li Michif wi’yan. My name is Woman Who Speaks for the Circle, and I am proud to be Métis.

Several years ago my friend Deanna Reder and I made a presentation to the Chairs of English Departments in Canada.  Our presentation was subsequently published in Academic Matters as “Tâwaw cî? [Is there room?]: Aboriginal Faculty, Students, and Content in the University English Department.” At that time, we were both advocating for English Departments to make room for Indigenous faculty and students by understanding who we are and what we could contribute.

My life has changed considerably since then. I am on leave from my faculty position to serve as an administrator, the director of a health research centre. This year I am not teaching.  Instead, in addition to budgets and grant writing, I am learning how to adapt the skills learned in literary studies to research with human beings. In other words, I am learning how to engage in close readings of human texts. Accordingly, my focus is much different than it was when Deanna and I wrote that article, but our question – Tâwaw cî ? Is there room? – is still pertinent.

Now I am asking if there is room for Indigenous people in university administration. I ask this question because of a disconcerting experience that I had very recently. While meeting with senior administrators from several universities to discuss my plans for our research centre, I mentioned that I would be travelling to another institution the following day to meet with a number of senior administrators in health disciplines, some I had never met before while others I had met when we had occupied different positions.  I was asked to identify my goal for each meeting but did not know how to respond. After all, my goal was to meet the people. After that, who knows what will happen?

Since I could not identify a specific goal, I received a mini-lecture on the importance of identifying a goal for each meeting I attend, setting the agenda, and ensuring that I have a firm plan to move the agenda along to achieve my goal. My physical response to the suggestion was visceral. I could hear the voices of people from my community in my mind.  “Ever cheeky, eh!” Having said that, I didn’t quarrel. I took notes and asked questions, but my own internal voice kept shouting, “Hell, no.”

As I walked back to my office, I tried to examine my response and wondered if this was merely my ego smarting from the implied criticism. I was, after all, somewhat insulted because I thought that networking was my area of strength. I really like working with people, which is probably why I keep finding myself in academic administrative positions; however, I knew that if I followed this advice I would not be myself and would not enjoy my work. I decided to talk to a colleague, another Métis woman, since I was having difficulty deciding how to handle the situation. When I told her the story, my colleague’s first response was to say, “But we’re not like that.”  When she transformed the “I” to “we,” I realized that perhaps this was not just a problem of me and my ego. Clearly, the matter required more reflection.

My first meeting the following day was with an old friend who had recently been appointed to an academic administrative position responsible for “Aboriginal Affairs” (sounds a bit too much like Indian Affairs, doesn’t it!).  Because we’d known each other for many years, I was comfortable sharing my story and to hear her response. I learned that she had a similar experience.  A senior administrator had suggested to her that she take a leadership course, thinking that she needed to be more assertive. My friend told me, “But I don’t want to be like that.” Like me, she valued collaborative relationships.  I asked her if she had read Maggie Kovach’s book Indigenous Methodologies: Conversations, Characteristics, and Context.  Although her focus is research methodology, Kovach’s theories can be applied to multiple aspects of indigenizing the academy.

Kovach’s discussion of relationships, storytelling, trust, and the co-productions of knowledge as they apply to research can also be applied to an anti-colonial classroom and decolonizing pedagogy.  In fact, as I read Kovach, I realized how much of the things that she identifies are things that I do without question or critical examination.  To me, they are normative.  I started to appreciate how my students must feel when I tell them to examine their positionality and the things that they consider normal.  Sometimes it is much easier to identify characteristics of the other than it is to identify our own characteristics as cultural insider.

As I talked to my friend, the newly appointed academic administrator, I realized that Kovach’s theories also apply to my approach to administrations. The goal of my meetings was to build relationships with the people whom I had not met before and to renew and maintain relationships with those people I had met in other circumstances. Relationship-building was not a means to an end, a means to achieve my goal; it was the goal. We would meet to share our stories of self and our workplace. In my mind, sharing stories would inevitably lead to good things, since we were all concerned with improving health. To impose an agenda on our first meeting would be presumptuous and premature. How could I, as a singular individual, know what the agenda for a first meeting should contain?  We had yet to establish a relationship.

Like Kovach’s discussion of the importance of co-creation of knowledge, the creation of our agendas should be a collaborative endeavour.  To develop the agenda myself and impose it on others would be, well, ever cheeky, eh. Or perhaps it would be appropriate to say that it would be cheeky according to the values of my community and my culture. And, I think that our way of building relationship is more effective than one that focuses on the ends, and the university would be well advised to turn to our cultures for guidance on relationship building.

I know a young Métis man who graduated with a Masters degree a few years ago. He is a brilliant scholar and a hard worker. A group of us have been unsuccessfully trying to persuade him to begin a Ph.D. program.  He is afraid, not of the work or the cost or the time commitment.  Instead, he is afraid that further education would require him to change in such a way it would distance him from his community.  I understand. Indigenous academics often find themselves split between their home self – dare I use the word “authentic” self? – and the persona that we are often forced to assume at the university.

Sometimes I made the wrong jokes in the wrong places.  A few months ago, I saw one of our non-Indigenous researchers at a fancy dinner.  I’d never seen him in a suit and thought that I would tease him by telling him that he “cleaned up real nice.”  He looked horrified and a bit embarrassed.  Right joke, wrong situation.  If he were Métis, he would laugh and perhaps tell me that it was his “going-to-court suit.” Then I’d laugh because we say these things to Indigenous people wearing suits.  We would bond over dark humour and our mutual understanding of a history that resulted in our communities’ over-representation in the justice system. Unfortunately, this researcher, who understands much about Indigenous health, did not understand our humour. Right joke, wrong situation.

Lately there has been much talk in Canadian universities, particularly those in provinces with large Indigenous populations, about recruiting and retaining Indigenous students and faculty.  Most of these discussions seem to focus on what the university can do to make us feel “more comfortable,” which is an expression that’s beginning to grate.  It is a part of the discourse relating to what I call “the deficit model” of planning for Indigenous students.  Universities perceive that we come with a deficit in our preparation for higher learning, so they must develop special programs to help us fit into their world. A non-Indigenous colleague pointed out that this language is problematic because the people whom we typically want to make comfortable are our guests. To take analogy a little further, good guests follow the rules of the house since they know that they are not at home and are visiting at the sufferance of the host. And guests eventually leave.  So what are universities saying when they want to make their Indigenous students feel comfortable?  And what happens to the ones who, like me, decide to stay?

I have been at the university for more than twenty years, first as a student, then as a faculty member and frequently as an administrator.  I have changed.  Although I succeeded in obtaining a university education of the highest order, have universities changed to make room for people like me?  Granted, there are safe places, Indigenous Studies departments and Indigenous student centres.  But other than the occasional cultural awareness programs, what have these institutions of higher education learned about Indigenous people?  There is still an expectation that Indigenous people change on some very basic levels. We must be careful how we relate to people, watch what jokes that we tell, and hide a multitude of forms of cultural expression that we hold dear.  Many of my Indigenous colleagues take the path of least resistance by self-censoring their identities under veneers of professional decorum.  Others rant and fight, while still others just leave.  Each one of these choices has a cost not only to the individual but to their institution.

Indigenous students, scholars, and administrators have something to contribute. Is there a willingness to embrace Indigenous people in our totality?  Can the university tolerate other ways of being? Which brings me back to what is becoming the eternal question relating to Indigenous people in the academy:  tâwaw cî?  Does the university understand what it means to make room?

Jo-Ann Episkenew is a Professor of English and the Director and Co-Principal Investigator, Indigenous Peoples’ Health Research Centre, University of Regina.


Equity Matters


Thank you, Joanne, for this articulation, this story. To co-create we need to appreciate each others' strengths and challenges, learn each others' stories. Doesn't this all begin by building relationships? Jeannette