A reflection on teaching Indigenous literature in Germany

In UBC’s current Reconciliation Through Indigenous Education MOOC that I’m enrolled in, we’re prompted every week to reflect on how we as educators indigenize our pedagogy. Here’s one prompt that stood out for my thinking, and my response.

What are examples of successes or challenges you have experienced in implementing aspects of an Indigenous education framework or cultural competencies? In your classroom? Workplace (competency)? Curriculum?

I don’t know if I’d call this an unqualified success, but the question reminds me of one thing I did to implement one First Peoples Learning Principle, and meet a challenge in teaching Indigenous curriculum, when I taught Canadian Studies to German graduate students in the University of Bonn’s North American Studies program, in 2006. (I’ve posted that seminary syllabus at [this link on my blog][1].)

The challenge was, basically, the long German tradition of nativist and “noble savage” preconceptions and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples. One of my seminars I pointedly titled “Canadian and First Nations Drama” (to name both while recognizing the sovereignty of the latter). I tried to sequence the assigned play readings in order to immediately challenge the Indigenous stereotypes held in Germany. For our very first reading, I assigned a play by William S. Yellow Robe Jr called The Independence of Eddie Rose (along with most of the other plays in Monique Mojica and Ric Knowles’ excellent 2003 anthology of First Nations drama, Staging Coyote’s Dream). The play follows an Indigenous boy through harrowing encounters with domestic violence, poverty and crime, incarceration, and abuse, through to his escape from such traumas. When I asked for them to share their first reactions and impressions, I got just the response I wanted from the first comment a student made about that reading. The student said, hesitantly, “this play seems very…modern.” 

While teaching that play in Canada might require different tactics to tackle particularly Canadian stereotypes and prejudices, as well as the deficit discourse (all of which Wab Kinew critiques in [this great short video][2]), teaching it to German students provided a way to challenge particularly German preconceptions and misconceptions, like romanticized notions of the “noble savage” and related images rooted in the popular fiction of Karl May (see this [*Walrus* article on “German Indianism”][3]). In that context, the student’s surprise at encountering an indigenous play about poverty, colonial violence, and trauma under late modern capital suggested that my pedagogical hunch had been at least in the ballpark in terms of finding a way to implement the learning principle of prioritizing Indigenous knowledge and to teach Indigenous curriculum towards cultivating clearer understanding of and critical reflection on Indigenous story, performance, and theatre in contemporary North America.

I was unaware of the First Peoples Principles of Learning at that time. However, in designing and teaching that course, I did recognize not just the role but the primacy of Indigenous knowledge. I understood that teaching Indigenous drama meant first making students aware that Indigenous story and performance traditions both predate and are culturally different from capitalism’s cultural industries and institutions. I also tried, as much as possible, to let the assigned texts speak for themselves — to assign readings of Indigenous plays by Indigenous playwrights, and to moderate the students’ discussion and work on the readings with a light touch, to let them engage as directly as possible with the Indigenous texts themselves. As a colleague later explained in elaborating on that kind of “let the text speak for itself” approach — which might at first seem counter to the second First Peoples Principle (that learning is relational) — it is one possible way (though not necessarily either the only or the best way) for a non-Indigenous scholar to position their pedagogy as not appropriation but rather a kind of ally practice, a recognition and prioritization of — and a making of pedagogical space for — Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous art.

  [1]: https://academicalism.wordpress.com/syllabi/canadian-first-nations-drama/

  [2]: http://rabble.ca/rabbletv/program-guide/2013/01/best-net/wab-kinew-five-myths-about-indigenous-people-canada

  [3]: https://thewalrus.ca/2003-10-feature-2/

in sorrow with Canada, where #WeAllBelong

in solidarity with #SteFoyMosque;
in outrage at terrorism & the dogwhistle politics stoking hate;
in sorrow with Canada, where #WeAllBelong.

little mosque in the ice district

Rediscovering The Velvet Underground

Some Apple Music playlists seem bot-made, but its Velvet Underground Essentials is a proper journey, and a masterfully curated introduction for anyone who doesn’t already dig this seminal rock band. (The Velvets are the only hip band I can confidently say I introduced many highschool and undergrad friends to.)

In this playlist — which for some reason made for perfect holiday listening yesterday — the songs are perfectly sequenced (for instance, following “Oh sweet nuthin,” a deeper but critical cut, with “All tomorrow’s parties” is inspired); the versions are judiciously selected (for instance, here’s the proper take of “Sweet Jane,” with the bridge); and if there are some omissions (like “The Murder Mystery” or “Cool it down”) there are more essentials (“Here she comes now”), and even some delightful surprises (how have I never heard “Foggy notion” before?).

I’m sharing a pic of the playlist for those who don’t have Apple Music but can source the tracks otherwise and sequence them this way. For Apple Music users, here is the playlist link.

New MA course in literary studies: Gothic Transformations

My new Literary Studies course for Athabasca U’s MA program is now open for enrollment.

Illustration from 1897 edition of Marsh's The Beetle. (Public domain image via British Library.)

Illustration from 1897 edition of Marsh’s The Beetle. (Public domain image via British Library.)

The 19th-Century Novel: Gothic Transformations assigns readings in major English novels like Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818), Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860), and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897) and explores how British fiction in the nineteenth century both was influenced by and also adapted Gothic themes and elements, like supernatural horror and psychological suspense.

Gothic fictions and those that adapt the Gothic represent important cultural mediations of the social, political, and economic issues and transformations that characterize Britain during the rise of industrial capital and the global expansion of England’s empire: the transformation of literary production (e.g. serialization, copyright change, circulating library distribution); the advent of public education, industrialization and class conflict; imperial expansion; feminism (e.g. the “New Woman” discourse); and developments in science and technology (e.g. new recording media).

Leonard Cohen, operating in the night

“Montreal is still small enough to have one or two centres, one or two late night centres, and into this funnel is drawn everyone who happens to be up that night or at least a representation of the various groups operating in the night, and groups operating in the night always have a special kind of interest and a special kind of ritualistic atmosphere. 

“And into these places, these special places in the city, and Ben’s is one of them, is drawn this very urgent cross section of people who have somehow committed the first rebellious act that a man can perform: refusing to sleep. 

“That’s the real rebellion against life and the generative process. That’s the real human idea: I refuse to sleep. I’m going to protest the idea of sleep by turning night into day.

“I’m going to revel and drink and womanize all night and this way I show time, death, the natural process of destruction, decay and regeneration — I show it all with my mind and my will that I, man, triumph. And so they come to Ben’s.”

–Leonard Cohen, quoted in Ladies & Gentlemen…Mr Leonard Cohen (NFB, 1965)

[A thousand thanks to you, Mr Leonard Cohen, for showing us how the light gets in. And for being the light.]

SF: so many corporate dystopias, so few unions.

A couple of years ago, during a break in a faculty association meeting, my Athabasca U colleague Bob Barnetson and I got to talking science fiction, and he casually observed that for all its depictions of big business, the genre’s oddly lacking in corresponding images of unions. I told Bob there was a paper in his idea, and voilà, in the current issue of TOPIA, Canada’s journal of cultural studies, you can read the interdisciplinary article we co-wrote on the subject: “Resistance is futile: on the under-representation of unions in science fiction.” Here’s the abstract:

“This article surveys science fiction (SF) since 1980, and queries the conspicuous under-representation of recognizable images of unions in popular SF, which includes, in contrast, numerous images and narratives of corporate business. According to theories of unionism, science fiction studies and Mark Fisher’s theory of ‘capitalist realism,’ the co-authors theorize this pattern of under-representation, and, in the process, identify and analyze a very small but diverse body of SF works from this period that do include images of unions, in ways that range from the symptomatic to the radically suggestive.”

We gave 1980 as a start date for our study because that was about when corporate elite rule (a.k.a. neoliberalism) started to take off, and because that’s why tweets like this make sense:

Research is integrally intertwined with teaching, but it’s not as often that we in academia get to link research as closely with service. This collaboration has been one such welcome opportunity. (And it’s involved our students, too: we’re specifically indebted to the insights and references shared by AU alumna and SF author Heather Clitheroe, who’s reminded me I need check out The Expanse for more evidence of unions in SF.)

On a point unrelated to our subject matter, I also like that our article appears in an issue that both a) marks the debut of Dr. Rinaldo Walcott as TOPIA‘s new editor, and b) pays tribute to the great, late Canadian writer Austin Clarke.

Lastly, if you’re interested in the article, but you or your institution don’t subscribe to TOPIA, you can e-mail me at academicalism[at]gmail[dot]com to request a single copy (because Canada’s educational fair dealing provision in copyright law allows for individual sharing like this).

Two poems just published

I’m pleased to see two of my poems reach print.

mccutcheon_existere2016pic1. “Here Is Where”:

Existere, the long-running literary journal based at York University, has published my poem “Here Is Where Was” in its current Spring-Summer issue (35.2). The poem appears without its Works Cited list: I know poems tend not to attach such things; and I guess the editors get to make that call; and I’ve read some compelling arguments, like David Shield’s, for borrowing without citing. But, unreconstructed scholar that I am, I still feel obliged to cite credit where it’s due:

“Here Is Where” Works Cited

  • Brand, Dionne. No Language is Neutral. Coach House P, 1990, p. 22.
  • Frye, Northrop. “Conclusion to the First Edition of Literary History of Canada” (1965). Northrop Frye on Canada, vol. 12, edited by Jean O’Grady and David Staines, U of Toronto P, 2003, p. 346.
  • Johnston, Basil. The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway. Minnesota Historical Society P, 2001, p. 221.

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-8-50-38-am2. “Lunar Sonata”:

Tigershark is a small-press British e-zine that publishes theme-based issues by subscription. My poem “Lunar Sonata” appears in Tigershark 11, the science and technology issue. “Lunar Sonata” is a cento, a found poem composed wholly of selected excerpts from a news article, “Audio recordings document ‘weird music’ heard by Apollo astronauts on far side of moon,” by Lee Speigel; his story ran in the Huffington Post on Feb. 20, 2016.
Issues of Tigershark can be requested by emailing the editor, DS Davidson, at tigersharkpublishing@hotmail.co.uk.