A few weeks ago, my university held a Residential Schools Awareness Day, both to coincide with the presence of the national Truth and Reconciliation Committee in the area, and to educate students on a variety of indigenous issues and topics. Events like this are fairly normal in the academic setting, and receive greater or lesser response depending upon their prominence within the collective awareness of the students and faculty. Yet this time, the university brass decided that it wasn’t good enough just to hold a bunch of events, they also had to cancel all classes as well.
Now I’d love to say that this was a purely empirical decision based upon the importance of the issue, it’s contemporary relevance, and the institution’s geographical location, but I’m not sure I could argue that in good faith. My university has spent the last decade trying to reinvent itself as an indigenous-friendly institution, going so far as to hold a sacred ceremony to consecrate our mascot, and this latest stunt has the fishy smell of another attempted public relations coup.
As with any touchy issue, I should first assure you that I do understand that Residential Schools are an important issue with contemporary relevance, especially in my geographic area. I think that awareness days are usually a very good thing. I just protest the unprecedented and unnecessary cancellation of classes during this specific day.
It confounds me that the institution would take such a step, and it creates a worrying precedent for the future. As someone who has paid significant money to take certain classes, I resent the high-handedness of cancelling my classes in an attempt to compel me to attend events on an entirely unrelated topic. Do any of the brass actually believe that canceling classes is an effective way to increase attendance at a voluntary event? Am I, as a student suddenly given a free day, going to elect to come to campus on my own initiative and sit through hours of presentation?
Perhaps. I have friends who did. I just doubt that anybody came who wouldn’t have come anyway during a normal day of classes. I personally elected to run errands, work on a few personal projects and catch up on my readings. I told one friend that I was participating in a one-man “boycott”. She informed me that a “boycott is the weakest form of direct protest,” which is true, but still didn’t convince me to get off the couch.
On one hand, I would have liked to attend and learn something about an issue that I admit I’ve historically been dismissive of. On the other hand, I didn’t want to encourage my university brass in the idea that they can cancel classes I paid for, and force me to learn about whatever issue they apparently feel is more important.
After all, the reason that we don’t generally cancel classes during awareness days is because, if we did, students would barely ever actually be in class. There are hundreds of issues that are important to students specifically, and our society in general, and any one of them could form the basis for an awareness day. Yet of all the events my university has held over the years of my attendance, this is the first that required the cancellation of classes. Why?
I’m getting that fishy smell again, because, in my personal opinion, the class cancellation is the product of a bureaucratic initiative to “rebrand” my institution as indigenous-friendly. This in itself isn’t a bad thing, although it becomes problematic when that “rebranding” begins to steal attention from other salient issues, and even leach time and emphasis from the academics and classes that students are specifically paying for. Just because my university believed in such rebranding (and, perhaps cynically, the financial opportunities inherent in such a politically advantageous initiative), does not give them license to let that emphasis degrade academic commitments.
Perhaps the best example of the worst aspect of the issue so far, is the prevalent usage of the term “indigenization” in official university releases and correspondence. Apparently, my university is trying to “indigenize” itself, which is problematic both philosophically and practically. Most arts students have spent years being taught that words ending in “ization” are bad (or at least problematic) in principle, with colonialization, globalization, industrialization, Americanization, and corporatization being a few examples. The general problem with these terms is the power dynamic; they describe the infliction of a new status quo by the powerful upon the weak, the enforcement of a white-washed uniformity upon a multifaceted complexity.
So what makes academic ‘indigenization’ different? Well, it’s rather ill-defined in the material available to student, but it seems to be nicer, gentler, more reliant upon rhetorical niceties, and still very much the infliction of a new dynamic upon a weaker (student) group. Much of it, the creation of events, awareness, new classes, and perhaps a new department, should be encouraged and seems relatively benign, but the language being used by some individuals hints at greater structural and educational changes across the university.
Yet nobody seems to be complaining.
For a hypothetical comparison, if I, as the administrator of a secular university, announced the ‘Christianization’ of my institution, it would set off the biggest firestorm of my administration. I would have students chaining themselves to park-benches and organizing classroom sit-ins. They would scream about preserving their intellectual freedom, the separation of church and state, and their right to a fair and unbiased education. All of this to oppose a cultural and religious flavor that actually has a significant western academic tradition.
‘Indigenization’, on the other hand, is something I am apparently supposed to welcome without having any idea what the word means or what it entails. Indigenous cultures may have done a lot of things well, but passing along technical, scientific, or specific historical knowledge in institutions of higher learning was not one of them. Forgive me if I find the western academic tradition to be objectively superior in this sense.
Perhaps I’m too fearful, perhaps I’m simply scared of an idea that I don’t fully understand, or perhaps I’m worried about becoming an intellectual pawn in game that has more to do with politics and public relations that my individual education.
If the latter, cancelling my classes without my consent wasn’t a good way to comfort me.