Teaching in place: fostering relationality and reciprocity in the classroom in 2017

view of the Rideau River from Carleton University campus, Ottawa, Canada


It’s that time of year when professors like myself are editing, updating, or drafting syllabi for the coming fall semester here in Canada (and as I understand, the fall term is underway for many of my American peers!). As I head into my third year as an anthropology professor in Ottawa, Canada, I’ve been thinking hard about what it means to enact anthropology, pedagogy, and co-thinking in this particular place and time. I live, work, and teach in unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory. In fact, Ottawa, Canada’s national capital, sits in entirely unceded Indigenous land. What does that mean? Well, our House of Parliament sits on land for which no treaty was ever signed or negotiated. This creates complex and urgent realities between a) the Algonquin communities whose laws and histories are inextricably bound to this city in the heart of the Ottawa River watershed and b) the broader Canadian nation-state (and its myriad institutions).

View of the Peace Tower (Parliament), Ottawa, Canada

Working in unsurrendered Algonquin territory, I think a lot about how to make explicit the relationship between my workplace, Carleton University, and the unceded lands and waters it is bound to. Most of the non-Canadian audience of this blog has probably never heard of Carleton (I wouldn’t expect you to know much about it!), but to bring you up to speed: it rests within a verdant triangle of land that is bounded by the UNESCO World Heritage Rideau Canal and the Rideau River. While the mostly brutalist 1960s architecture of the campus does little to really celebrate the awe-inspiring land it is built on, the waterways that surround our campus tie us directly into the Ottawa River watershed that Algonquin peoples have tended to, laboured within, storied, and celebrated since Time Immemorial.

typical brutalist architecture on Carleton University campus

As a new professor, I’m repeatedly struck by how little we are expected to gesture to or tend to the specific lands, waters, and layered place-based histories we teach within. In Canada, a former French and British colony, we arguably still measure ourselves incessantly and self-consciously against American, British, French, German, and Italian (and other European) intellectual praxis. We often populate our classrooms with long-dead British, American, and other European thinkers, who themselves laboured within specific and storied landscapes and geographies that are worthy of their own care and attention. This is, of course, a symptom of the conceit of the ‘university’, which seeks to universalize the knowledge we share within postsecondary institutions. Achille Mbembe’s (2015) specific articulation of the pluriversity as a tool to — in reference to Fanon — provincialize european thought is, to me, a powerful way to unsettle the supposed universality of the anthropological theory and praxis we teach in the classroom.

I’ve written elsewhere about how I employ ‘watershed level thinking’ as one pedagogical tool in the classroom to encourage students to engage their studies in a way that is attentive to the geographies and legal-governance paradigms that animate this specific territory in Ottawa. Where possible, I also encourage my students to tend to the waterways around the university, applying Tsing’s (2015) ‘arts of noticing’ as a deliberate tool to unsettle the universality of the university. I build, too, on the notions of ‘Indigenous place-thought’ (Watts 2013) and ‘Indigenous place-story’ (Donald 2009) that Indigenous scholars Vanessa Watts and Dwayne Donald articulate, respectively, in their scholarship. My efforts to encourage students to think critically and closely about place and its stories is a small attempt to foster a sense of tenderness towards, and awareness of,  their surroundings. This is my attempt to encourage students to think critically about the territories they move within as they study. I employ this approach to encourage students to think about not only their role as scholars but as people bound to particular socio-political realities and stories.

classroom discussion of the more-than-human beings we share time/space with at Carleton University

To this end, I also think a lot about how there is a lot of day-to-day, routinized discourse within academia that demeans or diminishes work that is produced outside specific institutions. In the UK, we are conditioned to elevate scholarship from Oxford, Cambridge and the Russell Group. In America, we are conditioned to prioritize work produced at Ivy League and/or R1 institutions. In Canada, UBC, U of T, and McGill tussle for the honorific of ‘Harvard North’. Rather than lament or feel shame for not producing our work within specific (elite) localities in the academy, I argue that Mbembe’s manifestation of the pluriversity encourages us to tend to our specific responsibilities within the places we find ourselves. And this tenderness to, and tending of, specific localities in our teaching is not a mere nicety – it is an essential form of resistance and refusal (to gesture to the work of Mohawk anthropologist Audra Simpson (2014)) – of settler-colonial and white supremacist ideologies which normalize the dispossession and erasure of Indigenous peoples  in stolen lands across North America. The pluriversity is also an important tool to refuse the white supremacist logics that erase Black scholars and thinkers from curricula, departments, and institutions throughout Europe and North America (see the work of Dr. Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman at UCL in 2014 to dismantle whiteness in the UK academy (Grove 2015), among so many other scholars who draw attention to the erasure of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and POC) scholarship from the classroom).

This work of pluralizing and localizing our teaching goes beyond recognizing watersheds in the classroom. It requires that we ask how our universities came about. It demands that we query whose labour brought the bricks and mortar to stand. To outright acknowledge the entanglements of slavery, white supremacy, land theft, and exploitation that built and build academic institutions (see: Beckert et al. 2011). It requires an unflinching look at the strange and paradoxical universalities and specificities of dispossession, elimination, and slavery that animate universities across North America. (I can’t speak to embodied and visceral experiences in other continents, but work by Achille Mbembe (2015) and Hamid Dabashi (2015) makes explicit the need to unsettle the white supremacy of the university, philosophy, and academia across many localities).

As a Métis scholar and teacher, I’ve been working to develop ways to foster thoughtful and tender responses to the places, situations, relationships we find ourselves bound up within both within academe and beyond. However, I am wary here of the tendency to want to universalize our place-based interventions and apply them to contexts far-removed from the places and beings through which they are thought (to reference Watts’ (2013) important critique of euro-american misappropriation of Indigenous Place-Thought). At a talk last year, someone asked if my theoretical framing of ‘tenderness’ as an ethical response to violence could ‘travel’. I’m not sure that my theoretical work can or should ‘travel’, ie: be applied to contexts outside of those it grows from. My work is bound up with the specific histories, geographies, kinship relations, and responsibilities that I carry as a Métis woman born of and in amiskwaciwaskahikan and the Lake Winnipeg watershed. And now, my work is also embedded within my complex responsibilities as an uninvited guest in unceded Algonquin territory here within the Kitchissibi (Ottawa River). To this end, I’m doing my best to explore the teachings Red River Métis share through our stories, laws, and histories about how to be good visitors in other people’s territories. This is a principle – this importance of visiting and being a good relation in other people’s territories – I hope to foster within my pedagogy as an anthropology teacher. However, I do hope that our specific place-based interventions encourage people to work hard to understand and tend to the specific stories and narratives of the places they live in.

So, in this sense, I wouldn’t expect my work to be universally applicable to other contexts because it is so deeply entangled with very specific and charismatic human and more-than-human beings with whom I have ongoing reciprocal relationships. I would hope that the work I do is useful in ways that are nurturing and inspiring to others, but I also hope that we can celebrate pluralities of understandings of how to do our work as anthropologists. In the same way that my work as an Indigenous feminist in Canada contributes to Indigenous feminisms (the plural acknowledges the dynamic and diverse philosophical and legal-ethical paradigms that inform Indigenous experiences across Canada), I see my work as an anthropologist contributing not to anthropology, but to anthropologies. In the pluriversity, we are co-constituting rich and dynamic ecologies of thinking and action that cannot be easily translated across the vast territories we occupy. But thinking across pluralities enables us to be more cognizant of the responsibilities we hold to and across these places.

So how do I make explicit the entanglements of the scholarship we’re reading and studying within the classroom with the lands/waters/environments this scholarship is produced within? I suppose it starts with unsettling our expectations that we can offer uniform anthropologies across North American institutions. Instead we need to ask ourselves what it means to teach in the specific places we find ourselves, and to make explicit the histories, materialities, and trajectories of the places we teach within. To tend to the human and more-than-human realities that shape those places. To commit ourselves to an ‘ethical orientation’ (a phrase I borrow here from Donald (2010))  towards, and involvement in, the life and livelihoods of these places. And by this, I mean we commit to an unambiguous political orientation to nurturing reciprocal and caring possibilities in these places we live and work. One possible way to support such an approach is to encourage universities to engage in land-based pedagogical programming. To teach students about the specific histories of the places within which they are studying. In Indigenous Studies programs across Canada, there is careful and nuanced support for land-based pedagogy programs that bring together academic institutions and Indigenous communities (see for example the work of Indigenous colleagues at the University of Alberta, University of Saskatchewan, and Dechinta). My workplace isn’t quite at the point of developing such a program, and to do so would necessarily require very care-full and thoughtful engagement with local Algonquin communities to develop programs that are deeply informed by Algonquin philosophy, language, legal traditions, and human-environmental knowledge. Perhaps in the future it will be possible to build such a program.

What I have learned in my first two years as an anthropology prof is that it is so very important for us to nurture pedagogies that enable students, communities, and institutions to speak of, and across, the dynamic experiences that shape their specific localities and entanglements. So as I finalize my course syllabi in the waning weeks of summer vacation, I’ll be thinking hard about how to offer course material that is attentive, and responsible, to this particular territory, its histories, and its co-constituents. I’ll be doing my best to enthusiastically embrace the pluriversity and the unique nodes of thinking and being that are possible here, now. My dream is to foster classrooms and programs that strengthen our relationships to place, and acknowledge our reciprocal responsibilities to the communities whose territories we are so fortunate to live and work in. And, perhaps naively, I still believe we can accomplish this tender reciprocity to people in place in our teaching, and I send out my solidarity and support to all of you as you enter the classroom to accomplish this mission anew this fall.

Addendum: this piece was written a few weeks ago. In light of ongoing white supremacist events/violence in the US, I also have to ask “how do we bring the specificities of place and time in the locations that we teach into broad and powerful conversations about how to dismantle white supremacy in the academy across North America? How do we work across the local realities in the cities and towns where we are employed in order to make sure students don’t dismiss these systemic realities as something that is reserved for ‘the deep South’ or ‘that other city’, but in fact encourage our students to look at the ways in which white supremacy has manifested and maintained the settler colonial nation-state in myriad and specific ways across the entire North American continent and beyond?”. I’ll be thinking about the interlinkages of Charlottesville, Trump, the KKK and the socio-historical specificities of settler-colonization and white supremacy in my current hometown as I develop my syllabi this week. And I’ll be doing my best to encourage students to think about the entanglement of local realities and global events while they study anthropology.

Works Cited

Beckert, Steve, Stevens, Katherine and the students of the Harvard and Slavery Research Seminar. 2011. Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History. Retrieved August 19, 2017. (http://www.harvardandslavery.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Harvard-Slavery-Book-111110.pdf).

Dabashi, Hamid. 2015. Can Non-Europeans Think? London: Zed Books.

Donald, Dwayne. 2009. “Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Metissage: Imagining
Decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian Relations in Educational Contexts.” First
Nations Perspectives 2 1: 1-24.

Donald, Dwayne. 2010. “On What Terms Can We Speak?” Lecture at the University
of Lethbridge. Retrieved December 05, 2014 (www.vimeo.com/15264558).

Grove, Jack. (2015). “Rejected MA was too critical of white establishment, says academic”. Times Higher Education,  May 2015. Retrieved August 19, 2017. (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/rejected-ma-was-too-critical-of-white-establishment-says-academic/2020316.article).

Mbembe, Achille. 2015. “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive.”
Lecture. May 2, 2015 at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.
Retrieved August 19, 2017.

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler
States. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: on the
possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Watts, Vanessa. 2013. “Indigenous Place-Thought and Agency amongst Humans and
Non-humans First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European Tour!” DIES:
Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education and Society 2(1): 20–34.

Zoe Todd

Dr. Zoe Todd (Red River Métis/Otipemisiwak) is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She was a 2011 Trudeau Foundation Scholar. She researches Indigenous feminist (Métis) perspectives on the anthropocene, extinction, human-fish relations, colonialism and Indigenous legal orders/governance in Canada.

4 thoughts on “Teaching in place: fostering relationality and reciprocity in the classroom in 2017

  1. Hi Zoe,
    Thanks for writing this morning. I’m excited that you’ve joined the site and I look forward to reading more of your work.
    But I didn’t much out of this piece – lots of very big rhetoric that lacked tangibiblity, definition, and certainly methods of practical execution.
    Aside from the general proposition – highlighting in class the histories of the place where the university exists, which few people would disagree with – how else should we think about this and use it with our students?
    Thanks again for writing.

  2. Zoe, thank you. This is one of the richest and most stimulating essays I have read in years. To which I would add that it brilliantly realizes the promise of the Internet by functioning as a node a that connects to so much else, so worth reading. Everyone here should follow the links you provide to your own work on watersheds and tenderness — and the link to Achille Mbembe’s pluriversity piece, what a discovery! There is so much to discuss and to think about here.

    Intense engagement with place lies at the heart of all that you do. But given that deep immersion in place and its specificity, I wonder how you interpret Mbembe’s opening remarks, where he writes,

    “Today many want to finally bring white supremacy to its knees. But the same seem to go missing when it comes to publically condemning the extra-judicial executions of fellow Africans on the streets of our cities and in our townships. As Fanon intimated, they see no contradiction between wanting to topple white supremacy and being anti-racist while succumbing to the sirens of isolationism and national-chauvinism.”

  3. Dear Zoe,

    Thanks for writing this very moving and evocative—for the lack of better words!—essay.

    I have been reading decolonial theory/thinking and pluriversality since we looked at the ‘Refugee Crisis’ of 2015 during a seminar in my MA in Leuven, Belgium. Being situated in the heart of Europe at a moment its borders were being so violently policed, it was so heartening and inspiring to read the works of scholars like Fanon, Mbembe, Mignolo, Maldonado-Torres, et al., alongside more “classical” works like Arendt or Foucault (Note, also, the tension between the core and periphery that such two registers create; an important/potential site for subversive reading, perhaps?). At the same time, reading these texts seemed somewhat distant to the intuitiveness that anthropology and ethnography nurtures in oneself; there was the inevitable question of “applying” such knowledges, which I felt took attention away from the deep insight they evoke.

    I felt your essay was a step in that direction, of finding ways in which to think and apply—again, for the lack of a better term!—ideas like pluriversality and decoloniality to not just research contexts, but to be attentive to the spatial and social contexts where we’re based as anthropologists (and indeed other forms of practitioners and actors). Your interventions, I feel, are also so important to the debate on the particular and the general, and somehow draws attention to why such binaries may not be very helpful indeed.

    Again, these are just some thoughts your essay’s inspired, and I look forward to more of your writing and syllabi in the near future!


  4. Zoe writes, “As a new professor, I’m repeatedly struck by how little we are expected to gesture to or tend to the specific lands, waters, and layered place-based histories we teach within.”

    I hear you on that. I think about this a lot as well–how disconnected local histories, places, landscapes can be from the larger university project. I think this disconnection often begins in earlier levels of education in primary schools, high schools, etc. Sometimes all of the focus on national and world histories obscures those local, place-based connections. And what I’ve noticed is that digging into local connections is often what can help draw students in, even helping them see how their communities/places fit within wider events, processes, and histories.

    As you point out in this essay, this disconnection from the locale/proximate definitely has its effects, making some uncomfortable issues more distant than they are.

    In the addendum you ask, “How do we work across the local realities in the cities and towns where we are employed in order to make sure students don’t dismiss these systemic realities as something that is reserved for ‘the deep South’ or ‘that other city…”?

    This reminds me of a memory growing up in Southern California. When it came to ‘racism,’ I remember some of us kids talking about about how some white supremacist leader used to live out east of us. He was pretty well known, and didn’t live all that far away. But we talked about him being ‘out there,’ so far away, as if all the racism he was associated with didn’t touch our little coastal town. It surely didn’t have anything to do with us. I think this kind of distancing (and denial) happens a lot in our education systems as well, and I appreciate your work toward breaking some of it down in the classroom. It’s a good place to start. Sometimes I just wish it all started earlier.

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