In 2009, Memorial University of Newfoundland’s senior administration was anxious to increase Aboriginal participation and representation among the student body. At the time, there was a very small number of Aboriginal students studying at the university. Aboriginal peoples of Canada are defined in the Constitution Act, 1982, Section 35 (2) as including the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.
Dr. Valerie Legge is a professor of English at Memorial University. Although Dr. Legge is not Aboriginal, she was inspired by a book on the residential schools by Cree artist and writer Shirley Cheechoo and was concerned there was no course on Aboriginal literature at Memorial.
As a result, Dr. Legge began working under the guidance of Chief Mi’sel Joe, a District Chief of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council, to develop such a course, ENG 2160, which introduces Aboriginal literature in a social, political and historical context. Beginning with the oral tradition (songs, narratives, legends and orations), the course focuses on different works by North American Aboriginal writers: poetry, drama, short stories and novels.
The course is now a regular credit course in the English program of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and a recommended course in the Certificate in Aboriginal and Indigenous Studies. The course is also taken by students in the Faculties of Medicine and Social Work.
The course started as a fully on-campus, classroom-based course but now it is offered as a blended course, both on campus and online. There are approximately 20-25 students taking the classroom-based version, of whom about five to ten now self-identify as Aboriginal, and about 40 students taking the course online, of which approximately 10-15 self-identify as Aboriginal. Aboriginal students are more willing to self-identify as Aboriginal than they were even five years ago.
The challenge was to design a course that incorporated and reflected Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal ways of learning. As a result, Professor Legge began to incorporate Talking Circles into the course.
Talking Circles are a foundational approach in Aboriginal pedagogy, since they provide a model for an educational activity that encourages dialogue, respect, the co-creation of learning content, and social discourse.
Talking Circles originated with Aboriginal leaders. The process was used to ensure all leaders in the tribal council were heard, and those who were speaking were not interrupted. Usually the Chief initiates the conversation, with other members responding and sharing their perceptions and opinions of the topic under discussion. Talking Circles are an integral part of Mi’kmaq culture.
There are eight modules in the course, covering the following topics:
- Talking Back
- Traditions and Good Teachings
- Imaginary Indians
- Medicine and Magic
- Quest and Transformation
- Myths and Memories
- Singing Home the Bones
- Truth and Reconciliation
Students read set books by Aboriginal writers related to each of the topics. Each book has an introductory essay specifically written by Dr. Legge. Students are given a set reading and are asked to comment on the reading in class. Students take it in turn to lead the circle. The emphasis is on listening and being non-judgemental. There is a list of seven questions students consider for the Talking Circles.
In the online section, students use the university’s learning management system, D2L’s Brightspace, to post their comments and thoughts on the set reading, and respond to other's comments, which can be either in audio or typed format.
Students can also access videos of Chief Mi’sel Joe, both facilitating a Talking Circle, and in an interview with Dr. Legge about Talking Circles and their place in Mi'kmaq culture. There is also a video about the stories of Conne River, a Mi'kmaq community.
There are two course assignments. The first is on 'How I got my name.' Students must do one of the assignments orally using an audio recording and the other must be written. Students can choose which assignment should be oral. There is a final examination where students write five essays about the main texts.
Benefits and Outcomes
In 2016, ENGL 2160 won the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education's prize for excellence and innovation in the integration of technology in instructional design/teaching and learning.
The course is successful in attracting more Aboriginal students as well as non-Aboriginal students, with the class expanding from the original 20-25 in class to another 40 students online, each semester.
Many students really appreciate the course. It brings them to a way of thinking that is different and it is particularly successful in shifting non-Aboriginal students into a better understanding of Aboriginal culture. The Talking Circle approach appeals to Aboriginal students as well as non-Aboriginal students. Students feel 'safe' in the Talking Circle environment. In particular, non-Aboriginal students become better at listening. Aboriginal students generally feel 'safer' in the online version.
Challenges and Enhancements
Although Dr. Legge – and many of the students – find the material inspiring, not all students embrace the content of the course.
In particular, there are sometimes difficulties with the Talking Circles. Dr. Legge believes it is difficult to replicate the traditional Talking Circle in a public classroom. Elements of the Talking Circle can be introduced but not the real experience. However, some of these elements - in particular, turn-sharing and listening - are extremely valuable in a course on literature. Dr. Legge is anxious to avoid 'destructive' discussion and these elements of the Talking Circle enable more constructive discussion.
Also, Dr. Legge feels the requirements of assessment in traditional university education, with its emphasis on grading and evaluation, runs counter to the culture of Talking Circles.
Canadian universities must increasingly step up to the challenge of meeting the special needs and aspirations of Aboriginal youth, as well as widening understanding of Aboriginal culture beyond Aboriginal communities. At the same time, this must be done in a respectful and collaborative manner with Aboriginal people.
This course demonstrates ways Aboriginal culture can be recognized and incorporated into academic studies at an advanced level, as well as pointing out some of the challenges.
Professor Valerie Legge
Department of English
Memorial University of Newfoundland
St. John's, Newfoundland