My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 2: Teaching

If you read my last post you got some general idea of my life trajectory in broad terms. In this post I want to pay special attention to how and why I became a college instructor with a couple of side trips on scholarship and the philosophy of teaching. Many of my colleagues teaching at the college level get their first taste of teaching in high school. Not me. I never intended to teach in high school. Something about high school teaching appealed to me, but I wasn’t interested in going to university in the Education faculty for a year of professional development which would have allowed me to teach in BC high schools. So, what was my alternative? It was going straight from university into college teaching. University faculty don’t need professional development, or so they have insisted for decades. Theoretically, aspiring university teachers learn the teaching craft by watching and emulating their professors. I always though that was a bit strange because of the variability of skill exhibited by faculty. Still, working as a teaching assistant was a form of preparation for eventually taking over the big job. Frankly though, I got a job teaching on a sessional basis at Douglas College as I entered graduate school so I had no real previous experience teaching or managing a classroom. I learned by doing what my colleagues were doing but I also learned from books, lots of them. I questioned everything about teaching, including the setting, the materials, the psychological, sociological, political, and economic assumptions, the goals and the means.

As a student of the social sciences I was already prepped for a critical stance with regard to what I was doing. The time was the mid to late 1970s. I graduated with a B.A. in 1975 and went on to study for my Master’s degree in 1976 after I was recruited by the Sociology and Anthropology Department at SFU to be a teaching assistant. We needed the money, so it was a no-brainer. I was definitely cocky enough to believe that I could pull it off and I think I was pretty good at it. Academia suited me to a T. At the same time, most of the colleges in BC were either in their infancy or about to be built. Most of them were begging for teaching staff. One of my former teachers at Douglas College asked me if I would consider teaching there. I only had a B.A. but was in a grad program and that was enough for them. I started then on a 5 year stint as a sessional faculty member at SFU, Douglas College and eventually Kwantlen College before moving to the Comox Valley in 1983 to teach at North Island College (NIC), although at NIC we were called tutors and not instructors. The college started as a distance education organization which worked closely with Athabasca University to provide university-level courses to people in the northern half of Vancouver Island. Eventually it morphed into a regular college and by 1992 had pretty much made to transformation completely. I worked at NIC until 2012, the year I retired. Now, reading back on the words I have just written I can assure you that I’ve only provided you with some of the backbone events and circumstances that make up my story as a teacher. The reality is much more nuanced and complex. Teaching is all about human relations and love. Yes, love*.

Going to university as an undergraduate was a fairly new thing for someone of my class background. SFU, and the newly named University of Victoria, were a new kind of university set up to train a much needed workforce in a new world of work that demanded a higher education than ever before. The BC college system came into existence around the same time and for the same reasons.

Social roots and standard teen silliness

Coming from a basically working class family with hints of an agrarian past, I had no expectations of going to university. Initially I worked in lumber mills and at odd jobs here and there, jobs that were easy to come by at the time. I was not a particularly stellar kid and for a time hung around my brother-in-law’s used car lots. I tried selling used cars but I just didn’t have it in me. I was wracked with indecision, bounced around from job to job, smoked and drank way too much. I was like a lot of my peers. Because we’re raised to think of ourselves as quintessentially individual, I though the world revolved around my belly button and had no idea about what anyone else was doing, nor did I care. Eventually, as I got older and worked my way slowly, painfully, and hesitatingly out of my teens and into my twenties, my interests changed as did my attitude and behaviour. I got involved with a French-Canadian organization and found in that group a mentor, Roméo Paquette, who helped me understand my potential and encouraged me to get more involved. I had a lot to learn if I was going to go to university and much of my interest started with my French-Canadian connections. At that time I also struggled with by Catholic upbringing. It wasn’t easy. For some time I had ceased to believe in the teachings of the Church and I had an increasingly clearer and clearer appreciation of evolutionary theory. Church teachings just didn’t make sense to me any longer especially in the light of science. Still, I loved my parents and I knew that my newfound perspective on the world was something they could not understand or accept. It’s strange in a way. My parents were very proud of me and my academic career yet they were never able to relate to my life in the least. Their faith in the Church was what sustained them and they could not understand anyone abandoning that faith. They prayed for me. For me, a break from Catholicism was inevitable. I haven’t looked back since.

Back to 1971

I spent 18 months at Douglas College as a student, then transferred to SFU in 1973, the year we got married. By 1976 I had gotten a BA. Carolyn and I decided it would be fun to travel a bit and we did. We packed up our car and a travel trailer, stayed with my sister in 100 Mile House for a bit, found out Carolyn was pregnant, then moved on to Edmonton easily finding jobs. Our intention had been to make it to Ottawa so I might find work, but our plans changed with the pregnancy and we moved back home to BC. I happened to go to SFU upon my return and was offered a job as a teaching assistant. That clinched it for me. As I started work as a teaching assistant the faculty just assumed that I would enter grad school there so I did. I studied at SFU until 1980, got my MA and decided to apply to the grad program at the University of BC. I studied at UBC for a couple of years on a PhD, but couldn’t keep it up because I needed to work and help raise a family. Still, that was my introduction to teaching. I sort of fell into it. I readily took to teaching. I loved it. In 1983 I got a job at NIC as I already noted. That job lasted 29 years.

Scholarship

Of course, teaching was only a part of what I was up to at the time. I did graduate work and settled on a dissertation about Harold Adams Innis’ work. Innis was a well-known but entirely misunderstood scholar teaching at the University of Toronto until his untimely death in 1952. My dissertation was an attempt to set the record straight on Innis. I don’t think it had much of an impart on scholarship but it got me my M.A. Working in my dissertation I had to deal with my previous studies of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, etc., but a new scholar entered my life at that time. I discovered him through Innis. His name is Thorstein Veblen. He was born who knows when but he definitely died in 1929. His work blew me away and laid the groundwork for much of my later research. His influence on me was closely followed by Ernest Becker and a panoply of scholars associated with his work including Marx, Freud, Rank and many others. The archives of this blog are filled with references to their work.  Later, I read Norbert Elias and was immediately struck by the lucidity and strength of his analysis about the relationship of the individual to society. For Elias we are interdependencies and interweavings and it’s barely logical to speak of individuals unless the immediate qualification is that we are essentially social.  All of that time, I also read voraciously authors like the French social historian Fernand Braudel, the economists David Ricardo, Adam Smith, iconoclastic psychiatrists like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz. I’ve never stopped reading. I must say, though, that there has been a consistent thread running through my reading and that’s been the rise and fall of empires and the globalization of capital. My library at home is replete with books on the nation-state, revolution, European history, ideology, and capitalist expansion.

Of course, if you took a tour of my library you’d figure out quickly enough that the above hardly scratches the surface. The scholars I mention above are but the high points on my literary landscape. The meadows and valleys are filled with books on Canadian history, religion, philosophy, language (semiotics and pragmatics), sexuality, ethnography, evolution, biology, psychoanalysis, and art. Now, my attention has also turned to YouTube and other digital formats. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, a neuroscientist, has a series of lectures on YouTube that are brilliant to say the least. To a non-expert, they explain clearly the social class basis of stress not only in olive baboons on the African savannah, but also in Whitehall, the seat of British government bureaucracy.

The above is not a trip through my intellectual story, but it does provide a scaffolding for more interesting backstory commentary. Neither is this a place for a wander through my intellectual trajectory. I suppose I have to get down and write that sometime for me, if anything. The archives here contain a lot of insight into my worldview, but it’s not condensed and focussed. That condensation and focus really defines a retrospective for me. I can do that. What I hope you will get from this is some appreciation of the time and effort it takes to put together the worldview I have. It’s unique and idiosyncratic. You could never duplicate it. Parts of it are accessible to all, but not the whole thing. There are just too many elements to it, too many connecting strands that I alone have experienced. That makes it infernally difficult to share. I will try.

 

*Love is a word that begs definition. Maybe in a future blog post.

 

Reconciliation or Conciliation?

I’ve been pondering this issue for some time and it seems clear to me that reconciliation is not the word we should be using to describe the relationship the Canadian governments, and we as a whole, have with indigenous peoples in Canada today.

Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines reconciliation as “the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement.” Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but the reality is that the Canadian Government has never been particularly friendly towards indigenous people in this country. How can the Canadian government then make friends with indigenous people when they never were friends in the first place?

There was never a ‘disagreement’ between the Canadian Government and the hundreds of indigenous nations on this land we call Canada, which also extend into one of the other colonial countries on  this continent. During the French regime, there was some coöperation between the colonial administration and some of the indigenous nations on the north shore of the St.Laurence river. However, there was no doubt that the values of the colonial administrators and indigenous leaders often clashed. Indigenous people were quite understandably taken with copper pots after having to cook their food by throwing hot rocks into cedar containers filled with water and victuals. They were happy to trade beaver pelts for them and for firearms. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before the colonial administrators undermined the indigenous way of life using the Recollet and Jesuit clergy who promised the indigenous people trade goods if they were to convert to Catholicism. Many did.

Of course, events and circumstances in the French Regime were not ‘Canadian’ events. The British took over from the French what we now call Canada in 1763. They let the colony govern itself after 1867 but had by then instituted an Indian Affairs Department which was perpetuated by the colonial Canadian administration of John A. Macdonald and his cronies after Confederation. By 1876 they passed the Indian Act to clearly cement the master/slave relationship that has lasted ever since.

Obviously, many indigenous people as individuals have often succeeded in their chosen endeavours as lawyers, fishers, business people, university professors, administrators, elected officials, carpenters, plumbers, social workers, etc., but individual success does not deny the collective degradation that colonial powers have consistently tried to burden them with historically. The fact that reserves exist and are legally owned by the federal government, the fact that the statistics on poverty, mental illness, suicide, etc., demonstrate that as a group, indigenous people have suffered immense harm over the course of Canadian history. You would have to be a hardcore bigot to argue that collectively indigenous people are inferior to white folk as a means of explaining their poor statistical profile. Unfortunately, our culture, our societies, our political structures including our cities, police forces, and courts are built on the tacit assumption of indigenous inferiority.

Over the last 150 years, indigenous leaders have challenged the colonial arrangement that governed their lives. They signed treaties, fought battles with firearms and resisted in many ways. Every time the government felt the least bit threatened by ‘uppity Indians’ it passed amendments to the Indian Act further restricting the movements and activities of indigenous peoples. The potlatch ban, pass laws and the overarching presence of the Indian agent made for difficult times for indigenous people. Still, they never gave up. They faced racism and discrimination, marginalization and exploitation of the worst kind. There were exceptions, of course. There always are.

Now, indigenous leaders, most of them using great restraint and patience, are looking for recognition of traditional culture and ways of life and the revitalization of their languages, but they’re also looking for a better economic deal than they’ve ever had, and its working. New treaties are being signed and new relationships with the federal government are being forged with indigenous people no longer willing to take whatever crumbs the Canadian government offers. They are no longer interested in tokenism and false promises and they have lawyers.

What this amounts to is ‘conciliation’ not ‘reconciliation’. It’s a tribute to indigenous communities all over this country that their preferred way of negotiating is respectful and patient. We need to learn from them. What really strikes me is that indigenous success in business and other ventures will enrich us all.

Conciliation is a process that is slowly happening now. Reconciliation was never possible and is not even realistic given the colonial history of this country. The word implies a past where we all got along splendidly and for some reason grew apart. Anybody who believes that has been living in a dream world or in Tierra Del Fuego. We need to talk about conciliation, not reconciliation. More than that, we have to live conciliation with patience and love.

 

The Christian Idiom

I was raised Catholic, but it didn’t take me too long into my late adolescence to realize it wasn’t for me.  There was so much belief, blind faith and not a lot of evidence.  Isn’t that the point of religion, really?  When I was 17 or so I was told by a priest that I shouldn’t be reading a book by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  I was still a practicing Catholic at the time, but I was stunned when this former physics teacher of mine at Collège St-Jean in Edmonton, told me that I wasn’t ‘intellectually prepared’ enough to read de Chardin. According to the Gaiamind website (gaiamind.com):

“Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a visionary French Jesuit, paleontologist, biologist, and philosopher, who spent the bulk of his life trying to integrate religious experience with natural science, most specifically Christian theology with theories of evolution. In this endeavor he became absolutely enthralled with the possibilities for humankind, which he saw as heading for an exciting convergence of systems, an “Omega point” where the coalescence of consciousness will lead us to a new state of peace and planetary unity. Long before ecology was fashionable, he saw this unity he saw as being based intrinsically upon the spirit of the Earth: ‘The Age of Nations is past. The task before us now, if we would not perish, is to build the Earth.’ ”

Methinks my former physics professor was slightly disingenuous about his motives for telling me I wasn’t ‘intellectually prepared’ to read de Chardin.  Anyone still steeped in Catholic doctrine would have to reject de Chardin.  It’s easy to see that from the above quote.   de Chardin’s work contradicted the Catholic Magisterium and many of his books were censored by Rome. He basically rejected the whole Biblical account of creation in Genesis.   His Le Phénomène Humain published posthumously strayed far from the dogma of the Church.  So, fearing the loss of yet another young adherent to the Church, my Oblate physics teacher was really imploring me to avoid reading heresy.  But it was too late.  I was already on a road to greater intellectual curiosity.  I read works by ethologists such as Konrad Lorenz.  I read popularizations of anthropology such as Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative. I read The Origin of Species.  Later, at Simon Fraser University, I would quote Ardrey in an anthropology paper to be told that my professor that he was a charlatan. What can I say, I was a newbie.

In any case, my point here is that de Chardin opened my eyes to thinking about the world and the universe in very different ways from what is contained in Catholic doctrine.  Biblical accounts taken literally made no sense to me whatsoever.  I read the Bible over and over again and continued to be mystified by the language, the smiting of one’s enemies, and the gnashing of teeth.  It took me some time to realize that taken metaphorically, the Bible makes much more sense than it does literally.  de Chardin led the way in my awakening on this front.  I don’t subscribe to Biblical accounts of creation any more than de Chardin did and I can definitely relate to his view of the cosmos.

For de Chardin (and science, for that matter) there is ‘immortality’ in the universe in the sense that matter and energy are not lost, but are constantly ‘reconfiguring’ and ‘reconstituting’ themselves.  As the saying goes, we are the stuff of stars.  The matter that makes up my body has always existed and always will.  The particular configuration of matter that is me is transitory, but the matter that is me is eternal and immortal.  So, in a sense, I ‘believe’ in immortality.  Humans, however, aren’t generally satisfied with such an abstract idea of immortality.  No, we want something more tangible such as the soul upon which to hang our hopes of individual immortality.  We really want to be ‘ourselves’ eternally, as if our deaths never happened, cavorting and enjoying ourselves in heaven with our earthly companions and with God overseeing everything like a cosmic party host.  This is a picture of God as very human like and of humans as very god-like. For de Chardin, God has no specific connection with the human species.

For de Chardin, God is the universe, the Omega as he called it.  That is a far cry from the story of creation in the Bible, but if our denial of death is as profound a drive as Ernest Becker suggests, the fall from grace symbolized by the eating of the forbidden fruit and the subsequent split of humans into our symbolic and material selves whereby our symbolic selves are immortal and our material selves are mortal makes more sense.  Our bodies are our own worst enemies.  They die.  They betray us at every turn.  They are fundamentally evil.  It’s our symbolic side that is good, pure and immortal.  So the story of creation in the Bible is idiomatic.  It metaphorically concretizes the goodness of the power of the universe, the abstract power we cannot understand and from which all life emanates, and the badness of matter which at every turn bleeds and dies.  The interesting thing here is that people get caught up with the Bible’s literal explanations and don’t, as de Chardin did, see the story of the unfolding universe in the Genesis code.  How long we will need to bend to metaphor and idiom rather than face the reality of the universe full face is anyone’s guess.  More on this later.