Confronting The Academy Within (by Rhonda Chung)

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Like many parents in Quebec, I’ve been homeschooling my child through this pandemic. The sudden surge in provincial cases, however, left us with no material, administrative support, or curriculum guidance to really operationalize homeschooling. Figuring out a pedagogy that worked for both my child and myself ended up being the easy part. The hard part continues to be deciding what aspects of my education I want to pass on to another generation.

For context, I have attended four elementary schools, one high school, and three universities where I took 32 undergraduate and 22 graduate courses in Toronto and Montreal both in English and in French. My education did a good job of socializing me to understand The Big Picture stuff, but overlooked how the devil is always in the details.

For example, for my grade 10 history test, I memorized that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was entrenched into the Constitution in 1982, guaranteeing all citizens their unalienable rights and freedoms.

That fact doesn’t explain, however, why Canada’s last racially segregated school closed in 1983—one full year later.

At first blush, you think: Wow! There’s so many hidden details that I don’t know about.

Until it happens again.

Most of us know that the Catholic church was the architect of the Residential schools in the early 1600s upon colonial contact, and that those schools later became part of a highly orchestrated federal initiative to wipe out the culture and knowledge (epistemicide) of the First Peoples under the guise of “education”. As a Concordia student, it took some digging to discover the finer details, like the fact that the first Residential school was created in New France and the very daycare my child once attended in the Grey Nuns building was the Mother House in the province of Quebec

The devil is in the details—those everyday mundane details like enjoying childcare services as a university student because of a land transfer deed from a religious settler colonial construct to a secular one, underscoring my complicity in colonialism.

“…the prevailing authority of Eurocentric discourses” (p. xx) reinforces “cognitive imperialism” (p. xvii)

(Battiste, 2000)

Tarone (2009) made the remark that our linguistic repertoire was an echo chamber–a “chorus of voices”, to be exact. Be it exemplar or prototype, no matter how you slice it cognitively, they all agree that voices – the input – are required to build psycholinguistic representations. And this begs the question:

What’s in the input?

Whose voices have we been centering?

Last year, I passed a milestone in my academic career by completing my comprehensive exams. What should have felt like an accomplishment instead underlined exactly whose knowledge I’m expected to be keeping. And it most certainly is not the ideas, knowledges, and experiences of those who resemble me–and lemme tell you, as a member of multiple communities, that is quite the statement for me to make. 

On multiple occasions, hidden in plain sight of the “seminal” articles I was expected to speak fluently upon, were perspectives on gender, race, and language that were not only harmful – they were outright abusive.

When you read an article to better understand theoretical acoustic phonetic analyses, you do not expect to learn the detailed history of how the voices of middle-class males were considered the standard unit of vowel measure, and that female measurements could be mathematically derived by subtracting a one unit on a Bark scale (Bladon et al., 1984), you say to yourself: Wow! There’s so many hidden details that I don’t know about.

Until it happens again.

You think you’re researching cognition theory and read that “Chinese all look alike to the occidental observer” (Attneave, 1957). You wonder if the Chinese study says the same about occidentals, but since that seminal article hasn’t been written yet, you go along with their line of thinking and watch them use cognitive theories of schemata creation and prototype learning to justify the objectification of the Chinese body. You lean back and ask yourself:

Is this how supremacy legitimizes itself?

Other times, their discussion doesn’t sugar-coat their findings at all, and dialect studies explain to you that your ancestors don’t speak a real language and the communication they do use is a “substandard” and broken version of the standard (Stewart, 1964). In those moments, you instantly realize that you were never the intended audience for such discourse.

At no point in my academic career did any instructor prepare me for reading articles that would categorize and objectify aspects of my humanity and call it “science”.

Is it because they were never objectified themselves in these papers? And, therefore, didn’t know how to have such conversations?

Or did they see it, and shrug their shoulders, dismissing it as the way it’s always been done? And if it is the latter, then it means these instructors have always known that I would find out, and they’ve done nothing to prepare me or other students for this eventuality. Why?

This is precisely how the silent curriculum—the very lack of a Chorus of certain Voices—directly harms students, and distorts the entire learning process.

“Enough About You” (2016) – Titus Kaphar

“When I read texts, for example, I frequently have to orientate myself to a text world in which the centre of academic knowledge is either in Britain, the United States or Western Europe; in which words such as ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘our’, ‘I’ actually exclude me.”

(Smith, 2012, p. 37)

Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) populations have disproportionately represented our understanding of human cognition in the social sciences. Confronting WEIRD science over the long term will require more than just a commitment to issues of equity, diversity or inclusion in higher education—it will necessarily mean breaking gates and making room. In the short term, it demands that the social sciences be transparent about whose intellect and observations they have been centering, and whose entire existence they were designed to preserve.

For my part, I want an education that is honest about its limitations without trying to limit me or convince me that I need to fit into its gaze. What this means, concretely, is for administrators and the intellectual descendants of the Ivory Tower to collude with their students by pushing against the historical gate-keeping that has defined institutional inclusion and narrow academic inquiry. 

“People have the idea that, from childhood, young people have to be placed into a framework where they’re going to follow orders. This is often quite explicit… this model of education imposes ‘a debt which traps students, young people, into a life of conformity’”

(Chomsky, 2012)
 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYHQcXVp4F4

My scholastic success has largely been attributed to how well I did exactly what my instructors told me to do. Any time I became inspired to complete a task differently, I was rewarded with the kind of critique that extinguishes any possibility that I would do that again. Over time, you learn how to dance in the box that you are cornered into, and sometimes you even fool yourself into believing that you move with grace.

The only way out of the box, of course, is through critique. However, this implies citing those harmful authors and replicating their narratives of exclusion (the very thing I had to do above), in order to reply to them—this only serves to guarantee their longevity in the canon.

It’s the perfect racket.

I ask this question with great sincerity: how many years will it take before wholly omitting harmful narratives is not seen as a lack of knowledge of one’s subject matter, but as a conscious attempt to repair a canon that has thrived on objectification, but passed it off as objectivism?

As I near the end of my student career, and reflect upon my child’s entry into studenthood, I ask myself very earnestly how best to teach him. Homeschooling brought me into many critical virtual learning spaces, where one mother commented in our anti-racist pedagogy group that she can always supplement a curriculum that’s lacking in content, but can never repair a curriculum that harms: “I can’t undo something that has hurt my child.”

So, I prepare my child for the curriculum that will harm.

And while it won’t be the same experience as my own, I know for certain that the distortions of our current education system will damage his ability to see himself, his ancestors, and his friends as worthy of study.

Education will call itself a history class, but recount only the stories of the invaders.

Education will call itself a language class, but exclude any language not originating in Europe.

Education will make you feel unseen and unheard, and critics will try to convince you that your feelings of invisibility are nothing more than “identity politics”, despite the legal documents, inter-institutional transfer of land deeds, and government funding proving that it has been a strategized erasure, and that the “politics” have always been their own.

Education will tell you what to do and how to be before you even have a chance to explore who you really are.

So, we practice at home what to say when we hear their supremacy in the classroom—because it will be heard.  We practice how to pose questions that interrupt their centering narratives.

But most of all, we discuss how important it is to resist the silent curriculum—the one that neglects including a full Chorus of Voices.

And we emphasize that an input rich in multiple voices and narratives enables us to better understand our neighbours’ experiences and needs, and helps us navigate our shared reality together in a facilitative manner, which is fundamentally what education is supposed to be about.

References

Attneave, F. (1957). Transfer of experience with a class-schema to identification-learning of

patterns and shapes. Journal of Experimental Psychology, S4, 81-88.

Battiste, M. (2000). Introduction: Unfolding the lessons of colonialization. In M. Battiste (Ed.), Reclaiming Indigenous voice and vision (pp. xvi–xxx). University of British Columbia Press.

Bladon, R. A. W., C. G. Henton, and J. B. Pickering. (1984). Towards an auditory theory of speaker normalization. Language and Communication, 4, 59–69.

Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples (2nd Ed.). University of Otago Press.

Stewart, W. A. (1964). Non-standard speech and the teaching of English. Language Information Series (Vol. 2). Center for Applied Linguistics.

Tarone, E. (2007). Sociolinguistic approaches to second language acquisition research–1997-2007. The Modern Language Journal, 91(S1), 837–848.

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