Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Purposeful reading

Towards the end of last year I was asked to teach a course on Northern Government to management studies students. I was excited to be given the opportunity to try my hand at this having been a policy analyst for many years for both government and Inuit organizations (focusing on Inuit rights, education and language files), and that I thought I had something to contribute to this discourse.

I wanted to present the material from a historical perspective with the end view that the legal system of Canada is often the only recourse that Inuit have for 'political development'. Where does the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement come from? Why, when Inuit have had pan-Arctic presence as first occupiers, did it turn out that we ended up with four distinct Inuit regions in Canada? How long has the discourse on aboriginal rights been going on? (turns out it's been going since the 1700s with the Royal Proclamation 1763 of King George III)

The history of Canada is the history of the political and legal discourse on aboriginal rights.

But problems soon arose. There was a wall apathy and resentment I had never seen the likes of in my short career as a teacher of adults. I had always suspected that I was a capable teacher having had only pleasant experiences on the main. Even teaching Inuktitut to students with little or no grasp of the language gave me grounds to be optimistic.

But at the college level there is a certain amount of expectation that if the students do not immediately take on the subject discernible progress will happen shortly. Little did I know that I was in for a rough ride. Turns out that even if the majority of the students are willing to give me a chance it takes only one or two to dash any hopes of amicable relations. It eats away at the credibility of the teacher, especially for those who are socially awkward.

Despite all appearances, I didn't take any of the resistance personally. I just had to find a way to reach them. But it turns out that I was up against whole careers in elementary and secondary schooling that, to be brutally honest, cheat the students of any real meaningful engagement right from the start.

I ended up in arguments that neither side could really understand for, what to me were, kind of stupid reasons. It started out with me marking papers that barely made the cut. I gave one student a 19/20 for her two page essay but she was very unhappy about it. She demanded that I explain why I wouldn't give her the whole marks. I did try to explain to her that the logical transitions between ideas and paragraphs were kind of wonky as was her use of unconventional English (well, I didn't use such terms to point that out).

After our arbitrated exchange with the senior instructor, I was wracking my brain as to why I couldn't seem to convince her that my marking scheme was solid. In the final analysis, I decided it had something to do with what I call 'purposeful reading'.

Purposeful reading, I would define, is not just about picking up a strand from at least more than one source and following it where it leads but that it's also being able to be thoughtful in presenting one's begotten insights even if they turn out not to be original rather than parroting (plagiarizing) whole paragraphs of other people's works without giving credit to the original source.

Purposeful reading also allows one to context defined terms and concepts, and being able to roughly follow the logic of arguments. It is about being able to generate general statements from particular sets of facts.

This is where many students fail.

It is not that they're stupid. I highly doubt that there is such a thing as 'stupid' people—we all do stupid things sometimes but that doesn't make us stupid. The problem with many Inuit students is that they've just never been taught to think in a way that meets basic required academic standards. It is a failure of the system rather than a personal failing.

The notion of a liberal arts education requires something a whole lot more than just what the system gives or can afford to give. It requires a long-term commitment from both the student and the teacher. Since most of the teachers in Nunavut are transient government employees the commitment to continuity is key to education.

It is only right and just that we, as teachers, try and ensure this notion of continuity knowing that we're just one sign post along the highway of personal development of the students.

I've always been committed to following strands of thought that sometimes go back thousands of years. I'm no mathematician but I appreciate maths because I was trained by linguistics to appreciate formal logic and its constraint rules that are based on verifiable distinctive features of a discourse.

I've never entered a formal discourse fully-formed and fully-equipped to comprehend the subject; where I normally start from is the set of defined terms and how and why they interact with each other in the internal logic system of the discourse. I build upon what I can comprehend, what I can translate into and draw from other areas of my life experiences to enrich my learning. Most times I am drastically wrong in my thinking but my errors in replicating major arguments are the most instructive of what the discourse requires of me.

I know that I'm not unique in this respect: all viable educational experiences have this feature. Inuit and aboriginal peoples in general have not really been given this opportunity for personal growth.

Jay

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