TeachTalk – Jon Langdon

In his TeachTalk interview, Jon Langdon from St Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada, talks about the importance of acknowledging Canada’s colonial legacies in his teaching, incorporating marginalized voicces, connecting students with the cooperative movement that started in Antigonish and linking hope and action inside and outside the classroom to recognize the messiness of change. This relates closely to the praxis and critical hope strands of critical-creative pedagogy.

“No Way Demo” by Ablade Glover, centering learning in struggle of movements and activists

What is your background and where, what, and who do you teach?

I am a senior Associate Professor at St Francis Xavier University, a small liberal arts University in Antigonish in Nova Scotia, Eastern Canada. I’m also a Canada Research Chair in Sustainability and Social Change Leadership. I teach in the Development Studies program, primarily at undergraduate level. Many of our students come from smaller spaces and are excited to come to a rural place. Many of them have roots in Nova Scotia, so there’s a lot of family legacy around the university, with people who have for many generations come to St Francis. Predominantly my students are white middle class and over the last 9 or 10 years the university has tried to attract more upper class students coming out of private schools, which has some strong equity dimensions. The university has some of the most expensive tuition fees and, ironically, we continue to be either the fourth or fifth lowest paid professoriate in the country, so you have some contradictions in the context that I teach in.

We have international students coming from several different locations, but it’s not a huge percentage of our student body. And Antigonish is nestled within the legacies and ongoing problematics of Canadian colonialism; just down the road from St Xavier is a first nation reserve called Paq’tn’kek and just up the road from the university are several African Nova Scotia communities that have historical roots right back to the end of the war of independence in the US, when ‘black Loyalists’ who basically fought for the British slaves or were freed by people who fought for the British, were granted land and freedom in Nova Scotia, terrible parcels of land in very remote parts of the province. So those are some of the legacies that are on the doorstep of the university, but you don’t really see those populations represented in the university. There have been efforts over the last few years to try and reverse that but I would say they are woefully inadequate.

What does critical-creative teaching mean to you, and how does it connect to your own pedagogic practice?

For me, the idea of bringing creativity into dialogue with criticality and critical pedagogy is really important. In terms of my own practice, Antigonish is the place in Canada where cooperatives were started so there’s a long history of fishing and farming cooperatives. One of the impetuses for these was the Antigonish movement that emerged in the 1920s and 30s in the area. An internationally focused institute called the COADY International Institute took these ideas of cooperative, ground-up, community-lead and owned development and connected them with the world. So, for the last 60 odd years there have been folks coming from around the world to St Xavier and learning in community with each other about how to tackle different issues that are confronting their communities and how to organize. They own their own path of development, and that is a component of the legacy of St Xavier that I really connect with and that’s part of what attracted me to the university. My practice has really been about trying to draw on some of that legacy and build relationships with some of the Coady participants who have come over the years, many of whom have become development studies students and then either stayed here in Canada and become community activists or who have gone back to the countries where they originally came from, and have continued to make astounding levels of difference in their contexts.

So that’s definitely one of the stories of our program and it’s something that I feel very proud of. But at the same time, I think that our program is also a place where a lot of students who feel that the world is not right and who have a sense of there’s something wrong, end up on our doorstep. We take them through a four year program which really helps to give them tools to peel back some of their own assumptions and presumptions but also to look more deeply into the power dynamics of our world, and how decisions are made and who wins and who loses consistently over time and how that leads to historical legacies of inequality and systemic racism and misogyny.

One of the things though that we always do in our program is try to keep the door to hope and action open and really seeing the two linked, by making sure that students have an opportunity to work in critical spaces to meet with activists, to hear from people who have been involved in change efforts throughout their lives. Those seeds really help give students something to nurture and then grow within themselves, to come out with a sense that, yes things are not good, there are really, really severe challenges facing our world right now, but burying your head in the sand is not going to make any change. But picking up something and trying to do something with it and then meeting others and working with them, that’s the seed of hope, that’s where hope comes through action. It doesn’t matter where that action happens, it’s not like you have to look a particular way, it’s not about performing and about wearing the right shade of black, it’s about engaging where you are, connecting with what are the peculiarities of your life and seeing what can come out of making those connections.

Can you share a couple of concrete teaching examples and how your students are learning from them?

I try to bring different texts into dialogue to challenge the authority of a text or of a particular author that is well recognized within Eurocentric thinking. The example that I use in my own work is taking a small segment of Adam Smith’s work, the ‘father’ of economics, and then bringing him into dialogue with Olaudah Equiano, who is an author and a former slave and a major voice in the abolitionist movement. The two were writing around the same time, and we all know Smith’s work but not Equiano’s. And I try to use that as a way to open students’ eyes to the power of historical expertise, the power of authority in deciding whose voice we listen to, whose voice we know about and whose we don’t.

But I also try to use it as a way to unpack voice and to draw students’ attention to how is voice being constructed in these different pieces. The kind of disembodied voice of Smith versus the voice of Equiano very much rooted in history and some of the tragedies and abuse he experienced, that’s his narrative voice. I ask students to think about humanity and think about who comes out more clearly as being human and rooted in the human condition and use that to explore why it is that we give this disembodied voice more recognition than this one that is very much rooted in human experience. I use that to start conversations, to create a bit of a schism, an opening in people’s minds about what’s happening today that is doing similar kinds of work of silencing some voices and privileging other voices.

Another thing I have been working on over the last few years is a kind of scaffolding for criticality, not pushing students too hard in the initial years and then over time creating more and more spaces for students to start their own critical engagement and to hand over tools that can really take them into new spaces. One of the other courses I teach is a Social Change in Practice class, where students do a lot of engagement with a social change organization or movement. They get a chance to talk to a lot of activists, they read a lot of critical literature that’s about community change, it’s about ethics, it’s about who are we as people to get involved in change. It asks critical questions around power, race, class, gender, ability. It is also encouraging hyper-reflexivity, not just reflecting on things but reflecting deeply in an ongoing basis about what’s happening and also on our own involvement, our own capability, our potential to get involved.

One of the reasons we focus on local context for placements is that, at least in the development context, many folks, especially from a northern perspective who are learning in institutions in Europe or North America, say that change that’s happening in other parts of the world is messy, is fraught, has a lot of power dynamics and issues. But they are not recognizing that those same issues run through their communities, run through the dynamics of their own institution. So they will conflate the messiness of change and the different power dynamics, the different agendas that people have, they conflate that with being something that’s a product of culture and particular geographies.

I really want to challenge that from the very early days, to say ‘here’s a community that you know well, you think you know well. Now, as you get involved in local change and you start to hear some of the stories about, for example, what’s the in-camera sessions of the local municipality or the decisions that are being made by university administration that completely push aside the expertise of people like the indigenous student advisor or the black student advisor or the LGBTQS+ advisor.’ Those things have direct repercussions on people and yet the very people you put in place to try to advise on these situations are ignored so just trying to really see how students can literally experience some of these moments of messiness before they then go and do a placement in somebody else’s community or in some other part of the world or even in another part of Canada. Or if they’re an international student, even if they go home to a different part of the country they’re from and start to conflate that messiness with being part of development.

They do not understand that that messiness is always present in change and there’s always agendas and there’s always power dynamics. This is a key element of the teaching approach that I use, especially around experiential learning and linking that to hyper-reflexivity. Then when students go into the more extended placement in their fourth year and they have been able to start to build a relational understanding that is similar to the aboriginal Queensland idea of solidarity – ‘if you’ve come because you want to help me change, I don’t really need your help. But if you’ve come because you see that your liberation is bound up in mine, then we can work together, then we can start to actually tackle these issues together, and you start to see that I am as much of an expert as you are.’

That is the trajectory of the work we’re doing in the program and I see my work as being part of those building blocks that really enable students to leave feeling like they have skills to do critical engagement, they have hyper-reflexivity, hyper-reflexive instincts to ask questions about themselves and about the world and about how things are happening. But they also carry this idea that complex change is messy and that there are power dynamics at play. Get involved with them, see how you can be part of things, but not in a kind of saviour idea, but you know, in a way that you see your future bound up in whatever comes out of these processes.