TeachTalk - Marylynn Steckley

In her TeachTalk, Marylynn Steckley from Carlton University in Ottawa, Canada talks about combining critical and creative teaching to support students experiential learning. She explores how teaching students a critical understanding of craft while also immersing them in the practice of craft resulted in experiential learning during COVID lockdown. Beyond the pandemic this teaching can show a way forward towards more equitable learning experiences. Marylynn's interview relates especially to the whole-person learning strand of critical-creative pedagogy. You can see the video of Marylynn's interview here.

a group of students on zoom
Students in the craft class showing of their paper cuttings

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

I am a development geographer by training, and an assistant professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. I teach on a number of subjects, largely climate change ethics, and am also a big part of my faculty’s international experience requirement, which is the stream of experiential learning that students need to take. So I've been involved in virtual and international placements and in the courses that go with that volunteering.

What does critical-creative teaching mean to you and how it relates to your own pedagogical practice?

I want to engage more with students in an experiential way, by taking the whole person into account. But I also want to maintain a critical theory perspective, for example always historizing what we're talking about. Thinking about place, space and scale are really important concepts in geography, and thinking about equity, diversity and inclusion and how everything that we do has these hidden social relations involved in it. I also think about the students’ whole selves - and all of our whole selves - as we engage together, to maintain a spirit of coming to the class with a sharp intellect and critiquing everything that we engage in experientially through the lens of social relations. For me that means starting with gender, race and class and also interrogating ability, ageism, all of those other concepts.

Can you share some examples of how you do that in your classroom and how your students are learning from your teaching?

The class I'm most excited about is called Craft as a Global Social Relation, and it's one of the ways that students in our program can fulfil their experiential learning requirement.

This class emerged during COVID because I was trying to figure out ways in which we could maintain global connections without travel and meaningful experiential learning without oftentimes being able to leave our homes because of lock down. At the time I read a book review of Craft: An American History by Glenn Adamson, where he argues that craft and skill have made North America. It's through innovation that we have become the society that we are, and a lot of that is connected to discourses of individualism and the self-made man, which I think are really important to interrogate.

But I also started exploring how does that craft relate to history? Traditionally that meant things like carpenters, cobblers, blacksmiths. How has that history tied in to the displacement of indigenous people, to gender disparities, racism and slavery? How do those histories coincide and what does that mean for today? There is a scholar, Cathy Lynn Costin, who said basically everything that we have today, everything that we interact with is a result of craft, is the result of skilled makers and creators doing things with their hands and producing what we have today.

It used to be that we could see that, that we engaged in community with people who were creating things like our kitchen table or shoes, and that they were all part of our community. And now these social relations are hidden within the craft. For me, that kind of clandestine social relations that is hidden in our pottery mug or in our kitchen table or whatever it is that's in our house is really important. And the globalization and commodification of all things, when we uncover it, implodes in gender relations, race relations, class relations, but they become invisible to us. In Global Studies, we think about this a lot in terms of sweatshop labor or outsourcing large companies to other places or the ecological and social footprint of the chocolate we consume or the goods that we buy that could have been made in many low income countries and environmentally degrading ways.

So that's the intellectual part that I'm starting with, but I also want students to come to the class and embody the craft. This is built around a number of components: students do a reading that is related to the craft and the reading explores a particular craft and usually hits on one of the gender, race, class, environment, ability themes I just talked about. And then we have workshops with leaders from around the world where we are actually engaging in the craft that they're an expert in.

We had a Bollywood dance class and a Bengali cooking class, and we learnt about caste and social hierarchies in both Indian classical dance and in Bengali food. We had a hoop dancer from the Lil'wat Nation and we learnt about indigenous stewardship with the land and how that plays into the creation of the hoop dance and how family is a huge part of how hoop dancing is practized and passed on. We also had a Tuscarora/Mohawk indigenous potter and learnt how stewardship is embodied through pottery and how pottery can be a source of activism. We had an Uzbek zine artist who led us through the creation of our individual zines and taught us about the history of Uzbekistan. We made sushi with a Japanese sushi maker and learnt about the gender dynamics of sushi and how it tends to be masculine chefs who create it.

In addition to all of these workshops we also had global mental health embodiment activities where the whole-person teaching comes into being. Each morning we would gather together, and we're all on Zoom and everybody's exhausted with Zoom. So we did things together, like meditation, yoga, tai chi, Japanese callisthenics exercises (which they play on the radio every morning and much of the nation is involved in it). We did a Finnish cold shower. And this is how we engaged in the physicality and our emotional selves in the class as well. We even went on a community run together, connecting by phone. I was really afraid the first time I ran the course because of the technology communication, but so much is possible in the virtual environment.

The first time I ran the class as a sort of a field school, as a 12 day immersive experience where we spent the whole day together. We started at 8:30 and ended at 4. The second time it was through the traditional weekly sessions. And the field school worked better because we were really trying to mimic an immersive experience and we could break up the day: we started with our mental health embodiment and we did our reading discussion, then we had our workshop, then we had a practice and then a brainstorming session for their final project. And I could I help navigate the day by thinking about eating for example, have I had coffee and food? And so I was able to guide our whole selves through the day, and I think students really liked it. I felt a greater sense of community in that format.

I also want to push back on this idea that transformation depends on travel. But still, for me that was one of the worries: is this really experiential learning? Can I really get students to feel deeply, even in the connection by Zoom? The responses from both groups were overwhelmingly that it was a positive experience. Students said things like ‘this is the first course where I've really been able to connect theory to practice and bring myself into the course.’ And those kinds of responses were very meaningful to me and help me think about how I can continue to advocate for virtual experiential learning. To me this is important because of the equity component as well, where a lot of my research and pedagogy is trying to create spaces that are equitable and accessible for all students. In Global Studies the reality is that it tends to be white wealthy students who are more likely to be able to travel, engage in unpaid internships elsewhere, or expensive UN placements or study abroad.

And so part of my objective is to create either free or low-cost experiential learning options

that are going to be meaningful for students and to improve inclusivity in our degree program. And I was thinking, does this course do this? But the student responses were really heartening, and you can feel the connection and then they have relationships outside of the class and the participation was strong.