June 16, 2023

New academic collective centered on ‘mothered and mothering bodies’ reimagines higher learning

‘Un-Symposium’ event on June 22 will explore how to connect through crises — by engaging mind, body and spirit
Strands of connected lightbulbs hang in front of a starry night sky

COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, residential school burial sites, forest fire season, Chat GPT, etc., etc. ... the first two years of the current decade have been tumultuous to say the least, sometimes presenting us with an entirely new vocabulary with which to address intensifying concurrent crises.

Dr. Mairi McDermott, PhD, an associate professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary, recalls that during the onset of one of these paradigm-shifting events — the pandemic — some colleagues would enthuse about how the move to online learning and working enabled a culture of global connectivity, but then invariably lamented that they just wanted to “go back to normal.”

McDermott had a different thought.

Portrait of Mairi McDermott

Mairi McDermott

Werklund School of Education

“What if we actually tried to stay in this uncertainty and momentum of multiple crises?” she asks. “What are our universities for if we are not attending to how we can live in these times of crisis and imagine a world that is otherwise?"

That spirit infuses a new collective of academics, of which McDermott is one, who centre themselves around “mothered and mothering bodies (of knowledge) as a source of wisdom that fuels our collective re-imaginings of relating, knowing, doing, and being in higher education.”

Free 'Un-Symposium'

The group will be gathering on the morning of June 22 at UCalgary to host a free “Un-Symposium,” through which they aim to foster a half-day of “generative disruption and creating.”

McDermott is co-hosting the event alongside Akanksha Misra, PhD, an assistant professor in gender and women's studies at SUNY Plattsburgh, New York; the two initially connected after McDermott heard Misra give a presentation during an online conference held earlier in the pandemic by the International Association of Maternal Action and Scholarship.

What she heard resonated and she a felt compelled to reach out, though perhaps with some trepidation as they had only interacted online.

“The very way that we met was part of the crises,” says McDermott. "Like, how do we connect? How do we find one another? How do we reach out and build community in these times? Akanksha graciously accepted and we reflected on the shifts that people had to take in terms of their own teaching.

“We always came back to that through a particular emphasis on mothering.”

Misra concurs, adding that, “If we think through our bodies to reimagine a different system, what would that that look like in a classroom? What if we started thinking about our students not just as these disembodied people who take our classes, but really think about how we are connected to them?

"[The collective] was an attempt, then, to use the mothering body to draw a thread amongst all these different things: the environment, the way we teach our students, and brick breaking the silos that the neo-liberal university always keeps us in.”

A way forward through Indigenous-led knowledge

Busting a few (metaphorical) bricks is on the itinerary when McDermott, Misra, and 10 of their colleagues from around the world reimagine “stale and habituated practices of teaching and learning.”

Among those is Stephanie Tyler, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Social Work at UCalgary. For her, the act of reimagining is integral to decolonization and that, in turn, is inexorably tied to Indigenous ways of thinking.

“In recognizing from nêhiyaw or Cree that we are four-bodied people, and so we have within us physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual realms,” she explains. “Oftentimes in Western institutions there is an unbalanced emphasis on the mind and intellect, and when we think about processes of decolonizing, we think that if we can just get students to think differently, then that's the goal – that’s what we need to achieve.

But we recognize that, just as processes of colonization are whole bodied and have affected the entire personhood and nationhood of many communities, then decolonizing must reflect that as well. It can't just be conversations that evoke changes ... it must also be grounded in the body. It must connect with the spirit, and it needs to respond to the emotions of students.”

To do so, the collective is employing a multisensory approach to engage emotional, physical, and spiritual pathways. What that will look like in practice ranges from providing art supplies to having recording equipment on hand for the use of attendees.

"We very much want to get out of that idea of having a podium with a speaker,” says Tyler. “It’s going to be interactive – you are going to be involved in the process.”

Adds McDermott: “You're now invited into this this community, this collective, and should you want to stay, please, we welcome you. That is the invitation.”

“Collective re-imaginings of / for higher education teaching-and-learning” takes place Thursday, June 22, 9 a.m. to noon. All are welcome. Register here. Learn more here.