Decolonizing Writing Practice

In the fall, I’ll be teaching an online course for the first time. The subject is Academic Writing Across Disciplines, and five of my students will be from Nunavut, a land I can barely imagine. In June, I was fortunate enough to meet these students, along with their program coordinators, here in Greater Victoria. How alien their landscape would be to me was underscored by this brief exchange:

Another instructor: [apropos a discussion on accessing readings] They can download required readings from the website and then go read them under a tree.

Program coordinator: Except that there are no trees in Nunavut.

My mind was blown.

In general, I’ve been on a fast learning curve since I became a permanent resident of Canada, and especially since I started teaching at Royal Roads University, which has a strong commitment to Indigenous studies and ways of knowing. When I met with these students, who are Inuit, I explained that one of the most challenging parts of writing across disciplines is respecting your subject matter and, when writing about other cultures, avoiding appropriation or a colonialist viewpoint.

The example I used was an essay I had recently written about Canadian literature that made mention of the residential school system that, for over a century, tore Indigenous children from their parents, communities, and native languages under the guise of “assimilation.” The transgenerational trauma that resulted from this atrocity is still being felt today, even though the last school closed over twenty years ago. My point to my future students was that I was very aware, when writing this essay to pitch to an American publication, that I would be responsible for introducing this sensitive topic to my readers, many of whom, most likely, wouldn’t know much, if anything, about residential schools. Yet residential schools weren’t part of my own background at all. How could I talk about them in an appropriate way?

When we took a break from the meeting a few minutes later, I checked my email and found one from Electric Literature, to whom I’d pitched this essay: They had just accepted it.

Here is the link to it:

I’m not sure if I successfully represented residential schools in this piece. But in next month’s post, I will continue to talk about decolonizing writing practice—what it might mean and how it might be achieved.

I have a lot to learn, both before and after then.

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2019