Indigenization Reading Circle Notebook: Academic Gatekeepers

The FAUW Indigenization Reading Circle meets monthly to discuss readings relating to Indigenization and reconciliation in the university context.

In “Academic Gatekeepers,” Devon Abbott Mihesuah (pronounced “My-he-sue-ah”) examines the various ways in which academic knowledge production is subject to white settler norms and values that hinder the advancement and success of Indigenous scholars and teachers.

The conversation began by noting the broad context of academic gatekeeping on the University of Waterloo campus: the recent ranking of Indigenous visibility for the University of Waterloo, the importance of indigenous participation in high levels of the administration, and the inclusion of inclusivity and diversity in the 2020–2025 strategic plan. Participants wrestled with the challenges of including Indigenous academics, discussing peer review and merit as an objective façade, the lack of Indigenous voices in various fields, and how academia and academic culture is structured to exclude people.

Participants also struggled with how the nomenclature and language used to identify and name Indigenous peoples has changed. While aware that there might be regional differences about appropriate terms, settlers’ worries about offending could prevent them from communicating and participating. A consideration was raised about how consensus is interpreted differently in settler communities and Indigenous communities, where restorative justice aims to balance and take into account the hurt and harm of the decision on minorities. Ultimately, Indigenous communities have stable existences, and allies must work toward responsible speech with and about them. Hopefully in the context of academia, mistakes can be gently corrected.

The conversation shifted to the different challenges that disciplines face in transforming settler-centric academic culture and the burdens placed on Indigenous faculty to do the work of making academia more inclusive. Participants noted that STEM fields have additional barriers and are possibly more primed for gatekeeping, where active outreach to improve the applicant pool may be mitigated by tests and other obstacles before acceptance. Indigenous faculty in all fields may feel conflict between their research pursuits and the responsibility placed upon them to be Indigenous advocates for academic policy, culture, and inclusion.

The discussion closed with concern about how building relationships with Indigenous communities takes time, especially where trust is difficult to attain, and the process is not amenable to short-term cycling due to turnover in roles and personnel. To meaningfully improve our relationships with neighbouring Indigenous communities, rather than simply including students and faculty on campus, the University should re-evaluate its Indigenization strategy. It should imagine the campus as a community entity interested in engaging parents and family members of Indigenous students; encourage young faculty members to pursue Indigenous community building by recognizing this work as having academic value; and create space and support for Indigenous students in the wake of colonial violence.

Kim Hong Nguyen wrote this blog post. Kim is one of the coordinators of the Indigenization Reading Circle and an assistant professor in Communication Arts. The reading circle meets again on November 29 to learn about an experiment in two-eyed seeing at Cape Breton University.

Devon Abott Mihesuah, “Academic Gatekeepers” Ch.2 in Devon Abbott Mihesuah and Angela Cavender Wilson (eds.) Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities, (Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 2004), pp.31-47.

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