UAA Initiatives

Background—Alaska Native Ways Of Teaching And Learning Faculty Intensive

Yup'ik dancer Jack Dalton
The original intensives briefly addressed difficult dialogues related to race, ethnicity and culture, using Alaska’s Native peoples as a case study. For many faculty members, even this degree of focus on issues related to Alaska’s indigenous communities (beyond the general concern over improving the retention rate for Alaska Native and other minority students) was brand new. Most of the professors who teach in Alaskan universities—like most of the general population in the state—come from “Outside” in the “Lower 48” states. Indigenous issues were not really on the radar for our faculty. Alaska’s Native peoples make up 16 percent of the total population in Alaska, roughly nine percent of UAA students, and only 1.6 percent of faculty. They comprise 14 percent of APU’s student body, but APU currently has no Alaska Native faculty.

Both universities have invested significant resources in recruitment and retention measures for this important segment of Alaska’s population, though retention rates remain well below the university averages. However, most retention initiatives aimed to make Alaska Native students and faculty more successful within the status quo. By contrast, the Difficult Dialogues project was designed not only to help non-Native faculty begin to understand and introduce into their courses key difficult dialogues between Alaska’s Native communities and western institutions of higher education, but also help them begin to incorporate traditional Alaska Native ways of teaching and learning into their teaching repertoires.

The purpose of the latter focus was twofold:  1) to preempt or otherwise head off difficult dialogues that need not occur if faculty demonstrated a better understanding of and respect for traditional indigenous worldviews and issues, and 2) to open faculty to the possibility that non-Native educators have as much or more to learn from Alaska Native Elders, leaders, educators and community members as indigenous peoples do from the mainstream. The intention was to establish a sense of mutuality so that genuine dialogue (difficult or not) could begin to take place between the two communities. We hoped that offering non-Native faculty a chance to more deeply enter into and appreciate the ways of teaching, learning and knowing of an “Other” (in the form of Alaska Native cultures) could also serve as a case study for learning from and interacting respectfully with other forms of “difference.”  Such learning might offer transformational possibilities for higher education—possibilities everyone truly committed to education seeks.

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