by Sarah J. Ray
“The experience checked a lot of the “diversity” boxes, but I try to keep in mind the ultimate goal of these diversity efforts—the next generation, which sits in classrooms with us daily.”
This year, I had the pleasure and challenge of leading my campus’s One Campus One Book (OCOB) program. The experience taught me how rewarding it can be to have one’s field of study contribute so much to a campus learning community, the joy of making one’s campus and professional service synergize with teaching and research, and the importance—and inevitable failures—of trying to create a campus that welcomes diversity.
The University of Alaska Southeast is primarily an undergraduate institution. It has struggled to create learning communities, provide a sense of cohesion and community, and retain students. The OCOB initiative emerged in response to student feedback to create more “community, communication, and compassion” on campus. As a student retention effort, OCOB has been attempting to foster a learning community for the past three years.
At a campus where the student body is approximately a third Alaska Native, majority first-generation college students, and a third many single, working mothers, you can imagine that issues of so-called “diversity” are central to the OCOB committee’s discussions about book selection and event programming. Diversity is different at different places. Ethnicity is only one kind of “difference” from the traditional student. Appealing to a wide range of students, from veterans to marine biologists, is always a challenge.
This year’s selection was Karsten Heuer’s Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot with an Arctic Herd. Being Caribou is a nonfiction account of Heuer’s attempt to follow the Porcupine Caribou herd’s migration from Yukon Territory to their calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Heuer is a trained wildlife biologist who has discovered that story-telling is key to conservation. Frustrated by the binary development/anti-development impasse of ANWR debates, he decides to “tell the caribou’s story” as a way to get people to care about the impacts of drilling on the caribou.
The book was chosen because an increasing number of UAS students, especially indigenous students, are coming from “the North.” A book about caribou seemed a great way to initiate conversations about people whose lives are entwined with that animal. It was chosen for its cross-disciplinary appeal, its readability, its affordability, and, partly, because I remembered Heuer’s “Necessary Journeys” talk from ASLE Victoria, and could vouch for his promise as a speaker. It seemed a great way to get biologists and literary scholars talking. It seemed a great way to get the community onto the UAS campus for events. I was excited about the possibility of being “diverse” in media focus; Heuer’s wife, Leanne Allison, made a film about the journey that I planned to screen in my fall 2012 “Environmental Film” class. The book, and the programming possibilities, made it a great fit.
Because Heuer is a German immigrant, Calgary-born wildlife biologist, the OCOB committee wanted to ensure that we had an indigenous perspective, since, after all, people of the caribou featured heavily in the book. To bring Heuer and his wife as representatives of the narrative seemed to reproduce precisely the kind of “white environmentalist-adventurer speaking for others” trope that so many of us spend a lot of time challenging. When we got word from Randall Tetlichi, the Gwich’in elder that took Heuer and Allison under his wing in the book, that he would be willing to come to UAS for a week-long elder-in-residency, we couldn’t have been more pleased.
Gwichi’in Elder in Residence Randall Tetclichi addresses students in the Native and Rural Student Center. Photo by Yosuke Sano; courtesy UAS.
Karsten and Leanne’s visit followed Randall’s elder-in-residence, which gave them each an opportunity to represent their own thoughts about caribou and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Randall and Karsten each gave a Friday night, open-to-the-public lecture on their perspectives on caribou. Heuer’s talk, which featured Leanne heavily, as she is working on many new projects, was an updated version of what he did at Victoria on their Necessary Journeys. It was similar to the talk they gave at a reception honoring their work at Mount Royal University in Calgary during the Under Western Skies 2 conference in October, which I was fortunate to attend.
They each attended numerous classes. A record 11 faculty used the book in their courses. Word of Randall’s visit spread like wildfire around Juneau, and his presence was requested in many of the local elementary and high schools. Local elders gathered to share knowledge and stories with Randall. Students had access to him all week long in UAS’s Native and Rural Student Resource Center. Leanne’s film’s public screening was standing-room-only, and their son, Zev, admirably came along for all of it.
Being Caribou author Karsten Heuer gave the final Evening at Egan presentation of the Fall 2012 Season. Wife Leanne Allison shared her film of the same title. Photo by Yosuke Sano, courtesy UAS.
Bringing Randall as well as Karsten and Leanne was really important. For one, the written text is only one kind of knowledge. Privileging authors of books is a kind of colonial habit, as many of my Alaska Native and first-generation colleagues teach me all the time. Randall has never even read Being Caribou. Getting him to campus to show a different way of knowing, a different way of thinking about caribou and drilling, a different way of thinking about his purpose in coming (he might tell you he came to UAS because, thirty years ago, he met a legendary elder of the local Tlingit community, and that elder told Randall that he would meet his people in Tlingit country someday). His visit, stories, and presence were so important. For many in the Alaska Native community on our campus, my understanding is that he provided a sense of deep, historical, destined connection between them and his people. After his lecture, most questions were not asked in English.
Leanne’s presence was important too. Many of my students were irked by moments in Being Caribou when Karsten is annoyed with Leanne. They wanted to see the film to see how Leanne represented these moments, and to ask her about the interpersonal aspects of the journey. For me, the personal is political, and so the way he wrote about her has everything to do with his environmental ethics, a view that, of course, I shared with my students. Having her perspective validated my students’ sense that gender is relevant, and recognizing her incredible contribution to thinking about and articulating an environmental sensibility contributed to making the OCOB programming such a success. Karsten, meanwhile, was extraordinarily gracious about all of this. How they manage to do so much together, yet maintain such incredible individual identities, interests, and strengths, is something to observe in itself.
Did it work? All events were standing-room-only. The campus and Juneau communities responded to this “multiple perspectives” approach to the OCOB selection enthusiastically.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t confess the challenges. The experience planning it provided multiple lessons in cultural sensitivity. However strongly I write about identity, power, and difference, it’s an entirely different thing to plan something like this in a community like Juneau. As a non-native, non-Alaskan, I brought administrative assumptions and habits to my efforts that sometimes created problems. I confess many moments of frustration and self-loathing, which I had to constantly check against my intellectual and moral commitments to “foster diversity.” Despite, or perhaps because of, these challenges, I still feel that synergistically combining my research area of environmental justice with student success efforts, courses and teaching, and my service to UAS was profoundly rewarding.
The experience checked a lot of the “diversity” boxes, but I try to keep in mind the ultimate goal of these diversity efforts—the next generation, which sits in classrooms with us daily. I try to be as self-reflective about my own assumptions and privileges as part of an ethic toward diversity in my teaching philosophy, in part because it keeps my research in perspective. Writing a peer-reviewed article about how indigenous perspectives are represented in novels is one thing; coordinating events to create the space for multivocality on campus is another. But, at an institution that puts teaching and student success at the center of its mission, isn’t this the whole point?