Carrying the Fire
Lately, I’ve been worrying about my students. Not about their skills (which are impressive), nor their dedication (which is boundless), nor their generosity (which is expansive). I’m not worried about whether they can make it through their academic program, or whether they can make a positive contribution to Indigenous communities beyond the university, as I have every confidence that they can do both. No, I’ve been worried about them as people, as members of our diverse and multifaceted community, as radiant personalities in a world too full of wounding. And I worry that they push themselves too hard, and that those of us they look to for guidance aren’t doing what we could to help them learn the value of gentleness to self and others.
No doubt much of this recent worry comes from the murder of Loretta Saunders, a young Inuk scholar who was passionately committed to understanding and educating others about the hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. Much has already been written about this horrific crime, and more will no doubt emerge as the motives and actions of the accused are analyzed through the court proceedings. But one of the most powerful and poignant statements in response was from Darryl Leroux, Loretta’s honours thesis advisor. His reflection on her murder reflects a kind of grief particular to teachers and mentors.
This is a nightmare scenario for any dedicated teacher, and it’s even more so, I think, for those of us from marginalized communities whose lived experiences are so fully embraided with our deepest intellectual, ethical, political, and pedagogical commitments. The classroom is more than just a place of learning for us; it’s a site of transformation and (re)discovery. Maybe we start in these strange, often bewildering places as students ourselves, looking for mentors and colleagues who understand something of what we’re going through, who inspire us to be smarter, more courageous, and more determined than we ever thought we could be, who work together with us to challenge the many forces of hate and separation in this world. Many of us are first-generation academics, and without the privilege of legacy family members to help us navigate this frequently hostile environment, we end up either creating finding our way into a community of support that can help us feel less alone and less unwanted in academia. But it’s not only people we seek out. We also look for the texts and stories that reflect something of our own complicated and often excluded humanity and give us the tools to engage, dismantle, disrupt, and deconstruct systems and narratives of oppression, as well as those that equip us to create, connect, and generate better, more just, and more loving alternatives.
Perhaps we start as students, and if we’re lucky, perhaps we always remain open to the transformative humility of being life-long learners on whatever paths we take through life. But many of us also go on to be teachers, to work with the students who so often reflect something of our own long-ago selves: the uncertainty, the resistance, the fear, the hope, the awakening, the despair, the joy. As teachers we work to be worthy of their trust, to be gentle with their dreams, to be respectful of their boundaries, and to be conscious of their own depths of knowledge that so often surpass what we presumed we had to offer. And although we’re certainly human and no doubt fall short of our best efforts from time to time, we keep trying to be the greater versions of ourselves we can be for our students. We know that once upon a time we too were looking for guidance from people we could believe in, even if we knew even then that no one could be perfect, and even if we knew that even the best teachers would sometimes disappoint us.
I occasionally see reflections of my deeply lonely undergraduate self walking among the many students on campus, head bowed and shoulders slumped defensively as he tries to walk unseen but hungers for the acceptance he fears. Sometimes these students and others make their way to our classes, where they find sanctuary, as many of us did, and start to find their voices and stronger selves, as many of us did. And we watch as they grow in confidence and courage, as their good ideas challenge their limits and our own, making us work harder and smarter. They build their own connections and commitments to the ideas and issues they encounter in the classroom, and they bring those insights into their lived relationships with communities as well as with friends and families. We celebrate their successes, grieve their losses, and hope, always, that they live long, happy, fulfilling, and meaningful lives.
As teachers we often stumble. We get grumpy, or sarcastic, or too busy. A student in need comes to the door to find it closed, and sometimes she just doesn’t come back. Our teaching styles work for some students, but not for others. Part of being a teacher is knowing that there are limits to what we can teach, and that some students will engage more readily with our ideas, our mannerisms, our personalities, and our values than others. Some students are glad to have Indigenous and allied settler scholars in the classroom; some aren’t. Some want to reach deeper into the ideas, the texts, the intellectual labour, but some are content with drifting on the surface. Respect, patience, and generosity make it possible to keep those differences from becoming disruptive or debilitating.
It’s not only my students’ physical safety and the knowledge that violence against women—especially Indigenous women—is epidemic in this colonized country, this continent, this hemisphere that concern me. My worries lately have been these, of course, but also more mundane matters, such as: are they eating well? Are they getting enough sleep? Are they pushing themselves too hard? Are their friendships and relationships under unnecessary stress? Are they losing themselves to the work that we’ve called upon them to undertake?
I’ve been blessed to work with amazing students my entire teaching career, from my days as a graduate teaching assistant to my work as a professor for the last twelve years. There have been smart, committed, and energetic students in all of these places, students who are firmly, fiercely dedicated to analyzing our shared and distinctive histories and experiences, to understanding the empowered imagination through our cultural productions, to dismantling oppressive power structures, to challenging and undoing anti-Indigenous policies and practices, to confronting intersectional violence, to developing more enlivening and enriching arts, politics, and relationships. They are writers, performers, activists, teachers, scholars, community workers, caregivers, community leaders. I’m only one of many teachers who have worked with these students, but I’m grateful for the opportunities to participate in those ongoing communities of kindness, knowledge, and support.
Some students end up achieving the goals they had when they were students, while others struggle to hold on to their dreams; some take up different paths than they might have imagined when they were students; some took the courses, got their grades, and moved on. And some are now in my classes and those of colleagues here and around the country. They’re committed to the work that must and can be done, and they take it very seriously.
But they also suffer from that commitment, and in ways that don’t always make it into our conversations or show up on our syllabi. Many hold multiple jobs in order to stay in school while supporting themselves and sometimes their immediate or even extended families. Some deal with violence in the home, on the street, in their most intimate relationships. Some struggle with chronic or acute health problems, or the inevitable losses that shatter the world to pieces. They work to find that elusive balance between academia and community, between the resources of the university and the material and symbolic needs of the world beyond it. They labour under increasingly burdensome student debt. They commit themselves to action to help change racist institutions, although the ugly truth of institutionalized, systemic discrimination often wears them down when they realize just how entrenched these forces truly are. These students might find our classrooms empowering, but that empowerment sometimes makes the retrograde education on Indigenous topics they get in other departments even more difficult to reconcile.
And what of the modelling we provide? While we warn them not to take too much on, are we saying yes to everything and struggling to keep up? Are we encouraging them to talk about their struggles with elders, family members, and counsellors, while being bowed down in isolation under the weight of our own personal and professional anxieties that we too often can’t bring ourselves to share with one another? Are we so busy running from meeting to meeting, obligation to obligation, commitment to commitment, trying hard to prove our mettle that we can’t see how this is insane and dehumanizing process is now considered “normal”? This is not resurgence or self-determination—this is extractive institutionalization. And aside from complaining about how busy and overworked we are, we simply don’t talk about the deeper meaning of it all, nor do we talk about the debilitating impacts it has on our bodies, minds, hearts, and relationships. We want our students to find balance, while careening out of all balance ourselves.
I think back to my mentors as both an undergraduate and graduate student. Some are still teaching and still loving the opportunity to work with students on issues of significance. Some have retired and keep connected or volunteer; some are busier scholars but more fulfilled with projects that they long wanted to do but never had the time to pursue; some retired from teaching and are enjoying relaxing lives free from the hustle and bustle of administrative busy-work. But some quit academia completely, either because they burned out or because they just got tired of fighting the same battles in unyielding institutions. Some were so deeply wounded by the racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and all the dehumanizing machinery of the industrial academy that they’ve disappeared completely. I don’t blame them, but I mourn their absence, because they were often the greatest visionaries and the brightest flames. But I see similarities in their inability to set personal or professional boundaries. They all had a deep, existential doubt about their worth as human beings as well as their belonging in academia. They all fought hard for the good, but I think they did so not out of any real hope or a greater vision of possibility but fundamentally to keep their despair at bay.
This is not the legacy our students deserve. I want them to know the profound and transformative joys of doing this work, not just its burdens. They have to work hard—nothing can change without fierce commitment and actual labour—and they’ll have to face lots of challenges and exhausting battles, but they shouldn’t have to wear themselves down to the treads, to push themselves to emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion, to drive themselves so relentlessly that the only long-term futures they see are defined by disillusionment or despair.
We need these brave, brilliant, fabulous minds and spirits put to the big challenges of our world. Decolonization and cultural resurgence can only happen when the best of who we are and what we can provide come together in service: for the People, for our families, for the other-than-human world, and even for ourselves. But we need our students to engage those challenges fuelled by love, hope, and transformative commitment. Our students know too well how big the problems are, and in our insistence on engaged, ethical scholarship and righteous action, we sometimes forget to also encourage them to laugh, to love, to be generous with themselves and others. The problems are serious, but so is laughter, so is joy, so are the quieter, gentler pleasures of the world. And many of us are too ruthless with weakness, too quick to condemn someone for their stumbles, too dismissive of those who don’t uphold our particular political line, forgetting that everyone in our communities stumbles, that no one is consistent all the time, and that a difference of perspective doesn’t mean a difference in our capacity for love and commitment.
It’s not the stumble that matters most—what truly matters is what happens afterward. We can too easily confuse a community for a clique. A healthy community holds you up while also holding you accountable; a healthy community doesn’t simply accept or ignore bad behaviour, sloppy thinking, or dangerous ideas, but it also doesn’t assume that a stumble is the same thing as a base violation. A clique, on the other hand, drops you in your weakness and leaves you where you fall. Too often, people just don’t get up again. We can’t afford those casualties. We’re all needed. We all bring good skills and talents to today’s great problems. We can decide whether we want the community or the clique, but if we really want the former, we have to live its truth, to model those values, to be strong enough to screw up and try to do better next time, to be kind enough to encourage ourselves and others to make amends, make connections, make new possibilities in our relationships with the world.
So lately, I’ve been worrying about my students. And, to be entirely honest, I sometimes worry about my own reserves, my own capacity to keep up with this pace. And although I’m nowhere near cynicism or despair, and although I still very much love my job and find it to be fulfilling, I nevertheless find myself too often absorbed by the minutiae of the institution’s demands, the unending emails, the meeting after meeting, etc. I’m fortunate to have a loving and supportive husband who’s also good about letting me know when I’m working too hard or spending too little time on the other parts of my life, especially the relationships we so often take for granted. It’s not always easy, but sometimes we have to just shut off the computer, turn off the phone, and sit and laugh with our loved ones, focusing on their joys and struggles, giving these precious moments of our attention to the people and things that matter most. We can’t forget that these are what we’re fighting for, not the paperwork, not the assignments, not the emails. It’s the relationships that matter most.
For those of us in the academy who are committed to social justice and anti-colonial activism, there’s far more work to be done than bodies to do it. So we take on more and more symbolically significant but often mundane and time- and energy-consuming tasks, always with the hope that they will make a difference, but too often with too little evidence of meaningful results coming out of that busyness. Honestly, I’m tired. Hell, we’re all tired. We’re all racing to keep up, and the pace just gets faster as the institution becomes more corporatized, more depersonalized, more focused on analytics and metrics and less attentive to awakened minds and expansive spirits.
I work with great people at a great university. I have amazing students and amazing colleagues, as well as supportive administrators. We’re working hard to make things even better. I’m truly happy to be here, and I know it’s a real privilege and blessing to have this job. But it’s important to remember that the never-ending flood of academic administrivia at every university can also co-opt us, seducing us through our busyness into thinking that it’s the full measure of what we can and should do in our intellectual activism. Many of these things might need to be done, but they shouldn’t be the whole reason we’re doing it. But more than that, I worry that in the fierce and necessary fight against settler colonialism, against racism, against misogyny, against all the forces that degrade and divide and dismiss and diminish us, inside the academy and beyond it, we forget or get too busy to tend to the quieter virtues that make a better world worth fighting so hard for.
And for those of us who teach, I worry that we’re not always modeling those virtues for the next generation, and that we’re not helping them replenish the fire they’ll need to burn over the long, hard fight. It’s the long campaign that matters most. If our students burn out too soon, if they push themselves past the point of breaking, who then will tend that flame? Who will make sure that our students and then their own students will be strengthened by its warmth and comforted by its light?
If they lose the fire, who will be there to carry the flame and light the way for those who come after?
Daniel Heath Justice is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He currently holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Literature and Expressive Culture and is the Chair of the First Nations Studies Program at the University of British Columbia. Follow him on twitter at @justicedanielh