Acknowledging the Affect

Tending to the Emotional Side of the Classroom

These Subjects Are More Than Intellectual, They’re Emotional

When we bring topics related to colonialism and Indigeneity into the classroom, we are also inviting the emotions that accompany these deeply personal histories and realities. Sensations of anger, anxiety, sadness, discomfort, denial, alienation, and guilt constitute the subterranean makeup of the classroom environment and when this affective realm is left unvoiced or unaddressed, the potential for student learning and wellbeing is diminished.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous faculty participants in the What I Learned in Class Today: Educational Experiences and Institutional Responses project articulate the importance of acknowledging and working with the discomfort around these subjects with the goal of better facilitating productive and caring conversations. Facilitators for Aboriginal Initiatives: Classroom Climate, a workshop series following the original What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom project, described ‘affect’ as an “academic way to say ‘emotion’” and explained that this emotionality is at the heart of learning about colonialism. Over a decade later, instructors continue to discuss both the difficulties and the importance of addressing the affective side of the classroom.

Transitioning from a Rhetoric of Expertise to Effort

Working with the “‘hidden’ issues” of emotion around teaching Indigenous curriculum begins before crossing the doorway into the classroom. Non-Indigenous and Indigenous faculty alike may be daunted to include topics of Indigeneity and colonialism in their courses because, as Dr. Dory Nason (Anishinaabe) suggests, “the classroom is an unexpected space.” While instructors can educate themselves and prepare for student responses, they cannot predict how these conversations will unfold; and these fears and anxieties can prevent non-Indigenous faculty from taking the step towards Indigenous engagement.

Dr. Aftab Erfan says that “there’s a discourse about equity and inclusion issues broadly, but maybe Indigenous issues particularly of, if you don’t do it right, you’re not a good person, and I think that’s a hard bar to set … We may not try because of the fear of failure.” This work is far from prescriptive and, as such, curricula will vary depending on an instructor’s positionality, their department, and their knowledge levels.

Since “there’s not one right way” (Erfan) to teach these topics, instructors are encouraged to replace the expectation of expertise with honest effort. As Dr. Linc Kesler (Oglala Lakota) explains, “if you’re entering this discussion for the first time, you will make mistakes. We don’t have a language that we share that is adequate to the discussions we need to have.” Faculty are provided a unique opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to UBC’s campus climate each time they adopt a rhetoric of vulnerability and commit to working with and through their emotional barriers. A willingness to learn and humility in making mistakes is an educational ethic that faculty, as guiding figures in the classroom, can model to their students.

What Faculty Feel, Students Feel Too

Dr. Erfan observes that the anxiety faculty feel is likely shared by the non-Indigenous and Indigenous students in the room. Whether students are learning about Canada’s colonial history for the first time or have lived experiences with a given topic, their interactions in the classroom are being informed by a range of affective responses. Student sensations of anger, denial, guilt, sadness, trauma, or embarrassment can cause “emotional paralysis” that inhibits classroom engagement. In moments like these, instructors can acknowledge this emotional subtext and inspire students to try, knowing that they may make mistakes and be called into further learning.

Lived Experiences in the Classroom

In a short video entitled “Why do Indigenous topics cause such emotional discomfort?” Dr. Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaw professor at Ryerson University, encourages non-Indigenous students to contextualize their emotional responses with the far more difficult experiences of Indigenous peoples who are living with the ongoing consequences of settler colonialism. Non-Indigenous faculty must also recognize that classroom conversations around Indigenous topics are more than intellectual exercises that may incite unequal emotional effects on the Indigenous students in the room.

To mediate this effect, instructors are encouraged to spend as much or more time highlighting Indigenous resurgence and joy as they do “Indigenous suffering or loss;” to center Indigenous voices in their course content; and not to rely upon Indigenous students to share their lived experiences (Dr. Sarah Hunt). As Dr. Mark Turin suggests, the often-unintentional tendency of deferring to Indigenous students when facilitating discussions around Indigeneity is “exhausting and draining” for those students. Furthermore, when Indigenous students are expected to educate their peers, their learning goals are undermined by those of their non-Indigenous peers.

Holding Conversations with Care

To make explicit this affective burden on Indigenous students, Nason screens the original What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom (2007) film on the first day of her classes. This exercise foregrounds the affective side of these subjects, affirms the experiences of Indigenous students in the room, and creates guidelines for respectful classroom engagement. Yet the ongoing relevancy of this film to Indigenous undergraduates today illustrates the need for faculty and staff to continue developing pedagogical practices that decrease the emotional impact on Indigenous students (Nason).

Holding conversations with care means integrating trauma-informed curricula and recognizing that, as Dr. Coll Thrush declares, it is ultimately the instructor’s “responsibility to pay attention to the more affective side of the educational experience.” We need to hold space for emotionality, for anger, anxiety, guilt, pain, and all of the sensations that are so often excluded from academia. This is a process of mutual learning that demands understanding as well as accountability and whether we are students, staff, faculty, or community members, we can each begin by recognizing and addressing the emotional side of our learning journey.

Resources for Further Learning

  • Screen the What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom film and facilitate a discussion using the conversation prompts on the first day of class (recommended by Dr. Dory Nason) .
  • Check out two 20-minute videos from the recent What I Learned in Class Today: Educational Experiences and Institutional Responses project looking at faculty experiences with Indigenous topics. Part II, in particular, explores faculty fears and anxieties as well as the emotional responses of students in their classrooms.
  • Watch professor Pam Palmater’s short clip about the emotional responses she encounters from students in the classroom and her techniques for addressing them: “Why do Indigenous topics cause such emotional discomfort?
  • Non-Indigenous learners especially are encouraged to read Andrea Eidinger and Sarah York-Bertram’s “Imagining a Better Future: An Introduction to Teaching and Learning about Settler Colonialism in Canada.” This article outlines common emotional responses to teaching and learning about settler colonialism.
  • Engage with Module 3 of the IN/Relation project created by CTLT’s Indigenous Initiatives department: “Just Shut Up and Listen: Learning About the Ongoing Legacies of Residential Schools.” This resource explores the emotional side of learning/un-learning colonial histories and includes two especially poignant videos showcasing Commissioner Marie Wilson and Shelagh Rogers.
  • Students who are experiencing the emotional side of engaging with these topics are encouraged to utilize UBC’s support system. Indigenous counsellors at UBC Counselling Services are available for all Indigenous students on campus and appointments can be made online or at 604-822-3811. Additional support resources include Empower Me, Here2Talk, or department-specific student advising offices with Indigenous faculty such as Arts Indigenous Student Advising or the Science & LFS Indigenous Student Initiative.

Refining Your Practice

As a prior student in Dr. Glen Coulthard’s course, FNIS 210: Indigenous Politics and Self-Determination, we spent a fair amount of time reframing our understanding of supposedly-negative emotions like resentment, anger, and hatred in the context of decolonial action. Dr. Coulthard’s book, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, and the fourth chapter in particular—“Seeing Red: Reconciliation and Resentment”—suggests that these ‘negative’ emotions don’t inhibit productive action, rather they can incite it. The following reflection prompts were inspired by this move to reclaim the power of ‘negative’ emotions.

  • Set aside 15-30 minutes to think about how ‘negative’ emotions influence your classroom experience:
  • Choose four emotions that are often deemed negative (e.g., resentment, anger, guilt, shame, rage, fear, hate, sadness etc.) and list the ways in which each sensation can be productive in classroom discussions of colonialism and Indigenous topics.
  • What avenues for deepening are created when an instructor/facilitator acknowledges, creates space for, and addresses ______ [fill in the emotion you have chosen] in the classroom?
  • What are the potential consequences of failing to address that ‘negative’ emotion?


By Keirra Webb