Blanket Exercise – Part 3

Encounter #4 – Preparing for Action – The UVic Faculty & Staff Experience

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A trial run planned for a quiet morning in the Fraser Building

With the knowledge that Hadley Friedland had run it at the University of Alberta for first year students and that it had gone very well, and having done the exercise twice myself, we began discussions within our faculty about the possibility of trying it ourselves.   I began to seriously consider doing it as part of our Legal Process Course the following year.

However, before making the commitment to run this with our first year students, we thought it best for faculty and staff to have the experience ourselves so we might have a better idea of how it might be experienced by the students.  This, we thought, would help us better sketch out what kinds of support we might want to put in place for this exercise.

And thus it was that, on a quiet day after classes had ended for the summer, a  group of twenty faculty and staff gathered together to do a trial run of the exercise.  We chose Our Indigenous colleagues Val Napoleon and Darcy Lindberg to play the roles of the colonizers. While I suppose it is not necessary, there is some value in having one of your Indigenous colleagues play this role.  By ‘cross-casting,’ the person playing the colonizer is able to occcupy that role with some distance, and without as much angst. It also avoids replicating colonial roles in the encounter for Indigenous colleagues (ie don’t put people in the roles they historically might have had).

We didn’t do much in the way of preparation, since we were largely thinking about  questions like ‘long would it run’ and ‘could we do it ourselves’ or ‘did we need experts’? We also were thinking about how to ‘break’ the exercise. That is, we were beta-testing, in the hopes that we could anticipate the hard parts, and be prepared with responses in the event that something unexpected happened (as is so often the case in life).

Unbeknownst to the rest of us, our two associate deans (Gillian Calder and Freya Kodar) had determined that they would take on the role of Indigenous resisters, and see just how far they could push the facilitators (imagining a scenario where students might make such a choice).  As the exercise unfolded, they engaged in increasingly visible acts of resistance, drawing on accounts I had given them of my earlier experience in Whitehorse and pushing it even further. At the height of their most rebellious moments, Val, who was playing the role colonizer, finally went off script, simply went up to the two of them and told them they were dead and moved them off of the blankets and to the side. So.  That took care of that! (or at least, let us see what ways we might have to creatively respond to resistance without paralysis, while still staying within the spirit of the exercise).

After this, the rest of  exercise proceeded in line with the script.  That unexpected resistance in role-playing by Gillian and Freya certainly gave us more to talk about in our debrief circle at the end.  For all of us, it opened space for a discussion of the more brutal (and even ‘illegal’) forms of state action and repression.  The debrief was also a great way for us all to learn about our shared history together (important at this juncture in time), and for staff and faculty to be sharing some of our fears, hopes and insights about working together with the students.  It certainly generated conversation that was open and relationship enhancing.

In doing this very small scale trial run experience, there were many small logistics details that also became visible to us.  We could better see the challenges of being able to hear individual speakers (neither Val nor Darcy had booming public speaking voices) and a better appreciation of how many blankets we would actually need to cover the projected space. The most important part of this exercise was helping faculty to become comfortable with the format and content of the exercise so that we would be positioned to anticipate places where the exercise might be challenging for some students and to think about steps we could take in advance to ensure a supportive environment for the experience.

Having had a number of discussions about the exercise, about its strengths and limits, and about the ways we might work with it (or that it might work on us), we prepared to run the event with our first year students.

Encounter #5 – Running the Exercise at UVic as part of Law 106: The Legal Process

The planning for the event required us to spend time really engaging with the substantive guts of “trauma-informed practice”, and more mundane but no less crucial guts of the logistics of organizing an event for the full first year class.

a.  Mandatory or Voluntary?

After our trial run, we debated whether or not to make attendance mandatory. We were conscious of the richness of conversation around voluntary vs. mandatory learning, and there were compelling arguments on both sides.  It seemed obvious that there would be people (whether students, faculty or staff) for whom the exercise might be quite challenging or upsetting.  But on the other hand, there are many elements of the first year curriculum that are difficult for Indigenous and newcomer students alike (this is self-evident to Criminal Law profs!).  Many courses contain elements can be very difficult for our students, but they remain mandatory nonetheless.  We also worried about signalling that our Indigenous students were too fragile for the exercise, or already knew everything that would be covered, or that the difficulty of a topic should be dealt with through distancing. In addition, the substantive content in the Blanket Exercise was in support of the work that was planned by the professors teaching the Constitutional Law and Property Law classes. A further issue was that the exercise was being done as part of the Legal Process course, which is a course that has always been evaluated in part through mandatory attendance.  Would we make an exception for an exercise focused on the place of law in colonial history? A final consideration was that Call to Action #28 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report had called for mandatory education about residential school.

Even though we were leaning in the direction of mandatory attendance, we still struggled: we could imagine there might be good reasons to allow some people with particularly complicated histories to have the opportunity to opt out.  And we did discuss opening the possibility that there might be some students who could fill the mandatory requirement in a different way.  But given that we had a class of students were were new to us and each other, we did not have a good mechanism for identifying people who might find it difficult.  If we were to send out specific emails, we would be operating on guess-work, and perhaps unfounded assumptions.

After much discussion, we decided that attendance would be expected.  Our goal was to emphasize this event as part of the regular curriculum, and something that the entire school was invested in.  Part of emphasizing to the students the importance of the activity was signaled through having nearly all of our Legal Process Professors (that is, all professors teaching first year courses) participate in the Blanket Exercise. We had our  Dean (Jeremy Webber) be one of the participants, taking on one of the primary narrator roles (reading all of the “Legal Issues” slides).

b. Putting Supports in Place

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The UVic Amicus Team: Christina, Tim, Yvonne and Darcy

Once we decided the exercise would be mandatory, we worked to put in place a rich layer of supports.  We involved our full Amicus Team, including our embedded counsellor. We also had active involvement from the Indigenous Law Students Association, and the Law Students Society.

I would really emphasize here the value of including the Indigenous students in the planning and operationalization of the Exercise.  Upper year Indigenous students played key roles (both speaking parts, and carrying microphones to those reading scrolls) in the exercise, which meant that there were many levels of mentoring and engagement that extended beyond the exercise.

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photo by Maryse Bernard

We also coordinated with the   the First People’s House at UVic, which has elders in residence, and the space to do smudging and other ceremony that might be helpful to Indigenous students who might feel the impact more deeply than anticipated.

As an aside, we highly recommend building close relationships between the law school and similar Indigenous Institutions you have at your own universities:   so many times, our Indigenous students have been supported by the First Peoples house where are own capacities have been either underdeveloped or absent. So too, they have provided us in the law school (faculty and staff) with ideas, suggestions, and support as we have worked to learn more about ways we can better do the work of Truth, Reconciliation and Justice in Law.

c. The Logistical Challenges

On the logistics front, we turned our attention to the questions of both ‘when’ and ‘where’.  With respect to timing, we decided against holding it in the first few weeks of classes when students are still getting to know each other and are experiencing a level of vulnerability that is common to people at the start of a new program.  At the same time, we didn’t want to wait too long, since we wanted the exercise to provide a common foundation for the work students would start doing in their constitutional and property law classes. So we choose a day 6 or 7 weeks into the term and re-designated all first year  morning classes that day as classes in the Legal Process Course.  This would enable all 120 students in the program to attend the exercise.  Though the actual exercise would be complete by lunch time, we also cancelled all first-year afternoon classes, so the students would have down-time after the event: time to process their own learning at their own speed.

With timing settled, we had to tackle basic logistic questions around the ‘where’.  We needed to find a room that would enable us to have 125 people first walking around in an open space, and then later sitting on chairs in circles of roughly 25 people.   The Law School itself did not have a room with that capacity so we rented a space in the Student Union Building on campus.  We organized the space in advance (chairs, blankets, powerpoint, audio system, tables on the sides, etc), and set up stationary microphones and mobile microphones to ensure participant speakers could be heard when it was time to read their scrolls.img_20180727_1043063

We also decided to provide food: oranges and apples, Halloween candy, bottles of water and seaweed snacks (this is the West Coast, after all!). The goal was both to enact the principle of feeding the body while feeding the mind, but also to provide a way for students to move themselves out of one space and into another in a natural way.

As with the Whitehorse example, we included objects placed on the floor so that people could pick them up, carry them, and have things to trade or touch. In feedback, after the event, some student spoke specifically to the value of these objects, saying that they found it helpful, when parts of the exercise were difficult, to have something in their hands to provide a focus point for them.

d. Closing the Circle

The Blanket Exercise closes with a debriefing session done using a circle.   While the exercise had proceeded with the full cohort on the blankets, we now divided them back into their small sections, so that the circle/debrief was conducted within a small group of 20-25 people who had already developed close relations with each other in the context of their first two weeks intensive course.  In this context, the students were coming back to this specific small group format after 4 weeks in the standard classes.  For the debrief, rather than having it be ‘open’, there were some guiding questions.  Each person in the circle was invited to share two things: one thing they learned from the event, and one thing they would like to learn more about.  In terms of the structure of the circle, we have found that it is optimal to have two faciliators there, sitting beside each other, so that the first person ‘opens’ the circle (is the first to speak), and the other ‘closes’ the circle.  This gives a bit more control to the facilitators, in terms of the ability to offer some words in their final comments that might address anything that came up in the circle that was challenging or difficult.

Finally, students were asked to do a short reflection piece (a few lines to a few paragraphs) the day after the event on their Coursespace Blog.  In part, this was to remain consistent with the structure of the Legal Process Course, in which there was a blog requirement at the end of each day of the course.  But we also hoped that this requirement would provide students with an opportunity to further process their own response to the event, and indeed, they were invited to give critical commentary if they so desired.  From my perspective as the Director of the Legal Process course, the student blogs were insightful, inspiring and hopeful.  Some of them were also difficult.  Where students students had found the exercise hard, they had no problem telling us so.  And they were also incredibly generous in sharing some ideas about additional/different things we might try the next time we ran the exercise.

Circling Back After the Fact – Some Final Thoughts

While the set-up for 120 people is a lot of work, once the exercise begins, it does its own work. Part of its power is the content. Part of the work is the embodiment question. These kinds of pedagogies are certainly non-traditional within the law school context, but they do open up space for a quite different conversation about history and the way we place ourselves in it. I imagine that over time, it might be possible to continue to adapt the script in response to the experiences of colonization in different provinces, and to contemporary events.  The more this history becomes part of our common heritage, the more room there will be to add additional layers of nuance to the event.

At UVic we continue to discuss the importance of the exercise and whether participation by first year students should be mandatory. The exercise can be valuable from a pedagogical perspective because it gives students a common lived experience and language to build on throughout their program. We are conscious that the exercise must be trauma informed.  The first time we ran the blanket exercise we tried to do this through different methods by providing: on-site support; debrief and processing opportunities (circle and writing); and an option to opt out of the exercise with alternate “assignment” where potential trauma outweighed the benefits of participating in a group exercise.

In the end the vast majority of the students were there, and there was follow-up with those who had been unable to attend for any number of the usual reasons (sickness, family emergencies, surgery).  For the most part, I would say that the successes of the exercise outweighed the difficulties.  This is not to say there weren’t difficulties.   And in the aftermath, students did come to us with important questions about things that had been less than successful, and about strategies we might employ the next time around.

The question of ‘mandatory vs. voluntary’ continues to be a live one.  It is not unrelated to a second question, which is, ‘how much information do students need in advance.’   Though we told the students about the exercise in general, some were unprepared for the emotional impact.  This is a challenge since saying “this exercise engages with questions of residential school” may not be adequate preparation for students who have not had much prior education.  Our way of preparing the students may have been inadequate for some students with hard family histories with residential school, and who may feel the impact of the exercise in more complicated ways.   The students were not necessarily saying that they should be excused from the exercise, but rather that a thicker description might have enabled them to go into the exercise better equipped for the work that it might do.

We had sent a note to the students telling them it was mandatory, but also indicating that if they had concerns, they could speak with either me or the associate dean.  Our thinking was that this was a way for students with concerns to open a conversation (which would allow us to work with them to find an alternative).  But some students certainly did not see this as enough of an opening, and felt themselves to be required to be there in ways that were not helpful.  That is, with different information available (including a more explicit note that the exercise could be met in other ways), they may have chosen to do the exercise, but with a greater sense of freedom about that choice.

The conversations with the students after the fact were helpful in terms of helping us think more broadly about all the different ways to begin the conversation about the exercise (for example, that it might be helpful to include the students in a discussion about the values of mandatory and voluntary attendance).  We certainly were reminded that Indigenous students have long had to carry particularly heavy roles in law schools across Canada, and that it is not a bad idea to involve them earlier and more actively in the conversations about how to do the set up for exercises such as these.  For example, some Indigenous students nicely articulated for us the position that they KNEW the exercise was going to bear heavily on them, but that they also felt it important that they were visible there to their non-indigenous classmates.  What they sought was not necessarily an exemption, but a role in the decision-making that acknowledged the ways their participation was both important and signficant.

In short, the Blanket Exericse raises lots of hard questions. We do not have all the answers, but this should not stop us from participating in or running the exercise. Discomfort is an important part of the embodiment of what is being experienced and learned.  It matters that we work in collaborative ways that acknowledge that embodiment plays itself out differently for different people.  The use of embodied pedagogy in the exercise – physical, emotional and intellectual discomfort, role playing, the physical representation of territory, the movement through territory, the loss of territory, etc – leaves the experience planted in the brain and the body.

LINKS TO EXPLORE

Click here for a link to the KAIROS website, which has more information on how you might take up the exercise in your own school, community, or institution.

Here below for thinks to reports on people using the blanket exercise in other Canadian Law Schools:

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Author: Rebecca Johnson

I teach Law at the University of Victoria.

One thought on “Blanket Exercise – Part 3”

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