The Blanket Exercise – Part 1

Introduction

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A basket of blankets ready to go

In the Fall of 2017, the UVic Law Faculty decided to involve the full first year law school class in a form of the KAIROS Blanket Exercise as part of our mandatory Legal Process Course. We had been reflecting on the possibility of doing a Blanket Exercise for a number of years.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action(particularly #28, directed to Canada’s Law Schools) inspired us to start incorporating new ways of learning into our program.

In the interests of generating a conversation about embodied pedagogy and TRC work, I want to share here five different experiences that I have had with the blanket exercise (including the approach our law school took last year).

In the post Blanket Exercise – Scripts, Scrolls, Suggestions, you will find links to the copy of the script as we used it at UVIc, along with some notes on the challenges of actually doing the exercise. By that, I mean the concrete, practical questions related to the space, facilitators, training people, food, acoustics and number of blankets. Those considerations are the real, practical guts of what it took in order to run this exercise. Follow that link if you want to begin with those practical questions.

The remainder of this conversation (broken into three posts) is a series of reflections on my five encounters with the Blanket Exercise. Each encounter helped me recognize both the necessity and the challenges of doing trauma-informed, embodied pedagogy in the law school.

Just by way of provisional definition, by ‘embodied pedagogy’, I mean teaching in a way that acknowledges bodies, makes them visible, and moves them to the center of the learning experience. It is a way of teaching in which bodies are recognized as key to relationships, to understanding our histories of being, experiencing, and living in the world.

As you read about my description of each of the experiences I invite you to think about three different questions:

  1. What is the goal of the exercise? To share information? To gather information? To created a common foundation for further conversations?
  2. What advantages can embodied pedagogy bring to TRC work in the law school?
  3. Is it possible to create a safe space in which the experience can unfold, one that is trauma-informed?

By the end of this piece I hope to have articulated some of the reasons why the UVic Law School decided to involve all our students in the blanket exercises as a starting point for a common understanding of our history of Indigenous-Colonizer/Settler relationships. I hope also to have shared some insights that emerged from reflecting on multiple engagements with the exercise.

Encounter #1 – Nervous Reluctance at the Very Idea

My first encounter could perhaps be described as an encounter with an idea. That is, my first encounter was not through participation, but through description of the exercise: my colleague Maxine Matilpi had participated in a version of the KAIROS exercise, and suggested that we do it with our students at UVic. As I understood it from her description, a floor would be covered with blankets representing North America before contact. Over the course of an hour or so, people would be taken through Canadian history in a way that performed small-pox, genocide, residential school, the foster care system, dispossession and more. At the end of the exercise there would be a visual map capturing the ways in which colonial practices have resulted in fragmented communities. The exercise would be followed by a debriefing session in which participants could discuss their experience of the exercise. Maxine reported that participants had found the exercise to be a powerful way of understanding this swath of history in a more embodied fashion.

While the exercise sounded interesting, it also made me very nervous. It seemed like the exercise would raise a lot of hard questions in a context where I was not confident we in the law school (I?) would have the capacity to address them. I was worried that law students might be resistant, that it might generate backlash, and that it might produce more harm than good. But I kept my ears open. And other friends, including Hadley Friedland, stepped forward to make the suggestion again. But at each mention of the exercise, while I found myself saying that it sounded ‘conceptually interesting’, my primary affective response was one of nervous reluctance (and refusal).

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Doing the blanket exercise in Edmonton

It was several years later that Hadley Friedland did what both Maxine and she had suggested that UVic should do. That is, she used the blanket exercise at University of Alberta with a group of over 200 law students and faculty.  She adapted the Kairos script to be more attentive to the law school context.  She involved people from local Indigenous communities and from the Indigenous Bar Association to facilitate discussion groups after the exercises.  She didn’t let ‘logistics’ stop her: since there wasn’t a room large enough in their law school to physically pull this off, the exercise was run in the gymnasium at U of A.  The event successfully met its objectives. Click below for accounts of the U of A experience in 2016 and 2017:

With my nervousness about the exercise tempered by evidence of its success at the University of Alberta law school, I moved in the direction of a small scale experiement – trying it myself.

Encounter #2 –  The McGill Welcoming Week Version

The first time I myself participated in the Blanket Exercise was in Montreal during a Welcome Week at McGill. I was in town visiting my sister, and it just so happened that a group of McGill students (NOT associated with the law school), were running the exercise, in a week where there were multiple competing events.  I was, in some ways, “a stranger in a strange land”, and there was some comfort in the idea of trying the exercise out in a context where I did not know anyone, and nobody really knew me.  It was clear that time was of the essence and things were being brought together at the last minute. This is shorthand for saying, it was a very bare-bones exercise. The presentation didn’t feel glossy or polished. The people who were playing the roles of the facilitators and the settlers were volunteers. They were real people doing an exercise. There were no expectations that people had memorized or rehearsed lines, or that they were working to a professional standard. And so we were called in as participants in just the same way: there was no expectation that we had to do anything other than follow instructions.

Certainly, there was something quite powerful in having the exercise flow out in what felt like a very ordinary way.   I felt a certain democratizing impulse in it in the way that the script was there and it didn’t require someone with an exceptional speaking voice to have power.

I was also struck by the relationship between what I knew in my head, and what that knowledge felt like when it took an embodied form. During the exercise, I was given a scroll which was to be read aloud at the relevant time.   The text referenced the death of Indigenous women. There was nothing in the text that was new to me – by that I mean that the data was something that I was accustomed to teaching in my criminal law class.   Yet, having to read the words out loud in this context was very hard. It was all I could do to try to read the words without crying.   I was reminded that reading the words in my head is not the same as saying the words in ways which required my lungs to take breath, my vocal chords to do the work of speaking the sentence in time. It takes much longer to say the words out loud, than it does for my eyes to take in the meaning. Having to say it out loud is not the same as knowing it. Or as hearing it. I was reminded that the speaking of words makes them real, ‘in the body.’

I was also reminded that I have a great deal of personal discomfort with role-playing exercises. I am perfectly happy watching others do them, but I don’t have a strong desire to be a participant. Indeed, knowing that I might have to participate in something will often send me quite a few rows back in a classroom. I am much more comfortable in my head than in my body. I prefer talking about things to doing things. I am always aware of discomfort in my body when I am asked to perform in many of these contexts. I experienced some of this in doing the exercise, but in ways that involve productive discomfort.

As one example, the exercise opened with the instruction that we walk around on the blankets saying hello, greeting each other.   That activity, itself, often takes me out of my comfort zone. I don’t enjoy parts of classes where we are supposed to walk around and introduce ourselves. For one thing, I am often uncomfortable shaking people’s hands: with how hard to shake, how soft to shake, are their hands arthritic, do I need to be careful how hard I squeeze, are my hand clammy or sweaty, will they want to shake my hand, will it be gross for them to shake my hand, is my hand too rough, how long should I smile, should I get eye-contact. These kinds of questions are running through my head in those exercises, thinking about my own comfort and also about the community of others of my loved ones who really hate these kinds of exercises.

There is something staged and false about that intro that I can feel in my body in a particular way, so I don’t really enjoy it. As someone who does not come from and has not embodied the Catholic tradition, I have also felt that way at the end of the Catholic mass where people turn to each other and say, peace be with you. Every time I am in one of those moments, I find myself thinking of my mother-in-law, who told me that she found that the most powerful part of the whole mass. For her, those moments of connection were powerful.

And so while I find them uncomfortable, I appreciate that they may be operating differently for others. The point is just that the exercise pushed me immediately into a space in which my body’s own discomfort was mobilized. In taking that first step and literally stepping onto the blankets, I was trying not to let my nervous giggle surface, walking around, shaking hands with people I did not know, wondering if I was operating appropriately or not. For me, this discomfort was productive – my participation was largely an information-gathering exercise to inform whether I could bring back and use this exercise in the places where I worked and lived. So that was good for me to know and helped temper the discomfort.

I found myself wondering if the exercise would have been different with trained actors reading the main roles.   I also wondered if that would lead me to feel more engaged, or to experience greater distance. It certainly let me think about the real pragmatic questions about how much of the work is in the script of the exercise itself and how much is in the power-of-performance dimensions of the script. There was a debrief following the exercise. I did find that the conversation after the exercise was as at least as interesting as the exercise itself.

I came away from this first exercise with some valuable insights and with a curiosity and desire to participate a second time.

Click to continue to Blanket Exercise – Part 2

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Author: Rebecca Johnson

I teach Law at the University of Victoria.

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