By Sika Patton
In the midst of growing class sizes, distracted professors and indifferent students, there is still at least one field at the University of Calgary where passion and community are the words used to describe the educational process.
On Nov. 22 and 23 students minoring at the Theme School in Northern Planning and Development Studies presented their criticisms of the status quo and defended their views. The topic was traditional knowledge–a timely and complex subject exploring the clash between Aboriginal and European world views. This doesn’t seem to be the average workload for undergraduate students, but the program isn’t ordinary either.
"Students are not just consumers of information, they are producers of insight," said Director of the Theme School Dr. Karim-Aly Kassam. "We wanted to include undergraduates in interdisciplinary learning and research."
Dr. Kassam hand-picks students from a wide array of disciplines to learn through an intimate, community-based approach at the Theme School (housed in the Arctic Institute on the 11th floor of the Library Tower). The product is small classes, enthusiastic professors and dedicated students. Students complete 10 half courses, each requiring similar presentations, and participate in an internship program that may include placements as far away as the rainforests of India or the tundra of Alaska. While the Theme School emphasizes the practical application of information, it strives to do more than just prepare students for careers.
Fourth-year Urban Studies major Kelly Edmundson, whose presentation was entitled Traditional Knowledge Studies for Environmental Assessment in the MacKenzie Valley, agreed the program goes further than courses in other fields of study.
"We’ve discussed Western culture in other classes, this is the first one where you put the questioning of Western culture into practice," she said. "You have to do these [presentations] in the work place so getting prepared and doing research is practical experience."
Dr. David Lerztman, who teaches NPDS 305, says he challenges his students to be open-minded and critical at the same time. This is especially important in the area his class is studying, traditional knowledge, which is both a new area of academic research and an old subject.
"We’re trying to help them think out of their cultural box without leaving it behind," he said.
Noah White-Eagle Johnson, coming to the program from the business world, presented his subject Bringing Traditional Knowledge into the Classroom: An Urban Aboriginal Perspective. He says this class helps him bridge the gap between European and aboriginal philosophies.
"As an urban aboriginal I see the need for integration and understanding of both paradigms," said White Eagle-Johnson. "I try to walk in both worlds."
Kassam has high hopes for the students taking courses in the theme school.
"People that generally change paradigms have two characteristics: they come from outside, i.e. they are interdisciplinary, and they are young people," he said.
White-Eagle Johnson believes there is an acceptable trade-off in the program.
"It’s more work, but I feel more passionate."