Living and Learning on the Edge: Class, Race, Gender, Animals and the Environment in a University Community Outreach Program

Article excerpt

Here I am, an experienced educator and former social worker, facing a small class of students - finding myself with a serious case of the butterflies. My colleague, Christina van Barneveld, Director of Lakehead's Humanities 101 program, asked me to facilitate the course for two weeks, focusing on my work in human/animal relations and environmental education. Fm worried that this particular group of students will not find these topics engaging or even relevant to their lives. My time with the program, however, reminded me that human/animal relations permeate many facets of our lives and that analysis of the interconnected nature of various issues can be a powerful element of environmental education.

Humanities 101 is a non-credit one-semester course for students who would not traditionally have access to the university.1 It features guest lectures by volunteer professors in the social sciences and humanities from various departments (e.g., Education, English, Indigenous Studies, Music, Political Science, Psychology, Social Work). Students are recruited through various social service agencies in our community; most of the students have found themselves on the margins of society, with some living in shelters or otherwise deemed "at risk." The course is free and additional support is provided in the form of meals, bus tickets, school supplies, class materials, and child-care or adult-care.

Students have a range of reasons for participating. For example, one woman said,

To be honest, when I first heard of Humanities 101, learning was not first on my list of priorities. I was thinking it would be a good 'free' meal and I would not have to eat alone. I had just come out of a very long and abusive marriage and was not used to being out at night let alone being around so many strangers in a higher education setting.2

Others had long-standing desires to return to formal education, but for many, the challenges that they had faced in their lives had prevented them from completing secondary school and thus even pondering higher education.

As a poor farm kid and later as a social worker, I had plenty of personal experience with folks living close to the edge. Because I remembered how my concerns about environmental issues or the treatment of other animals were occasionally dismissed as irrelevant or at least not much of a priority, it was with some trepidation that I entered the Humanities 101 classroom.

I decided to begin with sharing bits from my own autobiography. I spoke about my experiences growing up on a farm in Ontario where it became clear I was not going to flourish as a farmer, given my distaste for chopping heads off chickens, castrating pigs without anesthesia, or shooting groundhogs who dared to dig holes in the fields. I talked about my experiences in elementary and secondary school, where I came to think that it was impossible to pursue my interests in other animals when I had to kill and dissect them. I began to think of my love for other animals as childish, so I chose to pursue a career in social work. I saw a glimmer of possibility in the latter years of my undergraduate degree when I came across and took a course in Animal Behaviour, though I could not imagine how I would ever manage to afford to do fieldwork and become the next Jane Goodail. So I entered the social services, only to recognize after a few years that I was not temperamentally suited to the profession. I wanted to somehow find a way to reengage with other animals. Fortunately for me, my husband at the time encouraged me to follow that passion and financially supported my return to school where I embarked on an academic journey that led me to research wildlife-focused tourism as well as various school-based environmental and humane education initiatives.

After having shared some of my own journey with the students, I then felt it was ethically and pedagogically acceptable to ask them to do an autobiographical activity themselves. …