Interview: Paul Angelini and Jessica Pulis on their new textbook

Recently, Prof. Peter Steven (Film Studies) sat down with Profs. Paul Angelini (Political Science) and Jessica Pulis (Criminology) to discuss the motivations and processes behind their forthcoming textbook, Rethinking Who We AreCritical Reflections on Human Diversity in Canada (Fernwood, Spring 2019). Peter’s questions frame the interesting discussion that follows: 

What’s the significance of the book’s title?

Paul: The title is posed as a question, in that we are re-thinking our identity as people living in Canada. In reference to the “we” in the title: there is no “we.” Other than how people see themselves as they read the various chapters – the identity emerges from how they define it. Jessica and I haven’t taken for granted that there is one monolithic Canadian identity. We treat Identity as something that is layered.

Jessica: We are asking students to think about who they are. This may be the first time they have been asked or challenged to do so. Often students have been taught about identity in a very prescribed way – that Canadians are multicultural, accepting and diverse – but usually there is little room for difference in that or room for much questioning.

Paul: I think the key here, which we try and impart to students is that identity is fluid, and dynamic, and will always be changing. The idea that there is such a thing as a Canadian may have some merit, but as you peel back the layers, like in an onion, you find that there are many, many layers. And every layer affects everyone’s personal, critical reflection.

Jessica: So we challenge students to reflect on and think critically about their own lived experience, and what they’ve been taught. We emphasize that we are all immigrants, unless Indigenous, and what that means. Regardless of how many generations.

The book draws on a number of academic disciplines and fields. How do you pull all that together?

Photo: Jessica Pulis

Jessica: Yes, the book approaches these issues from many different angles and covers a broad scope. We draw on and move toward various specialties in the social sciences and humanities. But, it’s transdisciplinary. We are not only working together and across disciplines, we are also approaching issues that may stem from a fundamentally different perspective. For example, we talk about Indigenous story-telling and how the tradition of oral history remains so important to that narrative.

Do you feel that those discussions are not usually captured in any one discipline?

Jessica: Yes, we think we’re really doing something different. For instance, the chapters on human rights talk about gender and sexuality.

Paul: All the chapters in the book draw on each other. The story-telling chapter also speaks to the issues raised in the chapter on regionalism. So the hope is that as the students begin to see the layers on top of each other, they will be able to see themselves in more than one way. That’s the whole idea of a layered identity and that has changed drastically since I started writing these sorts of texts in the 1990s. In those days most of these courses were taught as race and ethnic relations. (Diversity had not been coined as a phrase.) Over the past years I’ve been looking to work with people who would take things in this new direction.

Jessica:  In my work I have certainly drawn on the important work of Augie Fleras at the University of Waterloo. Thus, our understanding of diversity operates from and through a critical lens

Do you see this as a challenge to teachers as well as to students who are coming out of fixed disciplines?

Jessica: In the social sciences and humanities we, as academics, are accustomed to asking critical questions and we also expect our students to engage. However, I think there are students in programs across the country who are not being asked critical questions about diversity. And that may affect what they will do in the real world. For students enrolled in Social Work, Early Childhood Education, Police Foundations, etc. these questions will play a critical role in their everyday lives. I’ve seen material being used in various places that doesn’t ask these critical questions, and that’s alarming.

Photo: Paul Angelini

Paul:  For students who go into these fields, their success as a police officer, social worker, etc. is going to depend on their understanding of the layers and complexities of diversity.

Jessica: If we think about the chapter on disability for example, written by Kate Hano, who is blind, we will be reminded that some of us encounter restrictions on a daily basis. So we must conclude that Canadians are not as open to diversity as we think we are.

This book is intended for first year college and university students.  What does that mean to you?

Jessica: Yes, it’s intended for any students who are being introduced to the discipline of diversity for the first time. As I mentioned, it’s transdisciplinary, so it crosses disciplines, ideas, understandings.

Paul: For Diploma students the book is intended as the textbook. For Degree students our expectation is for this to serve as an introduction, which can be built on or supplanted by the professor, depending on their expertise or the more specific needs of their students.

Would you agree that there are not enough introductory textbooks or resources in general for students?

Jessica: Absolutely. For sure. And we asked all the contributors to write in a voice that students could recognize and understand. We want to see the students as equal partners in an important conversation. Ours is a critical book that asks students to think about themselves in the context of some academic rigour. It was imperative that we be clear and not verbose. If they don’t know the language we’re using how is that going to serve its purpose?

Paul, you have compiled similar textbooks in the past covering some of these issues. What’s the difference with this one?

Paul: The first textbook I compiled on these issues set itself up as a statement of “This is who we are.” For this book, Jess and I add a question mark to that statement. That is reflected in the general approach and the addition of chapters, such as the Law and Human Rights and our chapter on Voice.  It’s also reflected in the Indigenous experience chapter that builds from a story-telling perspective. This allows us to do a more effective job for the students.

Jessica: The academic discussion around diversity has changed. There is more of an acknowledgement that in Canada we still have horrific and egregious human rights violations based on peoples diversity.

Photo: Peter Steven

What sorts of debates do you hear among students in your classes?  What do they get excited about?  And how does the book build on that?

Paul: It’s the timely, topical things. Such as, how are things for recent arrivals, more specifically for Muslim women. They want to talk about that, and how they feel about that.

Jessica: When I ask questions about their identities in class, that is usually the first time they have had the opportunity to think about it and discuss it.

So, is it fair to say that sometimes the students are already discussing these things outside class and at other times your role is to introduce these difficult, challenging topics?

Jessica: I would argue that the text introduces and challenges students to think about and discuss these issues for the first time. Often students will waltz around these terms like equality and multiculturalism without really understanding. Certainly the idea that they can have a changing ethnicity is something they’re hearing for the first time.

To sum up, what do you think teachers (and students) are looking for in a modern textbook? And how is that reflected in this book?

Paul: First, in terms of the content, we think that students will see themselves reflected and be able to critically reflect on who they are, and what Canada is, and therefore what is a Canadian. The pedagogy also stands out. For example, we think that our use of the sidebars and text boxes, such as “Diversity in Action” and Innovate,” provide unique tools to stimulate teaching and learning.

Jessica: The book is comprehensive and can be used in many different classes. In addition, the language is clear and accessible. It is so bloody relevant for students and to our society at large.