Waking Creativity in Education. Dialogue with Catherine Etmanski

Hilary:  Catherine, I have been delighted to get to know you in the context of Royal Roads University supporting AR+ as a founding member. I’ve enjoyed visiting with your school. We had a big workshop with so many of your faculty.  There’s a great appreciation for the action orientation to knowledge there. It’s unusual.  You personally have inspired me to take a theatre workshop in Vancouver last year which has shifted how I teach and facilitate groups. I’m grateful to you for that. We’re enjoying co-teaching a co-lab on mindfully integrative creative action. I must say you have become a role model for me around creativity and learning.   What’s holding your own attention these days in your role as Director in your School of Leadership?

Catherine EtmankskiCatherine:  I tend to have three words that name my larger intentions, Earth, Art and Health. And all three of those come into play in different ways in my life and my work and my research/teaching. Earth means, for now, that I work in a school of leadership studies but much leadership theory exists without any recognition of the earth and finite resources. So I work with co-creating knowledge not only with other humans, but also with nature. And art is part is part of that and more of a focus right now. I’m excited about continuing to move the idea of creativity and creative leadership and creative action research forward. You know this idea of Einstein’s that we can’t create a new reality with the same level of consciousness that created the current reality. These arts-based practices or creative practices get us into different parts of our brains—different from linear, rational ways of thinking through a problem. A lot of people have a fear of the word creativity. I do think that there are some accessible entry points for anyone that can spark new ways of knowing. More healthful too. Everyone is so busy. There’s this sort of social pressure nowadays that is really not that healthy. The demands, the information overload, on our brains and our hearts.

As a school director, I have an intention to create, to support conditions that are healthier and I don’t know the answers, but these are the areas that hold my curiosity. And I would say there’s another area that is very interesting for me right now. It encompasses all three intentions at once. The truth and Reconciliation Commission work in Canada. And in our school. There’s a lot of momentum around understanding better valuing Indigenous ways of being and knowing and doing.

Hilary: Your school is lucky to have you as a leader! One intention I have for our conversation and others like is to grapple with what the transformation of knowledge creation means. What it looks like.  What it can look like. More concretely we could call this also the transformation of Education. Except it’s more than that. I mean the possibility of truly learning as whole persons in response to a world that is deeply challenged. How do you think about that?

Catherine. I think I’m in a unique position at Royal Roads University. Unique in at least two ways. One is that our learning, teaching and research model explicitly values useful knowledge. There’s alignment with action research on values and principles, experiential approaches to education, team teaching approaches, learning and teaching. We don’t have to constantly justify ourselves if we want to do action research or justify what experiential learning is. We debate what the best approaches are, but we’re starting on the same page.

Hilary: Is that because you all started out with the mission of doing useful learning, research & teaching. Now let’s just take a moment to realize how absurd it is that concern for usefulness is rare, and so remarkable in a university! What were the originating conditions for this set up?

Catherine: Royal Roads University started 20 odd years ago. The establishment of Royal Roads University as a university was to cater to people who are working professionals who are trying to figure out not only a kind of utilitarian career advancement element, but who are really hungry for knowledge that will help them in their practice with that immediate application. We aim to bring broader critical thinking and an ability to understand the value of theory–not that that’s always their first intention. By the way times have changed. When we started the University, I understand there was a lot of resistance even to online learning. At that time many other universities didn’t take it, or us, as legitimate. But over the years, within the higher ed sector, there’s more widespread knowledge and appreciation for what we do.

Hilary The world around educators is changing so rapidly.  My understanding is that some of those other universities who doubted you may be a bit envious now. Your enrollments are unusually robust, unlike so many more conventional universities. I mention this as I don’t think it’s generally known how stressed conventional universities are by decreasing enrollments. Many seem to think they can add nice facilities.  Some of us wonder if the very purpose of knowledge creation needs to be reconsidered.

Catherine. Yes and we don’t yet know is what’s the next edge. I like David Orr’s question, what is education for? I keep going back to that. If we’re not working toward a better world in some way, what really are we doing as educators? I think if we look long-term and big picture, we need to start seeing how ecological pressures affect everything that we do.

Hilary Not to put words in your mouth. Are you, are you suggesting that part of the transformation of education is to become more clear about a big picture values orientation that informs their very purpose.

Catherine. You know, it’s tricky. I don’t know how many people work in the higher education sector in Canada and the US and around the world, but it’s a major profession. So I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest that every university needs to transform in the same way, but certainly some universities I think could, could be more aware of the social impact of their work, the socio-ecological impact of their work, of our work, and naming this in some way, making it conscious

Hilary: At AR+ we’re using the metaphor of “liberating the ivory tower mentality,” meaning it’s time to open the doors and the windows. How does that language strike you – perhaps not for everyone, but at least for maybe the 20% of universities’ leaders who might take a more actionable, more transformative approach?

Catherine Yeah, it’s interesting. We’re liberating ourselves from ourselves in some way. We get so bogged down with the policies and the procedures because it’s the nitty gritty. And there’s the liberating ourselves from our history in some way which is both enabling and constraining. Liberating ourselves from the business of universities, maybe liberating ourselves from I don’t know what else. So much. It’s a good question. How can we work toward greater freedom of creative expression for the common good?

Hilary: In AR+ efforts, we often link self and community transformation. And perhaps there are as many inner constraints as there are external. In its simplest terms, it’s liberation from assuming status quo. As Kant said it’s “daring to know.” What do you dare to know what’s best for you and your efforts at Royal Roads?

Catherine: Wow, that’s a big question. We’ve been talking about this. One of the ideas that I would support and advocate for is making our socio-ecological purpose or impact more explicit. Now the trick of course is choosing the one area because everyone’s got their favorite. But something that you could actually see is making a difference to all involved, our students, our faculty and to the world. In that sense it must be measurable, noticeable, visible.

Hilary: So AR+ is trying to conceive of bringing universities and non-university learning communities and their ecosystems together. If that becomes tangible, it can, somehow orient to support what we could call sustainable development goals. There’s a number of these goals as you know. And so I wonder. Can we template across the efforts? Can we assess the cumulative impact of those involved in the AR+ learning platform? So, for example, your students’ projects could be assessed for how they  make a contribution alongside those of students in other parts of the globe. And I’m imagining a kind of peer assessment, students themselves would be in conversation with other students to figure it out. What do you think?

Catherine I think in principle individuals can partner with other universities. I think institutionally we’re looking at ways to create program partnerships. I think it would be difficult to do that with multiple universities, how to sort of match up programs in different universities. What would it look like if a student took some courses, could they get two credentials from different universities. When we start looking at institutional partnerships, it gets a bit more difficult. I think we are open to the conversations, but we haven’t sorted out what it looks like to partner across universities.

Hilary: The magic is in the detail and probably we’d need to figure this out as a group together, looking for low hanging fruit. Red tape of academia with course credits etc may not be the first place to start. But locating small cadre of faculty who want to play with other faculty and can use AR+ as a kind of meeting space… Speaking of which, please share if there’s anything relevant from your experience of AR+ co-labs so far that hint some directions for what we’re talking about.

Catherine Our MICA co-lab that you and I facilitated was helpful in a few ways. It integrated two of the three of the priority areas for me, the health and the creativity of the arts. So it really worked to bring those two together. We did it online, with others around the world. Surprisingly good sense of connection. That was interesting. That gets at what you were just talking about. I think the other element for me was the experimental nature. We had a clear intention but not so much a detailed plan, which I think we did quite well. Of the people who came each added a little piece to that. This evolution could be offering a tool for online groups for faculty, for students, for anyone really.

Hilary: I’d be curious to keep experimenting with that. We have a next effort in October at your university.  A weekend workshop. And I think these experiments have the seeds of a virtual university.

Catherine. The most powerful part of AR+ for me as been my involvement in a co-lab. This helped me see what’s possible. And our work hasn’t been developed to the point where it could. Though we are doing a workshop in October together here. I think what we’re hoping that AR+ can have more institutional support. When the right timing comes, it’ll spread like wildfire.

Hilary: We keep moving forward then. And Chalmers? Would you want to participate? What would be of value for you?

Catherine. I’ve got it marked in my calendar and I’m working toward building greater connection between AR+ and Royal Roads. So, maybe we can leverage some momentum.

Hilary: What makes it worth your while? What would you want to get out of such a meeting?

Catherine. At a personal level, I’m open to learning. And when I go with my school director’s hat on, I’m thinking more systemically about how we could link to our programs, what are the elements of transformative learning. Assessing transformative learning or assessing our impact as educators. Some new ideas around that would be helpful. Being attentive to reconciliation and decolonization as part of that.

Hilary: That’s an important emphasis for so many associated with AR+. I was just talking with Prof. Ann Mitchell of Open University before you came on the call. Ann originates from Guyana, north of Brazil and has just joined the board of Action Research Journal. Her work is about participative healthcare, especially with women with chronic illness like diabetes. And so through the Co-lab we call “Cocina Popular,” Ann connected with Kamil Geronimo from Puerto Rico who leads a popular education center, Pueblo Critico, inspired by Freire. Together we’re translating some of the Cookbook into Spanish and adding some of Ann’s work and Kamil’s with the hope of serving a global participative healthcare network. That’s another example of what I call connecting up our resources. I see something similar for participative educators.

Catherine: Thank you. It helps me feel encouraged and, and connected when we talk. Always good to connect with you. By the way, given that there are lots of connections here, I want to say also that my opinions do not reflect an official position of the University.

Hilary: Not yet anyway.  I hope they will in the future! Thank you Catherine. Take care.  Bye. Bye.