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Adventures in Academe

When students become teachers, we all become better advocates

“Encountering different voices singing different tunes has the potential to create new and powerful combinations.”


We learn from students every day. Whether it is in the classroom, in meetings or in informal conversations, they inspire us to rethink our perspectives about teaching, about our disciplines and about the world more generally.

While stimulating and enriching exchanges are a regular occurrence, there are also moments when students become teachers and transform our thinking in irreversible ways. A recent example occurred at a planning meeting for an upcoming event devoted to exploring the theme of advocacy in higher education. With this initiative we are striving to better understand what it means to be an advocate for an issue, a group, an individual, or a set of principles. What are the qualities of an advocate? What are the challenges associated with advocacy? And how do universities build capacities for advocacy?

One of our student collaborators started the meeting by taking a moment to acknowledge the Abenaki people and the Wabanaki Confederacy, the traditional stewards and protectors of the territory on which we were meeting. She did so unselfconsciously and with such grace that we were in awe. In her land acknowledgment, she made what was invisible visible, and with her brief utterance invited the land, the First Nations people, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the conversation.

Another student captured the power of that moment by remarking that while advocacy as an identity can be intimidating (especially for emerging adults), advocacy as a series of acts – small, daily, on a human scale – is much more accessible. Normalizing land acknowledgement is an act of advocacy we can all do, whether in the classroom or on course syllabi, at the start of a meeting or at a public lecture. It is one example of how we can participate in small, daily actions where we can be allies, advocates and champions at different moments in diverse contexts.

This act of naming – of inviting something into language – strikes me as an underlying principle of advocacy. The etymology of advocacy is ad (to add) + vocare (call or voice). The origin of the word’s meaning is to give voice to something or to call something out, presumably to initiate dialogue. The “ad” prefix makes explicit the importance of multiple voices – and, by extension, multiple perspectives – in advocacy. In this sense, advocacy compels you to acknowledge a diversity of thoughts and opinions as a starting point rather than as an ideal outcome.

When you add your voice to a chorus of other voices, you do not have to be in harmony; in fact, encountering different voices singing different tunes has the potential to create new and powerful combinations. There is a movement in music called atonality (disclaimer: I am a musical neophyte but I really like metaphors). From what I understand, familiar chords are played in new or unusual combinations, or familiar pitch combinations are performed in unfamiliar environments. Innovation occurs precisely because all the chords (or voices) are not in perfect harmony.

So how do we ensure that diverging voices do not descend into cacophony? How do we help our students develop clear voices capable of pushing the conversation in productive ways? One way to help shape advocacy is to be explicit about our role as intellectuals.

Edward Said, in his Reith Lectures (1993), defines the role of the intellectual as an individual who uses his or her voice to advocate for the disenfranchised or the underrepresented: “The intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be coopted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.” Dr. Said reminds us that the intellectual shares universal principles of freedom and justice, that we must fight courageously against violations of these principles.

In institutions of higher learning, we have a responsibility to honour spaces for emerging and established voices to engage in productive and sometimes uncomfortable conversations, where individuals are safe to speak truth to power, challenge dominant ideologies, and call out injustices and inequalities. When students find their voices – when they push us to clarify our own voices – we all become better advocates.

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is a full professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, holder of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, executive director of the Maple League of Universities and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue of the print magazine.
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