It Helped Me Rethink Everything

An interview with Jennifer Stone, UAA Professor of English and 2013 ECCI participant (Interview has been edited for length and clarity)

What motivated you to apply for ECCI?

A couple of colleagues who had gone over the years… I decided to arrange my life around making this happen because I knew from teaching that there were aspects of my students’ lives that I was clueless about. This was an opportunity for me to see where many of my students come from.

What are some things you remember about culture camp in Kali (Point Lay)?

It was an amazing experience. I felt like I got a genuine look into an example of the

places my students come from. I grew up in rural Maryland, which was 30 miles from Baltimore, on a small farm. Rural in Alaska is different, and I knew that, but I hadn’t really experienced that prior to my time in Kali. So it was a chance to see what life is like off the road system… I developed an enormous respect for subsistence life, the labor that goes into feeding a village, staying safe, keeping people healthy and connected to each other.

One of my favorite parts of camp was I got to talk to lots of young people, both the kids at the camp as well as many young adults who were also part of the camp. I got to hear their perspectives on things like education and Alaska and politics, and they were really different from anything I had been exposed to. It was a chance to have frank conversations and listen to voices that are often drowned out in conversations about education in a more urban place like Anchorage.

What kinds of things changed for you after the program?

As a teacher it helped me rethink everything I do in my classes. For example, I teach a course on the history of the English language, and previously I had given them kind of the general history which you would get anywhere in the country. And I had a sense that there was something special about Alaska that the class didn’t tap into. So, I wasn’t completely naïve when I went off to camp, but it really helped me think about, how do I take that class and re-fashion it so it’s from an Alaskan perspective and highlights the unique history of English and language more broadly here in this state. It helped me take existing curricula and reshape it so that it was much more relevant to my students’ lives.

We now talk carefully about the arrival of English, the language policies that emerged through the early missions in Alaska, how those were developed through boarding schools and orphanages and also adoptions, and also looking at the language reclamation work that’s going on and how we as English speakers can challenge some of those legacies and be more supportive of the linguistic and cultural reclamation work that’s going on.

I think the student response has been really positive, and they’ve taken their projects in all different directions. The nice thing is, it launches them if they’re interested into doing something more beyond the class. It’s challenging because in many ways it’s so personal to us as Alaskans and a lot of my students talk about how that’s the first time they’ve ever been confronted by some of those histories like the language suppression work of the late 1800s and early 1900s. That’s a hard wake-up call to learn that history and how it’s still affecting people today. I think it’s challenging for students, but not necessarily in a bad way.

I also had to figure out how to develop this unit in a way so that it doesn’t shut people down, so that it allows students to engage with a difficult history. I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell that story in a way so that it’s not just a story of victimhood, because it’s also a story of resistance which started really early in the colonial process. There have been people using English to resist that colonization as well.

Personally, I realized that as an Alaskan I had an obligation to educate myself more than was happening… so I used my ECCI experience as a launch point to really work on myself and my knowledge of Alaska. I’ve taken a bunch of Alaska Native studies classes, I’ve been learning Yup’ik, I’ve done some Yup’ik dance. I knew that there was such diversity in culture in our state that in some ways for me it was better to do a deep dive into one culture. Many of my students are Yup’ik, so I tried to pick a culture that I would also have regular contact with… I’ve just been kind of building myself personally and professionally in that regard.

Did relationships with your students change after ECCI?

One thing that was great about camp is that I made all these friends, and I’ve stayed in touch with them. I’ve been able to bring in examples like a Facebook post someone made from a rural community or a discussion I saw going on in a Yup’ik language group or something like that, so I’ve been able to pull those things into conversation… I think students who come from rural communities really recognize that effort.

I’ve had a number of students who have continued to work with me on thesis projects and internships, Alaska Native students in particular, and I think that the effort I put into that also helps them to come work with me as a mentor. And it pays off! We just had our first Alaska Native Rhodes Scholar ever, first from the UA system, who was one of the students I mentored in the History of English class, and she was able to use that experience… so now she’s off at Oxford…. I think it’s helped me connect with students and also mentor them on projects that tie back to the communities they’ve grown up in and that are relevant to Alaskans and Alaska Native people. It’s helped me position myself to be a better mentor to students who are interested in doing that sort of work.

What’s still on your to-do list?

I think one of the risks any time you have a significant cultural experience is to try and generalize it to everyone. So one of the things I’d love to do is develop more meaningful experiences like I had in Kali because I know that there’s very little commonality between life on the Chukchi Sea and maybe the Southeast or the Aleutian Chain. I’d love to create opportunities to be able to experience and engage with other communities. I think the more life examples we can bring into classrooms, the better.

Just being able to go and spend time in a community was such a gift. I experienced everything from food to language to conversation, and I really got to see why language and culture are so important to continue to cultivate. Even in the face of late-stage colonialism, there are good reasons to be respecting and building culture.

I also gained an enormous respect for the young people who are engaged in that work. We had a couple Iñupiat Studies teachers in our group and I got to see how young people whose culture in many ways has been disrupted – their parents didn’t learn the language and so they’re trying to learn the language – how are they doing important work around linguistic and cultural survivance. Being able to witness that firsthand and then think about how I as a non-member of their community can be doing things that are more supportive of those sorts of projects – I think for me that was the big takeaway from that experience.

What do you recommend for future ECCI participants?

Going in with the right mindset … being there as a learner, knowing you’re not the expert, that things are going to be challenging and maybe disconcerting in relation to your cultural values, I think that’s really important. Knowing that you might eat things that might not fit into your normal diet. But these are all things that our students have to go through when they come here, so having that experience as an educator is a real gift. But it takes someone being open to that.

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