Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Professor Ali A. Abdi

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Ali A. Abdi

Ali A. Abdi is a Professor of Education at the University of Alberta, where he also serves as Co-Director of the Centre for Global Citizenship Education and Research.

Prof. Abdi, along with co-author Ratna Ghosh has put his research and experience to practical application in Education and the Politics of Difference: Select Canadian Perspectives (Canadian Scholars Press). The text addresses difficulties in creating equitable classrooms for all students in Canada.

Today Prof. Abdi speaks with Open Book about the far-reaching impact of culture, gender issues in the classroom and the books that have had the greatest impact on him as a reader.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Education and the Politics of Difference: Select Canadian Perspectives.

Ali A. Abdi:

This edition (2013) is the second printing of the book; we believe the book represents a seminal constructive intervention in the literature on education and diversity in Canada, and by extension, elsewhere. Perhaps more than any other book in the area, the focus on difference, not as something that is unique to specific groups, but as natural to each and every one of us was central to the analysis contained in this work


What are some of the unique issues faced by First Nations and other cultural minority students in Canada?


The issues pertain to the overall educational, cultural and socio-economic well-being of communities especially those that have been placed on the margins of society by successive regimes of colonization and exclusion. The case of Aboriginal peoples and Aboriginal students fits this reality, and as we discuss this book, the situation is still unfavorable for them. With respect to cultural minority students, the educational system has been selectively unwelcoming, especially in relation to issues related to cultural recognition and diversity-friendly contexts that enfranchise their overall being, as well as their histories, cultures and learning needs.


Issues of culture can deeply affect power dynamics in schools. Is this something you think students and educators currently understand? What would you like to communicate about this issue to readers?


From our understanding and analysis, culture is central to the way people live in a given time-and-space intersections of our lives. Indeed, culture should influence almost everything we do in our lives. More than we may think, it directs the way we locate ourselves in our communities, the way we relate to others, the way we manage our economic and political affairs, relate to environmental issues, adapt to technological changes, and even how we define success and failure in everyday living. Culture, therefore, continuously interacts with, indeed shapes power relations. With education basically a power relations field with students, teachers, school managers, institutional policies and the school curriculum itself, all interacting that way, the central figure for us in all of it is the learner who is either empowered to achieve his or her potential, or disempowered and thus assumes an antagonistic relationship with the overall enterprise of schooling. So locating culture as a context and project of empowerment via the cultural and pedagogical empowerment of all learners becomes crucial for the success of all students.


You also address issues of the school experience for students of different genders in your book. What is your experience of the current conversation around these issues, and how would you like to see it evolve?


On the gender front, we do speak about the realities of gender attached marginalizations where schooling was designed for/by/from the policy and knowledge perspectives of men, especially white European men who have accumulated more educational, economic, political and therefore, educational power in the past little while. It is true that with the levels education achieved by women rising exponentially, especially in Canada, in the past 50 or so years, things are improving for their socio-political and economic empowerment, but so much more is still needed. As such, the focus on gender and education as an important difference-based analysis is very important in our work.


What are some things that current students and teachers can do, on the classroom level, to work towards educational equality?


Perhaps the most important thing in achieving equality in today’s classrooms is to expand the meanings and practices of diversity, difference and multiculturalism. Here, instead of staying with the superficial notions of difference (basically what schools do in shallow but institutionally celebrated multicultural day festivities), one should move to new and proactive spaces of critical multicultural education where power relations are seriously examined, and with that, discussions actually move away from the focus on equality, and appreciate the urgent need to analyze and discuss equity, which beyond notions of equality, actually speaks about the need to respond to learners’ unique locations and educational needs, thus engendering some possibilities of widespread social justice and social justice education achievement.


When was the last time a book made a lasting impression on you? And what's next on your reading list?


It is hard for me to isolate any one book, as I have been influenced by so many works that have had a deep impact on my understanding of the world, and on the critical interventions I have to engage to do my little part in the cultural and knowledge liberations of people. Interestingly, and as a subject from a colonized background, the classic works of Fanon (e.g. Black Skin, White Masks), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, or Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, inter alia, still remain the most impactful works in my critical approach to life and learning. Next, I'd like to read Enrique Dussel’s Ethics of Liberation.


What are you working on now?


I am working (with a colleague) on an edited volume on the intersections of indigenous knowledge, education and social development in the context of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Ali A. Abdi is Professor of Education and Co-Director of the Centre for Global Citizenship Education and Research at the University of Alberta.

For more information about Education and the Politics of Difference: Select Canadian Perspectives please visit the Canadian Scholars Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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