Designing for Hope University: The Award Winning Educators Series with Andrew Wilson
Updated: May 30
Jessica Riddell 00:08
Today, it is an absolute pleasure and privilege to invite into the conversation, Dr. Andrew Wilson, who is an associate professor at Mount Allison University in religious studies. Trained as a textualist and cultural critic, he has an enduring interest in the ways in which Christianity continues to circulate in contemporary cultural contexts. His guiding principle, "together we're smarter" has as much influence on his approach to teaching religion as it does in forming his integrated and broader vision of learning communities. He is an award-winning teacher and educational leader, just recently receiving the 2021 3M National Teaching Fellowship, which is the highest recognition of Educational Leadership in Canada, only 10 fellows are invited to the fellowship every year. It is a remarkable testament to the work that Andrew does, not just in the classroom, but in the ways in which he connects to communities, both local and in broader spaces. He is an innovator in the true sense of the word, whether he is working alongside students building quilts as beginners or walking along the Camino de Santiago in Spain and imagining walking as a journey that is deeply personal, and also a kind of metaphor for learning and for transformation. He's one of the co-founders of R-PEACE, which is a community lab. He works on Engaged learning and teaching. It is just such a privilege to welcome Andrew Wilson to today's podcast on Hope University. Andrew, welcome.
Andrew Wilson 01:57
Thank you, Jessica. It's lovely to be here.
Jessica Riddell 01:59
It's so nice to be able to talk to you and I have so many so many questions. I want to know about pilgrimages, I want to know about quilts, I want to know about the ways in which you're working in building communities in Sackville and beyond. I guess the first question to start with is tell us your story. What kind of journey have you embarked upon, and how did you get here?
Andrew Wilson 02:24
Well, I've come a long way geographically. I was born in Melbourne, Australia. That's where I grew up. I did my undergraduate studies there. When I started university, I was taking biology and philosophy courses, I just was trying to 'do.' I would go to the registrar's office, and they would look at the things that I had done, and say, "What are you going to major in?" and I didn't know you had to do that. As a first-generation university student, I didn't really know what I was doing. I ended up with a philosophy degree and theology degree, and an honours program in a combination of literary theory and religious thought. Then, once I finished that, I thought to myself, where I could do more of this? I looked around, there was nowhere in Australia at that time, where I could do comparative literature, looking at sacred texts and French critical theory. It just wasn't a thing at that point—this is in the early 90s. So, I started writing letters to universities in the United States and in Europe. I was really fortunate, I had some professors who were interested in this, and I ended up at the University of Sheffield in England, doing my PhD on biblical literature, in a non-devotional literature department, whose text was the Bible. I spent the next three and a half years just deep diving into all sorts of things that I was interested in. When I first arrived in Canada, I was living in a small town not far from Sackville. The first winter I shovelling snow and splitting cords of wood. I thought where am I? It's like I'm homesteading or something. I was also binding books and baking bread, I was just doing all sorts of stuff thinking, “I like all of this, but this is not necessarily going to be part of my career, these are just my hobbies.” What I've realized over the years, is that getting all this stuff to fit together, is the most satisfying part of being an academic. Little did I know it, but it's the liberal arts model of education. I ended up in the right place, I ended up in the place that I was foreshadowing back when I first started university, when I first started this journey. It appeals to me on a personal level, but I also see the fruits of this way of teaching and learning as being a way to thrive in the 21st century in particular.
Jessica Riddell 07:24
I love that you just articulated bookbinding, and baking bread, and making things, and the curiosity, pulling these pieces together into something that is aligned for you, that makes sense, that is interconnected, that has a kind of foundational sense of values and is part of your larger vision. I just can't help it, but think about the metaphor of a quilt, doing that kind of work where you're creating pieces, patches, you're taking different kinds of fabric and different kinds of textiles, and you're weaving them together, you're sort of binding them together in something that is magical because it is greater than the sum of its individual parts. It literally must stitch things that are unlike each other. I wonder if you’ve done a lot of reflection on that and worked quilting into your pedagogy in your classrooms. Could you talk a little bit more about that? Both from the metaphorical, but also the messy space of creating a quilt, with, and alongside your students?
Andrew Wilson 09:48
Yes, that was such a wonderful project. I keep going back to it for lots of different reasons. First, it's an example of something that's from here, it's local to New Brunswick. It's a longstanding practice of the people, and so we have the Sackville quilters guild. We have examples in our local museum of quilts going back hundreds of years. I really liked the fact that I was taking something like this as a companion to learning, which is what I would originally thought of it as. Something that was from this place that would connect students to this place, not just to the ideas that I was presenting to them in class. I was hoping it would be a really rich experience. Just to back up a little bit, when I took my first sabbatical, I was thinking, well, here's an opportunity for me to rejuvenate my research, and to think more about my teaching and to do something a little bit different. Serendipitously, a course was recommended to me, a design course, that was being held online and remotely from a place in London, England. It was part of the City and Guilds programming there, which is sort of the contemporary incarnation of the medieval guilds. I took this course during my sabbatical thinking, “I'm interested in design, I'm interested in art, I do a lot of this.” I've always had these interests and I included them in my teaching, and in my research. So, this course gives me a hands-on thing to play around with and get a different insight into what happens. It took me three years the course, but I finished it, and one of the things I learned how to do was to how to quilt. It also started to open my eyes to examples of this kind of creativity in my own neighbourhood, my own backyard, and appreciate that from a maker perspective. I was at the same time struggling with a high-level philosophy of religion and theology course, I was teaching to my upper-level students. The course was very abstract and quite difficult. The readings were very challenging and as for the conversations, often it would be a case of me really trying very hard to draw these ideas out from the students and try and make them relatable, to think about the points of connection. It was like I was trying to rethink that course. I, of course, had also been thinking about quilts. I thought, “well, why don't I get these students, in parallel to the course, to create a quilt?” One of the central focuses of this course is about identity. It's about exploring theories, conversations, different ways of thinking about what it is to be human. The central issue with the tradition is that it tends to focus on the individual as the discrete base unit of humanity. So, an individual is conscious, and an individual is free, and an individual has faith and a connection with the divine power individually, all of these very individualistic notions. More recent scholarship was challenging that perspective and saying, you can't really think about individuals as separate from other individuals. There was a lot of that going on. I thought, well, what better example of corporate, collective identity then the quilt, because as you say, there's so many layers to it. People in times gone by, would have used plants from the area to dye the fabrics. In fact, someone I know in town is a botanist, and he said you wouldn't know it but a lot of the weeds that we have in North America actually are actually dye plants that were brought over from Europe as part of dying clothing and different things, so bedstraw, or gripgrass, for example, which you're pulling out of your garden all the time. I did this, I dug up the bedstraw roots, I boiled them up and I threw some cotton in along with a little bit of iron water and all of a sudden, lo and behold, I had some turkey red cloth to work with. So there's chemistry and transformation associated with this. There's also a particular tradition and style associated with it, a particular regional twist. There's also the fact that quilts tend to be about people coming together and quilting around a table or around a quilting frame, and they share stories. The quilt itself tells us many stories, but it's also an opportunity or an occasion for storytelling. All of that fed this interest in connecting quilting with my class. I got my students to create a quilt block, and we sewed them together as one quilt at the end of the class. The most amazing thing happened. As they were quilting, and working, and sewing blocks, they started talking about the material in a way that I had never experienced. Instead of wrestling with it and being inhibited in what they feel they can say about it, and reluctant to offer their perspectives, they were just chatting together around our version of a quilt frame. It ended up being this incredibly freeing practice that brought the course to life. More than that, they created a community within the classroom that ended up reflecting or engaging with the abstract stuff that we were reading. They were able to teach each other and support each other in their learning. The physicality of the quilt and the materiality of the quilt ended up being such an incredibly transformative element to that course.
Jessica Riddell 17:24
Just the tactile nature of that as you're talking and, and exploring complex philosophical, and sometimes alienating concepts, to be able to talk through with the tactile medium and to be able to pull concepts in the collage. Also doing it as is as a sort of, as you say, storytelling, and every stitch is a thought, or a conversation, or an exchange. A lot of my students have now started doing this hands on crocheting or knitting in class as a pneumonic device, as a way of understanding and remembering concepts. I wonder, how do you assess the transformation there? Did they record or reflect on that, and in ways that sort of transformed you?
Andrew Wilson 18:58
Oh absolutely, it's a great question. When I first put the course together, formally, I had the quilts on one side, and the assessment and the readings on another side. I really had to think differently about that, as the course started to get underway. When I asked the students to design their blocks, I said, “what I want you to do is to design a block and put something of yourself into it,” because this is quilting, telling stories. They put something of themselves into these blocks, and then once we had the blocks, I asked, “How do you want to arrange the quilt?” That's a big part of this. One student said, “Because these are such personal expressions of who we are, it seems to me that what we're seeing reflected here is like what we're seeing in the iconographical tradition. So why don't we construct the quilt as though it's an icon?” I asked what they meant, and they say, “I mean, let's get some fabric that looks like wood, and let's include some gold.” So they arranged it and created an icon, a quilted icon, that reflected their relationships. It wasn't just who they were individually, but it incorporated a number of really significant relationships, it was a relational expression. I'm looking at it, and I'm thinking, I could never have imagined this as the outcome of this project. So, in terms of assessment, my eye was open to things going in all sorts of different directions, and part of that openness meant that their final exam was an oral exam. I got a chance to sit with them, and to really hear from them about their learning, and about their learning journey through that course, and what was meaningful to them, about the connections that they had made. That that for me, was the best way of assessing what they had done, to grade that conversation.
Jessica Riddell 23:27
And it really is a struggle, right? Because we are working within systems where we understand how value circulates, how things are assessed, how you get a grade, it is transactional. Can we create conditions or systems that allow for our colleagues, and our friends, in our departments and across our university systems to do that kind of experimentation? What would we need to design so that it's not a huge risk? Are there ways we can create structures and systems that don't stamp out that delight, and allow for the messy co-design and emergent innovations that that we find so transformative, not just for our students, but for ourselves as well?
Andrew Wilson 25:30
Oh, I think so. From my perspective, I think there's always going to be that chafing between the two, there's always going to be a destabilizing of the system when the learning experience is just taking off, in the sense that students are pursuing their own questions and running with them in various directions that certainly the instructors never anticipated. Creativity often ends up transforming structures, it’s the thing that kind of breaks the mold a little bit. I don't necessarily always feel comfortable in there, in the role of the “guide on the side,” instead of “sage on the stage.” It's destabilizing to my training, and the system that I operate within, yet the system that I operate in, and my training gives me a lot of tools to be effective in a situation where I feel like I'm a little more free flowing, and where I'm not quite sure how things are going to go. I think I value that middle position of instability, that's kind of where I try to put myself.
Jessica Riddell 28:54
I'm struck by how fruitful and productive your sabbaticals are because in your first sabbatical, you created maker spaces where you understood this sort of tactile joy of creating and designing things, and then in another sabbatical you did the Santiago de Compostela. It just strikes me that in your sabbatical, you did that journey, but you also brought it back for your students with various kinds of walk and talk journals and challenging your students to walk 10 kilometers a week and free their minds up to embody their learning journey. So, first, you've just made a case for why sabbaticals need to be protected, supported, amplified, and resourced at Hope University and in all of our institutions.
Andrew Wilson 32:00
Sabbaticals are incredible. I certainly try to make the most of mine. I do try and do things that are kind of crazy, that wouldn't necessarily seem to be connected with the traditional work of scholarship. Usually, teaching is not included in a sabbatical plan—it's supposed to be an opportunity to rejuvenate one’s scholarly work, go to conferences, write papers and do some research and some writing. I guess it's that liberal arts model, I just want it all to be integrated. So, when I pitched this idea of walking, at least part of the Camino, my proposal was to bring it back as a course. I wanted to do a course on pilgrimage, and this would be one of the ways that I would develop that course, by doing some of the walking myself. I was interested in pilgrimage as an idea, not just as a traditional idea, but pilgrimage as a phenomenon that describes how people move in all sorts of ways in a contemporary world. I went and proposed a tour—do a little bit of research, and go to the Camino. It's over 900 years old, it's one of the most important and well-known pilgrimage routes in Europe. There are hundreds of thousands of people doing this pilgrimage. They are all there for the same reason as pilgrims: to walk. So, there's this idea of “communitas” that is talked about in literature on pilgrimage, and I got to experience that which was really quite something. There's something about that experience that I would not have had an insight into otherwise. The simple act of walking is traditionally a prayer, indeed pilgrimage is a walking prayer, and there's this idea of it being meditative, and having all of these other kinds of sacred connections. I’d say 70% to 75% of people walking the Camino are not doing it for traditionally religious reasons anymore. Some are doing it for exercise, they're doing it because some life events happened, their marriage has broken up, the kids have all moved away, there was a death in the family. There are all sorts of different reasons why people are doing the Camino now. Figuring out what it is about walking that has brought all these people together was a fascinating kind of insight.
I got my students to walk because I wanted them to see what would happened. I got them to walk 10 kilometers a week, and to keep a journal, to reflect. I said, I don't care how you do it, you can walk around your apartment 50 times, you can split it up into one kilometer increments throughout your week, or you can do it all in one day. What matters to me is that you reflect on what you were thinking when you were doing it and what you were experiencing. Those journals at the end of the semester were just amazing. They were all so different. My students were wonderful, they trusted me to read their reflections in a very open kind of way. One of the students was wondering about what she will do after graduation. That's what she mulled over while she was walking. One of the students walked with other people all and talked about reconnecting with people that she knew and spent time with. She noted that walking with them was a different kind of experience. It connected them in a way that brought them back to the reason they were friends in the first place. Walking rejuvenated friendships. Other students talked about how they got fitter, how they saw new parts of town. Even though they had lived here for four years, they ended up exploring the town that they thought they already knew. These were the things I couldn't teach them from the books or the articles that I was getting them to read in class.
Jessica Riddell 42:10
I love that, and you know, the thread that is sort of weaving from the quilts to this pilgrimage is the power of critical reflection in transformation. Coming together and passing the time through this really rich intersection of humanity from all stages, and ages, places and professions, coming together and passing the time by telling these stories. I'm writing this all down because this is what you're going to teach at Hope University! You've done a lot of work on alignment, how you can align it in all the spheres. Did you curate your piece for that kind of work? Is the community-based space that you forged and created a way of holding it together in alignment, but also sharing it with others?
Andrew Wilson 45:12
Yes, I think that's probably a nice way of putting it that this sense of integration, I tend to think of it as integration more than alignment, just because it's about holding together stuff that doesn't necessarily go well together, but that it's important to bring into the same space. I'm a textualist, a biblical textualist, and yet when I'm dealing with stories, I'm also interested in bodies, and in things and places. I want all of that to be to be brought together. When I'm thinking about teaching and learning, I'm also thinking broadly about, what is the classroom? Where does it begin? Where does it end? This goes back to a kind of a religious studies thing. As an academic in religious studies, there's the tradition of the university as such where it's been common for professors to expect students to leave their commitments at the door when they come into a religious studies classroom. You know, we're going to be doing history of religion, we're going to compare things, we're going to be looking at ideas—but don't tell me what you believe. Don't tell me where you come from, don't tell me, what your pastor has told you, don't ask me the big questions we're going to be dealing with from your perspective. That's really shifted in recent times, now I think there's much more of an appreciation that that is not the best way of teaching students about religion, it’s not the best way of investigating and analyzing religion. In fact, a more integrated approach, even though it's a lot trickier, it's a lot riskier, it is also a lot richer, and there's a lot more possibility. That's been something about my discipline, and I've really tried to apply that to my classroom more generally.
Jessica Riddell 54:02
Yes, and you give people the right information to prepare them for what they're about to do, and you explain, and you practice good reflection, that type of thing really does shift the odds in your favor for a great experience. Having trust in the process, trust in the messiness, trust in everybody to show up and to bring their whole selves is something that is courageous, and it takes that courage to use your heart. I think it’s essential for Hope University, and it's essential for a 21st century liberal education. Over the last hour, you’ve helped to model the ways in which integration, that deep integration and stitching together of what seemed disconnected, into a material and embodied product. I'm going to mix my metaphors, but a kind of tapestry. It’s not just one thread, it's not just one patch, but it is because it is all together
Andrew Wilson 55:18
It’s never really finished either. I think that's the other thing, there's always a square where the colours are not quite right, or you’re not happy with the stitching so you want to just take that bit out and put it somewhere else, or maybe you need to repair it. It's a process, and I think that's important because there's no perfection here. That's not the point, the point is the muddling progress that we make. My emphasis in this is on experience because that's something I'm quite interested in exploring, but I'm always conscious to connect that with the stuff that helps build perspective that helps people have these kinds of experiences in a way that will hopefully heighten their appreciation and their learning, and that they're able to draw from it.
Jessica Riddell 56:45
You do that beautifully, you take experience and knowledge, and then in this wonderful alchemy, also add that dash of delight, critical self-reflection, and curiosity. One of the questions that I had lined up for this interview was, what do you love? You started with that, and that’s how you answered the first question. You started with what you love, inviting that in, and inviting other people to think about what they love, and to create those kinds of foundations for people to go on their own journeys together and alone. That is something that is just it's such a powerful way to frame hopeful and resilient systems for people to transform together and on their own. I’m so grateful to you for sharing that and for enlivening this discussion with the theoretical and the experience, and all the messiness that goes into that co creation. I'm just so proud to be a colleague of yours across the Maple League, and I look forward to future conversations.
Andrew Wilson 58:08
Thank you so much, Jessica. It's been lovely to chat about all this.