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  • Writer's pictureJessica Riddell

Designing for Hope University: The Award-Winning Educators Series with Heather Lawford

Jessica Riddell 00:09

Today, it is an absolute pleasure to welcome Dr. Heather Lawford, who is an award-winning educator, an incredible researcher and a dear friend and colleague. Dr. Lawford is the only scholar in the 176 year history of Bishops University who has won the William and Nancy Turner Teaching Award, at the same time that she held a Canada Research Chair, she holds one in Youth Development. It is a one of the highest recognitions of engagement with research in Canada, and an incredible achievement and accomplishment. She has been a faculty member at Bishop's for the last 10 years in the Psychology department. During that time, she has won a divisional Teaching Award. She has been Jarislowsky Teaching Excellence Fellow. She has been given the Gordon Educational Leadership Fund which is the highest recognition of Educational Leadership. She currently holds 12 grants from external funding from diverse places including Shirk (SSHRC?), the Canadian Institute of Health Research, the Public Health Agency, the National Science Foundation, RBC Futures Launch, and UNICEF. She's also the co-director of the Center for Excellence for youth engagement at the students Commission of Canada. These seem like overwhelming, huge accomplishments, but she is one of the most human and humane colleagues and friends that I have ever encountered, and I'm just so excited to be able to, to explore some of these topics with Heather today. So welcome, Heather.

Heather Lawford 02:27

Thank you, Jessica, what a lovely introduction, I have to gulp down my feelings so that we can have this great conversation that I've been looking forward to, thank you.

Jessica Riddell 02:37

We're asking you probably the most difficult question we can at the very beginning, which is what is your story? And just to frame it for our listeners, Dr. Lawford works on life stories and life stories as a way of unlocking generativity. So, as she asks hundreds and hundreds of other humans to tell their life story, it might be a little weird to have to tell your own. So go for it and no pressure.

Heather Lawford 03:49

Yeah, so it's an eight-hour story, but I guess I'll get it down to the academic story of as an undergraduate I started wanting to be a teacher, that seemed like an amazing job. I learned that teaching is hard so I didn't want to do that anymore, but I really liked my professors, I wanted to hang out with them more. I really liked being in the classroom, I liked going to their office hours, and I decided to go to graduate school with no purpose other than having more time to hang out with professors, which explains why I'm a professor because that gives you most access to other professors. In my graduate studies with Dr. Michael Pratt, at Wilfrid Laurier, he gave me choices of research programs that I could pursue. He gave me this article by Dan McAdams on generativity, which refers to a very complex idea about wanting to live forever through your work, wanting to leave a legacy, wanting to make things better for the next generation. In my next meeting with him, he asked which projects I wanted to do and I said, I have no idea but I want to read this more. because I almost had a physical reaction reading the generativity work. I can't believe I'm getting paid to do this, I can't believe this is work, I can't believe this is so much fun, this is so interesting, and as it turns out, I made a career out of that and I have been studying generativity in places where we often think it doesn't exist like in young people. Trying to understand how we can make it easier for people to connect to their generativity, make it easier for people to recognize their own generativity and grow their generativity and look at its developmental course over the life span. I did that in my master's, in my doctoral work. I did a postdoc with the student’s commission that you mentioned, where I saw they were already putting generativity into action. I finished my postdoc, and then just stayed and played with them as much as they'll have me, and we’ve been doing this work together since. I think that's my story or one of them.

Jessica Riddell 06:24

I love that story, and I love that that story is also looking not just at generativity and building spaces for others, but also understanding the contours of how to how to unlock it and what the design principles are. You significantly reshape the field of generativity, which started on the assumption that only older people who are in the last years of their life, were looking for a kind of legacy building once they pass. I wonder if you might want to talk a little bit about the project that you're working on around de-radicalization and that generativity and telling stories doesn't just give shape to radicalization to understand how people got radicalized, but in fact, it is rehabilitation or deradicalization when people start to be able to understand not just their place in their own story, but also the ways in which they can help others.

Heather Lawford 07:35

Yeah, you're absolutely right. Generativity does come into the into focus from a lifespan perspective in midlife. That seems to be the core work that we do in the middle of our life and probably the best predictor of our ability to succeed as parents, as career people, as members of the community. I was really interested in the idea that, if it's so important, then where does it start? How do we foster it? If it's the key, then let's get started as early as possible. I did run up against some barriers to that, people thinking it was theoretically impossible for young people to be generative, because they are too self-focused, because they're too focused on who they are and what they want in life. It has been a long journey to connect in our research and the community and in a knowledge-mobilization way, that who you are includes what you want to give back. We need to integrate that in the kind of identity work we do with young people in universities and beyond. As I was doing this work, it really made me think, if we don't believe in young people as generative, then what are the spaces that we're creating for them? What are the assumptions that we are creating in the environments that we shaped for them, and sometimes with them? If they're not generative, then we're not creating generative opportunities for them. That actually led through a student who was interested in violent extremism, and brought me on their journey being that in the recruitment materials that these extremist groups use, including white supremacy, there are huge themes of generativity that young people are deeply attracted to. But I would say very, almost immature generativity, like you don't really have to have done the identity work, you can just immediately have an impact by blowing up a building or engaging in this violence act. The motivation that they said or the reason why it mattered was because you're going to save people or change the world or make things better or have a grander place in the afterlife. That brought up the question of well, if we created opportunities for generativity in the mainstream and constructive, nonviolent, positive ways, would that be so attractive for them to go into those violent spaces, or would they their generativity be fulfilled? When we engaged in that journey, what we realized was that the people who are leaving extremist groups are actually getting in touch with their generativity and realizing that violence isn’t the legacy that they want to leave behind. It's more in listening to these people from generativity as a way into extremism to how do we create spaces of generativity so that people can leave those groups safely and create the kind of legacy that they want to create.

Jessica Riddell 11:22

Powerful, that is so powerful. It just has my brain working overtime about if we make assumptions that young people are not generative, we design spaces and systems based on those assumptions, which are then a self-perpetuating system, right? If we don't build it, they won't come because they don't see that that space valued, visible, or cultivated.

Heather Lawford 11:49

I think that's 100%. I think about students in my research lab, who are incredibly talented, who are incredibly bright, trying to get into a graduate program. Grades have to be, reasonably, a huge part of what they're focused on. The work that they have to do to reach this almost unattainable average. I don't know why we're setting them up to be so self-focused, when that's not what we want them to be outside of the university context. I don't know why we're forcing them into this false dichotomy of self or “other” when generativity is really about “how do I build myself to create the kind of change that I want to create?” How do I build the skills, my agency, the skills I need, the connections I need, the abilities that I need to be able to be the change in the world that I want to see, as opposed to first think only about yourself, and then maybe when you're 40, think about others? To me, that doesn't make sense.

Jessica Riddell 13:09

That’s exactly why we're here. You know, one of the research pieces that I read a few years ago, and felt, you know, I work on hope, but I felt a lot of despair. When I read this, it was a researcher called PISA Lotto, from a 2008 study. She studied 40,000 students across the US and studied different levels of attitude, engagement, and success measured by grades. She found that the highest achieving students were the most likely to short circuit their own creativity to instrumentalize learning for a grade. I knew that intuitively, I knew that from my own lived experience in classrooms and working with students as partners. However, when I read it in black and white with such a huge number of students and voices, it gave me this sort of sickening pit of the stomach. I thought, well, we're creating systems, we say we're doing one thing, but we say in higher education that we are generative insofar as our moral contract to the broader society is to educate and transform citizens to go into the world to make it a better place. That is our purpose, that is our contract. That is why we are socially funded public institutions. If we are not doing that, we are not doing our work and yet, what we say and what we do seem to be are out of alignment. You've identified a couple of things right in the conversation about what your students are doing in their labs, and short circuiting for a grade. Is it about grades? How do we build hope University as a generative space that unlocks generativity as a competency?? How do we create the systems to make that value visible? Where do we start?

Heather Lawford 15:27

I think we have to do so many things simultaneously to create it. I think it's a radical idea, possible, but radical. I think first, we have to break down the assumption that to build your own agency, you have to do that at the cost of others. I think students have internalized that to a large portion. As soon as you bring them out of it, out of that space and into a space where they can see that they can build capacity by serving others, they immediately know that's true, and they changed their mind. It's actually not that hard to break down in them, although I see it when I first meet them. I think we need to break down that assumption in ourselves. I think many professors that I've worked with, many faculty, have figured out that if you connect your lessons to purpose, you get such a return on investment in terms of the kinds of work that students will bring to you. Slowing down, and even though you don't get 400 theories across in your slides, you've connected three theories to purpose, three theories to why you need to think critically, to why you need to reflect on this from multiple lenses. They can go and research those other 200 theories on their own but you've given them a tool to be able to think about that critically and analyze it and you’ve built a relationship where they can ask somebody a question about it. I think putting purpose over content, not completely dismissing content, obviously, what we're teaching matters, so content matters, but connecting it to purpose and creating moments where they can understand that building your skill set can be in the service of others. That can also be business innovation, that can be product development, that can be arts, and creative activities. It doesn't just have to be volunteer, or social change. Wherever they want their legacy to be, is where they should be engaging right now. Not after graduation.

Jessica Riddell 18:02

So, purpose over content, rethinking grades, I heard a couple of other multi-prong strategies in your narrative about radicalization and de-radicalization you said, “we listened intently to what they were telling us, and we gave them the opportunity to tell their stories.” Both of those are listening with youth as partners, listening with the intention to transform, and then also getting them to narrativize their own journeys, which at its heart is critical reflective practice. Now, as a literature professor, I am shocked and horrified to realize that one of the greatest elements of transformative learning is critical reflective practice, and I do not teach it or I have not until recently, found it, taught people how to do it, model that for them, and then assess them correctly. How do you how do you do that in your work? And how do we do that in our classrooms?

Heather Lawford 19:08

How do I do critical, reflective practice? The idea of students as partners, I spend a lot of time on that because it overlaps with my research and community service. I think that's a fascinating idea that we need to start getting nuanced about and we need to stop thinking about it in a token way of look, I made a student a partner here, so I checked a box. Instead, really thinking about when and how and in what ways students lead and follow, because when you work with students as partners, you learn quickly that they don't always want to be in the lead. That's a tough position. That's time consuming, that's exhausting and it's unfair, and unjust to always force them into that position. I'm not always ready or prepared. I think we need to get nuanced. Thinking about who leads, when, and how, and when should student voices weigh in more than faculty voices, and when should faculty voice weigh in more than student voice when discussing how we design the classroom, and how we design the academy, even in designing the physical spaces where they exist. I'm really interested in starting to get specific and thinking carefully about student leadership and students as partners. Sometimes they should be leading, and sometimes they should be following, and sometimes we should be leading because that's the harder work, and sometimes we should be following because we have a lot to learn.

Jessica Riddell 21:17

I set you up a little bit because you have just gone through a process of critical reflective practice. You have just been forced to excavate in a dossier you just put together, what is your heart's work? What makes you tick? What are your fundamental values? That is a very difficult excavation process as you drill down to find a voice, as a scholar, as a colleague, as a partner, as a mentor, as a parent, as a person to find a voice that is authentic. So how do you excavate that voice and help others do it in vulnerable ways that are messy, that are nuanced, but that are also safe? Because going to that little voice can unlock a whole lot of unprocessed grief, a whole lot of stuff that has been unexamined, maybe for a reason. So how do you how do you navigate that? Maybe you can tell us about your experience doing that excavation work and then what you learned maybe to share it with others?

Heather Lawford 23:12

Yeah, so I have this amazing opportunity to do some midlife reflection on gathering all the activities that I've done, and then trying to understand what the theme was underlying it all. I certainly didn't know what the theme was when I started, in the consultation with others who wrote letters for me and conversations with you, I started to see a lot more of patterns of what I was doing. I had never considered that I was somebody who was doing work in equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and decolonization until somebody pointed out to me as a pattern, I just have never processed that. I had also not processed, until I did that work, that it was my own exclusion from systems as a child growing up with a disability that made that a part of every piece of work that I did. In every moment, in every role that I take, I look around and wonder who's not here, what would they think or say, and how do I get them here? In the meantime, how do I try to represent that they're not here and that we don't know what they think or what they would say.

Jessica Riddell 26:53

I love that about you that you are always, always committed to the principle, the first principle that everybody is worthy of love, and everybody is worthy of belonging, and everybody is worthy of unlocking their own generativity. That is a foundational principle that I think must underlie Hope University. It must underlie the ways in which we understand our systems and our structures, all our organizations and institutions, and give that deep critical empathy, that is understanding the sovereignty and self-determination and autonomy of the other, knowing that everybody has a kind of ‘otherness’ that we can't ever know fully, but we have to speak with them and not to them them. I think that that is what sings in all your work, which is generativity through an equity lens. I think you have transformed the thinking of so many humans within institutions, both within the academy and beyond. Because one of your other foundational principles, which I think is also a design for Hope university, is that the academy is never in isolation, that it always has to think about two fundamental things, first, how does it share knowledge and mobilize it to different humans who would benefit from this information who might not otherwise be able to access it? The other is community partnership, deeply embedding yourself within communities to listen and sit and ask and reflect together. Would you agree that those would be fundamental principles? If so, how do we anchor them in practice? I see strategic visions and glossy brochures of several universities who say they do that and are uneven in the practical application and delivery of those values.

Heather Lawford 29:17

Yes, and I want to go back to this idea of critical reflection, because you made me think about another piece that maybe I didn't say clearly. I think and work in developing our own critical thinking and our students critical thinking. What I've learned through error, and watching other people do it better, is to think about readiness. One of the things that I'm most grateful for is when I stumbled in my own critical reflective practice. My mentors, the people who were my peers, and my students chalked that up to me not being ready and gave me the next chance when I was ready. So, I think not dismissing somebody because they're not ready, they're not safe yet, we all have a different path to feeling safe, we all have a different path to being ready to do this work to take these risks. Take that as you know, you did not get consent for them to do this work yet. That doesn't mean that you’re not going to be ready down the road. So, hold on, keep smiling, keep trying to create opportunities, keep listening, and wait for them. Trust that they're going to be ready at some point. So, thank you for sharing that, that's been an important lesson for me. Now you talked about community, universities shouldn't just be sharing what we're learning, we should also be going to the community and asking what questions we need to be researching, we need to ask the people who are going to use what we're doing; What do you need to know? What do you need to understand? Engaging in the community in that way is not just about sharing what you know, but informing the work you should be doing to support your stakeholders. I think any time we can, in every context, bring our stakeholders or community in, whoever they may be, in whatever discipline you are, you will immediately open them up to being willing to listen to what you want to say. When they feel heard, they'll start listening to you. To go back to what we discussed in the beginning, if students immediately see the purpose of why you're doing what you're doing, then you don't have to try and convince them, it's already been proven in the way that it's happening. So, it's kind of a win, win and they go together. They're not separate things that we have to do they all serve each other.

Jessica Riddell 32:32

So if students are convinced with purpose, and communities are convinced because they are empowered to participate in knowledge generation and sharing, and the faculty who did this work see the deep purpose and impact, what are the barriers for us doing that more intentionally? Is that us looking at promotion, evaluation review and rethinking our systems about what counts as research? Is it us advocating to our councils and external funding to make the case? Where do you see the barriers and how do we design to either dismantle them or to leap over them?

Heather Lawford 33:17

Yes, to all those things, we need to do all of those things. We need to look at who's sitting at the table and making these decisions. I think, opening the table, building a bigger table, and inviting more expertise to the table is probably the thing that would allow us to do all of these things. I think it's who sits at the table when you're building a campus plan. Have people with multiple abilities in the way tht they navigate a physical space at the table when building a campus plan. If you want inclusion, think about who's least represented at a university, and bring them to the table to talk about inclusion, or at least the people who've done the most work on researching that, and those who have done the most consulting with underrepresented groups. People are who are furthest away from opportunity, are furthest stay away from opportunity. You must build that into your budget. How are you going to get them there? Who's going to support them while they're there? Because they've traveled a long way. It's a different environment that they're in.

Jessica Riddell 47:24

Well, thank you. I think that that really speaks to what the project is, in its aspirational form. It is an exercise of thinking and application in where we are in our positions and in our own context. Hope University lives because it is animating the ways in which we navigate our own systems and look to renew them and look to renovate them. So, what a pleasure to spend this time with you. Thank you for sharing your work on generativity. It is absolutely hopeful and beautiful and messy and unlocks hope for our listeners in ways in which they can tap into their own legacy building at whatever age or stage they're at.

Heather Lawford 48:24

Thank you. Thank you for having me. What a great conversation.

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