Designing for Hope University: The Award-Winning Educators Series with Mary Sweatman
Jessica Riddell 00:08
Today we welcome Dr. Mary Sweetman, who is an associate professor at Acadia University in the Community Development Program. She is an award-winning teacher and scholar who is really dedicated to community service learning and partnerships and community issues concerning inequity. She works in collaboration with several different groups and partners, whether that is collaborative work at Acadia or in Wolfville, which is a small town in the valley of Nova Scotia. She works with the Wolfville farmers market to think about local food systems and experiential education or understanding COVID related recreation provisions for rural low-income mothers and families. She is dedicated to seeking out inequities, and partnering to make the world better, just, and more inclusive. She's working on a number of projects, including understanding rural homelessness, through the Valley-wide service base count on homelessness. She partners with students at the undergraduate level, the graduate level, with colleagues within her department and across disciplines, and it is a true pleasure to be able to welcome her here today, for the Maple League’s Award-Winning Educator series. I'm going to fangirl over the rest of this conversation because you work in, between, and within systems to make the systems structures and policies more inclusive. At the heart, I think that is what we should be doing in higher education, and how we take this work beyond the four walls of our classroom and into the hearts of our communities to think about who's at the table and who's not, how do we invite them in? Welcome, Mary. It’s just a delight to have you here.
Mary Sweatman 01:26
Thank you. That was such a lovely introduction.
Jessica Riddell 02:12
The first question that we ask all our guests, it’s loose and unstructured, and you can interpret it in any way you want, but can you tell us a little bit about your story? How did you get here?
Mary Sweatman 02:24
Sure. Well, teaching and education has been in my story for as long as I can remember. I used to set up my stuffed animals in my living room, in a circle and teach them, so I think I always inherently knew that one of my strengths was working with people and listening to people, being in a community and learning together. So, throughout my childhood and into my teenage years, I was always engaged in different learning opportunities, or teaching opportunities, and they kind of went together. Whether it was being a swimming instructor, or a camp counselor, and I had a really hard time figuring out who I was going to teach, with what age group or where. I spent a lot of time teaching at all different levels. I do have a Bachelor of Education and thought for a long time that it was Elementary School. Then I substituted for a year and was terrible at it because that was just like pure chaos in the classroom. I taught as an environmental educator, which was amazing, and I think that's where I really made some important connections in my life around understanding the heart of connection, and nature became a really important part of my teaching. I've taught at a Montessori Preschool with three- and four-year-old’s, and then when I lived in Montreal, I was transitioning through different things. I had the opportunity to teach at Concordia University part-time. It was phenomenal. It was like there was this moment that I thought, this is amazing. I taught massive classes. They were the over 200 Students kind of massive for me anyway, now that I know Acadia. It was delightful, and I just loved it. I felt like I had found my place and found something that I could have a lot of autonomy in. That's sort of how I got here. I think there are a few key people in my life that also got me here, that always believed in me. There's two in particular that aren't connected to each other, but both told me to apply for this job at Acadia and said, you'd be good at this. This was before I had a PhD, before I really had settled, I had two kids at the time, one was two and one hadn’t even turned one. They both said, I believe in you, and so I think mentorship has always been an important part of my journey as well around finding academia and getting to this place. I think there are many different components that got me here, and then getting here and making it work has its own story all together.
Jessica Riddell 06:09
I love the focus on collaboration that you do, and it shines through all of your work, you practice a sort of radical generosity in your collaborative endeavors. You mentioned working with one of your co-mentors and collaborating with a mentor, Dr. Allan Warner on a ‘Team Talk course’, something that you built together, and I just wonder if you can talk about that.
Mary Sweatman 07:16
Interestingly, one of the mentors I was speaking about, guided me in so many ways. It's not a traditional mentorship, I wouldn't describe it as that, it's so much more around collaboration. Allan and I have known each other for a really long time, I met Allan, through environmental education, where I had just been hired to be an environmental educator at this phenomenal Recreation Center in Halifax, he actually jumped out of the woods in a trench coat playing a character, and that was my first interaction with him. He is just so dedicated to creating magic in the natural spaces. Since that time, we've worked closely together, and then eventually here at Acadia, we got to be colleagues. He was also my PhD supervisor, so this is an important person in my life. He has always taught a course called Environmental Education, and that's one of my areas. When he retired, it was time to offer that course again, and through a dialogue that happened while on a walk with him in the woods, he offered to co-teach it with me. It was such a generous offer. We came up with the idea of co-teaching it completely together and coming up with just a syllabus and an outline that we both felt comfortable with. Then COVID happened, and we thought it was still doable, it's an outdoor education, and environmental education course. We had about 30 students in the class, and we taught the whole thing in the Harriet Irving Gardens, which are these beautiful gardens and walking paths that go on into woodland trails at Acadia. The only time we really went inside was on cold days, and we had to kind of go in and warm up for a little bit and have discussions. The gardens would set up a fire for us outside that we could warm up at or start the class and circle around a fire. It was a transformative experience for me as an educator, to both be in constant dialogue and communication with a colleague and teaching. I think it would be quite challenging to do it with just anyone, I think you really would have to be in a close relationship with them or have really set patterns of communication. Then to be outside the whole time, it felt like I should be teaching this way all the time. It was it was a phenomenal experience.
Jessica Riddell 11:02
That’s amazing. There are so many layers there, and you said earlier nature is your one of your greatest teachers. I'm fascinated with the Japanese term, ‘forest bathing’, where they had a state-run program that encouraged people to go and forest bathe and spend time in the trees. Their findings were increased health benefits, there were mental health benefits, there was new forms of resilience individually, and within their families, and their working culture. Just being able to go into nature, and in your case, going into nature with one of your mentors and former teachers, that's magical.
Mary Sweatman 11:54
Yeah, we spent a lot of time doing nature spots, or magic spots, where everyone had a spot that they would go back to over the course of the term, and just allow nature to be our educators, sitting in a chair quietly on our own. This was during COVID, when most classes were online, and when people were stressed out, there's really high levels of mental health issues at Acadia and everywhere. People said that this course really helped them. Because we were outside, we didn't have to wear masks, and we were in community together.
Jessica Riddell 12:33
I think being in community together can be an incredibly healing and an important space, not just for rest but for renewal. Bell Hooks says that healing only happens in communion, and I feel like we probably need to spend more time outside together in communion with nature as we recover and renew from the last few years. I think that there's some grief, some unprocessed grief that perhaps going and sitting quietly together might be in order. I'm just struck by how transformative this course is, and how it almost didn't happen because of the structures, policies, and systems within which we create our teaching loads and our workloads at university and Acadia is not the exception, it's the rule in all of our universities to be able to pitch an innovative course, to do something different. Whether that is a modality, a space, something immersive, something outside of a 13-week block with 36 contact hours is a monumental obstacle to tackle. I just wonder if you could talk a little bit about if we were to reframe those systems, what would it look like? Do you have some, some thoughts about your own experience and how it could have been good have been easier?
Mary Sweatman 14:14
I think one of the reasons it really did work is because of Allan's generosity. With other colleagues, we've often thought about team teaching but then to do that, you'd have to take one of each of your classes and then it gets complicated quickly around how to manage that and a timetable. So, what made it easy was Allan’s generosity of there being no strings attached, I just want to co-teach this with you. He's an innovative leader, and he does what he thinks is right in the world without needing compensation. He felt like this was the right thing to do, to pass on lessons of what he has learned in this class to me so that this class has a legacy and continues at Acadia. He is known in Nova Scotia, and in Canada as one of the most experienced environmental educators. He wanted to see this course, and environmental studies continue at Acadia. which is a subset of it's a different degree program that he taught him that a lot of our students take as well. So that's why it worked, there were no strings attached.
Jessica Riddell 16:18
I think we really have to do a rethink of our systems and structures to foster what we know are transformative experiences, but are happening on the edges, in the margins, and in contravention to the policies and collective agreements that we have established. I think your intervention, especially in community development, and taking students outside of the classroom and into the world is so important. We also must think how to how to bring people into our systems and structures. So could you talk to us a little bit about Access Acadia, which has an inclusive post-secondary option? It's something I'd love to learn more about.
Mary Sweatman 17:41
So, this is an initiative at Acadia that was started a while ago by Dr. Lin Allard, another mentor, and another amazing scholar here at Acadia, and same with Dr. Cynthia Bruce, who also had a big part in creating Access Acadia, then helping run it, and then passing it off to me before she had gone. So, Access Acadia is an inclusive post-secondary option for people who have graduated from high school and want something else but can't necessarily get into a university based on the standards that we have set at a public institution, which means that we're not open to everybody. Access Acadia allows there to be options for people who might have graduated from high school without the certificate that you need to get into a university. These are people that still want more education. So we accept individuals into Access who are lifelong learners who want the post-secondary university experience, and then who also identify with an intellectual or developmental disability. They come into Acadia and myself, and our coordinator, Kenya who worked really closely with the student to kind of map out what it is their goals are and what their expectations are of university courses that they're interested in. Then, throughout, depending on how long they want to be, it's usually three to four or five years, they select courses that they're interested in. We work with the faculty member, they audit the class, sometimes we rearrange the syllabus a little bit or arrange for tutors, or social coaches. Sometimes they’re in residence, sometimes they're not, there's lots of different options. They're just students here, it's an inclusive program, and there's no segregation about it. This is an opportunity to make this a real public institution around citizenship engagement.
Jessica Riddell 20:14
That leads me to my next question about citizenship, because I've been thinking a lot about citizenship and how universities fulfill their moral and ethical contract to the broader society, we are publicly funded, we are supposed to be inclusive enough so that you can afford it at any socio-economic level, you can have funding to go to university in Canada. We've really sort of modeled our national and provincial identities around that as a cornerstone of our social institutions. Yet, what we're not always fulfilling that contract. What does it mean to uphold the values of a civil and just society? We see that playing out right now on a global stage, how do we stand up for the values of democracy, of sovereignty, of equality, and freedom? Could you give us some insights into first, how you do that? How do you sort of build a sense of service, of servant leadership, of the deep responsibilities of being a citizen of this world? Also, how we can map that on to different disciplines and in different kinds of classrooms?
Mary Sweatman 21:51
I think where it starts is that it's a value driven program, in community development, is not neutral. In our learning spaces, we're going to talk about global issues and take sides. That doesn't mean that we're excluding or that people can be excluded in that, but it is values driven. I think a big part for me is about modeling citizenship, and one of the best ways to model citizenship is to be in community, and to treat each other as community. I think a lot about seeing our students and seeing our faculty, as citizens first, we are first and foremost citizens. When I talk to my students, I'm talking to them as citizens that are equal to me, and that's an important part of my pedagogy. So those are some of the ways, but I think community modeling is really one of the keyways of demonstrating that role, and being a citizen, really saying I'm a community member, first and foremost.
Jessica Riddell 25:24
I love that, that showing rather than telling, and living and anchoring your values in practice in everyday ways. I think that that is a deeply hopeful action. I just wonder when you tackle wicked problems with your students and communities, both locally and globally, what is keeping you up at night? I think the shadow value of the next part of that question is, what gets you out of bed in the morning? If something is keeping you up at night, metaphorically or, how do you then harness that to get out of bed and tick to do that work again?
Mary Sweatman 26:45
That's a good question. Maybe starting with what gets me out of bed first, is that I have so much hope, and my students are what create so much hope for me. I am amazed at every new group of students that come into community development, there are new initiatives that they come up with, or ideas that they're coming up with to creatively tackle some of these big issues. I'm always surprised when we're doing a brainstorm around what is it that they’re passionate about. It always amazes me that every single one of them has this incredible passion, what if we could unleash those, and there were platforms for that, even at a younger age. I have students who say, no one has ever asked me this before, or, I've never had to articulate what I'm passionate about, and what my assets are. Yet, no one stumbles over it. Everyone always comes up with something amazing that I always think is incredible, and how can we make this happen in their four years. There actually are so many ways to transform even the structure within the institution so that they can live out their passion or make their passion part of their degree here, and I think it could happen in so many different courses. That gets me out of bed. Then the opposite, I guess what keeps me up at night is not being able to be enough for them or being able to give them what they need. I think I was really close to burning out last term, and it got really hard. I think the hard part was feeling like I might not be enough, that this job might be too much for me to be able to help all these students find their passion or that the constraints were too much. It was the first time that I felt that, and I started looking at other career to be quite honest, and that's never happened to me before. So yeah, I think that may not be what you were looking for.
Jessica Riddell 30:22
I think it articulates such an important piece of the academy where, especially in higher education, in our institutions, but I think across the board, as we decrease funding, as we change the ways in which we fund our universities and support them, we create scarcity cultures, where you never have enough X. Whether that is never having enough students, never having enough money, you never have enough resources, you never have enough staff, you never have enough faculty. When you start to say, we never have enough X, we are really vulnerable in internalizing that and saying we are not enough. That bakes shame into the walls in any organizational culture, but I think especially in higher education, where we have internalized so many of the behaviors and dispositions and mindsets that that are not healthy, that erase discomfort or erase process, favorite product, that favor impervious spaces, rather than porous spaces. I think we're we've had fissures that have been there, that have preexisted COVID, especially around austerity and scarcity models, but I think COVID has surfaced some of those, and we've had to realize that this is unsustainable, and that as individuals, we are asked to be resilient in deteriorating conditions. When and how do we say enough? I'm such a fan of yours. I love all the work you do. You are more than enough. When we build hope University in our own contacts, you're running the department. So thank you for joining this Award-Winning Educator’s Series and it's just been a pleasure to talk to you today.
Mary Sweatman 54:43
Oh, thank you. It's, it's really honored to be included here.