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Lessons learned from icebergs: reflections on learning and teaching

My past experience is always with me, below the surface, yet my teaching work hasn’t been about what I’ve done. Instead, it’s been about trusting the depths of my experience to stabilize me.

BY DAVID NEWLAND | APR 21 2022

When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, I lost a dream job in the travel industry. I didn’t imagine that two years later, I’d call “graduate teaching assistant at Trent University” a dream job, too – but I do. And it’s all thanks to lessons learned from icebergs.

Previously, I worked as a brand ambassador for Adventure Canada, a family-run expedition cruise company specializing in voyages to the Arctic, the North Atlantic, and select wilderness destinations worldwide. In the summer seasons, I worked aboard ships as an expedition host, Zodiac driver, and member of the core expedition team. I did more than 20 expedition cruises over the course of seven years, to the Canadian Arctic, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and coastal Labrador; I circumnavigated Newfoundland once, Iceland twice; crossed the North Atlantic from Scotland to Greenland; and even transited the Panama Canal.

The brand ambassador role came with prestige, profile, and possibilities, both aboard and ashore. At sea, as expedition host, I led the daily passenger briefings, helped organize the schedule of speakers and activities, and worked to shape the story of every voyage. My colleagues were a global group of culturalists, historians, geologists, marine scientists, ornithologists, artists, writers, musicians, nature guides, seafarers and other experts.

Storytelling was a big part of my off-season work too: I organized events supporting cultural and environmental engagement; I did educational speaking appearances; I helped create culturally safe marketing materials and methodologies for public engagement; and I constantly strove to build connections between southern Canadians, and Inuit.

“Life is a constant series of changes, and you have to be ready to roll with them, and go where the current takes you.”

I also worked as a singer-songwriter, and my songs reflected the extraordinary experiences I had with Adventure Canada. In 2015 I created a touring musical show, featuring Inuit cultural performers Siqiniup Qilauta (Sunsdrum), a five-piece global roots band, and innumerable guests and collaborators. I toured the show widely for five years. I received an Ontario Arts Council grant to make an album, NORTHBOUND, based on the ideas and insights I’d gained on my Arctic travels (icebergs featured prominently).

It was a very wild ride, working with amazing people, reaching audiences across the country, and working to change the way people thought about Indigenous cultures, the environment, and what it means to be Canadian. My work with Adventure Canada seemed to distill everything I’d learned in the previous two decades in arts and media, and my role was basically made for me, to be me.

Then COVID-19 hit, and that was that! Travel, especially ship travel, especially in the Arctic, was pretty much kaput the moment the word “pandemic” was officially in play. So was live music, event planning, public speaking… all the things I had been doing – things I had spent my lifetime working to do with purpose, and with success.

A new path

It was not easy to say goodbye to all of that. It’s not that I wasn’t ready to move forward – life is a constant series of changes, and you have to be ready to roll with them, and go where the current takes you (a lesson learned from icebergs). The challenge was that I couldn’t imagine how I would take any of what I had done up to that point with me – regardless of what I wound up doing next.

It’s very difficult to go from spending 100 days a year away from home, on tours and adventures, to being totally grounded, even if it’s a welcome relief. Constantly being in great places with great people doing great things is addictive. And there is no applause for just being a good dad and husband at home, even if itis a very fulfilling role.

But change means opportunity. On expeditions, we framed every change in our scheduled itinerary as a challenge to create an even better experience. When my role officially ended at Adventure Canada, I took a similar approach: I applied for the master’s in English at Trent University. In September 2021, 26 years after graduating with a bachelor of fine arts in photography from Concordia University, I went back to school.

I entered Trent in a state of curiosity and humility. There’s nothing like getting a new opportunity to learn and grow. I was as excited to be in the classroom again as I would have been driving my Zodiac among icebergs in unknown waters. But I was also conscious that I had an enormous amount of learning to do, and I wasn’t sure how much of what I’d done before I’d actually be able to bring with me.

I had already done a little teaching, but a long time ago. I had been an instructor for three courses in online writing at Centennial College, back in 2004-2005. Two of those three courses were great experiences for me: I felt totally natural, passing along the lessons I’d learned and sharing the things I was naturally passionate about. I felt as though I had found my calling! But the third course, which I took on against my better judgment, was a very uncomfortable experience. I wound up outside my comfort zone, feeling unsupported by the institution, ill at ease with the material, in front of students who didn’t seem to know why they were there. I felt like I’d been eaten alive. I felt like my “calling” had been a fantasy. I didn’t go back to teaching after that… until I started my studies at Trent.

“I don’t think very much of me shows above the surface, compared to what I’ve actually lived.”

In hopes of shoring up my resources, I did the LinkedIn modules and the virtual live session for the graduate teaching certificate, but that didn’t diminish the intimidation I felt in taking on a new role I wasn’t sure I was qualified for.

Thankfully, my first course as a graduate teaching assistant (GTA) at Trent offered strong alignment with my background. “Interdisciplinary Perspectives: Knowing And Wondering” in the bachelor of arts and sciences program felt like a fit right from the start. The professor, Jessica Marion Barr, is a working artist, scholar and educator, and seemed like a kindred spirit. As I looked over the syllabus I saw that my fine arts background, my career in media, and my work as a musician and writer would be assets.

In addition, the course utilizes the Anishnaabe medicine wheel as an organizing principle, and emphasizes Indigenous knowledges and cultures. My experience working closely with First Peoples would at least give me a degree of familiarity. And my experience aboard the ships, working with diverse experts, amounted to interdisciplinary studies in action.

In other words, my backstory would offer some weight, below the surface. Or so I told myself. Still, when I entered the classroom for my first seminar with my undergrad students, I was probably as nervous as they were.

Where the icebergs come in

I’m giving a lot of background here, and that’s very deliberate. This is where the iceberg comes in. I’ve spent a lot of time with icebergs, ferrying passengers among them off the coasts of Greenland and Nunavut. Icebergs are spectacular, of course – massive, ancient, and inspiring. Icebergs offer peak experiences, in more ways than one. But the most important part of any iceberg isn’t what you see – the classic towering pinnacle. What really matters is what you don’t see: the mass of the iceberg that lies below the surface. Understanding that has become vital for me.

I don’t think very much of me shows above the surface, compared to what I’ve actually lived. As a younger person, I was all about the surface – what else was there? I was newly calved, so to speak. But an iceberg like that is very unstable. They don’t find equilibrium until they have been shattered and shaped, until their mass is mostly down below.

When I entered the classroom at Trent, I began to feel that depth. I was anchored by what doesn’t meet the eye. The students didn’t know, and it didn’t matter, how much life I’d lived, or that I’d had all these adventures and previous career experience. I told them I was learning with them, and I was. But whatever was totally new for them, often had useful parallels for me in something I’d been through before. Whether or not I chose to share that, it made a difference to my confidence, helping me listen and understand. Being anchored like an iceberg helped steady me as I moved into learning – and teaching.

My past experience is always with me, below the surface, yet my teaching work hasn’t been about what I’ve done. Instead, it’s been about trusting the depths of my experience to stabilize me, as I support the students in engaging with the subject matter. Mostly, what we do is talk things through. I don’t have many answers, but I’ve learned how to coax out ideas, and listen to a lot of good questions.

I have good questions too. And from time to time, I might just share a good story. Icebergs often have peaks, and a peak experience is a learning experience. I had a peak experience in the lecture hall that offered lessons, both above and below the surface.

An important module of the interdisciplinary course referred to Inuit traditional knowledge, and relationships to land, something I had a unique perspective on. I offered to share a version of my presentation, “The Northwest Passage: Tracing One Warm Line,” which combines photographs, personal stories and original songs to offer insights based on my travels in the Arctic. I’ve given this talk for years, and thought it might be appropriate for the course. Its theme is reorienting the southern Canadian vision of the Arctic, to centre on Inuit presence, culture and connection.

Dr. Barr liked the idea, and after consulting with her to ensure it would be a fit, I customized my presentation to the material she presented in the first hour of the lecture. I would be the guest lecturer for the second hour.

The fit was even better than anticipated – in fact, some of the subject actors from a film Dr. Barr showed were Inuit colleagues from my travels, who appeared in my photos as well. That was propitious. But again, the nerves…

“Sometimes, with icebergs, if conditions are right, you get a glimpse of what’s down below.”

The students didn’t know me well in the first place, let alone as a performer, and sitting physically distanced in their masks, didn’t seem like the most welcoming of audiences. I did the show confidently, though, identifying the gaps in Canada’s claim to a “Northern” identity, singing a song dedicated to Inuit community, and ending with an appeal to make good on the promises of truth and reconciliation through relationships.

Presenting and performing for the students was a peak experience, both in terms of my own enjoyment of it, and its placement within the narrative arc of the course. I hoped, at the very least, that my personal testimony and insight would help emphasize what we’d been working on together.

The presentation seemed to go well, given the strangeness of the gig. Frankly, just picking up a guitar in front of a crowd after a year and a half was a relief. Dr. Barr was certainly enthusiastic. As for the students, they applauded politely at the end, then folded their laptops, shouldered their backpacks and left the lecture hall as usual. I had no idea whether anything I had said or done had landed at all.

Not one of my students even mentioned my “peak” performance the next day in seminar. It did seem the classes became more engaged and animated after that, but I put that down mostly to the weeks we had spent establishing trust as a group by then. I did wonder, though, whether putting myself in a vulnerable position at the lecture had helped loosen things up a bit too.

Sometimes, with icebergs, if conditions are right, you get a glimpse of what’s down below. That glimpse can tell you a lot about origins, environment, and experiences along the way. I got a glimpse of what had been happening below the surface, for my students, when I was marking their end of term assignments. And I realized they had seen below the surface with me, too.

One of their optional exam questions asked students to name a moment during the course that had been meaningful for them, and to explain why. Much to my surprise, numerous students commented on my “guest lecture” presentation – in depth. The comments were intelligent, observant, insightful… sometimes inspired. I was surprised and moved. They really got it.

It turned out they hadn’t just been paying attention: they’d been paying close attention, and considering what they had observed. They’d thought about, and felt deeply about, what I’d said, and sung, and shown. And it had stayed with them – not just the images or the music, but the important concepts of mythology, history and reciprocity that I’d raised in the context of relationships with First Peoples. They had seen the peak of the iceberg – my presentation – but it had led them to wonder about the base as well. They looked into the depths, for what lay below the surface. In doing so they revealed new depths to me.

What’s important about this for me is that I didn’t begin this new teaching journey with any idea of a pedagogy, and I didn’t really think my previous skills would be very portable. But like my students, I set out anyway, to learn something new in the spirit of curiosity and connection. I brought what I could to the adventure of learning and teaching.

What I learned was that I didn’t have to have a track record as a teacher to possess lessons worth sharing. In fact, I didn’t even have to have literal lessons to share: I could simply bring my presence, and my perspective, and when it made sense (at peak moments, perhaps) I could also bring my story. That mattered because it’s what I was hoping to help my students do. I could listen and learn and look deeper, and when it was my time to do more, I could do more. The students would pick up on that, and look deeper – into the subject matter, and into themselves, as well. When it was time to do more, they could do more. And they did.

The best part of this learning is that it aligns with much of what I learned from my Inuit colleagues. Inuit kids traditionally didn’t learn in classrooms, from lesson plans or syllabuses. They learned by watching and listening, sharing, and ultimately enacting what was done by their parents, family and elders. There’s a lot of teaching-learning that happens when we simply combine presence, and perspective; when we bring our curiosity, our connection, and form community.

That can happen pretty organically, just the way it might once have done around a campfire – or aboard a ship.

Considering all this led me to look deeply for what’s most important to me as a teacher. It’s not the peak experiences, it’s what’s under the surface. The little tricks I’ve been learning to get students to open up in seminar; the time spent doubling back over Zoom to make sure people are caught up; the comments on their papers; the reflections on why what we study matters in these difficult times… these are all areas in which I’m still learning – but with the weight of my past experience to steady me.

By the time I entered my second course as a GTA all the learning I’d done in my first term at Trent had become part of what lies below the surface. I’m that much more confident, that much more engaged, and that much more passionate with this batch of students. I can’t help but feel miles ahead of where I was in the fall session. There seem to be more peaks, but I can only imagine that’s because we’re exploring greater depths, too. I hope so.

Dr. Barr informed me just a few weeks ago that she’d nominated me for a GTA award, on the basis of my work supporting her course. She highlighted my guest lecture in her nomination, and said it was her favourite one ever. I was honoured to have my peak experience highlighted, but what moved me most was anonymous feedback that students had shared with her, about our weekly seminar discussions:

“Very accessible – always ready to answer my questions. Was passionate about the information that we were learning. Unique and interesting discussions always came up in our seminars.”

 

“He allows discussion to flow freely… and really makes you feel like there are no wrong answers.”

 

“I only wish seminars could have been longer, I enjoyed every second of them and the worst part was leaving!”

 

“AMAZING”

This remarkable testimony was flattering, of course. But it was also revealing. This response is a glimpse beneath the surface. It’s an indication of what happened when we went deeply into our subject matter, and ourselves, together.

The peaks are great, but it’s the depths that matter. That’s a lesson I learned from icebergs. It’s one I hope I will always carry with me, in my new dream job, as a learner – and a teacher – at Trent.

PUBLISHED BY
David Newland
David Newland is a writer, musician and radio host based in Cobourg, Ont. He is currently a student in the MA, English (Public Texts) program at Trent University and has been accepted into the PhD program in Canadian Studies at Trent beginning in September 2022.
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  1. Shaheda Jakda / April 22, 2022 at 21:21

    This is beautiful, inspirational and thoughtful. I really enjoyed reading this and I’m happy to see that with constant changes of ups and downs especially during these times, you have found yet another peak and you have managed to take your experiences with you into a new adventure. All the best to you.