New Directions in Circumpolar Studies: Launching the Læra Institute
By Anthony Speca, Managing Director, UArctic Læra Institute for Circumpolar Education, Adjunct Professor, Trent University and Irina Dranaeva, Head of International and Interregional Cooperation, Arctic State Agrotechnological University and Heather Nicol, Academic Co-Director, UArctic Læra Institute for Circumpolar Education, Professor, Trent University and Gary Wilson, Academic Co-Director, UArctic Læra Institute for Circumpolar Education, Professor, University of Northern British Columbia
In his 2017 Shared Voices article “The Beginnings of Circumpolar Studies”, Jón Haukur Ingimundarson of the Stefansson Arctic Institute reminds us that UArctic’s flagship educational offering – the Bachelor of Circumpolar Studies (BCS) – was a priority agenda item at the very first meeting of UArctic’s Interim Council in 1998.
By 2002, the first students from UArctic members were enrolled in BCS courses. Eighteen years later, what is now the UArctic Circumpolar Studies program has served tens of thousands of students from around the Circumpolar North.
Ingimundarson also reminds us of the foundational principles of Circumpolar Studies: academic interdisciplinarity; a holistic perspective on the Circumpolar North; a commitment to connectivity and collaboration between UArctic members; and the integral place of Indigenous scholarship in the curriculum.
The collaborative development of the Circumpolar Studies program resulted in a small curriculum of seven courses, the quality of whose content and delivery exceeded what any single institution could achieve on its own. Interconnectivity between UArctic members offering Circumpolar Studies courses, mediated through a funded and centrally coordinated body administering the program, also reinforced a shared understanding of the foundational theories, concepts, terminology and other knowledge underpinning the curriculum. However, the eventual loss of this central body compromised the interconnectivity between the members. It also diminished the capacity of their faculty and students to draw upon a broader field of teaching and learning experiences and best practices. Without these peer-to-peer relationships, something of the identity of UArctic as a borderless academic and educational community was sacrificed.
The aim of the new UArctic Læra Institute for Circumpolar Education (the Læra Institute) is to restore this borderless community without compromising members’ local academic flexibility. The word læra means ‘learn’ or ‘study’ in Icelandic, and the Læra Institute is dedicated to promoting best-practice teaching and learning about the Circumpolar North. We mean to advance, in the broadest possible way, UArctic’s mission of offering “training and education [that] is circumpolar, holistic and diverse in nature, and draws upon our combined members’ strengths to address the unique challenges of the region [...] in a context which recognizes that degrees are granted by the members themselves” (excerpt from the UArctic Charter).
Launched in September 2020, the Læra Institute is co-led by Trent University and the University of Northern British Columbia. We are privileged to be joined in this initiative by the Arctic State Agrotechnological University in Russia, Nord University in Norway, the University of Alaska Anchorage in the USA, and Lakehead University and Yukon University in Canada. Over the next two years, we will develop curriculum specifications, exemplar courses, and pedagogical resources to support Circumpolar Studies teaching at UArctic member universities, whether in person or online. We will also hold regular workshops for faculty as well as educational symposia for students. We are enormously grateful to UiT The Arctic University of Norway and the Norwegian Ministry for Education and Research for the initial funding for this work.
As part of our mission, we will pay special attention to the varied perspectives on ‘circumpolarity’ that exist across the Circumpolar North, particularly Indigenous perspectives. In this way, we will honour the extraordinary diversity of the circumpolar world, whilst at the same time upholding the original principles of the UArctic BCS program.
UArctic was founded to create educational programs relevant and accessible to students of the North. Circumpolar Studies has long fulfilled this important purpose. The Læra Institute will revitalize and refresh this program, transforming it from a small suite of off-the-shelf courses into a broad and flexible curriculum that can be easily adapted to local educational contexts.
We invite all UArctic members to take part in writing this new chapter in the story of UArctic as an educational community – in the North, by the North, for the North.