When a five-week long Underwater Basketweaving course showed up on Coursera’s home page, it looked legit—on the surface.
After reading the description and watching the video it becomes clear that the course is poking fun at a number of other legitimate indigenous courses.
“Underwater basket weaving is a technique of uncertain origin, but is believed to have been developed by the peoples of the Aquacamamata Peninsula around the year 325 BC. The many tribes of the Aquacamamata shared a complex religious belief system, the foundation of which was a deep spiritual relationship with the Peninsula’s vast network of rivers and streams,” states the fake course description. “The Aquacamamata believed that all things born from the water were touched by the gods, and practiced many underwater handicrafts, including not only underwater basket weaving but also underwater wood carving, metalwork, pottery, and taxidermy.”
The description goes on to say that participants will need a tub or pool to complete the course and will receive a hairdryer and certificate when it’s over.
There’s even a video going over some of the knots students will learn featuring the course’s instructor, Phineas Dunne, purported associate professor of maritime anthropology at Ersuraco University, which is an anagram of Coursera.
Jean-Paul Restoule, associate professor of aboriginal education at the University of Toronto, did call the joke a “learning opportunity” in an email to one of his students, but to be funny the joke “relies on deep cultural assumptions about the inferiority of indigenous knowledge.”
Restoule, a member of the Dokis First Nation, noted that whoever put the course and video together at Coursera likely didn’t mean to offend anyone.
“I'm sure there are keepers of indigenous knowledge who would be offended. I get that it’s meant to be lighthearted and a joke but anyone who has actually spent time learning about basket making processes would realize it’s about more than the finished product,” he says in his e-mail. “Even the preparations and gathering of materials involve a great amount of knowledge.”
A number of people took to Facebook to express their disgust at Coursera's actions. “How can you call yourself a learning environment when you perpetuate racist attitudes? Would you post a course on ‘Blood libel basics’? Or on ‘How to boogy like a black man’?” asked Gayl Veinotte.
In response to the video's treatment of the made up language, another commenter, Nick Gilla, says “Trivialization of indigenous language is harmful, and in bad taste, given that most indigenous North American languages are nearly extinct, due to forced Euro-American assimilation programs, and with the languages, entire ways of viewing the world that are entirely different from European world-views, and which have innumerable intrinsic merits.”
Restoule teaches a Coursera class called Aboriginal Worldviews and Education, which is meant for both aboriginal and non-aboriginal learners. Tara Harper suggested Coursera take its own course when commenting on the Facebook post for the Underwater Basketweaving class, his course is the one she suggested. Restoule notes a “Get over it!” mentality from many when it comes to cultural insensitivity.
“I would suggest that people who say ‘Can’t you take a joke?” could benefit from a course to see how the colonial rule over diverse indigenous populations is buttressed by ‘jokes’ like this one that undermine the value of our knowledges and peoples,” he says.
“You might be surprised to find that jokes like this one help lead to the misinformation and stereotyping that underlies attitudes and opinions like those expressed in a recent letter to the editor of the Nanaimo Daily News,” he says. “Taken together over time and in quantity, embedded in schools and media and harmless jokes, these attitudes and opinions in turn can lead to discrimination and the support of racist laws and policies.”
Coursera did not respond to a request for comment.