Last week I attended a workshop organized by the Tobias Center for Innovation in International Development at Indiana University. Even though it was two long days on zoom, the workshop’s focus on innovative practices and pedagogies for teaching undergraduate international development (ID) studies, as well as the variety and interactivity of the presentations resulted in one of the best online workshops I have attended so far (not in small part due to the brilliant organization by Elly Cohen). 39 participants from 33 institutions in 14 countries made for rich exchanges in interactive sessions, breakout rooms and animated chat discussions. In this post I want to reflect on some of the workshop’s themes that reflect the current state of ID teaching. (Because I can only draw on a few of the many interesting sessions, here is the full schedule with all session descriptions).
Decolonizing and unlearning
The most prominent theme of the workshop was decolonizing ID teaching, which was referred to by many sessions in a lot of different contexts. This ubiquity raises the spectre of decolonizing becoming institutionalized, something cautioned against by writers such as Tuck and Yang who remind us that decolonization is not a metaphor. How can we work against the mainstreaming or bureacratization of decolonizing teaching where is looses its critical power and potential, as has happened with so many buzzwords and fuzzwords? How can we prevent decolonizing from becoming a tick box or labeling exercise that only pays lip service to the crucial demands for structural, epistemic transformations advanced by decolonial thinkers and activists? Many of these have answered these questions already; in the workshop, the decolonial jam session by Jon Langdon from St Francis Xavier University and Ajay Parasram from Dalhousie University in Canada provided a space for collective reflection. They challenged us to think how the writings of early postcolonial revolutionaries, such as Aimé Césaire, Walter Rodney and Thomas Sankara, can be brought in conversations with the cannon of post-development or how the music of Bob Marley can serve as radical prophecy. The discussion also focused on students’ and educators’ reflexivity and positionalities, linked to practices of unlearning and decentering, for example through the use of reflexive diaries as explored by Lee Rensimer and Kamna Patel from University College London. One of the questions that emerged from the session was how critical hope can be maintained among cooptation and cynicism, which is at the heart of my own critical-creative pedagogy.
Online collaborative learning
A second prominent theme was the use of technology, not surprisingly really after a year of online teaching. Kirchuffs Atengble from PACKS, a think tank in Ghana, introduced us to tools such as Telegram and jam boards that work in resource-constrained settings. Two sessions explored the potential for students from universities in different countries to collaboratively research and learn. Ken Salo from the University of Illinois, Ricardo Nacimiento from UNILAB in Brazil and Greg Ruiters from the University of Western Cape in South Africa shared how virtual exchanges can build students’ transnational literacies about responses to racialized injustices. Through creating digital story maps of local anti-racist struggles in Brazil, Cape Town and Chicago, students engage with struggles such as Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police in Chicago, Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall at South African universities and urban resistance in Brazil. The project works with an enriched definition of literacy, including embodied practices such as capoeira and samba that allow for soundscapes of resistance and multi-sensorial learning. Such decentering of the written (academic) text links this project to decolonizing teaching. The project’s aim to create’not safe but courageous spaces was a good reminder that many of these pedagogical practices need educators’ courage and commitment.
A similar international project was presented by Mary Jane Parmentier and Lindsay Smith from Arizona State University, Tomas Javier Carroza from the Universidad Mar del Plata in Argentina and Jeanne Simon from Universidad de Concepcion in Chile. The Cacho project – meaning break in Spanish in reference to ‘experimenting through small ruptures in dominant practice’ – uses multilingual classrooms, problem-based research and an inverted syllabus that privileges writers from the Global South to create international decolonized learning spaces. Some of the things that struck me were the use of both English and Spanish to decenter English as a dominant language, the Cacho’s team’s subversion of the managerial language of COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning) to explore alternative learnings, but the demanding nature of the project for both faculty and students (9 months preparation and high student attrition). Nevertheless the project has so far brought together 60 students from 4 universities, in order to mobilize knowledge for the public good. This raised interesting discussion questions about the specific ends of knowledge creation and definitions of public value, both of which cannot be assumed.
As the workshop’s final presentation on e-volunteering as international experiential learning by Marylynn Steckley from Carleton University showed, facilitating virtual encounters can address students’ concerns about the environmental impact of travel as well as the affordability of overseas trips. Steckley asked whether travel is necessary for transformation – as the shift to online teaching and learning during COVID has shown, the answer is not necessarily and not always. However, engagement with the world has to go beyond the virtual. As many participants pointed out, students do not need to get on a plane to experience and learn from diverse ways of being, thinking and making in the world.
Simulations and role play
There were a number of sessions on the use of simulations and role-plays to afford students (inter)active learning by applying theoretical insights to either real or constructed scenarios. John-Michael Davis from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the US teaches students how to conduct interviews by simulating a field setting of different stakeholders involved in e-waste recycling. Laine Munir from the African Leadership Institute in Rwanda presented a more mainstream development version of negotiations around various crises in a fictional African country. Last but not least, together with my colleague Paul Gilbert I had designed a role play based on Paul’s ethnographic research in Dhaka. Our activity simulated a focus group meeting organized by JICA, which is funding the building of a light-rail system in the city, which would alleviate the notoriously bad traffic in Dhaka but also displace rickshaw drivers, in line with ongoing attempts by municipal authorities to regulate their work and restrict their movements through parts of the city. We had created a padlet that introduced participants to the different stakeholders in the focus group. We also suggested that participants watch a short video to get a more immersive understanding of rickshaw drivers work.
Our 60 minute session was a much compressed version of a learning activity that would normally take several weeks and include students undertaking their own in-depth research about rickshaw drivers and their lifelihood challenges in Dhaka, as well as about the different groups who participated in the focus group. Even though we were only able to enact about 15 minutes of the role play, it gave participants some sense of the potentials of this kind of learning activity. It also lead to an engaged discussion which focused on students’ experiential and emotional investments in such activities. What happens when some students emotionally identifying with particular roles, while others might take a more detached approach? As educators, we need to be mindful of and attentive to what students bring with them into our classroom. When students have been facing precariousness themselves, then playing (educational) games can become an alienating experience for them. this showed the importance of extensive debriefing and reflection after role-play exercise, to allow students to articulate their experiences, draw out their learning and connect it back to theoretical discussions.
The discussion also explored role plays’ connections to ‘reality.’ Might the unrealistic and scripted nature of the activity help students understand something about the need for and possibility of change in development? Might it also open up a space to explore the tension between personal values and professional roles, which sometimes (often?) do not align and force compromise and accommodation? When development as progress is scripted, does it allow people to evade responsibility or accountability? And might a realization of this tension be a good preparation for students’ post-university work in mainstream development organization, if they end up working there whether by choice or necessity?
Finally, we discussed the possibility that students could make misplaced assumptions about people in marginalized positions and their resistance to or support of development projects and ideas about progress and improvement more generally. Steering students away from problematic projections and identifications or from assumptions of unitary or essentialist positions is an important part of the learning in role play. This learning can be fostered by students doing extensive research about the context of the role play and the lives of the participants beforehand, through giving clear guidance about the play and through debriefing that does not shy away from difficult questions. This of course is true for teaching in general, but especially for critical-creative pedagogies that involve students as whole-person learners, use experiential learning-by-doing and foster critical hope.