Introducing TeachTalk - Beth Mills

For my redesigned website – launching in time with my book publication next month – I am working on a new feature called TeachTalk, where educators and students share their ideas and experiences of critical-creative teaching and learning. I just conducted one of my first interviews, with my colleague Beth Mills, whose use of body mapping I also write about in the book, and am sharing it here to give you a taste of what’s to come.


Beth’s students sharing their knowledge of gender tools

In her TeachTalk, Beth talks about how growing up and studying gender relations, HIV policies and women’s activism in South Africa has shaped her ideas of relational teaching and accountable knowledge creation. She gives examples from her Doing Gender module: using arts-based practices such as journey and body mapping, ceding authority and control in the classroom by bringing in students’ own knowledges and expertise and introducing marginalized and decolonial perspectives. This aligns with several strands of critical-creative pedagogy, especially whole-person learning and design and arts methods. Below is the transcript of the interview; you will be able to see the video on the new website.


What’s your background and where, what and who do you teach?

I am South African and I trained in Anthropology and African gender studies, originally in South Africa and then decided to explore Development Studies. So I did an MA at Cambridge and then went back to work in South Africa in the field of HIV and research. I was the deputy director of a research centre at the University of Cape Town. There I started to really get my head around the way policies are made and contested and how research informs the shape of these contested policies.


I became aware of this because I was working with the Deputy Minister of Health at the time, who was really going upstream against President Mbeki. Mbeki was advocating denialist approaches to treating HIV, including lemon juice and ginger and fish oil, while I could see through my own research and research of the people that I was working with that people were dying or becoming extremely sick because they weren’t getting the medicine they needed.


And so I became quite interested in understanding how policies are shaped and contested, and also how research can inform different kinds of policies. I wanted to understand a little bit more about that, so I decided to do a PhD at the Institute for Development Studies, looking at how not only policies are contested, but also they how they are embodied. I worked with the Bambanani Women’s group to understand how they experience HIV medicine and illness in their bodies, and what that means for the way they think about democracy and the post-apartheid government.


I also studied how they, through the activism within South Africa and then through transnational activists networks in Brazil, India and Thailand, were able to turn upside down the way the World Trade Organization was thinking about patent laws. So my PhD helped me get inside policy but it also helped me to understand how people think about their bodies. And these two worlds continue to be of real interest to me, the way that policies are generated, created and contested and also how people embody politics, medicine and science.


I’m currently a lecturer at Sussex and my teaching moves across these different spaces. I teach one third-year module on Science, Technology and International Development and another module called Doing Gender, which is about how we think about and make sense of gender in our own lives, in our relationships with other people, in our communities, organizations, countries and our worlds, so moving out from the individual to the global.

Between finishing my PhD at IDS and starting at Sussex I worked as a research fellow at IDS where I was able to think about and work with policy globally. So I was working with the UN and with the World Bank, for example, on generating policy that recognizes the link between poverty and laws that discriminate against LGBTIQ people. I also got to a taste of teaching there and I decided that I wanted to do more teaching, so I applied to Sussex, and here I am.


What does this idea of critical-creative pedagogy mean to you how does it translate into your own pedagogical practice?

How I teach is informed by how I’ve been taught. When I started studying, it was 6 years after the transition to democracy in South Africa, where I became aware of how knowledge itself is a construct. I had seen how universities had been involved in generating particular constructs of knowledge that upheld Apartheid and I became aware of the importance of deconstructing knowledge. That’s been a journey for me; it is now 21 years since I started my undergraduate degree of understanding how to generate and create knowledge that is accountable to people.


So in my teaching I work with the idea, just as I do in my research, that knowledge is generated through relationships. It’s not something that is held in an individual. I as a teacher do not have all of the knowledge inside of myself. I have knowledge that has been generated through my relationship with the people that I’ve done my research with and through the readings that I’m working on or through my colleagues. And my relationship with my students is also where I generate knowledge and, just as I don’t have all the knowledge, I also believe that my students have a lot of knowledge themselves.

And so I see the challenge of my teaching to work out how to create a kind of synergy between what the students know and the journey that I’m taking them on to figure out even more about what it is they want to know and to work with what they already understand and support them. Sometimes there’s a lot that I don’t know and I have a generative approach to knowledge, to knowledge generation, recognizing that I don’t have all the power, I don’t have all the knowledge. That’s an incredibly disconcerting way of teaching but it’s become the only way of teaching that I know how to do and it’s a journey for me.


I used to rely on working with really complex concepts and complex theories. I became very good of talking about Foucault and I would rest on that authority and that way of knowing. I quite quickly came to realize, during the second semester of my teaching at Sussex, that it wasn’t in my students’ best interest and it wasn’t going to work for me to stand up in front of the class and speak to them in a way that assumed that they didn’t have their own experiences and knowledges.


I’ve become more conscious, especially through reading people like Sara Ahmed, about how citational and reference practices in our research and teaching are about race and gender. If I’m only referencing white men like Michel Foucault or Pierre Bourdieu or Anthony Giddens, big people who have become really powerful in the world that I’ve inhabited, then I’m only teaching a part of the picture. I’m not recognizing all the various other voices and perspectives that are not given much space, particularly in Higher Education institutions in the Global North. So I have needed to relearn and rethink the way that I work with authority and power so that it is a little bit more distributed and a little bit more horizontal.

And for me that requires creativity in my teaching, that requires working creatively to draw out my students’ knowledge and their stories and to be prepared to be challenged. That’s my understanding of creative pedagogy, and critical-creative pedagogy is recognizing that my perspective or your perspective or anyone’s single perspective is not sufficient, that we can come to a fuller understanding when we recognize and work creatively with multiple different viewpoints and perspectives and knowledges.


What are some examples of creative teaching in your classrooms and how do your students learn from them?

One of the modules I teach is Doing Gender and it’s a postgraduate module where I introduce students to a particular kind of framework. It’s called the gender at work framework and moves from the individual to understanding social norms, the politics and policies and resources. So there’s a quadrant that we move through. In order to link that theoretical framework into their lives, I use a lot of arts-based practices. I start with the practice of appreciative inquiry and the value of speaking and listening and being silent and I do that through encouraging all of us to move from sitting at desks to sitting in a circle.

And I often don’t refer to the students as students, I think about them as people, and what I do in the first session is get the students to pair up and have a conversation with each other, to share something pretty straightforward like what it is that made you want to take this module. And they start testing what it means to speak, because it is brave and hard sometimes to speak, and also what it means to be silent and to listen and to listen in a way that’s fully hearing what the other person is saying without needing to jump in or put your own spin on what they are saying. We move from that straightforward exercise, which is really important to lay a foundation for the kind of dialogic, relational dynamic of teaching, of listening and speaking and [being ok] with some of the silences too.


I use a whole range of arts-based practices, including, for example, journey mapping. I love journey mapping because it can also be done behind a computer screen, with people drawing and mapping out significant moments in their lives that have prompted them to change course or to move forward even more rapidly. So relationships or relationship breakdowns or particular degrees that they might have gotten or a political moment in their country. And they map this all out as a river, with boulders that they to climb over, to tributaries that come in and make the river move even faster and they can do this quite easily on a piece of paper. This year, with online teaching, I sent all of the students an art pack so they had things they could use like paper, pencils and clay, and then they would share that account in light of the literature that we’re looking at in that week, for example around what it means to be a feminist or what it means to be a feminist killjoy, again that’s Sara Ahmed’s writing. Where people are starting to find their voices or make sense of their lives, looking back through this river of life and then also trying to think forward about where they want to be moving.


Another approaches that is part of my teaching is to hand over part of my class to the students. I have a whole toolbox of various different methods and practices that the students can access from week one. During every single class there is an hour where the students run their own session, so they facilitate a body mapping session or they introduce a new kind of technique or tool to the class. In that way they start making their own connections to the literature that we’re looking at, but also bringing in their own expertise. Many of them have worked in gender and development around the world. And if it’s a new kind of tool then it’s something that we will put into the toolbox, and that toolbox grows. It’s about 25 different tools at the moment and it’s grown over the course of the 4 or 5 years that I’ve taught the module, so there is a sense of legacy.


The third thing I do is I also invite previous members of the module to give lectures. Many are doing so many interesting things around the world, working as journalists, working in the Gambian Ministry of Health for example, and they will come and speak about a particular topic. So, for example, we had someone come and speak to us on social norms and deep structures and how she had in her research at Sussex looked at mapping out the Delhi metro and how gender works on the Delhi metro in the women’s-only carriages. Through the module and through her dissertation research she generated a lot of really interesting research. And she published an article in an international journal and she came and spoke to us about that article, and what it means for thinking about the work towards gender equality in India. So it is a hybrid approach to teaching.