TeachTalk - Su-Ming Khoo

In her TeachTalk, Dr Su-Ming Khoo from the National University of Ireland, Galway reflects on teaching to address dissatisfaction with the limits of democrary and critical hope that comes from learning to do something about these limits. She frequently uses organic metaphors to think about teaching as a journey that involves planting, nourishing and sharing ideas. Su-Ming's playlist for her activism course show the power of music for experiential learning, especially about difficult topic. This relates closely to the whole-person learning and creative methods strands of critical-creative pedagogy.

A tray with lots of fruit
Learning as planting, growing and sharing food


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


I'm a Senior Lecturer in the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway. I'm a sociologist but I teach very widely in inter- and trans-disciplinary courses at every level in the university, from introductory sociology to first year students to a large final year undergraduate course in critical development studies to quite a number of Masters courses in politics and society, culture and colonialism, public advocacy and activism, and gender, globalization and human rights. I also teach and mentor PhD students and am the director of PhD studies in our school and also mentor postdoctoral researcher and early career researchers. So teaching is quite a broad portfolio for me.


What does critical-creative teaching mean to you and how does it relate to your own pedagogical practice?


That's a great question and actually a very difficult one. For me critical, creative and pedagogy are all deeply linked to the question of what education is and how do we go about it, and what it is actually for. So I would broadly situate critical-creative pedagogy within learning, thinking, being with and trying to be a person, a citizen in a democratic society. Which is always about the society being organized in a less inclusive way than we would like, in a somewhat unsatisfactory way, so critical-creative pedagogy is about being with this lack of satisfaction and some sense of being committed to widening the democracy to include what it should have included in the first place, but somehow failed. Therefore, it requires a certain kind of being angry or being disappointed with this lack of inclusiveness and lack of reality - you could say that democracy and reality don't seem to be the same thing.


So a sense of kind of dissatisfaction or disenchantment, but this disenchantment is still linked to a sense of hope or optimism. That we still want to learn, that we will get something from learning that will make us into a different person who will be different after the whatever it is that we've learned. Part of that learning is being with other people in the world and in a way it's about not being alone in the world and being with others and trying to make sense of one's life in such a way. So I think that critical-creative pedagogy is about being an educator, thinking about what is education for, how do we go about it and linking that all into being a person in the world, and what it is that we can do well. It is about what I do specifically as an educator, as a person, as a citizen, as someone who is dissatisfied and needs to live with other people.


What are some concrete examples of how you teach in your classroom and how your students are learning from them?


What I've done this year, since beginning of the pandemic, is this kind of very simple road map to all my courses and to use the metaphor of planting and harvesting - agricultural or plant-based metaphors. So the first starting point is finding the seeds, which are the course outline, the course description, which give a set of questions, problems, topics and subject matter which is organized in a certain way and offer certain questions that might be worth asking. But the questions don't belong to me, the educator, they belong to the students whose ownership only happens when they decide to choose those seeds and also to plant.


Planting the seeds is about reading and writing and talking and sharing and becoming part of a community of people interested in such questions. So I have this metaphor that every subject matter is part of a set of fields. And we plant those seeds, the questions, in fields which have similar sorts of questions growing alongside each other, although each plant is different. And seeds are nourished by the conversation and the readings, so reading is a very important creative-critical activity whereby we take on what others have written and said and we try and imagine why they wrote that and at the same time, examine our reading intention of why we would be interested in reading such a thing.


And then the next stage is from the field to the table. The idea is that we come around the table, which is a sort of metaphorical table where everybody brings something to talk about. The ideal kind of meal around the table is when we have something to nourish each other, to share with each other, to talk about so - it's not just about eating the food, it's about meeting the people and sharing, breaking bread with them, this idea of a learning community. The word community relates to the Latin for coming around a table – communis.


So the idea of trying to create this table for the classes it's like laying a really nice feast and people are going to bring their dishes and we're going to share and talk and eat. Also there is a thing that students do individually, which is writing and developing the skills to write, and I see this through the metaphor of harvesting. That all those seeds that they planted would be harvested and processed in some way into a form which is understandable to other people and from there, they complete a sort of journey from being readers and talking about things to writers and creators of thoughts.


You also teach a course on activism, can you talk a bit more about that?


Yes, it’s called the Social and Political Context of Public Advocacy and Activism and it's offered as an elective course on the Masters of Public Advocacy and Activism, which is an MA that I was involved in designing. One of the questions that we had at the very beginning of deciding whether we should offer this master's program or not was ‘why would people want to do a course on this?’ They're already activists, because we had done a lot of market research and we knew that a lot of people who were interested in taking this course were not preparing to become activists in the future, they were mainly people who were already activists and needed something, often an antidote to burnout or something that would help them to grow personally or to develop and re-enter their organization at a higher level.


So the idea was of a space that they could step into to reflect on what activism was all about and to give them a lot more academic and scholarly knowledge about the world of activism on the international level. It begins with slavery abolition and goes through quite a number of different topics, the environment, women's rights, global health activism. It is really a history of international global activism focusing on different historical and geographical contexts, different actors and different tools and approaches that are used in advocacy and also space to talk about the contradictions and dilemmas of advocacy and activism. Every student develops their individual case study and also collaborates with the other people in the class to think comparatively and in parallel about who is this activism all about, where did it come from, what did they actually do, did it work or not and what were the dilemmas and the issues that were really thorny. They have to do a critical review of literature, where they have to realize that reading about things is not about the information, it's about taking on different information and being able to see beyond it, to be able to have that sense of agency over the reading.


One thing I started doing during lockdown was to curate a playlist because I didn't know how difficult it would be for people to engage with the course material, which is often heavy, dealing with slavery and people dying of diseases, the environment and the sixth extinction. It's very heavy material and people have their challenges as well when they're signing up for a Masters like this, some have busy jobs, some are dealing with personal circumstances. So it was just to give everyone a kind of a gift of something and also for fun to curate a little playlist that could get people into the topic.


This relates back to this idea of creative and critical through a sort of side door. I'm quite interested in approaching things from sideways, so, even when I'm doing a quite conventional theory course, I always offer this kind of sideways, kind of slightly kooky reading of the topic seen from a very unexpected perspective. So the music is both expected and unexpected and music creates understanding which is effective, embodied and it's also frequently humorous and joyful. It's a great way of delivering the mixture of emotions and ideas and the complexity, because music is a form that helps people understand complexity in a very easily comprehended way. It uses these other capacities we have for understanding, besides lyrics. Lyrics of course activate the poetic imagination so they're really great for getting at this critical ability of people to find the right words because that's what poetry does. Poetry is the art of finding the right words, so it brings artfulness into the making of meaning – poesis.


Rhythm then helps people move on, when you have a piece of music it moves people on in time and they're not stuck. And it gives people a kind of a grammar for understanding because music has a repetitive format or a pre-understandable grammatical format. We also know that it's not going to go on for too long. Sometimes I give them a warning that some of the songs are long and you have to listen to this jazz for eight minutes, but that's ok, people are okay with being told to listen to jazz for eight minutes. I think it does tap into this idea that they can be creative and they can be a little bit light-hearted and humorous and it's also a great place for channelling emotions and giving a way, a very safe way of expressing emotion. So there is quite a lot of angry music, cross music about bad things as well as very haunting and beautiful music about difficult and appalling things which could not be expressed just by writing those words boldly on a page, because we are dealing with things that are very personal, intimate and difficult for people.