TeachTalk – Suda Perera

In her TeachTalk, Suda Perera from Sussex University in the UK, explains how her work as a conflict analyst researcher and practitioner has shaped her ideas about the balance of hope and critique in her teaching. She shares how she is equipping her students with toolkits to articulate problems to different audiences, within the parameters of justice and equality. Students also learn to be more comfortable with uncertainty and not knowing or changing their minds. This corresponds to the whole-person learning and critical hope strands of critical-creative pedagogy.

Suda’s Teaching Rainbow

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

I am currently a Lecturer in International Development at the University of Sussex. I trained as a conflict analyst and have worked in the African Great Lakes region, primarily in Rwanda and the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where I specialize in disarmament demobilization and reintegration of soldiers. I wrote my PhD on that and then I moved into practice-based academia, working alongside policymakers and practitioners to do action-lead research in conflict zones. After having children, I transitioned into more traditional academia, in terms of teaching. Now I teach at Sussex, courses on gender and violence and conflict, from a decolonial perspective.


What does this idea of critical-creative pedagogy mean to you, and how does it relate to your own pedagogic practice?

One of the things that really attracted me to teaching at Sussex and particularly International Development was its ethos of critical hope. That’s something that has always been quite hard to get the balance right, in my background as a practitioner and working with practitioners. People are very hopeful because they need to be; they need to believe in the good that they’re doing and they sometimes push ahead with things because they think it’s better than nothing.


And then, when you come to academia, people are incredibly critical because they see all the structural problems and the practice problems that underpin a lot of development work. And I am trying to get a balance between these two things. When we are teaching students, a lot of them want to go and work in the development industry and they’re motivated by this overwhelming desire to do good, to act in solidarity. And it can be quite disheartening when they hear about all the horrors of the development industry, its colonial nature and all those things. But what I try and do is push this idea that we can do better, and that by critically engaging with the problems, we can try and solve those problems or work towards making those problems be less problematic. And so, for me this kind of critical creativity is yes, pointing out where we’ve gone wrong but also thinking of creative ways to address those problems.


As academics, we take a lot of the hope out, which can be quite demoralizing for students. But actually if we look back – I’m just thinking about when I was an undergraduate and the way that I was learning about the world of development, as part of politics and international relations, we were learning about development in incredibly problematic ways. We were really pushing forward the white savior complexes, and there were none of these discussions about power relations and coloniality that are integral to the courses we are teaching now. So I think we do need to look at how far we’ve come, as well as saying ‘don’t rest on our laurels, things can be better.’


In your own classrooms, what are some of your creative teaching practices and how are students learning from them?

I like to think of equipping students with toolkits. And I say, we can be critical and we can point out these problems, but then so what? Having a good vocabulary with which to articulate these problems, to be able to show other people that these problems have deep roots that are structural and to show how they manifest on different levels – the global, societal, individual – all of this is really important in effecting change. So what I try and do in the classroom is really get students to understand these different levels of analysis and think about how they can talk about it to people who might not have done these courses, and how they can talk about it to friends and family at home, how they might be able to challenge and bring this up in the workplace when they’re working in development settings. That is really what I see as the core of what I’m trying to teach people. I’m not trying to teach them that anything is particularly right or wrong, but I’m getting them to analyze a problem through these lenses and to think of the bigger picture. And that’s really where I think the creativity comes in, to zoom out and see what is the bigger picture and what do individual actions or individual interventions mean for those bigger pictures.


At the core of everything I teach is that the personal is political. None of us, particularly myself, come to these subjects from a neutral, dispassionate and un-invested position. We come to learn about these subjects because they are personally interesting to us. But that obviously then shapes what we feel is interesting, what motivates us to learn, what we want to do with that knowledge, and I try at the very beginning to get students to reflect on that.


And I do it myself, I show them how I do it, the background I came from and some of the ideas that I might have been previously closed off to, and that I suddenly realized are quite important. I personally talk about my own resistance to thinking about gender or identifying as a feminist, precisely because of the way that when I was studying pigeonholed people into focusing only on women’s issues. For me, as a conflict analyst, the stuff that interested me was militarized masculinities and I didn’t want to just focus on women’s issues. And one of the things I say about gender is it’s not just about women, it’s about relations between genders and of thinking about how power relations are framed from a gendered perspective.


But that took me a lot of time. It took me many years to come to that understanding of gender. And I do this activity called River of Life to show what changed my mind, what shaped my views and to also make students feel comfortable with the idea that at some point, I didn’t know about this stuff, at some point I was quite resistant to certain ideas which are quite fundamental to my understanding now. And I hope that inspires students to feel okay with not knowing and with being a bit uncomfortable or changing their mind. I think sometimes the view of academia is that you need to be definitive and certain and you need to argue your position assertively and you can’t say ‘I don’t know.’ But actually that’s really not what learning is about, it is about saying ‘I don’t know, I need to learn this or I’m not sure.’ So the River of Life is really a way to get students to understand that they’ve made that journey their whole lives and that they’re still on that journey and that I’m still on that journey and to also make students feel that it’s okay to have an opinion that might not be considered appropriate right now and that might be changed later.


How do students learn from these more open-ended and creative approaches?

The way they learn is by constant questioning. For example, in my gender courses we deal a lot with the idea of patriarchy, as a system where men hold relative positions of power compared to women. There is resistance and push back to that, not just from men but from women as well who could point out a whole range of men who they don’t believe have privilege and are suffering at the hands of various systems. And from that we then ask the question ‘who is benefiting from patriarchy?’ If we take the very valid point that not all men benefit from patriarchy, what does that tell you about patriarchy as a system? Why is that a defence of patriarchy? If actually no one is benefiting then surely that’s even more reason to think about dismantling that system. It’s really about taking on your initial reactions and examples and asking yourself ‘okay, so why then are we thinking about this as a system that should be upheld? And how does it interact with other systems? If we think about something like gender, how does that interact with race or class or related issues of cis-privilege or heteronormativity?’ So there’s a lot to think about and we can’t isolate something in its own little bubble. Because if you do, you can point out to lots of exceptions, so that’s more reason to bring in other analytical frames and think about other issues.


And then, what do you want to do with that? Do you want to point out that there is power everywhere, and we need to analyze things in relation to power and think about how those power relations can be redistributed or how we can uplift people who are oppressed by that power? It is really important, I think, at the beginning of a class to think what is it we want to achieve, what it is that underpins what we’re trying to achieve? And then the debate happens within that. So we start a class and I say ‘we have to be motivated here by ideas of justice and equality, and if we’re not interested in issues of justice and equality then we don’t have a common ground on which we are studying.’ And I think the students are quite open to that because I say ‘if we are not interested in justice and equality at the heart of what we’re learning, then I’m not sure what I can teach you in this course. But if justice and equality are the end goal we want to get to, then there’s a lot to teach.’ So it’s about both narrowing the parameters to focus on something specific but also then widening the lenses with which we look at that. And there is debates about what we mean by justice and equality, and we have those debates within the classroom. But I do like to set a kind of parameter of where that debate happens.


So in my Building Peace after War module, I start by looking at a very wide spectrum. And I say ‘on the one hand you have a Hobbesian world of war of all against all where everyone is selfish and out for themselves and violence takes place, because everyone is fighting everyone. And then, on the other hand, you have this kind of utopia where everyone’s maximum potential is fulfilled, and they have this life of justice and any kind of tension is resolved in a perfectly fair and just way. And then in the middle of that you have a world where you accept that violence will happen and people will be maximizing their own interests, but you install some kinds of mechanisms in which to manage that, so that it doesn’t end up with everyone killing everyone.’ And if we argue to the middle then that’s just the world we have now, so there’s not really much to teach the students, because they can just look around them and then go home.


So I say ‘what this course is trying to do, it actually starts at that middle. That’s the world we have now and we’re actually moving towards that utopia.’ That utopia is not something that can be easily achieved and there’s no clear way in which to achieve it. So the debate lies in how do we create these mechanisms, how do we create these understandings, these norms, these values and beliefs that can push us towards acting in solidarity towards each other and not necessarily being self-serving, and towards working out ways to distribute power and resources in ways that are the most fair and just.


If we set that utopia as the goal, then we have really interesting debates about how the world can be better, if not perfect, whereas if we are just arguing to the middle we’ll just end up with what we’ve got right now. And I think it is that thing of keeping hope alive that things can get better and not feeling so hopeless that you just want to give up. But also then not feeling so complacent and saying, you know, the world is better than it was 50 years ago so let’s just stop.