This Little Light of Mine …
My blog turns one year old this month! I still remember, about a year ago after signing my book contract with Bristol University Press, going for a walk on the South Downs and deciding, on a whim, to start this blog. Normally I would think something like this over and over and over and then not do it, but for some reason, last December I decided to just go for it. Little did I know then what a year it would be. Writing the book kept me steady through its ups and downs, and sharing my thoughts along the way has been very enjoyable. I thought I would mark this first anniversary by giving a short summary of the first chapter of my book, on remaking academic subjectivities.
In an earlier post I asked what kind of academics/educators might be interested in using critical-creative pedagogy in their classrooms, findings answers in the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham, Paulo Freire, Sarah Amsler and Wendy Harcourt. In chapter 1, I expand on this question, situating it firstly in the broader context of the neoliberalized university regime and resistance to it by critical pedagogy. Grounded in the intellectual tradition of the Frankfurt School, Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault, critical pedagogy reaches from John Dewey to Freire and fellow Brazilian Augusto Boal. The latter’s experimental Theatre for the Oppressed, together with the work of Maxine Greene, added the arts as an important experiential dimension of critical pedagogy. More recently, Sarah Amsler and Henri Giroux, among others, have advanced some of the strongest critiques of neoliberalized universities, often painting a bleak and depressing picture but also finding sites of resistance and possibility within and without universities.
The chapter then charts efforts to decolonize the Westernized university, following the mapping work done by Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti and her colleagues, as well the work of Ramon Grosfoguel and Boaventura de Sousa Santos. Crucially, decolonization includes a multitude of initiatives, which can have diverse and contested aims and investments. Interventions range from weak to strong, from diversity efforts to radical campaigns beyond the traditional university, and educators often make use of several of these approaches at the same time. There is strength in diversity and difference. The Latin American sub-versities explored by De Sousa Santos, such as the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca, provide inspiring alternatives emerging from decolonizing struggles often connected to indigenous activism.
Shifting the focus to students, the chapter then unpacks the saviorism – the desire to save poor people, often in exotic locations – that animates some students’ interest in studying, especially in the global development field where I teach. Other students come to their studies after experiencing for themselves the shortcomings of voluntourism; one student told me in her journey interview that ‘coming to Sussex was like a breath of fresh air and quite therapeutic, because I could unpick what had gone wrong in South Africa,’ where she had spent the summer volunteering at a school. Whatever direction students are coming from, they realize early on in their studies the idealism and naivete that often brings them to study development, together with ambitions to work for the UN or other large development organizations.
The core courses that students at Sussex have to take in their first year disrupt this savior narrative, using critical pedagogies that discuss forms of privilege and their intersections with diverse identities and experiences. In courses such as Colonialism and After students learn about the impact of British colonialism, which is a eye-opener for many students who have been subjected to the white-washed UK high-school history curriculum. It can also be very unsettling, with students questioning how they could not have known about this history until know and what it means for them. One student described her learning as provoking ‘an existential crisis, asking why am I here?,’ and others told me that they finished their first year feeling cynical, worn down and hopeless. As educators we must be aware that our teaching can have such of these effects and take responsibility for them, rather than simply celebrating them as enlightening students or seeing them as necessary initiations into critical thinking.
Instead, critical-creative pedagogy searches for ways in which the necessary critiques of colonialism, neoliberalism and the mainstream development industry can be combined with introducing students to alternatives, and in the book I present many examples of such teaching at Sussex and other universities. A module that used to be taught by Andrea Cornwall when she was at Sussex involved students in writing alternative world histories, researching the contributions of other cultures and civilizations alongside the disruptions often brought upon them by external forces. Other courses show students that slaves and other colonized people resisted their oppressors, also drawing on the work of Gurminder Bhambra. My colleague Beth Mills uses body mapping in some of her classes to invite students to explore questions of identity, power and their own places in the world. Body mapping is exemplary of whole-person learning and the use of art and design practices, two of the strands of critical-creative pedagogy, because it involves students’ intellects, hands and bodies, working with artistic materials to craft outlines of their bodies and filling them with colors, images and words that give material expression to their experiences in the world. It leads to different engagements between students and teachers, as ‘we are all sitting on the floor, getting dirty’ as Mills describes it, and among students who encounter themselves and each other in more embodied and holistic ways. The second learning activity described in the chapter is from my own Urban Futures class, a final year undergraduate class, where students write a collective Brighton Manifesto based on their own experiences of inhabiting the city combined with urban theories such as Henri Lefebvre’s rights to the city.
… let it shine!
As this difficult year is drawing to a close, I am starting to think about re-entering the classroom in a month’s time, after a year-long teaching break. I look forward to learning from my colleagues’ experiences of adapting their teaching to COVID blended modes, while also drawing on my own learning from writing my book, in the process thinking much more systematically and coherently about why I teach the way I teach. When I set out on this journey a year ago, I had lots of ideas, inspirations and ideations. Now, a year later, I have a manuscript (with reviewers’ comments expected in January) and an even stronger belief in the importance of combining critique and creativity to enable students to better understand and imagine alternative responses to contemporary challenges. I will also keep writing this blog, although maybe not as frequently as I expect to be very busy, as a space to share my ongoing thoughts with like-minded travelers on this journey. For now, be well and stay safe and healthy these holidays, however you celebrate them.