Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Uncomfortable Pedagogy: decolonising and diversifying the curriculum in Politics, IR, and Sociology by Maia Pal



As the 2016-2017 coordinator for PETAL (Peer-Enhancement of Teaching and Learning) in Politics, IR and Sociology, I organised on 17 February 2017 at Oxford Brookes University an event entitled ‘Uncomfortable Pedagogy: decolonising and diversifying the curriculum in Politics, IR, and Sociology’. This event was aimed at students and teaching staff in our subjects and in follow up of some of the conclusions from the previous PETAL project on ‘The experience of ‘BME’ students at Oxford Brookes’.

The event was attended by approximately 30 people, one half made up of academic staff and the other of students. It was livestreamed on Facebook, with approximately 150 views on the day and currently well over 400. The panel of speakers consisted of 5 individuals: Claire Vergerio, a past Associate Lecturer at Brookes and University of Oxford DPhil candidate involved in curriculum reform; Michaela Opoku-Mensah, a graduate from Brookes and now studying for an MA at the University of Edinburgh in African Studies; Mend Mariwani, a writer and editor working in London for media platforms dedicated to writers of colour such as Media Diversified, Skin Deep, and Bare Lit; Dalila Da Silva Lopez, a current Brookes Level 6 BME student and Politics and IR representative; and myself as a member of our teaching staff.

This blog entry discusses the context in which the structure of the event emerged, some of its main discussion points, and some future directions for both the PETAL and Diversifying the Curriculum projects being pursued at Brookes. Overall, the event was a successful opportunity to engage the student body on a pressing and timely subject that unites teachers' pedagogic and institutional concerns with broader social and community needs. Response from students speaking and participating from the audience was extremely positive and they had expectations and demands for more similar events to take place.

Yet the event also highlighted the complexity, confusions, and broader implications and interpretations of diversifying and decolonising, for which future initiatives and events should be attentive to by narrowing down the scope of discussion to specific areas of implementation. For example, future events could separate discussions regarding the representative constitution of programmes, modules and staff at institutional level from discussions regarding content, textbooks, and disciplinary requirements.

Overall, the aim that most strongly emerges from my analysis and experience of leading this PETAL project is to continue improving communication and transparency between teachers and students on 'what should my curriculum be?' and 'whose job is it to shape the curriculum?' Networking locally and nationally with student union officers, staff trade unions and other campaigns and initiatives would seem an appropriate way to move the project forward and find ways to institutionalise and protect the gains achieved while avoiding overburdening teaching staff without sufficient resources and support.

The BME/BAME Staff Action Group supported by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, which is discussed below and emerged in parallel with - but independently from - the PETAL event, is a promising example of how to continue pursuing some of these goals. Other ideas could be applied to rethinking Brookes's Core Attributes and the Higher Education Academy's UK Professional Standards Framework by including more diversity and decolonising criteria to their requirements.

Background and Broader Context

The event was shaped in continuation of the 2015-2016 PETAL project and one of its major conclusions that 'diverse and alternative perspectives should be included and integrated more thoroughly into the curriculum'. This project was led by Dr. Victoria Browne, and assisted by Dr. Tamsin Barber, who conducted focus groups on ‘The experience of ‘BME’ students at Oxford Brookes’. These took place on Wednesday 13 April 2016 and were attended by 10 students from across Politics, IR, Sociology, Geography and Psychology. Their aim was 'to find out more about how ‘BME’ students experience life at Oxford Brookes, and if there are any ways that we as academic staff can improve their experience and education.'

The need to diversify the range of social backgrounds and ethnic origins of students and staff in academic institutions is based on serious discrepancies in the attainment gap of BME students.[1] Recent figures show that 'only 60 per cent of ethnic minority learners at English universities achieved a first or a 2:1 in 2013-14, compared with 76 per cent of their white peers.' These national trends are also observed at Oxford Brookes University.[2] The fact that some of these students are not performing as well as their colleagues can be partly attributed to an institutional context in which it is more difficult for them to reach university and they have less resources to insure their success. Moreover, the focus groups also revealed the added negative psychological impact that awareness and pressure from the attainment gap can produce. One way in which this problem can be remedied, alongside making more resources available, is to counter the assumption that BME students cannot perform well by making institutions actively promote universities as spaces less dominated by white students and staff.

Towards this end, the event was focused on discussing how such efforts can lead to what Laura Routley has inspired me to call 'uncomfortable pedagogies'. Routley stresses the ‘importance of both teachers and students remaining uncomfortable’, because, with the example of the African context:

‘Teaching Africa within IR carries a responsibility to engage students with the power relations that dominate Africa’s global position and ‘western’ knowledge of the continent… Who is in the class room particularly matters when teaching material embedded in ongoing colonial relations. Disrupting student’s assumptions, such as their alignment with Western actors who will ‘solve’ Africa’s problem, may therefore involve disempowering them. By doing so, it is possible to potentially establish more productive starting points for learning about Africa within IR.’[3]

In other words, uncomfortable pedagogy needs to be understood as the realisation of certain inequalities and disturbing facts and ideas about one’s position in the world - and in the classroom – in order to provide an alternative - and arguably more productive - starting point for teaching and learning.

Concern with the curriculum also follows from a national campaign by the NUS called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ and other campaigns such as 'Why isn't my professor black?' These occurred in parallel to a series of more local campaigns, led by students and staff across the UK organising events and societies around the challenge of decolonising and diversifying curricula, such as notably the Oxford Rhodes Must Fall campaign and others at LSE, SOAS, Queen Mary, Leeds, Sussex, UCL, Edinburgh, Warwick, and Goldsmiths. These campaigns all relate to supporting learning in terms of diversity and explore different pedagogical approaches to delivering content. They also provide the basis to a potentially deeply transformative and wide-ranging movement about the structure and values of higher education. This potential movement has implications at a pedagogical and political level by ensuring widening participation, and acknowledging that supporting learning is a dialectical process that must involve teachers and students.

For example, these campaigns have led to broader public debates in national and international newspapers and various blogs (Media Diversified and Verso Books). As Claire Vergerio, one of the contributors to the event, raised in her talk, attempts such as Professor Karma Nabulsi's project on the Palestinian Revolution are a prime example of efforts to develop teaching resources developed by staff and students to remedy the lack of diversity and discussions of coloniality in politics and IR curricula.[4]

'Uncomfortable Pedagogy': A One Day Event on Diversifying and Decolonising

As I introduced the event to a crowd of both students and staff, I outlined three dimensions in which diversifying and decolonising could be discussed: in terms of topics listed in our curricula; in terms of the social and ethnic background of the staff employed to design and deliver curricula; and thirdly, in terms of the social and ethnic background of authors chosen for the curricula. I used the contents page of a common North American IR textbook to start a discussion with the audience of how they would go about diversifying and decolonising its topics.[5]

Questions asked by myself and by the audience to the speakers included: What is decolonisation in the context of education? How has it impacted your work and study? Do you think there is a growing movement across the UK, and elsewhere forming out of it and/or influencing it? How is it linked to diversifying? What do you think of the notion of 'uncomfortable pedagogy'? What are the main challenges facing efforts to decolonise and diversify? What does decolonising mean for non-BME authors and staff, do they get ‘erased’ from the curriculum? What experiences in the classroom have speakers felt were problematic?

As Claire Vergerio explained, a crucial aspect of improving curricula is to avoid simply adding 'token' topics, staff, or authors so as to in a sense tick the 'diversity and decolonial' box. The deeper issue at stake is epistemological, in the sense that we need to 'change the nature of the questions we're asking' as teachers. She used examples from her experience as part of committees and fora made up of students and staff at the University of Oxford to decolonise the IR and Politics curriculum. She showed on a screen a proposal that has been put forward for how to reshape the syllabus for an intro to IR module in terms of concepts and questions e.g. replacing the concept of anarchy with hierarchy so as to move away from a narrow conception of the history of international relations based on states, and instead should include more the study of empires which is the political organisation which has overwhelmingly dominated human political history.


Students Michaela Opoku-Mensah and Dalila Da Silva Lopez also shared crucial experiences about how they felt their BME backgrounds were not represented, e.g. no or too few modules or topics on African politics, or a lack of library resources. Both students therefore went on exchange programmes but nevertheless were often the only black student on a course on African politics. They discussed how this lack of collective experience was crucial to their pedagogical experience, speaking directly to the need to improve BME staff and student ratios. For Michaela, teaching is crucial because it shapes how we behave as individuals in society. It is not just the opportunity to gain a degree and by extension employment. This goes against assumptions that all students are primarily concerned by their employability, and this makes diversifying and decolonising curricula particularly important, as arguments against these efforts are often made in relation to what students need to know to compete on the job market.

Discussions during the event - from speakers and participants in the audience - proved that students are very mature in their understanding of pedagogy as a social process shaped by power struggles. For example, Michaela discussed the problem of how Black history is overwhelmingly portrayed by slavery and the slave trade, in all the institutions she has been taught at. This is a fundamental way in which Politics, IR and Sociology need to rethink their teaching of history, and acknowledge the implications that ignoring thousands of years of Black history leads to determining the existence of Black people only in relation to that of white colonisers, and only as a story of domination. It is therefore essential to teach the diversity of Black societies and their particular political and social experiences.

Diversifying and Decolonising at Brookes: Future Directions

At Brookes, a BME/BAME Staff Action Group has been set up in 2016-2017 led by Mariama Sheriff as part of the PESE2 Inclusive, Multi-Modal Learning Environment Project focused on Diversifying the Curriculum. My participation in this group, as a representative for the department of Social Sciences, will take into account students and staff's contributions to diversifying and decolonising their pedagogical experiences, and will aim to continue the work of the two PETAL projects presented here.

According to the website, the university-wide project's aims are to:

- increase the visibility of BME/BAME representation in Western contexts;
- improve critical thinking by using taught content to build conceptual frameworks to prevent unconscious bias and challenge assumptions;
- provide varied biographic references (spoken, visual and printed) in taught content;
- sustain work to internationalise reading lists;
- enable all students to gain further insight into their fields of study by looking at a subject through a wider range of lenses (e.g. historical, legal, ethical, cultural, social or political dimensions).

A significant conclusion from the event was the need for more discussion between teachers and students at the beginning of modules or in handbooks about the diversity and coloniality of their module; to discuss what resources are available, and to have more openness about this availability, so that students are made aware that they might need to consult other libraries or find different types of resources. Students might be blaming tutors, who are themselves limited by institutional resources themselves. Therefore, we need to work towards reducing the gap between students’ expectations and staff limitations or conflicting pedagogical considerations.

As participant Mend Mariwani emphasised, the first sense in which we should diversify is in the rapport between staff and students. Moreover, in our efforts to diversify staff, we should avoid relying too much on what we could call 'ghettoising' teaching and research staff, either through specialised institutions such as the SOAS, or by expecting staff from specific backgrounds to only teach about their background. Diversifying should instead be about ensuring that more BAME and working class staff participate in the general curriculum reforms required, and that all staff are involved in updating their teaching.

Mend also stressed that a central problem with initiatives that aim to develop their own work is unpaid labour. It is therefore crucial to institutionalise the work we do and as Mend notes, insure 'ownership', inside and outside the academy. His work in the media sector, for example, is particularly prone to such appropriation. Work in this sector is essential, as Mend shockingly noted that although 30% of London's population is constituted of people of colour, only 3% of the media sector employs people of colour. This concern, he agued, might be more important than diversification which has tended to not look enough into the causes and implications of how to diversify. For Anamik Saha, 'one of the most troubling outcomes of the commodification of diversity, as Leong outlines, is that it pressures individuals into performing their otherness in a way that meets with the approval of the dominant culture.’

Participation in the Staff Action Group at Brookes and in diversifying - and decolonising - the curriculum is therefore an essential initiative to support and provide with resources. It will thereby be able to respond to the general and growing concern regarding persisting inequalities of race, class and gender affecting staff and students, and do so in a continuous, sustained and reflective way to avoid dangers of tokenisation and quick-fix diversification. There is an urgent need for our profession to be more aware of and able to share the various practices it is engaging in to remedy these issues. This follows from NUS and staff-led campaigns across UK HE institutions to acknowledge and act on staff gender pay gaps, BAME student attainment gaps, protect low-paid and immigrant workers on campuses, resist casualisation of teaching staff, and counter the preponderance of Eurocentric 'white' curricula in terms of topics, authors read, and teaching staff.

Finally, these concerns will also be further pursued by my personal research projects on observing, analysing and building relationships with students' 'involvement in rewriting curricula and reworking pedagogic practice'.[6] My past projects have looked at student occupations and other forms of resistance to neoliberal education, and future ones will continue to explore radical and useful ways to produce uncomfortable pedagogies. Mend Mariwani powerfully visualised this process in his intervention. For him, being uncomfortable, such as in a crowded space, means we should 'move aside' and 'make space' for others. Doing so by including more staff and by engaging more with students will only enrich our own teaching and research. Finally, as Dalila Da Silva Lopes also related from her experience in class, it is not sufficient that staff 'don't have time' to cover certain topics and regions, because 'it makes us feel as if we're not important, not relevant'. She reminded me that uncomfortable pedagogies is also about recognising that many students are already 'uncomfortable' everyday, to say the least, by the narrowness of the dominant curriculum. We owe it to them to raise these questions and act on them.




[1] Broecke, S. and Nicholls, T. (2007) Ethnicity and Degree Attainment, Dept. for Education and Skills Research Report RW92
[2] 'Oxford Brookes' performance against widening participation milestones', December 2014, by Sudarshana Chaudari (Strategic Planning Analyst in the Strategic and Business Planning Office)
[3] Routley, Laura (2016) 'Teaching Africa, Presenting, Representing and the Importance of Who Is in the Classroom' Politics 36: 482–94
[4] Karma Nabulsi, professor of politics at the University of Oxford, was recently The Guardian Higher Education Network’s 2017 Inspiring Leader award winner for her project on The Palestinian Revolution.
[5] Grieco J, Ikenberry GJ and Mastanduno M (2015) Introduction to International Relations: Enduring Questions and Contemporary Perspectives. London and New York: Palgrave.
[6] Louiza Odysseos and Maïa Pal (2017) 'Towards Critical Pedagogies of the International? Student Resistance, Other-regardedness and Self-formation in the Neoliberal University', International Studies Perspectives, Online View; Kerem Nisancıoğlu and Maïa Pal (2016) ‘Counter-Conduct in the University Factory: Locating the Occupy Sussex Campaign’, Global Society, Vol. 30, Issue 2, 279-300

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