New academic subjects

This tapestry in my office keeps reminding me of the richness of academic work

I have been working on a draft of the book’s first chapter, which explores different strands of critical and decolonial pedagogy and how they relate to the critical-creative pedagogy I am developing. As I am writing, I keep coming back to what kind of educators or indeed academics would be interested in teaching in a critically hopeful way, which I want to explore in this post.

This book journey really started when I first read Gibson-Graham’s article on ‘performative practices for other worlds,’ when I was still working in Auckland. I was immediately struck by the article’s hopefulness coming from their advocacy for a ‘reparative, non-judgemental affective stance that might enable us to inhabit a diverse . . . landscape of possibility.’ This deeply resonated with the kind of academic I wanted to be, although finding that identity was not easy. I had been disciplined in the highly competitive and critical intellectual climate of the Anthropology department at UC Berkeley, by supervisors steeped in post-structuralist theory. I therefore could relate to Gibson-Graham’s observation that ‘at present we are trained to be discerning, detached and critical so that we can penetrate the veil of common understanding and expose the root causes and bottom lines that govern the phenomenal world. This academic stance means that most theorizing is tinged with skepticism and negativity, not a particularly nurturing environment for hopeful, inchoate experiments.’ To move away from this scepticism asks that we occupy not only a different stance vis-a-vis theory but also a different academic identity, one that is not uncritical, but less critical and more affirmative. It is about not knowing beforehand whether experiments will fail but holding spaces of possibility open long enough for them to have a change to germinate and maybe grow.

Working in a small Development Studies postgraduate program at the University of Auckland, I increasingly found myself wanting to critique less and create more. My journey was slow, but as Sarah Amsler, whose work on the pedagogies of possibility has been another source of inspiration, reminds us in this paper: ‘it is legitimate to dreams in steps rather than leaps.’ To me this means that we can undergo personal and professional transformations at our own pace, as long as we don’t stand still or go backwards. Amsler elaborates that ‘rethinking the meaning of the higher educator may require the unlearning of traditional approaches to theoretisation which privilege performativity over humble co-operation, abstraction over praxis, individual knowing over collective learning, and monological solution-given over dialogical inquiry.’ It demands a substantial change in how we think about what we do as academics: how we teach, with whom we conduct research and how we relate to colleagues, professional staff, students and the world beyond the academy. For me these changes have mostly happened in the classroom, as I have moved away from standard lectures and seminar discussions to introduce the creative, interactive and experiential activities that are at the heart of my book.

Such changes take courage, as we open ourselves up to discomfort, critique and the possibility of rejection or failure. Indeed, courage is one of the words used by all educators writing about transformational teaching, including Paolo Freire, the Brazilian humanist educator. He reflected on the fear that gives rise to such courage and what both might be signs of: ‘ the more you recognize your fear as a consequence of your attempt to practice your dream, the more you learn how to put into practice your dream!’ In his Letters to Those who Dare to Teach, Freire also emphasized the importance of teachers’ humility grounded in respect for self and others, self-confidence, a renunciation of fatalism, and above all persistence to always ‘begin anew, to make, to reconstruct, and not to spoil, to refuse to bureaucratize the mind.’ Making and reconstruction, rather than just critical deconstruction, are important ingredients of a critical-creative pedagogy.

Of course, none of these practices are happening in a vacuum, and in the UK we work in a highly neoliberalized and managerialized university system. I have also written previously about my particular location at the University of Sussex, with its performative radicalism. So where are the possible spaces for actions within these institutions, or as Boaventura de Sousa Santos put it, how do we teach revolutionary ideas in reactionary institutions? At Sussex, academics still have much freedom in designing our own courses (or modules as they are called here), with only a short form to fill out to show Learning Outcomes and assessment information and approval given by sympathetic managers at the school level. This translates into openings into which we can insert creative and subversive practices, and while I was heading up the International Development department, I very much encouraged the teaching of critical hope among colleagues. As I will show in my book, this has led to many experiments in our collective teaching with the aim to unsettle, provoke and disrupt, with enthusiastic reactions from (most) students. Enacting these hopeful academic subjectivities, however cautious they might be, will always be fraught with contradictions and ambiguities, as is any working from within the belly of the beast. But we can also think of these as forms of prefigurative politics within the academy, where we enact in the here and now the visions we have for the future.

If you are interested in reading how all of this might look in practice before my book comes out, here is a bravely reflexive account by Wendy Harcourt at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, chronicling her redesign – very much in the spirit of a critical-creative pedagogy – of a flagship MA course around postdevelopment and the reactions of staff and students to it. I took much heart from one of the student comments she received: ‘you can’t imagine how students treasure the professors willing to take the kind of risks you take.’ Enjoy the read!

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