What’s critical-creative pedagogy?

Hoberman Sphere Breathing Exercise - KIWI Magazine
What’s a critical-creative pedagogy anyway?

Having just finished the first draft of my last chapter, which is focusing on practice to see how students are using their learning to actually imagine and enact alternative futures, I now have a much better idea of what the central concept of my book – a critical-creative pedagogy – is. This clarity emerging through the writing process has been one of my favorite aspects of this journey, seeing the contours of my ruminations, explorations and descriptions taking shape over days and weeks, as if emerging from the mist of my thoughts, hazy and faint at first until they become visible and (temporarily) solidified in words on the screen and on paper, to be shared with colleagues and friends for discussion. For every chapter, this process has been nerve-wracking, exciting, humbling and gratifying all at the same time.

Pedagogical core elements

Coming back to critical-creative pedagogy and its four core elements:

  • The first one is ‘whole-person learning,’ a term I borrow from Alison James and Stephen Brookfield who have written a lot on creative education. For me, whole-person learning has experiential, embodied and emotive aspects, all of which invite students to bring not only their intellects but also their bodies, feelings and senses into the classroom. In addition, students’ own past and present experiences – in the class, on campus and outside university – are important sources of knowledge that can inform their own and their peers’ learning. Encouraging whole-person learning needs educators’ care, support and courage.
  • A second element is the incorporation of creative methods from the arts and design. Creative pieces such as novels and poems and visual ones such as paintings and drawings, which students can study but better yet create themselves, ‘give play to our imagination,’ as Maxine Greene has so beautifully shown. Design thinking and practices can help students identify wicked problems and develop their capacity for open-ended inquiry and iterative experimentation. Students learn to become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty as well as the absence of (easy) solutions or even answers to complex questions. Design also draws attention to the materiality of learning and the importance of learning spaces.
  • The third strand is found in praxis, understood in the Freirean sense of action informed by theory, reflection and dialogue. Praxis means that a critical-creative pedagogy engages with global challenges not in a contemplative mode but in a forward-looking one that considers possible responses, especially heterodox ones, and how students could work towards creating them individually and collectively. Praxis therefore incorporates elements of problem-based, practical and applied learning, but always embedded within critical thinking and analysis. That’s what distinguishes it from market-drive agendas such as employability or work skills.
  • Last but certainly not least the fourth strand is critical hope. A critical-creative pedagogy encourages students to assume a hopeful stance, in an informed and reflexive way where hope is aware of its own conditions of possibility. This does not mean hope as unrealistic optimism or naïve solutionism but as an educated engagement with contemporary challenges.

And what does it look like?

Expanding and contracting toy spheres create a surprisingly dramatic effect  for this art installation
Like this?
(Photo credit https://www.contemporist.com/expanding-and-contracting-toy-spheres-art-installation/

How are these four elements coming together into a critical-creative pedagogy? Trying to walk my own talk, I have experimented with different images and metaphors to materialize it, to give it shape and feel and concreteness. At first I thought of it as a platfrom with four legs, almost like a table. From an earlier critical take on the noun platform as a supposedly neutral container used by technology organizations (following writers such as Gillespie), I have become more appreciative of the verb platforming as a way to enable different people and groups to come together and have a shared basis for diverse projects. But then that image felt too square, too mechanical for what I had in mind, so I started thinking of spheres as more organic shapes.

And then I remembered a toy my boys used to love when they were smaller, which is best described as an expandaball, a ball that contracts and expands thanks to hinged joints. The original toy, known as the Hoberman sphere, was developed by architect Chuck Hoberman in the 1980s, who called it ‘pure play.’ For Hoberman the toy design was a mix between an art project and a geometry exploration – a perfect combination for the multiplicity at the heart of a critical-creative pedagogy. There are now many different (knock-off) versions, unfortunately all still plastic as far as I can tell, but colorful, inviting and intuitive to use.

Coming back to critical-creative pedagogy imagined as an expandaball, the four elements are strands crossing over each other and supporting each other and thereby forming the sphere, which can be as small or as big as one would like it to be.

It’s ok to dream in steps rather than leaps (following Sarah Amsler)

This means that a critical-creative pedagogy can be used for small-scale, one-of experiments in the classroom to see how it works, how much effort it takes, how comfortable it feels. Or it can be large, being applied to the redesign of whole courses, containing many different ideas, participants and activities. Or it can move between the two, depending on context, need and inclinations. This indeed is the philosphy behind this pedagogy and my book.

I envision them as starting points for reflections and conversations and as an invitation to explore some of their ideas in practice. Creative Universities aims to be provocative rather than prescriptive, experimental rather than exhaustive. In the book I share my own insights and activities, as well as the work of my colleagues at Sussex and students’ reactions to our teaching, to encourage readers to imagine possible applications and adaptations in their own classrooms. In this sense, the book is an example of an ‘anti-methods pedagogy’ (to borrow a term from Donaldo Macedo) that does not offer precise methodological recipes or ready-made pedagogical solutions. Instead, it provides a map to enable readers to retrace my journey and in the process forge their own paths, with courage and perseverance. As Paolo Freire wrote in his Letter to Those who Dare to Teach: ‘it is impossible to teach without the courage to try a thousand times before giving up.’

I am now trying to draw or design my own expandaball version of a critical-creative pedagogy, for inclusion in the book. Would love to know how that image works for you.

Former Greenwich resident Chuck Hoberman holds the Hoberman Sphere, a toy he invented that was on display recently at the opening of the Museum of Mathematics in New York City, as he sits under his Hoberman Arch, which he built for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo: Contributed Photo
Hoberman sits underneath the Hoberman Arch and holds a sphere. Credit https://www.greenwichtime.com/news/article/Spheres-of-influence-Hoberman-makes-his-mark-as-4146719.php

Education, technology, futures

Is this the future we want?

Universities are preparing for the (virtual) return of hundreds of thousands of students, getting ready to teach them using a blended learning approach that will combine mainly remote teaching with some face-to-face small group interactions. This is thus a good time to take a moment and reflect on the changing assumptions about teaching and technology brought on by the COVID pandemic, which are closely connected to different visions of educational futures. This is a sligthly more academic and less colorful post, but I hope you find it a useful and enjoyable read nevertheless.

I wrote part of my book in the spring of this year and during April and May was getting quite anxious about my entire project. I love face-to-face (f2f) teaching, encountering students in the classroom, feeling their energy, moving them around the room and given them materials to work with – what I like about teaching are many things difficult to replicate in an online environment. All the learning activities described in my book are therefore meant to be f2f activities, although on reflection I realized that some of them could be undertaken remotely/virtually. Still, was I writing a book that was becoming obsolote as I was putting the words unto paper (well, the computer screen)? That initial panic has passed, although I have realized that a short paragraph in the book’s introduction about digital classroom technologies won’t quite suffice anymore. But I don’t think anymore that f2f teaching will disappear, although I realize that for many educators and students, resuming f2f teaching and learning in the autumn is not an option for health and other reasons and that remote teaching will enable their pedagogical practices.

As universities were forced to move to remote teaching because of lockdowns, in the process in a fell swoop (and often very conveniently) overcoming different actors’ individual and institutional resistances to online teaching, it probably seemed a bit of a dream come true to the technology evangelists. But now, with these restrictions easing, we can and should take the time to have a closer look at some of the assumptions of virtual teaching. Here the work of Keri Facer can be a great guide, and indeed this post in inspired by her article on ‘governing education through the future‘ I recently read.

Facer argues that introduction of digital technologies in schools, and I would argue the same holds true for universities, has too often merely resulted in ‘digital accounting systems that have come to both responsiblise and punish learners, enabling surveillance and an ever more narrow definition of education as ‘techno-cratic preparation for employment.‘ No matter how visionary the narratives of the empowering and enabling potential of technologies in the classroom are, because they are embedded in social, political and economic contexts, if these are ‘competitive, individualised, exploitative – the technologies will be harnessed to those agendas. In and of themselves technologies will neither liberate nor transform education.’ Like in the international development area where I work, technologies are not panaceas.

Facer also argues that ideas about educational technologies are intimately wrapped up with ideas about educational futures. She distinguishes three main ideas:

  • Firstly, ‘the future as a landscape for rational choice making’ with education contributing to making the future known, identifying preferable actions and assessing the impact of decisions. If COVID has taught us anything, it is the fallacy of such instrumentalist assumptions.
  • Secondly, a colonial orientation aims to persuade students of particular visions of the future, be they progressive or conservative, and to shape their attitudes and behaviour towards these. While this is an enticing proposition for many educators, myself included, it needs to acknowledge its own ethical agendas, potential conflicts of interest and possible temptation for adults to abdicate their responsibilities towards present challenges.
  • Thirdly, education can be seen to serve as a bulwark against an unknown and potentially dystopian future and becomes the silver bullet that will solve all problems. Here, Facer cites HG Wells‘ ‘civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe’.

These ideas not only overestimate the power of education and neglect the importance of other factors, but they also disconnect education from its wider moorings and ‘fetishize educational success as a means of achieving personal and social goods.’ By contrast, when futures are seen as sites of possibility to be explored by students rather than being predetermined by adults and educators, educational spaces can become places of experimentation for potential alternative futures, which is also the main argument of my book.

Facer proposes five orientations towards such alternative educational futures:

  • Modelling can encourage students to create models of potential futures, be they artistic, mathematical or scientific.
  • Stewardship fosters practices of care and restoration of diversity through the humanities and ecological sciences.
  • Reflexivity, as taught by the social sciences but also statistics, enables students to critically interrogate narratives of the future.
  • Disciplinarity teaches students the different ways in which disciplines make sense of new information, also with an eye to encouraging transdisciplinarity.
  • Experimentation allows students to imagine and create different futures, using art and design, engineering or computing and the social sciences.

All of these orientations are relevant for the critical-creative pedagogy I am proposing. The futures they help create are unknown and stand in complex and non-linear relationships with the past and present. The five orientations have the potential to become powerful tools for pedagogical practices that use imagination and creativity to help students better understand and work towards alternative futures. To realize this potential, universities must become accountable to the publics whose futures are being shaped by academic work  and must think more clearly about what kind of students they want to educate.

This also involves shifting the current neoliberal HE paradigm. Having recently written about complexity and systems thinking to help students better understand and address ecological challenges, I learned about leverage points where small changes can lead to systems-level transformations. Could more informed thinking about and implementation of technologies in the classroom, connected to engaged and emancipatory educational futures, be such a leverage point?

Researching teaching

Word cloud summary of keywords in flipped classroom research ...

Last Wednesday was results day at Sussex, when third year undergraduate finalists get their marks and degree outcomes. Usually it is a day fill with anticipation, joy and relief (and sometimes disappointment), food and conversations – a day of conviviality to celebrate student achievements. This year there was of course none of that, at least not on campus, although I know that some of our students had socially-distant celebrations on Brighton beach. This time of the year is also an important one for my project, as between the end of term and results day I conduct student journey interviews with finalists. These interviews are an important part of the research for this book, which I want to write about today.

Creative Universities is a creative, performative project that bring together various theories, disciplines and activities to make the possibilities of social science teaching contributing to students imagining alternative futures more present, credible and viable in the HE classroom. As I wrote when I set up the blog, I got the inspiration for this book from my own 15 years of teaching experiences in the field of Global Development and Anthropology in Berkeley, Auckland and now Sussex. Over the last three years, I have conducted systematic research, consisting of interviews with staff and students, in-class observations and action-research inspired experimentation in my own classroom. All of these methods inform the teaching activities that I describe in my chapters.

Classroom observations

One such activity was the Designing Back from the Future exercise in my urban futures module. Other examples from this module include students writing an urban manifesto for how to make Brighton a more livable city and mapping campus infrastructures in a form of outdoor learning about ecological issues. Being able to use my own classroom as an experimental space has been incredibly insightful as I can observe students’ engagement in and reactions to the activities, often followed up by a short survey and longer interviews with a few students, together with my own thoughts and feelings. (In-class research raises a number of ethical issue: the ethics approval for my research covered things such as informed consent and confidentiality, while none of my activities I included in the book were assessed).

Science and Culture: Can climate change games boost public ...
The board game Keep Cool involves players deciding whether to build carbon-emitting or carbon-neutral factories. Credit: Keep Cool GBR

I also conducted observations in some of my colleagues’ classrooms. The most memorable was a term of observing students designing and playing serious games to learn experientially and creatively about climate change related risk and uncertainty. There are dozens of climate change related games, many of them online, and they are increasingly used to teach students of all ages about the climate crisis. What was remarkable about the Sussex class was that students designed their own games and then played them with each other. I will write more about this soon, but as a novice to the use of games as an educational method, it was an eye-opening experience to observe students embracing an activity that was new for many of them and creating an amazing variety of games. I also sat in on a module where students learn practical and hands-on skills about development projects. I had planned to do more observations this spring, which unfortunately did not happen. Alongside these observations I conducted interviews with colleagues where they shared their activities with me. Throughout these interviews I have been inspired by the pedagogical passion of my fellow educators, who are embodying the academic subjectivities I wrote here. Conversations with them have also strengthened my confidence that a critical-creative pedagogy can help students imagine and create alternative ways of addressing current challenges, something we call teaching critical hope. And that brings me back to the students, whose voices, stories and experiences are central to my research.

Student journeys

In the journey interviews with students at the end of their degree, I ask them about their overall experiences studying International Development and related social sciences at Sussex. I ask how their views of global development and bringing about change more generally might have changed from when they started uni, often as enthusiastic but by their own admissions sometimes naive and idealistic young people wanting to change the world. They talk about how they have become more knowledgeable, critical and aware, but sometimes also a bit less hopeful, more cynical and disillusioned (hence the need for my book). They talk about particular modules they liked and found transformative. I also ask them to describe their studies in three words, which brings many surprising answers (I am working on the word cloud right now). Questions about how creative their teaching has been and how it could be made more so are particularly instructive, showing students’ desire to bring their own ideas, experiences and skills into the classroom and to apply their learning to practical situations. I thank all the students who have participated in my research over the years.

Especially this year, with all the upheaval caused by strikes and COVID, I have been amazed by the positive attitude of the students I talked to and their ability to still enjoy their learning amidst disruption, uncertainty and worry. I am therefore especially excited that a few of them, such as Ruthie Walters, have agreed to write guest posts, starting to fulfill a vision I had from the beginning for this blog to be a meeting place for like-minded educational travelers to exchange ideas. The first post by Ruthie focuses on the intersection of academic and activism, and the second, by Cristina Cano, explores the productive tensions of double degrees. In the third post, Lydia Bennett-Li is reflecting on how a year-long placement in India shaped her post-university journey in unexpected ways. In the final post, Kendra Quinn uses her experience of an Arts Foundation year before coming to Sussex to reflect on the challenges of making social science teaching more creative. I hope that you will enjoy these posts by the students as much as I do.

Thank you Ruthie, Cris, Lydia and Kendra and congratulations on everybody’s achievements.

Congratulations to Lantern Competition Winners! – Cultural ...

A different kind of theory

What do we see in winter trees – negative or positive spaces?

I have been working on the theoretical framework for my critical-creative pedagogy. Once again, I find myself drawing on Gibson-Graham’s writings in their book Postcapitalist Politics, where they interrogate contemporary (leftist) theorizing about capitalism and neoliberalism to argue for a different kind of theory that can better support the emergence of alternatives. Following their lead, I develop a theory that at the moment goes by a number of possible names: capacious/expansive/generous/generative/reparative.

I fully agree with Gibson-Graham’s observation that ‘we are trained to be discerning, detached and critical so that we can penetrate the veil of common understanding and explore the root causes and bottom lines that govern the phenomenal world. This academic stance means that most theorizing is tinged with scepticism and negativity, not a particularly nurturing environment for hopeful, inchoate experiments’ (618, all quotes are taken from this GG article). More specifically, and drawing on Eve Sedgewick, Walter Benjamin and Saul Newman, Gibson-Graham find the sources of such negative theorizing in academic paranoia that is all-knowing to protect itself against surprises, in melancholia that looks back towards certainties, and in moralism that aims for the purity of powerlessness. Taken together, these practices ‘render the world effectively uncontestable,’ which also forecloses the possibility to develop any kind of credible alternatives.

To develop their own alternative theorizing, Gibson-Graham draw on Sedgewick’s writing on weak theory that supports rather than discredits the emergence of alternatives. In contrast to strong theory that dismisses experimental or alternative practices as always already co-opted, tainted or inadequate, which in turn reinforces dominant political-economic structures, weak theory adopts a beginner’s mind that refuses to know too much. It has a reduced reach, localized purview, attenuated explanations to create spaciousness into which possibilities can grow, rather than foreclose them from the outset with overwhelming or destructive critique. Such weak theory is undertaken with a ‘reparative motive that . . . cares for the new’ (619).

Because I don’t really like the connotations of weak, I am exploring different terms for my theoretical approach. I like reparative in reference to a theory that seeks to repair rather than discard, that is about diagnosing problems, failings, punctures etc and then taking a partial, humble but proactive approach to addressing them. It is not about grand, absolute or technical solutionism but about finding work arounds, accommodations, fixes, however incomplete and imperfect they may be. I also like generous or expansive because this theory has an experimental and open stance, an attention to multiplicity and ambiguity. It seeks connections and collaborations. It is willing to consider rather than judge, interested in building rather than tearing down. It embraces the unexpected and celebrates surprise. And I like generative because it is about creating something, imaging and working towards new possibilities.

Whether to practice reparative/generous/generative theory is not only a pedagogical decision but also ‘a political/ethical decision that influences what kinds of worlds we can imagine and create, ones in which we enact and construct’ (619). It is a commitment to being willing to become a condition of possibility rather than impossibility, to use academic practices to nurture the experimental, to support the new and to care for the emerging. It does not mean suspending critique, but to put it second-place. But it also does not mean to deny or ignore the existence of oppressive and exploitative systems and structures that work against the realization of possibilities. Rather, an alternative theory ‘simply encourages us to deny these forces as fundamental, structural, or universal reality and to instead identify them as contingent outcomes of ethical decisions, political projects, and sedimented localized practices,’ as Gibson-Graham put it in their own explorations of Postcapitalist Politics.

If, after reading this, you have any suggestions of which of my three or four terms works best, please let me know. Thank you!

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!

The Sussex Spirit?

Opening page of the Sussex 2025 Strategic Framework document

I have undertaken most of the empirical research for my book at Sussex University, where I have been working since 2014. In this post, I want to unpack this particular academic location a bit more.

The University of Sussex, a public university just outside Brighton, was founded in 1961 as the first of the new or ‘plate glass’ universities set up by the UK government after WWII. The term was coined by Michael Beloff in reference to the new architectural style of these universities –  using steel and glass rather than red brick and a traditional Oxbridge look. The Sussex University design by Sir Basil Spence (who incidentally also designed the new Coventry Cathedral after the original was destroyed during a massive Nazi air raid in 1940 and the Beehive, the seat of the New Zealand Parliament in Wellington) was  inspired by the beauty of the surrounding South Downs National Park  (which also makes Sussex the only UK university to be located in a National Park). It was more of a combination of the old and new as many of the university’s buildings are dominated by red brick (now mainly greyed by age and pollution), with the initial buildings organized around a  central quadrangle with modernist arches. Today, while students might still appreciate the modernist architecture, they mainly get lost in the mazes that have been purposely designed in many buildings.

What was new about Sussex was its break with academic traditions through progressive and interdisciplinary teaching, materializing in a school system that was unique for the times. Sussex also developed a reputation for student radical activism, supporting anti-apartheid and anti-Vietnam war struggles (including a group of students preventing then government advisor Samuel Huntington from speaking on campus in 1973 and throwing red paint over a visiting US diplomat). Closer to home, student dissatisfaction was manifested through boycotts of assessments as a form of social control, student protests, (rent) strikes and the periodic occupations of administrative buildings, as chronicled by Ed Goddard, a Sussex alum. Students also enjoyed concerts by legends such as Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. The forerunner to the School of Global Studies, where I teach, was AFRAS (School of African and Asian Studies), which became known for challenging existing ideas around race and gender, hosting scholars and activists from global South and counting among its alumni activists such as Helen Pankhurst.

In the late 1960s, the United Nations asked a team of experts at Sussex for science policy recommendations, resulting in what became known as the Sussex Manifesto, which was deemed as too radical to become the foreword for the UN World Plan of Action for Science and Technology in Development. It nevertheless influenced UN thinking around this confluence and was used for teaching courses in universities in the Global North and South. Forty years later, a new Manifesto was issued as the result of collaborations between academics at SPRU, IDS and Global Studies, all of which are contributing to Sussex being repeatedly ranked first in the world for Development Studies. In 2018, the university divested from fossil fuel investments after a long Student Union campaign and last year it declared a climate emergency.

If that sounds too much like all is good at Sussex, it is because it isn’t. The current Vice-chancellor, Adam Tickell, became known as the ‘neoliberal beast’ during the first wave of staff pension strikes in 2018, when he was the only vc to openly side with the UUK, which was also in contrast to his former much more critical academic views on neoliberalism. Sussex became a hotspot of protests during that strike and the most recent ones and many students supported striking faculty members. The university’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science continues to be funded by fortunes made from the opioid epidemic, and a domestic violence case involving a staff member and his doctoral supervisee was initially handled in grossly inadequate ways. More generally, the Changing University Cultures report commissioned by Tickell in 2017 speaks of the performance of activism and shows the persistence of structural inequalities around race, gender and sexuality, institutional privilege and deep divisions between staff and senior management at Sussex. Still, the university’s strategic vision for the future, called Sussex 2025, wants to harness the ‘pioneering spirit’ of Sussex, however superficial this might be.

As part of this, the university has launched a management-driven Pedagogic Revolution that is more style than substance at the moment. Still, there are interesting teaching initiatives on campus such as the Active Learning Network and a great number of passionate and committed educators, many of whom I am lucky to work with in the International Development department and who have inspired my own teaching and this book. Working out the extent to which such individual, smaller-scale initiatives can have a meaningful impact on transformative teaching will be an important part of my writing. Here, I am guided by the wise words of fellow anthropologist Margaret Mead:

never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens [educators] can change the world: indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.

Where am I coming from

I first started using this map when we moved to NZ and had to show our kids where that was

In my first post, I wrote about my teaching experiences that inspired me to write Creative Universities. Here I want to write about some more personal adventures that have nourished my interest in alternative futures.

I grew up in former East Germany, in a small town 20 km from Weimar, the birthplace of the Bauhaus. Its radical experiments in education have been informing my own interest in arts-and-design based education. Weimar was also home to many German writers, musicians and artists and in school, we studied Goethe’s Faust from cover to cover. Much less enlightened, you can see the Glockenturm of the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp from Weimar. I left home about six months before the Wall came down in November 1989; what has stayed with me from this upbringing is a skepticism of all state-sponsored socialist projects, a yearning for travel that has since brought me to all corners of the world and an affinity for repairing things (since that is what everybody did in a place where new things were hard to come by). I was therefore particularly excited when a repair cafe opened in my home town a few months ago, where I volunteer once a month.

A gap year in Montreal turned into Canada becoming my second home for 10 years. During that time I also discovered Latin America and anthropology. For my undergraduate and MA studies I conducted research in Northwestern Argentina, with traditional healers and a community of Kollas, an indigenous peoples who were fighting for the restitution of their lands. Learning about indigenous ways of thinking and being has become an enduring interest in Latin American alternatives, as for example articulated in the work of Arturo Escobar.

Upon finishing my PhD, which had brought me to the San Francisco Bay Area at the height of the dotcom bubble with its techno evangelism and rampant greed, and attempting the impossible task of surviving on short-term contract teaching and research for a few years whilst raising a family, we packed up and moved to New Zealand. It allowed me to re-connect with some of my German roots when our kids attended a local Steiner school with its child-centered and arts-based philosophy. I also discovered the power of Māori and Pacific culture, which furthered my interest in indigenous cosmologies and plurality. Swapping the sunny beaches in Auckland for the grey coast of South-east England has now brought me to Lewes, a town where Thomas Paine first developed his revolutionary ideas.

It is from all of these sources, travels and experiences that I draw in my work. I hope to do all of them, and the amazing people that have been accompanying me along my journey, justice in my writing.

The Journey Begins

I have been teaching in the field of Global Development for the past 15 years, beginning as a Teaching Assistance for Michael Watts at his Introduction to Development and Underdevelopment course back in 1999, when I started my own PhD in Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Ten years later I joined the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, a small postgraduate program under the welcoming directorship of Yvonne Underhill-Sem. It was here, teaching primarily Kiwi, Pacific and Asian students, that I first heard students talk about their disillusionment with our critical take on international development, which left them with little to no hope to realize their desire to make the world a better place through working in the field. Granted, I knew already that the field was deeply problematic and that many of the students’ desires were build on naive assumptions whose realization had often brought the students to our program in the first place. But as an educator committed to transformational teaching the reaches beyond the classroom, I could not help but feeling that something was amiss.

This continued after I joined Sussex University in the UK in 2014, in the International Development department which has a large undergraduate program as well as several MA courses and a thriving PhD community. Especially as Head of Department for three years, I had many more conversations with students and colleagues, which clarified my thoughts on the importance of educating students around the idea of ‘critical hope’ – a combination of critical analysis of the international development regime and its historical and current inequities and of informed awareness of existing alternatives within and without this system to guide students in imagining and working towards alternative futures.

Creative Universities: Reimagining Education in an Age of Global Challenges, which I will be writing over the next year, is the result of this 20 year journey, showing how I, and many of my colleagues, have put teaching critical hope into practice in the classroom.

Thank you for reading this blog!