Teaching (urban futures) again

Brighton waterfront during lockdown

Just finished week 3 of teaching. I am really enjoying being back in the classroom, even if it’s virtual. After having spent a year writing a book about teaching, actually talking with students again and practicing critical-creative pedagogy feels energizing and stimulating. Like everybody else, I have had to adjust my teaching to online interactions: pre-recording lectures that I would have delivered in person, translating in-class activities into zoom breakout-room exercises and setting up padlets and jam boards to capture knowledge co-creation. However, while preparing an activity for my third year undergraduate Urban Futures module I realized that I have to make more than technology adjustments. The activity is called Writing a Brighton Manifesto, and I describe it in chapter 1 of my book to show the importance of students locating themselves and their learning in specific places. The first part of the activity, which is the focus of this post, asks students to become more aware of their lives as Brighton residents. They then record their findings in the form of creative artifacts that become an experiential basis from which students collectively write their manifestos to make Brighton a more equitable and livable city.

Artifacts of Brighton lives

The last time I had taught that activity was in the autumn of 2019. Back then, I had asked students to pay more conscious attention to their daily routines, travels and interactions in Brighton over the course of a week and then create an artifact that would reflect their lives in the city. During the following class, students shared their artifacts. These included lots of photos on phone screens – of places of work, shopping or entertainment, of a view from a room and of a group of friends hiking in the South Downs. Several students had created maps tracing their daily routines. There was a home-made T-shirt, a pack of playing cards, bus tickets and (imaginary because the student had not actually build them) scales attempting to balance academic and leisure life.

When I planned this activity again in January of this year, I knew that quite a few students were not actually living in Brighton now, and that those who were had very different lives from a year ago. I realized very quickly that I needed to adjust the activity, not only by asking students to upload images of their artifacts on a padlet but also by acknowledging the changes that had happened over the last year due to the COVID pandemic. I suggested that the students explore and document these changes, and pay attention to the emotions to which they have been giving rise – inviting them to also remember, reminisce or grieve. In this way, I opened the door for whole-person learning, one of the strands of critical-creative pedagogy, that allows students to bring not only their intellects but also their bodies, emotions and experiences into the classroom.

What we miss

The padlet, which I am sharing here with the permission of the students, shows the potential of expanding what counts as knowledge to include students’ experiences. There are photos of social activities that used to be commonplace – celebrations, eating together, having a game of pool, walking the city, going to sport and cultural events – and that are now sorely missed. There are photos that showed what makes Brighton Brighton – the many quirky pubs and coffee shops, the beachfront and its wildlife, the abandoned pier, the murmurations. One student posted a pictures of the shoes that ground her and another shared his experiences working in social housing during the pandemic. Students also wrote about quiet and contemplative spaces. Above all, the posts convey a sense of conviviality, created by everyday encounters and togetherness that are now impossible, that is missed and mourned. But they also show what students draw strength from in these trying times as they continue to live and learn.

I invite you to explore these images and stories for yourself – they speak to students’ creativity and imagination that can be brought into classrooms as expanded spaces that acknowledge students lives outside their four walls as important sources of learning. And I thank all my Urban Futures students for sharing their reflections and allowing me to show them here. Thank you!!

Made with Padlet
Tap inside the padlet to move up and down and see more posts

Students then used these reflections and artifacts to write their Brighton Manifestos, drawing on the rights to the city framework that they had learned about in class, to collectively think how to make Brighton a more just, equitable and sustainable city. Below is one such manifesto that was created in 2019, when students could sit and work together with paper, pencils and paint. That is one thing zoom break-out rooms can’t facilitate.

Brighton Manifesto reproduced with students permission

This little light of mine …

2.0M 20LED Snowflake Fairy String Festive Lights String Christmas Lights  snowflake lamp LED Holiday Lights Wedding PartyDecor BZ|light string|fairy  christmas|lights led christmas - AliExpress

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.

Critical pedagogists

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.

Augusto Boal: Aesthetics and Human Becoming | Ceasefire Magazine
Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed invites audience members to invade the stage and become protagonists.
Photo credit: https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/augusto-boal-aesthetics-human/

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.

Whither saviorism

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.

You're not helping, you're on holiday – the problem with 'voluntourism'
The critiques of voluntourism are by now well known. Here is what one of the students I interviewed for my book thinks of it. Photocredit https://thetab.com/uk/edinburgh/2018/09/25/youre-not-helping-youre-on-holiday-the-problem-with-voluntourism-48401

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.

South Africa - HIV/AIDS - Body maps : News Photo
Mills was involved in the pioneering use of body mapping to advocate for life-saving HIV/AIDS drugs in South Africa. Here is a map produced by Nondomiso Hlwele. Photocredit: https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/nondomiso-hlwele-who-is-hiv-positive-displays-her-body-map-news-photo/587483486

… 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.

Of capstones and milestones

Exactly a week ago I sent my manuscript to my editor at Bristol University Press. Yesterday, I read a quote from Bolivian scholar-activist Silvia Cusicanqui: “When you write, breathe deeply. It is a craft, it is a gesture of a worker. And, when you read what you’ve written, go back to breathing this way, until you feel like there is a rhythm. Texts need to learn to dance.” I love the image of texts breathing and dancing in organic movements that express the rhythm of writing and the life that words and the process of writing them have. So this blog post is a celebration of writing and achieving a milestone, as well as a reflection on parts of my writing journey and a thank you to those without whom my ideas would not have found their dancing feet or even heard the first tunes of music.

I have to admit that after 10 months of intense writing, I was pretty tired and struggled with the conclusion, which I really wanted to craft in the spirit of my critical-creative pedagogy. I settled on the metaphor of the capstone, which is a prominent brick laid on top of a built structures or the outside wall of a building for everyone to see. A capstone is the manifestation of completed work that showcases to the world the culmination of a project. Over the last decades, the term has been adopted for educational use; capstone projects are undertaken by more and more university students in their last year of study. Drawing together many different elements of learning, they are the crowning accomplishments of students’ learning journey. In my capstone (and my partner Paul pointed out that CAP fits nicely with Creative, Analytical and Practical – the main elements of my pedagogy), I took a final imaginative leap to propose a series of projects that could be undertaken by students across the university. As thought experiments in how to open up learning, create sustain-able campuses and reimage universites, these projects draw together all of the concepts, ideas and activities from the book. Here is one project, to give you an idea:

This project is inspired by the future food exercise described in chapter two, and extends it to university campuses. This can begin with the redesign of campuses around allotments as a central spaces of whole-person learning and well-being. Rather than being tucked away and precariously dispensable, allotments can become meeting and working places, research facilities and jumping off points for nutritional and biological experiments, projects on mental and physical health, deeper understandings of ecological and environmental issues and collective labour. Student groups also work to imagine future food scenarios for universities that involve locally-grown food, local suppliers, cooperative food outlets and on-campus waste recycling and composting facilities. Students research the various aspects of campus food systems, get involved in planning, building and growing, connect with existing initiatives such as zero waste cafés or food distribution apps where they exist. In the process, they explore how food can be reconceptualised as a holistic means for economic, ecological and social sustain-ability. How can food bring students and staff together? How can growing and distributing food enable economic alternatives? How can cooking and eating generate conviviality on campuses?  Because of its location at the nexus of personal and political practices, food has the unique potential to nurture bodies, intellects and souls and to foster critical hope through individual actions amplified into systemic change.

excerpts from conclusion
Allotment faces third move in six years as university builds student  accommodation | Brighton & Hove Independent
The allotments on Sussex campus have been moved several times to make room for new buildings.

Capstones also draw attention to buildings and spaces. For the last two months, I have been working in my office on campus, being kept company by the tree outside my window that looks very similar to what it looked like when I started writing my book back in January. In between I spent several months writing at home, on my tiny laptop, in quite cramped quarters. It definitely focused my mind and established a routine that helped me get through the first lockdown. However, there were other anxieties that Covid produced, as I write in my introduction:

Writing a book about teaching in the middle of a global health pandemic proved particularly challenging. Even though I was on leave to write this book throughout 2020 and therefore only watched the sudden move to remote and then blended teaching from afar, the Covid crisis cast a deep shadow over my writing. In the depths of lockdown in March and April, when I was just getting into the flow of things, I also began to question my entire project. Not only was the subtitle of my book ‘reimagining teaching in an age of global challenges’ and we were facing the biggest challenge of the century, which was completely outside of my area of expertise, but my pedagogy was also built around face-to-face teaching. Now, it seemed that such teaching, which remains my preferred way of interacting with students, was disappearing overnight. In the course of a few weeks, the role of digital technologies in all, including HE, classrooms, changed necessarily and radically, overcoming many individual and institutional resistances to online teaching in the process.

excerpts from introduction
The view from my office window, I am thinking of turning this into an art projects one day

Now that I am getting ready for teaching next term, I am redesiging some of the activities in the book for blended learning and will include insights from that process in the revision of the manuscript. As I write in my introduction, I still believe in the importance of face-to-face teaching, that direct rather than digitally mediated pedagogical interactions provide unique and valuable ways of learning and that physical engagement with others and the wider world are important ways of teaching and learning. (Although I am much less impressed with how senior managers at Sussex are using f2f teaching next term to force staff back on campus). In the meantime, I will tackle the necessary redesign of my modules, which are usually very activity-based and hands-on, as another creative exercise.

For now, I want to thank my colleagues at the School of Global Studies, especially in the departments of International Development and Anthropology, who have inspired my own teaching and this book and also gave their time for interviews and allowed me to observe their classes. Similarly, without the many students who participated in the interviews my manuscript would not exist. Talking to them has been an eye-opening learning experience for me, and I especially want to thank Lydia, Cris, Kendra and Ruthie who turned their interviews into blog posts. And the manuscript would not be half as interesting without the constant provocations from my partner Paul. Thank you all! I will finish this post with two quotes that open my manuscript and were a constant guide during writing:

The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress.

A university is imaginative or it is nothing – at least nothing useful. . . . A university which fails [to impart information imaginatively] has no reason for existence. This atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energising as the poet of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes.

Alfred Whitehead, Essays on The Aims of Education

The what and the how of teaching global development

Convivial Thinking - Home | Facebook
Convivial Thinking

This is a post I recently wrote for the Convivial Thinking blog.

A little over two years ago, this Convivial Thinking blog started with a collective conversation about decolonizing teaching pedagogies. Since then a number of posts have further added to the discussion, and especially its decolonial dimension. Since John Cameron wrote in 2013 about the ‘broader failure in the academy to subject our teaching to serious critical reflection and to consider it worthy of serious writing and publication,’ things are slowly changing in Development Studies, not in small part due to efforts to decolonize the development curriculum. This is both encouraging and important, for as bell hooks has argued, ‘the classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.’ Many of these contributions have focused on what we are teaching development students, often looking to diversify reading lists. That is not enough, however – how we teach is just as important as what we teach.

Building on my own 15 years of teaching Anthropology and Global Development in the US, New Zealand and now the UK, over the last three years I have carried out a research project on reimaging university education for alternative futures. The project is exploring how creative ways of teaching development and other challenge-focused social sciences can help students to better understand the complexities of global challenges and imagine alternative responses to them. By creative, I mean everyday and radical forms of creativity that see in every student creative capabilities that can be nurtured to work towards alternatives that challenge rather than reinforce the status quo. As a result of my research, I have developed a critical-creative pedagogy that combines critical, post-development and decolonial pedagogies with creative teaching that incorporates whole-person learning, arts and design methods and praxis. Inspired by the work of Gibson-Graham on performative academic subjects, Escobar on designs for the pluriverse, Amsler and Facer on pedagogies of possibility, and de Sousa Santos on epistemologies of the south, a critical-creative pedagogy wants to enable students to move beyond the impasse created by relentless critique, to spot openings where before they could only see closures, to complement deconstructing and taking apart with imagining and reassembling. It aims to instil in students a critical hope that is aware of its own conditions of possibility. This pedagogy has emerged from my own educational experiments, the teaching of my colleagues at the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex and interviews with students about their education, all of whom I thank for participating in my research. In this post I want to share a few teaching examples as a starting point for a conversation about the what and the how of teaching global development.

Teaching about colonialism and decoloniality

All ID students at Sussex have to take a compulsory module on colonialism in their first term, which students describe as eye-opening and deeply unsettling. Learning, often for the first time, about British colonial history and its ongoing impacts had one student expressing ‘shock that up until the age of 20 I could name more famous Tudors than countries in the former British empire.’ Another student described how the module sparked ‘an existential crisis, asking Why am I here?,’ which resonates with many students rethinking their views of the world, the UK and international development.  Through this and other core modules, students are challenged to look at their own privileges and complicities, to interrogate their desires to save the world, which many recognize as naïve and idealistic, and to begin to question their certainties. In their third year, students then have the option of taking a module on Decolonial Movements that introduces them to social and political movements that try to de-link from the legacies of coloniality. Taught by Anna Laing, who herself is engaged in research and activist work with indigenous peoples in Bolivia, the module combines critical analysis of key theoretical perspectives with learning about emancipatory struggles for alternative futures, including Latin American indigenous autonomy movements, Black Lives Matter and feminist struggles.

Drawing on writers and formats like films, indigenous poetry and activist blogs and declarations that are marginalised from Eurocentric knowledge production, the module not only introduces students to subaltern voices but also decenters written texts as the sole source of authoritative knowledge. By making marginalised perspectives and decolonial struggles the central focus of her module, Laing moves beyond the ‘just add and stir approach’ to decolonizing curricula, which is common but insufficient to decenter Eurocentrism. Students often describe this module as transformational and hopeful. One student commented how ‘having had to unlearn in third year was truly beneficial but I wish I had known sooner.’ Like other students, he felt that the teaching about (post)colonialism he had received prior to this module had not sufficiently shown him the ongoing effects of coloniality and especially that there are movements actively working to undo colonial legacies. Another student reflected that ‘the module ensured me that it was possible to follow a path which uses creative pedagogic approaches to work towards positive change, outside a more Westernised approach to education.’ This echoes general comments that the module made students more hopeful about the possibility of change.

Reading and teaching for difference

Jonathan Langdon, who teaches development studies in Canada, asks students to read excerpts from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations alongside the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, published 12 years after Smith’s book. For Langdon, such a reading of texts against each other not only questions the central place of economics in development imaginaries and interventions, but also reveals the gulf between Smith’s rational, self-centered mentality and the human experiences of slavery. It shows students how Equiano himself used Smith’s writings to advocate for the efficiency of wage over slave labor, and more generally how (former) slaves were able to appropriate Western arguments for the abolitionist cause. Discussing how both texts were used by proponents and opponents of the slave trade prompts students to ask why they have certainly heard of Smith before but never of Equiano. Langdon argues that ‘it is only by bringing in the voice of those impacted by [the slave] system that the immorality of the economic arrangements stands out in sharp relief.’ Situating both books at the historical emergence of capitalism provides a fuller historical context and allows, in the words of Gibson-Graham, for an ontological reframing of capitalism from a structural given to a system produced by particular discourses and practices – a system that can therefore be changed. At the International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands, Wendy Harcourt redesigned the flagship MA course from a post-development and Freirean perspective, incorporating creative activities such as students producing videos, poetry, role plays, bogs and photos. Her article includes many thought-provoking reactions by students and faculty that point to the challenges and rewards of becoming more creative in our teaching.

Experiencing urban transformations

In my own undergraduate module on Urban Futures, to get students thinking more creatively about rights to the city which they learn about through reading the work of Henri Lefebvre and other scholars, I ask them to reflect on their own experiences of living in Brighton and capture these through diaries, maps, photos, artefacts and a day-in-the-life stories. Following the BLM protests, when I teach this module again in the spring, I will also ask students to research Brighton’s links to the slave trade. Students’ creations then become the material for the class collectively writing a Brighton Manifesto, calling for making the city more equitable, liveable and inclusive. Rather than discussing in the abstract how cities could be transformed, students therefore learn by applying their thinking to Brighton, also drawing on their own knowledge about the city. In the process, they not only become more aware of how they inhabit the city and interact with others, but also of how they could start enacting change.

The activity, and the module more generally, disrupt the north-south binary that is still prevalent in much international development thinking, by showing challenges and changes right in the students’ (temporary) home. This resonates with the thoughts expressed by many graduating students I interviewed for my research, who as a result of their studies abandon their initial desires to work for the UN or other mainstream development organizations, and instead decide to work in the UK, with local, often advocacy or social justice organizations.

I am aware that all of my examples are from white educators working at universities in the Global North, which has been the focus of my research so far, and the limitations that this poses. However, as indigenous scholars such as Cree/Salteaux/Dakota Shauneen Pete have argued, decolonizing work in the academy ‘is not my work alone; the longer I do this work the more I am convinced that this is white work.’ Moreover, my hope is that this post can be the starting point for a conversation by inviting readers to share examples from other universities, including those located in the Global South, about how teaching global development can be enriched in critical-creative ways.

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!