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!!
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.
My blog turns one year old this month! I still remember, about a year ago after signing my book contract with Bristol University Press, going for a walk on the South Downs and deciding, on a whim, to start this blog. Normally I would think something like this over and over and over and then not do it, but for some reason, last December I decided to just go for it. Little did I know then what a year it would be. Writing the book kept me steady through its ups and downs, and sharing my thoughts along the way has been very enjoyable. I thought I would mark this first anniversary by giving a short summary of the first chapter of my book, on remaking academic subjectivities.
In an earlier post I asked what kind of academics/educators might be interested in using critical-creative pedagogy in their classrooms, findings answers in the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham, Paulo Freire, Sarah Amsler and Wendy Harcourt. In chapter 1, I expand on this question, situating it firstly in the broader context of the neoliberalized university regime and resistance to it by critical pedagogy. Grounded in the intellectual tradition of the Frankfurt School, Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault, critical pedagogy reaches from John Dewey to Freire and fellow Brazilian Augusto Boal. The latter’s experimental Theatre for the Oppressed, together with the work of Maxine Greene, added the arts as an important experiential dimension of critical pedagogy. More recently, Sarah Amsler and Henri Giroux, among others, have advanced some of the strongest critiques of neoliberalized universities, often painting a bleak and depressing picture but also finding sites of resistance and possibility within and without universities.
The chapter then charts efforts to decolonize the Westernized university, following the mapping work done by Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti and her colleagues, as well the work of Ramon Grosfoguel and Boaventura de Sousa Santos. Crucially, decolonization includes a multitude of initiatives, which can have diverse and contested aims and investments. Interventions range from weak to strong, from diversity efforts to radical campaigns beyond the traditional university, and educators often make use of several of these approaches at the same time. There is strength in diversity and difference. The Latin American sub-versities explored by De Sousa Santos, such as the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca, provide inspiring alternatives emerging from decolonizing struggles often connected to indigenous activism.
Shifting the focus to students, the chapter then unpacks the saviorism – the desire to save poor people, often in exotic locations – that animates some students’ interest in studying, especially in the global development field where I teach. Other students come to their studies after experiencing for themselves the shortcomings of voluntourism; one student told me in her journey interview that ‘coming to Sussex was like a breath of fresh air and quite therapeutic, because I could unpick what had gone wrong in South Africa,’ where she had spent the summer volunteering at a school. Whatever direction students are coming from, they realize early on in their studies the idealism and naivete that often brings them to study development, together with ambitions to work for the UN or other large development organizations.
The core courses that students at Sussex have to take in their first year disrupt this savior narrative, using critical pedagogies that discuss forms of privilege and their intersections with diverse identities and experiences. In courses such as Colonialism and After students learn about the impact of British colonialism, which is a eye-opener for many students who have been subjected to the white-washed UK high-school history curriculum. It can also be very unsettling, with students questioning how they could not have known about this history until know and what it means for them. One student described her learning as provoking ‘an existential crisis, asking why am I here?,’ and others told me that they finished their first year feeling cynical, worn down and hopeless. As educators we must be aware that our teaching can have such of these effects and take responsibility for them, rather than simply celebrating them as enlightening students or seeing them as necessary initiations into critical thinking.
Instead, critical-creative pedagogy searches for ways in which the necessary critiques of colonialism, neoliberalism and the mainstream development industry can be combined with introducing students to alternatives, and in the book I present many examples of such teaching at Sussex and other universities. A module that used to be taught by Andrea Cornwall when she was at Sussex involved students in writing alternative world histories, researching the contributions of other cultures and civilizations alongside the disruptions often brought upon them by external forces. Other courses show students that slaves and other colonized people resisted their oppressors, also drawing on the work of Gurminder Bhambra. My colleague Beth Mills uses body mapping in some of her classes to invite students to explore questions of identity, power and their own places in the world. Body mapping is exemplary of whole-person learning and the use of art and design practices, two of the strands of critical-creative pedagogy, because it involves students’ intellects, hands and bodies, working with artistic materials to craft outlines of their bodies and filling them with colors, images and words that give material expression to their experiences in the world. It leads to different engagements between students and teachers, as ‘we are all sitting on the floor, getting dirty’ as Mills describes it, and among students who encounter themselves and each other in more embodied and holistic ways. The second learning activity described in the chapter is from my own Urban Futures class, a final year undergraduate class, where students write a collective Brighton Manifesto based on their own experiences of inhabiting the city combined with urban theories such as Henri Lefebvre’srights to the city.
… let it shine!
As this difficult year is drawing to a close, I am starting to think about re-entering the classroom in a month’s time, after a year-long teaching break. I look forward to learning from my colleagues’ experiences of adapting their teaching to COVID blended modes, while also drawing on my own learning from writing my book, in the process thinking much more systematically and coherently about why I teach the way I teach. When I set out on this journey a year ago, I had lots of ideas, inspirations and ideations. Now, a year later, I have a manuscript (with reviewers’ comments expected in January) and an even stronger belief in the importance of combining critique and creativity to enable students to better understand and imagine alternative responses to contemporary challenges. I will also keep writing this blog, although maybe not as frequently as I expect to be very busy, as a space to share my ongoing thoughts with like-minded travelers on this journey. For now, be well and stay safe and healthy these holidays, however you celebrate them.
After sending my manuscript to Bristol UP, I have been spending the last week covid-izing my teaching for next term. No easy task, since all of my teaching is very interactive and hands-on. This is especially the case for an MA module on Activism for Development and Social Change I have been teaching for the last five years. The module features prominently in the last chapter of my book on Prefiguring Alternatives, where I explore the possibilities of teaching activism in the classroom and what such teaching can contribute to students imaging alternative responses to global challenges. This post is a shorter version of what’s in the book, plus some material that did not make it into the draft.
A controversial topic
When I was assigned the module upon joining Sussex in 2014, with the freedom to redesign it, I used the opportunity to realize a long-held vision of a module that would equally combine theory and practice. In the course of researching how best to do that, I came across several reflective accounts by other educators who have been teaching activism: Robert Huish’s undergraduate classes at Dalhousie University in Canada have included students organizing their own public demonstrations and working with an organization helping North Koreans escape. (Colleagues who read a draft of my chapter thought especially the latter was quite extreme and potentially unethical – having fled a communist country myself in 1989 I saw less problems). An MA in Activism and Social Change ran for nine years at Leeds University in the UK. What was most interesting in these accounts was the reactions these programs had received from different corners.
At Dalhousie, some professors and administrators worried that such programs could be high-jacked by radical elements and result in violence. Others were concerned about reputational implications for the university. Huish’s protest classes did get some (mostly negative) media attentions, leading to newspaper comments such as ‘here we go, another commie course taught by some washed out hippie. Why are students paying tuition to take this crap?’ Not surprisingly, these perceptions were influenced by what was happening in the streets: in 2010, the first year the module was taught, riots took place in Toronto against the G20 meetings. A year later, Time Magazine to make ‘the protestor’ the Person of the Year in response to a wave of non-violent uprisings around the world, most notably the Arab Spring and Occupy, and helped to convince university administrators of the value of Huish’ class.
Most thought-provoking for me were reactions by activists, who questioned whether activism can actually be taught, especially from within the privileged spaces of universities. As Stuart Hodkinson, one of the co-founders of the Leeds MA wrote: A common reaction is that the very essence of an elite-level university degree in ‘radical activism’ is a contradiction in terms as universities are “part of the problem” and the course will inevitably be exclusive to white middle class kids who will go on to become ‘professional elite’ or ‘career activists’ and ‘social movement managers’. By placing activist education within the constraints of the universities, the course will “quash the radical spirit of activism” and “divert energies” from real movement building. The argument goes that activism cannot be taught; it can only be experienced. . . Others argue that the university will not like such courses and will eventually shut them down, or force compromises to course content that render the whole exercise meaningless. There is also some hostility to us, the course tutors, for seemingly “making a career” on the backs of “real activists.” It seemed to me that teaching activism was seen as either too radical or too conformist.
Combining theory and practice
In my own module, I wanted to combine theory and practice, to enact praxis in the classroom – introducing students to theories, methods and strategies of activist movements, illustrated with historical and contemporary examples and giving them the opportunity to apply their learning by working in groups to design activist campaigns on their own topics. Through such learning by doing, I wanted students to explore their own agency to engage structures of power and to experience activism ‘as a process of challenges and moral dilemmas more than as an experience that brings clear answers and solutions to social problems,’ as Huish has put it. This practical learning has been new for most students who have taken the module, who have usually not done much campaign work before and certainly not in a university context. When I do get experienced activists taking the module, it is an extra treat for all of us as we learn from their experiences. In addition, because the campaign design involves intense group work with students from lots of different disciplinary, professional and geographical backgrounds (since the module is offered to MA students from different degrees), this aspect of the module provides personal learning opportunities as well.
The groups produce a campaign report for assessment, and over the years I have received over thirty reports of amazing quality and variety, showing how deeply and intensely students engage with the campaigns. An overview of these reports reveals a commonality of themes and a localization of issues that show students’ interests and passions:
projects addressing issues relevant to Sussex university, including housing, sexism on campus, the commodification of education and campus spaces, digital dependency and the use of slave labor
projects advocating for changes in how the British public, and especially Brighton residents, learn about and interact with refugees and migrants, ranging from setting up a community cooking club, childrens’ play classes and awareness-raising events
campaigns focusing on work-place related discrimination, such as the gender pay gap, mental health stigmatization and sexism at work
projects targeting homelessness in Brighton, through providing better services, advocating for the council to fulfil its legal commitments and educating people about the complexities of homelessness
4 campaigns on environmental sustainability and 4 focused on changing education
In the book, I look at several examples in-depth, especially those that engage artistic methods and those that focus on education in particular. Here I just want to highlight two of these campaigns.
Active Empathy Collective
Artistic creation was central to a student group that constituted itself as the Active Empathy Collective and proposed a campaign called Yarl’s Wood Speaks. In response to a hunger strike of women detainees at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, the campaign aimed to raise public awareness of the UK immigration system through an interactive art exhibition on the theme of home, belonging and freedom. Its central focus was the use of testimony by former detainees, participants in a detainee befriending program and visitors of the exhibit. Using a feminist approach, the campaign conceived of testimony as an active process of meaning-making, a personal and political platform for enacting change, and a catalyst for generating self-reflection, empathy and a critical collective consciousness towards immigration injustices. The campaign’s objective was to make these experiences actionable by connecting people to advocacy organizations and urging them to contact their MPs to pressure Parliament to extent legal protections for refugees and terminate indefinite detentions. The campaign report included a mock-up of the gallery space, throughout which exhibition items had been thoughtfully placed to enhance visceral audience engagement and participation.
Teach British Colonialism
The campaign Teach British Colonialism advocated against the current ‘white-washing’ in the UK’s secondary school history curriculum, which makes minimal reference to slavery, colonialism and empire. Proposing a pilot project with two Brighton secondary schools, the campaign aimed to combat institutional racism and privileged ignorance and also bring about structural change through a petition to Parliament to review the national history curriculum. The group also planned a social media outreach campaign, and its campaign report included sample social media posts, showing non-White activists and historical figures, such as Sophie Duleep Singh, a suffragette, and Olaudah Equiano, whose autobiographical account of slavery I talk about in my economics chapter.
From student evaluations and personal reflections that students write as part of their assessment, I know that the module and especially the campaign design component, teaches students about activism, themselves and their abilities to enact change in the world. They often comment that ‘not just reading about activism but enacting it in practice’ brings the topic to life and shows them the often invisible work undertaken by activists before their actions become public. I am looking forward to teaching the module again next spring, I just have to figure out how to make this all work under COVID conditions. Any tips?
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 researchBrighton’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.
This post, from Kendra Quinn, is the last in series of guest post from students who recently graduated from the program where I teach and participated in the journey interviews for my book. Kendra, who came to Sussex via an Arts Foundation year, has a unique perspective on creative teaching and why it’s so hard to do in the social sciences. Thank you Kendra!
I recently graduated from Sussex with a degree in Geography and International Development, having previously completed an Art foundation course at Kingston University. This is not the most natural of paths into a social science degree, but as with many creative individuals who also enjoy more ‘academic’ subjects, on leaving sixth form I found myself with a predicament: should I pursue design, and take the creative route, or study other subjects of interest? I chose not to choose, and to delay my decision by applying for an Art foundation and settled at Kingston University. In the end, I decided to keep my deferred place at Sussex, so the following year I went ‘academic’, whilst friends went on to study graphics, product design, illustration, design engineering, and architecture. Keeping in touch throughout our degrees, it became clear to me that the overlaps between our different disciplines were not pursed fully, if at all, by either course.
Whilst the creative degrees excelled at helping students think and design with empathy, as well as think critically around subjects and problems, my degree tended towards thinking in the abstract, about various problems, both on an individual and human level, and with a greater focus on the theoretical side of things. On starting my course in international development, I expected it to encourage me to think more critically about subjects and scenarios in which I was interested; but, being a course very much about people, I was also under the impression that it would be filled too with case studies and projects – creative outlets to allow me to think practically about applying the theory which any academic course naturally contains. Yet, I found that in the current exam/essay based culture of learning, critical discussion around the theories and abstract concepts leaves little room to be creative with how you learn, and makes it harder to still to be creative when it comes to the product of your learning; an essay, at the end of the day, is an essay, and an exam result is just an exam result. Design, often, is about asking questions – without necessarily expecting an answer. The solution is always up for interpretation. Coming from a design background, I certainly struggled with moving away from the idea that the results of my learning would definitely have an impact on a subject or discussion; modules at Sussex, on the other hand, often ended in an essay, which to me always seemed more to be proof that you were present and thinking critically – not that you’re actually adding anything to the debate.
A design course allows the individual time to prototype, to tangent and circle back, to learn from failures and use them to continuously develop a project. At each stage projects are discussed with fellow students openly, and critique is often welcomed over compliment. This is where the learning itself comes from, and the main thing I think the social sciences could learn from a design school is the ability to learn through creativity. Often a creative environment (in no small part as a result of how such courses are presented and promoted by schools and higher educational institutes) is seen as a space to present ideas through colourful images and models, etc. A lot of the modules at Sussex however did promote similar styles of discussion and presentation to those used during my foundation degree. We frequently engaged with group debate, presentation, use of different materials, etc. in order to communicate ideas. But there is a difference here, and it is fundamental: here you are presenting your learning creatively, not learning through creativity. There are a few things that I think social sciences can learn from here. Currently, students are asked to tick boxes with their essay, despite studying topics that don’t endorse the idea of right and wrong answers. Moving away from a linear results-based system might make for a more exciting environment where students can explore ideas more, rather than simply regurgitate and study arguments in the limited framework an essay represents.
Another distinguishing feature of a creative degree is the mindset towards criticism that students build and promote, from each other and their tutors. One thing that I feel puts students off speaking and expressing ideas in my degree is the negative association with feedback that essay based environments create. Creative students from day one are almost forced to share their thoughts and processes with fellow students, something which continues throughout a module/project, teaching them to use and take critique; the culture in a social science degree, meanwhile, is not about sharing. Pressure to produce a grade from one or two essays results in a fear of critique, despite this being fundamental to learning effectively. Leaning away from the assessment of a final result and more toward ongoing critique of processes and ideas might help remove the vulnerability and timidness that is often felt in students toward their own work and encourage greater contribution within the classroom.
As an example of the overlap between creative courses and social sciences, here are two examples from my studies. At Sussex we had a module called Disasters, Environment and Development; this module involved an essay and a group project in which we had to design our own ‘serious game’ that helped the players understand risk in the context of disasters and weather phenomena. For the module my group designed a card-based game. The cards were split into ‘weather’ cards, ‘crop’ cards and ‘Life’ cards, and we used pebbles to represent a player’s assets. Each round, a ‘weather’ card with a hazard, along with its potential cost, is revealed. Each team decides to protect themselves or to take a card from the crop/life pile which has either a positive or negative effect on their assets. If the hazard occurs and the team did not protect themselves, they lose double the initial cost of the card. Essentially as the game goes on the teams learn that they are more likely to ‘survive’ the game if they protect themselves from the weather card every round. As a group most found it was challenging to build a game that educates and reveals something to the players. But the building of a game was useful, in that game building was a great way of learning about and presenting risk. You are, in a sense, studying yourselves in order to learn about the topic; by understanding your own behaviour toward risk and the variables that determine that, you can learn more and apply yourself better to the case studies discussed in the literature. I think that the creative elements to social sciences courses work better with the students if there is an incentive for building or creating something. So, you are learning through creativity rather than just creatively representing what has been learnt.
A project I did on my foundation course reminds me of the kind of work that I understand creative modules at Sussex to be aiming toward. Tutors gave us a crime profile of a city and the brief was to design housing that would help the reduction of the specific causes of the crime, or the crime itself. I think this premise is obtuse, but it led to a lot of research into the social infrastructure of the city, the socio-economic struggles of its citizens, and the style of policing. I was given the favelas of Maceio, Brazil, and created a sort of modular low-cost housing system which eliminated blind corners and created shared patios to promote community. This aimed to reduce some of the chaos that comes with the building of informal settlements without reducing the appeal. The key aspect of this project was that the research had to be translated into a physical solution.
Learning from each other
Having studied in two environments, with two very unique approaches to learning, I’m convinced that both can learn a lot from each other. I hope in the future to see more overlap and conversation between creative courses and the social sciences. The similarities between the module and project described above show how both are approaching similar topics and ideas through completely different lenses. What the social sciences can learn from design thinking is an empathetic and individual focus on the journey of a project and its value – not only an end result. I also feel that the sense students get from creating and completing an individual project, the sense that they have contributed and made a real impact on the discourse surrounding a subject, is far more empowering and incentivising than the more rigid student/teacher dynamic that is more common in an ‘academic’ learning environment. Likewise, perhaps creative courses can learn from the depth of theoretical study and critical skills that are more widely applied in a social sciences environment.
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.
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).
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.
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.
My last post explored how the COVID crisis might be used in pluralist economic teaching. In this post, I want to get a bit more practical and present another teaching activity: students creating personal diverse economy portfolios. The activity builds on Gibson-Graham’sgroundbreakingwork on diverse economies and the ontologicalchanges this entails. Through their portfolios, students research and analyze their own economic activities, in order to recognize their diversity and social character and to ultimately realize themselves as interdependent and ethical economic subjects. The activity aims to shift students’ attention from, in GG’s words, ‘the paralyzing question of what is to be done’ to the more productive one of ‘what is already being done,’ with a focus on what students themselves are already doing. It is divided into 4 steps: 1) diary, 2) inventory, 3) questions and 4) iceberg, and could be conducted in an economics-focused social science class as an independent project over the course of a term or as a two-week more intensive exercise.
The activity begins with students keeping an economic diary over the course of a week to become more aware of their economic lives. In the diary they record all of their economic transactions and exchanges, where they took place, whom they involved, whether money was exchanged etc. Students then start to classify these activities into capitalist, alternative and non-capitalist, by drawing on relevant theoretical readings and class discussions.
2. Economic Inventories
The next step involves translating the diary into an inventory, using a template adapted from the Diverse Economies Framework that consists of three sub-inventories: transactional exchanges, economic organizations and labor practices.
Transactional exchanges are likely to comprise capitalist market transactions, but also alternative ones such as students swapping things with each other or buying a vegetable box from a local farmer, as well as non-market transactions such as sharing household labor, free-cycling, gifting or community gardening.
Economic organizations register the diverse economic institutions students deal with, beginning with capitalist firms such as supermarkets or department stores, but quickly expanding to alternative capitalist enterprises such as op-shops, fair trade stores, non-profits, cooperative and community enterprises, food waste apps and shared ownership schemes. Non-capitalist organizations could encompass communal and household groups or independent businesses that might be supported by friends, children or other family members giving their labor for free.
Labor practices begin with standard wage work that many students have to engage in to make ends meet. Then there are alternatively paid labor activities such as under-the-table tutoring or baby sitting, self-employed gig work or maybe swapping childcare with other student parents or final thesis drafts with fellow students. Unpaid labor includes housework, household or family physical and emotional care, and maybe volunteer work or self-provisioning through gardening.
3) Social and ethical questions
The next part of the activity involves students reflecting on two overarching questions: on what basis am I making economic decisions and what kind of social relationships am I entering or creating through my economic activities? The first question is likely to show multiple reasonings, including affordability, convenience and ethical concerns such as fair trade, animal treatment or food miles. Recognizing the plurality of their choices and calculations shows students the limited application of neoclassical theories of self-interested, utility-maximizing individuals and reveals (most) students as ethical consumers who complement their financial calculations with non-financial questions about how their economic activities might be impacting other human beings, animals or the wider environment. Establishing this awareness includes folding the economic into the ethical and and can potentially move students towards an ‘economy of generosity’.
The second question about social relationships goes to the heart of resocializing economic relations, as it makes students aware of the diversity of relationships on which their economic activities are based. These can range from a standard consumer relationship to parent/child or other kin connections, friend, neighbor, flat mate or mentor. Realizing how socially interconnected and interdependent economic activities are also undermines orthodox notions of autonomous, self-centered individuals and shows the economy as embedded within social systems.
4) Drawing the Iceberg
The last step of the activity involves students creating a visual representation of their diverse economy portfolios in the form of an iceberg or other creative, potentially multimedia, formats. The iceberg is a pedagogical tool developed by Gibson-Graham and colleagues to show that what is usually regarded as ‘the economy’ is but the tip of a huge amount of economic activities that are often invisible, sidelined or ignored. But they constitute the majority of people’s, and students,’ economic lives. The intention of this final part of the activity is therefore to make personal diverse economies visible and to move students from the linearity of writing to experimenting with more creative forms of imagining and expressing themselves as diverse economic subjects.
The aim of the personal diverse economy portfolio activity is for students to learn that capitalism is not as all-encompassing as is usually assumed, or, to use Gibson-Graham’s words, to decenter capitalocentric discourses that naturalize capitalism and assign positive value to capitalist economic activities, while devaluing all others. The activity brings together theoretical texts focusing on diverse, social and solidarity economies with experiential learning based on students’ already existing economic activities. It goes further by inviting students to imagine themselves as more diverse economic subjects and to create future alternative economic actions. Here, the new forms of sociality and mutuality that have emerged under COVID, such as shopping at the local corner store, buying food for those who are self-isolating or sharing with others in need, might provide important openings.
As I mentioned in my previous post, which is a summary of my book’s design chapter, scenarios – stories about possible futures – are an important tool in the design tool box. Scenarios have an interesting history, having been developed by Herman Kahn for the US RAND Corporation in the 1950s to support US military nuclear war planning. They have also been used by large corporations, foremost among them Shell, to explore possible energy scenarios. More radically, in 1995, the Global Scenario Group started developing multiple planetary scenarios, ranging from Conventional Worlds in which companies or governments continue the status quo, to Barbarization marked by breakdown or retreat to Great Transitions that present visionary alternatives focused on natural preservation, material sufficiency and social justice. Scenarios have also been used in teaching, and in the design chapter I write about an activity called Designing back from the Future, inspired by Anne-Marie Willis and conducted with students at Sussex’s School of Global Studies to imagine and prototype their preferable futures. For Willis, scenarios are the projection of likely futures, opening them up for reflection, including on actions that need to be taken to achieve the visions. The Sussex activity comprised two Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) design workshops ran by design Research Associate Paul Braund and student coordinators and a Big Build exercise I carried out as part of a third year undergraduate course on Urban Futures. In both activities, students explored what Brighton, where most Sussex students live, might look like in 2050.
For both activities, the space was set up as an invitation for students to play, experiment, build and have fun. Tables for small groups were covered with thinking materials (sticky notes, marker pens, stickers, large sheets of paper, photos, quotes etc), building materials (crafty stuff, play-doh, pipe cleaners, foam sheets, pins, string, LEGO and wooden blocks etc) and of course snacks. In general, multi-use materials are preferable to single-use objects to provide students with base materials that can be manipulated to externalize ideas. To introduce an element of ambiguity, each table also had a random object, including a knight, a small plush animal and a Lego object, which needed to be incorporated into the prototype. Student were excited as they settled into the space and many of them quickly began to explore the materials with their hands, opening cans of Play Doh and often commenting how its distinct smell brought back childhood memories, or grabbing sticks of pipe cleaners and bending them into whimsical shapes. Such making ‘prompts physical, intellectual and emotional responses’ through a form of hand knowledge, where students’ hands become translators between words and materials. According to Tim Ingold, a leading design anthropologist, making involves deep situatedness, active participation and real-time connection, a coming together of mind, body and material that Ingold calls ‘animacy.’ While social science students might not experience this as intensely as art and design students, making can nevertheless open up cracks in which thinking can happen and learning can stick better. Alongside these materials there were questions, prompts and instruction sheets on the tables, as from experiences we knew that informal learning needs clear structures and guidelines to be successful.
The overall question was ‘What do you want the world to look like in 2050?’ For the SDG workshop, which ran over 5 hours, the format was more open-ended and the first task was for groups to develop a concrete vision and action plan for their preferred future, which led to some intense negotiations as diverse group members agreed on a collective vision. Several starting questions were posed to help the students: What things will have been achieved? What new institutions, laws, norms and behaviors will have been created? Who would participate in the change project and who would be affected and how? To compensate for the lack of a research phase that usually accompanies scenario exercises to keep them from becoming fantasies (although students did look up some information on their laptops), students were encouraged to localize their scenarios in a place that was familiar to at least one participant in the group. The group working on SDG 11 on cities selected Brighton, which allowed all members to draw on their own experiences of living in or near Brighton. For the in-class Big Build, which was only 2 hours long, I had pre-developed the following scenario in the interest of time: ‘Brighton in 2050 is a self-sustaining, hospitable and generous city. Its environmental footprint is minimal, it is welcoming of diversity and provides all of its residents with a decent quality of life.’ Tables had been set up around three specific topics that corresponded to themes studied throughout the term: sustainable infrastructures, deep governance and radical conviviality. Each group had their own brief, further specifying their vision through guiding what-if questions and providing examples as starting points for their scenario journey.
Once students had further developed their visions, they were prompted to think about concrete ways through which to realize it, beginning with a brainstorming session. In parallel students started building prototypes of their scenarios with the materials at hand. Their emerging visions included tried and tested ideas, such as taking Brighton’s well-known status as a sanctuary city as a point of departure to create spaces where refugees could obtain homes, food and skills and be integrated with fellow urban residents through living with them and working in cafes and shops. Environmental visions included solar panels, bike stands, community gardens and a public assembly place. More far-reaching proposals were to build a mega-greenhouse and a free tram line. Most radically, one group proposed to repurpose Brighton’s famous Royal Pavilion as a communal food hall. None of these ideas were blue-sky or totally new, but that was not the point of the activities. What was remarkable was how the students brought together different domains in their scenario creations: their own experiences as Brighton residents, theoretical knowledge gained in class discussions, inspirations from other initiatives they knew about as well as practical making. Collectively, they built plausible scenarios that were materializing alternative urban futures that were desirable to them, while considering the rights and needs of diverse groups.
Although because of time restrictions the groups did not reach the final stage of the exercise, which would have involved thinking through the specific actors, institutions and measures involved in realizing their alternative futures, they clearly enjoyed the creativity of the workshops and learned from it. This was evident in their comments that were collected in questionnaires and some follow-up interviews. Students wrote about encountering ‘a new way to think (not just words),’ which speaks to ideas of whole-person learning and hand knowledge I am developing in the book. Comments such as ‘how to involve different backgrounds into development’ and ‘a more open way of thinking outside the modules’ showed how spaces for possible actions and connections were opened up. One student wrote that they realized ‘that there are 100 ways to work‘ and another commented that ‘the workshop highlighted the complexities of designing and implementing solutions and the contradictions and huge interlinked challenges,’ which shows that ideas about change itself had broadened. Many students also expressed how they enjoyed engaging with fellow students in a more practical, hands-on and fun way. And for some, the workshops had ‘reestablished hope and encouragement for the future [through] more hands-on learning, not just [learning about] theory not working.’ This comment speaks to the potential of creative learning that incorporates an open-ended, experimental approach based on asking questions, developing possible responses through collaborative learning and then prototyping visions for alternative futures.