Bristol University Press has asked me to send them some ideas for a possible cover image for my book. This has seen me looking through image banks for the last few days to try and find the perfect image and doing lots of brainstorming with Paul, my more creative half. Needless to say, the perfect image does not exist but it has got me thinking about what I want to say with my cover, what I want people to feel when they look at the book. The book’s title Creative Universities: Reimagining Education in an Age of Global Challenges can of course go in lots of different ways, so I thought I share some of my current ideas to see how they resonate with you, my fellow blog readers. If you need a reminder of what the book is about, the blog’s home page is a good place to start and has hyperlinks to chapter summaries.
From flowers to fractals
My image of the book has for a long time been the photo I myself took early on in the project, of wildflowers growing in front of the cracked concrete wall of a building on Sussex campus. For me, the photo encapsulates the idea of ‘let a thousand flowers bloom,’ of creative forces being able to change things that seem set in stone but are not, of growth, possibility, emergence. I still love this picture, although I am not sure if the quality would be good enough for a cover shot. Keeping with the theme of flowers, I also like daffodils, especially at this time of the year when they are the first sign of spring, hope, awakening, and because there is an unruliness to them, a resilience or courage (keep in mind that the book will be published this September though, if everything goes to plan). And they bring yellow happiness, just like sunflowers, which I also love. And sunflowers got me thinking about fractals.
What I like about the three images above is their organic shapes and bold beauty that also convey complexity. They are quite open-ended and thereby invite the viewer’s/reader’s imagination to project unto the image what they think creative universities or reimagining education could mean for them. I could imagine a cover with an image similar to the ones above that grabs people’s attention and intrigues them. But would it be too abstract, too vague? From there, the journey somehow led to architecture.
I like the first of the three images above because of its combination of fractals and blue sky thinking. The other two photos are from Sussex university, which is my academic location, the ground I stand on and write from as most of the examples in the book draw on my own and my colleagues’ teaching. As I wrote in a previous post, the university and its architecture have a particular history and these photos might evoke particular associations – of radicalness, modernism, access to university education – at least in UK audiences familiar with this context. But what about international readers or those who would not recognize the buildings? And where are the people, the students and staff who are a university much more than its buildings?
And then there is a last set of images that I came across on the image banks, of different messages written on blackboards. I like the old-school style of the chalk and blackboard, combined with the messages that speak to some of the things I am writing about, such as the importance of unlearning. In this day and age, where many books about education will probably be about what Sussex calls ‘the digital pivot,’ would a cover that has an image like this stand out or feel completely anachronistic? My book is not about the shift to online learning, although I am reflecting on the impact of COVID in most of my chapters.
So, four very different sets of images. You can clearly see why I need some help here, so if any of these images resonate with or speak to you, please let me know. If you think any of them would absolutely not work, definitely let me know. My editor and I are looking forward to your thoughts!
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
This is a guest post by Lydia Bennett-Li, who graduated from Sussex this summer and was a participant in the research for my book. In this post, Lydia reflects how her year-long placement at an Indian research organization has shaped her post-university journey and better understanding of the challenges of international development research. Thank you Lydia!
My journey as a student of International Development (ID), as I am sure every ID student would agree, was and continues to be a voyage through uncharted waters.
I decided to apply to ID fairly last minute. Like many prospective students I have met over the years being a Global Studies Ambassador, I was drawn to study ID as a result of reading, watching and learning about issues in the developing world. I must admit, I was naive in this sense. My understanding of ID at the time was limited to rather stark issues, such as education, hunger and inequality. It was only after commencing the course and learning from experts in the field, that I truly began to understand the complexities and contradictions of the developing world. While learning in this way opened my mind and broadened my understanding of ID, it also led me to become increasingly confused as to what I should do with myself post-university.
I knew by the middle of my second year, that I no longer wanted to work for a charity, or as an academic, or as an ID practitioner. I decided to take a year out and work for a mental health research organisation in Goa, India. I worked within a large substance-use disorder project, that was designing a mobile-based intervention for hazardous drinking among Goan youth. During my time in this project I learnt an incredible amount. From core research skills, to project-based management, I was able to gain some genuine, practical skills that I knew would put me in good stead for a career in ID research. However, I just did not enjoy working in research. I loved my team, and I loved that our work was aiming to have a positive impact on youth in the area, but I struggled to enjoy the bureaucracy that came with the project. I was shocked at just how important the funders of the project were in the decision-making processes, and was unsettled by just how much finance seemed to impact our work, sometimes with considerable ethical implications. I decided to do some research into the finance side of research projects, and other charity-based programs, and came across the huge world of audit.
Learning about how charities, corporations and other organisations are obliged to report on their finances, and in some cases their social activity appealed to me hugely, and I spent a considerable amount of time trying to understand just how it all worked. I learnt about financial reporting, fraud, social audits, ISO standards and more. Over time developed a keen interest in pursuing a career within which I could create positive change both globally and locally, through ensuring that the financing of development projects, international aid, CSR and other such things, is both ethically sourced, and ethically spent. I applied for a number of graduate programs in financial audit, and accepted an offer with a Big-4 Accountancy firm in London. I am somewhat unsure as to how I will fit in within a global corporation such as my new employer, especially given my background in ID and understanding of the impact that these such corporations can have in the developing world. However, I feel that the best way to make change is from within.
I am excited to now be starting this new chapter of my career. Although I feel I will be diverging from a career directly working within the field of ID for now, I think that spending the next 3 years qualifying as an Auditor, will put me in a good position to effectuate change within the field of ID in years to come. I am lucky though, as I will be able to continue to exercise my passion for development through the non-profit organisation I co-founded while I was working in India. Generation Mental Health was created out of the recognition of two gaps. The first being a significant gap in representation of the diverse mental health needs of different communities worldwide. That is to say that leadership in the field of global health is heavily skewed to the global north, making policy, treatment and more often culturally inappropriate. The second gap we recognised was the gap in opportunities for young people from these diverse communities to undertake capacity building opportunities necessary in order to make change at the broader level. Myself and my fellow Founder and Co-Founder realised after reflecting on our own positions, that it was only because of our western educational backgrounds, and our families financial statuses that we were able to embark on international placements at such a young age. Without the reputational support of our universities, and the financial support from our families, it would have been impossible for us to take a year out of our lives to work and learn in India. As such, we created Generation Mental Health, whose mission is to build the next generation of leaders in global mental health through providing funded capacity-building opportunities to young community leaders, especially those from low-resource settings.
Although Generation Mental Health is just over a year old, we have achieved an incredible amount since our conception. Our team and advisory boards now span over 5 continents, our campus chapters have fully launched and are expanding across campuses in the US, and our Michigan Campus Chapter will be hosting our very first conference this November (2020). I am proud to be a part of this wonderful and exciting organisation, not only does it bring me closer to my passion for development and mental health, but it allows me to learn new things every day.
Studying International Development, for me, has been a challenging yet career-moulding experience. While I now will embark on the first step of my career in an industry outside of ID, I hold close to my heart the knowledge, ethics and critical eye that I have gained through my studies. International Development is, as far as I am concerned, not a degree with the sole purpose to get you a job at the end of it. Instead it is a process of learning, critiquing and learning more, which I will keep with me for the rest of my life.
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?