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What’s critical-creative pedagogy?

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

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

Pedagogical core elements

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

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

And what does it look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update May 2021

With the creative help of Paul Braund, I have finalized the visualization of my critical-creative pedagogy.

Innovative pedagogies: reflections from 14 countries

Drawing by Raquel Duran, used with permission

Last week I attended a workshop organized by the Tobias Center for Innovation in International Development at Indiana University. Even though it was two long days on zoom, the workshop’s focus on innovative practices and pedagogies for teaching undergraduate international development (ID) studies, as well as the variety and interactivity of the presentations resulted in one of the best online workshops I have attended so far (not in small part due to the brilliant organization by Elly Cohen). 39 participants from 33 institutions in 14 countries made for rich exchanges in interactive sessions, breakout rooms and animated chat discussions. In this post I want to reflect on some of the workshop’s themes that reflect the current state of ID teaching. (Because I can only draw on a few of the many interesting sessions, here is the full schedule with all session descriptions).

Decolonizing and unlearning

The most prominent theme of the workshop was decolonizing ID teaching, which was referred to by many sessions in a lot of different contexts. This ubiquity raises the spectre of decolonizing becoming institutionalized, something cautioned against by writers such as Tuck and Yang who remind us that decolonization is not a metaphor. How can we work against the mainstreaming or bureacratization of decolonizing teaching where is looses its critical power and potential, as has happened with so many buzzwords and fuzzwords? How can we prevent decolonizing from becoming a tick box or labeling exercise that only pays lip service to the crucial demands for structural, epistemic transformations advanced by decolonial thinkers and activists? Many of these have answered these questions already; in the workshop, the decolonial jam session by Jon Langdon from St Francis Xavier University and Ajay Parasram from Dalhousie University in Canada provided a space for collective reflection. They challenged us to think how the writings of early postcolonial revolutionaries, such as Aimé Césaire, Walter Rodney and Thomas Sankara, can be brought in conversations with the cannon of post-development or how the music of Bob Marley can serve as radical prophecy. The discussion also focused on students’ and educators’ reflexivity and positionalities, linked to practices of unlearning and decentering, for example through the use of reflexive diaries as explored by Lee Rensimer and Kamna Patel from University College London. One of the questions that emerged from the session was how critical hope can be maintained among cooptation and cynicism, which is at the heart of my own critical-creative pedagogy.

Online collaborative learning

A second prominent theme was the use of technology, not surprisingly really after a year of online teaching. Kirchuffs Atengble from PACKS, a think tank in Ghana, introduced us to tools such as Telegram and jam boards that work in resource-constrained settings. Two sessions explored the potential for students from universities in different countries to collaboratively research and learn. Ken Salo from the University of Illinois, Ricardo Nacimiento from UNILAB in Brazil and Greg Ruiters from the University of Western Cape in South Africa shared how virtual exchanges can build students’ transnational literacies about responses to racialized injustices. Through creating digital story maps of local anti-racist struggles in Brazil, Cape Town and Chicago, students engage with struggles such as Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police in Chicago, Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall at South African universities and urban resistance in Brazil. The project works with an enriched definition of literacy, including embodied practices such as capoeira and samba that allow for soundscapes of resistance and multi-sensorial learning. Such decentering of the written (academic) text links this project to decolonizing teaching. The project’s aim to create’not safe but courageous spaces was a good reminder that many of these pedagogical practices need educators’ courage and commitment.

Home page of the CACHO project (https://sites.google.com/asu.edu/kaach/home?authuser=0)

A similar international project was presented by Mary Jane Parmentier and Lindsay Smith from Arizona State University, Tomas Javier Carroza from the Universidad Mar del Plata in Argentina and Jeanne Simon from Universidad de Concepcion in Chile. The Cacho project – meaning break in Spanish in reference to ‘experimenting through small ruptures in dominant practice’ – uses multilingual classrooms, problem-based research and an inverted syllabus that privileges writers from the Global South to create international decolonized learning spaces. Some of the things that struck me were the use of both English and Spanish to decenter English as a dominant language, the Cacho’s team’s subversion of the managerial language of COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning) to explore alternative learnings, but the demanding nature of the project for both faculty and students (9 months preparation and high student attrition). Nevertheless the project has so far brought together 60 students from 4 universities, in order to mobilize knowledge for the public good. This raised interesting discussion questions about the specific ends of knowledge creation and definitions of public value, both of which cannot be assumed.

As the workshop’s final presentation on e-volunteering as international experiential learning by Marylynn Steckley from Carleton University showed, facilitating virtual encounters can address students’ concerns about the environmental impact of travel as well as the affordability of overseas trips. Steckley asked whether travel is necessary for transformation – as the shift to online teaching and learning during COVID has shown, the answer is not necessarily and not always. However, engagement with the world has to go beyond the virtual. As many participants pointed out, students do not need to get on a plane to experience and learn from diverse ways of being, thinking and making in the world.

Simulations and role play

There were a number of sessions on the use of simulations and role-plays to afford students (inter)active learning by applying theoretical insights to either real or constructed scenarios. John-Michael Davis from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the US teaches students how to conduct interviews by simulating a field setting of different stakeholders involved in e-waste recycling. Laine Munir from the African Leadership Institute in Rwanda presented a more mainstream development version of negotiations around various crises in a fictional African country. Last but not least, together with my colleague Paul Gilbert I had designed a role play based on Paul’s ethnographic research in Dhaka. Our activity simulated a focus group meeting organized by JICA, which is funding the building of a light-rail system in the city, which would alleviate the notoriously bad traffic in Dhaka but also displace rickshaw drivers, in line with ongoing attempts by municipal authorities to regulate their work and restrict their movements through parts of the city. We had created a padlet that introduced participants to the different stakeholders in the focus group. We also suggested that participants watch a short video to get a more immersive understanding of rickshaw drivers work.

Made with Padlet

Our 60 minute session was a much compressed version of a learning activity that would normally take several weeks and include students undertaking their own in-depth research about rickshaw drivers and their lifelihood challenges in Dhaka, as well as about the different groups who participated in the focus group. Even though we were only able to enact about 15 minutes of the role play, it gave participants some sense of the potentials of this kind of learning activity. It also lead to an engaged discussion which focused on students’ experiential and emotional investments in such activities. What happens when some students emotionally identifying with particular roles, while others might take a more detached approach? As educators, we need to be mindful of and attentive to what students bring with them into our classroom. When students have been facing precariousness themselves, then playing (educational) games can become an alienating experience for them. this showed the importance of extensive debriefing and reflection after role-play exercise, to allow students to articulate their experiences, draw out their learning and connect it back to theoretical discussions.

The discussion also explored role plays’ connections to ‘reality.’ Might the unrealistic and scripted nature of the activity help students understand something about the need for and possibility of change in development? Might it also open up a space to explore the tension between personal values and professional roles, which sometimes (often?) do not align and force compromise and accommodation? When development as progress is scripted, does it allow people to evade responsibility or accountability? And might a realization of this tension be a good preparation for students’ post-university work in mainstream development organization, if they end up working there whether by choice or necessity?

Finally, we discussed the possibility that students could make misplaced assumptions about people in marginalized positions and their resistance to or support of development projects and ideas about progress and improvement more generally. Steering students away from problematic projections and identifications or from assumptions of unitary or essentialist positions is an important part of the learning in role play. This learning can be fostered by students doing extensive research about the context of the role play and the lives of the participants beforehand, through giving clear guidance about the play and through debriefing that does not shy away from difficult questions. This of course is true for teaching in general, but especially for critical-creative pedagogies that involve students as whole-person learners, use experiential learning-by-doing and foster critical hope.

What’s next? What’s new?

After a long search for the perfect cover, I am very happy with this final version.

After submitting my final typescript a couple of weeks ago, I have started to think about what’s coming next. Lots of exciting things are happening: my book cover has been finalized and the book has appeared on the publisher’s website for pre-order. I now have a whole summer to work on promoting the book and its ideas. So here is a glimpse at what’s to come.

I am slowly turning this writing blog into a website, so you will notice a few changes over the coming weeks. Now that the actual writing of the book is done, I thought it would be more useful to have a site that provides not only information about the book, but also about upcoming presentations and other public engagements, about teaching resources and about how the book is being received by educators, students and other readers.

The Book: publisher information, content summary, reviews

Here are early reviewers’ comments that can be found on my new The Book page. I am very excited that academics whose books have influenced my own thinking are so positive about my book.

“The combination of larger arguments for the reimagining of universities and practical examples of engaged teaching is a distinctive contribution to fields where many works usually offer one or the other. The shift from critique to reconstruction is vitally needed at a moment when many debates about universities shows signs of critique fatigue.”

Tom Sperlinger, Author of Who are Universities For? Remaking Higher Education

“By inviting cross-disciplinary pedagogic infusions, Schwittay argues for the creation of alternative educational and social futures through the design of new learning environments; the development of student curiosity, introspection and imagination; prototyping activities and the taking of creative risks. This is a timely, important and optimistic book – a conceptual and practical antidote to the challenges of our times.”  

Craig Hammond, Author of Hope, Utopia and Creativity in Higher Education: Pedagogical Tactics for Alternative Futures

Presentations: academic conferences, workshops and public engagements

As you can see from my new Presentations page, I am also beginning to present ideas from the book. My first presentation, a couple of weeks ago at the Global Festival of Active Learning, went really well. It was a zoom presentation of a short summary of my critical-creative pedagogy and a few teaching examples to about 50 participants, and I got some lovely comments. Some participants were wondering how this might work in the STEM subjects or the physical sciences, some of which also focus on global challenges. The idea of whole-person learning, a term I borrow from Alison James and Stephen Brookfield who have written a lot on creative education, seemed to especially resonate, with one participant saying that it was about developing wisdom as much as knowledge. Another person commented that they liked the balance between the critical aspect in the pedagogy and the nurture that comes with the creative aspect. Critical hope, revealing some of our own biases and becoming more reflective about the choices we make in our teaching were other things that resonated with participants. I really could not have gotten off to a better start!

My presentation at the Global Festival of Active Learning in April

I have two more presentations coming up in the next couple of months, one at the Tobias Centre for Innovation in International Development at the Indiana University, Bloomington in the US and the other at the 2021 EADI/ISS conference. Both are virtual interactive sessions co-designed with colleagues as Sussex such as Elizabeth Mills, Paul Gilbert and Suda Perera, which I am really looking forward to developing and then delivering. In addition I am also working on other public engagements: I recently submitted a short piece to the UNESCO’s Future of Learning initiative and am pitching a piece to the Times Higher Education section for the upcoming UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development.

Resources: teaching guides, templates and other tools

I am also planning to create a Resources Page on the website where I will be sharing templates, guidelines and descriptions of the teaching activities described in the book. I hope this will help to inspire like-minded educators to experiment with their own versions of critical-creative pedagogy and will make it easier for them to adapt some of my ideas for their own teaching.

This illustration of a critical-creative pedagogy was created by Paul Braund. Thank you!

Re-imagining universities

What if university campuses were designed around central allotments?

In a previous post, I provided some glimpses of the conclusion of my book. Here, I want to expand on this, as I am finalizing my book manuscript. A second round of reviews was very positive, with the conclusion described as ‘a delightful little chapter that contains a wealth of interesting ideas.’ So I want to present a few more of these ideas here and hope that you enjoy reading them, while I get my book ready for production! I should also have a final cover soon and will begin presenting ideas from the book on April 20, at the online Global Festival of Active Learning.

In higher education, capstone projects are final projects undertaken by students as the crowning accomplishments of their learning journeys. I use them as potential spaces for students to imagine and work towards radical alternatives to current challenges. In this spirit, the conclusion to Creative Universities is presented as a series of experimental capstone projects, as prototypes of potential future uses of a critical-creative pedagogy. They are conceived as open-ended action research, carried out within universities that become experimental spaces supported by adequate spaces, materials and funding.

The project teams would encompass student members from as many different disciplinary backgrounds as possible, supported by staff and PhD researchers from at least three faculties. They guide students in identifying, researching and addressing challenges that affect universities – effectively asking students to dig where they stand – but have further-reaching impacts. Project work begins with collectively formulating a challenge, researching it from a decolonial perspective, iteratively designing possible responses to the challenge and then implementing one of them. During this process, students work with research groups and student societies on campus, as well as with community organisations, activist collectives or other institutions that advocate for alternative futures. These diverse groups become active collaborators rather than just placeholders for internships; they engage with students in collective labor from projects’ inception to their implementation. Below are some examples:

Opening up learning: decolonizing field trips and global classrooms

The emphasis of the first theme is on connecting universities, and learning within them, to both their immediate surroundings and wider worlds. It takes inspirations from the Remaking Academic Identities and Prefiguring Alternatives chapters. For the first project, students would design and undertake a decolonized field module. They begin by thinking about the pedagogical foundations of a field trip that would not replicate development tourism or nature edu-tainment but enable collective learning about social, ecological and other transformations through collaborative experiments with partner organizations. Students would consider questions such as

  • what is to be learned, where, by whom, in what ways and toward what ends?
  • How can field engagements can be opened up to epistemic diversity and enact whole-person learning?
  • How do students position themselves as learners rather than helpers, decentre themselves, unlearn their certainties and become open to being challenged?
  • How can they ask questions and listen deeply before suggesting actions, if any?
  • How can decolonial field engagements be imagined, created and enacted in theory and practice, in praxis?
How can field trips and global classrooms be decolonized? Photocredit: Raquel Duran

A second, related project would focus on designing a global classroom around a current challenge. Aiming for stationary connectivity and experimenting with multiple technological possibilities, students would agree on a challenge with their international co-learners, research how it has been addressed in their own locations and then explore questions including:

  • To what extent can local responses could be transplanted and global initiatives be incorporated into local responses?
  • What is the potential to connect and amplify local responses, through pluriversal modes of engagement that work with multiple ways of being, learning and making in diverse worlds?
  • How can these different modes of learning be maintained rather than flattened or homogenised?
  • How can epistemic diversity be ensured in global classrooms?
  • How can writing be decentered?
  • How best to govern collaborative learning platforms and spaces to ensure equitable participation?

Sustain-able campuses: mobilities and food

This theme takes its inspiration from the Repairing Ecologies chapter, which focuses on students developing deep ecology, sustain-ability and systems-approaches, and extends it to university campuses and their surroundings, and the multiple and diverse labors and lives that take place on them. The first project is the food project described here. The second calls on students to prototype an integrated mobility plan, with mobility being conceived as a transdisciplinary issue with far-reaching effects that impact human and non-human campus inhabitants in interconnected ways. Students begin by thinking about different means of transportation and their effects on the natural and human environments of campuses and their environs, and then extend these to design in elements of accessibility and safety, physical and mental health, creative and community aspects. This process can be guided by design questions:

  • What if commuting to university could itself become a learning experience?
  • What if mobility was not merely an instrumental necessity but became an enriching, convivial experience?
  • What if diverse means of mobility were generous, not only not polluting the environment but instead releasing clean air or water into it? 

Re-imaging universities

In this third theme, student groups would experiment with radically rethinking universities through the lens of economic and social justice. Drawing on insights especially from Remaking Academic Identities and Reclaiming Economies chapter, the projects in this theme challenge students to reflect on their personal and institutional identities and locations, and to imagine different ways of being students and engaging with universities.

How did the construction of Sussex campus in the middle of what
later became the South Downs National Park alter its surroundings? Photo credit: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/images/alumni/scrapbook/60s/places/places_60s.htm

For the first project student groups generate a comprehensive history of the present of their university and its connections to the world. In the case of Sussex, for example, research would go beyond its radical past that is a frequent reference point, and include the university’s impact on its immediate surroundings, given that was built in the vicinity of a small village and the middle of the South Downs National Park.

  • How has this building activity and the resulting mini-city of several thousand residents altered the landscape, ecological systems and human-non-human relations?
  • How has the continuous growth of universities impacted neighboring towns and affected urban dynamics, house prices and gentrification?
  • How have universities helped shape creative environments, through collaborations with other local universities or international networks?
  • How have universities engaged with community groups and local governments and to what purposes and effects?

To answer these questions, student groups conduct primary and secondary research, and then creatively present their universities as long-standing neighbours to many different communities, human and non-human. From such a historically-grounded perspective, students then develop future scenarios that might not involve the usual growth ambitions, but rather focus on the quality of relationships and the meaningful contributions universities can make, while also being honest about their detrimental effects. Ultimately, this project challenges students to interrogate what it means to be a student in multiple, often ambiguous, ways.

Last but certainly not least, a project could explore what radically inclusive universities would look like. Starting with the question of what does that mean and what does it take to make them so, students consider a wide variety of intersecting elements.

  • What if university education were to become free again?
  • How would it be funded? How has HE been funded in the UK in the past and what are funding models in other countries where universities remain much more accessible?
  • What alternative governance modes would that enable?
  • How might existing experiments such as popular universities around the world, cooperative universities like the Mondragon University and the Free Universities that have been established in some cities such as Brighton be expanded?
  • What would the effects of non-commodified HE be?
  • What are its potentials to address and abolish structural hierarchies and exclusions, based on race, gender, abilities?
  • What else needs to happen to make universities radically inclusive?

This would help students develop an understanding of how government policies are made and interlink with broader regimes such as neoliberalism. One possibility could be for groups to experiment with campus-wide basic income schemes that ensure all students and staff the financial means to cover their basic needs. Such schemes could work with alternative campus currencies, taking their inspiration from the local currency schemes that are in existence in many towns. 

Through such multi-faceted projects, student groups address pragmatic, political and philosophical questions of responsibility, equality and justice. Public presentations of the outcomes of these projects can become manifestations of critical-creative learning and showcases for the heterodox possibilities and pluriversal alternatives that can be created within universities and above all serve as a celebration of critical hope.  


Teaching (urban futures) again

Brighton waterfront during lockdown

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

Artifacts of Brighton lives

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

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

What we miss

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

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

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

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

Brighton Manifesto reproduced with students permission

What’s in/on a cover?

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.

Being grounded

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?

Old school

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!

Update May 2021

The search is finally over and I am very happy with my final cover design! It’s creative and glob-y (like a globe) and hints at fractals. The text box came with the publisher’s preformatted lay-out, so I tried to make the best of it by making it red and bold. I hope you like the cover.

This little light of mine …

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

My blog turns one year old this month! I still remember, about a year ago after signing my book contract with Bristol University Press, going for a walk on the South Downs and deciding, on a whim, to start this blog. Normally I would think something like this over and over and over and then not do it, but for some reason, last December I decided to just go for it. Little did I know then what a year it would be. Writing the book kept me steady through its ups and downs, and sharing my thoughts along the way has been very enjoyable. I thought I would mark this first anniversary by giving a short summary of the first chapter of my book, on remaking academic subjectivities.

Critical pedagogists

In an earlier post I asked what kind of academics/educators might be interested in using critical-creative pedagogy in their classrooms, findings answers in the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham, Paulo Freire, Sarah Amsler and Wendy Harcourt. In chapter 1, I expand on this question, situating it firstly in the broader context of the neoliberalized university regime and resistance to it by critical pedagogy. Grounded in the intellectual tradition of the Frankfurt School, Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault, critical pedagogy reaches from John Dewey to Freire and fellow Brazilian Augusto Boal. The latter’s experimental Theatre for the Oppressed, together with the work of Maxine Greene, added the arts as an important experiential dimension of critical pedagogy. More recently, Sarah Amsler and Henri Giroux, among others, have advanced some of the strongest critiques of neoliberalized universities, often painting a bleak and depressing picture but also finding sites of resistance and possibility within and without universities.

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

The chapter then charts efforts to decolonize the Westernized university, following the mapping work done by Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti and her colleagues, as well the work of Ramon Grosfoguel and Boaventura de Sousa Santos. Crucially, decolonization includes a multitude of initiatives, which can have diverse and contested aims and investments. Interventions range from weak to strong, from diversity efforts to radical campaigns beyond the traditional university, and educators often make use of several of these approaches at the same time. There is strength in diversity and difference. The Latin American sub-versities explored by De Sousa Santos, such as the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca, provide inspiring alternatives emerging from decolonizing struggles often connected to indigenous activism.

Whither saviorism

Shifting the focus to students, the chapter then unpacks the saviorism – the desire to save poor people, often in exotic locations – that animates some students’ interest in studying, especially in the global development field where I teach. Other students come to their studies after experiencing for themselves the shortcomings of voluntourism; one student told me in her journey interview that ‘coming to Sussex was like a breath of fresh air and quite therapeutic, because I could unpick what had gone wrong in South Africa,’ where she had spent the summer volunteering at a school. Whatever direction students are coming from, they realize early on in their studies the idealism and naivete that often brings them to study development, together with ambitions to work for the UN or other large development organizations.

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

The core courses that students at Sussex have to take in their first year disrupt this savior narrative, using critical pedagogies that discuss forms of privilege and their intersections with diverse identities and experiences. In courses such as Colonialism and After students learn about the impact of British colonialism, which is a eye-opener for many students who have been subjected to the white-washed UK high-school history curriculum. It can also be very unsettling, with students questioning how they could not have known about this history until know and what it means for them. One student described her learning as provoking ‘an existential crisis, asking why am I here?,’ and others told me that they finished their first year feeling cynical, worn down and hopeless. As educators we must be aware that our teaching can have such of these effects and take responsibility for them, rather than simply celebrating them as enlightening students or seeing them as necessary initiations into critical thinking.

Instead, critical-creative pedagogy searches for ways in which the necessary critiques of colonialism, neoliberalism and the mainstream development industry can be combined with introducing students to alternatives, and in the book I present many examples of such teaching at Sussex and other universities. A module that used to be taught by Andrea Cornwall when she was at Sussex involved students in writing alternative world histories, researching the contributions of other cultures and civilizations alongside the disruptions often brought upon them by external forces. Other courses show students that slaves and other colonized people resisted their oppressors, also drawing on the work of Gurminder Bhambra. My colleague Beth Mills uses body mapping in some of her classes to invite students to explore questions of identity, power and their own places in the world. Body mapping is exemplary of whole-person learning and the use of art and design practices, two of the strands of critical-creative pedagogy, because it involves students’ intellects, hands and bodies, working with artistic materials to craft outlines of their bodies and filling them with colors, images and words that give material expression to their experiences in the world. It leads to different engagements between students and teachers, as ‘we are all sitting on the floor, getting dirty’ as Mills describes it, and among students who encounter themselves and each other in more embodied and holistic ways. The second learning activity described in the chapter is from my own Urban Futures class, a final year undergraduate class, where students write a collective Brighton Manifesto based on their own experiences of inhabiting the city combined with urban theories such as Henri Lefebvre’s rights to the city.

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

… let it shine!

As this difficult year is drawing to a close, I am starting to think about re-entering the classroom in a month’s time, after a year-long teaching break. I look forward to learning from my colleagues’ experiences of adapting their teaching to COVID blended modes, while also drawing on my own learning from writing my book, in the process thinking much more systematically and coherently about why I teach the way I teach. When I set out on this journey a year ago, I had lots of ideas, inspirations and ideations. Now, a year later, I have a manuscript (with reviewers’ comments expected in January) and an even stronger belief in the importance of combining critique and creativity to enable students to better understand and imagine alternative responses to contemporary challenges. I will also keep writing this blog, although maybe not as frequently as I expect to be very busy, as a space to share my ongoing thoughts with like-minded travelers on this journey. For now, be well and stay safe and healthy these holidays, however you celebrate them.

Teaching activism?

Frack you - poster
The cover image of my Activism module handbook

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.

Remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall | Financial Times
My own escape from East Germany happened a few months before these dramatic events.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is a great example of change brought about by citizen action.
(Photo credit https://www.ft.com/content/42222fe0-5e9c-11e4-a807-00144feabdc0_

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 made ‘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

Kenyan woman to appeal over isolation in detention centre | The Times
Protestors at the Yarls Wood Immigration Removal Centre have long focused on its inhumane conditions and the UK’s policy of indefinite detentions (photo credit https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/kenyan-woman-to-appeal-over-isolation-in-detention-centre-7b09kjsxt)

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.

The Story of Sophia Duleep Singh and why the right to vote remains critical  | by Navjot Pal Kaur | Medium
Photo credit: https://kaurrepublic.medium.com/the-story-of-sophia-duleep-singh-and-why-the-right-to-vote-remains-critical-459038bd9277

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?


Of capstones and milestones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress.

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

Alfred Whitehead, Essays on The Aims of Education