Chris New photoOur latest guest post comes from Chris New of LSE’s Language Centre, who has been reflecting on what student participation and engagement mean in the context of the School’s Reconnect with Research programme

LSE has a long history of providing assistance to persecuted scholars, which the School extended in 2012 by introducing the only language and research skills course for refugee academics in the UK, the Reconnect with Research programme. A joint venture between the Centre for the Study of Human Rights and the LSE Language Centre, it welcomed 21 participants to the School from places as diverse as Eritrea, Algeria and the Palestinian Territories.

Refugees are often excluded from vital sources of information so from the outset we thought about the importance of participation in the programme. We wanted participation to go far beyond peer information exchange and topic based responses and for it be developmental in three key ways – building academic expertise, socialisation in the disciplines and the identity of international academics. For the scholars, it was precisely these issues that, if lacking, were seen as barriers to success. For us, they were the issues that opened up questions over which forms of participation work and how they can best be implemented in the classroom.

From the moment our refugee academics arrived, one thing was clear: inclusion changes things. Being within LSE legitimates who you are and what you do, and this in itself can influence participation. Our hope was that inclusion, being social in nature, would set the context for new and fresh approaches to participation in activities; and that while these activities may be cognitive in nature, the fact that they occur in a social context means that they are likely to have a more beneficial effect. In other words, class participation was going to work best as a “package” of the social and the cognitive.

In class, we presented tasks as work-shopped activities, overtly developmental and cognitive but also based in the participants’ own experiences as academics. So, for example, to break into new ways of thinking and talking, we combined tasks such as the critiquing of academic works written by LSE faculty with the consideration of participants’ own research proposals. By looking at the ways international academics think and write, the scholars were able to discuss the reshaping of their own work and that of their colleagues. As a result, they discovered ways of harnessing existing knowledge to reshape their academic identities, both in their disciplines and in an international setting. Instead of peer exchange of information, we now had peer exchange of academic expertise, core skills and identity.

There was an almost palpable sense of shifting ideas and shifting patterns of engagement in class. New ways of arguing came to the fore and members of the group began to see how they could become socialised within their discipline. Our approach gave participants the chance to extend their ideas about what it means to be an international academic. By building on a social and cognitive engagement within tasks and using the “best bits” of LSE, we tried to open up possibilities and offer something new and different. The buzz in the room was a reflection of how seriously participants got into the tasks. They became much more obviously excited about research itself and the idea that this particular course had, through the process of participation, helped shift their values and break down obstacles, be those obstacles linguistic, cognitive or social. As one participant said, the course “reflects the main barriers that we, as academic refugees, face during the process of forced migration and when rebuilding our lives: lack of human rights and of languages”.

Having spent more than a year teaching the programme, it is clear to me that the interplay between truly transformative learning and the social context of a learning environment works best when both are acknowledged as playing key roles in the classroom. This was what allowed the participants to dig deep, challenge what they thought they knew and create new ideas and novel engagements. One participant commented: “Right from the beginning, a trustful relationship is established between students, the team and the project as a whole.” We used that trust to offer social, cognitive and linguistic perspectives that closed knowledge gaps and provided the outcomes the learners wanted. We also had some pretty brilliant guest speakers from across the School who helped us achieve it.

So where are our participants now? For one, “many doors have opened again, some I have even never dreamt of.” She now holds an LSE Fellowship, recently co-organised an international conference and was nominated a “refugee woman of the year”. And for others, LSE, Cambridge, SOAS and UCL beckon.

Chris New is Course Co-ordinator for Reconnect with Research which he wrote and teaches.

Zoe Gillard manages the course from the Centre for the Study of Human Rights for LSE’s Scholars at Risk programme.

Reconnect with Research was started with the support of the LSE Annual Fund.

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