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Sunil Kumar

December 3rd, 2020

A culture of encounters

2 comments | 22 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Sunil Kumar

December 3rd, 2020

A culture of encounters

2 comments | 22 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Sunil Kumar argues for decolonising higher education by creating a culture of encounters that will bring on board academics who are apprehensive, agnostic, and antagonistic

As decolonising “… involves a multitude of definitions, interpretations, aims, and strategies,” so too are there differences in the positions along the decolonising-the-curriculum continuum: apprehension, agnosticism, and antagonism. I deconstruct either end of this continuum by drawing on the idea of A Culture of Encounter, a programme on BBC Radio 4, where the presenter, Douglas Alexander, asks “what is stopping us from getting to know and understand those who are different from us. We may be more connected than ever, but we are, in many ways, strangers to each other.” I argue that the idea of cultures of encounters (note the plural) can help in three ways. First, to better understand the sluggishness in decolonising education in general, and higher education (HE) in particular.   Second, it can stimulate the mind through encounters with the cultures of other literatures taken to mean ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies. Third, and most importantly, it can enthuse an engagement with the myriad of cultures of knowing, doing, and being, that all students bring to the classroom. The potential for symbiotic knowledge co-production is boundless.

The idea of cultures of encounters necessitates ongoing dialogues with apprehensive as well as antagonistic educators: its door should remain wide open and welcoming.

Apprehension

Educators amenable to the idea of decolonisation have implicitly accepted the idea of a culture of encounter. However, they are apprehensive of where to start and the time commitment involved. The former is relatively easy to address. Allyships that enhance spaces of encounter with others who have embarked on the decolonising process can provide support, whilst working groups can help strategise. However, the issue of time commitment, requires real institutional backing. Universities do not necessarily incentivise teaching, let alone fully support the efforts required to decolonise curricula. Even the UK’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is silent on the role that a decolonised education can play in enhancing the student experience. Aneta Hayes suggests alternative metrics for frameworks such as TEF that are “grounded in critical pedagogies and could instead shape understandings of teaching excellence as a political act towards social change that is more inclusive of international students.” Thus, works such as Decolonising the University, Towards Decolonising the University: A Kaleidoscope for Empowered Action, and The University and Social Justice can also be read as calls for HE institutions to incentivise, resource, and reward alternative knowledge production and praxis. If not, decolonising the curriculum will remain a part-time, voluntary, and fringe activity.

(I include, amongst agnostic educators, those that see international as encompassing the metropoles of the Global North; those that argue that international students chose to study at British universities because they want to learn how the British do things; and those that see their neoliberal role as preparing students for the labour markets of the Global North.)

Antagonism

Educators who are antagonistic to the idea of decolonising the curriculum are a mixed bunch ranging from those who do not see their discipline being amenable to decolonisation, especially in relation to methodology, to those who feel that the inclusion of Southern examples give students exposure to international practice.

It is dangerous to cajole antagonistic educators into decolonising their curriculum as this could result in Southern authors being relegated to the recommended readings section. This inclusion of Southern examples, even if well intended, does not engage in a decolonised pedagogy. A decolonised curriculum is one where alternative literatures are placed on par with hegemonic ones, taught, and critiqued. Decolonisation entails what Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o refers to as `decolonising the mind’ or, to put it another way, to decolonise the curriculum, we have to decolonise ourselves.

Engaging antagonistic educators is best done by referencing practices that are embedded in their day-to-day educational practices: the lecture and the student essay. The former typically includes a critique of alternative positions, while the latter requires students to engage in critique: to explore debates in the literature and justify the position taken. Critique is thus commonplace, but within a hegemonic culture of encounter. Why can’t the same praxis be extended to literatures outwith hegemonic ones? Why should alternative ways of knowing, doing, and being, including the realm of methodologies, be denied a student audience?

Critique is thus commonplace, but within a hegemonic culture of encounter. Why can’t the same praxis be extended to literatures outwith hegemonic ones?

There is a long history of the denial of other ways of knowing, doing, and being. The Man Who Knew Infinity, a film about Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920), is illustrative. In addition to the racism Ramanujan faced at Cambridge, it also captures the lack of belief in his mathematical solutions because, “All his results, new or old, right or wrong, had been arrived at by a process of mingled argument, intuition and induction, of which he was entirely unable to give any coherent account.”

Whilst universities have been slow to decolonise their curricula, disciplinary decolonisation is afoot. In the field of literature, an increasing number of Southern authors are being recognised by prestigious literary awards such as Aravind Adiga for his 2008 Booker prize-winning novel, The White Tiger. In history, Subaltern Studies emerged in the late 1970s from the seminal work of Ranajit Guha and others to provide an alternative history of agency and dissent, as is also evident in Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent published this year. In law, the Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) network challenges the oppressive colonial foundations of international law. Similar examples can be found in philosophy and mathematics. Finally, Richa Nagar’s Hungry Translations demonstrates the feasibility, in the domain of methodology, of the potential to co-produce knowledge as praxis. What connects these examples is a central feature of cultures of encounters – notions of adventure and discomfort. Southern students experience academic alienation and a sense of discomfort when faced with northern hegemonic literatures whose context is foreign to them. It is only fair that antagonistic educators experience the same alienation and discomfort by engaging with Southern literatures.

Fostering cultures of encounters would necessarily involve engaging with and unsettling the Foucauldian conceptualisation of knowledge-power embodied in the idea of competent-elites. This is similar to the positions of three writers I am familiar with. Paulo Freire is critical of a banking system of education and proposes instead “a liberatory or emancipatory one, based on a dialogical relationship between teachers and learners (co-intentionality), on critical thinking and on social transformation.” In a similar vein, Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society favours informal and incidental learning compared to systems that rely on “… pre-planned curriculum, performance measurement and certification, [to] teach young people to recognise their position in a hierarchical society, in which the only route to a successful life, is to passively consume what is offered.” Finally, bell hooks speaks to the “… role of power and ideology in the sociohistorical construction of knowledge, education, culture, identity, difference, and social relations …” and the need to “… work actively through and not passively on students as they recover their histories by demystifying how domination works.”

A decolonised university, one where social justice is embodied in its institutional DNA, and not just in its outward facing core objectives of teaching, research, and public engagement, will be recognisable by the plethora of enriched spaces where students narrate their own stories and imbibe the stories of others – decolonised learning. Alas, for this to become reality assessment needs to be decolonised as well.

The idea of cultures of encounters necessitates ongoing dialogues with apprehensive as well as antagonistic educators: its door should remain wide open and welcoming.

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This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.

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About the author

headshot of Sunil Kumar

Sunil Kumar

Sunil Kumar teaches in the Department of Social Policy, LSE and considers himself a worker, like any other.

Posted In: Big Ideas

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