Thursday 3 August 2017

Posthuman curriculum

"Not all of us can say, with any degree of certainty, that we have always been human, or that we are only that". (Braidotti, 2013, p. 1)

How often do we consider what we mean by 'human' or 'humanity', terms so often used but rarely analysed or questioned? We assume a consensus about what a human is - an entity based on common shared identities, with certain relationships to the environment and the globe - explained for us via philosophies that position 'man' at the top of the chain. But the notion of what is human has also been exclusive and binding - denying the 'other' that does not fit the ideal, holding on a pedestal the 'Vitruian man' of Da Vinci's drawing - perfect in its geometry, white, male, able-bodied, European, well-off, probably heterosexual (although Da Vinci was reputably gay).

Post-humanism asks us to change this paradigm, to 'de-centre' the white, male human and to look at other possibilities for 'humanity'. Technological change (we are all mediated by technology in some way), the need for a new politics, and looming environmental imperatives require us to look differently and creatively at the world; and in turn to examine ethical considerations, as we “investigate perspectives we usually leave aside” (Ferrando, 2012).

So if we agree that it is time to rethink what it means to be human (and of course, we may not) - what might this mean for education? There's no doubt that conditions for teachers have worsened considerably in recent years; rising workloads, increased casualization, low pay, intrusive performance monitoring and interventionism - all causing increased stress and widespread mental health problems. In Further Education, increasing emphasis on ‘skills’ and ‘employability’ has reduced students to marketable commodities. Creative subjects have seen a decline in recruitment; Art and Design at AS Level has seen a 33.4% drop in candidates (National Society for Education in Art and Design, 2016) and further education pathways are being streamlined around English, maths and employment-focused subjects. The value of lifelong learning is minimised, as the focus has shifted to apprenticeships and 16-19 provision; we are very far away from the Workers' Educational Association's founder R.H. Tawney’s call for 'education as an end in itself'.

Global concepts of inequality and environmental predicament are impossible to address alone, and can feel overwhelming; especially for educators already oppressed and marginalised by the systems within which they work. Posthuman thinking, however, calls us to move beyond 'places of pain', towards an ‘ethics of affirmation’ that ‘functions through the transformation of negative into positive passions’. (Braidotti, 2013).

So as a starter for ten, these are my ideas for a posthuman curriculum.  It is education that:

1. Rethinks what it means to be human
(and what that means for our students)

Reflective Practice - Hannah Cambé
If we de-centre the Enlightenment idea of the 'perfect' human, we start to truly promote the voices of of the oppressed. We should also consider non-human agents; animals of course, also but 'things' and the influence of objects, places and space on our capacities to learn and interact. Jane Bennett's 'Vital Matter' talks of 'Thing-Power': ...'the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle'. What 'things' (spaces, places, objects) have been animated in our educational systems and why?  What impact does this have on teaching and learning?

2.  Decolonises the curriculum...

...and embraces the living knowledge of students, 'to challenge received wisdom, to ask questions about society and to generate the insight needed to change the world' (Sabaratnam, 2017).

NUS Black Students' film 'Why is my curriculum white?' and Dr Meera Sabaratnam's blog, 'Decolonising SOAS' are great starting points here. We need to examine the 'genealogy' of the subjects we teach (whatever these may be) - while we strive to promote equality and diversity in our teaching, this is often piecemeal, shallow, or restricted to special events, such as Black History Month. A forensic examination of our curriculum will likely reveal deep biases, prevalent in reading lists (take a look at teacher education) or the way in which traditional cultural practices have been appropriated (Beauty Therapy).

Subject knowledge and expertise is important, but it is also vital to move from a search for absolute truth to an acceptance of complexity and uncertainty.

3. Rejects subject silos

And perhaps turns towards a Finnish model which uses “phenomenon-based” teaching; moving away from “subjects” and towards inter-disciplinary topics.

Collective - David Ball
A posthuman curriculum also embraces art as a ‘thing that does.’ Clover and Stalker (2007) suggest that “… art-based adult education and learning provokes radical and creative visions of an alternative world; ‘as if’ things could be otherwise – a hopeful goal much required in these neo-liberal times.” (2007:2).   Including art across the curriculum can help '[break] open a dimension inaccessible to other experience,'  allowing us to re-imagine the world and our future in it. (I have written previously about the use of art in a teacher education curriculum here).

4. Accepts that we are mediated by technology...

In every sense. Our bodies are changed by medicines, genetic modifications, adaptations to help us hear and see, prosthetic limbs, smartphones soon to be implants... If we truly acknowledge these things, how might education be different?

We can also embrace technological interventions in our teaching, of course (whilst not allowing tech to be the tail that wags the pedagogical dog).  Considering digital resilience, digital criticality and importantly digital responsibility (the ethics and impact of digital waste) are vital considerations.

5. Acts in rhizomatic spaces, outside formal structures
Bluebells @aandpbikephoto

Posthumanism emphasises the role of connections - 'constellations' -, and the construction of new knowledge through rhizomatic assemblages’, in present times often mediated by technology. Educators are already acting in ‘rhizomatic’ ways; coming together on social media to take action, and forming grassroots organisations such as @tutorvoices or @ukFEchat. Like the rhizomatic bluebells, such assemblages pop up in unexpected places; they are persistent and form complex invisible networks of roots and nodes.  For educators, they are often the connections that sustain and revitalise us.  Who influences your rhizome?  And how do your students interact during and after learning has taken place in order to form their own?  How can we work with these networks to extend our learning into global spaces, or as a means of activism?

6. Employs pedagogies of belonging and togetherness.

Placing an emphasis on pro-social teaching inventions such as philosophical inquiry, critical pedagogy and restorative practice could result in a bottom-up move for change and allow teachers to gain agency while waiting for the slow wheel of politics to turn.  

These ideas are a mixture of the easily realizable and the more fantastic; and much further thinking is needed to refine and build on them.  Which are the most important and why?  And what can we do practically and rhizomatically right now, to begin to shift our ideas of what it means to be human in the twenty first century and beyond?

Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter - a Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press.
Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press
Clover, D., & Stalker, J. (Eds.). (2007). The Arts and Social Justice: Re-crafting Adult Education and Community Cultural Leadership. Leicester, UK: NIACE.
Ferrando, F. (2012). Towards a Posthumanist Methodology. A Statement. In Narrating Posthumanism. Frame, 25.1, May 2012, Utrecht University, Utrecht, 9-18.

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