Sunday 14 January 2018

Becoming Radical

What does it mean to be 'radical' in England today?  When I think of the word itself, lots of things spring to mind.  As a kid in the 80s 'rad' was a slang term for cool (I think it was also used by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - don't feel particularly 'rad' for mentioning that though).  Being 'cool', different, wanting change, seeing new and unusual perspectives... all of those things, plus probably having a beard (women don't immediately spring to mind when I think of 'radical', which is troubling).  I also think of Saul Alinsky and his 'Rules for Radicals' - a guide for community organisers, taken on board again in recent years by US Democrats.  Alinsky's Ten Rules for Radicals are here:

Reflecting on the word and Alinsky's philosophy as outlined above (often accused as polarising and anti-feminist) reinforces my sense of 'radical' as a problematic term.  The word is now of course also used freely throughout the government's Prevent policy, undergoing an etymological shift from the OED definitions of a person '...characterised by departure from tradition; innovative or progressive' to a person undergoing a process of being influenced by and joining extremist groups that are violently opposed to the general way of life in Britain today. Carol Wild, in her article Going to Extremes - How Radical are you? (2016) suggests that terms like radicalism are being 'made strange' by constant repetition in a particular context.  Certainly the word seems to have fallen out of use in terms of education; more emphasis is put on being a progressive, or a 'critical educator'.

Given this strangeness it felt timely to attend the University of Kent's 'Radical Pedagogies' Forum 
Richard Hall's Keynote
along with my colleague from University of Leeds Lifelong Learning Centre, Catherine Bates (@cathpuppeteer).  This event was the brainchild of organisers Claire Hurley and Tom Ritchie, who, on their university teacher training course realised that there had been very little mention of progressive, critical or indeed 'radical' education. Universities are often labelled as hotbeds of radical, snow-flakey, SJW thinking, particularly where teacher education is concerned, so it may surprise some to see an instrumental approach being advocated internally for teaching and learning. Given the creeping neo-liberalisation of our HE institutions however it is likely we will see more of this shift in the days and weeks to come.

Rather than recount the entire conference (which was brilliant, incidentally) I have attempted to distill the sessions I attended into 25 questions.  My aim is to turn these into tools for reflection for educators in HE institutions (you'll also find some of these appearing over on Twitter for #30DaysReflectResist).

From Paula McElearney's session - What 'gives life' to critical pedagogy?'

1.What is 'critical pedagogy' and what does it look like in England today?
2. How can we sustain ourselves as critical educators in a system that makes sustenance feel impossible?
3. Critical pedagogy has its roots in the work of Paulo Freire, who was writing over forty years ago. How different should the principles look today? Is there a need for (post) human critical pedagogy, and what might that look like?

From Darren Webb (University of Sheffield) session - Exploring the archeology of consciousness as an aspect of utopian pedagogy'

4. 'There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.' (Leonard Cohen).  How do we know when we have found the cracks, fissures or gaps through which we can reimagine teaching and learning? How do we spot this happening in our classrooms?
5. Should we also seek to create these 'cracks' in the system - and if so, how?
6. What 'disruptive behaviours' can we undertake to shake (even if temporarily) the status quo?

For more on Utopian pedagogy, read Darren's piece for Open Democracy here

From Kathleen Quinlan (University of Oxford) session - How Higher Education Feels: Commentaries on Poems that Illuminate Learning and Teaching

7.  Powerful learning experiences have emotion behind them. If this is true, why do we only focus on the cognitive domain?
8.  What 'unwritten' rules around emotion affect our teaching?
9. How can we better use emotion as a catalyst for reflection and growth?

For a preview of Kathleen's book, How Higher Education Feels: Commentaries on Poems that Illuminate Learning and Teaching click here
The Master's Office
The Master's Office

From Geoff Bunn (Manchester Metropolitan University) session - The Student Journey, Power Relations and the Development of Agency'

10.  Why do we always use the linear journey metaphor to describe student progression, and how does this limit how we teach our students?

11. Bureaucracy is not neutral...It creates students who are good at fulfilling (or subverting)
bureaucratic processes. What is the impact of new bureaucracies on our students? How does it affect the relationships between us?

The Student Voice - session with students from the University of Kent

12.  Students and lecturers are increasingly suffering the same issues with mental health, precarity of employment, poverty and debt. How can we narrow the gap between us to find spaces of support and solidarity?
13. 'I don't need you to sit there and use long words with me - just chat to me like a normal human being.'  How do we address issues where individual academics misuse (and abuse) power through 'micro-aggressions'? Is this a problem of growing feelings of threat and vulnerability? And is there a wider concern about the demonising and 'othering' of young people today?

From Richard Hall (De Montfort University) session - Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education

14. How white is our curriculum?  How democratic?  How feminist?
15. Is it possible to re-imagine and re-create the academy from the inside, or do we need to find another way?

Read Richard's article 'The Rise of Academic Ill-Health' here

From Lee-Ann Sequeira (London School of Economics) session - The Problem with Silent Students - It's You, Not Them

16. Why do we fetishise extroversion in education?  How can we better value silence, attention and listening to others?
17.  Why don't we ask students about how they prefer to participate in learning?
18. How can we build in more time for reflection? (for students and teachers)
19. What can we learn from non-Anglo/American practices and ways of being?
20. How often do we praise good listening?
21. How aware are we of how much space we take up by our own vocal contributions?

Read Lee-Ann's blog, Silence in the Classroom here

From Shahidha Bari (University of London) keynote - The Art of an Education

22. How can we make universities more like a medical triage system - where we treat those in the most need first?
23. How can we build in more critical reflexivity - in our students, our colleagues, ourselves? And what can we (should we?) do about those who don't want to engage in critical dialogue?

From Malcolm Noble and Tracy Walsh - Learning and Teaching for the Post-Capitalist Economy - Co-operation, not Competition

24. What might a 'co-operative' curriculum look like?
25. Is a co-produced curriculum truly possible when students are becoming consumers of a product?

Find out about Leicester Vaughan College (new co-operative venture) here 

Becoming Radical

The reflective space offered by this conference has helped me consider further what it means to be radical in education today.  I get the sense that it is a process of 'becoming', very much connected to personal values and something to reconsider, reframe, and question continually as we try to navigate the shifting world around us.  It isn't a process that can be done alone - and I'd love to hear your comments and your own questions, either on this blog or on Twitter via #30DaysReflectResist.

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