Friday 20 March 2015

Motala seminar on critical posthumanism

Siddique Motala held a seminar on Thursday 13 March with the topic ‘Geomatics and a social justice curriculum’.  Motala, who is a doctoral student of Vivienne Bozalek at CPUT, develops a critical posthumanist perspective in geomatics. He queries the dominant discourse in the field and asks critical questions about the ways geomatics education could contribute towards social justice and how it could develop affective, social and creative practitioners. These are indeed very important issues in the broader field of engineering that is usually guided by technical principles of effectiveness and efficiency and which largely ignores the fact that the manipulation of material is also the shaping of society (Bijker & Law, 1994). Motala deploys storytelling as a pedagogical device to enhance students’ awareness of social and political issues. The aim is to create decolonising and counter-hegemonic discourses and practices in the field. Motala’s project is, firstly to challenge the doxa of the current curriculum such as the colonialist assumptions about land ownership and the lack of an ethical component. He then wants to draw on students’ subjugated (indigenous) knowledges in order to challenge this hegemony. The project of Motala is conducted within the framework of critical posthumanism as presented by Braidotti (2013). It is important to note that posthumanism is not an anti-humanism, but rather wants to recognize the entanglements of humans and nonhumans. Posthumanism is a critique of the human- and environmental devastation brought about by human-centered knowledges and practices. The critical posthuman approach allows Motala to investigate the ways in which humans, heroic stories, practices of surveying, policies, land and technologies participate in the creation and entrenchment of inequalities. One issue that requires further reflection, though, is the possibilities of a posthuman conception of storytelling. While storytelling is a humanistic construct, the question is how nonhumans (such as the technological digitising and visualising agents, open access software and narrative discourses) actively participate in the construction of different stories that make the role of power more explicit.  A reflexive question could also be asked about the effects of the research technologies (coding, discourse analysis) on the production of knowledge. This project is part of SOLT’s interest in social justice in higher education since it aims to develop a critical pedagogy in the much needed field of engineering. For the expansion of the critical project outside education, humanities and the social sciences, critical posthumanism is most appropriate.

You can watch a version of Siddique's presentation on You Tube at:

Thursday 19 March 2015

What does it mean to be 'at home' at a university? - and how important is it?

This evening I attended the launch of the book, Being at Home: Race, Institutional Culture and Transformation at South African Higher Education Institutions (Eds Pedro Tabensky and Sally Matthews) UKZN Press. The event was held at the University of Johannesburg Library. The panel, chaired by Eusebius McKaiser, consisted of Saleem Valley, Pedro Tabensky and Samantha Vice. There was an extremely large turnout, with a lot of students present, which made for an extremely exciting evening. I returned home rejuvenated.

Very briefly, the book deals with the ‘usual suspects’: race, culture and transformation in South African higher education institutions. I am very excited that my friend, Amanda Hlengwa, has a chapter in the book, ‘Employing safe bets: Reflections on attracting, developing and retaining the next generation of academics’.

What was nice about the event was that the panelists’ presentations were brief, leaving time for the very lively discussion that ensued, provoked, prompted and controlled by the ebullient Eusebius. Several interesting points of contention emerged. One of these was whether UJ was making an effort at transformation. Much to the consternation and disbelief of some of students, several UJ staff members said that UJ was making an effort, but granted, that there was much more to be done. One member of the audience said he had been dissatisfied in the old days that staff were retarding transformation. He has moved into two different units, and he remains dissatisfied that transformation is still being hindered. One colleague said that as far as disability was concerned, UJ had made far more progress than the four Western Cape universities that he was quite familiar with, and there were several nods of agreement.

There was quite a bit of discussion, with students and staff saying that they did not feel ‘at home’ at UJ, although they said that they felt even less at home at other higher education institutions. One student said she had attended Afrikaans junior and high schools, and that this is the first time, at university, that she had a glimpse of feeling ‘at home’. She asked a question that particularly appealed to Eusebius: what can we do to make these young white children interested in black students, culture and philosophy?

There was substantial discussion from the panellists and the audience about the curriculum, and why the present one does not contain enough contributions from Africa and South Africa. Samantha Vice said self critically, that this could be because the educators teach from the basis of what they were familiar with. However others contested this, saying that if newcomers to South Africa like Thaddeus Metz can throw a spotlight on Ubuntu and make a place for it in the curriculum, then so should South Africans be able to do so.

For me the take-home message was the question of what it means to feel ‘at home’. One speaker said that feeling at home was only part of the full set of conditions for social justice. Another made a distinction between feeling at home and homeliness, saying that much of the unhomeliness occurs at home: domestic violence, for example. Eusebius McKaiser said that all his life as a coloured, gay male, he has felt not at home, and that this spurred him on to learn. Samantha Vice, however, felt that in order to take risks and be critical, one needs a minimum level of safety and feeling at home. She has a point, but nonetheless: for learning to occur one should not feel too comfortable, and being a student must involve a degree of strangeness and discomfort. I am sure the actual book has far deeper and more considered treatments of the topic than the simplistic rendering I've provided here, which is why I'd advise people to buy the book - for R320. I plan to read my copy. 

Some worthwhile questions for our SOTL @ UJ project:

What does feeling ‘at home’ in a classroom mean?
What is the relationship between pedagogy, epistemology and identity?
Are there maximum recommended levels of comfort or discomfort, for learning to occur?
For maximum participation and engagement in knowledge practices, is ‘feeling at home’ a minimum or sufficient condition? What else is required for maximum participation in teaching and learning to occur?

Thursday 12 March 2015

"Human Rights" - is this a defensible concept?

When we talk about the scholarship of teaching and learning for a socially just pedagogy, we need to be clear about what we mean by 'social justice' in the first place. This point was emphasized by Hennie Lotter at Vanessa Merckel's great doctoral seminar this Monday (9 March). And he was absolutely right.

One of the more tired staples in the diet of social justice talk is that of 'human rights'.  When I worked at the national Department of Education in the Race and Values Directorate, the concept of human rights was the order of the day, and we were trying to find ways of integrating it in the school curriculum. However the concept and its ethnocentric origins bothered me, even then. The concept needs reinvention - this is the argument made by Michalinos Zembylas and Vivienne Bozalek in their article:

 A critical engagement with the social and political consequences of human rights: the contribution of the affective turn and post humanism
that appeared in Acta Academica, 2014: 46 (4) 29 - 47. They present a critique of the concept, and a way of reinvigorating it by considering it within the paradigms of the affective turn and critical post humanism. It is a scholarly and well argued article - even if their alternatives might not be to everyone's linking. It would be interesting to read what others think of it. The full text is in the project dropbox folder under 'general readings', but the abstract is reproduced, below. 
- if you enjoy this article, you will enjoy listening to Michalinos talk at our mini-conference on 1 December 2015. Here are Michalinos and Vivienne at the Heltasa Conference in Cape Town in 2012, along with Ronelle Carollissen, Francois Cilliers and Crain Soudien:

Responding to human rights critiques, this article draws on some of the literature in the affective turn and posthumanism to critique the liberal framework as well as the moral superiority of humanism on which the human rights regime has been built. Both the affective turn and posthumanism – although not monolithic – are based on two important premises that favour an agonistic account of rights: the first is that human beings are regarded in social and relational rather than in atomistic terms or as individuals without connections. Secondly, a reading of human rights through perspectives of the affective turn and posthumanism highlights a critical posthumanist engagement with human rights, conducted in the name of an unfinished and ambiguous humanity connected to other sentient beings and the environment, rather than a singular or absolute political identity of humanity. This reading recognises the social, economic and political consequences of human rights and thus their potential to upset the dominant social, economic and political order, rather than accepting human rights as universal norms of social life while ignoring the ideological frame in which they are exercised.

Monday 2 March 2015

Dare to theorise!

Last year, when I joined the SoTL@UJ group, I was bowled over by the "theory speak". Although many of the ideas were familiar I did not recognise a single "theorist". Clearly behind, you could say.

I’m an anthropologist and it is not that anthropologists don’t have theory. Quite the contrary. Maybe obscure to outsiders, but there are Boas, Kroeber, Radcliff-Brown, Malinowski, Benedict, Mead, Turner, Douglas, Harris, Levi-Strauss and the rest… In fact, most anthropologists trace their lineage to one of the early theorists.

After the heavy dose of theory in graduate school—my bookshelves are still sagging under Marx, Gramsci, the Latin American radicals, the American feminists, and the French theorists—I decided, particularly after the postmodern turn, the only way out of theory is to focus on “real world” or applied issues. And, I thought that I could do without “fashionable nonsense” (Sokal and Brickmont 2013). However, I soon realised that theory is important, helping to frame answers to complex questions about those “real life” issues; that theory is key to organise and make sense of the data we collect; and, that using specific authors reflects particular political positions. Theory “produces perspectives” and “more or less useful ways of seeing the world” as Wenger-Trayner says (2013).

Kibbie Naidoo’s SoTL seminar on 19 February (What will the world look like if we were not working with Archer?) made me think. In fact, I have started to look for theory/ies that could frame my small project that will be part of the UJ SoTL for Social Justice project. The SoTL seminar series with its wide range of presentations and conversations about possible theories turned out to be very helpful. At the end the question is not if we need theory, but rather which theory do we need? I’m suggesting a reread of Hutchings and Huber’s 2008 article Placing Theory in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

I agree with Kibbie’s key point that scholars of teaching and learning should look for theories that are contextually sensitive and relevant to South Africa, and not merely follow theoretical trends in an uncritical way. Kibbie’s challenge is: “How do we shape theory so that it can speak more powerfully to data and context?” She argues for a fresh look when examining the relationship between the individual and wider society, using multiple perspectives—the idea of the Sociological Imagination described by C Wright Mills (2000) as “the vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society”.

Dialogue is at the heart of research with a Sociological Imagination. This, Kibbie says, should be more daring and include conversations with academics from many different perspectives, embrace more than one methodology and theory, and “enter into dialogue with the research context (the actual experience of the participants and the socio-cultural and historical contexts)”.

Finally, theorising is process rather than product (Clegg 2012). How that process works is opaque to most of us, so we fall back on theories that are popular, talked about, frequently referenced, but also mostly from the Global North and decontextualised. We should actively seek out theorists from Africa, India and Latin America, where many social justice challenges in teaching and learning are similar to ours. And, we need to be more daring in our own attempts to theorise as Kibbie suggested in her seminar.

Kibbie's slides: