Unsettling paradigms; the quest for inclusive and democratised knowledge

From a scholarly project commenced in 2017, four academics had come together to share insights emerging from on-going research projects investigating what to change, how to change it, why, for whom and to what outcomes. The scholarly enquiries are a deliberate project underway at eight research-intensive universities, driven by Universities South Africa's Teaching and Learning Strategy Group (TLSG) and co-ordinated from the University of Pretoria's Faculty of Humanities.

Named Unsettling Paradigms: The Decolonial Turn in the Humanities Curriculum at Universities in South Africa, the five-year project, sponsored by Andrew W Mellon Foundation, represents public universities' response to students' demands for a transformed curriculum.

At the virtual Colloquium hosted on 7 September by USAf's TLSG, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Chair of the TLSG and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University, said the purpose of that gathering was to stimulate debates in the higher education sector. He told the assembly of academics, students and policy makers that these interventions were meant to transform teaching and learning, over time, at South Africa's institutions. "Today we focus on insights from the inclusive and participative research going on at our institutions to strengthen humanities and science capacity to engage with these dialogues." This, as the Unsettling Paradigms research project reached mid-term.

Identifying Socially Just Epistemologies – University of the Witwatersrand

Context

Professor Ruksana Osman, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at the University of the Witwatersrand, who is also the Wits UNESCO Chair in Teacher Education for Diversity and Development provided the context for the Wits study. She pointed out that Universities have come under criticism from time to time. Governments, big business and students have been demanding to understand the relationship of universities to society, the cost and benefit of such relationships and of course the relevance of university curricular for the daily lives and realities of students.

Indeed movements like the #Rhodes and Fees MustFall campaigns argued that South African universities are not taking into account contextual understandings, but rather reflect ideas espoused from elsewhere and reinforce ways of thinking and understanding that are disempowering for those who teach and those who learn.

Project objectives

It was in this context that the Wits project explored the following themes:

  • Consider transformation of universities through a set of pedagogical interventions and stances that integrates a sense of moral and ethical purpose to learning;
  • Actively integrate pluralism in developing knowledges and understanding;
  • Aspire to liberate the learner from existing power structures by fostering a desire to challenge and change the social system in which we live; and that
  • Connect the reality around us and its many problems to the knowledge generation process.

To this end, Professor Ruksana invited a number of academics from a few universities to conceptualise, implement and write about what it means to implement socially just pedagogies in higher education classrooms along the thematic and objectives described above. The main aim was to bring together a variety of socially just pedagogical interventions across a range of different disciplinary areas in the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

Among other goals, our project was looking to liberate the student from existing power structures by fostering a desire to challenge the social system in which we live, Professor Ruksana Osman, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at the University of the Witwatersrand, said.
Professor Ruksana Osman
Among other goals, our project was looking to liberate the student from existing power structures by fostering a desire to challenge the social system in which we live, Professor Ruksana Osman, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at the University of the Witwatersrand, said.

Insights from across the projects:

Social justice work does not adhere to theoretical, methodical or disciplinary fidelity – it draws on a number of literacies including artistic, quantitative, technological and affective work. Herein lie the potential for exploring transdisciplinary opportunities within and across university classrooms.

Such work advances and even endorses a politics of solidarity – opens spaces for working together, doing reciprocal and collaborative work to advance socially just pedagogies and at the same time advance the knowledge project of the higher education.

This collaborative work also shows what socially just praxis looks like. It offers a promise in this Covid-19 moment – by demonstrating that we can find thoughtful, innovative and just ways of being together when so much of what we are currently doing, including teaching and learning requires distancing.

While we may have many small scale projects that attempt to disrupt unthinking practices and pedagogies and adopt socially just attitudes, we cannot assume that the university is innocent and its culture beyond question. A deep engagement with institutional cultures and practices is vital if socially just pedagogies are to thrive and take root more broadly across and within the global academy.

By way of provocation, Professor Osman asked the audience on 7 September:

Will the emergency remote teaching and the blended learning and teaching that will follow, set socially just teaching on the back foot? Will we lose the ground that has been gained and will attention now be diverted to important but new questions of access (this time digital access in contrast to physical access denied by apartheid) at the expense of socially just pedagogies? While hostile institutional cultures intersect with and impact social justice work within universities, do we need to think harder about digital cultures and how these will intersect with social justice work in remote learning settings?

Wrapping up the Wits component

Overall, the pedagogical interventions that were reflected on and written about came from contributions from academics in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Johannesburg. Because issues associated with socially just pedagogies cut across geographies and the global academy we invited reflections from academics at Carlton University in Canada, and Delhi University in India. These reflections were published in a special issue of an academic journal and disseminating our work in this way provided a productive end to our project. Of course, the impact on curriculum change in these different universities is ongoing.

The global call for better education, driven fiercely by student movements, highlights the need to reposition ourselves as university teachers, particularly in relation to what we teach, how we teach and why we teach. This repositioning also provides universities with an opportunity to rethink education for social change. Indeed, if you consider socially just pedagogies to be about questioning the value laden nature of knowledge and knowledge production and disrupting the assumption that knowledge is universal and neutral, and that those who teach and assess this knowledge are rational and objective in the teaching and assessment process, the contributions from the academics tackle these issues irrespective of the history and geography of the writers.

Unsettling Paradigms; the broad project purpose

Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria, and co-ordinator of the collaborative endeavour taking place at eight research-intensive universities, said the project was exploring how knowledge was being transformed into the curriculum. He said the primary purpose of this project is curriculum reform. The participating scholars are exploring untested curriculum assumptions and drawing attention to existing gaps. They are prioritising research into local challenges to accumulate Global South insights, thereby stimulating and strengthening fresh insights in Humanities disciplines while also fuelling inter-epistemic dialogues and comparative analyses. Within the context of Reform, Professor Reddy said Unsettling Paradigms is looking to diversify knowledge and, ultimately, to achieve curricula driven by inclusive and democratised knowledge.

Professor Vasu Reddy
The Unsettling Paradigms project is looking to diversify knowledge and, ultimately, to achieve curricula driven by inclusive and democratised knowledge, Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean of Humanities at UP and co-ordinator of this project, explained.

Professor Reddy summarised the project conceptual framework into three Rs: Recovery, Reassessment and Reposition. In the Recovery leg, the project is looking to dismantle apartheid's distorted perceptions of local scholars and local knowledge; to support scholars in the university system in recovering previously silenced voices of blacks, female and dissident writers, philosophers, artists and thinkers; to recognise new role models and to restore the dignity of 'othered'" lives, in pursuit of a multi-voiced understanding of curricula and standards.

The Unsettling Paradigms project is looking to diversify knowledge and, ultimately, to achieve curricula driven by inclusive and democratised knowledge, Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean of Humanities at UP and co-ordinator of this project, explained.

The second R, to Reassess, refers to interrogating the current syllabi to determine what it is that ancient scholars are teaching our students and to identify and interpret deeply entrenched attitudes.

The central tenet of the third R, Reposition, is to mainstream previously marginalised voices across disciplines in Humanities and to define their relationships with education and the economy; the supremacy of European genres; international trade agreements and the mechanics of social and political power.

Ultimately, curriculum change will come about when the ongoing enquiries yield theses and dissertations, books and scholarly articles as well as creative outputs such as music, drama productions, film and art.

Echoing Professor Reddy's sentiment, USAf's Chief Executive Officer, Professor Ahmed Bawa, said South Africa's Knowledge Project was about "how our universities enter the global knowledge system on our own Global South terms."

Background

Unsettling Paradigms: The Decolonial Turn in the Humanities Curriculum at Universities in South Africa is an inter-institutional collaborative project that brings together eight research-intensive universities: University of Pretoria, University of the Witwatersrand, University of the Free State, Rhodes University, University of the Western Cape, University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Although the push to decolonise university curricula dates back to the 1980s in South Africa (Chapman, 2020) it spiked during the Fallist movement of 2015/16, when students protested that contemporary curricula and teaching approaches in higher education are devoid of social, contextual and political relevance. This transformational project was made possible by a USD 1, 933, 700 grant, an equivalent of R27, 588, 821 in 2017 from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. Dr Mabizela said USAf is deeply indebted to the leadership of Prof Saleem Badat, former Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University and former Programme Director: International Higher Education & Strategic Projects at the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, for supporting this project. The project is running until 2022.

According to Professor Vasu Reddy, this project ultimately concerns itself with who teaches, what is taught, how teaching and learning happen, and, equally importantly, who makes decisions. He said as the Unsettling Paradigms project enters its mid-term, it is increasingly interrogating knowledge, a deeply contested term and how it influences decisions on educational goals. "What counts as valid knowledge was at the core of the students' movement in 2015".

This article is the second in a series developed from the 7 September Colloquium of the TLSG.

'Mateboho Green, the Writer, is the Manager: Corporate Communication at Universities South Africa

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