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Good practice in culture rich classrooms: Research-informed perspectives

by | Oct 27, 2015 | Higher Education

Good practice in culture rich classrooms Research-informed perspectivesIt was with a deep sense of appreciation that I received a recent review on OUPSA’s Good practice in culture rich classrooms: Research-informed perspectives, in early October. As publishers, it is important that the books we produce are relevant and speak to the current generation of lecturers, academics, and students. This article reflects upon the student protests unfolding across the country in higher education institutions and on the need for “deep social and political analysis of the multiple challenges and manifestations that we see today as part of the higher education system”.

According to  the review by Michael Anthony Samuel, transformation and reconstruction require “a re-examination of ourselves, our underlying valuing system, and our scholarly reflection”. The book speaks to these building blocks of a better society through its being not “just about practice, but about respect, dialogue and critical engagement with self and society”.

Marisa Montemarano, Teacher education publisher

During the course of the last week I was tasked again with teaching undergraduate students as part of the Bachelor of Education (BEd) programme. This was advocated as part of the campaign that professors need to be promoting a research-oriented undergraduate curriculum. Postgraduate education degrees are not the only spaces where research is to be valued and enacted. This responsibility coincided with a month of turmoil within the university as the usual student protests (”September Spring strike season”) which habitually accompany the jockeying for position and preference during Student Representative Council elections turned “real ugly”. We collectively wondered as members of the academic community why this year the preferences shifted from toyi-toying protests into an outburst of violent retaliation of protesters where university property vehicles, buildings, and physical resources were consciously targeted, torched and destroyed. I too had been part of the student protests in my university career which began in the 1980s as South Africa aimed to dismantle apartheid oppressions and consolidate the demands for more socially just society, a more egalitarian recognition of who we were as members of a diverse community.  I too remember the history of unequal provisions for students of culturally different racial groups within the higher education system. I also supported then the logic of a “Black Students Society” in opposition to the dominance of a White racialised hegemony in a largely English speaking university culture. After all I had been allowed on the campus under Ministerial permission to study a course not offered in the so-called apartheid “bush College” that had been designated for my racial group.  The withdrawal of such “privilege” to study at a White university was also a slap in the face when I chose to study Education – which was offered at the so-called Indian university which would allow me access.

I understood the connections between the rallying of students and the wider social transformation agenda. As a university student in apartheid higher education, I was raced, gendered, classed and offered access to voice on a leash: offered rights and responsibilities within the framework of reconstruction and transformation. But who or what was behind the more recent agenda of violent protests which resulted in criminal behaviour and students being arrested for a lack of respect for the rule of law and public property? From where was such “lawlessness” originating? Can such behaviour be acceptable? What had led students to the point of feeling that their voices or list of demands were not being able to be reached through the channels of dialogue and negotiation for which the new “rainbow nation” had become internationally acclaimed? Could such violent protests be condoned in the name of transformation?

I raise these autobiographical reflections as an indication of the worthwhileness of the project of a deep social and political analysis of the multiple challenges and manifestations that we see today as part of the higher education system. These challenges (or invitations) are not unique to the South African context, but an international phenomenon where the very fabric, purpose, structures and curriculum operations of higher education are coming under scrutiny. Key questions emerge within a globalising context where expediency, performativities, commodifications and utilitarian conceptions of the purposes of higher education study are being asked within and outside the higher education system. Is a university higher education system developing amongst its population a cadre of individuals who embrace the project of responsiveness and responsibility to the challenges of people, planet and productivity as simultaneous goals of a developing society? Are we indeed generating in the post-apartheid higher education system a valuing of the ethics of care about individuals from culturally rich and diverse societies? Are our universities spaces within which the student population feel welcomed and affirmed, where curricula are deeply connected into who they are, or want to be, or need to be in a world increasingly driven by materialistic rather than social, personal and culturally engaged expectations? Whose agenda and values should be driving the higher education system and why?

These are the issues that I think that the book Good practice in culturally-rich classrooms offers to the world of academia. It offers us a set of vocabulary with which to examine our own histories, our own trajectory of complicity or curriculum construction as we prepare individuals for a post-conflict society. Many argue that the dream of rainbow nation in post-apartheid South Africa would be an empty mantra if we do not consciously address the ways in which our university system, administration, governance, management, leadership and curriculum offering do not address a tackling of our past heritages of privileges and persecutions. Perhaps we are not yet in a post-conflict society where the levels of resistance to dominant hegemonies are still a matter of deep contestation. These oppressive strains are already ingrained into our consciousness as individuals who endured the apartheid histories. Their biographical forces infuse our chosen pedagogies and practices.  Are we yet ready to embrace the invitations of a society that is attempting to generate an imaginative space for greater harmony established through finding our common humanity in each other across our historical divides?

This book, drawn largely from one institutional higher education context from what was once the epitome of apartheid values, shows how transformation and reconstruction is possible  when we start by a re-examination of ourselves, our underlying valuing system, and our “scholarly reflection”. It is a reflection which is informed not just on personal cognitivist reflection, but located within a body of international research literature which examines how a capabilities approach and asset-based approach to higher education could infuse our design of our classroom /lecture hall spaces. This book offers an opportunity to understand our own possibilities for being respectful, collaborative and dialogical in the search for alternatives to habituated practices.

The book offers opportunities for deep personal reflection to confront our research beliefs, our chosen practices which are not just moments of pedagogical voicing, but are manifestations of our political, ideological, social and cultural selves. We are implicated in the quality of the lived experiences that our university higher education students imbibe as a consequence of our designed curriculum spaces. The book spans a range of disciplinary contexts showing how this agenda is not only a responsibility in the Social Sciences/ Humanities discourses. It infused the lecture halls of mathematics and technology education. It probes into what is a post-conflict pedagogy where deep rather than surface transformation is its agenda. Perhaps the book is a first step in this self-exploratory journey and needs to engage more critically in how the external cultural, political and social worlds of our university students impact on the spaces within which they will practice  as future professionals or productive citizens. How do students’ higher education curriculum experiences offer a possibility for reconstruction of their apartheid-laden stories, thereby contributing towards a post-conflict world? Or is it that our university classrooms simply become exotic spaces for another form of being which do not deeply connect with the lives and worlds of our students (their past, their present and their future)?

The book offers us a holistic approach to understanding the complexities of the many spirals of action that need to be engaged in, in what is referred to as a “visionary participatory action research” space based on auto-ethnographical approaches to challenge who we are as university lecturers and students, as managers and designers of curriculum. The chapters unfold the journeys of self of the lecturers as they attempt to reconstruct not just their students, but themselves as learning practitioners of a transforming social system. The book is not just about practice, but about respect, dialogue and critical engagement with self and society. We are architects of the new society we want our university to be. When violence and damage to public property are the response of students to our university environments, then we should be aware that the leash for activating voice is far too short. Who do we want to become as academics and students is the subject of this insightful book into post-apartheid South African higher education.

Michael Anthony Samuel, University of KwaZulu-Natal, School of Education

BOOK REVIEW: Voices on a leash: Review of Vandeyar, Salsohna’s (ed.) 2014. Good practice in culture-rich classrooms: Research-informed perspectives. Cape Town: Oxford University Press Southern Africa.

Read more about the book here: Good practice in culture-rich classrooms

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