The What and the How of Teaching Global Development

by Anke Schwittay

A little over two years ago, this Convivial Thinking blog started with a collective conversation about decolonizing teaching pedagogies. Since then a number of posts have further added to the discussion, and especially its decolonial dimension. Since John Cameron wrote in 2013 about the ‘broader failure in the academy to subject our teaching to serious critical reflection and to consider it worthy of serious writing and publication,’ things are slowly changing in Development Studies, not in small part due to efforts to decolonize the development curriculum. This is both encouraging and important, for as bell hooks has argued, ‘the classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.’ Many of these contributions have focused on what we are teaching development students, often looking to diversify reading lists. That is not enough, however – how we teach is just as important as what we teach.

Building on my own 15 years of teaching Anthropology and Global Development in the US, New Zealand and now the UK, over the last three years I have carried out a research project on reimaging university education for alternative futures. The project is exploring how creative ways of teaching development and other challenge-focused social sciences can help students to better understand the complexities of global challenges and imagine alternative responses to them. By creative, I mean everyday and radical forms of creativity that see in every student creative capabilities that can be nurtured to work towards alternatives that challenge rather than reinforce the status quo. As a result of my research, I have developed a critical-creative pedagogy that combines critical, post-development and decolonial pedagogies with creative teaching that incorporates whole-person learning, arts and design methods and praxis. Inspired by the work of Gibson-Graham on performative academic subjects, Escobar on designs for the pluriverse, Amsler and Facer on pedagogies of possibility, and de Sousa Santos on epistemologies of the south, a critical-creative pedagogy wants to enable students to move beyond the impasse created by relentless critique, to spot openings where before they could only see closures, to complement deconstructing and taking apart with imagining and reassembling. It aims to instil in students a critical hope that is aware of its own conditions of possibility. This pedagogy has emerged from my own educational experiments, the teaching of my colleagues at the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex and interviews with students about their education, all of whom I thank for participating in my research. In this post I want to share a few teaching examples as a starting point for a conversation about the what and the how of teaching global development.

Teaching about colonialism and decoloniality

All ID students at Sussex have to take a compulsory module on colonialism in their first term, which students describe as eye-opening and deeply unsettling. Learning, often for the first time, about British colonial history and its ongoing impacts had one student expressing ‘shock that up until the age of 20 I could name more famous Tudors than countries in the former British empire.’ Another student described how the module sparked ‘an existential crisis, asking Why am I here?,’ which resonates with many students rethinking their views of the world, the UK and international development.  Through this and other core modules, students are challenged to look at their own privileges and complicities, to interrogate their desires to save the world, which many recognize as naïve and idealistic, and to begin to question their certainties. In their third year, students then have the option of taking a module on Decolonial Movements that introduces them to social and political movements that try to de-link from the legacies of coloniality. Taught by Anna Laing, who herself is engaged in research and activist work with indigenous peoples in Bolivia, the module combines critical analysis of key theoretical perspectives with learning about emancipatory struggles for alternative futures, including Latin American indigenous autonomy movements, Black Lives Matter and feminist struggles.

Drawing on writers and formats like films, indigenous poetry and activist blogs and declarations that are marginalised from Eurocentric knowledge production, the module not only introduces students to subaltern voices but also decenters written texts as the sole source of authoritative knowledge. By making marginalised perspectives and decolonial struggles the central focus of her module, Laing moves beyond the ‘just add and stir approach’ to decolonizing curricula, which is common but insufficient to decenter Eurocentrism. Students often describe this module as transformational and hopeful. One student commented how ‘having had to unlearn in third year was truly beneficial but I wish I had known sooner.’ Like other students, he felt that the teaching about (post)colonialism he had received prior to this module had not sufficiently shown him the ongoing effects of coloniality and especially that there are movements actively working to undo colonial legacies. Another student reflected that ‘the module ensured me that it was possible to follow a path which uses creative pedagogic approaches to work towards positive change, outside a more Westernised approach to education.’ This echoes general comments that the module made students more hopeful about the possibility of change.

Reading and teaching for difference

Jonathan Langdon, who teaches development studies in Canada, asks students to read excerpts from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations alongside the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, published 12 years after Smith’s book. For Langdon, such a reading of texts against each other not only questions the central place of economics in development imaginaries and interventions, but also reveals the gulf between Smith’s rational, self-centered mentality and the human experiences of slavery. It shows students how Equiano himself used Smith’s writings to advocate for the efficiency of wage over slave labor, and more generally how (former) slaves were able to appropriate Western arguments for the abolitionist cause. Discussing how both texts were used by proponents and opponents of the slave trade prompts students to ask why they have certainly heard of Smith before but never of Equiano. Langdon argues that ‘it is only by bringing in the voice of those impacted by [the slave] system that the immorality of the economic arrangements stands out in sharp relief.’ Situating both books at the historical emergence of capitalism provides a fuller historical context and allows, in the words of Gibson-Graham, for an ontological reframing of capitalism from a structural given to a system produced by particular discourses and practices – a system that can therefore be changed. At the International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands, Wendy Harcourt redesigned the flagship MA course from a post-development and Freirean perspective, incorporating creative activities such as students producing videos, poetry, role plays, bogs and photos. Her article includes many thought-provoking reactions by students and faculty that point to the challenges and rewards of becoming more creative in our teaching.

Experiencing urban transformations

In my own undergraduate module on Urban Futures, to get students thinking more creatively about rights to the city which they learn about through reading the work of Henri Lefebvre and other scholars, I ask them to reflect on their own experiences of living in Brighton and capture these through diaries, maps, photos, artefacts and a day-in-the-life stories. Following the BLM protests, when I teach this module again in the spring, I will also ask students to research Brighton’s links to the slave trade. Students’ creations then become the material for the class collectively writing a Brighton Manifesto, calling for making the city more equitable, liveable and inclusive. Rather than discussing in the abstract how cities could be transformed, students therefore learn by applying their thinking to Brighton, also drawing on their own knowledge about the city. In the process, they not only become more aware of how they inhabit the city and interact with others, but also of how they could start enacting change.

The activity, and the module more generally, disrupt the north-south binary that is still prevalent in much international development thinking, by showing challenges and changes right in the students’ (temporary) home. This resonates with the thoughts expressed by many graduating students I interviewed for my research, who as a result of their studies abandon their initial desires to work for the UN or other mainstream development organizations, and instead decide to work in the UK, with local, often advocacy or social justice organizations.

I am aware that all of my examples are from white educators working at universities in the Global North, which has been the focus of my research so far, and the limitations that this poses. However, as indigenous scholars such as Cree/Salteaux/Dakota Shauneen Pete have argued, decolonizing work in the academy ‘is not my work alone; the longer I do this work the more I am convinced that this is white work.’[1]  Moreover, my hope is that this post can be the starting point for a conversation by inviting readers to share examples from other universities, including those located in the Global South, about how teaching global development can be enriched in critical-creative ways.

Anke Schwittay is a Senior Lecturer in Global Development and Anthropology at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. She blogs on Reimagining Education in an Age of Global Challenges. Anke can also be found on Twitter.

[1] as quoted in: Pete, S., 2018. Meschachakanis, a Coyote Narrative: Decolonising Higher Education. In Decolonising the University, ed. Gurminder K Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial, and Kerem Nişancioğlu (London: Pluto Press, 2018).