Budd L. Hall and Rajesh Tandon (2021), Socially Responsible Higher Education: International Perspectives on Knowledge Democracy. Rotterdam, NL: Brill, 303pp., ISBN: 978-90-04-45907-6
The authors of this book share the UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education. It is not the first book they have published on this topic, as their repository on the UNESCO website is a veritable treasure chest of research publications about participatory ways of working with community-based partners to generate knowledge for social change.1 Unlike some of their other publications, this time they have chosen to go with a commercial publisher, but true to their values about making knowledge accessible to all, the book is freely available to download from the Brill website.2
The book opens with a quote from Morten Levin and Davydd Greenwood to set the scene for the argument to follow: ‘Public universities can either become an integral element in the recreation of social democracy or can continue to operate as an instrument of elite domination of the planet’ (2016: 7). This somewhat polarising view of higher education in the opening statement shapes the thesis that permeates the book, namely that the university cannot continue to produce knowledge unrelated to real-world contexts that does not lead to positive social change. Given the threats to sustainability of life as we know it – the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, human migration – the authors argue that the complexity engendered by such life-changing events requires that higher education partner with those most affected by the issues, drawing on their lived experiences and local/indigenous knowledge to find sustainable solutions. However, the sudden shift to online learning, which has widened the digital divide and excluded those with restricted access to data and devices, threatens the shift toward more democratic forms of knowledge production even before they have found a foothold in most universities.
This book is therefore opportune in suggesting that, notwithstanding the challenges created by the many threats to the planet and civilisation, the time is ripe for ‘a great transition or a civilisational shift to a newly imagined world’ (p. 1). The parts in the book grapple with various questions: how should the university change to embrace the idea of knowledge democracy? (part 1); how can curricula become more suited to and reflective of local needs and knowledge? (part 2); how can teaching become more engaged? (part 3); and how can the university partner with others to renegotiate knowledge for sustainable development? (part 4). The answers to such questions lead to a framework for knowledge democracy to enable the university to enact its civic role (Biesta 2007), not only by educating enlightened citizens but by embracing diverse systems of knowledge generation and representation and using social impact as a means of validation. In an attempt to live out the values they profess, the editors chose chapter authors who represent the often-dismissed voices and experiences of emerging scholars from the Global South and developing economies. The final chapter brings together the various arguments and examples made by the contributing authors to develop criteria that enable higher education to be more socially responsible through the creation of external partnerships for democratic knowledge generation.
These criteria include recognition of the value of diverse knowledge systems (Gandhian and Ubuntu philosophies, for example) for changing prevailing paradigms within the university itself and adoption of an engaged scholarship, where the core activities of teaching, research and engagement are integrated rather than being seen as separate entities. Other criteria are the generation of knowledge that is culturally and contextually relevant and useful for bringing about change and that is created by a diverse body of students and academics and the pursuit of knowledge for change and the public good as the driving force for excellence, rather than a quest to move up the global ranking tables.
For scholars who already support the mission to transform the university into a more socially responsible institution that is committed to the democratisation of knowledge, as well as those who may not yet be convinced of the need, this book provides ample evidence and ideas about how this can be done. The book presents a clear argument for, and examples of, how universities the world over are drawing from indigenous knowledge and are questioning Western ideas of whose and what knowledge counts to inform their research and teaching. The editors are giants in the field of community-based research, and this book is a worthy addition to their vast collection of publications, which spans a period of more than forty years. Hopefully, as they predict in the opening chapter of their book, the time is ripe for community-based research to come into its own as a vehicle for progressing towards the achievement of the UNESCO sustainable development goals. This book should help to do that.
Professor of Community-based Educational Research, North-West University, South Africa
Biesta, G. (2007), ‘Towards the knowledge democracy? Knowledge production and the civic role of the university’, Studies in Philosophy and Education 26: 467–479. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-007-9056-0.
Levin, M. and D. J. Greenwood (eds) (2016), Creating a New Public University and Reviving Democracy: Action Research in Higher Education (New York: Berghahn Books).
Anke Schwittay (2021), Creative Universities: Reimagining Education for Global Challenges and Alternative Futures. Bristol: Bristol University Press, 200pp., ISBN: 978-1529213652
Creative Universities is a rare book, in being about teaching and learning by a specialist in a discipline (anthropology, as it happens) rather than ‘by a pedagogical scholar’. On this account, its author, Anke Schwittay, tells us that it is a courageous book, in her moving out of her customary field. But Creative Universities is a brave book also for other reasons. It opens up a huge multidisciplinary territory, across developmental economics, design, anthropology, pedagogy, coloniality, indigenous scholarship, creativity and the future of universities (to name but a few of the regions in this book). And it is also brave in taking on dominant interests in higher education.
Many may feel discomforted by this book. Academics who feel reasonably secure in the ways that they teach may be discomforted in – as it were – peering into Schwittay's classrooms and seeing them as hives of animated and collective activity, as students armed with some basic materials of coloured paper, coloured pens, scissors, bits of Lego, wooden blocks and photos, and items ‘sourced (sustainably) from natural environments’. These students are engaged in practical design projects, figuring out possibilities for organisations. They are, in the words of the book's subtitle, addressing ‘global challenges’ and ‘reimagining alternative futures’.
Senior management and leadership teams may also feel some discomfort were they to come across this book. Directly, the book gives examples of students, inspired by the kind of courses being advocated here, being ‘activists’ and becoming directly involved in demonstrations. And, more subtly, the book indicates that its pedagogies involve students – in their projects – giving thought to ways in which universities might change so as to bring about ‘alternative futures’. Worldly revolution simmers here.
Early on, the book introduces a schema to underpin the ‘critical-creative pedagogy’ that Schittway calls for. It has four elements: (1) whole-person learning, (2) creative methods drawn from design and the arts, (3) praxis (‘understood as action informed by theory’), and (4) critical hope. This critical-creative pedagogy is built around ‘generative theory’, the intention being not just that students are enabled to envisage ‘alternative futures’ and to propose new arrangements in the world. En route, difficulties will be identified and perhaps not entirely overcome. One intention is to counter undue pessimism on the one side (that the world is too messy and/or is dominated by huge and malign forces) and to avoid ‘saviourism’, a sense that solutions to real problems can be easily forthcoming.
The book has particular targets in its sights. One is colonialism, in both its history and legacies and its present-day forms. Another is the state of economics, and a chapter is devoted to ‘reclaiming’ an alternative ‘heterodox’ economics, more interdisciplinary and imbued with a concern for the public good. Another is a concern for indigenous peoples and their communities. And another is the unsustainability of many systems, students being encouraged to propose ways in which ‘sustain-able’ systems might be designed. Throughout, the text insists that the world presents with complexity, with change and difficulty that have to be taken on board by students.
There are several forms of radicality in this book. First, there is the overt radicality of providing students with resources through which they can engage with, and become active in, the world on an informed and critical basis. Second, there is a radicality in its epistemology, students being enabled to perceive underlying ‘patterns’ in ‘whole’ complex systems and be sensitive to the ‘relationships’ among their constituent parts. Third, there is a radicality in its educational philosophy, which directly puts into practice an acute determination to overcome the mind-body separation that has bedevilled higher education amid ‘modernity’. Nothing less than an education of the whole person is graphically depicted within the covers of this book.
There is also a radicality in the pedagogical relationship between the teacher and the students and between the students themselves, these relationships being all the time in dynamic formation. While being hugely professional, the teacher provokes the students into taking on responsibilities for their own learning, their collective inventiveness and their imaginative designs.
This book is written with a passion for the students and their learning and a passion for a higher education that exhibits hope for a different world. It is a book that is full of life and that will surely enliven most of its readers. One can feel the energy in the classroom. One can see the students working on their collective and hugely challenging projects and sense the teacher inspiring the students in imagining designs to effect worldly change.
The text, and the pedagogy displayed within it, moves on multiple levels. We are plunged into the forests of Bolivia and among its indigenous peoples, and we glimpse something of the town of Brighton on the south coast of England. Students are confronted with complexities of situations and dilemmas in designing alternative futures. An abiding consideration is that critical thinking is both imaginative and active. The critical thinker, we may say, is critical in her very being.
One significant level in this book is the geo-political. Plights of indigenous communities are glimpsed, but difficulties of effecting change are never glossed over. An important strand here is the treatment given to the United Nations. Reference is made to the UN's ‘Education for Sustainable Development’ initiative, but a critical line is taken, the ESD being seen as having a ‘market driven nature’ and as reproducing ‘the limitations and contradictions of sustainable development’. It would have been good to have this set of claims argued through, not least since the UN's (seventeen) sustainability development goals (SDGs)– which are mentioned elsewhere and rather en passant – have come to fuel a large debate in higher education and to energise much effort in universities across the world. Both the Times Higher Education world ranking on this aspect of universities’ functioning and the critical literature on SDGs might helpfully have come into view.
The chapter on ecologies makes the point that ecology can be and should be interpreted widely, picking up its central notion of interconnectivity. It is just a little unfortunate that the chapter does not live up to the billing of its title, ‘Repairing Ecologies’. That chapter contains several significant components, which include a critique of sustainable development – it often containing ‘a reliance on science and technology’ and ‘an instrumental use of nature for human and economic ends’ – and a pumping up of the idea of ‘Buen Vivir’, which ‘emerged among indigenous peoples in Latin America’ (p. 110).
Also included in the chapter is a depiction of ‘serious games’ as a pedagogy and using a campus as a site for students to map and evaluate a university's systems and imagine more ‘sustain-able’ arrangements. However, only in the very last word of the chapter does the theme of repair appear explicitly, with ‘repair’ suddenly appearing there. Had we had been treated in the chapter to a direct exposition of what it means for Nature to be impaired and then to the idea of its repair, the narrative binding these valuable elements together might have been stronger.
My hope for this book is that it will encourage teachers in higher education to reflect on ways in which the curriculum can be broadened and pedagogies can be imaginatively reinvented so as to provoke student responses in a much wider range of their being. As we are told, no less than an education of the whole person is the prize in view here. I have some niggling concerns that dampen the possibility that that prospect might be vigorously taken up in the wake of this book.
First, one quickly gains a sense that we are here in a company of a gifted teacher, giving totally in every way to the students, doubtless provoking, cajoling and encouraging the students well beyond their comfort zones, as they are enlisted to throw themselves collectively into activities and projects. The classrooms depicted here must be sites of extraordinary educational energy, which perhaps few teachers can emulate. Second, although there are occasional hints, we receive little sense as to how the reluctant students are kept onside. Is every student at the University of Sussex likely to sign up to this activity-rich and collaborative pedagogy? Or is it just the students who enrol on the courses in question who are forewarned about the experience that they are to undergo?
Third, fleetingly, at different points, the management of the author's university is mentioned but held at a critical distance. The management is largely othered and cast in a negative light. The idea of university leadership as such is not really brought into view and with it, the difficulties of leading and managing the complex institution that constitutes a university in today's multi-discursive world, this despite the facts that the design of universities is among the activities in which the students engage and that the author's university has recently been a place of much disputatiousness.
Fourth, with all of its passion, the text rather gallops along, the reader being expected to go with the flow. A gamut of terms appears, such as heterodox, praxis, prefigurative, experiential learning, decolonised, pluriversal modes, critical hope, sustain-ability, critical knowledge, phenomenology and activism. Most of these complex terms receive some kind of elucidation but this reviewer, at least, was left at times wishing for a little more.
I have a final thought. Across the railway line that runs alongside the University of Sussex (the home of this book in several ways) is Brighton University. A well-respected university in its own right, Brighton University is a ‘post-92’ university and, whereas the University of Sussex, which was founded in the mid-1960s, will regard itself as a research university – and recruiting many of its students from the affluent south of England – Brighton University is a more teaching-oriented university, with a different student clientele, being more socially and ethnically diverse and with more ‘first generation’ students. For all its wish to elicit imaginative designs from the students, not least in the design of universities, there is no recognition in this book of this other university right on the doorstep of the University of Sussex, occupying a quite different socio-geo-political space.
I wonder what designs the students might have produced if they had been encouraged to consider both universities together. Here, immediately available, is an education of the whole person in developing a comparative understanding of these rather different educational sites and their students. As it is, the crazy separation of universities in the UK – between research-intensive and teaching-oriented universities and with all of the societal, economic and pedagogical differences that ensue – goes rather unaddressed.
Catherine Bovill (2020) Co-creating Learning and Teaching: Towards Relational Pedagogy in Higher Education. St. Albans: Critical Publishing, 96pp., ISBN: 9781913063818
This short, clear and well-presented book is a useful guide to two interrelated and mutually supportive practices: (1) shared decision-making between staff and students about the content of courses, and (2) the building of good relationships in the classroom. Bovill argues that these approaches in tandem benefit students’ learning, academic performance, transferable skills and autonomy.
The book is part of the Critical Practice in Higher Education series and contains an introduction, conclusion and four main chapters. Drawing on a wide selection of writings about learning and teaching in schools and universities, the author encourages those who teach in higher education to adopt alternatives to the ‘impersonal, customer-focused version’ of the sector that has taken hold in the UK and other advanced industrial countries (p. 2).
Right from the opening sentence of the book, Bovill does not shy away from the complexity and challenges faced by those who teach and learn in mass higher education systems that are operated according to market principles and are often underfunded. The need to ‘balance the books’ may lead some university managers to economise on teaching staff and make mass lectures the main form of teaching. Relational pedagogy and co-creation of learning and teaching are made more difficult by such top-level decisions. Interestingly, there is a reference to an Australian university (p. 60) that engaged more teachers and teaching assistants for its first-year programme so that classes were smaller. It is said that the lower student drop-out rate and reduced demand on student services covered the extra costs.
Many concepts in common usage in higher education are explained and analysed throughout the book, for example, belonging (pp. 16–17), student engagement (p. 25), active learning (pp. 26–27) and active listening (p. 46). On page 12, there is a scathing criticism of the use of the word ‘delivery’ – of knowledge or teaching or the curriculum – in official and everyday higher education language. This term commodifies knowledge and defines it as something that is transmitted from teachers who have the monopoly of expertise to students who are passive consumers and empty vessels.
The author recognises that teachers who are employed on casual contracts and whose tenure is precarious may not feel able to organise their classes or assessment tasks in innovative ways (p. 50). But for those in relatively secure employment, there are many detailed examples from Sweden, the United States of America, Scotland, Austria and Denmark of how relational pedagogy and the co-creation of learning and teaching can be practiced in both face-to-face and online classes. Two examples, found in Chapter 2, were my favourites and were completely new to me. Both concerned relationships in learning and teaching that are designed to foster co-operation and discussion between students. One idea is to issue ten beans to each student in a discussion class (p. 11) Students give up one bean every time they make a contribution to the discussion. This encourages the most confident students to limit their interventions and less vocal students to use up at least some of their beans. The second example is about two-stage examinations (p. 23). Students complete a conventional exam or class test individually and then answer some of the same questions collaboratively. Both are graded and students tend to find the second stage more enjoyable than the first.
It would be relatively straightforward to implement some of the co-creation examples in Chapter 3, such as the design of assignments (p. 33) and the negotiation of individual essay titles (p. 34). However, readers are warned about the need to organise whole-class co-creation projects in ways that enable genuine participation by all students and about the potential of co-creation schemes in which only some of the student cohort are involved to reinforce structural inequalities between different groups of students. The author also takes care to mention when particular innovations require additional institutional resources.
The reluctance of some teachers to reveal too much about themselves or to encourage students to share feelings and personal experiences is acknowledged in Chapter 2. The author reassures readers that ‘it is possible to be both professional and approachable, to have appropriate boundaries and to also share some personal stories and experiences to help build mutual trust and respect’ (p. 21). There is a good discussion two paragraphs later on the erroneous belief that course content and what counts as knowledge are somehow objective. The author cites Ira Shor who challenges this assumption by asking, ‘Whose history and literature is taught and whose is ignored?’ (1992: 14).
Chapter 4 on relational pedagogy opens with the following quote: ‘Good teaching is an act of hospitality’ (Palmer 1998: 50), and I would encourage all higher education teachers to reflect on what this idea means to them. The chapter goes on to emphasise the importance of how teachers behave in the first five minutes of a new class. ‘Teachers need to demonstrate that they have a desire to get to know students, that they value contributions from students and that they are prepared to give something of themselves’ (p. 44). Later in the chapter, the tricky question of what it means for teachers to share power with students is addressed. The inequalities of power between established and new teaching staff are mentioned here, but a brief consideration of power differentials between teachers based on their colour, class, ethnicity, nationality, sex or sexuality would have been useful too.
Chapter 5, ‘What does this mean for my teaching practice?’ gives considered and succinct advice on approaching co-creation, facilitating small-group discussion in mass lectures, responding to students who appear disengaged and to colleagues who are resistant to the sort of principles advocated in this book. Chapter 6 concludes the book with key messages not just for teachers but for students, academic developers and senior managers as well. This recognition of the interdependence of different groups of actors within higher education institutions is important and something that all authors of guidance manuals for teaching staff should consider.
The layout of the book is definitely reader friendly. The introduction and the four main chapters all include at least one section entitled ‘Critical issues’, a chapter summary and a small number of texts for further reading. In the main chapters, the paragraphs containing ‘Critical questions for practice’ address the reader directly and do not underestimate the difficulties they can face when attempting to modify classroom activities and relationships.
I enjoyed this book very much and would recommend it to both inexperienced and experienced higher education teachers. However, a little more coverage of critical pedagogy (p. 5), emancipatory pedagogy (p. 21), active learning (pp. 26–27), inclusivity (p. 39) and separate consideration of student-centred, feminist and anti-racist pedagogies would have been helpful to those unfamiliar with the last thirty years’ worth of inspiring literature on these approaches to learning and teaching. And it would be splendid if, in a subsequent edition or other work, Catherine Bovill said more about the co-creation of knowledge (p. 50) that can happen when active learning, mutual trust and collective endeavour are combined in contemporary classrooms.
Shor, I. (1992), Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change (London: University of Chicago Press).