The inaugural ‘Gender, Sexuality and Identities Student Forum’ met on the first day of the summer term, launching a new initiative aiming to create extra-curricular platforms for student debate.
I organised this new Forum to respond to our students’ expressed desire to extend conversations about the persistence of binary thinking and inequality beyond the immediate speaking spaces of International Women’s Day debates and Programme modules. The well-attended and lively IWD debate in March persuaded me that our students have a genuine desire to discuss with us and with their peers the issues of inequality and discrimination that disturb them.
In terms of UofR initiatives, this Forum connects with the Curriculum Framework in its emphasis on inclusion, engagement and experience. In my interpretation, the Framework need not refer only to Programme design and implementation – its principles can be extended more widely.
The new Forum is a student ‘safe space’ for discussion of gender inequality, LGBT+ rights, racial discrimination, and other topics associated with contemporary socio-cultural and political impulses and current affairs. Students can present papers or simply contribute their responses to news stories dominating in the Press and then discuss them with their peers.
At the first meeting, I outlined some guidelines about what ‘freedom of speech’ means (and what it does not mean), and I stressed the importance of generating courteous, inclusive conversation. Following this introduction, I made it clear that students will lead these sessions though I will continue to arrange them and attend as many as I can. The Forum will meet twice termly and it is available to all UofR students and colleagues.
The first meeting produced informed, nuanced debate about the ‘language’ of discrimination and there was a particularly interesting conversation about the use of the word ‘tolerance’. Members of the Forum pointed out that the implications of the word tend towards ‘noble and grudging accommodation’ rather than towards uninflected inclusion. There was also a fascinating discussion about the ‘tragic trajectory’ of narratives involving gay protagonists, and plenty of examples of this trajectory were supplied and then analysed in terms of their implications.
Teaching may be assessment driven, but we all agree that learning should not be confined to this structure. Students seem to recognise this and their involvement in new platforms such as this Forum challenges lazy narratives about student disengagement. It also connects with T&L values of developing criticality and encouraging reflective practice, and it embeds non-credit-bearing opportunities for dialogue, inclusion and collaborative exchange.