Event report: Towards a Postcolonial Pedagogy: Engaging with literary representations of “race”, racism and ethnicity by Dr Nicola Abram

Background
Folders3 - Nicola AbramThere’s a lively community of academics researching postcolonial literature, both across the UK and internationally. Many of us also enjoy the privilege of teaching these texts at undergraduate and postgraduate level, often on increasingly popular courses. Here at Reading, that includes modules on ‘Black British Fiction’, ‘Nigerian Prose Literature’ and ‘Writing Global Justice’ in the Department of English Literature, and ‘The French Caribbean’ in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies. But, to date, there have been few opportunities to discuss the problems and pleasures particular to this endeavour.

The ‘Towards a Postcolonial Pedagogy’ workshop was intended to begin this conversation, offering a space for dialogue, debate, and perhaps even productive disagreement about how to teach what we teach. Organised by Dr Nicola Abram, it took place at the London Road Campus of the University of Reading on 29 April 2014, with funding from the Higher Education Academy Arts & Humanities workshop and seminar series 2013/14 and the School of Literature and Languages at the University of Reading. The workshop built on the previous successes of a one-day training event for AS/A-Level teachers of English Literature, which was held at the University of Reading in October 2013. And it looks forward to establishing a network of academics and administrators committed to widening participation in the arts and humanities.

The delegate list proved the urgent need for this discussion forum, quickly growing from a few teachers of Literature to include people working in Classics, French, Philosophy, Politics, Sociology and Theology, representing all stages of the academic career, and from institutions as diverse as the University of Johannesburg, the National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad, the University of Tasmania, a further education college in London, and universities across England.

The day itself
The workshop programme boasted an array of engaging and enterprising researcher-teachers. Professor Alan Rice (University of Central Lancashire) began with a presentation on ‘teaching black Atlantic presence in a world of amnesia’. A varied series of case studies followed, giving an insight into four teaching professionals’ approaches to their different classroom contexts. Professor Susheila Nasta (Open University) spoke first, on teaching Sam Selvon’s classic 1956 novel about post-war migrants, The Lonely Londoners. Next, Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh (York St John) tabled her approach to an intersectional pedagogy, drawing on her experience of introducing ethnicity into a compulsory first year module that announces itself as primarily concerned with writings about gender.

Dr Shirin Housee

Dr Shirin Housee

After lunch – and a few words from Dr Nicole King, Discipline Lead for English, Creative Writing and English Language at the HEA – Dr Shirin Housee (University of Wolverhampton) shifted the disciplinary focus of the day to Sociology, with a presentation on anti-racist pedagogy. Giving the final of the four case studies, Dr John Preston (University of East London) raised some important points about the intersections of class and ethnicity, and offered creative suggestions for destabilising white supremacy while avoiding the unproductive phenomenon of white guilt.

The afternoon placed delegates in a simulated classroom environment, encouraging participants to reflect on the experience of being students again before articulating the application of the day’s content for their own specific classroom contexts. Short stories by James Baldwin and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and poems by John Agard, Roger McGough, Jackie Kay and Chinua Achebe, all prompted lively discussion as well as providing material for delegates to use in future teaching sessions.

A final plenary session, framed by Professor Alison Donnell (University of Reading) and Dr Julia Waters (University of Reading), consolidated the day’s events.

I’m grateful to the seminar leaders, plenary session facilitators and case study presenters, who responded so generously to my invitation. But I’m particularly pleased that the conversations after presentations, between sessions, and across coffee proved so rich in suggestions – from insisting on comparative analytical approaches to using cartography (and colouring in!) to engage students in discussing colonialism and its consequences. The workshop was intended as an opportunity to consider the poSeminar 3 - Nicola Abramwer dynamics at play when teaching texts concerned with global inequalities. So, it seems fitting that its greatest asset was the quality of collaboration, dialogue, and energy among the delegates.

What happens next?
Although this particular workshop is over, the conversation is far from finished. Some ongoing questions include:

  • How can we address students’ preconceptions responsibly and sensitively?
  • In increasingly international and intercultural classrooms, how can our conversations engage diverse student populations equally?
  • How far should we police the vocabulary of the classroom?
  • Which specific texts or critical approaches might develop students’ awareness of global justice, (trans)national identity, and local community cohesion?
  • Where should this material be placed in our curricula?

I do hope that conversations on these topics will continue beyond the workshop. I’d particularly like to hear from anyone interested in joining a network around widening participation in the arts and humanities. Please email me (n.l.abram@reading.ac.uk) to sign up to an informal mailing list and be among the first to hear about future events.

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