Wednesday, 2 August 2017

SOTL in the South Conference: Decolonization and Higher Education (Post by Hellen Ochuot)

The University of Johannesburg in collaboration with colleagues at other South African universities hosted an international conference which focused on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in the global South from 25 – 27 July 2017. One of the key themes that resonated throughout the presentation and discussions was ‘decolonization’.
Demands for the ‘decolonization’ of universities and curricula in South Africa raise important questions as to how and where to begin. A key note speech by Prof. Cheryl Hendricks highlighted the need for reflecting on the notion of decolonization in relation to transformation. She argued that the decolonization of knowledge should not be separated from the broader issues of transformation in the higher education systems.  For her the impetus of decolonization goes deeper than removing paintings, adding African courses or having more black academics.  If we deconstruct and decolonize we should ideally decenter around the local and draw on previously marginalized knowledge, but not in ways that merely seek to replace one with the other. Just as colonialism was a vast project, so should the process of decolonization; it should track the effects of colonialism and coloniality in all the crevices particularly in its institutionalized forms.
Professor Cheryl Hendricks
Prof Hendricks noted that there must be critical engagement with all forms of knowledge production, methodologies of teaching and learning and research. She argued that the quest for decolonization has to do with recognizing the complexities of Western influence and acknowledging the pain of black people. As such, the fundamental challenge of decolonization is, in addition to fighting against inequality and social injustices, ensuring academic programs that are by themselves transformative, innovative and globally competitive. She concluded by calling for a critical review and transformation of all key aspects of our universities if we are to give substantive meaning to decolonization and becoming “epi-centres of  Pan- Africanism.”

In an excellent keynote speech Prof. Yunus Ballim noted that the idea of decolonizing the curriculum has been improperly conceived. He argued that we need to be cautious not to use the term ‘decolonize’ loosely. He said we need to reflect on how to decolonize in ways that will positively contribute to different ways of knowing. He argued that content alone is not sufficient to induct students into ways of knowing. He admitted that new ways of knowing are frightening, but urged academics to reflect on how they can engage students into news ways of knowing that are otherwise inaccessible to them, but where the students still remain comfortable. He continued to argue that we cannot decolonize an institution without the involvement of the entire society. He rejected the notion that university is a microcosm of the society. Instead, he insisted that the university should be an example of what society should look like. He gave an example: “Teaching students ethics doesn’t make them ethical, but this doesn’t mean that we should not teach it.” Therefore we should take into consideration that the university has always been both a product of, and a participant in, the society of which it is a part.  We need not imagine that we are unique and that our solutions are not of interest to others. In coming up with ways to decolonize the curriculum in higher education we need to think and act in ways that will benefit society as well.

In parallel paper discussions, it was argued that the process of decolonization should not be taken as an academic project. In as much as others agreed with the fact that academic should not own the movement, it was argued that students as well are not sufficiently equipped to meaningfully engage with this idea at a deeper level. In his exact words Sean Muller argued that; “…they (students) may be able to correctly identify basic flaws and omissions in what they are taught, but they typically do not have the knowledge or training to dissect those and propose substantive solutions”. So what’s the way forward? The solution is still not clear but this does not mean it is impossible. The challenge perhaps is for academics to reflect on what ‘decolonization’ might mean in a pragmatic sense, and how this meaning, or its implications, vary across academic disciplines as a starting point.

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