Learning … doing … difference (edited)

As promised, an update from our Law&Diversity project. These reflections also concern the other things I’ve been doing this week (the EU referendum debate; a LERN workshop (thanks Paul McHarg for teaching me what WordPress can do); my ‘day job‘; my family). This is a blended life blog.

What have I learned this week? Or, better, what I have I been reminded of?

  1. sometimes, patient reasoned discussion makes a difference
  2. communities of learning can be extraordinarily generous
  3. universities can be places where power and knowledge are used to perpetuate inequality
  4. despite themselves, universities can be places where power is disrupted
  5. students (young adults) are amazing – resilient, cheerful, focused, committed, energetic, optimistic.

A quick story for each:

  1. Patient reasoned discussion makes a difference. I’m heartened to see so many of my colleagues giving their time and energy for free to explain the things about the EU about which people in the UK would like to know before they vote on Thursday. And I’m truly heartened to see that sometimes these (mainly virtual) discussions have helped people to make up their minds. As I said on Facebook (15 June 12:58), I would never cut my own hair, or fix my own car: I ask an expert. In this, we are the experts. I could name the people I have in mind here, but the blog post is probably long enough already.
  2. Communities of learning are generous. The Law&Diversity project students (James, Nazma, Nellie, Sabrina, Sarah) have been inspired and helped by over 20 members of staff and other students (remember Laura?) in the University of Sheffield this week, who gave up time to talk with them about the project. Thank you. And thank you to Lisa McKenzie, Simon Hix, and Nicola Royan, for taking time (via online journalism, email, Twitter, and Facebook) to remind me about how class, gender, and immigration interact in very localised ways (and what we should do about it).
  3. Universities perpetuate inequality. This idea is all over the literature that the students have been reading and responding to throughout the project. It’s something for me to be mindful of always – I’m white, I’m a professor,  I’m pretty old these days, I’m (currently) healthy, I’m middle class. The Law&Diversity project students have different experiences and identities. (Yes, before you ask, they are also getting into the intersectionality literature too.) We talked about power imbalances, respect and communication on Monday, during the initial team building. I’m looking forward to hearing what they think we should do about knowledge, inequality and power, within the very specific context of this project. For sure, we owe it to our students to equip them with knowledge and understanding of how universities, and the world they occupy, perpetuate inequality. We owe it to them to introduce them to ideas of ‘the white curriculum’, neo-colonialist curricula, ablist curricula, and so on. We owe it to them to help them think about how certain groups dominate discussions (even in universities – or perhaps especially in universities). We owe it to them to help them think about how apparently benign notions of ‘merit’ hide assumptions based on a host of differences and privileges: sex, race, class, and so on … And we owe it to them to be honest that, when we teach them in ways that ignore these understandings, we are continuing the patterns of inequality. But – here’s the thing – if we do not teach them in that way, we don’t equip them as effectively as we could to get on in the university, and the world, given that it is based on these hidden and implicit inequalities.  When I was able to discuss this puzzle with the students on the project – and I’m afraid that this was not as directly as I would have preferred – we agreed that what is best is a ‘both/and’ approach. So we do need to teach them ‘appropriate’ modes and registers of communication – written and verbal. At the same time as teaching them how assumptions made about someone’s merit based on their written or verbal communication skills are just that – assumptions, and assumptions that may well be problematic in terms of equality and diversity.
  4. Despite that, universities can be a place of change for the better. The students have been reading up on our history, as well as current developments, here, and in other jurisdictions. They are discovering how anti-segregation policies; affirmative action hiring processes; “diversity champions”; curriculum design; all have potential to have effects on classroom learning experiences, and to make positive changes to patterns of power distribution in universities and elsewhere.
  5. Young adults are resilient, cheerful, focused, committed, energetic, optimistic. I’m not going to embarrass the Law&Diversity project students with too much praise on here (yet!) – although all those adjectives apply to them. But I am pleased that another young adult, closer to home, felt well and strong enough to take some positive steps towards her future this week. And she’s now as inspired by Goldsmiths as I was when reading Les Beck’s Academic Diary.

In the Law&Diversity project, we’re in a phase of learning. Soon, we will have to begin answering the question “but what are we going to do?” When a problem is “wicked”, in the Rittel and Webber sense, such as “how should we best help law students learn about equality and diversity?”, there isn’t a right answer to it. But there are better, and less good things to do. And do nothing is one of the latter.

Above all, I’ve remembered one really important thing, for when we learn, and for when we do:

  • difference makes a difference.
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