Vulnerability: Self-Study's Contribution to Social Justice Education

By Knowles, Corinne | Perspectives in Education, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Vulnerability: Self-Study's Contribution to Social Justice Education


Knowles, Corinne, Perspectives in Education


Introduction

Post-apartheid universities are challenged by the opportunities and responsibilities associated with the power they have to influence how people understand and perform their humanity. How I experience and make sense of teaching is partly related to how the university, the discipline and the departments, in which I work, facilitate and frame teaching and learning, and how students, particularly first-year students, come to know themselves is also related to these frames. I argue that how we work with these frames is affected by how we think about vulnerability. I am interested in conversations that disrupt and transform enduring legacies of oppression and authority. To this end, this article works with some ideas and practices of social justice education. Through a self-study of my teaching, and using a theoretical lens adapted from the work of Judith Butler, I developed two themes that emerged from this engagement: the connection between the ontology and epistemology of teaching and learning in self-study as praxis, and vulnerability, and the violence and possibilities of non-convergence. I conclude the article with examples that engage these themes.

Context

I teach mainly in the humanities extended studies programme at Rhodes University, and this shapes my imagination regarding the notions and practices of social justice, inclusion and transformation. Part of the discourse concerning the students who attend this programme is that they are at risk, and vulnerable, especially in the small, elite, colonially conceived Rhodes University. Boughey (2010: 11) described the programme as "a vital part of the university's goal of widening access to include learners with potential, from a more diverse range of educational, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, whose disadvantaged backgrounds may have hindered their school leaving performance". The recent important Council on Higher Education (CHE) report of the Task Team on Undergraduate Curriculum Structure (2013) claims that extended programmes are "the only intervention thus far that has been designed to offer a systemic solution to the systemic problem of the articulation gap" between schooling and university in South Africa, and "[t]heir purpose is thus similar to that of the broader structural reform. Thus, experience gained from the extended programmes is a key consideration in the case for modifying the curriculum structure" (CHE, 2013: 71, 72). The programme in which I teach is specifically designed to expand the frames of what it is to be a student in order to transform not only the student, but also the university that houses them. I also base my claims on experiences in teaching a module on feminism for Sociology I students.

As I claim to be working towards social justice education, then one possibility of self-study is to liberate myself, the students I teach, and the knowledge with which we work from norms that might limit and oppress, or 'alienate'. As Mann (2001: 8) argues, "critical work must be done in order to examine the conditions which might promote alienation; and that any changes towards eliminating the student's experience of alienation within higher education would be radical and not cosmetic". This resonates with bell hooks's (1994: 11) famous proclamation that "[T]he class room remains the most radical space of possibility" - not only for students, but for teachers too. In South Africa, where assimilation or alienation continues to be framed in ways that evoke previous systems of privilege (CHE, 2013: 39-53), a key aspect of self-study as a contribution to social justice is to recognise norms and make them visible in order to expand and transform them to be more inclusive.

Why self-study and praxis? Relevance and tensions

Self-study has been described as a way to improve teaching practices and develop professionally (Cardetti & Orgnero, 2013: 252). This study uses my own practice, not only as descriptive data, but also as challenging normalised teaching practices, "working toward greater congruence between intent and action" (Berry & Russell, 2013: 201). …

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