Troublesome knowledge and conversations: Learning how to talk about race at UAL
Author: Lucy Panesar, University of the Arts London
Lucy Panesar is the Progression and Attainment Project Manager at London College of Communication, and has been leading projects addressing diversity and inclusion across University for the Arts London since January 2017. In this time, she has worked closely with Vikki Hill, Educational Developer: Attainment (Identity and Cultural Experience) on UAL’s Creative Mindsets initiative, whilst coordinating an institutional attainment programme called Learning for All and staff development workshop entitled Inclusive Attainment. In this post, she draws upon the personal, political and pedagogic, to critically reflect on this work.
I did not plan to write this post. It came about one weekend in February, as I started to read up on ‘threshold concepts’ (Land et al, 2014) for an introduction to a teaching session, whilst intermittently making a start on ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017). I did not expect the two texts to relate, but as I started reading Land et al, I realised that threshold concepts were what I was encountering in my work around racial inequality. I had been putting off reading Eddo-Lodge’s book for months as I feared it would take me beyond a threshold, into a liminal space. This post describes part of this journey, and my reflections on the ‘learning for all’ taking place at UAL to address racial inequalities, and on how much there is for us to learn in this work, about the problem of differential attainment itself, about the way in which we relate to the problem and how we perceive and position possible solutions.
As I begin to read Land et al, I reflect upon the thresholds I have previously crossed, never to return, through my formal and informal education. As I begin to read Eddo-Lodge I am faced, as anticipated, with new thresholds, new facts about British history that alter my perspective, on my nationality, on the relationships I have with certain people, and on my own identity as a mixed raced person having experienced discrimination and privilege based on both my relative brownness and my relative whiteness.
My work involves presenting information to colleagues, attainment data, causal research, student testimonies, and for many this is troublesome knowledge, and it implicates them. The experience my colleagues have fits a description by Land et al of a ‘transformation state [which] entails a reformulation of [their] meaning frame and an accompanying shift in [their] ontology or subjectivity’ (2014, p.1). For colleagues this is as pedagogues, as experts, and as racialised beings. Their being can no longer be separated from their doing, and neither can mine. This is not a comfortable place to find yourself in. Resistance is inevitable, natural… I learn more from Land et al about troublesomeness and liminality, which they say ‘can be experienced as unsettling… often as a sense of loss, as prevailing earlier conceptual views, and earlier states of subjectivity, are relinquished’ (2014, p.2). This sounds scary and I wonder, who would invite such an experience? Who wants to lose themselves?
Land et al explain how artists do, citing an Art School Lecturer who says:
…we’re not talking here about our students coming out of this liminal space… this liminality, whatever. We’re saying we want them to stay in it. We want them to stay precisely in that fluid state. That complexity… that emergence, because in that way their ideas won’t become crystallised, they won’t harden and get stylised. Their ideas will stay emergent…provisional, exploratory… Still with lots of unexplored possibilities. Fresh. That’s what we want. Keeping that way of seeing. We want them – and their ideas – to stay held in that tension. That’s the creative space (2014, p.2).
In the creative fields the value of liminality is seen to be higher, as it’s from the realm of uncertainty that new ideas emerge.
I have a creative background and am now working with creative practitioners and educators to solve the problem of attainment inequality. This seems to be an ideal scenario for effective development, yet my short experience and the experience of my predecessors shows this not to be the case.
The liberal arts school contains blind spots, divisions, liminal spaces. As I continue reading Eddo-Lodge, I begin to understand the racial divisiveness of the ‘BAME attainment gap’ and the discourses around it, and why the author (a Black woman) decided to stop talking to white people about race. I learn more about white feminism, white fragility, and denial; troublesome knowledge for my half-white self…
Meanwhile, I reflect on the ‘Learning for All’ design thinking approach to addressing attainment, the creative potential of the liminal space, to ideate solutions, or as Baillie et al describe: ‘a ‘heterotopic’ space in which to encourage counter-hegemonic thinking’ (2012, cited in Land et al 2014, p.2). I have paraphrased here some hegemonic thinking that I have heard expressed:
- Students come here for a British education, so why internationalise our curricula when what they want is British?
- Certain students are just not attending and engaging, so why is the finger pointed at us?
- Students come in at very different levels with all kinds of prior qualifications. We have less control now than ever with recruitment, yet we’re the ones who have to teach them, and students who come through the more traditional route complain they’re being held back.
- The entry IELTS scores are not high enough, and students who do not have the proficiency to engage in class are not even forced to go to English language classes; what can we do?
- Some students are spending more time doing paid work, or have demanding family lives, and are just not able to give their all to the course; this is beyond our control.
- BAME students do not see themselves represented very well at all, on their courses, in academia, in the creative industries; we can see why they struggle with belonging and thriving but what can we do if BAME people do not apply to us?
The Inclusive Attainment workshop I’ve been running at UAL could be described as heterotopic, as it aims to provide ‘a place where alternatives are considered,’ ‘common sense’ is questioned and business as usual stops for a moment’ (ibid, p.3).
Orr and Shreeve (2018) similarly encourage us to examine our taken for granted practices in relation to inequalities in arts education as they critique such pedagogies of ‘ambiguity’. My workshop offers space to stop, listen, discuss, reflect, share, and collectively ideate, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
Of course, there’s never enough time in one single workshop, and those attending are as diverse as any student group. They come with widely varying levels of knowledge around attainment and race equality, and with different capacities for critical self-reflection in relation to this particular topic. Some are stretched already to the max, on the verge of burn out with the existing demands on them as teachers, researchers, practitioners and humans. Some are proudly engaged in the process of addressing attainment and get frustrated with the perceived ignorance and resistance of others. Some get despondent when their persistent efforts appear to not be narrowing the gaps…
Land et al go on to look more precisely at what determines ‘pedagogic content knowledge’ and suggest that some university lecturers can be more ‘content specialist’ than ‘pedagogue’ (2014, p.5). This is in my mind as I return to Eddo-Lodge, and learn more about the injustice experienced by black neighbours in areas I have lived in London. I am upset by these stories. Upset to hear them now and upset to have not heard them before. As Eddo-Lodge herself explains, such stories need to be sought out, they are not presented to us in compulsory education. In contemporary British secondary education, I understand that the U.S. Black Civil Rights movement is on the curriculum but not the British equivalent. What ‘content specialists’ determined this? When I learnt last year about the 1947 partition, the history of my own Punjabi family, I asked the same question, and felt I had been cheated with the history taught to me in school, with its emphasis on patriotic, nostalgic pride of beating the Germans in the Second World War, and a detailed examination of Tudor crop rotations. I, like Eddo-Lodge and others, have supplemented this learning by seeking out such ‘hidden’ histories, and at times have felt like I’m tapping into a conspiracy, uncovering dirty British secrets. Troublesome knowledge indeed.
As I return to Eddo-Lodge, I receive some belated, and unexpectedly critical feedback from two attendees of my workshop. Both express frustration with how the workshop gave staff the chance to express certain views which no one felt able to or succeeded in challenging. There was an expectation that I, as the ‘outsider’ facilitator, would do this. But I, overseeing a room of 65 staff in this case, was relying on ‘insider’ colleagues I had previously contacted to be plants on each table, to use their more familiar local positions to help facilitate their table’s discussion. These colleagues who accepted the task so willingly, have come to recognise, as I have, that conversations about racial inequality are difficult. In my workshop, as in the Changing Mindsets workshops, hegemonic thinking is being surfaced, and specific skills and resources are needed to effectively facilitate these as heterotopic spaces. I wonder whether I might have designed my workshop to avoid such conversations, channelling participant’s creative energy into ideating curricular and pedagogic interventions rather than eliciting and challenging thinking…
It is through the lenses of Land et al and Reni Eddo-Lodge that I have recognised the heterotopic potential for the workshops I am running, and how a design thinking approach can help to not only ideate curricular interventions but also surface hegemonic thinking for collective development. I have also been able to journey over new thresholds and points of resistance in my own learning, emerging from a liminal space with the ability to articulate some of my own experience, hopefully for the benefit of those who read this.
Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017) Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Circus.
Land, R. and Rattray, J. and Vivian, P. (2014) ‘Learning in the liminal space: a semiotic approach to threshold concepts’, Higher education, 67(2), pp. 199-217.
Orr, S and Shreeve, A. (2018) Art and Design Pedagogy in Higher Education: Knowledge, Values and Ambiguity in the Creative Curriculum. London: Routledge.
A note about the history of this blogpost:
This post was originally written and published by the HEFCE funded Changing Mindsets project blog in 2017. Since this site was taken down, it is now republished here in full in 2021.
The Creative Mindsets initiative developed from a two-year project funded by the Office for Students (OfS) launched in 2017. Led by academics at the University of Portsmouth, and initially called ‘Changing Mindsets,’ the project was a collaboration between University of the Arts London, University of Brighton, and University of Winchester.
Creative Mindsets focuses on closing awarding differentials between students of different ethnicities by building growth mindset in students and staff. Growth mindset is the belief that intelligence is not a fixed characteristic and can be increased through effort; by encouraging the development of this mindset the aim is to erode stereotype threat and implicit bias as barriers to learning. Creative Mindsets is led by Vikki Hill, UAL’s Educational Developer: Attainment (Identity and Cultural Experience). Find out more about the Creative Mindsets initiative.
One thought on “Troublesome knowledge and conversations: Learning how to talk about race at UAL”
Thank you Lucy for a frank and thought provoking piece. I think uncomfortable conversations need to be had as it is these that challenge (even subliminally) the status quo. Furthermore, developing an inquiring mind, which seeks out truth wherever it is found, will tap into the reality of history and the reality of the BAME attainment gap. We all need to continue to be bold, courageous and persevering in our endeavour to tackle racism and the impact it has, for the future is bright, the future is multi-coloured, not Orange.