Home Education Special Issue – “Possibilities and complexities of decolonising higher education: critical perspectives on praxis”

Special Issue – “Possibilities and complexities of decolonising higher education: critical perspectives on praxis”

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man standing in front of people sitting on red chairs

We are very pleased at the publication of this double-length special issue in Teaching in Higher Education. In the original call for papers, we claimed that, despite high levels of interest in the ‘decolonial turn’, little has been written in higher education journals on how and to what extent the supremacy of Western modernity is actually being challenged in knowledge production in different disciplines, curricula, pedagogic, cultural and linguistic practices on the ground in university policy and practice.  We were proved wrong, for we were overwhelmed by well over a hundred responses to our call – hence the need for a bumper-sized special issue that discusses the possibilities and complexities of practical efforts to decolonize higher education.

We were excited to curate this rich collection of papers which show that decolonial critique is not only opening up previously protected spaces that hitherto privileged Eurocentric knowledge in universities in the metropoles and the peripheries, but in settler societies where historically colonizers practised epistemicide. We attribute this opening up of scholarship beyond the constraints of Eurocentric/Northern control not only to the take-up of decolonial theory, conceptualized and popularized by Latin American scholars since the 1980s, but also to the urgency around the decolonisation project created by student protests and grass-roots activist groups in higher education during the past decade. This issue’s articles are witness to the challenges of carrying their work forward and the fact that the socio-cultural, political and epistemic change processes involved in the ‘decolonial turn’ in higher education are anything but straightforward and uncontested.

Hall, Ansley, Connolly, Loonat, Patel and Whitham (2021) write reflexively in this issue about the complexities of the above processes, locating them within dominant paradigms at universities that perpetuate universal, Eurocentric and hegemonic narratives, power relations, opportunistic career advancements and social hierarchies. Shain, Yildiz, Poku, and Gokay (2021) further deconstruct the relationship between the challenges to decolonisation and institutional responses and call for grass-roots networks to maintain independence from university structures and processes to counter institutional co-option, incorporation and the dilution of the radical message of decolonising. Menon, Green, Charbonneau, Lehtomäki and Mafi (2021) specifically argue that there is an instability in knowing the limitations of the university as a colonial space while still engaging in decolonial practice and building a career within academia on the premise of deconstructing the institution. Zembylas (2021) posits that the colonial space of the university can be challenged by pedagogies of refusal as they enable us to identify our complicity in reproducing harmful promises and colonial effects.

Several authors in this special issue focus on the role of whiteness in creating these effects. Shaik and Kahn (2021) observe that lack of reflection on whiteness prevents people from ‘making sense’ of ideas and experiences that lie beyond the imaginary of their own group. Matthews (2021) further deconstructs the role of whiteness in creating colonial oppression as she writes self-reflexively about her own hesitation in decolonising her teaching. Edwards and Shahjahan (2021) propose that an effective way of decolonising teaching may be to deconstruct whiteness using a temporal lens to challenge our orientations to the past, the present and the future. Wernicke (2021) proposes to deal with whiteness through the lens of language education which promotes a social practice-based perspective of language, performance of identity, and a situated process of meaning-making that requires decentering from pre-existing assumptions and practices.

The need for such decentering is also highlighted in the paper by Leenen-Young, Naepi, Thomsen, Fa’avae, Keil and Matapo (2021), six Pacific early career academics, who reflect on how standard didactic western pedagogical practices prevent engagement with their ways of knowing. The lack of engagement with ‘other’ knowledges is also dealt with in the paper by Motala, Sayed and de Kock (2021) who emphasise reconstituting the sociality of the pedagogic encounter, which includes seeing students as active partners in the act of learning together with the lecturer and, in so doing, (re)affirming the experiences and knowledges students bring to the pedagogic encounter.

Reflections on engaging with subjugated knowledges link up nicely with other papers in the special issue which focus on the recovery and introduction of Indigenous Knowledges into the higher education curriculum. Guzmán Valenzuela (2021) examines curricular practices and pedagogies as ‘critical border’ educational projects, which have been produced from the borders of peripheral contexts in Latin America, and discusses empowering Indigenous communities to break the coloniality of power at universities. Seniuk Cicek, Steele, Gauthier, Mante, Wolf, Robinson and Mattucci (2021) evaluate self-reported contributions from 25 engineering programmes and four engineering organizations on the work being done to bring Indigenous peoples, knowledges, and perspectives into the dominant structures of engineering education in Canada. Kennedy, Percy, Thomas, Moyle and Delahunty (2021) report on a program led by local Aboriginal Knowledge holders within one Australian university, which engages academic and professional staff in an ‘Aboriginal way’ towards curriculum reconciliation. In the contribution by Dache, Blue, Bovell, Miguest, Osifeso and Tucux (2021), we read about a place-based research methodology that uses a ‘postcolonial geographic epistemology’ to map dominated populations and spaces of resistance in Philadelphia’s communities of colour. The paper by Sabati, Beckett, Cragun-Rehders, Najera, Hise and Geiger (2021) reports on a place-based anti-colonial research collaboration, which centres students as knowledge producers, as collaborators and researchers, and unsettles their understanding of Western research as a universal paradigm.

As all papers emphasise the need for deep and ethical reflection on the self as well as internal and external systems of knowledge to decolonise higher education, we as editors, have turned our attention to the importance of reflexivity in decolonial praxis. We hope that our summary of decolonial praxis in the special issue editorial adequately captures the efforts by higher education academics and practitioners, as conceptualised in their articles, to move from the ‘ought’ of decolonial theory to the ‘is’ of curriculum and pedagogic practice. We wish to draw readers’ attention to the process of ‘meta-reflexivity’ (Archer, 2012, p.206-207) – i.e. a mode of ‘internal deliberation’ exhibited by those who are ‘aliens to normative conventionalism’ and profoundly disenchanted with and committed to reshaping the social order.

Our intention is to emphasise that through ‘meta-reflexivity’, the ‘problem’ of the enactment and embodiment of praxis (i.e. linking intellectual engagement with decolonial theory to social action towards change) can be better understood. A meta-reflexive disposition makes it possible to connect intellectual questions and abstractions (that theorize oppression, for example) with the context specific resources, services and capabilities needed to address them. We hope that readers will read the articles in this special issue through their own ‘meta-reflexive’ dispositions and frameworks and that this will give them pause to think about their significance for authentic decolonial praxis in their own contexts.

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