Student-staff partnership as collective curricular activism in curriculum liberation efforts
by Lucy Mercer-Mapstone
Much of higher education is undeniably patriarchal, cis-gendered, heterosexual, and white. As a reader (and statistically speaking in academic circles, probably a straight, cis, white and/or male reader), this is probably an uncomfortable acknowledgement to make. I say this, though, not to make you uncomfortable but because, primarily given this discomfort, this is not an acknowledgement that is said or written about enough publicly.
And yet, it is true. While some places in higher education may counter this trend – such as within those disciplines where there is an over-representation of women (for example, in educational research and development), the majority of higher education domains reflect the demographics of the eras when such institutions were established rather than the composition of society today. Concerted efforts to address such imbalances show that change is happening – but often, not fast enough.
Some of the change that is happening is being pushed by activist movements driven by both students (e.g., Why is my curriculum white?) and by staff (e.g., Women Also Know Stuff; ‘staff’ includes professional and academic staff, also known as faculty in some contexts). It seems much rarer that such movements happen in a concerted effort among students and staff collectively. Perhaps this is because of ingrained power imbalances of traditional teacher/student relationships. I have recently come to question whether such a divided approach is the best way to achieve the kinds of changes we within such movements would like to see.
My field of research and practice is student-staff partnership or ‘students as partners’. Such partnerships offer a way of thinking and working in higher education that reconceptualises students as active partners with staff in teaching and learning, governance, quality assurance, or enhancement of the university itself. Importantly, partnership argues that students have valuable expertise to contribute and a legitimate right to shape their own university experiences.
A recent article on feminist digital activism in higher education sparked a link between partnership and movements that seek to develop anti-patriarchal, decolonized educational practices. The author, Natalie Jester, describes a type of educational activism she calls ‘curriculum activism’ – describing those efforts to liberate curricula from societal, systemic, and oppressive structures. Jester argues for the critical role that curricula have in reinforcing or challenging such societal discriminations: “higher education curricula tell society which perspectives and knowledges should be valued, and have the power to imbue students…with the same ideas. … curricula have a special role to play within addressing inequalities both within and beyond education making representative curricula deeply important.”
Indeed, oppressive curricula (e.g., patriarchal, white-dominated, ageist, or heteronormative) can be damaging for the well-being and success of both students and staff from minority backgrounds. Regarding student learning and engagement, seeing the omission of their histories from mainstream curricula can lead to feelings of isolation, alienation, and marginalisation, to higher attrition rates, and to increases in inequitable sociodemographic attainment gaps. The institutionalised discrimination of which oppressive curricula are just one manifestation negatively affects staff too – with those from minority backgrounds being more likely to be relegated to teach non-core subjects, to receive only temporary or part-time contracts, to undergo more intense scrutiny from peers, and to leave institutions more quickly than their ‘traditional’ peers.
Given the criticality, but arguably slow progress (stymied by institutional inertia), of such efforts, perhaps it is time to rethink where we find allies and partners in such change. The connection between these two bodies of practice (partnership and curriculum liberation) made me ask:
- When students and staff engage in partnership to revise curricula, are they engaging in a kind of collective curriculum activism?
- Could this type of activism – if embraced as such – drive change more rapidly by reaching wider sections of our institutions?
- If so, why do more formal liberation efforts predominantly remain the responsibility of staff?
There are examples where this has been the case – where staff and students work collaboratively on making curricula more inclusive and representative. At the University of Kent, for example, where law students were invited to explore making curriculum more racially inclusive. Or at Trent University where they held a Queering the Academy campaign inclusive of staff, community partners, and student groups. Rarely, however, is the language of equitable partnership evoked in such efforts – for example, when staff are asked to develop more representative reading lists for their courses. The responsibility of liberation efforts seem to remain primarily within this traditional domain, with students at times being invited in. For example, for decolonisation efforts it is often staff of colour who bear the emotional burden (arguably in an act akin to epistemic exploitation) despite their underrepresentation in the academy.
Such underrepresentation is a major issue but specifically presents significant hurdles for curriculum liberation efforts. I’ve often heard conversations problematizing the frequency with which decolonisation projects are led by white academic staff members. With 0.49% of UK professors being black this is, at best, a numbers game but no less unacceptable. That isn’t to say that white staff members shouldn’t be involved. Indeed, as a white, cis, queer woman, I am very aware of the various privileges from which I benefit in this space. My argument here, then, is that curriculum liberation efforts must be conducted collectively in ways that are diverse, inclusive, and representative as, after all, ‘pedagogy must be forged with, not for, the oppressed’.
On that note, I argue the need to consider student-staff partnership a central approach for such curriculum liberation efforts and that these may best be conceptualized as collective curriculum activism. Student bodies are, relatively speaking, much more diverse than academic staff (although still not representative of broader society). Drawing on this relative diversity presents a much wider pool of experiences, knowledges, and expertise from which to learn in shaping our universities as more democratic and representative spaces. On an individual level, such intersectional initiatives may create spaces for students and staff to have their diverse identities acknowledged and valued in ways that promote a sense of belonging and diminish the damaging sense of needing to, for example ‘identity cover’ in classrooms or work places.
Given this detrimental nature of oppressive curricula in failing to integrate, represent, and discuss issues that are central to marginalised groups and thus broader society, seeking such representation and equity through student-staff partnership in existing and future projects is of critical importance in seeking to promote education as the ‘great equalizer’.
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- Trent University. 2018. “Queering the Academy.” Trent University. https://www.trentu.ca/colleges/queering-academy
- Women Also Know Stuff. 2019. “#WOMENALSOKNOWSTUFF.” University of Arizona School of Government & Public Policy. https://womenalsoknowstuff.com/
Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone is an Endeavour Research Fellow at the Institute for Academic Development, University of Edinburgh. (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @lucymercermaps)
Mercer-Mapstone, Lucy. (2019, January 29). Student-staff partnership as collective curricular activism in curriculum liberation efforts. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/student-staff-partnership-as-collective-curricular-activism