Amplifying marginalised voices in the curriculum

By | March 3, 2020

This morning I gave a short presentation to the university’s RIPPLE group (Research Into Professional Practice in Learning and Education) alongside two colleagues from the School of Education, Language and Psychology, Dr Charlotte Haines Lyon and Carole Pugh. We discussed how we are approaching the issue of marginalised voices in the curriculum and some of the initiatives put in place to try and address this. This is a quick overview of what we discussed and is focused upon the reading that is recommended and used in assignments. This is a very small part of unpicking issues of power and structure in curricula in Higher Education, and we acknowledge this – it is what we chose to focus on for the purposes of a 20 minute presentation with 10 minutes of discussion.

Firstly I discussed critical information literacy and the key points of the importance of revealing the power and structure which means that there are dominant voices in the information available in various formats, especially in academic publishing. I centred this on a couple of extended quotes:

“Information literacy instruction should resist the tendency to reinforce and reproduce hegemonic knowledge, and instead nurture students’ understandings of how information and knowledge are formed by unequal power relations based on class, race, gender, and sexuality.” (Ian Beilin, 2015)

“The issue for students who are other (BAME, LGBTQ, etc.) is that they come to university to learn about a subject they are interested in and look to the academic to be the expert on this[…] What happens when they become aware of a lack of visibility of plural voices, or of people like them as having contributed to the subject, or who might have a different narrative to the ‘story’ being told?” (Elizabeth Charles, 2019)

Charlotte and Carole are academics on professional education and youth courses, so degrees where issues of voice and representation are already evident in the curriculum, especially in regards to the voices of children and young people. They made five key points:

  1. It is important to outline and unpick the role and value of an academic reading list from the outset
  2. Students should have the opportunity to co-construct reading lists
  3. Assessment formats need to be aligned with the aims of amplifying marginalised voices
  4. Students can struggle with this shift in power dynamics
  5. Ongoing critical review of reading lists is essential, but should not be viewed as the only method of curriculum revision

Carole outlined how one of the first things she does when new students arrive on the Foundation Degree in Development and Education of Children and Young People is to introduce the idea of an academic reading list, but also to disrupt some of the assumptions commonly attached to them. To begin with, it is laboured that these lists are often put together by one person, or a small group of people, and that these people will have their own view of the topics covered – that such lists are not neutral. Charlotte backed this up by pointing out that when she took over a module on global education, there was not a single item on the reading list which was not written by a white author from Europe or North America. This leads into giving the students the chance to develop the reading list themselves, both as experienced workers in the education and youth sector, and in representing their own lived experiences.

One way in which the co-construction of reading lists is enacted is via assignments such as annotated bibliographies and the creation of artefacts. These include critique on the class, race, gender or sexuality of the prominent or dominant authors in the field, and indeed on the privileging of text-based sources and assignments. Charlotte outlined that the students needed quite a lot of support with this, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was demonstrated that the reading and research for such assignments would likely have to extend beyond the traditional formats of textbooks and journal articles, and the students felt uneasy as they have always felt that these formats are ‘safe’. There was therefore a discussion around why some voices may not be evident in such traditional academic literature, and how they could critically evaluate any source of information. In addition to this, Charlotte assigned weekly reading which itself was not from the traditional academic literature, to both demonstrate the type of source that could be used, and to also engage the group in using information that is not necessarily viewed as part of the education evidence base, but that is still valuable in understanding issues of global education and also life chances, another module upon which she teaches. The engagement with this weekly reading proved to be much higher than with previous iterations, both in terms of actually carrying out the reading, and debate and discussion in class as a result. Some examples of this weekly reading include Unicorn by Amrou Al-Kadhi, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Criptiques by Caitlin Wood, and the work of Sara Ahmed. Having non-textual assignments such as artefacts also assists in the consideration of the value of non-textual sources and how the privileging of text may exclude valuable contributions from those for whom it is not the usual way of communicating. This is a big shift in the dynamics of the classroom for some students – they are used to seeing the ‘teacher’ as the expert, with the sources to answer the questions in assignments, and disrupting this can be scary and unsettling, so this is something that Carole and Charlotte have to navigate with them.

The discussions amongst the attendees surrounding this included how to keep students from the marginalised groups safe in situations where the dominant voices are being challenged and we did not have the time to investigate this as thoroughly as was required. It’s something I would like to put on the agenda for the group to consider again as a priority. It was also brought up that a lack of consistency across academic programmes could lead to the students feeling that it is lip service or of no value. This is why the fifth point is something we need to tackle on an institutional level – to provide ongoing critique and change across the board.

From a librarian perspective, working with academic colleagues to amplify marginalised voices in curriculum design also needs to align with efforts to enact critical collection development in our practice. We continue to work on the IAMplify project, with the sources students find and use in these assignments being incorporated into the library collection. 


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