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Decolonising Teaching and Research in Literary Studies and the Being Human Festival 2022

This blog post is written by Dr Diana Mudura, a recent PhD at the University of York. Her research focuses on the representation of non-verbal communication in the late works of J. M. Coetzee. Diana was a participant in the events hosted by the South African Modernism 1880-2020 team at the University of Salford on 11th and 12th November 2022.




What are the social, political, and artistic breakthroughs that research in the arts and humanities has produced? How have these innovations enriched our lives and helped us better understand ourselves and our relationship to others? What new methodological breakthroughs and innovative formats have they adopted to raise awareness of complex and pressing issues? This year, the UK’s national festival of the humanities, Being Human, addressed these questions by inviting researchers at UK universities to collaborate with local communities in order to explore and celebrate the festival’s 2022 theme, Breakthroughs.


Over the course of two days, the events organised at the University of Salford by Emma Barnes, Sanja Nivesjö and Jade Munslow Ong, involved many breakthroughs and breakdowns in terms of decolonial thinking and artistic expression. The first day’s programme focused on decolonisation in Literary Studies, ending with a cherry on top: a film screening of All That Is Buried (2022), followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers. On the second day, the programme centered around creative art and writing workshops inspired by the work of South African modernist artist, Albert Adams (1929-2006).



Decolonising Teaching and Research in Literary Studies, 11th November 2022, University of Salford


After a warm welcome, we, the participants, took part in a panel discussion on decolonial practices in teaching and research that was chaired by Dr Jade Munslow Ong. The panel included Professor Ursula Hurley (Salford), Dr Emma Barnes (Salford), and Dr Kai Syng Tan (MMU). Each of the panel members shared their valuable work on, and formidable commitment to, decolonial teaching praxes, as well as giving us, PhD students and Early Career Researchers, invaluable advice for the teaching component of academic interviews. Whether through public engagement events such as helping to organise the 75th Anniversary of the Fifth Pan-African Congress Events and Windrush Memoirs Day or by reflecting on supervisory practices from a decolonial perspective in order to overturn conventions in Anglophone academic culture, their perspectives were immensely helpful.




While many events on decolonisation tend to be quite often reflective, this workshop had the huge benefit of being very much hands-on: its aim was to help us build decolonial principles and praxes into our teaching. After reflecting on our own subject position and, significantly, how we have come to acquire our knowledge, we worked collaboratively with other PhD students to design new eight-week modules for first year undergraduate students on English programmes. From module title to aims to assessment strategies, we needed to think and plan carefully what this course would look like week-by-week. Some examples of what we came up with will appear on this website soon. If being asked as a group to find points of connection and intersection across our different research interests was not challenging in its own right, over the course of the activity, our facilitators Jade, Emma, and Sanja asked us thought-provoking and challenging questions in relation to the ideas we thought about. I, for one, was struck by how often I would simply resort to conventional modes of thinking about knowledge formation and assessment rather than critically inquire into the soundness of an inherited Anglophone pedagogical tradition, with its in-built structures of thought and modes of knowing. Each question therefore broke through taken-for-granted ideas about teaching and opened my mind towards new ways of thinking.


Needless to say, the excellent refreshments and delicious pastries provided were much needed after a lot of mental gymnastics.



The final part of the workshop, chaired by Dr Sanja Nivesjö, broke down international borders by bringing together four presenters from four different countries. In an online panel discussion, Dr Rick Monture (McMaster, Canada), Dr Shazia Jagot (York, UK), Dr Rick de Villiers (University of Free State, South Africa), and Dr Tasnim Qutait (Uppsala, Sweden) shared decolonial practices in their own fields of research and teaching. The discussants provided us with glimpses into their work on decolonisation through short, pre-recorded talks, perfect to make us want to know more and be prepared with questions at the end of the panel. Rick de Villiers proposed a fresh, new alternative to the essay as mode of assessment in Higher Education through an emphasis on the need to develop different genres for students to use in order to respond to what they have been taught. In this way, competence would be assessed based on equality of intelligence not inequality of knowledge. Rick Monture focused on the importance of preserving and promoting Indigenous epistemologies within Indigenous languages and oral traditions, while Shazia Jagot drew attention to the need to undo hierarchies of knowledge that have so far dominated Western thinking by reflecting on seemingly harmless terms such as “influence” or “presence”. In a similar vein, in her work on decolonisation Tasnim Qutait reflects on how we read and talk about literatures from the margins of the postcolonial tradition, specifically Arabic Literary and Cultural Studies.




All That Is Buried, 11th November 2022, Media City UK


To wrap up what was a fun day of workshops with lots of food for thought, we were invited to the premiere of All That Is Buried. Shot in ten days in Cape Town by filmmakers Maire Tracey and Simon Stanton-Sharma in collaboration with the South African Modernism 1880-2020 team, Jade, Emma, and Sanja, and colleague Matthew Whittle (Kent), this short film offered a glimpse into South Africa’s contemporary cultural and artistic scenes. It showcased the incredible work of poet Zizipho Bam, writer Sindiswa Busuku, artist/activist Haroon Gunn-Salie and musician Dizu Plaatjies. Whether creating poetry that heals (Zizipho Bam) or choosing night-time as a source of inspiration for her writing (Sindiswa Busuku), the four artists respond to the legacy of colonialism and the apartheid regime by reflecting on the role of their chosen media – writing, art, and music – in addressing current racial and gender inequalities in South Africa. The film therefore explores the long-lasting legacy of colonialism and apartheid, and the ways in which they inform South African contemporary art forms.



Art and Writing Workshops, 12th November 2022, University of Salford


The aim of the fully-booked art and writing workshops on the second day was to introduce us, participants, to the interesting work of South African modernist artist, Albert Adams (1929-2006), and to inspire our own creative productions. These responses to his art were aesthetic and poetic. The event was held in the Albert Adams room in the Old Fire Station on the University of Salford campus, which features a permanent display of Adams’ work. His work is also currently on display in the exhibition space at the Clifford Whitworth Library.


Following a brief introduction to South African art and literature by Jade, there was a mini-lecture on the interesting life and times of Albert Adams given by researcher and art historian Dr Alice Correia, who also curated the exhibition in the Old Fire Station.


Growing up in apartheid South Africa as a non-white (“Cape coloured”) man of African and Indian heritage, Adams was denied access to formal education in his country. This led to his move to the UK when he was twenty-four to pursue a degree at the Slade School of Art in London where he met Harold Riley, with whom he spent Christmas in Salford. Although Adams permanently settled in London, his tense relationship with South Africa, where he frequently returned to, informed much of his artistic work, which focused on political oppression, violence, and the use and abuse of power. His self-portraits also revealed a continuous exploration of identity and one’s sense of belonging. For more information on Adams’ life, work, and the University of Salford Art Collection, see here, here and here.


Alice and Jade’s opening remarks helped set the tone for what was to follow: our aesthetic responses to what he had just heard. My first option for the session I wanted to begin with was the art workshop led by professional artist Natalie Ilsley of NatalieEmmaDesigns, who helped us create our own watercolour paintings inspired by Adams’ art. This was definitely a breakthrough moment for me: I could not believe how fully absorbed I was painting with watercolours – a huge leap from the initial awkwardness of having a first go at it. The feeling was of full immersion, of being outside time and space. For as long as the session lasted, I was undergoing the impact of art. To me, therefore, these workshops offered refreshing, energising, and creative ways to experience first-hand the beneficial qualities of individual artistic expression.


The no less exciting writing workshop was led by award-winning poet and academic Dr Judy Kendall who guided us to create our own poetic writing in response to Adams’ art. Through a series of short writing exercises that comprised a writing burst, writing as response to an image, and reading to identify points of intersection between Adams’ writing and what we had just written, we were able to create a collage between our writing and Adams’s written words and paintings.


What have these workshops achieved? It is close to impossible to speak in the name of everyone who took part, whether on the first day or second day or both. What I can definitely say is that we have been aesthetically enriched by this experience thanks to Jade, Emma, and Sanja whose enthusiasm, generosity, and kindness reminded me of another important lesson that the humanities teach us: how to be human(e).




 

The Albert Adams special collection is part of the University of Salford Art Collection, purchased and gifted with Art Fund support, made possible with the generosity of Edward Glennon. All images of Albert Adams' art are courtesy of the artists' estate. Additional photography by Museum Photography North West. All enquiries: artcollection@salford.ac.uk


Stills from recordings and photographs courtesy of Glace Media and audience participants.

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