Learning Is Dangerous

by: , January 27, 2020

© Photo by Pawel Szvmanski

On March 1st 2019, Dr Guy Westwell and Dr Anat Pick, the co-convenors of introductory Film Studies module ‘Concepts and Histories’ at Queen Mary, University of London, replaced a scheduled lecture with ‘Learning is Dangerous’. This study day was conceived as a direct response to two separate, but related, issues facing Higher Education that have come to the fore in recent pedagogical literature. First, the need to de-colonise and de-canonise the film studies curriculum—an issue that has become more pressing since the #TimesUpAcademia and #MeToo movements, as summarised by Rebecca Harrison’s article ‘Fuck the Canon (or, how do you solve a problem like Von Trier)’; and, second, the implications of the neoliberalisation of the University for radical pedagogical interventions such as these—an issue that has been discussed by Steffano Harney and Fred Moten in their book, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013).

In a study day planning meeting, which also involved teaching assistants Lisa Duffy, Tashi Petter and myself, Alice Pember, as well as undergraduate students Calin Butnaru, Ryan Collins and Alice Palm, three activities were planned, each designed to empower students to engage with the pedagogy and design of the course in light of the above issues. It was decided the day would begin with a non-hierarchical conversation in the Queen Mary chaplaincy, for which students could submit discussion points in advance via the online platform Slack. Next, there would be a collective writing exercise in the yurt behind the chaplaincy, in which students were to draft a Film Studies Learning Manifesto, reflecting their own interests and passions. Last, a ‘Show and Tell’ would take place in the Queen Mary cinema, with students volunteering to ‘pitch’ alternatives to the films currently screened on the course. In addition to these planned activities, pre-reading material would be disseminated to students prior to the study day: extracts from Harney and Moten’s The Undercommons; Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991); Harrison’s ‘Fuck the Canon’ (2018); and finally‘Why I Quit Academia’ (2016) by political commentator Nathalie Wynn on her YouTube channel ContraPoints. These were selected to prompt students’ consideration of how two key aspects of the current educational landscape—decolonisation and neoliberalisation—might shape the future of, and their own ventures in, film studies.

As an advocate of feminist pedagogy, I had presumed that the reading material and sequence of activities that had been planned would encourage those taking part in the study day to interrogate issues of canonicity, particularly the [male] concepts and [white] histories studied in many introductory film courses. In practice, the day prompted a wider engagement with being and learning in the current educational landscape than I had anticipated. Many of the conversations that took place on the day were haunted by the very technologies of power that we hoped they would interrogate. De-colonisation work became deadline anxiety and canon critique was subsumed by career worries, evidencing the institutional (and attendant psychological) barriers to radical, feminist pedagogies in the neoliberal university.

In this conversation, which took place on 24 May 2019, two months after the event, I reflect on the study day alongside module co-convenors Anat Pick and Guy Westwell, undergraduate participants Vanessa Zarm, Isioma Oram and Ryan Collins and fellow teaching assistants Lisa Duffy and Tashi Petter. What follows is a roundtable conversation in which we consider the strategies, obstacles and opportunities presented by ‘Learning is Dangerous’ in the context of the current higher educational landscape. How might the conversations generated inform the shape of the module in years to come? What institutional barriers might we face in these attempts to practise de-colonised, radical, feminist pedagogy in the teaching of film and, importantly, what strategies might we employ to overcome them?

The Conversation

Alice Pember: Guy and Anat, could you reflect on what prompted you to plan ‘Learning is Dangerous’?

Guy Westwell: I am the teaching and learning lead of Film Studies at Queen Mary and I also chair the Staff-Student Liaison Committee. Over the course of the last three to five years, the students that I have spoken with have persistently expressed desires for the curriculum to become more diverse and inclusive. There were also other factors that fed into ‘Learning is Dangerous’, such as the fact that Queen Mary has a strong commitment to students as producers of their own learning. In Film Studies in particular we encourage students to become independent scholars through student-led research projects and curriculum co-creation. I was also doing quite a lot of reading on radical pedagogy at that time, including Gert Biesta’s thoughts on ‘subjectification’ (2010) and how Higher Education fails to acknowledge the complex identities that students bring to their learning. These were the three reference points that pushed the ideas to the front of my mind, which I then shared with Anat.

Anat Pick: The first thing we did was to make changes to the syllabus, diversifying the curriculum. We were also aware of the fact that this was not enough and that we had to think about how to carry on these conversations from year to year as students progressed through their degree, graduated and moved on.

Alice Pember: I’m interested in why you chose the title ‘Learning is Dangerous’. It seems to both tap into current debates about safe spaces and express something of the radical spirit of bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress (1994). Why did you decide to give the event the provocative title ‘Learning is Dangerous’?

Guy Westwell: Although those issues are implicit in the title we did not necessarily want to foreground those at the planning stage or presume what students might want to talk about on the day. We wanted ‘Learning is Dangerous’ to be student-led, so we planned the event with them. Interestingly, although trigger warnings and safe spaces did come up at the planning stage, in the end they did not come up at all in open forum conversation during the ‘Learning is Dangerous’ event. I am happy about that because it means that we did not demand that the students conform to any particular way of thinking.

Anat Pick: The ‘safety’ issues that came to the fore in conversations on the day were not about potentially distressing content but actually the safety of the institution as a whole, which tries to make the undergraduate degree a ‘safe’ trajectory in terms of career pathways. For me the day really brought out this conflict between the careers focus of the institution and the students who attend it and the ideal of liberal arts education as creating caring, competent citizens who try to make the world a better place.

Alice Pember: It seems that some unexpected points arose because the conversations were left open. But there was some preparation that went into the event, including a collaborative planning meeting attended by the staff assembled here, along with Ryan [Collins] and two other student reps who are not present today. In this meeting we mapped out the day, deciding on a tripartite sequence of activities. First, a non-hierarchical conversation. Second, a collective writing exercise in which students drafted a Film Studies Learning Manifesto. Third, a ‘Show and Tell’ in the Queen Mary cinema in which students volunteered to ‘pitch’ alternatives to the films currently screened on the course. What was the thought process behind the planning of these three activities?

Tashi Petter: From the Teaching Assistant perspective, the planning of the first event was inspired by the strikes last year and the successes of the ‘Teach Out’ sessions that took place in the Queen Mary chaplaincy, which is a circular space that we felt helped to facilitate non-hierarchical conversations between staff and students about what the strikes were all about. We wanted to build on the success of these open dialogues and have the event in the chaplaincy in order to break out of the normal power structure of the lecture hall.

Guy Westwell: It is interesting that, for a lot of the planning process, that first part of the day was intended as a ‘Question Time’ style event. There was going to be a chair and representative figures on a raised stage. Although that is a fairly democratic model it started to feel too structured, so we decided we would have an hour of face to face conversation that dealt with whatever issues students wanted to discuss. We did stick to the idea of questions being submitted in advance though and this was done via the online platform Slack.

Tashi Petter: I remember us feeling concerned that students wouldn’t feel able to voice their opinions if we went for something more structured, which is why, in the end, we went for a more open style of conversation and the chaplaincy location.

Ryan Collins: Yes, the question time style format would have been talking to us more than with us as students. What we did instead in the chaplaincy engaged with us on an equal playing field. The ‘manifesto’ planning activity was the one that, for me, most aligned with the idea of ‘Learning is Dangerous’. Although some students did take it more as a feedback activity and just wrote down some ideas of what they would like to see in the course rather than questioning the institution and the roles it assigns teachers and students.

Alice Pember: From my memory, the non-hierarchical conversation that started the day also felt like a module feedback session. Was anyone surprised by how that conversation turned out?

Vanessa Zarm: I was not too surprised by the direction of that conversation, because it brought out a lot of the issues that we talk about in our class group chat, particularly from joint honours students who feel that the design of the course doesn’t give them enough opportunities to gain production experience.

Isioma Oram: The issue of money was also raised, particularly in relation to the taught elements of the course being finished by Easter and some students feeling like we are paying a lot of money to not actually be in school.

Tashi Petter: Yes, the issue of fees was raised directly because I remember that we talked about how the fees for some courses subsidise the more expensive ones.

Guy Westwell: During that conversation I actually I spent quite a lot of time responding to these questions and explaining how the University works. I thought that that was valuable because we would not have had those conversations with the students otherwise. It was just not exactly what we had imagined when we were planning the event. It also meant that, in practise, we were talking more than the students were.

Tashi Petter: That initial conversation actually became more about the students’ frustrations, which was a thread that ran throughout the day.

Alice Pember: So, in that sense, maybe we were interrogating some of questions that we intended to. We weren’t necessarily overtly questioning the institution but this focus on fees and whether students feel like they’re getting value for money addresses some of the barriers to radical pedagogy that exist in the current, marketised system?

Anat Pick:Exactly. How could we expect that other questions would arise? The University sets things up in such a way that students have to be so concerned about money, grades, employment and about practicalities.This way of framing education forecloses more radical questions. We need to ask ourselves, what are we going to do about it? We either disrupt the whole structure and revolutionise the University (which is probably unlikely) or we try to find ‘reparative’ (Sedgwick, 2002) spaces within the institution to retrieve moments of radical potential. I’m a great believer in such reparative, creative moments.

Alice Pember: Well, I think that’s what we’re doing by reflecting on ‘Learning is Dangerous’ in this way. I remember being frustrated at the time about the fact the conversation kept being pulled back to quite prosaic, practical matters but now I realise that this was a symptom of the very structure that we were trying to disrupt— the neoliberal University.

Tashi Petter: It is worth noting too that some of those more practical questions were quite positive. For instance, there was a question about how to access opportunities in film in London. And it was also a positive experience in terms of encouraging the cohort and staff to get to know each other better.

Lisa Duffy: I think that was what was good about having that variety of events too. The day started out with this more conservative response but by the time students got to the final screening event it felt a bit more like what we had thought the whole day would be like.

Ryan Collins: I think the real problem with the ‘open conversation’ at the start of the day and why it might have ended up feeling like a feedback session was the lack of contribution generally. Only two students outside of the student rep community submitted questions to Slack and only two students actually pitched for alternative films.

Isioma Oram: Yes, some people were definitely apprehensive about Slack because your name was attached to the question. I think there was actually a lot more participation in the manifesto session because we were split into smaller groups for drafting.

Alice Pember: Let’s talk about the manifestos. These were drafted on the day and then synthesised into a single document, which was discussed in a follow-up session a few weeks later. One point that came up in the manifestos and subsequent discussion was about the domination of seminars by white, male students and how we deal with this as seminar leaders.

Isioma Oram: It’s not like you can silence people’s speech. I was one of those people who raised the point about male students dominating class discussion. Although I see that some people in my seminar do not perhaps feel as confident to speak you can’t really force them to.

Guy Westwell: I would say that it is really difficult to pigeon-hole identity groups in this way. There is also personality to account for. Some people are quieter than others. I speak more than Anat, for instance, and it is not necessarily because I am a man and she is a woman, although she may disagree.

Isioma Oram: I would have to disagree with it just being about personality because I was surprised how many girls have mentioned to me that the production side of the course is dominated by the male students, but because they didn’t know anyone else in their filmmaking groups they didn’t want to appear bossy so didn’t speak up about it at the time.

Alice Pember: You mention this might have happened because you didn’t know each other very well, is that the case?

Isioma Oram: Yes, I think people do want to connect more because at the moment we all talk more on Facebook than we do in real life. Getting to know each other better might help the seminar dynamics.

Guy Westwell: That seemed to me one of the potentially radical outcomes of the day. The forming of a community in a genuine way that isn’t in a virtual space. Although I don’t know how we’d facilitate the continuation of that as you can’t force a community to be made.

Anat Pick: We need patience and that is why it is important for this not to just be one event. That is one of the challenges we face. The students are moving into their second year, so how do we keep this going? The other point related to community is about staff. I love the idea of social events outside of class time because I think that they work to build a sense of community but it requires work which would not be paid.

Guy Westwell: I think this point about building a community is crucial. There is a sense that the student community is all lovely and together when that is not the case. I mean these questions of gender and race being divisive were brought into the open on the day. What we succeeded in doing was bringing out awareness of these friction points. I see that as a really positive thing but it is only positive if the community reflects on this and changes to accommodate difference.

Ryan Collins: Will this always be strictly a first year thing? It is a good stepping point and if we came back to it each year there would be more open discussion. As it stands we’re all used to a high school format, where there’s a teacher and there’s a student, and it might take a little longer to create the kind of community you’re talking about.

Guy Westwell: Yes, that is definitely the aim. A commitment has been made by the convenors of the second year compulsory modules to address the points raised in the manifesto. We are also thinking about module co-design with students in the third year. Ideally, there should be a ripple effect that begins with the manifesto in the first year and runs throughout the entire course.

Anat Pick: There is a fast track and a long track with changes to the curriculum. There should be a push to put more women and people of colour into the curriculum, building on the work we have already done. That can, and will, be undertaken very easily. Then there is the slow percolating effect of culture change that may take more time. These two things should happen together.

Alice Pember: I think that the event, and our coming together to reflect upon it now, is perhaps evidence that we can be cautiously optimistic about the will towards radical pedagogy in the University in 2019. Am I alone in feeling optimistic about the possibility for radical pedagogy in Film Studies, or are there too many obstacles?

Tashi Petter: I actually did feel a bit of optimism on the day, particularly in the ‘Show and Tell’. There were some nice responses to the Teaching Assistants’ three pitches for alternative films, particularly from female students. I think this demonstrates what Anat was saying about there being quite simple solutions to these canon questions and I like to think that that will carry on.

Vanessa Zarm: I think it will only get better as people feel more comfortable in the learning environment and move through their degree so I would definitely agree with you.

Isioma Oram: I feel optimistic too! Even though the turnout for my pitch in the ‘Show and Tell’ was not as good as it could have been, being given the opportunity to give other students an insight into my culture and present on a Nollywood film felt really good.

Lisa Duffy: I feel mostly optimistic. In terms of the future my optimism mostly comes from the module convenors being so keen to actually listen to students and make radical changes where necessary, which isn’t necessarily true across the board in Film Studies. So, I think as long as that drive is still there from the convenors in other modules there is a very positive future but it is a big ask in terms of how much energy it takes.

Guy Westwell: I think what needs to be appreciated is that the whole direction of travel for Higher Education is constraining and inhibiting. My slight worry in relation to what we have said here is that diversity will not necessarily challenge market forces. It is not just about balancing and correcting the curriculum until you have perfect identity equilibrium; that won’t necessarily shift the neoliberal logic in play.

Anat Pick: Even though it is the easy part to diversify the curriculum it should still be done. It has a kind of micro-significance for people in the class to get to see a more diverse range of filmmakers, but it will not change the market paradigm because the genius of capitalism is that it can co-opt anything, including the value of ‘diversity’. I’m fairly pessimistic in the sense that I think the University’s direction of travel is negative and I don’t think it’s likely to change any time soon. What this means is that anything that is progressive only happens in spite of the University.

Guy Westwell: There is a distinction to be made between the University and this particular University. I think there is some hope that Queen Mary would recognise that we are trying to do something idealistic and utopian here.

Anat Pick: I think my hunch is probably correct that we are not headed anywhere positive here because market forces are just so enormous. I just do not think there is any commitment to radicalism on the part of the University as a whole and that is an obstacle to radical pedagogy at individual universities. This is not to say we should stop trying. It might even mean that events like ‘Learning is Dangerous’ are all the more important in the current climate. After all, the institution does not wholly determine or eclipse the possibilities of critical thought, creativity and interaction that take place within it. Nor is the institution itself a single, monolithic entity. Possibilities arise in the strangest of places, the products of good intentions or of good old contingency.

Further Reading

Biesta, Gert (2010), Good Education in an Age of Measurement, Bouder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Harrison, Rebecca (2019), ‘Fuck the Canon (or, How Do You Solve a Problem Like von Trier?): Teaching, Screening and Writing about Cinema in the Age of #MeToo’, MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture, Issue 2 (Autumn 2018), https://maifeminism.com/fuck thecanon-or-how-do-you-solve-a-problem-like-von-trier-teaching-screening-and writing-about-cinema-in-the-age-of-metoo/ (last accessed 29 July 2019).

hooks, bell (1994), Teaching to Transgress: Education as a Practice of Freedom, London & New York: Routledge.

Moral Maze, The  (2019), ‘Decolonising the curriculum’, BBC Radio 4, 13 February. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0002h1j (last accessed: 29 July 2019).

Moton, Fred & Harney, Stefano (2013), ‘The University and the Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study’, in Fred Moton & Stefano Harney (eds), The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Open Access: Minor Compositions, pp. 24-43.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (2002), ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay Is About You’, in Touching Feeling: Affect,Pedagogy, Performativity, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 123-151.

Start the Week (2018), ‘Safe spaces and snowflakes’, BBC Radio 4, 19 November. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m00017py (last accessed: 29 July 2019).

Westwell, Guy (2019), ‘Mapping Contemporary Cinema: blending critical pedagogy and research-based learning in undergraduate curriculum design’, Teaching in Higher Education, pp. 1-17.

Wynn , Natalie (2016), ‘Why I Quit Academia’, YouTube, 31 August. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNAAAfLi0pM (last accessed 29 July 2019).

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