Curriculum Conversations: Escaping the double bind

Sally Matthews talked about teaching Africa differently at CHERTL’s ninth Curriculum Conversations at Rhodes University on Monday 14 March. Matthews is from the Political and International Studies Department at Rhodes University.

According to her, alternatives to teaching Africa are not really alternatives, and the way in which academics teach undermine their call for independent and critical students.

“There is generally a consensus amongst students that Africa has been misinterpreted in mainstream scholarship, and that there is a need to represent Africa correctly or authentically, “she explained. But this is a complex task. “You can’t just take out names and replace them and think you’ve Africanised the course.”

The complexity stems from African academics being caught in a kind of double bind. A double bind is when you have two irreconcilable demands: Like I really want to have the cake, but I really want to eat it too. You cannot have both.

The double bind which some African academics find themselves in is that they really want a new cake – a new ‘decolonised’ curriculum and the use of ‘African knowledge’. But the only ingredients they have to make this cake are from Europe.

According to Matthews, scholarship on African scholarship has often been written by Europeans. She reiterated a point V.Y. Mudimbe (a Congolese philosopher who focuses on African culture and intellectual history) makes, which is that Afro-centrics and Europeans use the same set of concepts. According to him, even the idea and name of “Africa” is Western.

And here we have the great structuralist conundrum: How do we revolt against a framework from within that framework? (I will avoid cheesy Matrix metaphors for your convenience)

enter_the_matrix_by_sic_purity

But Matthews says that an even bigger problem stems from this: “You find that people hide behind that complication and use it as an excuse [not to change the curriculum]”. She said that people need to understand that it is not simple, and that we are not going to change the curriculum overnight.

The other problem she outlined is that of pedagogy: the way in which something is taught.

Matthews described how academics proclaim to teach students ‘how to think for themselves’, yet the lecture environment is still very top-down. The lecturer stands behind the podium and the students by and large act as the spectators. Similarly, courses are neatly packaged and structured.

Therefore in the academic environment there is another double-bind: the need to teach students to think for themselves, and the need to have a structured, standardized and assessable course.

I guess the saying should be more along the lines of “Teaching students to think for themselves, within the parameters of strict academic criteria and standards”. Not as catchy, but perhaps more apt.

Only time – and perhaps a few more decades of Curriculum Conversations –will tell whether these double binds are really irreconcilable or not. Until then, take a part in the conversation.

Curriculum Conversations are a product of the Centre for Higher Education and Research (CHERTL) at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. They aim to contribute to discussions around transforming the curriculum in higher education and they occur at least monthly.

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