Decolonizing Academic Praxis with “Words that Remake Life”

Editor’s Note: the following reflections are by Amber Murrey, Hasnaa Mokhtar, Patricia Daley, and Melanie Bush. This piece has been shortened for ENGAGE; to read the full version, please contact Amber Murrey at ambermurrey@gmail.com.

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Photo by Toma Mengebier © TOMAMADE 2017

A collective of transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary thinkers came together for a two-day workspace on “decolonizing” academic exchanges at Clark University on the 9th and 10th of April 2017. Our ambition was to interrogate, critique, and re-imagine academic workspaces and communicative praxis. Hence the title for the space: Decolonizing Communicative Praxis with “Words That Remake Life.”

This workspace sought to explicitly imagine other ways of expressing knowledge, sharing a collective thinking and creative process. Through guided and exploratory discussions, interactive and embodied sessions, as well as critical readings, we addressed the structural and epistemological legacies of colonialism within our universities and societies at large.

Our sessions covered a broad range of topics—from stories of resistance, to re-imagining space and technology to reparations for epistemic violence.

 

The Workspace: Coloniality & Resistance

Patricia Daley (School of Geography & the Environment, University of Oxford) described the emergence and evolution of Rhodes Must Fall. Inspired by the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town, the Oxford students’ protests grew into Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford with a mission “to decolonize the institutional structures and physical space in Oxford and beyond.” Their demands spoke to a larger problem than the perpetuation of colonial iconography, Eurocentric curricula, and the limited number of people of color in the university’s staff, faculty, and student body.

In this context, Daley proposed reparations for “epistemicide,” or the killing of epistemes and knowledge systems through coloniality. She pushed us to consider what this might mean in the space(s) of the university. Such reparations, then, would explicitly give attention to and space for the compensation of epistemic harms. Reparations demand a re-centering of human dignity, not just in educational spaces, but also as a tool for transformative social change.

Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni (Archie Mafeje Research Institute of University of South Africa) joined the group via Skype to discuss his recent article, “Why Are South African Universities Sites of Struggle Today?”, in which he situates the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall student movements within the wider South African context. He argued that the end of apartheid in 1994 dealt with a particular problem in a specific time and way, while the current protests are about decolonizing and humanizing Black South Africans. This project is about re-writing South Africa’s history from the perspective of its black and non-white peoples.

Gordon Asher (Learning and Curriculum Developer at the University of the West of Scotland) likewise joined us on Skype to speak about his reflexive work on being part of the academic precariat in the UK. His talk drew upon our discussion of his toolkit for the neoliberal university, which unpacks the conceptual language to describe the patriarchal capitalist ethos that now infuses the management and self-management of scholarly life in which knowledge is a commodity for the marketplace.

Hasnaa Mokhtar, a PhD student at Clark University, read a short reflection piece on the contentions she has been grappling with in her research as a practicing Muslim examining religio-cultural gender-based violence in Muslim communities. Although grateful to the social sciences and the knowledge(s) she acquired, Mokhtar’s reading nodded to a struggle to reconcile the metaphysics of Islam with depersonalized social science data devoid of meaningful consideration for spirituality.

During an important bi-lingual exchange, Patrice Nganang (English Literature, Stony Brook University) and Joyce Ashuntantang (English, University of Hartford) discussed resistance to linguistic inequality and language-based discrimination. The linguistic divisions within Cameroon are colonial divisions. Mixing poetry and prose readings with social media videos and political speeches, the prominent authors offered reflections on language, state violence, #BringBackOurInternet, and nonviolent resistance.

In her Dialogue on Decolonizing Technology, linked to the MayFirst PeopleLink Technology and Revolution convergences primarily being organized in the United States and Mexico, Melanie Bush (Sociology, Adelphi University, UNISA) led the group through an exploration of the potentials for further and future technology being used for liberatory projects. Participants worked in pairs to imagine new tools and celebrate existing tools necessary to meet human needs and challenge the coloniality.

In an interactive session on Resistance

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Photos by Toma Mengebier © TOMAMADE 2017

through Geospatial Science, Jennifer C. Veilleux (Geography, Florida International University) guided the participants through a map-drawing activity. Through a series of questions, Veilleux suggested that processes of determining people’s needs often get “lost in translation” when converted into scientific narratives.

The evening concluded with a session led by Dianne Rocheleau (Graduate School of Geography, Clark University) and Padini Nirmal (Graduate School of Geography at Clark University) on living, dying, and resisting in the global capitalist hydra. In the session, Nirmal facilitated a powerful discussion about the politics of navigating institutional requirements in the pursuit of a doctorate. Participants shared stories on the alienations of being racialized scholars, often working against the assumption that they have incomplete knowledge.

 

Going Forward

The notion of drawing on words, language, and communication otherwise to “remake life” is encapsulated in a poem, The Wrath of God, written by the Cameroonian author and poet, Patrice Nganang. The poem richly animates the oftentimes-violent ambiguity of language and words that do not seem to speak and of mouths that, in stillness, refuse to speak.

One of the ideas generated through our exchanges was an idea put forward by Patricia Daley, to create a platform for a decolonizing dictionary. This idea emerged out of Melanie Bush and Amber Murreys (International Development & Social Change, Clark University) jointly curated discussion of the need to recover, recuperate, and create concepts-otherwise for understanding social worlds and social identities.

Knowledge(s) that might be centered in such projects are often relegated to the periphery of social science (dismissed as “politically motivated” or negated). Some members of our collective are working to create a collective and interactive portal under the auspices of a “decolonizing dictionary to remake life.”

Going forward, we remain animated:

  • How do we continue to bring to the fore that which coloniality has rendered invisible and/or “of no value” to humanity?
  • How do we cultivate pluriversals and ethos for methodologies and knowledges otherwise?
  • Are projects seeking to dismantle colonization (from within the university) more powerfully reconfigured in practice by avoiding claims to the very term “decolonization”?
  • Are these conceptual conversations generative and meaningful? How might they be redundant, superficial, and/or self-congratulatory?
  • How is “decolonization” (the term, the projects) being de-radicalized?

 

Acknowledgements

Human Geography—A New Radical Journal and Clark University’s International Development, Community & Environment sponsored the workspace. A special thanks is due Dylan Harris and Teresa Bornschlegl (both graduate students in Geography at Clark) for their collaboration with the logistics of the event and to Toma Mengebier (founder of Toma Made) for single-handedly managing all tech, promotion, video, and photos for the two-day workspace.

About the Authors

A decolonial feminist political geographer, Amber Murrey researches and writes on resistance, the politics of knowledge, and resource extraction in Africa (Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and Ethiopia). She is the editor of the forthcoming volume, “A Certain Amount of Madness:” The Political Philosophies and Legacies of Thomas Sankara. She tweets at @AmberMurrey.

Hasnaa Mokhtar is a Ph.D. student in International Development at Clark University, Worcester, MA. Her current research examines religio-cultural gender-based violence in the Arab Gulf States. She holds a M.A. in International Development and Social Change and a B.A. in English Language. Prior to beginning her graduate studies, Hasnaa was a journalist in Arab News, Saudi Arabia. She writes at www.clippings.me/hmokhtar

Patricia Daley is Professor of the Human Geography of Africa at the University of Oxford. Her current research project is entitled: Decentering the Nation-State: Citizenship and Identity in Tanzania.

Melanie E. L. Bush is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Adelphi University, New York and Research Fellow at the University of South Africa. Her recently published book, Tensions in the American Dream: Rhetoric, Reverie or Reality (2015), was co-authored with Roderick D. Bush (1945-2013). Her current research explores the yearnings and accomplishments of those involved with solidarity economy projects.

Toma (Thomas) Mengebier is a French-American multimedia engineer who combines visual messages with key areas of research, including refugee and immigrant representation, climate change education, and advocacy for social justice. He holds a M.A. In International Development and Social Change from Clark University and a B.A. in Fine Arts and Cultural Industries. Toma founded his business, TOMAMADE, in March 2017 to provide communication solutions for multimedia, social media, and audiovisual design and production.

 

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