What would a decolonised thesis look like?

Goal: As we become increasingly aware of the prevailing coloniality of much academic knowledge production and as many researchers are attempting to decolonise our methodologies and theoretical frameworks, one question usually still remains unaddressed: How do we write up (or present otherwise) our research in a decolonised manner?

Pursuing and obtaining a Masters Degree or, even more so, a PhD is an initiation rite into a community whose centre lies in the global North and whose practices are governed by “Western” ways of producing and presenting knowledge. Most often, also (attempted) decolonial research projects end up as conventional theses, following template-like rigid structures that are tailored to present one specific form of knowledge; that kind of academic knowledge that currently dominates academia.

This project asks: What would a decolonised thesis look like? The question does not imply that a decolonised thesis SHOULD per definition look entirely different. Rather, it invites reflections on format, templates and structures, on the use of theory, “findings” and “contributions”. How could the outcomes of research be written up or presented in line with the epistemological assumptions that govern the research, rather than submitting to so-called international rules that are dictated by “Western” academic conventions?

We invite everyone to contribute with ideas, reflections, questions and suggestions – either here or on researchgate: https://www.researchgate.net/project/What-would-a-decolonised-thesis-look-like

My wish for the Academic Year 2022: Slow writing!

Recently, I submitted a book chapter most of which was written within less than a week. It hasn’t been a good writing process. Pushing repeatedly beyond the point of exhaustion in order to meet a tight deadline is not good for body and soul (nor for family members). Neither is it good for the written product. In this case, authors had originally been given two and a half months to write their chapters. Thus, my one-week marathon was, in a way, my own fault. The first six weeks had been filled with other work obligations and in the final month, when writing should have happened, life kicked in and changed my plans. So it was this one week – or never.

I don’t think a longer writing process, let’s say six months, would have changed the main point of our chapter. We argue that instrumentalising indigenous methodologies for the UN’s sustainable development agenda doesn’t work. I stand by the argument and will happily discuss it with anyone suggesting otherwise. But: The chapter is going to be published in a book that aspires to be a valuable resource for those researching Indigenous contexts and Sustainable Development. Thus, the book isn’t a space to quickly write up the results of your latest empirical study (as if that was a quick thing to do). I am very grateful for the fast pace that research can have. For example, when it gets to adjusting a vaccine to protect against yet another letter of the Greek alphabet. The forthcoming book, however, belongs to a different genre. It calls for chapters with critical reflections on, amongst others, research methodology, ethics and sustainability.

Producing this kind of academic content requires time (I’m strictly speaking for myself here, of course). Time to reflect, time to read, re-read, get confused, develop thoughts, discard thoughts, move ideas around, read more, write, delete and rewrite. In short, such work needs time to grow. There is beauty and fulfilment in long and uninterrupted writing sessions. When you reach this wonderful state of flow where you forget about time and space and just follow your own pace. But that’s flow and night shifts at your own pace, rather than external pace made by some fast-lived knowledge economy. My first ever academic article existed in three or four drafts before I submitted it. This kind of slow writing process might be a luxury reserved for the unexperienced PhD student. But the resulting product was a well reflected piece that that truly represented my state of understanding and being at the time it was published. Therefore, it is a piece that can last. Even if I would change a thing or two if I were to write the same article today, I am still comfortable with the article to live in the world wide web or as a PDF on people’s desktops.

Will the forthcoming chapter be a publication that lasts? Or does it support the fast-food literature that meets the interest of today’s academic fashion and is replaced by another publication tomorrow? Who benefits from such rushed writing processes? The answer is, my publication record does. My publication record that needs to grow fast, because the number of my publications counts more than their durability.

I am not suggesting that academic life was better in the olden days. Those days in which you hid in your chamber for ten years to emerge with a master piece that would occupy the academic world for generations. Most likely, I wouldn’t have been an academic in the olden days, but a housewife who made sure that her husband could nurture his genius in peace. Nowadays we are supporting each other on pretty equal terms, so no, not longing back.

We have the slow food movement and the slow fashion movement – I am calling for slow writing processes. With some actual time to think and let a piece grow over time. I don’t necessarily mean that everything should be slow, but rather – as explained here – to have the time it takes to produce texts that can last (however much time that is). I know that the current academic focus on quantity is not going to change anytime soon. But it’s Christmas, so I allow myself some wishful thinking.

By the way, I know that slow scholarship is already a thing. And a quick google search tells me that the analogy between slow food and slow scholarship has been made already – and with much more elegance. But that’s ok.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year with plenty of time for thinking and writing and being productive (and unproductive) at your own pace!

P.S. 1: I want to acknowledge that chapter was a co-authored publication with two wonderful, experienced and knowledgeable colleagues. While they share my sentiments about the writing process, I make explicit that this text is strictly about my own struggles.

P.S. 2: I realise that the above isn’t necessarily the smartest PR move for our forthcoming book chapter. This is unfair on my co-authors and it is unfair on the chapter, too. A chapter, that was written as a critique of the book in which it is going to be published. The editors were kind enough to still attest our chapter to be of “high quality” and to “enrich the overarching contribution of the edited book”, so please do read it. Thanks to the fast pace process, it will be published shortly.

A bad moment for Cecil, a good moment for Rhodes

This post was written in honour of my South African colleague, cultural mentor and friend Ken Ngcoza and it was first published in Makhanda’s local newspaper, Grocott’s Mail.

In his recent inaugural lecture as Professor of Science Education at Rhodes University, Prof Kenneth Mlungisi Ngcoza, preferably addressed by his clan name Mthembu, made explicit that poverty should not only be understood in terms of economic means but also as the absence of education. Mthembu’s lecture, ‘From Poverty to University: Journeys, Challenges and Opportunities’, contained stories about offering ‘hands-up’ and ‘second chances’ in education.

Despite the event taking place in an auditorium and digitally on Zoom, Mthembu conveyed his stories in the spirit of traditional Ubuntu storytelling, where people would gather around a fire, listening to, and learning from, shared stories, while everyone was getting an equal share of heat from the fire. His stories concerned his biography as a Makhanda township boy, growing up as the son of a railway labourer and a domestic worker, who would pay her son’s school books and school fees from her limited wages. For this boy, Rhodes University was a physically close but unreachable promised land that he would not enter until many decades later. Mthembu’s stories also covered the many Makhanda township learners and in-service teachers who – like himself – benefitted from hands-up and second chances of the various community outreach programmes, like Gadra Education, that help them to fight educational poverty and enter the academic programmes at Rhodes.

Mthembu called his inaugural lecture a milestone in his life. The lecture was, however, also a decolonial milestone. Not only did another black professor claim his space in the same former white university that once rejected him as a student (though Mthembu made a point that it was Apartheid, not the university which rejected him), but the lecture also contained many elements that are still unusual in academic settings. As mentioned, the lecture was framed as Ubuntu storytelling. It was held in the presence of the spirits of passed away relatives, especially Mthembu’s abovementioned parents. It contained isiXhosa proverbs, the use of clan names, poems – and it was regularly interrupted by Mthembu bursting out into song both to celebrate the joyous occasion and because songs were part of his stories. Moreover, the lecture added to the uncountable number of testimonials about how South African education (during Apartheid and after that) was not connected to black students’ lived realities. None of the teachings Mthembu would learn from his mother while collecting firewood or the making of Umqombothi was ever relevant in school. Neither could he ever apply anything he learnt in maths and science class at home – despite his excellent grades.

Mthembu’s lecture was a tribute to indigenous ways of knowing and bore witness to Mthembu’s and his PhD students’ pioneering work of bridging the distance between township communities and campus and bringing these ways of knowing into everyday academic teaching and learning. This is not, as some fear, a threat to science and scientific rigour. It is not a move towards throwing out the so-called Western knowledge and “taking over”. Instead, it is a chance to complement, complete, enrich and constructively challenge dominating Western knowledge archives and unsettle existing hierarchies between knowledge systems. According to many, both environmental scientists and philosophers, solving our planet’s virulent ecological crises requires precisely that: drawing on more than one knowledge archive. Ubuntu, as a notion of togetherness that, according to Mthembu, is not reserved for specific skin colour, can facilitate such togetherness of knowledge systems in the academic space.

The project of decolonising academia holds many unanswered questions. Seeing Mthembu wearing the traditional academic garment directly inherited from the British academic tradition upon which Rhodes University was built triggered one of these questions: Is this red robe a symbol of colonial culture, and does wearing it mean submitting to this culture and everything it implies? Or is claiming the robe and chanting in isiXhosa while wearing it a decolonial act? Whatever the answer to this question might be, one thing is sure: Cecil Rhodes would not have liked the sight. Mthembu’s inaugural lecture was a bad moment for Cecil Rhodes’s colonial project. But it was a proud moment for the university that still bears his name.

How to be an ally? An ongoing (un-)learning journey

This text is an adapted excerpt of my unpublished doctoral disseration and was first published on https://www.convivialthinking.org/index.php/2021/06/17/how-to-be-an-ally/#more-1825

“Indigenous and non-indigenous alliances cut across localities, nations, and continents” and the struggle for decolonisation and “recovering indigenous peoples’ identities … knows no borders”, writes Norwegian professor Anders Breidlid in his (2013) book Education, Indigenous Knowledges, and Development in in the global South.

What binds together the steps of my professional life is a quest for (learning how to) being the best possible ally in the struggles for what I a decade ago understood as sustainable development and during the course of my ongoing (un)learning journey have come to understand as decolonisation and planetary survival. As a German, Norway-based academic, I carry with me “the skin colour, geographical origin and cultural heritage of the former colonisers”. Therefore, on a personal level, the quest for becoming an ally involves very centrally the reflection on, and unravelling of, the layers of my positionality. As mentioned, I see this quest as an ongoing journey of unlearning my (colonial) assumptions. It led me from volunteering in a South African orphanage, to building up a student NGO together with a group of friends, obtaining a degree in development studies and making acquaintance with bi- and multilateral development agencies in my twenties, to serving as an NGO education advisor and pursuing doctoral studies in my thirties, to working towards decolonising my teaching and the courses I am responsible for as a lecturer on the verge of turning 40.

The transformational moment that eventually led me to pursue a PhD happened about twelve years ago. One of the teachers in my master’s programme, a medical anthropologist, made a point that health and wellbeing are not universal concepts, but are understood differently by different peoples in different parts of the world. It struck me that this must be the case for education as well. How could Westerners such as myself assume to have a universal answer to what constitutes (good) education and export and implement this understanding in the so-called developing world? After the lecture, I sought out the library, dived into the shelves, started reading about African indigenous ways of knowing – and could not stop. Sitting in my institute’s small basement library, I understood that our planet is home to more than one knowledge system; that indigenous epistemologies had been subjugated as part of the colonial endeavour and that the educational systems established upon independence – usually with a major impact from the former colonial powers, now called developed countries – continued to marginalise or ignore people’s own ways of knowing. Having run the abovementioned student NGO that financed small-scale initiatives in Tanzania, Bangladesh, Argentina and Brazil for many years before starting my master’s, I had always thought of my approach to ‘development’ as critical, bottom-up and on people’s own terms. Yet I had been completely ignorant about indigenous ways of knowing and the epistemological aspects of colonisation. I had never questioned the understanding of education as a universal concept, as a kind of medicine that can be ‘administered’ to people as a cure from poverty. I never questioned it because I hadn’t known that there was anything to question. Sadly, this is not surprising. To date, the implications of epistemic diversity are hardly ever reflected in Western development organisations or mainstream development discourses – and this was even less so when I took my master’s more than a decade ago. Therefore, one personal motivation for re-entering academia to pursue doctoral studies was irritation with the arrogance of my own kind. That is, Western (educated) folks who – with best, albeit ignorant, intentions – engage in ‘development’, without taking a step back from our own epistemological and ontological assumptions before (possibly) doing so.

The first months as a PhD student were spent reading on the colonial impact of conventional, ‘Western’ research and on decolonial, indigenous methodologies. I pondered whether and on what premise I could engage in research involving indigenous ways of knowing and whether and on what premise I could conduct research in the global South at all. By that time, I was already well aware of my Western positionality, but I did not realise how profoundly this positionality shaped my assumptions about education, knowledge production and  so-called development. I critiqued the internalised colonial notion of education equalling European education. However, I did not realise that the same internalised notion prevented me from questioning certain ‘universal’ educational practices such as (formal) education being facilitated by teachers in schools through compartmentalised subjects.

Until now, my efforts to be part of the above quoted indigenous and non-indigenous alliances involved physical travel to the global South as an assumed location of that struggle. Considering the tremendous damage done through colonisation, twenty years ago I had reasoned that the colonisers’ descendants should return to the same places to help repair this damage. Realising the epistemological and ideological dimensions of colonisation, the idea of Westerners traveling South in the pursuit of both decolonisation and development had already become problematic to me when planning my doctoral research. Yet I held on to it, hoping the right way of researching might justify such travel. In my doctoral research, I argue for cross-epistemic (research) collaborations for the common goal of planetary survival. In a 2019 lecture titled A World Without Borders? Cameroonian thinker Achille Mbembe speaks about a planetary consciousness and the need to focus on what we as human beings have in common rather than what separates us. Following his thought, in my understanding of a decolonised academic world, scholars from all epistemic backgrounds would collaborate to generate meaning on mutually agreed terms, pursuing mutually agreed goals. Thus, my conclusion here is not against any travel from North to South and vice versa (though taking seriously the environmental damage caused by flying may suggest at least a radical reduction of physical travel). Much rather, as I become aware of the deeper layers of positionality, I realise that a central part of being a ‘Western’ ally in indigenous struggles means addressing the coloniality of ‘development’ and knowledge production at home, that is, in the Global North.

Decolonising knowledge production – we should all talk about epistemology

Epistemology is a complex field. Twice a friendly colleague passed on a warning to me that he once got himself: Unless you have a degree in philosophy, beware of epistemology! He probably has a point. Yet I believe that all of us who are involved in knowledge “production”, from student to experienced senior colleague, should engage in some meta-reflection on the knowledge(s) we use and produce.

Why? Because I believe that the key to overcoming colonial patterns in our research methodologies is turning the decolonisation of methodology into a mainstream practice. It shouldn’t be something that some people (in exotic fields of research) do, but that everyone considers in their knowledge production.

What does that mean concretely? Decolonisation, although currently a “hot topic”, isn’t the latest academic fashion with which we decorate our papers, nor is it – as Tuck and Yang remind us – a metaphor to address other shortcomings in educational or social science research. What I suggest is that every person involved in academic work and knowledge production should know about, respect and consider that our planet accommodates not just one (universal), but many epistemologies. That there are many ways of knowing, coming to know, and knowing about knowing. As Leigh Patel writes: decolonisation ‘requires, at minimum, a consideration of how ideologies impact material practices, how practices are always epistemically shaped, and vice versa’ .

Take for example Alvesson and Skjøldberg’s (2009) widely used book Reflexive Methodology. New Vistas for Qualitative Research. The authors suggest the use of several paradigms instead of just one. They apply a four-layer interpretation model, quadruple hermeneutics, to let ‘the different elements or levels … play… off against each other’ (p. 272) for the purpose of reflexivity. Beginning with constructing data from empirical material, moving to interpretation (hermeneutics), critical interpretation (critical theory) and self-critical and linguistic reflection, the authors move from the concrete to the abstract, from the data level to a wider perspective that considers social context and society concerning the collected data and that questions power relationships (e.g. regarding gender or between researcher and researched). However, even Alvesson’s and Sköldberg’s fourth, most critical layer of reflection remains within a Western epistemological frame that regards the rationally thinking individual as the centre of knowledge generation, rather than including ‘stepping back’ and reflecting on knowledge and research as such. I am not suggesting the authors should necessarily have included in their book a layer of reflection on the (de-)coloniality of qualitative research, although they could have. What I am suggesting is that making explicit the epistemological assumptions on which the book is based, for example, by acknowledging this book concerns common strands of Western theoretical thought, would have disrupted the implicit assumption that the included layers of reflection are the layers of reflection. It is the lack of such acknowledgements that continues the automatic silencing of other epistemologies. There are well-established protocols in mainstream social science research regarding ethical considerations, access and sampling and data analysis. Accounting for appropriateness and congruence between a chosen methodology and the epistemologies in a planned study should become part of the same standard social science research procedures. Such practice would help even out the skewed hierarchy between Western knowledge (mostly simply called ‘knowledge’) as the current norm and indigenous ways of knowing as the ‘other(ed)’ knowledge and thereby clear the way for the decolonisation of research on a large scale.