The Worlding classroom: turning places of research into spaces for teaching

Issued: Tue, 12 Nov 2019 11:00:00 GMT

The Worlding classroom: turning places of research into spaces for teaching

In this blog, I want to reflect on ways in which research opportunities such as fieldwork and networking can present new avenues for collaborative work and specifically in the creation of spaces for innovations in teaching practices. Back in 2015, I received an email  from Anna Gawlewicz, a colleague in Urban Studies I also teach alongside. It was not  unlike the kinds of emails that fairly regularly come through academic  inboxes. It was an introduction and opportunity to connect with a group of Danish Academics applying for funding for a North European Research network. They were in effect looking for Scottish partners.

Now, in an academic context that pushes for more and more collaborative and interdisciplinary work – and increasingly in an accelerated ‘add names, stir and serve’ manner – there was nothing particularly remarkable going on here. But this email request came at a particular moment, it was after the summer of 2015, when Europe had witnessed the mass movement of people from the Middle East (and elsewhere) making their way across Europe  in search of refuge.  And this network had a specific aim: to map out solidarity initiatives that had emerged from grass roots work in a number of North European cities to get a handle on the scale and scope of solidarity work. What are the points of connections? Where do they diverge? What does solidarity work mean? What could it mean? Is there a constellation of solidarity networks that might be meaningful to explore using a comparative relational framework?  This was also a multidisciplinary research network, bringing together academics from anthropology, sociology, critical geography, political science and international relations.

[lesson 1: read those emails when they come through and if they pique your interest, respond!]

So alongside colleagues in Glasgow (Gareth Mulvey and Cetta Mainwaring), we got in touch, noted interest and began the conversation that led us to joining the Helping Hands Network. Four years later, it’s June 2019 and we’ve just come to the end of the research network funding period. We’ve met four times for 3-day field visits in Copenhagen, Nijmegen, Glasgow and Hamburg. We’ve visited 25 different initiatives ranging from pop-up distributions centres for clothing, to bicycle recycling, to community cafes, to health centres, to homework clubs and community groups. In our discussions we’ve focused on place, space, and connected this up with histories and memories.  We’ve learned about the practice of solidarity work, the high of the moment, and what remains when the ‘crisis’ subsides. We’ve continually asked questions of each other and ourselves, using place as a lens through which we try to understand what is happening at a local level, and how we connect this up to the national and European context.

This lens has been central to the work of the network, and now it has developed into something we couldn’t have anticipated back a the its beginning, namely finding ways to teach together. In meeting our colleagues in Nijmegen, Gareth and I were struck by an intellectual and political connection. During our Helping Hands work we learned that the so-called ‘migration crisis’ is grounded in very different ways in our respective cities. This raised some questions for us: if our cities Nijmegen/Glasgow create such different pictures about the migration crisis, how can we learn from each other’s experiences? How can we mutually enrich our understandings? And, above all, how can we bring this to our teaching? And so it is in this this slow building of academic friendships and the time spent together that we have recognised a fruitful space for collaborative research and pedagogy.

[lesson 2: talk about teaching with research partners and give serious consideration to developing research-led teaching collaborations]

The worlding classroom

We are teachers as well as researchers. As much as ‘the research field’ requires responsiveness to the moment, as teachers of migration and border studies, we also have an ethical and pedagogical responsibility to be able to locate the debates and events taking place in the ‘political now’ and in their historical context in order to create spaces for learning that transcend the local. The question is how do we do this?  

Modelling the research network approach we began to think together about exploring learning and teaching through the lens of place. (This coincided with a serendipitous funding call for Glasgow-Radboud collaborations!) So here’s what we are proposing: a Worlding Classroom. This classroom will provide multi-modal learning connections at the local and translocal between scholars, students, civil society organisations, refugees and migrants. It is this expansion of the classroom that we describe as worlding - a process of linking different positionalities, academic disciplines and places. What we hope to do is create a distinct pedagogical learning space that connects two master programmes in our Universities together at key points in the curriculum. We will be bringing together the sites of Glasgow and Nijmegen, and the disciplines of sociology and critical geography, to share materials, reading, input, and experiences. Our worlding classroom also draws on the deep and significant relational context that connects both sites, with real potential to develop a renewed sense of place for students, scholars and practitioners.

How are going to do this and will it work?

Our plan is to draw on a range of teaching approaches, including planning workshops to identify the critical points of connection across programmes; collaboratively designing short inputs to fit with curriculum, using video lectures and online materials such as online visual discussion boards; connecting up classrooms in real time using video conferencing and exploring visual methodologies to capture place outside the classroom and bring  this in. We also aim to plug into solidarity initiatives we visited in Glasgow and Nijmegen as part of the research network to develop what we hope will be community-driven teaching. We are trying to provide a pedagogical space for students, lecturers and our community partners to see and understand migration-related issues from various perspectives; situate knowledges and experiences in a broader translocal and global context; and cultivating the co-creation of  academic knowledge and importantly  of where and how we can act.

Central to this are our personal and intellectual connections that we want to further develop in meaningful and lasting ways. Individually, we’ve already explored some of this work on critical pedagogy in our respective universities. In June 2018, I led an event called Rethinking the Teaching of Migration, which brought together students, lecturers, third sector partners and migrants to critically reflect on our pedagogical practices. Learning from the event has led into collaboratively authored guiding principles for best practice for teaching in this area. This work was further consolidated by the establishment of a blogsite that I curate allowing teachers to share experiences, identify useful innovations and collate relevant resources. In Nijmegen our colleagues, Kolar Aparna and Olivier Kramsch initiated the Asylum University initiative. Based on an action research design this is an informal learning platform that brought together academics, students, volunteers, citizens and migrants (with and without papers). It aspired to transform everyday processes of knowledge exchange and hence it successfully invited migrants to participate in geography lectures and to exchange with students their lived realities and positions.

So here we are, about to embark on a teaching collaboration that has developed directly from a research network. Its ambition maps directly onto the many rich discussions we’ve been having over 2 years, but this time our focus is on the pedagogy of our practice, and what we hope to do is open new avenues for teaching collaborations that will help us extend our worlding class room to new places. We all stand to gain something from these kinds of experimental approaches. Our students will be learning about place through the lens of other places; we will have the opportunity to teach about places through the lens of other places whilst piloting community led teaching. Finally we want to see practitioners and civil society organisations involved in our classrooms to gain insights about solidarity work through place and find ways of building cross-national alliances. The worlding classroom brings different expertise directly to bear in the educational setting, and in this way has the potential to reconfigure the relationship between the university and civil society and make knowledge exchange a genuinely multi-directional process.  

Watch this space!

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Dr Teresa Piacentini researches and teaches about migration related topics and have worked in the area of asylum and refugee migration in Scotland since 2000. Her research and teaching focuses on broad questions of settlement, community, belonging and identity, solidarity and resistance. 

Twitter: @teresapiacenti1