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Decolonised spaces must be given room


I joined the department of psychology at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in February 2011. Since then, my main teaching responsibilities have been to convene the second-year undergraduate course in social psychology and intergroup relations, the third-year undergraduate course in critical psychology and an honours module called political psychology.

Teaching social and critical forms of psychology in the South African context opens up many possibilities for contributing to transformation.

These courses give students the opportunity to reflect on and critically discuss contemporary social issues relating to race, gender, class and sexualities. In recent years, many classroom discussions have focused on the student movements on our campus and across the nation — engagements that allow for social psychological analyses of our current context.

As a result, many students who have participated in my classes have become actively involved in the #RhodesMustFall movement and other kinds of political action. This is a testament to the possibility of bridging academia and activism and closing the gap between teaching, research and lived experience.

Students enjoy my classes because they can relate to the material while building strong theoretical understandings and a desire to engage in transformative dialogue. I have shown that, to maintain high academic standards, learning must be a relevant and engaged process. As the external examiner of one of my courses stated: “This course appears to be a major achievement.”

The excellent course handout showed that students are expected to do extensive reading, and of very complex material … In an academic world in which there are many pressures to simplify material and to provide information in small, digestible bits, here is a course that asks a lot from both lecturers and students, and it seems that the students, far from buckling under the challenge, rise to it.

In collaboration with my colleagues, I have designed a comprehensive curriculum for social and critical psychology that provides continuity between the first-, second- and third-year courses. This means that students are adequately grounded in key theoretical concepts early on, a solid foundation for the development of critical perspectives. By the end of their degree programme, they will have gained a deep understanding of how human behaviour is located in broader ideological frameworks, drawing not only on psychology but also on its relationship to other theories such as Marxism, capitalism and feminism.

The honours module in political psychology represents an area of critical advantage for African, feminist, decolonial psychologists as it draws upon postcolonial theory and literature, pan-African thought, and African feminisims, challenging dominant perspectives in the field of psychology and thus contributing to the transformation, decolonial and Afropolitan aims of the university.

My teaching style is participatory and interactive, featuring the frequent use of audiovisual materials and class exercises such as debates and small group discussions. I prioritise black South African scholars as well as scholars from the Global South in my reading materials. I place a strong emphasis on the interdisciplinary nature of social and critical psychology by including different types of readings, such as novels and other literary materials, texts from other social science disciplines and media reports. I also invite scholars from different departments and faculties to give lectures on pertinent topics every year. All these approaches locate my teaching in a decolonial frame. This is essential to make psychology relevant today in both South Africa and across the continent.

Psychology is a key discipline, given the significance of the mind in the decolonial project. Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like speaks about the mind as the most important weapon in the hand of the oppressor. A historical analysis of the discipline itself — in particular, the contributions of psychology to scientific racism emerging through the eugenics movement and social Darwinism — demonstrates how psychologists, with studies of intelligence testing and other psychometric tools, attempted to prove that black people were the least intelligent race in the world.

Psychologists have also been involved in the pathologisation of women and of LGBT people, or indeed any person who doesn’t match the norm of a white, male, middle-class and heterosexual figure. This pathologisation happened and continues to happen in various forms of teaching and research.

Such ideas about black people are not confined to the past; nor are they confined to psychologists. Scientific knowledge, as the most dominant form of knowledge in contemporary societies, is transferred into common sense or public knowledges through the media or other forms of communication, such that the results of IQ tests, for example, take on different and often racialising and gendered meanings in the public sphere. Indeed, be it Biko, Léopold Senghor, Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Frantz Fanon, among others, many thinkers throughout the continent and the diaspora have emphasised the role of the mind and, in particular, the pitfalls of consciousness in how others come to think of blackness in derogatory ways and how we black people have come to see ourselves in a similar fashion.

Hence, a decolonised curriculum must highlight the importance of experience and a different aesthetic that goes beyond statistics, surveys and experimental data. Our responsibilities as educators should be to forge attitudes of mind in our classrooms that can give rise to a transformed society. Being conscious of who is in the classroom and whose voice is dominant is critical in developing strategies to create space for openness and critical dialogue. Nevertheless, it is a very tricky task to speak of a decolonised curriculum while the prevailing institutional symbolism and culture serve to erase the experiences of black students and staff.

This does not necessarily mean that Freud and Darwin must be scrapped from the curriculum, but we need to question the predominance they occupy, whose history they represent, and the psychological impact this has on us and our students. The #RhodesMustFall movement has certainly paved the way for this conversation to begin in earnest at UCT.

Teaching at UCT in the past few years has often been a humbling experience.

I am thrilled that students experience my classroom as “life-changing” and as a safe space for dialogue. I am very excited that, in one year, my honours class doubled in size and my critical psychology class grew from 38 students to 97. In my experience, the intellectual and political contributions that students bring to the classroom are exceptional. Perhaps it is the mutual relationship of trust and respect, and the emphasis on dialogue, that bring out the best in them and me. I am encouraged and confident that our future is in good hands.

Shose Kessi is a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Cape Town. This is an edited extract from her essay Engaged Scholarship: Bridging the Gap Between Academia, Activism and Lived Experience, in At the Foot of the Volcano: Reflections on Teaching at a South African University (BestRed, an imprint of HSRC Press)

Emancipated and engaged learning benefits us all

In her essay Engaged Scholarship: Bridging the Gap Between Academia, Activism and Lived Experience, Shose Kessi stresses the pedagogical imperative of not alienating the learning of psychology from contemporary politics in the country. She argues that teaching social and critical forms of psychology in the South African context opens up possibilities for contributing to transformation by blending scholarship with activism. Her courses give students the opportunity to reflect critically on contemporary social issues in relation to the intersectional politics of race, gender, class and sexuality. As a result of this activist-oriented learning space, many of her students have become involved in student politics in the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements. Kessi says this sociopolitical synergy “is a testament to the possibility of bridging academia and activism and closing the gap between teaching, research and lived experience”.

Far from being beholden to the logic of elitist academic pursuits, Kessi insists on a radical pedagogy that embraces the experiences of students who inhabit the world unevenly — that is, who live to a greater or lesser extent with chronic injustice or privilege. Student positionalities are embedded within a social matrix of power and inequality, which Kessi harnesses and critiques to make learning a relevant and engaged process. Her pioneering work builds on a radical and often undermined tradition of engaged scholarship in the Global South. — Susan Levine, editor of At the Foot of the Volcano: Reflections on Teaching at a South African University

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