Dealing with change

The University for the Creative Arts (UCA) conducted a report researching into the black and minority ethnic (BME) student experience in 2018. This research found that UCA enables a positive learning experience for such students but it is not immune from contributing factors that can influence a student’s experience learning in a negative way (Dixon-Smith, 2018). With inclusion of interview questions and responses from participants of the study, one thing that was emphasised was the existence of ‘isolation’ among BME students. Certain cultural expectations (relating to their own cultures) force them to ‘not ask for help’ as this is seen as a ‘weakness’,  meaning they suffer instead of getting the most from their university career. Something as big as this act of ‘uncomfortable tension’ between culture and need for help can contribute to such phenomena as the ‘attainment gap’.


Published on 9th November 2021 | Written by Ben Minchell | Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

I came into my position at UCA in July 2020. A tempestuous year that opened many doors to conversation on the university institutions and how they teach students outside of the ‘white’ community and curriculum. Questions were asked in seminars, discussion and talks on inclusion trying to figure out where UCA sits in the confusing and daunting subject of decolonising.

I, a new and ambitious lecturer, knew that what I taught in the coming year needed to reflect the needs of the students that are usually classed as ‘other’ to many. But also, this was a time to educate myself on who I was, what I believed and what I already knew. What did ‘inclusion’ and ‘decolonisation’ look like in my practice?

I teach in a lecture environment and teach around 80 students. A handful of these students identify as with minority groups however, the majority identify as White British. The experience of the BME student has been the question on my mind since I started. How can a white British lecturer fix the problem. The truth is, I can’t fix it. But thinking about what certain individuals would want to see in a lecture, what images would make sense or inspire, what subject matter needs to be spoken about?

Small steps first, I started making sure I knew the obvious or the basics. And making sure that the basics of subjects are featured in the material. I watched interviews, and material outside of my subject, people that spoke about their identity and how important it was to them.  And the first lecture, what was I to do? How was I supposed to get students talking, learning from one another, I didn’t want to make assumptions about them, I wouldn’t want them to make assumptions about me if I were in their shoes.

It is my belief that to learn a subject, many angles must be explored. For me, this started with the inclusion of diverse images within a lecture. When talking about ethnicity, I wanted to remind myself and students that seeing people outside of just ‘black people’ and ‘white people’ was just as important. The tension of race does not sit only between two races, but between all, and there is much tension between different races that consider themselves minorities and people of colour. Subjects on colourism for example are inserted into the lectures due to the need for students to discuss their own experiences with such discrimination.

The assessment was something that I never thought to worry about on the courses I teach. The marking of the student’s work is done ‘holistically’ and we have no exams or specific criteria for students to reach. However, there is an importance to revise and rework what currently exists. I realised that I was less forgiving to students who didn’t ‘write properly’, students who ‘wrote how they spoke’ tended to make me twitch uncomfortably. In reality this is something that is minor in the word of writing. And realising that ‘ways of writing’ is not part of the curriculum meant that I could see the work for what it was, as individuals hit certain criteria. I realised that this belief on ‘bad writing’ had been taught to me through my years of learning. As a result of that learned behaviour, I was less accepting of students, less accepting of who they are in that moment.

A change in the aims and learning outcomes means that changes in what students’ study and are exposed to and also what they choose to explore and learn on their own is written into the expectations of the course. The courses I teach on measure students on their Knowledge, Analysis and Communication. What knowledge have they gained, and how have they shown and used it? How have they dissected what they have learned and connected it to their own ideas? And how is this communicated? Does it fit the expectation of the written style if not, what can be celebrated so the student know that they have learned? I struggle to see how subjects can be marked and measured on Love, Cooperation, Reciprocity and Sacrifice  (Jacobs, 2020) but do agree and have witnessed the success of such practices when work is marked qualitatively and not quantitively. Measuring the students work through thoughts, words & actions (Jacobs, 2020).

The students voice is important, and their journey is just as important. It’s finding the balance of what you can teach them and what you can learn from them.


About the author

Benjamin Minchell is a lecturer in Contextual Studies at UCA Rochester. He writes and researches the history of Fashion design.


References

Dixon -Smith, Steve. (2018) Co-researching beyond the category: a thematic analysis of a student-led focus group study into BME student experiences at the University for the Creative Arts. Accessed on 5/04/2021.

hooks, bell (1994) Teaching to transgress. New York. Routledge

Jacobs, R (2020) Decolonising Assessment: can we ever truly assess for justice and equity? Webinar for the World Arts Education Alliance conference. [online video]. Accessed on 31/03/2021.

Learning-theories.org. (2011). instructional_design:facilitation_theory Learning Theories.org. Accessed on 5/04/2021.

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