Reworking university curriculum to engage social urgencies, emergencies and emergences: Reflecting with de Sousa Santos

Year: 2019

Author: Brennan, Marie, Zipin, Lew

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Current university course programming typically presents a relatively static world, where issues and problems can be addressed largely by transmission of past disciplinary knowledge, sometimes alongside professional work placements. Broad-based crises – such as capitalism reaching limit points; climate change, species extinction and other ‘Anthropocene’ effects; new kinds and degrees of ‘race’-ethnic conflict and violence; shifts in patriarchal abuses against women; rising socio-economic stratification within and across countries; and more – tend to be addressed piecemeal within atomised subjects, under-emphasising (if not ignoring) deep-structural underpinnings, as if we can count on existing networks of knowledge ‘expertise’ to make progress towards ‘solutions’. Yet communities across the world experience what Lauren Berlant terms ‘glitches’ in the infrastructure of daily life, manifesting broader/deeper structural crises, differently and unevenly experienced in diverse locales and social/geographic positions. Sometimes these glitches are recognised as part of ‘urgent’ patterns – e.g. underfunding of schools or hospitals, or increased homelessness; and some are treated as ‘emergencies’ – e.g. floods, fires, droughts, famines, or pandemics. Rarely is university knowledge-work brought into pro-active connection with such issues.

This paper works in dialogue with Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ recent book on ‘decolonising knowledge’: The End of the Cognitive Empire: The coming of age of the epistemologies of the South.Santos argues that global social justice is not possible without global cognitive justice. We translate this to mean that universities can/should play crucial roles through curricular pro-action that links: (a) local glitches to global crises; and (b) knowledge labours to ethical impulses. Santos suggests that the central task of learning is to build ‘mutual intelligibility’ and reciprocity across diverse knowledges, with Indigenous and local knowledges carrying as much agency and status as ‘expert’ knowledge. Such exchange of knowledge-abilities can generate ‘ecologies of knowledges’ to address complex social needs, aspirations and struggles. Taking up this challenge, our paper defines curriculum as pragmatic-radical praxis that brings academics into connection with local communities and wider networks in action on emergent problems that matter – and that, in mattering, gather diverse relevant knowledges to them – thereby generating newly emergent knowledge and options for action. Drawing on concepts of ‘pragmatism’ from both Santos and Isabelle Stengers, and Berlant’s conception of infrastructural ‘glitches’ in relation to structural ‘crises, we identify areas for university curriculum to extend pro-actively, and pedagogies to further such cognitive-social-ethical-political labours.