03 Sep Critical Pedagogy Symposium: Put Up or Shut Up–Iconoclasm and Precarious Teaching Contracts in the Neoliberal Academe
[Jay Ramasubramanyam is a PhD candidate in the Department of Law and Legal Studies with a specialization in Political Economy, at Carleton University.]
I concluded my first foray into virtual teaching amid the ongoing public health crisis and found myself confronted by a disturbing question: am I capable of recreating discussions about and resistance to Eurocentrism in a virtual teaching environment? Interactions with my students prior to the pandemic evidenced a noticeable dearth of critical pedagogical viewpoints and decolonized curricula in legal education. This is also clear from much academic commentary on critical pedagogy when practiced in law schools. Compressed in six weeks, the course I taught this summer on race, racialization, and human rights, reminded me of the urgency of suffusing institutions and course syllabi with critical pedagogy, alongside anti-colonial and anti-racist scholarship.
Just like conversations on critical pedagogy, curricula on anti-racism and anti-colonialism are not new. Educators and students have long struggled to reconstitute knowledge-sharing, introducing social issues such as demands for racial justice and a correction to the unequal power dynamics that taint everyday academic relations. Vasuki Nesiah, for example, designs curricula to facilitate in-class conversations on the intersections between law and social justice issues, centering imperial and racial considerations in their fold and adopting heterarchical configurations in the lecture theatre. Critical pedagogy not only enables active resistance against hegemony and Eurocentrism but, foremost, mitigates the asymmetry in educational institutions. Critical pedagogists operate against the grain of pre-existing power structures, for they treat education not as a transaction but as a transformative relationship. As is often the case, the brutal slaying of another vulnerable person, George Floyd, has reinvigorated social movements in law schools and beyond who now urge scholars to pursue more widespread changes in academia. Now more than ever, there is a need to enhance critical legal curricula, through the consistent interrogation of hegemonic institutional norms and of systemic discrimination.
Yet, institutional responses to COVID-19 privilege content delivery, above all else. The universities are eager to maintain steady streams of revenue, seemingly at any cost, and are failing to account for the debilitating impact of virtual environments on our ability to engage in critical enquiry and deliberation. Virtual teaching platforms prove limiting in two ways: they stifle our opportunity to get to know each other and transform teaching into a quota-filling exercise. While institutions develop helpful guidelines to assist instructors transition to online platforms, they are curated to feed into mechanical teaching methodologies. For example, guidelines focus heavily on asynchronous formats that entail pre-recorded lectures. Synchronous lecturing, however, is much more effective when teaching critical international law. Critical pedagogy’s effectiveness depends on interactions for our ability to challenge established viewpoints demands, foremost, rapport with students. At the risk of sounding conceited, my vision of myself as an iconoclast clashes with the structural norms and constraints of the institution. They demand simplicity, but critical pedagogy thrives on nuance. Virtual environments overshadow our abilities to engage in critical pedagogy and adopt a decolonized curriculum.
We witness an intensification of these nefarious inclinations where the instructor is BIPOC (Black Indigenous and other People of Color) and on a precarious contract . With limited resources to support their critical pedagogical innovations, BIPOC instructors require a greater level of endurance in the virtual environment. As Professor Adelle Blackett observed, BIPOC students and academics carry the burden of representing their underrepresented communities in the university environment, bolstering the need for robust support systems. Unfortunately, the guidelines mentioned above gloss over significant aspects of critical pedagogy, providing little guidance on their implications for class cohesion and management. Designing content that challenges tradition and creates solidarities across marginalized communities is both necessary and challenging. Critical scholars provide students with an opportunity to engage in effective dialogues in a supportive environment. However, virtual teaching environments exacerbate the pressure of inadequate resources and, in their response to COVID-19, institutions reinforced the assumption that teaching—in this instance, in a virtual environment—is equal amongst teaching faculty.
COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis that disproportionately affects those on the margins in academia. Without sufficient resources, the virtual agenda reduces us to mere sites of extraction. We are valued only as long as we fulfil our role as foot soldiers in the university industrial complex. As unions report, institutions appear unwilling to accommodate the unique circumstances of teaching staff (unless medically related), an approach that runs roughshod over equality aspirations. To make matters worse, the neoliberal structure of universities ignores the invisible tax it imposes on BIPOC colleagues. We are solely responsible for the academic and emotional well-being of BIPOC students, including preparing them to deal with racism and racial trauma both inside and outside the classroom. As BIPOC instructors, we also carry the burden of undertaking uncompensated emotional and intellectual labour. Universities rarely dedicate resources for the well-being and emotional health of instructors who face backlashes from staff and students alike when experimenting with critical pedagogy and iconoclasm. Many present the pandemic as ‘the great equalizer’, but what persists is a superficial sense of sameness that ignores the inequalities that militate for greater critical interventions when teaching in virtual environments.
Universities are far from the utopian spaces they claim to be and are often implicated in perpetuating racial and gender-based asymmetries. The university’s putative democratic character conceals the substantive inequalities that exist between unique members of the teaching community, urging us to focus on perfunctory forms of equality. While many academics recognize the need for critical approaches, structures of higher education are slow to change. For instructors like myself, iconoclasm presents massive risks. As an emerging academic in a settler colonial state like Canada, I find myself caught in a dilemma: do I risk losing opportunities to get a teaching contract by practicing critique or do I do what’s safe and maintain neoliberal modes of teaching and delivery? The classroom represents a microcosm of the hegemony the system perpetuates and I worry about adopting curricula that grate against the establishment. Still, surrender leaves behind both students and groups hungry for critical engagement.
My experiments with critical pedagogy and iconoclasm have been deliberate and purposeful. After a cursory perusal of the syllabi of colleagues who teach similar classes, I realized that critical approaches begin with small pedagogical changes. Critical international legal pedagogy redirects student gaze toward the politics not just of international law but also of the classroom. At the risk of romanticizing the role of critical international law, syllabi and curricula can complement the growing demands for justice and equality in universities and beyond by challenging the asymmetries that exist in knowledge sharing.
While critical pedagogy has been effective in creating inroads in counterbalancing the Eurocentrism of international law, I continue to struggle to mediate the liberating discussions they engender, while operating within oppressive structures of the academe that reward conformity. Indeed, I still struggle with the double-edged sword of academia, both as a tool of emancipation and as an instrument of dogmatism and sycophancy. When I was offered a first-year course on international law class (Fall 2019), I intended to treat the lecture hall as a battleground for discussions on Third World Approaches to International Law. Despite being on a precarious contract, I took a gamble on a pedagogy of resistance. I learned that resistance, too, can be demoralizing. The valorization of mainstream research agendas and the sidelining of anything construed as ‘jarring’ to the status quo prevails (and I admit to even worrying about participating in this symposium). With the reactionary agenda guiding responses to the pandemic, my concerns and those of other BIPOC colleagues are likely to become sharper.
In the short time at my institution, I realized that people like me are browbeaten into capitulating to Eurocentric viewpoints. We are told to catch up and to fit in. The aggressions institutions subject us to are debasing and dispiriting. What I am forced to conclude is that critical pedagogy and iconoclasm come with high costs. If the academe is truly committed to equity, more instructors of color must be hired on secure contracts and adequately compensated. For now, like other academics of color, I exercise resistance by surviving.
Despite all of this, a sense of masochism has taken hold of me. I now adopt critical interventions as provocations. It’s the system that needs to catch up! I gain techniques and inspiration from our predecessors, who persist in resisting. As my colleague and mentor Professor Mohsen al Attar says: “the institution’s aim is to snuff out your fire; nothing more. They may succeed because such is the destiny of the iconoclast. I am happy to go out in a blaze of glory, but I won’t make it easy for them.” Neither will I.