Carving space for multiple knowledges in HE

Consuelo Béjares, Ph.D. Student, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

This post was originally published by the author at: https://medium.com/the-politics-of-representation/carving-space-for-multiple-knowledges-in-he-ae0f337aafc6

Becoming a doctoral student at Cambridge University means entering a different world for most Latin Americans. Even if you were privileged enough back home to be able to be accepted in Cambridge and secure funding, the level of privilege, wealth, and intellectual elitism that we confront here was unknown for most of us. This strikes me from the first moment in the form of feeling out of place — not intelligent enough, not well-read enough, not confident enough, not very “Cambridge” in sum. The reactions to my opinions reinforced this feeling because I mostly perceived that my points of views were not validated and dismissed as mere examples or place-based information from a very specific — not universal — context and, as such, not really interesting or valuable for rigorous knowledge production (Olufemi et al., 2019). However, this feeling started to mutate as I realized that this was not an individual problem on my side but rather an institutional problem coming from Eurocentrism and epistemic ignorance at Cambridge. Even when, at least to some extent, I could understand the cultural and intellectual common ground in place, because it has been taught to me as “universal history”, Cambridge, one of the top universities of the world, totally disregard my cultural and historical background and, as a consequence, the starting point from where I was working towards my thesis project was continually misunderstood. I have been lucky enough to start my Ph.D. at a moment when the number of Latin Americans at the Faculty was growing which enables us to set up a support network that for me has been essential to navigate this experience. One of the ongoing discussion we have had is how invisible Latin America is in Cambridge, starting just at the point that Latin American or Latinx (and sub-identifications such as afro-descendant, indigenous, mixed) is an inexistent category in the enrolment forms, forcing ourselves to be classified as “other”, contributing to our own invisibility at the university and the global scenario of Higher Education.

The invisibilization and minimization of other cultures, ways of knowing, and ways of being experienced at Cambridge undermine alternative perspectives in the learning and research processes. Latin American theoretical tradition, for example, is widely unrecognized and overlooked even by people working on the region. This devaluation faced me with the challenge of trying to balance a “global” informed enough thesis to be legitimized at the Cambridge level but, at the same time, not compromising my views and knowledge of the context I was working on as well as respecting its history and value. For me, this has meant avoiding to forcingly fitting theories, however renowned, if they do not make sense in the specific context and, particularly, trying not to fall into a deficitarian perspective that is so common when researching on the Global South from the Global North and especially when working with marginalized populations. Developmentalism and interventionist approaches have already caused so much damage perpetuating pervasive power relations in Latin America that I certainly do not want to contribute to it. Critically questioning research that uses this vantage point and genuinely valuing non-Western perspectives is essential to allow the “pluriverse” at academic spaces, meaning the coexistence of different types of knowledge.

Notably, together with the obvious effort that needs to be made at the institutional level at the Faculty and Higher Education in general, as Southern researchers, we need to critically reflect on our practice since the social and geographical position is not at all automatically attached to a decolonial epistemological position (Grosfoguel, 2007), especially considering the coloniality of power in place in Latin America where Higher Education is heavily under colonization of the imagination (Quijano, 2007) that usually impose Western knowledge as the norm and reproduce the whitening narrative imposed by colonization. Personally, I see this task at the moment in the form of exploring knowledge produced outside academia in Latin America, reflecting on extractivist practices in Higher Education that misappropriate participants’ and grassroots knowledge for its own use, and also start looking at theoretical perspective coming from different southern contexts in order to attempt a South-South dialogue (Moosavi, 2020). Paradoxically, being in Cambridge looking at Latin America from the outside has allowed me to problematize some of the research practices and theoretical assumptions I was embedded in. The challenging material conditions under which research in the education field is done in the Global South usually means prioritizing work that is pragmatic and focuses on solving concrete and urgent problems, relegating theoretical advancement mostly to residuary financial and time resources. In this sense, for researchers from the Global South, conducting research here might be an opportunity to explore innovative streams of research which, in my case, has been immensely supported by the research groups I have been involved in during my Ph.D., especially my supervision group and the CPGJ research group, as spaces for critical discussions within the Faculty.

Related to this last point, however, is the tension between engaging in innovative research and making it relevant and useful for the context we are working on. As Latin Americans inserted in a globally prestigious institution, we hold a power position as potential authority voices in our fields back home. This means a responsibility to produce knowledge that informs and benefits the policy debate in education in essential matters for the region, such as inequality and social justice, which is also attached to acting politically as researchers. During my studies, this realization has been heavily accelerated by political events happening in Chile and around the world, which had prompted interesting debates and actions within the Latin American group at the Faculty. Examining the pertinence and relevance of our research questions as well as our political role as researchers have been a major source of reflection influencing my research. These considerations have been essential in trying to balance the tension between the need to respond to pressing issues affecting educational communities at the same time that developing theoretically informed research that works with “big theories” when, for example, participants taking part in my fieldwork expect concrete results that helps them resolve everyday problems at the school.

As a final reflection, I think our Faculty needs to make further efforts to depart from a Eurocentric and developmentalism perspective, which implies giving up structural power in knowledge hierarchies. Embracing the reality of the existence of multiple types of knowledge would mean allowing a conversation between them in horizontal and non-hierarchical or paternalistic terms, as is so often the case now, and making space in Higher Education for the many times messy and uncertain reality — the non-binary, the mestizo, the ch’ixi (Rivera Cusicanqui, 2018). From this, knowledge-making could work from the “partial connections” (De La Cadena, 2015) that can be established among similarities and differences, acknowledging the relevance of Western theory but also considering that trying to contain everything into Eurocentric understandings is a way of simplifying complex differences, reducing multiple existing worldviews and, overall, perpetuating imperialist views of the world.

References

De La Cadena, M. (2015). Earth Beings. Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds. Duke University Press.

Grosfoguel, R. (2007). The Epistemic Decolonial Turn. Cultural Studies21(2–3), 211–223.

Moosavi, L. (2020). The decolonial bandwagon and the dangers of intellectual decolonisation. International Review of Sociology, 1–23.

Olufemi, L., Younge, O., Sebatindira, W., & Manzoor-Khan, S. (2019). A Fly Girl’s Guide To University: Being a Woman of Colour at Cambridge and Other Institutions of Elitism and Power. Verve Poetry Press.

Quijano, A. (2007). Coloniality and Modernity/Racionality. Cultural Studies21(2–3), 168–178.

Rivera Cusicanqui, S. (2018). Un mundo ch’ixi es posible. Ensayos desde un presente en crisis [A ch’ixi world is possible. Essays from a present in crisis]. Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón.

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