This post was originally published at Faculty of Education webpage.
Just a few months after its official formation, Cambridge’s new Latin American Research in Education Collective (CLAREC) is attracting widespread interest and engagement – and not just from within Cambridge. Through a thriving programme of talks, research seminars and a reading group, the collective aims to increase the visibility of Latin American knowledge and perspectives in education research – one of many academic fields which has too often focused more heavily on European and North American knowledge systems. CLAREC also began life as a friendship group, however, and in keeping with those roots, its ambitions are built around a philosophy of openness, engagement and mutual support. Here, three of its members explain how it began, why the collective matters, and the difference they hope it will make.
Interview with: Javiera Marfan (originally from Chile); Ana Laura Trigo Clapés (Mexico); and Alexandre da Trindade e Oliveira(Brazil). All three are PhD students at the Faculty of Education.
The origins of CLAREC are a social group which formed back in 2017/18
Javiera: When we started as PhD students we found – both at the Faculty and in Cambridge in general – a very welcoming and supportive environment, but it was easy to feel out of place because of the language and cultural differences. I often felt that everyone else knew how to participate in things like lectures in a way that I didn’t. The dynamics were different and I often worried about whether what I was saying – or the way I was saying it – was acceptable in an English-speaking setting.
Ana: Many of us Latin American students who come to Cambridge aren’t used to speaking English so regularly, even though we all read it quite often. At the start of my postgraduate studies, I was very careful during academic discussions to provide enough context so that colleagues would understand my point of view, but it took considerable effort to get that right. It was a great relief to meet other people from Latin America who were going through a similar experience.
Javiera: As Latin American students we started asking each other for different forms of moral and practical support and began to become close friends. The whole thing really started as a space for friendship, mutual understanding and peer-support.
There was a sort of realisation that we could enrich wider research because of the different knowledge and perspectives we can contribute.Ana
The research dimension grew over time, as we started to realise that our shared identity as Latin American students also applied to our work
Javiera: The Faculty does a lot of research on the Global South, but it often focuses on other parts of the world. Latin America felt quite under-represented at times.
Ana: Partly in response to this, we started to find that we were all representing Latin American experiences and points of view more and more in our research groups. There was a sort of realisation that we could enrich wider research because of the different knowledge and perspectives we can contribute. It has been really valuable to have a group of Latin American friends and, as the time passed and we got to know each other, we began to notice that this support group could also help us to advance and enrich our research.
Alexandre: My own work is partly about how universities contribute to ‘human flourishing’ but joining the group and discussing with other members allowed me to reflect what terms like that mean in a Latin American context, where there has always been a real struggle for social justice. Meeting and discussing that with other Latin American researchers really helped me to get those ideas across more clearly; it gave me the confidence and the ability to draw and express links between my own experiences and the theory that I was assessing in my work.
Inspired by various social justice movements, we came to see what we were doing as a responsibility
Javiera: During 2019 and 2020, many of us became involved with various causes and movements: marches against gender violence, calls for action on climate change, or protests in solidarity with the social revolt in Chile or with Black Lives Matter. I think that the experience of encountering each other, once more, in those spaces, showed us that we have not only our research in common, but that we all are trying to have a positive impact on wider society through our research. We have a responsibility to add our voices to academic conversations not just on behalf of the participants in our research projects, but for the populations they represent, whose voices are often heard less.
Alexandre: I think the sense of responsibility varies for all of us. For me, I came to this having had a previous career in telecommunications in marketing and I feel very strongly that what I am doing now has the potential to achieve more significant contributions to society. What we all share is a belief that education is a means for transforming things for the better, and that by collaborating and sharing ideas we can challenge and improve established ways of thinking.
Javiera: We organised a formal meeting in February 2020, which led to the definition of our group as a collective. Our launch event finally happened in November last year – later than planned because of COVID, but with fantastic support, and we have been running a programme of events ever since.
Part of CLAREC’s aim is to make Latin American knowledge production more visible in education research
Ana: Few of the other Latin American groups at Cambridge include education in their main topics of discussion, so CLAREC is an important space through which we can build awareness of research, and researchers, from the region. It has definitely encouraged me to reflect on my identity as a researcher and I hope that it will help to promote a wider inclusion of work produced in Latin American contexts in the field of education.
Javiera: Within the Faculty, the leadership team, the academics, our supervisors – everyone has been very supportive. It’s important to say that we are not here to complain about our own experiences. But in academia in general, the fact is that authors writing in English are quoted more widely and Latin American researchers are incentivised to publish in English. We have this impression that, when research comes from European or US contexts it is more easily accepted as ‘shared knowledge’; whereas Latin American research is often characterised as ‘a case’ that is interesting only to the extent that it is aligned with those models. There is definitely a need to make the contributions of Latin American research more visible.
I have been actively encouraged to learn about the context in which I am researching, but I didn’t necessarily have a space in which to discuss it and test my ideas. CLAREC has given me that.Alexandre
It is also about creating a space for the Latin American context in research, so that it is heard, rather than overlooked
Ana: As someone from Mexico who is studying how to support the participation of autistic students in primary education in the UK, I obviously had to become familiar with British education to be able to conduct my research. However, at the same time, I have found that I can contribute based on my experiences of earlier research projects in Mexico. This includes on in which an amazing system for coding classroom dialogue was produced. Similarly, I have a friend who has experience of an inclusion project in Mexico and is showing how this could be useful in other parts of the world, once adjusted to a different context and culture. I think that one thing we show through CLAREC, by giving research from Latin America a platform, is what it adds to wider scholarship.
Javiera: It can be much more simple than trying to just ‘break the dominance’ of US or European theoretical approaches. To give you one small example: I was conducting research on a part of Santiago; you could refer to it as a neighbourhood but the term we use for it is población, and that doesn’t translate perfectly into any English term, it has its own meaning. As it happened, I mentioned this to another member of CLAREC who was also researching in a población, and we realised that instead of translating it and losing the meaning and context, we should just use the Chilean term. So now you have two researchers using that term, and hopefully others will read that work and understand its usage, with the intended meaning, in the literature. Thus, it is about rescuing the perspectives, meanings and data coming from Latin American contexts, as well as highlighting the theoretical contributions that can arise from there.
Alexandre: I spent the first year of my PhD working in Cambridge, learning more about my research topic and reviewing the literature, which was necessary, but the content was mainly Eurocentric. Now that I am carrying out the empirical study in Brazil, observing how universities get involved with the communities in that context, the gaps in the literature become clearer. All along, I have been actively encouraged to learn about the context in which I am researching, but I didn’t necessarily have a space in which to discuss it and test my ideas. CLAREC has given me that.
We want the collective to be as inclusive as possible
Ana: We have had people from other universities getting involved in some of our sessions – not only from elsewhere in the UK, but also countries like Denmark and Finland. We have also been contacted by a group in the University Library that is working on decolonising the curriculum; they have offered their support in providing materials for our discussions.
Javiera: CLAREC has British researchers working in Latin America, Latin American researchers working in Europe and Latin American researchers working in the region. It’s an open collective. The more perspectives we can bring together, the more we all benefit from it.
Ana: Quite a few of us work on dialogic interactions and trying to create spaces where people with different views can engage productively. We bring that thinking to the collective. We don’t assume that one voice is better than the other, or has more value that the other; we believe that there is an advantage in bringing different voices together to discuss things – even issues that are sensitive.
The more perspectives we can bring together, the more we all benefit from it.Javiera
CLAREC is a work in progress, but one that we hope will have a lasting impact
Javiera: We are really still just getting started. It’s gone from being a social exercise to a more academic exercise, although there is still a strong social aspect. We are constantly reflecting on how we could introduce other research themes.
Ana: We now have people joining us who are just beginning their PhD and we really want to try to involve alumni from the Faculty as well. Our hope is that this will grow into a lasting network of researchers in education involving Latin American contexts. We started as a group of friends in the Faculty, but now we are branching out further than we imagined because of the wider interest the collective has got.
Alexandre: There are three main strands to what we are currently doing – the research seminars, events with guest speakers, and a reading group. None of these things is radical, but each is just providing that important space for discussing issues and exchanging ideas. Hopefully, that space will be a legacy that we can pass on to future Latin American students at the Faculty, so that they can build on it and add to it, in whatever way they feel they should.
Read about CLAREC’s events, reading groups and the work of its researchers at: https://clarec.org/.
You can also find CLAREC on Facebook and Twitter, and members of the group blog regularly on Latin American research in education here.