[How do we “know” the World Series] Does the Co-Production of Knowledge Work? Experiences from a Cross-Site Teaching Project between the Universities of Pretoria and Düsseldorf

by Witold Mucha and Christina Pesch

Knowledge (re-)production, especially in the field of the social sciences, is a social process of discourse and debate, of speech and response. However, 500 years of (Western) colonial expansion have made a lasting impact. Today’s debate is both epistemically and ontologically shaped by Anglo-American and European perspectives (Ndlovu-Gatshenis 2018; Spivak 2004; Ziai 2015). Though, concepts of epistemic violence and injustice relate existing (power) asymmetries in knowledge (re-)production not solely to prevailing (Western) perspectives, concepts, and terminologies but to blind spots where existing knowledge is ignored, neglected, or even destroyed (Brunner 2018; Mignolo 2009). This applies not only to what is categorised, constructed, and perceived as knowledge (thinking) but also to the distinct ways how knowledge is disseminated (talking).

In this context, we comprehend processes of knowledge (re-)production in the social sciences as procedures that, as any craft alike, are taught and learned – in this case often in the framework of university training and education. Thus, from our point of view the way(s) how knowledge(s) will be (re-)produced in the future to some extent depends on the question how coming generations of knowledge (re-)producers are trained and educated. We will address the latter based on our experiences as both students and lecturers at the University of Duesseldorf. More precisely, we will discuss whether and how a cross-site teaching project between the Universities of Pretoria and Duesseldorf contributed to attempts to overcome asymmetries and blind-spots in the Social Sciences Bachelor Program at the University of Duesseldorf.

The Social Sciences program at the University of Duesseldorf

A recursive look at the introductory courses and respective syllabi of the Social Sciences Bachelor Program at the University of Duesseldorf exemplifies the criticism outlined above. This applies to the frequently raised objection of the one-sidedness of the literature provided by lecturers: For instance, in the syllabus of the course “Introduction to Political Theory” from Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau to Kant, Morgenthau, and Waltz without exception only European and Anglo-American scholars are represented. In effect, this means that within their first year of studies, students are seldomly confronted with non-Western literature and, thus, perspectives. Rather, the theoretical concepts conveyed are heavily shaped by and, therefore, limited to Western ontology and epistemology.

The same holds true with regard to the methodology taught within the first years of study, for instance in the courses “Methods of the Social Sciences I + II”. Besides the focus on distinct methods such as large-n analysis frameworks, from our point of view, the conveyed aspirations of respective methodologies are highly problematic: Namely the assumption that the utilized standards possess universality; that the utilized methods, if properly conducted, will lead to statements of universal validity about the world; and, vice versa, the intrinsic negation of pluralistic and situated forms of knowledge(s).

In this regard, the teaching methods which students encounter in the course of their studies are additional reinforcing factors: From reading summaries to bachelor thesis, from citation formats to research designs, students and their performance are assessed based on European and Anglo-American scientific standards. Thus, students internalise ideas of good, viz. scientific (= European/ Anglo-American), and bad, viz. unscientific, ways of knowledge (re-)production. Especially through grading, alternative approaches to social sciences and social science research are sanctioned. Vice versa, students are given little room to act as knowledge (re-)producers who inherit the ability to interact with and choose from a range of ontologies, epistemologies, methodologies and hence perspectives.

All too often, neither the existing plurality of ontologies, epistemologies, methodologies, and perspectives, nor one´s own particularity are addressed properly in the first year(s) of social science university training at the University of Duesseldorf. This lack of transparent discussion of respective choices made by lecturers and of reflexive engagement with one´s own perspectives is not only problematic on a normative level but also from a university training perspective: Students are provided with theories and research tools that cover only fractions of empirical realities – most often without the awareness of a biased perception of the world. Large parts of the world and of the existing knowledge(s) go under the radar.

Cross-site teaching project between the Universities of Pretoria and Duesseldorf

To work on these shortcomings and to learn from one another´s backgrounds and points of view, lecturers from the Universities of Pretoria and Duesseldorf merged within the framework of their curricula and implemented a series of joint seminars on topics such as peacebuilding (2017), human mobility (2018), and mediation (2019). The key objective of our cross-site project is not (only) to provide students knowledge(s) by international scholars, practitioners, and individuals but rather to broaden both students’ and lecturers’ perspectives on theoretical, empirical, and methodological approaches by a joint learning process.

To this end, all our cross-site seminars rest on the concepts of blended learning and inverted classroom, based on which two didactical key elements can be highlighted:

Firstly, we try to provide students with a diverse range of literature and inputs. To this end, lecturers from both Universities pick internal and external speakers for each session, whereby the diversity and pluralism of the perspectives and opinions represented are decisive rather than criteria such as the academic background of the invited speakers. Exemplary, based on preparatory materials such as journalistic articles, scientific literature, video-talks, and artistic work or in-class formats such as panel discussions, simulation games, and Q&As (e.g. via Skype or AdobeConnect), students are invited to engage with the respective subject from a plurality of perspectives.

Secondly, as experts of their respective perspective(s) and (disciplinary) background(s), students take an active and central role in the process of joint knowledge (re-)production. Therefore, groupwork (e.g. based on new didactical methods such as online-Vernissage), student contributions (if desired, students can conduct own research/ journalistic/ artistic projects individually or in groups and present them in class), and the personal interaction of students and lecturers are at the heart of the seminar´s didactical conception. Exemplary, connected via video transmission, students from both Universities jointly discuss various epistemological and ontological concepts of the terms border, migration, and human mobility.

Within this framework, at the University of Duesseldorf, both lecturers and students started the cross-site teaching project with the euphoric objectives to “[b]reak free from one-sided perspectives”, to “[c]omplement own perspectives through reflexive thinking”, to re-think and re-talk the ways we know the world, and to “discover ideas and perspectives we d[id] not know” through the joint (re-)production of knowledge.[1]

Lessons learned

But (how) do these objectives and didactical conceptions translate into practice?

Besides a number of technical and operational challenges, for instance the malfunctioning internet connection and distorted video/audio transmissions, we had to adjust our own expectations, respective objectives, and certain didactical features in the course of the project. This holds particularly true with respect to the objective of a joint learning process that did not develop as intuitive, smooth, and conflict-free as initially anticipated by lecturers from both Universities. In this context, from our point of view, two lessons learned are of particular importance:

Firstly, the emotional sphere and mutual trust turned out to be the most crucial factors for proper exchange and fruitful discussions. Partially, this is due to the didactical concept of the seminar as blended learning- and inverted classroom-project: There are decisive emotional and communicational differences in discussing with fellow students, lecturers, or speakers via video/ audio transmission or in person.

Though, in the light of the existing asymmetries, for the lecturers from both Universities the objective to create a cross-site seminar (instead of e.g. a student exchange project) that is firmly implemented in the university routines and readily accessible for students from both Universities remained. Accordingly, it was necessary to adapt the didactical concepts within the cross-site setting and set new priorities. Therefore, in the first sessions of the seminar 2019 emphasis was placed on the personal interaction of students and lecturers as well as on the familiarisation with the complex (social) situation and the distinctive technical, operative, and communicational conditions of the seminar.

Secondly, even though students and lecturers from both Universities stressed the wish to break free from previously acquired thinking processes and to overcome limited perspectives, doing so was one of the biggest challenges of the past seminars. To question one´s own knowledge(s) time and again, to constantly re-think and re-talk is a (time-)intensive process that comes with challenges not only for students but also for lecturers. Furthermore, open exchange, the respectful debate of differing perspectives, and reflexive thinking require skills that need to be learned and trained, especially in the intercultural context of the seminar.

For this reason, the previous focus on content-related questions shifted to the active integration of both learning processes and required skills (e.g. intercultural and soft skills, reflexive and constructive conflict management) as key subjects of the seminar. This shift is particularly reflected in the selection of the seminar topics 2019 (mediation) and 2020 (peace and conflict). By this means and in contrast to the pervasive misconception of conflicts as something inherently negative and avoidable, the joint discussion and the reflexive settlement of conflicts arising from both academic discussions and personal interactions became a central source of knowledge(s) in the joint learning process.

Universities as institutions and university training as a process are powerful (re-)producers and disseminators of knowledge(s) – and of respective asymmetries. Despite its shortcomings and challenges, from our perspective, our cross-site teaching project remains a great opportunity to initiate and mould joint learning processes not only on a content-related but moreover on an emotional, communicational and reflexive level. Explicitly, this does not only apply to students but also to lecturers and speakers.

Our past experiences and lessons learned are currently recounted in an attempt to establish an OER-platform on cross-site university teaching. By this means, we not only aim to pass our experiences on to interested lecturers and students worldwide, but to provide a platform for discussion, feedback, and criticism. We are looking forward to your feedback and to learn from the experiences of others.

Witold Mucha studied social sciences, and development studies at the Universities of Duesseldorf and Duisburg-Essen. Currently, he is a lecturer and researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Düsseldorf.

Christina Pesch studied political science, law, history, and peace and conflict studies. Currently, she finishes her Master Thesis at the University of Frankfurt and works as a research assistant at the Institute of Social Sciences at the Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf.  

References

BRUNNER, Claudia (2018): Epistemische Gewalt. Kontuierung eines Begriffs für die Frie- dens- und Konfliktforschung, in: Dittmer, Cordula (Ed.): Dekoloniale und Postkoloniale Perspektiven in der Friedens- und Konfliktforschung. Verortung in einem ambivalenten Diskursraum (ZeFKo Sonderband 2), Baden-Baden: Nomos, 25-59.

MIGNOLO, Walter D. (2009): Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and De- Colonial Freedom, in: Theory, Culture & Society 26 (7-8), 1-23.

NDLOVU-GATSHENI, Sabelo J. (2018): The dynamics of epistemological decolonisation in the 21st century: towards epistemic freedom, in: Strategic Review for Southern Africa 40 (1), 16-45.

SPIVAK, Gayatri Chakravotry (2004): Righting Wrongs, in: The South Atlantic Quarterly 103 (2/3), 523-81.

ZIAI, Aram (2015): Zwischen Global Governance und Post-Development. Entwicklungspolitik aus diskursanalytischer Perspektive, Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot.

[1] The cited statements are quoted from two online surveys with students and student assistants prior to the first sessions of the seminars 2017 and 2018.

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