Emancipation and nausea
The Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE) lists two aims and five values on its website. It all sounds well considered and substantive to me, barring one adjective in value number two, which evokes a visceral queasiness in my stomach: ‘emancipatory’. This concept has often nonchalantly popped up during meetings about the role of learning developers. It has made me cringe every time, and the feeling isn’t easing off any, hence this post! Emancipation, you see, is no mere embellishment, but rather a key concept in the ALDinHE list of values. The centrality ‘emancipation’ is afforded strikes me as problematic.
Forgive me a trite habit that many of our students enact, and allow me to provide a good ol’ dictionary definition to kickstart my rant. The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘emancipatory’ as ‘giving people social or political freedom and rights’. It defines ‘emancipation’ as ‘the act of freeing a person from another person’s control’. The first thing that comes to mind when I hear the term (and which the dictionary, unsurprisingly, uses as a contextual example) is the 1863 US Emancipation Proclamation, which legally freed slaves in southern US states.
This notion of ‘freeing’ prompts a number of questions:
- Who exactly are learning developers freeing?
- From whose clutches are learning developers freeing the above cohort?
- What qualities, experience, skills imbue learning developers that grant them the power/authority/ability to exercise the freeing of group 1 from group 2?
Over the past 15 years or so, plenty of educational theorists have discussed how learning developers fall within a ‘third space’, and are — crudely put — a result of universities needing to upskill and retain the glut of students that have entered their doors following New Labour’s goal to neo-liberalise (my lazy verb!) the UK’s HE sector.
As a learning developer, I cannot bring myself to self-identity as a superhero. ‘The Emancipator’, anybody?
Nor do I see myself as a ‘freer’ or ‘liberator’. I’m not anything remotely like Toussaint Louverture (in my learning development practice, at least!).
Call it British false modesty, or (more likely) a hangover of being a second-generation Asian immigrant to these shores, the first in my family to attend HE, concomitant imposter syndrome, or something from that potent mix of insecurity, inadequacy and a perpetual feeling of being the ‘other’, but here’s the equation:
learning developer in the Ivory Tower + emancipation = nausea.
I’d like to think that I help students and colleagues to contest, critique and [insert another C word here to complete the trio] within the context of HE. However, following Kehinde Andrews’ critique of the university as a plantation, I honestly can’t see or call myself, or my practice, as enacting anything remotely as seismic as emancipation.
False modesty can be exasperating. Hubris can be toxic.
If you’re still reading by this point, you may wonder why I haven’t got anything better to do than moan about one well intentioned adjective, given all the bigger issues facing society, and our sector, at large. I think that’s fair!
As a learning developer, I just try and help out a bit, you know? Perhaps therein lies my unwitting complicity with the plantation? Perhaps emancipation is a radical goal we ought to pursue seriously? Perhaps I/we need to take off the hat of the ‘house negro’ and become the ‘field negro’? What this means in practice for a learning developer is open for discussion…
P.S. Helen Webster’s post Emancipatory practice: the defining LD value? on her personal blog is well worth reading as a tonic to the above.