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From fuzzy to compassionate

Many moons ago, I started working on Education for Sustainable Development. At the beginning, it was seen as a ‘fuzzy’ topic, not scientific enough, and too touchy-feely-tree-huggy. Oh! How the winds have changed as sustainability is mainstream in pretty much everything we do now. Staff logging in to update their profile on PURE are invited to tag their research under the seventeen sustainable development goals. The University is fully committed to sustainability in its curriculum, in its civic obligations and through its estates. The same reception of occasional disdain was initially encountered by individuals and teams working towards decolonising. There are echoes of similar push-backs from quarters engaged with areas of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), including trans-positive communities. These topics overlap and, of course, intersect. What they have in common is fight for acceptance and centering. 

When it comes to the curriculum, content is often prioritised. Discussions of decolonising the curriculum commonly open with questions on bibliographies, what authors will be included or excluded, who will be muted or whose voices will be raised higher than others? (for more nuanced coverage on this, dive into Foluke Adebisi’s blog). EDI prompts us to ask who we invite to lead and partake in such discussions – who are our teachers, what are their perspectives, what canons do they break, and what paradigms do they create? Decolonising mindsets help us to take a step back from the frameworks and systems we know and operate under. They challenge us to consider what institutions need to be reformed anew to create a world without the damaging legacies of past injustice. It’s a challenge without a fixed end point and requires huge long-term commitment.  

Some may still ask, why is any of this important? What if it doesn’t affect me personally or the way that I teach my subject, or indeed my discipline at all? The answers are myriad, but in this blog, I want to focus on one: the ambient curriculum. 

Take for instance the University’s stance on sustainability. It’s tricky to see what goes on in every degree programme, but we know that the organisation takes sustainability seriously. We see evidence of this everywhere on campus. From signage reminding us to avoid waste and turn off printers at night, to the specific labelling of public refuse bins (“landfill” is an option). Campus food is often highlighted as locally-sourced or Fairtrade branded. Cycle clinics, services and discounts are offered. Staff and students are surrounded by positive messages on environmental sustainability. This creates an ambience of sustainability. In tandem with strategic commitments to sustainability, messaging is robust and obvious to anyone who cares to notice. 

How is the same true for decolonising the curriculum, for EDI concerns, for staff and students with disabilities, for trans communities, and more? And how are staff and the institution to respond to the external pressures against some of these matters, notably decolonising and pro-trans stances that have little in the way of legal support (unlike EDI and disabilities). As concocted ‘culture wars’ push these topics to boiling point, it becomes more difficult to remain in any sort of neutral position. Whether or not they wish to engage, teachers may be asked to address such matters as part of their practice. How one wishes to do that is of course a personal choice (for transparency, the author is supportive of the above matters). 

I’d like to suggest that teachers think about not just their own personal experience and beliefs, but the creation of an ambient curriculum based on compassion. Small gestures can indicate how you position yourself and your teaching to students. Here are some suggestions: 

  • Include a statement on EDI in your email signature (this might simply include your pronouns). 
  • Consider your expectations for students with caring responsibilities. 
  • Think how the physical space used on campus and slides chosen in lectures may support or detract from the learning experience of those with disabilities (e.g. dyslexia, wheelchair location, visual impairment, hearing impairment, social anxiety). 
  • Review your curriculum or ask for collegiate help reviewing your curriculum to consider these issues. 
  • You can join the various networks at the University or attend events to learn more. 
  • Invite students to suggest ways to improve or change the curriculum. This can even become part of critical thinking activities within assessments using approaches such as problem-based learning.  

By taking these steps, students can see that staff act with compassion, that they care about students from all walks of life and personal experiences. In a time of extended stress on mental health, such actions can salve a weary heart and restore faith in how communities can and do care for each other. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that our students can’t see what we think and feel, so these actions make visible the personal compassion we hold inside. Together, this reinforces the commitment of our Curriculum Framework theme ‘Sense of Belonging’.  

Later in the year, BILT will be running The Compassionate Conference – transforming learning through pedagogies of care (28th June). The conference will explore how in difficult times we can take hopeful and compassionate approaches to teaching and assessment for transformational learning, both in person and on-line. 

We welcome abstracts for the following themes: 

  • Teaching that cares and challenges 
  • Compassionate assessment and feedback 
  • Nurturing student agency in learning 
  • Caring for future generations – engaging students with sustainable futures 
  • Fostering integrity and honesty in assessment 

Send abstracts to: bilt-info@bristol.ac.uk.

Sources 

There are many places to look for support and guidance:  

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