As students come back to campus and teaching staff get ready to roll out ice-breaker activities to warmly welcome their students, we need to know something right now – we are likely to get this whole ‘welcome’ thing wrong. Despite our best intentions, we will continue to speak to the privileged few and sideline the majority. Hang on, you may argue – we accept diversity in our classes! But do we actually celebrate this diversity?
Standard university practices marginalise some students and privilege others. Moving online privileges those with good internet as well as a quiet and safe place to study. Most of our readings use a Western-centric lens. Most of us are middle-aged and well beyond remembering the strangeness of entering the university system for the first time. And most of us represent the privileged culture: educated, white, cisgendered and able-bodied.
It is not enough to express the principal of equality in our teaching. Perhaps the hardest part of designing accessible curriculum is actually seeing our blind spots. And this is why we must all turn to diversity as a torchlight to guide us. We must seek out and become the feminist killjoy.
Becoming a feminist killjoy
Sara Ahmed speaks of the feminist killjoy: a person who disturbs the status quo through exposing institutional privilege. They appear reactive and sensational, as if they are exaggerating the facts in order to pursue their own agenda. They expose the great violence of a university system that usually goes undetected through our lofty ideals and proclamations of equality. If the feminist killjoy goes away, then so does the problem. Those of us who instead opt for peace and equanimity are able to remain as long as we stick within the norms of our institution – therefore, we uphold the norms of our system in order to belong.
But, likewise, the feminist killjoy is our greatest ally in pursuing education that is genuinely accessible to the majority. They question in order to end the violence that keeps tertiary education within the realm of the few. Perhaps we have to strain to see the violence Ahmed speaks of? Or perhaps we are one of those who has felt this institutional violence and puts our own hopes for promotion on hold in order to stay disruptive. Perhaps more of us can aspire to be the feminist killjoy who manifests change?
Changing the system
We currently rely on struggling students and marginalised staff to do the work of social change for us. UTS has a range of support services run by passionate and engaged people. Our strategic vision names the importance of inclusion and social justice. We invite students as paid experts on panels to advise teaching staff on how to help them feel like they belong. We tell staff to take their own mental health seriously and take the breaks they need. And most of us genuinely try to create safe spaces for intellectual enquiry. But this is not enough.
A feminist killjoy would tell us that our diversity efforts rely on people at the margins to include themselves. When we want to foster the voices of the many, we must actively work against a society that tells people they do not belong in tertiary education. We must work against our blind spots by searching for our own racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and classism.
Giving a rock-star welcome
To work against this barrage of ignorance it is not enough to simply accept diversity. We must give diverse students and colleagues a rock-star welcome.
Giving a ‘rock-star welcome’ is my term for enthusiastically, warmly and generously greeting difference with the anticipation that this difference will bring great benefit to your collective work. Don’t just accept that you will have students in your class whose first languages are not English. Leap for joy and greet them warmly. Tell them, and your students who speak English as a first language, that our class will greatly benefit from this diversity. Don’t just use images and readings from the non-dominant group (although this is important too). Enthusiastically tell stories of how women, young people, Indigenous people, those from non-European backgrounds, and those who are differently abled have been led in their discipline. Or better still, invite these people to your class and pay them for presenting on their work.
Why must we greet difference with a rock-star welcome? Because we learn through being exposed to new experiences. We cannot grow when we simply replicate what has always been. We must actively reach into the new, turning to the expertise of non-dominant groups to help us notice our blind spots. In 2021, let’s give feminist killjoys a rock star welcome. Let’s create learning environments of celebration which eagerly reach into the exceptional.