Documentary photography represents something of a paradox. As a subject which is about reflecting the world in all its complexity, the introduction of a wider range of viewpoints and ideas into the curriculum and the encouragement of a diverse student body treated equally can only be beneficial for a course, and for the field more widely. Yet the canon of ‘great photographers’ has and continues to overemphasise a small group of predominantly white, male photographers. Perhaps partly because of that the exterior view of the discipline also often seems to be that it is one with a restrictive membership. It’s ironic in the sense that while photographers of other colours, races, genders and classes might be less well represented in the histories of the field, my experience has been that they are not necessarily less present in the practice of it (the issues around photography and gender are interesting example of this, see Women’s Work: A Dialogue with Max Houghton for some coverage of this).
The two pieces of set reading for this tutorial touch on many of these issues in relation to contemporary higher education, highlight arguments and approaches for ‘liberating the curriculum’ from these tendencies, encouraging a diverse student body, and equality of treatment. The two texts are Liberation, Equality, and Diversity in the Curriculum, by the National Union of Students (2011) and Retention and attainment in the disciplines: Art and Design by Finnigan and Richards (2016). The first piece defines and outlines liberation, equality and diversity in the classroom, identifying issues and strategies to make courses and curriculums better achieve these three distinct aims. The second piece specifically addresses retention and how a student’s background and the way curricula and courses are designed and carried out might make those students more or less prone to withdrawal from a course or low attainment. In particular, it provides a series of case studies of staff development programs intended to equip staff with the skills to identify and address these problems in their courses. Some of the ideas outlined in the two pieces are familiar ones, others less so, and I thought I would reflect on a few of them.
The idea of ‘liberating the curriculum’ is one I like very much. As an undergraduate studying history, the area of study I found most exciting was not that of a specific period, often dominated by a particular historical perspective, but that of historiography, in effect the history of history. In this field a multitude of competing voices came together to argue over the essential problem, succinctly summarised by E.H Carr in the title of his 1961 book What is History? In historiography north-American empiricist voices collided with African post-colonialist narratives and European micro-histories in the most fascinating debates over the discipline’s form and function. This multitude of differing voices and viewpoints is something I have sometimes tried to replicate in my own classes, albeit in more modest ways. When giving introductory lectures on the subject area to new students I try to pick examples which represent a diversity of definitions, viewpoints, experiences, as much as including examples which provide the traditional definitions or repeats the traditional canon of ‘great’ documentary photographers. Inevitably though teachers also teach to their subject knowledge, and the more I try to do this the more I realise the limits of what I know beyond the familiar canon..
From liberation to equality, another issue raised is how different forms of learning, assessment and feedback benefit or weaken the learning experience of different students. This is again something I’ve had to think about in classes, albeit in quite specific, narrow ways. I know for example that a significant number of my students (and at LCC generally) have degrees of dyslexia, and coming from a family with a history of that condition I think I am somewhat aware of teaching strategies which might help (or hinder) these students. But in respect of other conditions I know relatively little and tend to adapt on the fly to new students and new disabilities, researching and adapting as I go, not always with total success. However this approach has the downside that it relies on knowledge of the disabilities represented in the class, whether because they are visible or the student discloses them, and clearly there are many situations where neither of these will be the case. Another area discussed, alternative assessment and feedback possibilities is something I’ve thought less about, although it has come up in discussion with colleagues at work and at other institutions. When it does though it has tended to be less in relation to diversity than in terms of approaches which might be more clearly articulated to students at the start of units, and more transparent, and less onerous and stressful for students and staff at the point of assessment.
Turning to solutions, the idea of a course diversity audit, whether carried out by people internal or external to it, sounds useful. It’s easy to get swept up in the complexities of formulating and planning lessons (much less carrying them out) and to lose sight of subtleties which an external observer might be able to more easily and objectively identify and propose solutions to. That said, a lecturer’s willingness to accept solutions depends on an individual’s teaching style and willingness to adapt to these suggestions. In this regard I think the NUS report is right in making the point that staff themselves need to want to address these issues, and in the end these sorts of changes will hinge on that will, and the extent to which staff see fostering this sort of inclusiveness as part of their mission as educators, not as something foisted on them from outside. For some teachers (I think myself included) the latter is pre-existing, and it is seen, to borrow from bell hooks, as part of the political agenda that lies behind the desire to teach. For others who have a more old fashioned or mechanistic view of teaching that will maybe not be the case. Of the two solutions suggested in the NUS report, the idea that it be introduced by linking it to employee appraisal is one solution to that, although I wonder if that route is just as likely to generate resentment. Alternatively highlighting the positive effect, it can have on students and the learning environment more generally and offering the frameworks to learn more about these areas through things like staff development would seem a less forceful approach but perhaps ultimately a more productive one.