Reflections on the DISCs Project
UNIVERSITY COLLEGE CORK | 8 September 2020
To begin with a statement of the obvious, my experience of the DISCs project has been profoundly impacted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Not only has this pandemic represented huge and jarring disruption in how I and those close to me live, work and act in in the world (with consequences for my relationships, mental health and even my understanding and experience of my own identity), but it has so starkly exacerbated those social injustices which DISCs sought, in its own small way, to combat. Inequity in Irish society has been revealed as deep and pervasive. Precarious and insecure workers and residents in direct provision have been sacrificed on the altar of the ‘free’ market, while the establishment has disregarded its own rules to gorge itself on gossip and back-slaps at a Galway hotel. Young Irish people are blamed for problems not of their making, while they look set – like their contemporaries across the Irish Sea – almost certainly to have the inequities that shape their lives confirmed and entrenched by an algorithm.
In these topsy-turvy few months, the Black Lives Matter movement and its resurgent demands for racial justice and decolonisation of public space and political culture has been inspiring, and informed much of my thinking on issues of social justice. Of course, the work of anti-racism has been met with ugly rebukes, mis-readings and, at times, a deliberate refusal to see a structural racism which is so blindingly obvious, including in Ireland. Here, some of the responses to #BlackLivesMatter have demonstrated a warped understanding of Ireland’s own colonial heritage, and revealed the complications of decolonisation in Ireland’s particular post-colonial context. I have been encouraged by some of the excellent work being done to address this postcolonial confusion by a number of my colleagues, and look forward to continuing to contribute to ongoing discussion about decolonising curricula, heritage and political life on this island and beyond.
In this context, the work of DISCs has felt both more urgent and more difficult. Practically, it has been hard to sustain connections and collaborations with colleagues amid the isolation of home-working. Particularly at the beginning of lock-down it was hard to concentrate on very much at all, let alone balance my commitments as a DISCs Project Advocate with all those other vying for my attention. Intellectually and ethically, the pandemic has fundamentally altered the way in which questions about social justice are framed and structured.
Nonetheless, I have appreciated the time and space that DISCs has given me to think about my teaching, in general, and my approach to teaching for social justice in particular. I have read widely on issues of power, racism and colonialism, and thought about how to put my learning into practice. I have worried, in particular, about a growing tendency towards hard and alt-right views among my students (it might only be a handful, but they genuinely scare me), and thought about how to constructively engage with these in a way that maintains my integrity as both an educator and an activist. I am not sure I have all the answers to these questions, but they are ones I look forward to continuing to think and work through. DISCs has also helped me to reprioritise my core aim as a teacher – to encourage my students to think critically about the ideas that are presented to them, no matter what level they are at.
At the end of the project, I am more convinced than ever of the need for transformative change in our institutions of Higher Education. Precarity and vulnerability have been exacerbated by the ‘new normal’, and measures to address them (insofar as they exist) feel all-the-more ineffective. Multiple ‘roadmaps’ to campus re-opening provide a thin disguise for the shifting of growing bureaucratic burdens onto teachers’ shoulders. And all the round-robin emails about ‘wellness’ in the world will not create sustainable jobs for teachers or give them the space they need to teach their students well. In fact, such emails are insulting in their attempt to downplay the crippling economic shortfalls, exponentially growing workloads and unmeetable expectations that shape Higher Education. Despite the best intentions of the best teachers, a fundamentally unjust system will never fully facilitate teaching for social justice. This is all the truer in a new world of Zoom lectures and virtual seminars.