Saturday, February 16, 2019


Since 2005, I have assisted over 250 PhD, Masters and Honours students across the globe to graduate through my supervision, guidance, and editing of their thesis. My expertise lies primarily in the Social and Health Sciences, but specifically, in Sociology, Criminology, Politics, Public Health, Resilience, and Professional Development. 

In addition, over the same period, I have assisted over 450 students to enter the medical school of their choice through teaching them my unique GAMSAT essay writing strategy. 


Ming-Chun Yen, 2018
I am very pleased that I engaged Robert as my tutor this year. He provides valuable insights into the underlying meanings of complex questions and is very informative, especially with essay plans, which I’m sure has helped me gain the excellent results I’ve achieved. His fee is very reasonable and he responds promptly to my queries.

(Dr) Jonathon Ross, 2015
I wish to thank Dr Robert Muller for the provision of a very professional and highly polished editing service which assisted in bringing this thesis up to a very high standard. He came highly recommended by an autoethnographic associate and I believe this recommendation has proven to be well warranted as a reading of this thesis will testify. 

Antoine Trezegan, 2018
Dr Robert is a talented go-getter, always adding value. Throughout our lasting work relationship, Dr Robert has brought professionalism, creativity, and optimism. Looking forward to continuing on a path of success with this stellar individual. A true team player! ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

PhD Writing: The Uneven U

Publishers often send me academic writing books to review. I happily look through every book, but if I think I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, I just don’t write a review. I don’t want to crush a fellow author’s soul. The rejected titles sit sadly, in small piles of guilt, on the bottom of one of my bookshelves.
Recently, during an office clean up, I picked up Eric Hayot’s book “The elements of academic style”, which was sent to me by the publisher, Columbia University Press, way back in 2014. On the strength of our recent book “How to fix your academic writing trouble”, Katherine, Shaun and I have been offered a contract to write a new book aimed at undergraduates (tentatively titled ‘Level up your Essays’). So instead of just refiling it on the reject shelf, I had a lazy flip through to see if there was anything useful. I’m ashamed to admit I totally failed to recognise what a gem “The elements of academic style” when I first looked at it. Talk about missing out all these years! Thankfully, you can still pick up copies of the book online, so here is my very belated review.
The full title of this book is “The elements of academic style: writing for the humanities”, which is one reason why it ended up in my rejection pile in the first place. I try to provide writing advice that is suitable for all disciplines, and this book is unapologetically aimed at literary studies PhD scholars. While I respect this laser-like focus, I think it’s a bit of a pity that science students or even people in other humanities disciplines like Social Science, probably won’t pick it up. A lot of the advice Hayot offers will work for anyone, most especially his concept of the ‘Uneven U’: absolutely breakthrough advice for structuring paragraphs.
Hayot’s Uneven U is a different take on the generic advice that is given to structure a paragraph, namely that one should start with a Topic sentence, then an explanation, example, analysis and summary. This standard paragraph formula is sometimes called TEXAS or TEEL (topic, evidence, explain, link). I’ve been teaching the TEXAS/TEEL method for years to great effect. It surprises me how often PhD students benefit from this elementary advice, but sometimes simple rules of thumb create useful clarity in the middle of a complex writing project. The problem with TEXAS is that it can make your writing quite repetitive. Not every paragraph needs all the elements of the TEXAS formula, which is why it doesn’t work all that well for introductions and conclusions (which require much more summery than paragraphs in the middle sections). Hayot’s Uneven U is the sophisticated, cocktail version of TEXAS and, I think, much more flexible and useful.
Hayot starts by claiming there are five types of sentences in argumentative writing and they can be thought about as being different conceptual levels (here I quote from page 60 of Hayot’s book):
Level five: Abstract; general, oriented toward a solution or conclusion
Level Four: Less general; orientated toward a problem; pulls ideas together
Level Three: Conceptual summary; draws together two or more pieces of evidence, or introduces a broad example.
Level Two: Description; plain or interpretive summary; establishing shot
Level One: Concrete; evidentiary; raw; unmediated data or information
Hayot suggests that your paragraphs should have an ‘uneven U’ structure, starting at statements that are level 4, going down as far as level 1, then ending at level 5. On a graph it looks like this:
A topic sentence doesn’t have to be a grand, sweeping statement as the TEXAS formula suggests, but a tight, problem-focused starter. Save the grand sweeping statement for the end of the paragraph instead. The idea of sentences having conceptual levels frees you up from thinking that sentences have to be complex to ‘work’. I am always trying to ‘fancy up’ level one sentences, but since I started using this method I don’t bother, and honestly, they are much stronger.
I’ve been using this advice for a couple of months on my own writing and on others, and it works remarkably well. It’s hard to explain precisely how it works, so let’s look at a worked example. Here’s a paragraph from our most recently published paper “A Machine Learning Analysis of the Non- academic Employment Opportunities for PhD Graduates in Australia” :
The PhD was initially designed to train the next generation of academics, but this career outcome is looking less likely for today’s graduates (level 5). There have been claims that there is an over-supply of graduates for academic positions over the last decade at least (Coates and Goedegebuure, 2010; Edwards, 2010; Group of Eight, 2013) (level 4). The latest Australian data, showcased in the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) report (McGagh et al., 2016), suggest that 60% of Australia’s PhD graduates will not end up in academia, a finding consistent with other advanced economies (level 3). For example, a recent survey by the Vitae organisation (2013) in the UK showed that although the overall unemployment rate for PhD graduates was low (around 2%), only 38% of PhD graduates are now employed in academia after graduation. (level 1)
Mapped with Hayot’s method, it would look like this:
Yikes! Let’s fix it with the Uneven U method. To begin, I took the first sentence – which was level five – and made it the last one. I then reparsed the new first sentence to make it into a stronger topic sentence and created a new, second sentence pitched at level three. I turned the next level three sentence into a level two sentence and left the level one sentence alone. After that, I added another level three sentence and altered the final (which used to be the first sentence) to make it more clearly a level five. Here’s the result:
For more than a decade, scholars of higher education have claimed that there is an over-supply of graduates for academic positions (Coates and Goedegebuure, 2010; Edwards, 2010; Group of Eight, 2013) (level 4). If this oversupply problem is real, we should see more PhD graduates making a rational decision to leave academia at the end of their degree and statistics seem to be bearing out this trend (level 3). The latest Australian data suggest that 60% of Australia’s PhD graduates will not end up in academia, a finding consistent with other advanced economies (McGagh et al., 2016) (level 2). For example, a recent survey by the Vitae organisation (2013) in the UK showed that although the overall unemployment rate for PhD graduates was low (around 2%), only 38% of PhD graduates are now employed in academia after graduation. (level 1). If more PhD graduates are looking to leave academia, we must ask: does the PhD need to change? (level 4). Since the PhD was initially designed to train the next generation of academics, this change may be dramatic, with far-reaching consequences for candidates, supervisors and institutions (level 5).
When I map it again, the paragraph now looks like this:
I think you’ll agree the ‘tone’ sounds much more argumentative and there is also a sense of momentum that was missing in the first attempt (I really wish they would let you edit a published paper!). I’ve always struggled with the last sentence in each paragraph; the idea of doing a ‘summary’ sentence is not that helpful. My final sentences have always ended up being a bit wishy-washy and vague, now they are where some of the most provocative thinking happens, encouraging the reader to keep on reading.
The Uneven U concept also helps me help students who write paragraphs that lack ‘meat’. When I map the paragraphs that are hard to read I usually find the student is hovering around level three and needs to ‘land’ somewhere more concrete in the middle to give the paragraph more impact. The neat thing about the Hayot method is that you don’t have to go all the way down to level one: it might be enough to take a level three sentence and bang it down to level two.
I hope you have enough here to try the Hayot method for yourself: on your paragraphs at least. Hayot extends the theory to structuring subsections and even a whole work, which is a really mind-expanding read. However, it would take me an entire book to explain how the Uneven U helps you write a whole dissertation, and Hayot has done it already so check out “The elements of academic style” for yourself. The book is still available in paperback and a reasonably priced Kindle version. Be warned: it’s rather densely written and definitely not for beginners. People who are not literature scholars may want to skip some sections, but I think anyone serious about improving their writing to the ‘cocktail party’ level will find this book invaluable.
What do you think of the Uneven U? I found once I understood the concept, I started seeing it everywhere – or noticing the lack! Did I explain it properly, or do you need more information? Feel free to ask questions in the comments.
Related Posts
A helpful explainer from a university writing centre
There is a bit more about the Hayot book on the Patter blog, where Pat discusses the concept of the invisible work of writing.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Male Teachers are Most Likely to Rate Highly in University Student Feedback

by Merlin Crossley, UNSW; Emma Johnston, UNSW, and Yanan Fan, UNSW, The Conversation:

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Students are invited to give feedback on teachers performance at Australian universities. from

University students, like many in society, demonstrate bias against women and particularly women from non-English speaking backgrounds.

That’s the take home message from a new and comprehensive analysis of student experience surveys.

The study examined a large dataset consisting of more than 500,000 student responses collected over 2010 to 2016. It involved more than 3,000 teachers and 2,000 courses across five faculties at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney.

Read more: Study of 1.6 million grades shows little gender difference in maths and science at school

Most bias in science and business

Interestingly, the bias varies.

In parts of science and business the effects are clear. In the science and business faculties, a male teacher from an English-speaking background was more than twice as likely to get a higher score on a student evaluation than a female teacher from a non-English speaking background.

But in other areas, such as arts and social science, the effects are almost marginal. In engineering, effects were only detected for non-English speakers.

When one looks at the probability of scoring very high ratings, and dissects the categories into genders and cultural background, the results are clear. The disparities occur mostly at the very top end: this is where bias creeps in.

Previously the university had looked at just the average (mean) ratings of teachers of different genders, and found that they are more or less indistinguishable (unpublished data). But this new study goes further and provides information that is not evident in superficial analyses.

Should we abandon student feedback?

Student feedback can be a useful mechanism to understand the varied experiences of students. But student feedback is sometimes used inappropriately in staff performance evaluations, and that’s where the existence of bias creates serious problems.

One can make the case for abandoning student feedback – and many have.

But it’s problematic to turn a deaf ear to the student voice, and that is not what national approaches such as the Quality in Learning and Teaching processes (QILT) are doing.

This is because feedback can often be helpful. It can make things better. In addition, it is often positive. Sometimes the feedback is actually the way students say thanks.

However, sometimes it can be very hurtful and damaging, particularly if it is motivated by prejudice. We have to be aware of that and the barriers it can create.

We know that minority groups already suffer from reduced confidence and visibility, so biased teacher evaluations may exaggerate existing inequities.

Read more: How understanding animal behaviour can liberate us from gender inequality

What do the numbers mean?

It is very important to be cautious when looking at the raw numbers.

Firstly, let’s consider what the numbers mean. Students are not evaluating teaching and learning in these surveys. They are telling us about their experiences – that’s why we call them MyExperience surveys at UNSW. We resist the idea that they are student evaluations of teaching, as are used in some settings.

Peer review can make contributions to evaluating teaching while assessments can help evaluate learning – however they may not be enough to overcome bias. When considering professional performance at UNSW, we do not exclude the feedback that students provide on their experience, but we look at a basket of indicators.

Secondly, one has to be serious about the biases that emerge, acknowledge them and confront the issues. Most universities pride themselves on being diverse and inclusive, and students support this.

But this study reminds us that we have work to do. Biases exist. The message is strong. You are more likely to score top ratings if you come from the category of white male: that is, if you are from the prevailing establishment.

The influence of history

These results may be surprising given the diversity of the student and staff body at Australian universities.

But our cultural milieu has been historically saturated by white males, and continuing biases exist. The important thing is to be aware of them, and when looking at the numbers to realise that the ratings are provided in the context of a particular society at a particular moment in time.

The scores should not be blindly accepted at face value.

Most universities, including ours, are working on being more inclusive. At UNSW a new Deputy Vice-Chancellor Equity, Diversity and Inclusion – Eileen Baldry – was recently appointed, and we are working hard to combat bias and to introduce new strategies aimed at supporting diversity. For example, the university will introduce new training for members of promotion panels, explaining the biases detected in our new study. By understanding the problem, we can begin to address it.

Read more: 'Walking into a headwind' – what it feels like for women building science careers

All staff across all of our universities can benefit from becoming more aware of issues around bias – especially those in powerful positions, such as members of promotion committees.

Reducing bias will have great benefits for society as university students represent a large proportion of future leaders in government and industry.

It is clear that negative stereotypes will contribute to the partiality that exists within our student community.

Encouraging more women and cultural minorities at all levels in higher education, in leadership positions and in membership of key committees will help shrink these biases.

Training in values

Training students is challenging, especially at large modern universities such as UNSW, which has a cohort of over 50,000 coming from more than 100 countries. But our study found similar levels of bias in local students, as we did in international students.

In training students we have to remember that we provide knowledge, but also communicate values via our words and our behaviours.

If we are to continue to listen to the student experience, we need to be careful with the results. Rigorous statistical analyses such as this study, can help us recognise bias and work to address it. If our students graduate with less bias than when they entered their degree, we will be contributing to creating a more equitable and inclusive society in the future.

It is not easy to uproot prejudices but the data are clear. We expect people will be on board and be pleased to contribute to moving things in the right direction.The Conversation

Merlin Crossley, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Professor of Molecular Biology, UNSW; Emma Johnston, Professor and Dean of Science, UNSW, and Yanan Fan, Associate Professor of Statistics, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Doctoral Writing: How Good is Good Enough?

Commonly there is some uncertainty about when a doctorate is ready for submission. The criteria for a PhD are expressed in rather broad terms. Exactly how patently must critical analysis of literature be demonstrated to reach doctoral standard? Just how significant must the contribution to knowledge be in a doctoral thesis compared to a masters thesis? How thoroughly must understanding of theory and methodology be shown? This post considers how supervisors and candidates can judge when the doctorate is good enough to face examination.

Although there is enormous anxiety about what is good enough, it’s not uncommon for time to be the deciding factor. Many institutions have outer deadlines. Additionally, many scholarships and study visas have limitations. And finally, a doctorate that took an unusually long time-frame to complete would have less muscle in the competitive academic job market for those candidates who are ambitious of such a career. Family and work responsibilities can also press in towards the end of the doctorate to hasten candidates to leave—see a great clip from the Macquarie Cross Cultural Supervision Project showing how much angst can be generated when candidate loyalty to family overrides supervisory advice.

Sometimes decisions about whether the thesis is good enough is passed on to examiners for quite practical reasons relating to time, then. And it is usual for candidates and supervisors to be edgy as submission is approached. We’ve written about the importance of examiner choice; anxiety can be mitigated when supervisors are certain that they have done due diligence in finding experts for the task who are likely to understand and appreciate the work.

Doctoral examination can be quite subjective. This is another situation where there are humans involved, and humans are a species that can be trickily various. There is one study, though, that aims for something more subjective in recognising what is good enough in a doctoral thesis.

Barbara Lovitts (2007) asked 276 academics from 10 disciplines for descriptors of outstanding, very good, acceptable and unacceptable theses. My own experience tells me that, whatever adjectives these individuals gave her, every examination occurs only in the context of the specific examiners who are involved. That is why it is so important to choose examiners wisely ...

However, it seems very helpful to gather data from a range of examiners about how to rank a thesis. Most of us undertake our first doctoral examination only with our own experience to go by, and perhaps accounts from colleagues, so the more we know about what others think, the better.

And Lovitts’ (2007) descriptors for an acceptable thesis are reasonable, probably reassuring to candidates. An acceptable thesis bares very little resemblance to a Nobel prize (see Mullins & Kiley, 2002), according to this research; it has the following qualities, which makes it seem quite doable.

- Workmanlike
- Demonstrates (technical) competence
- Shows the ability to do research
- Is not very acceptable or significant
- Is not interesting, exciting, or surprising
- Displays little creativity, imagination, or insight
- Writing is pedestrian and plodding
- Structure and organization are weak
- Project is narrow in scope
- Question or problem is not exciting—is often highly derivative or an extension of the advisor’s work
- Displays a narrow understanding of the field
- Literature review is adequate—knows the literature but is not critical of it or does not discuss what is important
- Can sustain an argument, but argument is not imaginative, complex, or convincing
- Theory is understood at a simple level and is minimally to competently applied to the problem
- Uses standard methods
- Analysis is unsophisticated—does not explore all possibilities and misses connections
- Results are predictable and not exciting
- Makes a small contribution

I show this list to students when they are smitten with self-doubt, suggesting ‘it’s ok. Other people are just human too.’

Yet I think this list represents somewhat cynical academics’ points of view. When academics mark large stacks of assignments, it is not uncommon for them to groan to colleagues about how most of these ideas are pretty boring and badly expressed. After groaning in the staff room, their written feedback will be diplomatic and designed to encourage. The same jaundice can be experienced by academic ploughing through a doctoral thesis as examiner—they may moan to colleagues but give a constructive examiner’s report.

I’d never suggest to the doctoral students I work with that this quality is all they need to aspire to; my belief is that all of us, as doctoral writers, want to produce something significant.

On Planet Earth, though, with its time constraints and human actors, good enough is actually excellent: it means the thesis is awarded and the honorific ‘Dr’ can be taken up.

Do you have thoughts about how to judge when doctoral writing is good enough?


Lovitts, B. E. (2007). Making the implicit explicit: Creating performance expectations for the dissertation. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.

Mullins, G. & Kiley, M. (2010). ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: How experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369-386.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

So You Want to Decolonize Higher Education? Necessary Conversations for Non-Indigenous People
This is a follow-up to an earlier piece I wrote about the need to face up to the colonial present of U.S. higher education.
The “decolonization of higher education” is by now a phrase that many of us have heard, at least in passing. The concept is both very old, and long overdue, being the latest iteration of a whole history of critiques and social movements that have intended to name and transform the enduring colonial white supremacy that characterizes U.S. colleges and universities.
But these conversations have arrived quite late to higher education as a field. At ASHE this year, I believe for the first time ever, the (printed) conference program included a formal acknowledgement of (some of) the Indigenous peoples of Texas; ACPA has included a more extensive  acknowledgement on their conference site, and now has a “Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization” (and accompanying syllabus). 
As interest in decolonization slowly grows, though still at the margins of the field, I suggest that non-Indigenous scholars and practitioners need to enter into these conversations with intellectual humility, a commitment to address how comprehensively colonization shapes our institutions and our collective “field-imaginary”, and a deep recognition that decolonization is not a single event or prescribed blueprint but a complex and contested process of unlearning and undoing centuries of colonial ideas, desires, and infrastructures, and of (re)learning how to be together in the world differently. We must, in other words, commit to grappling with the unsettling and disorienting fact that to truly decolonize our institutions would require the end of higher education as we know it.[1]
I do not say this out of a desire to police the terms of this conversation, but to simply state it as the ultimate conclusion that emerges from the rich (500+ year old) tradition of anti-colonial critiques. If we do not come to this realization, then we likely have not yet understood the extent to which our world is ordered by colonial relations (including our educational institutions), and the extent to which non-Indigenous people are complicit in ongoing systems of dispossession. This dispossession has resulted not only in the physical displacement of Indigenous peoples from their homelands, in most cases, but also the cascading effects of displacement, resulting in “profound epistemic, ontological, and cosmological violence” (Tuck & Yang, 2012, p. 5).
I am generally supportive of the notion that if we want to transform the world, then we need to meet people where they are, without being overly invested in the precise terms of the conversation or the political purity of our arguments or even our interventions (although, it is necessary to attend to who the “we” is in these scenarios — more on this later).
But if we have not realized how colonization shapes almost everything about institutionalized higher education in the U.S., then we have not yet understood the extent to which decolonization would require that we collectively reimagine and remake our existence in ways that would be unimaginable to most of us from where we currently stand — figuratively, but also literally, on currently colonized lands.
What is colonization?
If we are going to engage the question of decolonization, then perhaps we should start from the beginning — what exactly is colonization? Colonization occurs when an external power forcefully asserts their governing authority over a people — their lives, lands, and resources. 
The form of colonization that we should perhaps be most concerned about in the U.S. context is settler colonization. Although the particulars of settler colonialism differ from place to place (Kelley, 2017), according to Glen Coulthard (2014) “a settler colonial relationship is one characterized by domination; that is a relationship where power — in this case, interrelated, discursive and non-discursive facets of economic, gendered, racial, and state power — has been structured into a relatively secure or sedimented set of hierarchical social relations that continue to facilitate the dispossession of Indigenous peoples of their lands and self determining authority” (pp. 6–7). It is through processes of settler colonialism that many of us are here today, and all U.S. colleges and universities were built on dispossessed Indigenous lands. (You can use the resource as a starting point for learning about the Indigenous peoples of a particular place in what is now called North America — including Canada, Mexico, and the United States).
Other formations of colonialism include metropole or exploitation colonialism, in which colonizing powers extract the labor and resources of a foreign population, but do not seek to permanently settle their lands in large numbers, as well as neocolonialism, which refers to indirect/informal colonial intervention in uncolonized or formally decolonized countries. These are not mutually exclusive. For instance, the U.S. is a settler colonial nation-state that colonizes hundreds of Indigenous nations “at home.” However, we also maintain colonial authority in the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Northern Mariana, and others. Today, we also have many colonial entanglements scattered across the globe, including in the Middle East, northern Africa, the Pacific, and Latin America, just as we have throughout the majority of our history. We might also view the ruthless policing of the U.S.-Mexico border — on land that, as Gloria Anzaldúa (2007) reminds us, “was Mexican once, was Indian always and is. And will be again” — as a form of what Harsha Walia (2013) calls “border imperialism.”
Finally, although colonization and racialization are distinct and should not be collapsed, they often intersect. In particular, within the U.S. and other parts of the Americas, the colonization and commodification of Indigenous lands was accompanied by the enslavement and commodification of Black lives in ways that together served to expand the wealth and power of white settlers (King, 2016; Tuck & McKenzie, 2014). In this piece, I emphasize decolonization as it relates to settler colonization, but we must always consider how different colonial/racial logics relate through complex social formations, and ultimately, we cannot address these as distinct processes in piecemeal ways.
Decolonization is not a metaphor — so what is it?
Recently, I attended a panel about pursuing racial justice in education. It is worth noting that no one on this panel was Indigenous. At some point, an attendee raised a question to ask about the place of decolonization in this work. In response, one of the panelists declared, “we need to remember that ‘decolonization is not a metaphor.’” However, the speaker did not follow this up with further guidance or reflection about the implications of their statement and its significance to education. Their comment was, of course, a direct reference to an article by the same name, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” authored by Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang (2012). Indeed, this article is increasingly cited by non-Indigenous scholars, and held up as a guiding text for engagement with anti-colonial critique. Celebrations of the piece are not overstated; every higher education scholar should read it, and we should assign it in our classes. But I worry that the canonization of even radical texts might be standing in for doing exactly what Tuck and Yang encourage, which is the difficult, transformative work of then grappling with the unsettling implications of what decolonization demands. If we fail to do so, then our citational politics (Ahmed, 2013) merely become non-performative performances of radicalism (Ahmed, 2006), and, somewhat ironically, the phrase “decolonization is not a metaphor” risks becoming a metaphor itself, standing in for the complex, uncomfortable process of identifying, addressing, and undoing all of the ways that non-Indigenous individuals and institutions are implicated in the ongoing project of colonization.
In other words, if we agree that decolonization is not a metaphor, then this is only the beginning of the work that is required of us. We must ask, if it is not a metaphor, then what is it? Tuck and Yang (2012) suggest, “Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life” (p. 1), which would require that we address “the real and symbolic violences of settler colonialism” (p. 2). But, I think if we are being honest with ourselves, then most non-Indigenous people have very little idea what this means, what it might look like, or what it would demand of us — that is, how the workings of everyday life in our colonial contexts are organized to forestall precisely these possible futures.
Making decolonization into a metaphor is not done simply out of “not knowing better,” but out of continued investments in the benefits that colonialism offers (Vimalassery, Pegues, & Goldstein, 2016). Tuck and Yang (2012) describe “settler moves to innocence” as “those strategies or positionings that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all” (p. 10). Particularly in the case of white people, once we start to understand more about our complicity in colonial violence, we often seek to quickly reclaim our presumed virtue because we are still attached to and invested in the promise of white settler futures. In other words, we want our “bad feelings” to go away, but do not want to lose our entitlements to the rights, property, and opportunities that are guaranteed at the expense of Indigenous, Black, and other racialized peoples. Thus, white people seek non-disruptive ways to incorporate elements of decolonial critiques onto our existing critical frameworks, and sometimes even gain academic capital for being “self-aware” (Tuck & Yang, 2012). That is, we seek to “transcend [colonialism] without giving anything up” (Jefferess, 2012, p. 19).
I do not intend to offer my own poorly paraphrased versions of all of the arguments already made with great effect by Tuck and Yang. Instead, I encourage people to read the piece for themselves. But I want to offer a brief illustration of all the intellectual, affective, and material labor that would be demanded of us were we to disinvest from our presumed innocence, face up to our own complicity, and take seriously the task of decolonization. Amongst many other important arguments, Tuck and Yang warn against the tendency to collapse the imperative of decolonization into existing social justice efforts. They emphasize how demands for decolonization exceed both rights-based advocacy and discourses of inclusion, as “the promise of integration and civil rights is predicated on securing a share of settler appropriated wealth (as well as expropriated ‘third world’ wealth’)” (p. 7). This claim must be unpacked, because it really does stand in confrontation with many existing social justice frameworks, by suggesting that neither expanded equality nor equity alter the fundamental fact that ongoing life in the U.S. is premised on ongoing colonization. Expanding inclusion into an otherwise unchanged settler colonial state does not, in other words, make it less colonial.
Pointing to the incommensurability of different social justice demands is not intended to entirely dismiss all rights-based claims — it is rather meant to invite us to make sense of and come to terms with how we want to move forward toward a horizon of justice when even many of our critical claims are still made at the expense of Indigenous peoples. Indeed, it is the U.S. state that has largely set the terms of the debate for what justice is possible. This allows for a certain amount of contestation, up to the point where it challenges the basic terms of the debate, which is the presumed continuation of the settler colonial — as well as anti-Black, imperial, and patriarchal — nation-state, and the capitalist political economy with which it is entangled. Thus, as Jodi Byrd (2011) puts it, our formal systems of state-sanctioned justice “have created internally contradictory quagmires where human rights, equal rights, and recognitions are predicated on the very systems that propagate and maintain the dispossession of indigenous peoples for the common good of the world” (p. xix). Black radical thinkers have offered parallel insights about how the subjugation of Black life operates as a condition of possibility for U.S political, economic, and social life (Hartman 1997; Hartman & Wilderson, 2003; Silva, 2014; Spillers, 1989; Wynter, 2003), and there need be no contest between these claims, as colonization and anti-Blackness operate simultaneously (King, 2016, 2017; Leroy, 2016).
What I have sought to indicate is that just one single claim about decolonization in just one dense article demands a great deal of us as readers, thinkers, and interlocutors. Just one sentence raises a series of questions about the ability for even our most critical justice frameworks to deliver on the demands of decolonization — and I would add, abolition. The mainstreaming of conversations about the distinctions between equality and equity has itself been quite recent; how might a thorough critique of colonialism shift and challenge even these terms of social justice? How can we continue to struggle toward alternative higher education futures without becoming lost, discouraged, or frustrated by the difficulty of addressing the incommensurability of different demands for justice?
Perhaps the most pressing question for critical scholars and practitioners of higher education is not the prescriptive one we are used to asking, “how do we move from too much wrong to less wrong to justice?” (Simpson, 2014, p. 44), but rather, how might our existing ideas of justice inadvertently reproduce the injustices we seek to resist? We might follow Leigh Patel’s (2014) suggestion about the need to “pause,” that is, interrupt the imperative to produce and resolve complex problems with uncomplicated solutions by instead sitting with and learning from the difficulty of decolonization, and reflexively considering our own role and investments in the systems we undertake to study and critique. Part of this pause might include slow, careful deliberations in which we, as a field, consider the implications of the unsettling insights that anti-colonial critiques offer, without seeking a quick or easy resolution. The idea is not to prove who is the most virtuous or to list off our complicities but to dive deep into the apparent “impossibilities” of decolonization.
Conversations alone will not solve everything, or perhaps anything, especially as we often become trapped by the limits of our own frames of reference. Conversations are also never neutral — even in conversations about injustice, we see that unequal power relations are reproduced and the same (white, male, wealthy) voices tend to dominate. Further, when white people like me engage in critical conversations about race and colonialism, we are often rewarded (Patel, 2015), while our racialized and Indigenous peers of color receive vitriol from colleagues, student evaluations, and online trolls — even when they have been hired to address these very issues (Munoz, 2017). Conversations also cannot be an excuse not to meet the pressing needs of the most marginalized in our institutions and community collaborators in order to reduce immediate harm, even if our responses might be imperfect, even if the support we offer might ultimately be part of the larger problem rather than the solution. We need to relieve immediate symptoms, even as we look to identify and address systemic root causes. Thus, conversations are necessary but insufficient — they’re just one small piece of the decolonizing process.
Conversations about (de)colonization
Conversations about decolonizing higher education must emphasize the insights and interventions of Indigenous scholars and students, and Tuck and Yang’s piece is just one text within an entire constellation of knowledges produced by Indigenous peoples (and non-Indigenous accomplices). We cannot read one piece and think we have understood the complexities of decolonization; we cannot collapse thousands of different heterogeneous Indigenous voices, genealogies of critique, and placed-based knowledge systems into one “Indigenous voice” (Hunt, 2016).
While our field has not historically been a welcoming place for Indigenous peoples, and the experiences of Indigenous students and faculty are underrepresented in higher education scholarship (Willmot, Sands, Raucci, & Waterman, 2015), there are many Indigenous higher education scholars who are and have been working to Indigenize our field, including many whom work together and are editors of and contributors to an upcoming text, edited by Robin Starr Minthorn and Heather Shotton, entitled Reclaiming Indigenous Research in Higher Education, which is due out February 2018. I have attended sessions hosted by several of the book’s contributors, who powerfully assert that they intend to be “unapologetically Indigenous” in colonial spaces like ASHE and AERA. As part of this commitment, they generously offered each guest at their session a bundle of plants that, I believe, came from their traditional territories and/or are central to their knowledge systems. Apart from Indigenous scholars of higher education, there are many brilliant Indigenous scholars, artists, and poets outside of our field whose insights would be crucial for helping us to critique and reimagine the work that we do. However, we should also recognize that the majority of Indigenous knowledges are not held within the academy at all.
While non-Indigenous people’s engagement with Indigenous scholars and Indigenous knowledge production is vital, this engagement can also become selective, tokenistic, and instrumentalized (Ahenakew, 2016; Gaudry, 2016). When non-Indigenous scholars engage Indigenous thinkers, we need to ask ourselves: What are we expecting to hear when Indigenous people speak, and are we able to hear them when they deviate from that script? Are we romanticizing and/or homogenizing Indigenous communities and individuals, and if so why? Are we selectively interpreting and instrumentalizing Indigenous critiques and knowledges for our own political agendas? What should we do when, inevitably, different Indigenous peoples and communities offer contrasting, even conflicting, perspectives? In our efforts to emphasize/centre Indigenous voices, are we expecting Indigenous people to engage in pedagogical labor that should be our own responsibility? How can/should we construct truly horizontal relations amongst diverse collaborators, both Indigenous and not, given unequal institutional power?
We also need to recognize that, in addition to engaging Indigenous scholarship, we need to address, in our courses, scholarship, and institutions, how students, faculty, and administrators reproduce colonization. Why don’t we study, in our student development research, how settlement becomes naturalized for white students, despite them rarely being asked to think of themselves as colonizers or occupiers of someone else’s lands? Why don’t we ask, in our history of higher education courses, how our institutions came to claim title to the lands on which they sit, and what responsibilities derive from this history? Why don’t we address, in our research methods courses, how research has been and is still used as a weapon against Indigenous peoples (Patel, 2015; Tuhiwai Smith, 2012)? Why don’t we ask more questions about the origins of the wealth from which our institutional endowments derive, and where that endowment is currently invested?
These are not merely rhetorical questions, but at the same time I do not expect us to have answers to them right away. We need, instead, to learn from the difficulty of asking, let alone answering these questions, and be mindful that there are many questions we have yet to ask. At the same time, we cannot always control where our questions lead, and thus we cannot be assured that we will not get lost or go down the wrong path in the process. Thus, we must act with great care, humility, and generosity, and with an agreement to hold each other/be held accountable when we make mistakes — at least, those who wish to take part in the process of decolonization (and I recognize that many in our field do not).
Those committed to the process will need to get our literal and metaphorical hands dirty, engaging where it is possible in our different institutional and interpersonal contexts. This will require that we work toward decolonial justice not out of desires for innocence, redemption, and virtue, but rather out of a commitment to the integrity of the process of working collectively toward transformation, and that we commit to engaging in important but imperfect interventions where possible, rather than waiting for the “perfect” moment to engage, or offering our precise political analysis to an audience that, because of their/our wilful ignorance, cannot hear or relate to it.
The line between whether one is leveraging one’s colonially secure structural advantage toward the long-term project of dismantling colonialism, thereby ceding the space that should never have been ours to begin with, or leveraging it toward personal advancement, is ambiguous to say the least, and I suspect these are hardly mutually exclusive. But part of grappling with complicity in colonization means that non-Indigenous people need to learn to decentre ourselves without using this decentring as a means to avoid being held accountable. We might need to start by being more honest about just how much of our everyday lives, aspirational desires, and imagined futures are implicitly premised on the continuation of colonization — in the context of higher education, and everywhere else.
Yet as many have pointed out, there is a way that white fragility fills the room when white people are confronted with our complicity in racism (DiAngelo, 2011). Similar processes operate when non-Indigenous people are confronted with their complicity in colonialism (Ahenakew, 2016). We need to remain vigilant about the space we take up in these moments, but also ask what these affective responses tell us. In order to interrupt our defensive reactions we need to trace which investments and attachments lead us to respond in this way, so that we can ultimately dislodge them (Taylor, 2013).
This would be just one small part of the multi-dimensional, life-long process of “retrac[ing] the history and itinerary of one’s prejudices and learned habits (from racism, sexism and classism to academic elitism and ethnocentrism), stop thinking of oneself as better or fitter, and unlearn dominant systems of knowledge and representation” (Kapoor, 2004, p. 641). While decolonization is not an individual act, if we do not do this self-work, it is unlikely that in our collective work we will imagine or produce something different.
Of course, these processes will look different depending on our different positionalities and communities. That is, while it remains important not to collapse racialization and colonization, (re)imagining relations between Indigenous people and Black people will necessarily look different than those between Indigenous people and non-Black racialized people who were colonized in their own lands (sometimes by the U.S. itself) and arrived to the U.S. as immigrants or refugees, and between Indigenous people and white settlers (Byrd, 2011; Dhamoon, 2015; King, 2016, 2017; Saranillio, 2013; Tuck & Yang, 2012; Walia, 2013).
Sitting and learning (and being undone) at the edge
Indigenous peoples have put forward many different ideas and visions about what decolonial futures might look like, and we should read, engage, and be guided by this work, but it is not their job to do this work for non-Indigenous people; they have their own battles to fight and relations to maintain.
Ultimately, we will need to learn to have conversations in which we both dispense with our desire for control and certainty, and explore new possibilities without being guided by singular authorities. Even as many individuals and articles offer invaluable insights, we cannot seek direction from some pure position of epistemological privilege that does not exist.
There is no prescription for decolonization; it cannot be found in a book. Settler colonization is, centrally, about the objectification and commodification of land as a means to ensure settler access and control toward the ends of capital accumulation. However, if decolonization requires the return of lands and the resurgence of Indigenous sovereignty, kinship relations, cosmopolitical structures, and knowledge systems (Arvin, Tuck & Morrill, 2013; Hunt & Holmes, 2015; Simpson, 2011; Tuck & Yang, 2012), then it cannot be a standalone act. Rather, it would likely require dismantling the colonial nation-state and capitalist system, and require that non-Indigenous people reimagine and reconstruct how we have been socialized to think about and engage knowledge, relationships, gender expression, labor, the environment, property rights, governance — in short, nearly everything about our existence on these lands.
I do not think it presumptuous to say that most of us do not yet know how to do this, as much as we might — in theory — want to, or believe it the right or just thing to do. Indeed, nearly all of the theories, frames and vocabularies that we have developed in the field of higher education for talking about justice fail or falter when confronted with colonialism as a condition of possibility for our field, our institutions, and our imaginations. Our “field-imaginary” is structured by assumptions about the imperatives of education as a means of economic mobility (within a colonial capitalist system), greater justice secured through legislation and court rulings (of a colonial state), and the general benevolence and universal value of our institutions (structured by colonial knowledge). Because of this, not only do we not know how to decolonize, we often do not even have the words to talk about why we don’t know how.
When we arrive at the edge of what is possible to articulate within our inherited frameworks, vocabularies, and horizons of justice, it is often the point at which people start to express their frustration. Once we begin to realize the full extent of colonialism, and our complicity in it, there are at least two common responses, or some combination of these: 1) dismissal of the demands of decolonization as unreasonable and/or unrealistic, and either exiting the conversation, or perhaps metaphorizing the demands, as Tuck and Yang (2012) predict; or 2) being overcome by an intense desire to find or formulate an immediate solution — some way out of this genocidal cycle and toward a decolonial future. Yet, as Patel (2015) suggests, we cannot create a detailed plan for decolonization from where we stand, because where we stand “is so deeply embedded and enlived by colonial logics” (p. 88). While it is impossible to known in advance what a decolonized higher education might look like, in order to possibly arrive there someday, after much struggle and many missteps, we might nonetheless work toward decolonial horizons.
The deep challenges to justice that characterize the contemporary political, economic, and ecological landscape might make such horizons appear more distant than ever. However, we might also consider this moment as a dubious opportunity. Growing disillusionment with our current, colonial system might lead us to explore new possibilities, but it can also lead to feelings of betrayal or resentment that can in turn lead to violence (against oneself, and/or [often marginalized] others), or feelings of being unmoored and unable to act after one’s foundations have been radically unsettled. If we want a fighting chance of creating radically other worlds than the one we have inherited, then we will need this proliferating disillusionment to ultimately lead to a disinvestment from old dreams and promises. Thus, I suggest that these are not just social and political struggles, but educational challenges as well.
We need to ask what kind of an education could prepare us and our students not to simply critique, but also learn from, the mistakes of a dying system so that we do not continue to repeat them; to remain vigilant about addressing the new mistakes that we will no doubt make in the process; to sit with the discomfort that often develops when we are faced with our complicity; to fully mourn false and harmful promises so that we are not tempted to resuscitate them; to address the intellectual poverty of an educational system that is built on a single type of knowledge; to unlearn the modes of relation that have led us to treat the earth and other-than-human beings as a set of resources to be possessed and extracted, and to treat other humans as exploitable and expendable rather than indispensible; and to (re)learn how to see and sense ourselves and others not as autonomous individuals but rather as entangled in a set of reciprocal relations and interdependencies, and from there, to figure out how to affirm our boundless responsibilities to one another.
If there is to be a place for non-Indigenous higher education scholars in decolonizing work, then it cannot be premised on our presumed epistemic authority, nor the futurity of our field nor of our institutions, nor even of the selves that we think we are, but rather on the notion that these are precisely the kinds of colonial structures and certainties that need to be questioned, dismantled, and hospiced, so that new possibilities can emerge. Let us start, then, with the notion that we will need to learn how to desire, imagine, understand, sense, relate, and exist very differently, without assuming that we already know how.
Many thanks to Dallas Hunt and Vanessa Andreotti for their generative comments on earlier drafts of this blog.
You can find a follow-up to this blog here.
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[1] This is a notion that I put forward in a piece forthcoming in the Critical Ethnic Studies journal, “Higher education and the im/possibility of transformative justice.” It is derived from Denise Ferreira da Silva’s (2014) notion of “the End of the World as we know it” in her article “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics,” and echoes Aime Césaire in Notebook of a Return to the Native Land: “What can I do? One must begin somewhere. Begin what? The only thing in the world worth beginning: The End of the world of course.”