Breaking Barriers for BAME Students: Creative Development of Inclusive Practice

Case study author: Prof. Mariangela Palladino and Dr Shalini Sharma

School of Humanities, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

CDF Framework: Global Perspectives, Inclusive Learning

Project Summary

Universities are in the spotlight. Not a day goes by when universities are not investigated for their failure to deliver equality of opportunity, a guaranteed job and better life prospects for those who pursue a university degree.

Initiatives that are partly driven by the need for increased student recruitment and partly the result of increased awareness of racial, gender and class inequality have led universities to interrogate their own practices. Institutions such as the Equality Challenge Unit motivate such endeavours by rewarding universities open to self-analysis and monitoring through initiatives such as the Athena Swan and Race Equality Charters. Such measures are premised on the now accepted axiom that far from being bastions of liberal thought, universities perpetuate discrimination in society. It is no wonder then that most research into race and higher education focuses firstly on the disinclination of BAME1 youth to study at university and secondly on their low attainment rates once they do venture into the hallowed auspices of higher education. Drawing on the explosion of recent research into race and racism in universities, which focuses primarily on the whiteness of the curriculum faced by BAME students as a logical reason for their apparent disengagement and low attainment, we have chosen to ask a different set of questions which focuses more on BAME students’ perspectives. What do they experience in the typically white university classroom? To what extent does the seemingly unregulated format of lectures, seminars and tutorials actually present unseen barriers for BAME students? How can educators and their institutions improve so that BAME students can thrive in Higher Education?

This project aims to co-develop a tool for educators to enhance BAME students’ in-class participation (EHRC 2016). Empirical literature shows that limited in-class participation/engagement is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ regarding obstacles to positive educational experience for BAME students (EHRC 2016; Miller 2016). This is reflected in entry rates to HE and attainment at university (Miller 2016; Singh 2011). Institutional and societal racism plays a significant role in inequitable educational achievement (EHRC 2016). Students’ direct and active engagement with their peers and educators is at the heart of contemporary teaching and learning (Trowler 2010). Our project aims to address the question: “how do I improve my practice” (Whitehead 1989) to facilitate better educational experiences for BAME students? A starting point which has guided our approach and shaped our premise is bell hooks’ (2010: 19) concept of an ‘engaged pedagogy’ which requires a student-teacher partnership whereby students are teachers and teachers are students together posing problems and engaging in dialogue to negotiate an understanding of the world (Freire 1970: 60-63). Our methodological choices (outlined below) are intimately connected to hooks’ engaged pedagogy. This project focused on a student group that faces the most significant challenges in educational achievement due to socio-cultural and structural inequalities, we aimed to identify and develop pedagogic tools and techniques that will increase inclusivity in Keele classrooms more generally.

The project’s originality, and its innovative force, lie in its application of creative, participatory methods for the co-production of knowledge in the class-room – a space usually devoted to (unilateral) knowledge transfer. Thus, methodology represents a crucial element of this study. Rather than relying on traditional data gathering techniques, such as questionnaires and focus groups led by the researchers, we deployed participatory, creative methods. Creative, arts based practices challenge established relational and behavioural patterns that typify learning environments in HE and foster more imaginative, participatory and inclusive modes of engagement. Our approach involved a creative practitioner and the use of movement to facilitate a workshop with participants. This process enabled breaking down traditional power dynamics and barriers to engagement; also, by not involving the researchers in the workshop, we avoided reproducing power relations and mitigated the risks for participants to experience the research process as merely extractive. The workshop was led and facilitated by a BAME creative practitioner with extensive experience in engagement through movement and performance for broadening access. The workshop, held on Keele campus where participants felt safe and at ease, challenged the student-researcher and participant-researcher dynamics; echoing the work of Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed (1974), the workshop situated the ‘oppressed’ (traditionally marginalised/disadvantaged student-participants) at the centre of the process (see Freire 1970 and Silva JE & Menezes I 2016). Participants and the facilitator shared their voices and their experiences through a creative process.

For this project, we engaged with ~15 BAME2 Keele Students (12 participated in the workshop: 9 women and 3 men). Our call was open to all genders and ages, to all registered Keele students (on UG/PG programmes) who self-identified as BAME and were willing to participate. Our recruitment strategy involved the use of email, social media, posters and leaflets to reach potential participants. Most importantly, two students - who self-identify as BAME - collaborated with the researchers in the recruitment phase to reach out and involve peers. Ethical clearance was granted by Keele’s Research Ethics Committee (HUMSS); all participants received a detailed information sheet about the project and written consent was sought and obtained. All participants were made aware that they could withdraw at any point throughout the project. All data was anonymised in line with data protection legislation. All identifying information and codes which could be used to re-identify individuals have been removed. This fulfils ethical requirements for taking all reasonable precautions that data should not be connected to the specific individuals who provided them.

All participants were given a notebook to use as a reflective diary; the notebook served as a way to: a) record reflective entries relating to the workshop experience (November 2019); b) reflect on their experiences throughout the academic year; c) share thoughts on the ways BAME students’ access to and engagement in HE could be reimagined. Notebooks were returned to researchers (March-April 2020) and each entry was recorded and exchanged for a number in the write up. We also conducted follow up interviews (April-May 2020) with 8 participants: semi-structured interviews (held remotely due to COVID-19) were framed by participants’ own reflections recorded in the notebooks. Interviews served as an effective tool to enhance the qualitative data for this project and to explore more in-depth issues raised by participants in the reflective notes. These follow-up interviews enabled us to gain a deeper understanding not only of the students’ experiences, but also to evaluate and reflect on the use of creative methodologies and on the value of exploring inclusive pedagogical practices through inclusive, inductive and participatory methods. The interviews provided spaces to reflect on and examine the workshop’s dynamics in which researchers were not present - a decision collectively reached with participants and the practitioner.

The data includes: 1) participants’ written annotations and personal reflections, which we have transcribed, anonymised and filed; 2) interview transcripts from our follow up interviews with participants (these too have been anonymised). Confidentiality and anonymity have been strictly maintained. The data has been indexed to identify key themes and common patterns; our analytical approach has been a narrative one.

Reflections on the Creative Workshop as a Method

The interviews as well as the participants’ notes offered insightful reflections about our methods. Interviews allowed us to explore the effectiveness and impacts of the methods, and to obtain detailed accounts of the workshop. This is important because we did not participate in the workshop at the facilitator’s request. The participants’ notes, which we received before conducting the interviews, already indicated that the creative workshop, its format and content, had an impact on the participants. The facilitator invited participants to sit on the floor; they all introduced themselves and shared the reasons why they decided to be part of the project; the discussion quickly moved on to their experiences (including the workshop’s facilitator) of being BAME. Participant 1 found ‘it was very emotional’; Participant 2 said ‘interesting things were brought up’; for Participant 3, sitting around in a circle ‘created an equal grounding and was a chance to be connected’, noting that there is little opportunity for BAME students to be connected. Participant 8 similarly noted that ‘I felt really free and connected; we felt a lot closer after that, we developed a weird sense of solidarity, it created a bond’.

Several participants noted that the space was safe (we shall discuss this aspect in more detail later on); they appreciated that the facilitator laid out rules about respect and behaviour; ‘she promoted inclusivity and openness’ (Participant 8). The sense of safety established within the space (which was initially set up by the researchers alongside some of the participants) and amongst participants and facilitator was key. When the facilitator said ‘I am here for you’, participants felt ‘valued’, ‘it got so deep’ (Participant 7).

One participant said ‘it felt more like therapy. It felt it was something for us rather than for the University. Often research about black and ethnic minority students is for the University; in the workshop - in this research - we were at the centre. Having just [the facilitator] there it felt it was only for us rather than the institution being seen to be doing something about Black and ethnic minorities’. This observation is a critique of extractive research methods often used for rapid, quantitative exercises to gather data about BAME in HE; it also reflects positively on the application of creative, inductive methods and of its potential.

After the introduction and experience sharing, the facilitator invited participants to stand up, close their eyes and move inside the space. What for some participants felt like 10 minutes, ‘went on for over an hour’. Participant 2 recalls the experience like this: ‘we stood up, walked around with eyes closed, the music got intense and people’s dancing got more intense for an hour. We were able to move; it was a relief because no one is looking. [...] You move your body without limitations or worries; people wanted to keep going; it was liberating, no judgement’. The aim of the exercise on movement was to create a safe setting for participants to inhabit a space in a room with people whom you have learnt to trust; to enable their bodies to move without limitations, fears of being judged. When asked about the experience, participant 1, who describes themselves as an introvert, said: ‘I wasn’t sure how it was going to be structured, it was interesting to see the shape it was taking. It ended up being quite liberating. Great safe space.’

A sense of safety, closeness, feeling valued, connected and liberated was shared by the majority of participants (from follow up interviews and their personal reflections on the notebooks). The impact of the creative workshop (during the exercise and afterwards) led to encouraging results: it represented a positive experience for the participants; it has had an impact beyond the lifecycle of the project; it has enabled and enhanced trust between participants and researchers (this was very much evident in the follow up interview); it has transformed perceptions of research from being extractive and objectifying to being about feeling valued.

The Classroom Experience: (In)visibility/invisibility and Space

The workshop led many of the participants to reflect on their experiences in university classrooms. They admired the workshop facilitator’s direction, the tone she set and the space they occupied, all of which was pointedly different from their everyday classroom encounters. From the outset, the facilitator outlined an ethics of conduct, thus, certain behaviour, offensive or derogatory, were unacceptable and would not have a place in the workshop. This resonated with a number of the participants who wished that their own tutors could follow the same practice (see following section). The facilitator’s forthright and confident establishment of workshop rules ensured everyone was alert to the guiding principles of the event and everyone worked together in a safe environment.

The participants also contrasted the way they felt in the workshop to the way they participate and interact in their everyday classroom environment. Many brought up the feeling that they were at once visible and invisible as Keele students. They were ignored or talked down in classrooms, conscious of their visible difference but blanked or treated differently because of it; Participant 4 recalls her experience of being a black woman in the classroom: ‘I was the only black person in the room, I did not want to be the one against the others, I did not want to be at the centre of attention. In the room men were comfortable talking to each other’. However, participants also reflected on the burden of being the only visibly different person in a classroom. Participants conveyed a sense that they represented the whole of their 5 community which led to anxiety about having to provide the perfect answer or be completely correct whenever they spoke. ‘This insecurity has grown since moving to the UK. It is often that I find myself being the only young black woman in a room. At work, in lectures, in a small store. It feels like my appearance and actions are scrutinised. An even scarier thought is that my actions, as one individual, may be used to stereotype an entire group’ (Participant 9). This feeling of hyper visibility results in a further mutation on the part of participants. If they cannot produce the perfect contribution to class discussion they simply did not speak, so terrified were they of making mistakes. For example, ‘in the classroom you have to have it perfect more than the others. Even a slight bit of humiliation will stay in your bones. Unless I feel it is very articulate I won’t say anything. It is about humiliation. This idea that it needs to be better than your average people’ (Participant 5). This fear also mutated their contributions to act or think like their white peers. They expressed the need to assimilate, not stand out, not talk about their range of life experience or thought that may be unintelligible to students used to a normative European culture. As one participant noted, ‘I felt I had to take a backseat or change the ways I was. I have to talk down the emotions so that white people can understand’. Another said, ‘I am constantly policing myself: the amount of times my accent has changed over the course of the studies; it is always full of judgement, I wanted to assimilate’ (Participant 8).

In contrast, the workshop facilitator asked participants to close their eyes and encouraged them to move, sway and dance. Many expressed that this made them feel free and authentic and untouched by an external gaze. So the fact that fellow participants could not see them, the fact that they were not visibly different, led to more comfortable and honest exchange of ideas. Much of the workshop made the participants think about how they, as BAME bodies, can take up space in predominantly white spaces. This also led them to reflect on what sorts of spaces work for them as BAME students, and why. Participant 4 said that ‘it made me feel more confident about talking and taking up space, you should not self-restrain or restrict your body. It is the unruly body.’ This latter phrase refers to the facilitator’s own work as a dancer, performer and creative practitioner on the notion of the unruly body, bodies which ‘are tired of being ruled, exhausted by being ruled or not fitting into the rules’.

When prompted to reflect on space (both in the workshop and in the classroom in general), a number of participants commended the use of circular or horseshoe room layouts. Participant 2 clearly stated ‘the horseshoe shape is more inclusive’. This format enables an equal exposure for all students and a more comfortable and equal way to exchange ideas with the tutor. It also means there is less space in which to hide or conceal and disengage as BAME bodies and less opportunity for the rest of the class - as well as the tutor - to wilfully ignore the visibly different person in the room. Participants also preferred a more circular layout in the classroom because it breaks down the power dynamics inside the classroom and made it feel more comfortable in their learning environment: ‘I don’t like the format of looking at the board. I enjoy the circle, not have that thing that we all look at the front, it is so hierarchical’ (Participant 8).

The Role of Educators: Boundaries and Vulnerability

A significant part of participants’ written reflections and discussions during the follow up interviews revolved around the role of educators, tutors, lecturers, facilitators. The data does not suggest a narrative of blame and accusation, rather, it points to a clear trend which identifies responsibilities in reproducing (even if involuntarily) exclusionary practices. The data also offers a distinct narrative about the role of educators and the transformative possibilities of this role for a more inclusive classroom experience.

‘[T]he lecturer has to be inclusive’ (Participant 1), use ‘more inclusive language’ (Participant 2); another participant suggests to ‘have more official messages in place so that students know [about inclusion]’ (Participant 3). Participant 5 passionately argues about the power of language as an exclusionary tool: ‘language is so important [...] language will matter’. Calls for inclusive language are further emphasised by participants with reference to rules setting in order to foster a safe space in the classroom: identifying clear boundaries, encouraging openness ‘like a constitution of inclusivity’ (Participant 3).

The demand for a set of rules in the classroom to foster inclusivity is connected to participants’ overwhelmingly recurrent observations that educators should ‘call out’ language and behaviour which render the classroom space unsafe. ‘Lecturers should take more explicit stands; don’t just diffuse, say it when it is not acceptable behaviour’ (Participant 1). Another participant observed that: ‘Lecturers sometimes are bystanders, you should definitely speak up, surely because of the power dynamics, you should do something. Because it is micro-aggressive if it is left to slip, it falls on the student’ (Participant 8). The key points raised in these comments are echoed across our data: mitigating and diffusing a situation of tension might entail an implicit endorsement of potentially offensive and/or aggressive language and behavior. Thus, the educator becomes complicit in making the classroom space unsafe. Inviting openness, adopting an inclusive language, setting rules about safety and standing by them, enacting them is what the participants call for. The tutor should provide a ‘moral compass’ for each classroom meeting; ‘you don’t need to play devil’s advocate in cases like this, it enables unethical behaviours’ (Participant 8). The facilitator was not simply a bystander – such ‘democratic’ practice could actually allow students to express offensive or insensitive comments and establish a pattern that perpetuates the silencing of victims of micro-aggressions or unconscious bias in the classroom.

‘You are leading a seminar so call out abuse, clearly. Openly. You have to look over your white privilege and deal with being uncomfortable’ (Participant 1). This quotation makes a clear connection between the role of educators to actively stop and call abuse and being ‘uncomfortable’. Indeed, most participants noted that making a safe space in the classroom entails opening up to ‘more vulnerability in those spaces from the students as well as from the lecturers. The ability to be vulnerable into settings’ (Participant 7). Participant 5 asks ‘how could you make people feel welcome? It is hard to make time, to find out about people. How do we do that? Carve out space to find out about yourself and the students. [...] to show themselves, the space allows for opening’. Acknowledging power dynamics in the classroom, acknowledging privilege (especially in the case of white educators) is a crucial step to open up the classroom space, making it safe. Participants remarked that inclusivity must be inscribed at the very start of the relationship between students and educators, and ‘being approachable; say openly “you can come and talk to me”’ (Participant 6) was a valued and welcome aspect to build a relationship of trust. Participant 3 says: ‘I was brought up in white education. [...] I wasn’t given that space to speak about my experience’; comments like this point to the classroom spaces as being closed, unsafe, but also to a lack of spaces and places where students feel like they can voice and share their experiences. Hence, the key points to take into consideration here are the ways in which educators can contribute to transforming the classroom space and experience by: creating an inclusive, safe space; being open to their own and students’ vulnerability; acknowledging privilege; accepting that being uncomfortable is a first step to understanding and learning about students’ experiences; deploying inclusive language.

Curriculum, Whitewashing & Representation

Although Keele University has an avowed ‘decolonising the curriculum’ agenda,4 some of the workshop participants expressed frustration that they did not recognise themselves and their life experiences either in their university modules or in the staff who delivered them. If they did ever attempt to inject classroom discussions with their personal opinions or alternative cultural experiences they felt silenced or misunderstood by their predominantly white tutors and peers. The natural recourse was then to change their own practice. One participant very clearly described her questioning herself, ‘are you allowed to write only white stuff’ (sic) and responded by reporting to investigators that ‘I don’t not write about my type of people, so I wrote about Italian and Portuguese people, I never got to write about Asians. Many other BAME students felt the same’ (Participant 6). This feeling, that the classroom was not a space where students could be their authentic selves, but rather a space where they performed in order to feel included has been expressed by a number of BAME students both in Keele and beyond. For example one participant reported: ‘I avoid writing using cultural terms, names and issues so that I can be assessed accurately and fairly. Even in workshops I whitewash my writing to cater to a mostly white audience, so they don’t have a problem pronouncing names’ (Participant 2). That these assertions are not Keele specific is supported by a recent study in which Heidi Mirza wrote about the ‘painful journey’ in which BAME students ‘have to decide what they must ‘give up’ of themselves in order to belong’ (Mirza 2018, p.180).

Many of the participants expressed anger, frustration and sadness about this alienation from course content and being set apart from their white peers. For example, a student in this position - whose lecturer had not engaged with her contribution - clearly stated: ‘I was frustrated about this, my cultural references in the story were deemed as wrong. I struggled to bring up these points’ (Participant 6). Others conveyed the impression that because they were pursuing traditionally ‘white’ subjects, they were resigned to being the outsider in the classroom: ‘There have been comments made to me saying that I should have expected it going in to study Geography.5 Most black students study things like Law, Nursing, Pharmacy, careers with more ‘practicality’ and straightforward paths I suppose. This makes me feel like I have no right to expect such representation. But I would be lying if I said I wish it didn’t exist. It would have been a great help for me and my self confidence in my studies’ (Participant 9).

Both aspects of curricula and the predominance of white teaching staff are structural issues over which students have little say. Keele has responded by including decolonising the curriculum as part of its ambitious REC action plan.6 However, for our student participants such measures fall short. Their university experience has reinforced rather than diminished racial hierarchies where white people make decisions and white knowledge is knowledge. For the majority of our participants the choice they faced was to either adapt to this reality in order to do well or be singled out as troublemakers and endure the burden and anxiety that such labels carry in order to force change. As one participant put it: ‘Maybe it was because I was often the only black woman in the room. A room full of white men, both students and staff. I’m not sure how I got over it. I guess I eventually learnt that I had no choice. Whether I was silent or loud I was (in)visible. So I decided to take up space under my own terms’ (Participant 4).

These are some key actions we identified in our data that reflect participants’ direct and often specific suggestions for educators to shape the classroom experience as an inclusive one.

  • ‘Call out’: to call out any abuse, derogatory comment and/or behaviour, to not let it slip and be ignored in an attempt (albeit genuine) to diffuse a situation of tension. “It’s not OK”.
  • Ethics of Engagement: to set out rules together at the start of the class/module for sharing the classroom space. This is intended as a code of conduct which explicitly calls for respect, inclusivity and openness.
  • Classroom Space: space matters as it shapes the ways interactions take place. Design and arrange the classroom space to enable inclusive, and equitable dialogue.
  • Diversify Curriculum: Curricula need to be designed in order to reflect today’s society and its differences including a multiplicity of perspectives.
  • Vulnerability: the classroom environment should be a supportive one that allows for vulnerability - of educators as well as of their students. Educators need to open up and discuss their own limitations and weaknesses as a starting point to create an inclusive space.
  • Listen, Learn & Acknowledge: Students’ experiences are diverse and educators need to recognize that; taking time to listen, understand and acknowledge differences openly.

This study highlights a number of key priorities for the university to commit to and deliver.

  • First and foremost, the university should be committed to employing more BAME staff at every level; specifically, our project participants identified a lack of representation and role models among the teaching staff.
  • While the university is responding to the latest calls from decolonising movements by reshaping its curricula, it is important to engage in this process and commit to it beyond the current phase and to embed decolonising as an ongoing institutional practice.
  • The university should devise and adopt a Code of Practice & Declaration of Inclusivity as an introduction to each programme (e.g. to be included in each module handbook). This practice is already in use in many institutions across the USA; it entails establishing an ethics of behaviour, affirming inclusivity, mutual respect and conduct in the learning environment.
  • The university should create regular opportunities for educators at all levels to reflect on inclusivity in their teaching practice (including, but not limited to, delivery, environment, attitude).
  • Project participants unanimously expressed the sense of safety perceived in the workshop and called for more safe spaces to be made available to them. This report recommends the university to establish Safe Spaces for minority groups.
  • This study has shown how creative practice has enabled interactions and offered insights - which would have been inaccessible otherwise through more traditional and extractive practices - into BAME students’ perspectives and experiences. Thus, we recommend embedding creative practice as an effective pedagogical tool across the university.

This study has provided valuable insights into the experiences of self-identified BAME students at Keele University. Some of the findings make for uncomfortable reading. The participatory, creative, and performative methods deployed here have enabled researchers to access accounts, reflections and perspectives which might have otherwise remained silent through the use of more traditional, extractive methods such as questionnaires and focus groups. Thus, the value of this study rests in its methods as much as in its results. As the burgeoning field of creative methods gains more traction in the academy, our study (amongst others) shows that its potential to engage with marginal voices is undisputed. This project has enabled us to gather rich and diverse data; only a snapshot of which forms the basis of this report. Further analysis of our qualitative material is needed to fully explore the data. Moreover, we plan to conduct further follow up interviews (including with the creative practitioner) in order to develop our analysis and present our findings more comprehensively.

We are thankful to Sorcha Uí Chonnachtaigh and Cora Xu for reading a draft of this report. We also wish to acknowledge Sorcha’s crucial contribution to this project as she was involved in the conception and planning of this study before she moved to other ventures and other shores.

THE Article

Breaking Barriers for BAME Students