Diversifying the content of teaching requires self-critical discussion

In her bachelor’s thesis, Laura Perälä observed that questions of diversity remain in a minor role when designing the teaching and degree requirements of the degree programme in politics, media and communication.

Laura Perälä, in your bachelor’s thesis you examine the grounds and processes on the basis of which decisions on curricula and degree requirements are made in the discipline of political science at the Faculty of Social Sciences. How did you get interested in such a topic, and what goals did you set for your thesis? 

I became interested in the topic above all through my personal experiences. During my bachelor’s studies, I noticed that, in the case of several courses, I was unhappy with the viewpoints and themes of teaching. Can it really be that almost all of the “classics” we read are written by white European men? Non-Western and, for example, feminist perspectives on studies were mainly on offer in courses not included in political science. 

When teaching the study of politics, I think we should be trained to understand society and its phenomena from a range of perspectives, challenging our assumptions and attitudes towards the themes we are discussing. I felt that this notion is often not realised. 

While I was dissatisfied with certain content choices in teaching, I was convinced that both teaching staff and students are well versed in questions related to diversity, representation and, for example, the hierarchy of knowledge. After all, they are at the core of our field of science. This is why I decided to investigate precisely the criteria and processes through which decisions pertaining to curricula are made. What makes the knowledge and political thinking we are studying the way they are now? The aim of my thesis was above all to evoke discussion and contribute to it.

As a rule, bachelor’s theses are so narrow in scope that it makes no sense to try to comprehensively outline the content of teaching in political science. Instead, I was hoping that, by asking the right questions, I could shed light on situations where it would be possible to take a different route and make different decisions. 

The broader framework of your thesis is, in particular, the discussion intensifying over the past decade that calls for the university institution to recognise the colonial history still reflected in the unequal structures and practices of knowledge production. What do you think this kind of criticism of “Westernised universities” is about, how has it gained a foothold here, and how do attempts to decolonise educational content fit into the Finnish context? 

Perhaps this criticism is, above all, about understanding that the content of teaching really has societal significance that shapes our thinking and values. At the same time, it’s about acknowledging that, no matter how much we wish for it, colonialism is not just history, but inherited oppressive structures that are constantly being maintained and renewed in society and at universities, too.

Understandably, the demands for the decolonisation of teaching are not a seamless match for contexts that differ markedly in terms of history and culture. In situations where colonialism is more directly recognisable as part of university history, the removal of, for example, colonial imagery may be essential.

In addition to context-specific requirements, the criticism focuses on the role of universities as producers of knowledge. In such cases, the decolonisation of teaching denotes, for example, recognising and dismantling the Eurocentrism of the knowledge produced and taught at universities. Such epistemological questions can be targeted more universally at universities, as the production of scholarly knowledge always involves a range of norms and requirements that establish a hierarchy. Of course, the demands on the decolonisation of universities and teaching prevailing, for example, in American society, cannot be directly embedded in the Finnish context. Instead, it would be ideal if the international discourse were to result in self-reflection in Finland as well.

In Finland, the decolonisation of teaching must be based on factors characteristic of Finnish history and the present, such as colonial policy targeted at the Sámi peoples and the Sámi homeland. At the same time, we must not forget that Finnish universities have been founded on international models and influences. The University of Helsinki has largely the same epistemes and knowledge production conventions as any other university. 

The empirical data of your research are composed of interviews with degree programme directors and the discipline coordinator. What did you wish to investigate in the interviews, and what kind of key observations emerged from them? 

I chose the degree programme directors and the discipline coordinator for the interviews because of their key role in making decisions on the content of teaching. Through their duties, they have an understanding of the courses included in the Bachelor’s Programme in Politics, Media and Communication. In the interviews, I was looking for an understanding, alongside the official decision-making process, of the discussions on teaching content and the factors the interviewees themselves feel have an impact on the choices made.

The role and responsibility of individual teaching staff emerged in the interviews as key factors in deciding on the content of teaching. Coordinators of individual courses decide, for example, on the course literature, learning outcomes and detailed course content. You can fit a wide range of perspectives and approaches under the course rubric. At the same time, the work of the same teaching staff is characterised by constant urgency. This results in a situation where the content of courses and course literature are often quickly chosen, utilising existing material.

The interviewees also echoed an understanding of a kind of core of political science: key theories, thinkers, divisions and topical discussion that should be included in teaching. The responses paint a picture of a unified scholarly community of political scientists who all know and are relatively like-minded about what constitutes such a political core.

An interesting observation was associated with the division between content and representation. By this, I mean the interviewees find that striving to present students with the best possible content of teaching and literature can interfere with the possibility of considering various questions of representation. In terms of examination literature, for example, you have to settle for a one-sided author pool, as their books have been found to be the best in terms of content.

The principal conclusion of your thesis is that the discussion on decolonisation is not, at least not yet, a central focus in considering teaching content and degree requirements. Why is this, and what does it tell us?

In my opinion, the fact that the debate on decolonisation has not come to the fore is largely due to the combined effect of the University’s current organisational structure and a lack of time and resources. As a result of these factors, those making decisions are in a situation where they do not have many opportunities for in-depth and self-critical discussion on curricula. Instead, decisions are made under pressure and without the support of the community.

I also think that there is no capacity to put good intentions, as it were, into practice. In our discipline, there are scarcely any teachers who are not aware that they are teaching Eurocentric theory. However, the application of these decolonial viewpoints and criticisms to practical teaching is still seeking its form.

Then again, you can coldly state that the problems brought up by the decolonisation discussion are not necessarily seen as important enough. If there is the will to apply decolonial viewpoints in the planning of teaching, there are certainly also ways to do so.

Together with students, we have organised at the Faculty afternoon sessions focused on equality since spring 2022. Last spring’s theme was equality in teaching. The significance of the decolonialisation discussion to students was highlighted in this context too. When looking at the results of your thesis from a student perspective, what kind of self-reflection would you consider effective for the discipline or the Faculty in general? What concrete measures could be taken to promote dialogue between teaching staff and students on diversity issues?

If you wish to take a critical approach to teaching content, I think you should start by extensively surveying the current situation of teaching and its content. In 2005, Johanna Kantola completed a report on equality at the Department of Political Science, which resulted in lively discussion and self-reflection. Perhaps now, 18 years later, we could once again update our understanding of the state of equality and diversity. Based on a comprehensive survey, we could outline operating models and new norms through which our Faculty can decolonise its teaching. 

The coronavirus years certainly left a huge mark on our community. Contacts and ways of keeping in touch between students and teaching staff must be relearned, and I think we have already done so commendably well. However, it still requires effort from both parties to ensure that information on the various ways of providing feedback and participating in discussion reaches all students.

And there are things that anyone can do. You often hear wishes for at least some kind of minimum requirements to be met: if a course only explores Western approaches or theories, you could openly communicate that to students. This at least would make students aware of the fact that there is more to it than that. I encourage my fellow students to ask questions and challenge things, again and again.