Interviews with Academics #6: Professor Alison Scott-Baumann on Diversity in Education

photo of Dr. Alison Scott Baumann

Professor Alison Scott-Baumann is a professor of society and belief in the centre of Islamic studies at SOAS. Her work combines social justice and philosophy, and she has researched extensively on the lives of Muslim students and staff at UK universities.

Read part one of our interview here

  1. One main observation of the “Re/presenting Islam on campus” research project is that Muslim students and staff at UK universities perceive themselves as being watched for signs of extremism. Could you say a little more about how universities can prevent this?

Our research shows clearly that university campuses still contain the components for change: interfaith friendships that dispel discrimination through personal trust; multifaith activities run by chaplaincies and other groups; deep knowledge of many cultures that could be incorporated into the curriculum.    

  1. In Islam on Campus, you write about how universities’ neglect of non-Western paradigms of learning, “[leads] students and staff from diverse cultural backgrounds to experience the university as culturally and epistemologically limiting and lacking in epistemic trust of their differing views”. You also find that Islamic Studies are often taught in a way that is orientalising. Could you expand on this, and on how non-Western philosophy and religious studies can be incorporated into curricula without “othering” entire schools of thought?

Yes, absolutely: epistemic injustice arises when individuals’ judgements are routinely considered to be insufficiently relevant to be taken into account: in our Islam on Campus research, we found that staff and students of colour and those who were identified by others as Muslim (whether they were or not) understood that their views were not taken seriously. This happened because they were perceived as being religious or backward or both. ;

Clearly the curriculum requires recalibration towards an atmosphere of learning that provides epistemological equality of opportunity for those from all backgrounds and heritage. Otherwise, the canon continues to privilege the voice of a small proportion of world society and fails to accord epistemic justice to those who are not White, or those who are discriminated against through faith, race or gender. Decolonising the curriculum necessitates redressing the balance of voices and narratives to reflect the wider world beyond that inherited from White culture and White imperialism. Historically, marginalised voices are often non-western. If they are to be encouraged to challenge existing epistemological frameworks with their own different versions of reality, they need access to influential western ideas, and to see themselves reflected in the education system. 14 percent of the UK population of 56 million self-identify as being ‘of colour’; yet the national English curriculum for 16-year olds contains no books by black authors (UK Gov 2020; Weale and Bakare 2020). 14 percent may seem small, but the Black Lives Matter movement makes it painfully clear that this is no excuse. Providing a young person with the opportunity to speak from their own viewpoint is a pedagogic necessity. As well as voices, it is narratives that must come to reflect the world we all share. How transformative for students it would be to learn about the causes of migration, or population displacement in the Horn of Africa, or about the connections between Somalian refugees in Britain and their families in Africa, or even about the way Europe functions politically…

Understanding how to reorient the university curriculum requires first a look at the core principles upon which western culture is balanced; modern education is still predicated on ideas of secular neutrality. The intention of decolonisation is not to dismantle the powerful narrative of European modernity but to balance it with the stories of significant others and to focus on the constant struggle for human rights, justice, inclusivity and anti-racism that may be metaphorical in literature but can be enacted in our lives. Consider, as an example, a very practical enactment of velvety soft discrimination that is hard for the privileged Western academic to detect: the practice of Open Access publications is apparently emancipatory, yet this procedure in fact usually facilitates dissemination by northern hemisphere academics. It does not necessarily ensure that increased dialogue will take place with scholars in the global South. If we accept that this is an attitudinal problem more than a technical issue, we can see how the decolonising effort is both immanent, constant and structural and may be better not seen as a static metaphor but as an iterative process.

  1. What role do “safe spaces” play in avoiding the alienation of minority groups in academia?

There are legal tensions between freedom of religion and freedom of expression and they intersect within universities, which embody contested cultural assumptions. The language of safe spaces has undoubtedly impacted the entire sector, with younger generations of students increasingly expecting a more regulated learning space. Despite universities purporting to be safe spaces they are not fulfilling this ambition. My ‘Community of inquiry’ approach can help to develop safe safe spaces for difficult conversations, even conversations about topics that are intractable. Such apparent futility matters as it can draw us closer to consensus and to communal decision making.

  1. Is there any advice you would like to pass on to all and especially minority undergraduates studying philosophy or religions?

Find a philosopher whose ideas can be translated into action: consider for example Isabell Lorey as a successor to Marx. Resist the accusation of being ‘woke’ in the sense that the term is used by the right i.e. that wokeness is an extremist state of mind used as a distorting device by those who wish to advocate a sense of grievance because they are not white.  

  1. How have the events of the past year changed the way you relate your studies to everyday life? Is there anything in particular that you have learnt or would like to take from this year?

The prime importance of the woman’s voice: still we allow ourselves too often silenced by white male hegemonic mansplaining. We must work together, and with the many wonderful people around us, to speak truth to power and rearrange our world so that power is better distributed. Believe that you can make a difference and consider the beauty of talking and of possible compromise: they are strengths rather than weaknesses.

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