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Non-violent pedagogical perspectives in decolonising Academic Literacy

By Dr Brian Sibanda (University of the Free State)


Institutions of Higher Education are currently under pressure to decolonise teaching and learning in search of epistemic justice and plurality. This urgent and impatient commitment requires such instructions to do away with what Santos (2014) calls the arrogant ignorance, an epistemology that is pretending to be wide-ranging, claiming universal validity while remaining blind to the epistemic diversity of the world. It means decentering knowledge practices that have largely remained Eurocentric, heteronormative and anthropocentric. Such practices and ignorances have left us poorer due to erasure, appropriation or denial of other ways of knowing and being in the world. In this short piece, I will briefly engage with the urgent need to decolonise the teaching and learning of Academic Literacy (AL) as I suggest alternative and practical pedagogies to the current violent ones that can be employed in the teaching and learning of AL. I see this article as a continued search for pedagogies in AL that cater for the needs of the students and the positionality there of, an effort to do away with pedagogies that enable aspects of coloniality, bodily regulation and domination.


The commitment to decolonise HE has mainly focused on decolonising ‘disciplines’ and Academic Literacies have largely remained outside this decolonising commitment. Major efforts have focused on decolonising the science, psychology, philosophy, developmental studies and as Angu, Boakye and Eybers (2019), have rightfully stated, decolonial engagement in AL remains limited or rather; there has been a lamentable silence on decolonisation. One reason for this might be that AL remains a marginalised pedagogical service enterprise, outside the mainstream and outside the students’ ‘zone of proximal development’ (Seligmann & Gravett, 2010); hence it has escaped decolonial scrutiny and commitment – for me, this is some lazy thinking. Another clear observation that has been made AL subscribe to models and theories which are influenced by epistemologies of the West (Angu, Boakye & Eybers, 2019; Lillis &Turner 2001). This is also compounded by that the fact we need to meet the demands and expectations of the disciplines and faculties – one cannot just go rogue.




One of the challenges that we constantly face in our decolonial commitments is that we are mainly a developmental module that is serving disciplines and faculties. What this means is that changing the curriculum is not easy as disciplines hugely dictate the content of the AL. I will give an example, in isiXhosa discourse, there are strong examples of primary and secondary discourses that can be accommodated in the AL, but because disciplines (even the market place) are not looking for these discourses hence there is no space. Students in our classes are made to feel that there are certain things/models/ways of doing in AL that are natural and that are not changeable and have to fit into. Coloniality likes to normalise and naturalise itself when it is a construction, and an artefact. The point that I am trying to make is that as AL practitioners, sometimes our hands are tied and we can only make significant decolonial steps when we work hand in hand with the faculties – this is an awareness that we cannot do it alone and collaboration is key. However, the fact we cannot change the curriculum as we might envisage does not mean we give up. Far from it, it means we acknowledge that it is not easy and hence we need to be creative, innovative and have the emotional and intellectual stamina required for such a huge task. It is important for AL practitioners, university leaders and students to find each other as intellectual and, and sometimes, political allies against the monstrosity of coloniality in the university and in AL.


Academic literacy remains the university’s most crucial work globally (Slevin, 2007) hence it is too important to ignore or not be left alone; in the decolonial project we need to be responsive to epistemic injustice. Before I move to the three pedagogies, I want to mention that decolonising the teaching and learning in AL starts with the AL practitioner – the person in the mirror. By working, thinking and acting from the university, we are operating and existing from a colonial crime scene and we must check our continuous complicity in coloniality (Mpofu, 2019). We need to ask ourselves daily the harsh and vulnerable questions: where am I positioned in the colonial divide? When I am designing the AL curricula, do I engage in decolonial thinking? Am I thinking and working to enhance or negate coloniality? As articulated by Mpofu (2019), decolonisation and liberation of HE begins with and in the self, coloniality, like the proverbial devil, frequently hides deep inside the self. A decolonised AL course must be diverse and plural in voices, bodies, histories, knowledges and positionalities - a convivial epistemology. The current forms of AL tend to be more about the apprenticeship to Western rhetorical norms and ways of thinking, writing and talking, rather than secondary discourses in general (Gough and Bock, 2010). I am very much keen on practicalising Rosalba Icaza and Rolando Vázquez’s (2018) pedagogies of positionality, relationality and transition in the teaching and learning of AL. According to Icaza and Vázquez, such pedagogies disclose the decolonial deficit of the university and help us to understand how epistemic practices can be decolonised. I will look at each pedagogy separately and explain how, I, in a small way, live that in my AL class. In so doing, I am not claiming any victories but I want to show the baby steps that I take as a practitioner.


Pedagogies of transition


According to Icaza and Vázquez (2019), transitionality means that in teaching and learning in HE, we have to engage with knowledge practices that clearly relate to the socio-historical and eco-historical conditions in which the student and ourselves live in. Knowledge practices that undo the abstract position of knowledge and recognising how the university, and by extension, AL is ‘implicated in a politics of knowledge that has a deep impact, producing and reproducing our relations to the social and to the Earth” (Icaza and Vázquez, 2019: 121). As AL practitioners, we need to actively address societal and ecological implications of this abstract universal knowledge by enabling the students to bridge the epistemic border between the classroom and society, the classroom and the Earth (Icaza and Vázquez, 2019). Without changing the layout, the core of the curriculum and without compromising the expectations of the disciplines, I deliberately incorporate readings that speak to what is happening around us into student activities as a way to bridge the epistemic border without rocking the boat. Through the use of different genres and modes, I use contextualised and locatable texts – for example, during the COVID-19 first lockdown, the texts we used addressed the issues of social inequalities, race and intersectionality and Gender-Based Violence. The students cash in by participating in these activities as it forms part of formal assessments or engagement marks. By bringing the students’ lived experiences into the class, I allow for the interplay between student’s personal identities and cultures and their disciplinary paths. While incentivising students through marks, I also allow for the introduction of particular skills and different perspectives. The engagement marks and activities provide an expanded space (or extended curriculum?) that allow for the experimentation with different ideas that seeks to close the epistemic border while still achieving the intended outcomes of the curriculum. I have other examples of what I do in my class but I think what I want to put across is the principle of bringing what is surrounding us to your AL class. Open the platform for students to share their individual experiences. Experiences that are located and locatable, contextualized and situated. Experiences of belonging and not belonging.


Pedagogies of positionality


Positionality is an essential tool to overcome the monocultural approach to knowledge thereby recognising different forms of knowledge and understanding and providing space for counter hegemonic theory (Icaza and Vázquez, 2019). Eurocentrism and, in general, monocultural approaches to knowledge practices assume a universal validity and reproduce an abstract and disembodied vantage point of the knowing subject. Practices of positionality are those practices that, even while teaching the canon, reveal the geo-political location of knowledge. That is, knowledge is always taught in a situated manner, allowing the students to recognise the geo-genealogy to which they are being exposed and in which they are being trained, instead of assuming an abstract position of universality, of objectivity. Students appreciate and feel more included when exposed to knowledge practices that reveal their geo-historical position (Icaza and Vázquez, 2019). When teaching in AL, I practice position teaching by ensuring that the students are aware that all knowledge is local and situated. No knowledge is universal. It is important to reveal the geo-political location of knowledge, while teaching the canon/ a theory/ model/ framework – so that students are aware of origin and implication of the origin of that knowledge. By doing this, you negate the location of the dominant position of knowledge and positioning it as universal.



I make it clear to the students that while they are exposed to the monocultural approaches to knowledge in AL, there are other knowledges that have been ignored or peripherised for the benefit of coloniality. Students come from valid and legitimate knowledge-making communities and students need to be aware of this. The wonderful and amazing work done by Gough and Bock (2010) is important here. Gough and Bock’s basic point to educators in tertiary institutions is that organisation and structure in AL are not simply the property of Western academic discourses. They point out the stanzaic structure, phrase-chaining, complex oratory and reflective strategies in isiXhosa’s instomi, izibongo and Ukukhulula umhlolokazi, among other examples, that have been ignored in AL at the expense of Eurocentric ways of knowing. In essence, while one is teaching what is prescribed, one needs to point out that there are other ways of knowing found in the students’ communities that have not been accommodated in the AL curriculum. The knowledge that is embodied by the students is legitimate. By presenting the counter story/theory/frame helps destabilize many of the dominant narratives which students have to contend with in our AL classes and universities – the counter story unmasks the abstract universals and it exposes that they are like other knowledges – local.


I talked about the person in the mirror earlier on. The same applies under positionality. As an AL practitioner, one needs to reflect on one’s positionality. Reflect on the specific location from where we were sharing and co-generating knowledge, and to avoid being complicit with the reproduction of abstract, ahistorical and disembodied ideas of knowledge (Icaza and Vázquez, 2019).


Pedagogies of relationality


It is not enough to decolonise the AL curriculum, we also need to decolonise the relationships in the AL classroom and that is what pedagogies of relationality is all about. Allow me to quote Icaza and Várquez (2018:120) here as they beautifully capture this; “Changing the content of knowledge, or positioning the canon, is not enough to decolonise the university as a space that reproduces forms of exclusion. The notion of relationality brings into focus the practices of knowledge that contribute to the fostering of diversity by enabling open and dynamic forms of interaction in which the diverse backgrounds are recognised as valuable.”

A relational approach to AL teaching is not simply a process of allowing students to participate in class; a relational approach is one in which the diverse backgrounds and the geo-historical positioning of the different participants in the classroom are rendered valuable in a dignified way for the learning of all. To achieve this, I use positionality stories – while Cedillo and Bratta (2019) use positionality stories from a teacher perspective, I invert it a little and focus on students’ perspectives. These stories are important in creating trust and student agency. It is the sharing of student stories, about their own lived experiences. Such stories allow for implicit counter narratives, plurality and allow students to consider their own positionality within the university and AL. It also allows students to self-position within the class, university and the world at large. They provide students with opportunities to move away from self-impressions of self-deficit. Students confront the feelings of dis-belonging. The positionality stories make space to contest whiteness, native colonialness, straightness, maleness, eliteness and ableness. I have useful examples, which I hope we can share and discuss in a more interactive platform.


Freire tells us that people without privilege learn to distrust their own lived and hard won knowledges. That they have little valuable knowledge to share hence conceding some academic agency to our students through positionality stories is important. However, while these stories bridge the gap between educational spaces and realities of students, they need to be handled with care and caution.


I hope this post does what I expect it to do; to start or continue an honest conversation on how to practically decolonise the teaching and learning of AL even though we might not be at liberty to change what we teach. I hope we all get to acknowledge that a lot is still needed in developing non-violent epistemic pedagogies that bridge the epistemic border in the classroom and society. We need to go beyond slogans and catch-phrases about decoloniality in AL, we must research, read and write, hold frank and even inconvenient conversations.



Reference List


  • Angu, P., Boakye, N and Eybers, O. 2019. Rethinking the Teaching of Academic Literacy in the Context of Calls for Curriculum Decolonization in South Africa. The International Journal of Pedagogy and Curriculum, 27 (1): 1-16.

  • Cedillo, C.V and Bratta, P. 2019. Relating Our Experiences: The Practice of Positionality Stories in Student-Centered Pedagogy. College Composition and Communication, 71 (2): 215-240.

  • Gough, D.H and Bock, Z. 2010. Alternative Perspectives on Orality, Literacy and Education: A View from South Africa. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 1 (2): 95-111

  • Icaza, R and Vazquez, R. 2018. Diversity or Decolonisation? Researching Diversity at the University of Amsterdam in Bhambra, G.K., Gebrial, D and Nişancıoğlu, K (eds), Decolonising the University? London: Pluto Press.

  • Mpofu, W. 2019. Doing decoloniality in the westernised university in Africa: A philosophy of liberation take. Paper presented at the Decolonisation Colloquium of The Centre for Teaching and Learning, University of the Free State, (23 August)

  • Seligmann, J and Gravett, S. 2010. Literacy development as ‘a marginalised pedagogical service enterprise’ or as social practice in the disciplines? Education As Change, 14, 107-120.

  • Slevin, J.F. 2007. Academic Literacy and the Discipline of English. Profession, 200-209.



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