Justine Seran

ShowJacket.aspTaylor, Yvette. Ed. Educational Diversity: The Subject of Difference and Different Subjects. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Last September I was chairing a panel at the Critical Pedagogies Symposium[i], avidly soaking up knowledge and experience from speakers, researchers and educators from many disciplines. One question seemed to come back again and again during the day: “how?” How do we put educational theory into practice? How do we navigate the neoliberal university? How do we negotiate our own feminist position in academia? How do we deal with institutionalised whiteness, privilege, and discrimination?

Issues of equality and diversity have been heralded for some time now as a central feature of the British university, displayed on websites and glossy brochures, as Professor Heidi Safia Mirza reminded her audience during her keynote speech at the Symposium. Yet how does the British system fare in this area? Indeed, is there a single institution that can be said to perform successfully in the area of equality and diversity? And even then, isn’t diversity as performance a problematic notion in itself?

Educational Diversity is an ambitious edited collection based on a seminar series. It opens with two complementary Forewords, the first one by Diane Reay describing the book as “spanning all stages of education and every aspect of diversity” while attempting to reclaim diversity from right-wing neoliberal co-optation (ix), and the second one by Jon Binnie remarking on the strong focus on Higher Education (HE) in general and the UK system in particular. He rightly calls for an international comparative study taking into account all factors of inequality, including age.

In her opening chapter, Yvette Taylor mentions the recent legislation changes in Europe and points to the fact that there is actually no objective measurement criteria because “diversity is a lived-in reality” (2). Section 1 places diversity in the context of compulsory education. Val Gillies tackles the contentious topic of discipline in the classroom and the struggle to reconcile equality with diversity. She mentions “contradictory pressures” on UK schools and the recent focus on emotionality as opposed to tackling institutional inequality, thus fostering the use of therapeutic models on student learning and well-being (20). The individualisation of educational issues is also remarked upon in Vanita Sundaram and Alison Wilde’s essay on special needs students and their views on fairness and marginalisation through the use of vignettes. They highlight the need for such alternative research methods to work with disadvantaged pupils. The subject of disability is explored further by Elizabeth S. Matthews’s focus on the disappearance of sign language education in Ireland and the mainstreaming of deaf pupils, through a Foucauldian analysis of subjectification due to the medicalisation of deafness, as well as the negative image of sign language. Yu-Chieh Hsieh moves the focus to Taiwan’s secondary education system and the implementation of the Gender Equality Education Act (GEEA) in 2004, relating to gender and sexuality in education, and how teachers’ perceptions of gender inform their practice in the classroom.

Section 2 on HE starts with Sarah Evans’s recapitulation of the changes to the university application process in UK universities following the introduction of tuition fees in 1998 and their trebling in 2010. She then focuses on the experiences of working-class and ethnic minority students who are “othered” by the education system, as well as their attempts at claiming an authentic identity that often cost them their place at university due to the lack of transparency in the selection process. Kath Bridger and Jenny Shaw tackle the issue of access by looking at equality and/in the curriculum to “address patterns of privilege and disadvantage that have been embedded in the HE system for centuries” (120). They mention the business case for widening participation, a strategy often used by universities, and assert that fostering institutional change is more effective than an individual approach amounting to tokenism. Ian Hodges and Sanjay Jobanputra then look at the personal experiences of undergraduate students of Psychology from British and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds, as well as male Gay and Bisexual students, who demand better inclusion of the issues they face in the curriculum, and deplore the fact that contemporary Psychology is a white male heterocentric discipline. Kay Inckle builds up on this assessment through her own non-normative embodiments and advocates a “move from dualism to holism” (160). Section 2 then ends with Kimberley Allen, Jocey Quinn, Suni Hollingworth, and Anthea Rose’s study of the creative industries’ mostly unpaid placements, and remark that we live in an “audit culture” with regular performance assessments where an individualisation of issues, here again, is used to mask structural inequalities (181).

In Section 3, Sara Ahmed’s engaging chapter explores the issue of embodying diversity as a black woman academic, yet remaining the other, the “guest” of whiteness (203). She asserts that when numbers are used as performance indicators, “(t)his model of diversity reifies difference as something that already exists ‘in’ the  bodies of others,” as universities value the diversity of their staff and student bodies, in both meanings of the word (206). As Ahmed put it, in the contemporary university system, “(d)iversity becomes about changing perceptions of whiteness rather than changing the whiteness of organisations” (208-9). Damien Riggs’s essay opens with a traditional address to the country, a practice that would be familiar to the Australian reader and consists in acknowledging the first owners of the land one works or delivers their research findings on. He then raises the vital questions of gaze and standpoint, seeking to de-centre the Western bias in education and social work, disciplines that often assume well-meaning but patronising attitudes. Michelle Addison’s study of class disparities among UK university staff is also enlightening as it raises the issues of brand embodiment in HE and of the “inappropriateness” of non-conforming bodies, which leads to their exclusion and effacement (246). Finally, Yvette Taylor concludes with an exploration of the intersections of sexuality and class in HE, and particularly the “insider/outsider” position of feminists in academia (259).

Educational Diversity is a rich interdisciplinary collection showcasing a wide range of theoretical approaches and methodologies. However, I was left wondering about the praxis that could be built on the theory, as the recommendations behind the findings are often missing and few essays go beyond stating numbers to mention what actually works and how we can change things at our end as educators.

The strong focus on the UK system is acknowledged, yet no mention is made of the reasons for the exclusions of the Scottish education system and its very distinct history. While most articles are social science research projects lead in schools and universities across England, an international comparative approach would have been welcome, especially with fellow European countries, to assess the impact on equality and diversity of the UK’s exceptional status when it comes to the following: fees, class divides, entry requirements, state/private status, funding, curriculum, and management style.

This collection constitutes a very useful read for anyone with an interest in education and social justice because of the way it raises issues and gathers interdisciplinary strands, but the overall impression is let down by a few typographical errors and a rather unappealing animal-themed cover picture with the title printed in Comic Sans font type.

Justine SERAN PhotoJustine Seran is a PhD candidate with the English Literature department at the University of Edinburgh. Her doctoral thesis examines intersubjectivity and relationality in Australian Aboriginal and Aotearoa/New Zealand Maori women’s writing. She also reviews for the Journal of Postcolonial Writing and had published previously on Keri Hulme’s short stories. Wider interests include decolonising methodologies and exploring literary processes of Indigenous cultural survivance in settler colonial nations.