TRU Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

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Precarious Academic Spaces and the Professoriate: Teaching Plurality

Photo by Aqib Touheed

What are the dynamics of increasing plurality and heterogeneity in higher education classrooms and online learning spaces? What are the potential repercussions of faculty or institutions making their syllabi public? How are professors adhering to or resisting allegiance to the explicit or implied patronage (whatever form that takes in different geopolitical spaces) in their pedagogical decisions?

These are a few of the questions that arose at the South Asian Literary Association Conference in Seattle, Washington January 7th to 9th, 2020. The conference theme was South Asia in the Academy: Classroom Practices, Professional Citizenship, and Intellectual Agency. On behalf of coauthors, Payel Chattopadhyay Mukherjee and David Parkinson, I presented our paper entitled, “At Home with the Other: intercultural empathy through critical literacies”.

In times of increased wariness of the other and of polarized views and friction between ideologies, what are the politics of the professoriate? My frame of reference is as an administrator, associate director of the teaching and learning centre at a mid-sized university in the interior of British Columbia, Canada. It is my responsibility to “support the development of engaging pedagogies through innovative professional development, personalized consulting and supportive educational leadership” and to “facilitate a teaching culture that improves student learning, successful transitions and learner retention” (Mission:  Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching retrieved from:

Questions at the conference in formal and informal dialogues considered, “What does precarity mean for the pedagogical choices that professors make?”, and more specifically, “What happens when you teach ‘Pakistan’”? The implication here is what might result of teaching about Pakistani cultural and literary narratives? The view as discussed in informal spaces during the conference was that such a topic could be considered a problem by some students, political groups or national authorities. Yet, I have failed to imagine that such considerations would have reach into the academic spaces I know in the Canadian higher educational context. My ignorance arises from various forms of privilege that are conferred to me and that I have not thoroughly inspected recently. As a result of this failure and naivity, I might consider better appreciating that the institutions where I study and where I work generally uphold the ideals and practices of academic freedom of the professoriate. My foundational studies in the humanities welcomed politics and contentious topics and as coauthors we have sought to intentionally investigate and examine critical issues and to foster students moving from cultural literacies to critical thinking. Critical thinking can serve as an antidote to indifference in social and learning spaces.

At one point, working with this group, we were crafting a research ethics application to investigate the effects of a novel pedagogy linking lectures and undergraduate students across two classes in Canada with one in India. We considered to what extent there are risks inherent to teaching literature, especially in intercultural and transcultural contexts. In particular, we wondered in what might emerge from facilitated and no-facilitated student discussions when the selected texts focused on marginalized and violent experiences and agency of the protagonists? What intercultural learning can evolve when contentious topics were purposely yet carefully surfaced?

Contentious topics that invite debate are the same ones that invite student engagement and the potential expansion of views, namely critical thinking. But, it may be increasingly precarious to do justice to these topics, especially for some members of the professoriate and in some academic spaces. I hope to be able to shift some conversations with colleagues to find out more on how we can maintain and defend academic freedom and freedom of thought in Canadian academic spaces while doing justice to the responsibilities of teaching critical thinking and intercultural empathy, even when the position of the professor, and academic spaces, may becoming more precarious.

Learning Space (1/3)

A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend the LearnxDesign conference hosted at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. During the conference I presented a paper on a relatively recent project I had undertaken to better understand the needs of faculty with respect to some upcoming classroom renovations. Afterwards I was part of a team that edited a special issue of FORMakademisk about design in learning.

Seeing that my role once again is intersecting with the needs of faculty with respect to classroom and learning space design, it thought I would go back to that unpublished paper and pull forward a few basic principles of theory that were discussed at that conference, and also provide a quick summary of the results from the research project. These ideas will be presented in three parts, the first (this one) looks at some of the basics and background of learning space design, the second the results of our small study, and the third, a summary of some of the current work being done in this area with thoughts about the future.

For many reasons, including but not limited to proximity, function, tradition, and personal aesthetic preferences, learning space use and allocation is a concern shared by students, faculty, administration, and staff. The placement of amenities such as eating areas and comfort facilities, the re-appropriation of classroom, lab, office, or library space, and what constitutes the best designs for a modern classroom bring forward debate and passionate opinions. What this means is that we are invested in, and interested in how our physical environments are constructed, especially those that we spend a great deal of time using.  They matter to how we feel, how we teach, and how we learn. Though we could naïvely reduce the act of learning to happening only in the mind, learning and teaching is truly an embodied practice- one’s body and mind co-exist within a space and engage in forms of learning that go beyond cognition and are influenced by the affordances and restrictions present in the physical and psychological environment. Both students and teachers are influenced by the context that they find themselves in, which means that the design and allocation of learning spaces has a direct influence on teaching and learning.

The study of learning environments is not new, and others have written extensively about how people learn in a variety of spaces (see Oblinger, 2006). As a social psychologist I am particularly rooted in the work of Lewin (1936) who stated that behaviour is a function of the person and the environment (BfPE). Lewin’s field theories argued that the physical and psychological words are both dynamic, fluid, and flexible, and that our mind interacts with physical space to create behaviour (Shoda, 2004). Systems theories further this point and address the ways that humans are connected to their environments and the myriad reciprocal interactions between behaviour and the environment which foster or hinder learning (Millová & Blatný, 2015). Social constructivist theories (see Vygotsky, 1978) argue that knowledge is socially situated and developed in relationship with others. All three of these theories focus more on the student as a learner, not on the teacher as a transmitter of information.

When we look at many traditional North American universities built in the 1960s-1980s to respond to the influx of students enrolling in universities, the institutional architecture was developed with the anticipation of teacher-centred learning which reflected and reinforced the idea of teaching as a form of transmission. Subsequently, the accompanying media and seating systems are designed as to facilitate a passive approach to learning (Biggs, 1999; Jamieson, 2003). One only needs to cast their mind to a theatre-style university classroom with tiered, fixed seating facing the front, to see how the environment dictates the type of activity (lack of activity) that is preferred. Only the instructor faces forward, looking to students to transmit knowledge through speech, visual presentations, and body language. On the other hand, many modern active learning classrooms have started to direct us away from this approach and provide moveable seating, flat floors, and sometimes ‘pods’ or group table with a shared screen and the ability to connect computers or phones to project content on the screen. In between these spaces exist flat classrooms with fixed seating, large lecture halls with flexible seating, and myriad purpose-built and retro-fitted designs that suit the esoteric wants and needs of specific people and places. It is now the case that universities contain all of these spaces- built up over time as campuses evolved and shifted to meet changing demands.

These various architectures present not only a challenge to instructors, but to students, facilities planners, staff who allocate classroom and meeting space, and coordinators who determine class size and composition. If behaviour is a function of a person and the environment, and we are unconsciously influenced in our learning and teaching by the physical space we find ourselves in, then we have an almost infinite number of variables including both the person and the environment which are interplay in each one of our classroom spaces. How do we physically equip spaces when we don’t have full awareness of the people, or the anticipated behaviours we are creating for? What are the salient pieces of classroom architecture that contribute to a better learning experience? What opportunity do we have to think about the assumptions at play in order to negotiate this complicated learning-space interaction? How does the physical classroom influence teaching as well as learning?

These questions and others were part of the impetus for the study we conducted as we tried to determine what space was being used for, and then develop a renovation plan to create spaces that would best meet the needs of the anticipated future users.


Biggs, J. (1999). Constructive alignment in university teaching. HERDSA Review of Higher Education (1). 1-22.

Jamieson, P. (2003). Designing more effective on‐campus teaching and learning spaces: A role for academic developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 8(1/2), 119‐133. Oblinger, D. (2006). Learning Spaces. Louisville, CO: Educause.

Millová, K., & Blatný, M. (2015). Personality development: Systems theories. (pp. 879-883) Elsevier Ltd. doi:10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.23035-3

Shoda, Y. (2004). Individual differences in social psychology: Understanding situations to understand people, understanding people to understand situations. The Sage handbook of methods in social psychology, 117-141.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society. London: Harvard University Press.

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