Teaching Humanitarianism: The Need for a More Responsive Framework

In this blog post Southern Responses Research Associate Dr Estella Carpi reflects on her experiences of teaching humanitarianism in different countries and languages.  These experiences have led her to acknowledge and question different academic cultural frameworks of displacement, migration and humanitarian action and provided insight into how this can help to challenge and remould the humanitarian mainstream narrative.  

This blog was posted on the 18th of June, 2018. 

Teaching Humanitarianism:  The Need for a More Responsive Framework.

By Dr Estella Carpi, Research Associate, Southern Responses to Displacement project.

In this blog I  reflect on some lectures I delivered on humanitarianism in Lebanese, Turkish, and Italian universities over the last three years, and  on the “public afterlife” of my experience of teaching, the language I used in those classes, and the response I received from different cohorts of students. This will allow me to tease out some of the current epistemological challenges of my primary area of studies and underscore the very importance of de-centring the humanitarian discourse.

Speaking of and teaching humanitarianism cannot produce the same effects everywhere, especially when the framework used to explain theories and concepts is not culturally customised, but is rather drawn on the one developed in British and Northern American universities and institutions.

The act of teaching humanitarian ideologies, policies, and practices is thus necessarily an act of social positioning. It is about positioning the social and public Self as a teacher, and it is about the teacher presupposing the social positioning of her own audience.

More generally, in order to teach, we all rely on what Pierre Bourdieu defined as “linguistic capital”, the set of linguistic capabilities, ways of expressing oneself, and embracement of normative terminologies which characterise everyone’s speech. In that sense, we are all linguistically political when we choose one term at the expense of another.

As lecturers in class we own the biggest linguistic and epistemic power: But is the language I use legitimate in response to different students and backgrounds? I am not a native English speaker myself, but having received my postgraduate education in humanitarianism in an Australian university, English is my mother tongue for teaching humanitarianism. This is a factor worth reflecting on, especially when delivering lectures in countries diversely familiar with the English language, and where English is not the official language.

What shapes the cultural pattern of students across Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy is certainly not solely their national origin.  However, there is an overarching cultural framing of a multiplicity of backgrounds that  forms an identifiable “academic culture” within different countries. It is in this sense that I will now compare my teaching experience in Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy.

Likewise, teaching exposes the lecturer to multiple encounters at once. The encounter with the students first – the immediate interlocutors of the teaching frame. Second, the encounter with one’s own society at large, which may identify with a single geographic space or more than one – as the teacher, by conveying knowledge and, hopefully, triggering critical stimuli, comes with an experiential baggage accumulated in one or more societies that historically shape the teacher’s way of thinking, speaking, and building the teacher-student encounter. Third, it is also an encounter with the multiple societies of the others, that is, all of the societies “summarised” into the intellectual presence of each student in class.

It is exactly this collective moment, made of several encounters at once, that characterises the ways in which humanitarianism is both individually thought and culturally nuanced.

In light of this, each academic culture frames displacement, migration, and humanitarian action differently. The latter are undoubtedly tied up to broader politics and social processes which often intertwine, but each of them is differently thought and responded to in Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy. I experienced linguistic solipsism when I lectured in Turkey, as I realised how unfamiliar the students were with my Anglo-centric way of explaining humanitarianism-related topics. The most responsive to my lectures were the Lebanese students, who seemed to be highly familiar with the terminological and conceptual toolkit of the catastrophe discourse.

These reflections of mine suggest that alternative humanitarianisms should be taught to unlearn their “alternative” – that is non-mainstream – character. This can be done if students are also allowed to develop contents and critical consciousness in their first language too. Challenging and remoulding the humanitarian mainstream narrative rather than including within it different models of humanitarianism conceived and developed in the countries of the “global South” is the most realistic move we can now make, by departing from questioning what we teach. Without these approaches there is an imposition of one above many possible understandings of – and ways of teaching – humanitarianism. Individual responses, cultural patterns, ideologies, and material circumstances will always colour humanitarianism differently. The teacher’s challenge should be expanding the students’ gaze across political histories, human behaviours and moral expectations, while conveying one’s own identity peacefully. This is certainly not an easy job.

A longer version of this article can be found at: http://publicanthropologist.cmi.no/2018/04/26/teaching-humanitarianism-in-lebanon-turkey-and-italy/

For further information on alternative humanitarianism and challenging and remoulding the humanitarian mainstream narrative please read:  

Humanitarianism and Postcoloniality:  A look at academic texts.  In this blog post Southern Responses’ Research Associate, Dr Estella Carpi, uses her experience of teaching humanitarianism in Lebanon, Turkey and Italy, to examine how ‘northern-born’ theories and frameworks of humanitarianism interact with the ‘cultural dispositions’ of students and how, in turn, these interactions influence student responses to humanitarian teaching.

Featured Photo:  The Malaysian Gifted Learning Centre, Baddawi.  (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh.  2018

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