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23 November 2022

Pedagogies of Defiance by Sita Balani

In this exclusive extract from Wasafiri 112: Reimagining Education, Sita Balani considers the dissonance of the university's role in authoritarian nationalism and simultaneous embrace of the language of ‘decolonisation'. Drawing on the lessons of anticolonial and migrant struggles, Balani works to construct a pedagogy of defiance beyond the university’s limits.

You can read the full excerpt in Wasafiri 112, now available to download or purchase online.


I was brand new to the department, and, despite having spent most of my life in education, I had little understanding of how a university worked. I could make a convincing enough picket-line speech about how marketisation had produced bloated bureaucracies and enabled a creeping securitisation, but I had no idea of how to actually navigate – much less resist – the Byzantine administrative systems that had been created. I spent long meetings trying to compose my face to signify that I was following along rather than bored or bewildered. This meeting was different. The university’s Prevent Officer had come to speak to us. I can’t remember now if he had been given a more euphemistic title (College Liaison for Security and Welfare? Assistant to the Dean for Identity and Information?) but I was told he was the Prevent Officer and had come to respond to our concerns. I shared the grievances of my new colleagues but had no idea how to present them without calling this young, well-presented, smiling man a racist, which seemed quite bold given my new and tenuous position in the department. My smarter and more practised colleagues detailed our objections to the elaborate process of vetting external speakers, and the demand that they show their passports in order to claim a measly honorarium. The Head of Department patiently explained that we had signed up to be educators, not border officials or informants, and we felt that the College’s over-zealous interpretation of the recently passed Counter Terrorism and Security Act was exacerbating racial disparities within the university. A frown pinched at the Prevent Officer’s face, but when he came to respond, he took the patient, bemused tone you would adopt when dealing with a sweet but emotional child.
I think there’s been something of a misunderstanding here. Nothing has changed. The College has always had these procedures.
My colleagues interjected — that’s not true! I’ve worked here for years! We didn’t have to do any of this until this year! He assured us, still patient, like a kindly, baby-faced uncle, even in the face of our growing hysteria,
This has nothing to do with Prevent.
But you’re the Prevent Officer! Why did they send you to talk to us about Prevent if this is nothing to do with Prevent?
This is nothing to do with Prevent. This system has always been in place. We’ve simply changed the online portal. I’m here to help answer any questions about how to use the online portal.
His tone had changed. We had offended him; he looked almost hurt. He was lying to us, lying to our faces, yet he managed to present himself as a reasonable man, injured by our wilful misunderstanding. This was an ordinary event, banal even, but instructive. There are two kinds of lies: ones that you’re supposed to believe and others that are designed to remind you that the liar has power over you.


After teaching in universities for four years on the back of exactly four hours of training, I was sent on a teacher training course. At this point, I had taught literally thousands of students, but I had to complete it to get off probation. As did everyone else gathered in the airless basement classroom. We expected to learn techniques for small group work, or how best to format a PowerPoint presentation, but instead we were given a two-page document outlining the university’s ‘education strategy’ for the next ten years. A quick skim suggested this ‘strategy’ amounted to:
  1. Increase class sizes

  2. Reduce optional modules

  3. Make everyone do an internship

These practical steps were accompanied by a careful and committed process of redefinition: the cuts are simplification; the increase in class size is moving everything online and calling it blended learning; the internship is service. Someone from Senior Management (the Executive Dean for Futures? Acting Head of Vision?) was coming to discuss the strategy with us, so in our groups we were to make a list of ‘opportunities’ and ‘challenges’ to share with her. What if we have objections to the strategy? I asked. Can we raise those?
Challenges. Those are challenges.


In my first year as a Graduate Teaching Assistant, I ran the seminars for a Comparative Literature class. As is so often the case in Literature departments, the class was dominated numerically by young women, but socially by the presence of two young men, one of whom, E, would come to class wearing a three-piece suit, and would extravagantly check the time on his gold pocket watch whenever he grew bored of me or his classmates (which was often). This was in the years before Milo Yiannopoulos came to public attention, and before New York Times profiles of well-heeled neo-fascists drinking cortados in Brooklyn coffee shops, so, at first, I assumed he was demonstrating a set of benign – perhaps even charming – subcultural attachments. I was quickly proven wrong. E posited a smarmy, sophomoric objection to almost everything, and rolled his eyes and pouted whenever the discussion veered away from his attempts to control it. In the final week, we examined the human rights report as a genre. He proclaimed that Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike were manipulative and that he did not care if they lived or died. I felt a jolt of fear run through me, both at the cool violence of his statement and because it was now my job to respond to him. I was saved from this burden though. With impeccable grace, and no small measure of restraint, the other students tore him a new one. As they revealed each layer of his entitlement and hubris, my body flooded with relief. I was saved by these smart, fearless young women. Yet in the wake of my relief came shame; I was supposed to protect these young women, but I was also, apparently, supposed to maintain some kind of ‘neutrality’, to protect free speech, to be the objective arbiter of the emerging culture war, to be a good teacher, to keep the peace. This time the students had stepped in. What if the next time they fell silent? When the module evaluations came in, one stood out. When asked about the content of the course, a student wrote: Too many books from Africa.
Sita Balani is a writer and educator. In her research and teaching, she explores the relationship between imperialism and identity in contemporary Britain. She is the co-author of Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State (Pluto Press, 2021). She has published in Open Democracy, Vice, Five Dials, and The White Review. Edited by Darren ChettyAngelique Golding, and Nicola RollockWasafiri 112: Reimagining Education considers what education means within and beyond the classroom, investigating government intervention and the reclamation and exploration of decolonisation, and addressing the forces of change and continuity in Britain today. Featuring interviews with Inua Ellams, Gary Younge, and Steve Garner; fiction from Durre Shawar and Jade E Bradford; poetry from Salena Godden; life writing from Diane Leedham, and much more, this is an issue not to be missed.
        Cover photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
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