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Socially just pedagogies: towards participatory parity in higher education

South Africa remains challenged by persistent poverty and inequality, the ramifications of which are felt across the higher education (HE) sector. Many students enter universities already hindered by socio-economic inequalities as well as discriminatory and oppressive cultural practices which continue to impact on their studies. Whilst considerable effort has been put into transforming HE from within and outside the academy, much still needs to be done to ensure that all students are able to flourish and fully participate as equals on university campuses and within teaching spaces.
This study takes up the complex issues around transforming South African HE through an exploration of two undergraduate gender studies modules at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), an ‘historically disadvantaged’ university which still draws primarily poor and working-class ‘black’ and ‘coloured’ students. The study sought to investigate how HE pedagogical practices could be more cognisant of students’ multifaceted and often extremely challenging contexts, their diverse prior knowledges and lived experiences, and at the same time ignite in students a desire to tackle injustices and bring about change in their own lives.
A wide range of pedagogies claim a social justice approach, seeking to challenge and disrupt injustices within and outside classrooms. Scholars draw on feminist, queer, critical and decolonial pedagogies, pedagogies of discomfort and critical hope, new materialist and critical posthumanist approaches, an ethics of care, the capabilities approach and Slow scholarship. The thesis provides an overview of this landscape before honing in on Nancy Fraser’s understanding of social justice as participatory parity (Fraser, 2009, 2013; Fraser & Honneth, 2003; Olson, 2008). Fraser equates social justice with parity of participation, that is, the ability of all to participate as peers and equals in all arenas of social interaction including laws and policies, cultures and families, work situations, and
civil society. Participatory parity is premised on three dimensions of justice: economic mal/distribution, cultural mis/recognition, and political mis/representation and mis/framing. As Fraser emphasises, whilst it is useful and necessary to examine each of the three dimensions separately for analytic purposes, in reality the three dimensions are intertwined, none is reducible to the other, and none alone is sufficient for participatory parity.
The study had two key aims. Firstly, to explore how thinking with participatory parity might enhance and allow more nuanced understandings of the complexities of injustice in students’ lives, and secondly, to consider how these learnings might inform possibilities for rethinking feminist pedagogical practices for social change. The study adopted a post-qualitative feminist methodology, recruiting thinking with the theory (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012, 2013) of participatory parity. Data were generated from 2016 to 2018, primarily through students’ tasks and submissions supported by focus groups, observations of, and engagements within the two modules.
Thinking with Fraser’s economic dimension revealed the depth and complexities of the material and resource-based challenges facing students on their journeys through HE. Students describe struggling to source adequate finances for a range of basic and essential goods and services such as fees, study materials, affordable and nutritious food, toiletries, transport and suitable accommodation, as well as to find the space and time for studying. Employing the cultural dimension allowed an exploration of intersectional gendered inequalities shaping students’ ability to participate as equals in post-apartheid South Africa. Students’ narratives about their home lives show that,
almost three decades into the democratic era of South Africa, intersectional gendered misrecognition remains pervasive. Whilst students reported some progress towards greater equity in families and homes, at the broader levels of community, culture and religion, heteronormative gender and sexual roles and behaviours remain entrenched, and questioning, transgressing and disrupting norms remains risky. Applying the principle of participatory parity to the Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) pedagogies, particularly the cultural and political dimensions, illuminated ways in which the modules taught in response to and about in/justices. This analysis showed how the pedagogies started with and consistently centred and drew on students’ lives and prior knowledges, and opened these up for dialogue and debate amongst differently positioned peers.
Discussions and debates on ‘real world’ examples – with peers, the teaching team and guest lecturers – furthered students’ awareness of and insights into injustices stemming from hegemonic norms. Through theory, lectures, guest lectures and conversations online and in class, the pedagogies challenged students to think beyond entrenched, simplistic, essentialised norms and binary thinking, to see ways in which they were both products of and implicated in reproducing misrecognition through social norms and relations, and ways in which those who are marginalised are excluded and lack a political voice. Coming to see injustice as systemic and structural prompted
some students to activate for those on the margins, including themselves. Discussing and sharing their moments of agency and activism offered further potential for promoting and deepening understandings of social justice as structural and systemic, for students and their peers.
Whilst important and valuable interventions, these efforts towards feminist and socially just pedagogies cannot escape broader national and global higher education systems and policies, geopolitical knowledge systems, and competitive, marketised neoliberal ideologies. Nevertheless, socially just pedagogies can offer an important contribution through raising awareness of and critically interrogating issues of injustice.

Keywords: pedagogy, social justice, socially just pedagogies, feminist pedagogies, higher education, gender studies, Nancy Fraser, participatory parity, (mal)distribution, (mis)recognition, (mis)representation, (mis)framing, feminist qualitative research, thinking with theory, South Africa

Full Name
Dr Susan Gredley