BY Farzana Haniffa
The Sri Lankan university system celebrated 100 years of university education in the humanities and social sciences in 2021. As part of the centenary commemoration, the UGC with the head of the standing committee as the organizer organized a conference on the state present in the teaching of the humanities and social sciences. . The conference brought together some of the best minds in the humanities and social sciences (H and SS) in the country and was an indication that the disciplines were alive and well in Sri Lanka.
Yet there is very little recognition or acceptance of the kind of knowledge that H and SS can bring to the table in the quality assurance process mediated by UGC. Even a cursory review of the quality assurance framework level descriptors reveals how little the H and SS perspectives seem to have had in their formulation. While acknowledging the ongoing important work of the Standing Committee to raise the profile of H&SS within our universities, I would like to discuss a recent experience that speaks to the current level of disregard for these disciplines in the world of quality assurance.
The AHEAD project is the latest exercise in university improvement funded by the World Bank and the mantra of “employability” – the controversial ground from which all recent higher education policies are developed – is also driving this. particular project cycle. The workshop we attended was titled “How to Integrate Employability Skills into Teaching and Learning in University Education Using the Sri Lanka Quality Assurance Framework (SLQF)”. These workshops are ubiquitous within the university system and are facilitated by a group of academics who have long been committed to the SLQF process.
The workshop was part of the ongoing systematization process at the university where we are required to write our lesson plans in a uniform format that names all the expected learning outcomes (ILOs) for the program and course. This workshop focused on how to write learning outcomes at the lesson level.
The first 15 minutes of the workshop were devoted to describing what results-based education is. The outcome we foresee must be programmed into our activities from the start, we were told. If we don’t, we will be disappointed with what we “produce”. The final “product” we had to envision using the SLQF framework was a “good citizen” who could contribute to society. We were then asked to imagine the manufacture of a building, or a car. Such a product needs plans and a master plan. When planning a “human product” too, we should think about planning the production process. A “human product” is more complex, because individuality must be taken into account, we were told. Each individual is different and we have less control over the process with Human Products. We were also told that no matter how difficult, if we have a plan for the process, we can be assured of at least some great similarities in our “products”.
In our H and SS programs, we constantly strive to teach students to unlearn what has become “normal” in popular language. Using the language of the market and the process of producing salable goods to refer to students would be an example of the neoliberal creep of commodification that we would caution students to be aware of. We suggest that failing to view students as complex individuals with particular histories and personalities, and as people with whom we form relationships and whose talents and abilities we cultivate, is a process of dehumanization. We would like to draw attention to the fact that such language encourages viewing students as indescribable cogs in the wheel of a capitalist system, and that the use of dehumanizing language has dehumanizing consequences.
My point regarding the training workshop is this: there is no inherent problem in designing lesson plans and general learning outcomes. It’s good for planning and it’s efficient. However, the absence of any sensitivity to language indicates the absence of an H and SS perspective. Outcomes-based education could also have been described as a preparatory process essential to students’ growth, the encouragement of their creativity and the development of their skills. Direction and structure are a necessary basis from which creativity can emerge. The fact that such language was not used testifies both to ignorance of the H and SS approach and also to a lack of imagination in the formulation of the objective of quality assurance. The ultimate goal of the SLQF format and the workshop – as its title suggested – was to integrate ’employability skills’. And the current definition of “employability skills,” as has been discussed many times in this column, is blatant and limiting.
Using a production metaphor to refer to the students also meant that half of the workshop attendees were completely put off by the presentation. Even more troubling, the other half were eager to learn the language of the business to ensure it was operating well in accordance with the requirements of the current exemption. In the process, irreparable harm was done to the way both groups of young H and SS scholars approached and valued their disciplinary training.
The trainer’s own assessment of H and SS knowledge was further illustrated in the example she eventually used to teach us how to write lesson learning outcomes. We needed to use verbs to match different learning levels and provide content that matched the verb. To illustrate how to do this, the trainer used an example that she thought would be familiar to us in H and SS: the social determinants of health, known to people in economics, sociology, psychology and other disciplines. , we were told.
The following is a faithful description of the discussion of how to produce OLIs when teaching about the social determinants of health.
We should start with the verb ‘List’, it was suggested, and have the first OIT be: ‘List the common social determinants of health’ because these are ‘basic things that a student should know before finding the social determinants that a particular person is affected by. .”
The second OIT was more confusing. The trainer said he should start with the verb “Explain” – “an act that requires[s] a little more intellectual activity. She then described what a student should be able to “explain” about the social determinants of health. “What would be a social determinant of health that affects a heavy smoker? Maybe smoking is done in a group under social pressure, maybe it’s his job – there are jobs where you get free cigarettes.
The trainer went on to tell us that we should then ask the students to analyze a health problem to identify the social determinants of health, and then devise strategies for modifying the social determinants of health. It soon became clear to some of us that the trainer had no idea what the Social Determinants of Health were: the social macro-factors impacting the unequal conditions in which people live, and not reducible to social circle or the social life of a single individual, as assumed by the coach.
The somewhat criticized but easy to google definition reads:
“[The social determinants of health] are the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live and age, and the larger set of forces and systems that shape the conditions of daily life. These forces and systems include economic policies and systems, development programs, social norms, social policies and political systems.
The trainer had made no effort to research the social determinants of health when he chose to use them as an example.
I choose this incident not primarily to shame the trainer, but to highlight a broader malaise affecting the university system and education policy-making. The assumption behind the trainer’s inability to understand the social determinants of health before using them to teach us is that knowledge of H and SS does not require expertise. The years we spend teaching students to recognize different forms of inequality and marginalization, to explain their stories, how they persist, to analyze the material effects of such situations and their prevalence in students’ own contexts, and to designing creative strategies to reverse persistent inequality and marginalization, are negated in the assumptions of the trainer.
I present this example as an illustration of what we, teachers and researchers in the social sciences, experience on a daily basis – an undervaluation of the expertise that we can bring. The general lack of value placed on those with an arts degree has turned into a widespread “employability” policy within the university system – even among some social sciences and humanities educators. These policies devalue the value of the H and SS perspectives and undermine and weaken the integrity of these programs.
(The author is a professor and head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Colombo.)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy taking place on the fringes of the amphitheater that simultaneously parodies, subverts and reaffirms social hierarchies.