(Beyond) the death of global service-learning and the white saviour undone

Judy Bruce, University of Canterbury, New Zealand   The critique of global service-learning is now well established in academic literature and here, on this blog site. Did you read for example, Rich Slimbach’s critique of the ‘White Saviour’? His reference to Teju Cole’s Twitter still leaves me feeling identity ‘cringe’: “The white saviour supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening". Most of us are unlikely to actually found charities, or receive awards, but we are arguably all complicit in supporting “brutal policies” while simultaneously engaging in charitable and justice work. Where does critique leave the field of global service-learning? Why in the face of relentless critique do we continue to struggle for space? And if we persist, what alternative possibilities exist for the field? In this blog I provide a very brief summary of the critique levied against the field (for those of you that have managed to escape this!). In light of this potentially paralysing critique, I suggest one possible reason for the desire to persist; and finally, I consider a theoretical and practical alternative. The white saviour undone The HEADSUP tool (Andreotti, 2012) provides a useful framework for recognising the limitations of dominant and enduring global engagement practices. The tool has significance for global service-learning projects as a tool for reflexively thinking about the kinds of programs that we implement. The tool invites us to question our practices by considering the extent to which we are cognisant of, or complicit in the following:
  • Hegemony. The justification of superiority and the support of domination. Hegemony reinforces/justifies the status quo.
  • Ethnocentrism. The projection of one’s view as universal, better, right and/or superior. An understanding that one’s view is central and others are peripheral/fringe.
  • Ahistoricism. Forgetting historical legacies and complicities. The implementation of programmes/projects without complex historical analysis and recognition of our own complicities.
  • Depoliticisation. No regard for power inequalities & ideologies. A lack of ideological and structural analysis.
  • Salvationism. Framing help as the burden of the fittest. An uncritical desire to help others ‘progress’ and develop in order that they may participate in a dominant global system. Often a project of self-betterment.
  • Uncomplicated solutions. Offers ‘feel good’ quick fixes, which lack complexity and any form of hyper-self-reflexivity (deeply challenging one’s owns views through humility and an openness to being altered). Offers easy and simple ‘solutions’ that do not require systemic change.
  • Paternalism. Waiting for a ‘thank you’. Seeking affirmation through paternalistic acts toward others including the portrayal of others as in need of education, health care, etc.
Any detailed reading of such critiques can render us paralysed. In a sense, I find myself in a double-bind of sorts. If I act then I may become complicit in causing harm, and in not acting I may also cause harm, or at least allow others to carry out harm. In spite of such critiques I find myself desiring to continue to express my ‘love’ for others through acts of justice, charity and humility. So I am left, like many of us with this persistent question: why in light of this critique, do I continue to desire a position of ethicality toward others? The desire to persist I argue here that desire is complex, metaphysical, and deeply affective. It emerges within us contingently at the intersections of unique genealogies of politics, history and culture. The work of theorising desire for ‘development’ and for the ‘Other[1]’ is undoubtedly complex yet very necessary for those of us engaged in intercultural and global contexts. Desire has been defined as: “(1) arising out of some determinate lack, (2) proceeding towards some determinate presence or object, and (3) concluding in the satisfaction or restoration of the subject in the absorption of that object” (Dalton, 2011, p. 23). As Figure 1 illustrates, (often unconscious) desire for the Other may become instrumental in the economic performativity of the Other as we shroud the Other in our notions of development, or in the ‘devouring’ of the Other for personal gain, and/or as a project of self-betterment (Bruce, 2015). Figure 1: Ethical Relationality with the Other.  BruceFig1 Interrogating desire provides a way for us to think otherwise about complex issues of modernity, development and otherness (Figure 1). Where a modern, development perspective often positions the Other as either excluded or performative for economic benefit, the critical resistance perspective may at best allow the Other to exist alongside us. We see side-by-side existences in proclamations of tolerance, celebrations of diversity, and in social justice projects which enable the oppressed to participate in modern, development projects – or now knowledge society notions of progress. The postcritical perspective (see Figure 1) explores the possibility of being altered ontologically as a disruption to our stable selves. In a Levinasian sense, it is an ethical call of the Other before will. The postcritical responds through acts of justice but in ways which are interrogative of the privileged ethnocentric subject (still visible in critical resistance perspectives). This positionality takes seriously notions of hyper-self-reflexivity (Kapoor, 2004) or alternative criticality (Burbles & Berk, 1999), emerging out of humility and a desire to be undone in a face to face encounter with alterity. The postcritical is in part a response to Mignolo’s (2011) critique of modernity, which exposes the ways in which the shiny side of modernity can only be built upon the shadow side – of epistemic and anthropocentric violence. If we hold this reading up as a mirror in which to examine global social justice, what would we see if we had eyes to see? By framing desire in a Levinasian way, we may be open to the possibility of being undone through ethical relationality with the Other–decentering and disrupting our stable selves, and this is what Biesta (2006) calls a pedagogy of interruption. In my own emergent teaching, I have hesitantly implemented in very precarious ways a postcritical pedagogy of interruption for global service-learning, and in the final section of this blog I will share some of these ideas with you. Beyond salvationism I use the words ‘hesitantly’ and ‘precariously’ to describe a postcritical approach to service-learning, as I find that there is a great deal of uncertainty. The pedagogical work is deeply affective and ontologically disruptive, and thus both risky and unscripted/unpredictable. A postcritical approach can only be offered as a welcome, and an invitation for participants to engage humbly and openly in ethical relationality with the Other. The risk of being undone through an altering encounter means that this is difficult pedagogical work, and as a teacher my desire to retreat from the risks is always present. Postcolonial and poststructural perspectives inform this approach to service-learning (Andreotti, 2011; Burbles & Berk, 1999). Students are invited to ‘reverse the gaze’, so that instead of positioning the Other/partner as one in need of help or assistance, a postcritical approach asks the student to exercise alternative criticality (Burbules & Berk, 1999)  in reflecting upon their own subjectivities; particularly about the ways in which they think about people radically different to themselves. The postcritical approach is not about doing, helping or serving; it is deeply relational.  Drawing upon Biesta’s idea of a pedagogy of interruption, this approach is founded upon ethical responsibility toward the Other as a position of openness to ‘being taught by the Other’. Biesta (2013) points out that this position is significantly different to ‘learning from the Other’. When one learns from the Other, one takes on some new knowledge and understanding, and this is essentially a project of self-betterment; whereas, being taught by the Other is being open to being altered in a way that destabilizes and disrupts previously held beliefs. Biesta cites Levinas (1991) to explain this further: To approach the Other in conversation … is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity. But this also means: to be taught. The relation with the Other … is an ethical relation; but inasmuch as it is welcomed this conversation is a teaching. Teaching is not reducible to maieutics [i.e., making explicit knowledge that is already inside the learner]; it comes from the exterior and brings me more than I contain (p. 51). Openness to being taught by the Other requires a very different orientation to service-learning and is for the most part, deeply existential. When teaching using a postcritical approach to service-learning, I draw upon a number of postcritical tools including: ‘alternative criticality’ and ‘hyper-self-reflexivity’ (Burbles & Berk, 1999; Kapoor, 2004); humility and openness (Freire, 1998); and the idea of “bracketing judgments” (Kirby, 2009, p.164) and preconceptions of the Other in order to be open to being taught, without prejudice or claims of knowing (Bruce, 2013). Kirby (2009) argues that we are able to reflexively engage in subjective ideas of cultural prejudice through an active ontological position of “catching the thoughts and capturing the emotion” (p.165). Through working with these ideas with my students in class and in the field, I have found many students have been open to a form of gaze reversal. They have journalled openly and honestly – in some cases very honestly (!) about their experiences of bracketing judgements and catching prejudice (Bruce, 2015). Other students I have worked with have clearly resisted the welcome, and have chosen to stay well within their constant selves. As they seek to hold on fiercely to their stable subjectivities, I am mindful of the ethical tensions and dilemmas of engaging pedagogically with difficult knowledges (Britzman, 1998). The (im)possibilities Any approach to global service-learning has possibilities and limitations, and what I suggest here is no exception! Based on my initial work in using this approach I have found it to be risky and precarious and I have often times wanted to retreat. As I reflect upon this pedagogical project many questions circulate: (1) the ethics of inviting students into a project that could (is likely to) invoke ontological/epistemical violence; (2) the ethics of assessing such an emotive and psychic project as a university requirement; and (3) the concerns for the safety of community partners and the risk of (further) instrumentalisation. Nevertheless, there have been poignant moments of disruption to students’ previously held beliefs which render me hopeful of the possibilities of a postcritical approach (Bruce, 2015). And I find myself encouraged by Biesta’s (2014) hope in the beautiful risk of education, and challenged by Britzman’s (1998) ideas of love and risk in education. On the subject of engaging with difficult knowledges, Britzman (1998) writes “what is actually occurring when education represses uncertainty and trauma if the very project of reading and of love requires risking the self?” (p. 55). If global service-learning is in any way a project of love (and I think that it can be), then there will be inherent risks–a risk to self. The risk of being undone through a radical and ethical encounter with the Other, is to me, a risk worth taking.


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Judy Bruce lectures in teacher education at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. She has particular research interests in critical literacies and diversity in education. Judy is currently undertaking research in Global Citizenship Education, Service-Learning, and Community Engagement. Her work draws upon postcolonial studies, and poststructuralism.