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Safe(r) spaces? Experiences from problem-based learning in higher education

Publié le 10 janvier 2024 Mis à jour le 10 janvier 2024

Séance du séminaire RefleX, campus de Charleroi, Mardi 23/01 de 11 à 13h

Abstract: The notion of ‘safe space’ has been devised as a way to enhance the inclusion and feelings of safety for members of marginalized groups in academia. But it has also been heavily criticized. For those radically opposing it, it is presented as stifling free speech and the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and truth that is assumed to characterize academia. But even those who are more sympathetic to the idea, often propose qualifications and adjustments – marked by alternative terms like ‘brave spaces’ or ‘communities of disagreement’ – to indicate that full safety for everyone can simply not be guaranteed in academia.

In this talk, I want to reflect on the (un)safety of academic spaces in the context of the method of problem-based learning which is standard at my university. Small groups of students (12-15) work together to explore so-called ‘problem tasks’ through literature study and class discussions. This method offers possibilities for engaging more intimately with difficult topics like racism, homophobia, ableism, or sexism. But this setting can also exacerbate inequalities by exposing the privileges enjoyed by some, while putting students from marginalized groups ‘on the spot’.

In this talk, I share some of my experiences with this method and invite the participants for a dialogue on issues of (un)safety and critical pedagogy in the classroom.

Sophie Withaeckx is assistant professor in philosophy (UD) at Maastricht University. Sophie has experience in teaching courses in gender studies and feminist theory; philosophy and ethics; sociology; project work. Her research has focused on understandings of culture, gender, and morality in experiences with violence. She has also been involved in research on transnationalism and transmigration and its impact on social work. Her current research examines how normative understandings of ‘humanity’ shape public spaces and institutions and in particular how diversity and ‘decolonization’ become managed in higher education. She also examines the ethics of transnational adoption and inquires how taken-for-granted notions of humanness, family and kinship underlie ethics and practice in transnational adoption.
The seminar series RefleX offers a place to collectively think and discuss the relationship between our research and our teaching practices at university. It aims to be a place to share for researchers working on race, class, gender inside or outside university, and/or adopting a decolonial and critical perspective in their research.

RefleX is a multi and transdisciplinary space (history, political science, sociology, philosophy, education…) where we can develop a dialogue on our daily educational practices. The seminar series is rooted in the call to decolonize knowledge in academic space and interrogates the relationship between this process and the evolution of educational practices.

Each speaker presents one aspect of their academic work and shares their ideas about their own teaching practices. The discussion is then opened by a discussant, who highlights the contribution of the presentation to the collective dialogue and asks questions to open the debate with all the participants.

Sessions will be held in French or English.

Le 23 janvier 2024

ULB CampusUCharleroi

Centre universitaire Zénobe Gramme

Boulevard Solvay 31

6000 Charleroi