By Pearl Tan
The push for diversity in many arenas is stronger than ever. In higher education, one way this can manifest, is in higher numbers of students from diverse backgrounds. With more diverse student cohorts, it’s certain that teachers will encounter students who are telling stories from cultures that we do not have lived experience of or are intimately familiar with. Even if we are aware of our unconscious biases, it’s not possible to be across all cultures with their many and varied understandings and interpretations of the elements of storytelling. What we say and do in the classroom, in assessment feedback and during casual conversations with our students can unintentionally affect, confuse, and even waylay our students.
The many challenges that exist across all our teaching can be magnified when it comes to teaching students from diverse backgrounds. How can we create the space for students to feel comfortable in the vulnerable process of the creation of stories? And how is this magnified if our students know that their teachers may not understand the culture, symbols, or structure that they’re working with? How can our students graciously respond to feedback? And how is this challenge exacerbated if the students receive a response they know to be fundamentally flawed? If students aren’t comfortable with our guidance, what can they do and who can they turn to? Is it up to the students to then educate us, their educators, about the specifics of their cultures? If so, how much energy is this taking from our students from diverse backgrounds, and how does this extra burden placed on them affect their ability to learn?
A simple example of these concerns at play is the popular advice of “write what you know”. This phrase can be read as a pressure to conform for students who have spent their lives examining and reflecting on their identities, having had experiences which positioned them as the “outsider”. Another example is the way in which archetypes or story structure may have different rules in other cultures such as Indigenous archetypes (Clague, 2019) or the Five Act structure of Indigenous storytelling which includes additional beats at the front and back end of the traditional three act structure, reflecting storytelling techniques in oral histories (Clague, 2012). Yet another example is when students are asked to explain their culture to a dominant audience within their work, when their intended audience is niche.
One way of thinking that may help with these challenges is to consider and empower our students from diverse backgrounds, as marginally situated knowers. Situated knowledge comes from feminist epistemology where “feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about transcendence and splitting of subject and object” (Haraway, 1988, p. 583). A situated knower is one who is not only examining, but also participating in that which she is exploring. Marginally situated knowers, as opposed to dominantly situated knowers, are more likely to recognise gaps in epistemic knowledge through recognising a tension between what they’re experiencing in the world and the resources available (Pohlhaus, 2012). Furthermore, marginally situated knowers are more likely to be able to create resources that are suited to both marginalised and dominant audiences, due to a richness of experience in dealing with both (Pohlhaus, 2012). A narrative story may be considered an epistemic resource and even when it is not, many parallels can be easily made. If we think of our students as situated knowers, we can empower them with the knowledge that their point of view on the world is of value in the creation of stories – not only can they more easily recognise gaps in existing canons, but they are more likely to be able to author a story which speaks to both niche and dominant audiences alike.
If we apply this manner of thinking to the challenges posed earlier in this article, we can begin to see how it can be useful. Identifying our students as marginally situated knowers allows us to recognise that they may feel particularly vulnerable in the creative process and enhances our respect for the knowledge that they are bringing to this work that we don’t have ourselves. Our feedback on their work can be more objective and useful if we are aware of both the situatedness of ourselves and the students. Our feedback can focus on the clarity of the work without the assumption that the audience is dominant. We will be able to collaborate with the students to find and unpack the core of their stories, as opposed to guiding the students toward solutions which make the work more suitable or palatable to ourselves. Knowing that we are not situated knowers in the same way that our students are, may also open the door to finding teachers or mentors that are more similarly situated to each student and perhaps better placed to help the students develop their work.
“Situated knowledges are about communities, not about isolated individuals. The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular” (Haraway, 1988, p. 590). To me, this sounds like a great way to empower our students from diverse backgrounds and better understand our position as teachers in this process.
Clague, P. (2012). The Five Beats of Indigenous Storytelling. Lumina: Journal of Screen Arts and Business, 11, 43–49.
Clague, P. (2019). Artlink Indigenous storytelling: Deconstructing the archetype. Artlink Magazine. https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/4758/indigenous-storytelling-deconstructing-the-archety/
Haraway, D. J. (1988). Situated Knowledges: the Science Question in Feminism of Partial and the Privilege. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575–599.
Pohlhaus, G. (2012). Relational knowing and epistemic injustice: Toward a theory of willful hermeneutical ignorance. Hypatia, 27(4), 715–735. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2011.01222.x
Pearl Tan is a screen content maker and educator. She is the founder and director of Pearly Productions, a filmmaking boutique with a focus on diverse stories, and Senior Lecturer in Directing at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS). Pearl has extensive experience in advocacy and governance, and currently sits on the board of the Australian Directors’ Guild, having previously served on the AFTRS Council, Critical Stages Touring, Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Board, Actors’ Equity’s National Performers Committee and as Co-Chair of the Equity Diversity Committee. She is currently completing her PhD in Creative Practice at the University of NSW, exploring the experience of diversity workers in the Australian screen industry.