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‘Blind-spots in mainstream undergraduate teaching: Geographical Sciences, Economics and Engineering’

15 Sep 2014 - 15:15

The 'Curriculum, Poverty and Inequality' seminar series aims to facilitate meaningful discussion and debate on how academics at UCT engage with matters relating to Poverty and Inequality in South Africa through their curricula. The second topic in the series held on addressed ‘blind-spots’ in mainstream undergraduate teaching concerning the environment and resources, particularly within the fields of Geographical Sciences, Economics and Engineering. This seminar was chaired by Associate Professor Merle Sowman, with Sue Parnell (Environment and Geographical Sciences), Harro von Blottnitz (Engineering and the Built Environment) and Martine Visser (Economics) contributing as panellists  

This series aims to facilitate meaningful discussion and debate on how academics at UCT engage with matters relating to Poverty and Inequality in South Africa through their curricula. The second topic in the series on 21 May 2014 addressed ‘blind-spots’ in mainstream undergraduate teaching concerning the environment and resources, particularly within the fields of Geographical Sciences, Economics and Engineering. This seminar was chaired by Associate Professor Merle Sowman, with Sue Parnell (Environment and Geographical Sciences), Harro von Blottnitz (Engineering and the Built Environment) and Martine Visser (Economics) contributing as panellists.

Sue Parnell opened the dialogue with a few observations on current international trends within the Environmental and Geographical Sciences (EGS). She noted that in North America Environment Departments are taking over the Geography Departments, while in Europe the opposite seems to be happening. And, although different, these trends are indicative of the definite growth in the strength of the discipline. Parnell went on to talk about perceived gaps and tensions within the study of the EGS that broadly addressed approaches to “theory, history and scale”. Firstly, Parnell stated that students are taught to speak to different models and topics that are theoretically grounded, but are not being taught about “conflicting rationalities” that often require deeper analysis and engagement with issues concerning poverty and inequality. Parnell went on to assert that one of the reasons both students and funders take to the EGS is that this field has a strong link to the future and “future earth”. The problem with this approach, however, is that a focus on the future often neglects a historical sensibility that contextualises the present. Learning about the past and the present should thus inform teaching about the future. Parnell concluded that thinking about poverty is usually either on a macro/global scale (World Health Organisation, etc.) or very micro scale (household, livelihood, etc.). This presents another gap that needs to be addressed, as scales of intervention are needed more at the city/regional/national levels, which results in a mismatch in the methods we use and ideas we invoke for solving problems.

The next panellist, Harro von Blottnitz, from the faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment (EBE), started his presentation by commenting that after speaking to many of the academics within EBE, it is clear that there is an inextricable link between the environment and its resources and issues of poverty and inequality that make them inseparable. His conversations with academics within the faculty revealed varied responses to the way the curricula addresses issues of poverty and inequality, especially in relation to developed verses undeveloped contexts. For instance, one academic made reference to the “environmental impact of affluence versus the environmental impact of poverty”, while other academics when asked about their teaching on poverty and inequality hopefully stated “we think we do it”. Von Blottnitz then went on to survey certain departments within EBE. Civil Engineering, for instance, offers a core course on environmental management in the fourth year; while other courses within the department teach about the Gini coefficient, and have little cameos which highlight different living standards and cover the structure of the city and the National Development Plan (NDP). This is an indication that the department does try to give students the skills to cope with different contexts, although this is not at the centre of the curriculum. For the department of Chemical Engineering, with its focus on more practical training within a highly specialised skillset, von Blottnitz postulated that studies in this field could have a more indirect effect on issues of poverty and inequality. For instance, a chemical engineer could think of innovative ways of recycling and facilitating the reduction of harmful emissions that affect the environment. This, however, does not detract from the fact that the field of Chemical Engineering itself is capital intensive not labour intensive, and because it is so specialised, there is little leverage in affecting poverty and inequality because people within this profession are earning high salaries and gaining high rewards for a job that’s highly specialised. Similar to Civil Engineering, there is one course at fourth year within the department that looks at the ‘impact on industrial, social and physical environment’, and uses the Millennium Development Goals and the Human Development Index as entry points into discussions about poverty and inequality. But to date there has been no appetite for a specialised track on ‘social innovation’.

Martine Visser, from the Commerce Faculty, began by stating that Economics by definition is the study of the scarcity of resources, and this study has largely been framed by theorists such as Karl Marx, Adam Smith, William Jevons and Jan Pen. The study of Economics, however, is changing in that students are now advocating for a shift in the way that the subject is being taught at university level. Students are calling for more nuanced ways of teaching so that they are more equipped to deal with real world economic problems, as highlighted in the article University economics teaching isn't an education: it's a £9,000 lobotomy (Aditya Chakrabortty, The Guardian, 9/05/14). Visser then questioned the extent to which academics have been ignoring the growing need to address the increasing inequality in the world, making reference to the book Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty. Visser then went on to speak about the positive ways that the Economics department at UCT addresses issues of poverty and inequality through research projects and initiatives such as SALDRU, PRISM, EPRU, RUBEN, DPRU. There has been a strong overlap between the research focus areas in the school and teaching within the department.  An examination of the history of economics teaching at UCT indicates that there has been a strong focus on poverty and inequality issues. As far as courses that address development and environmental issues, there are many electives that give students a lot of choice at the third and fourth year level. In conclusion, Visser emphasized that UCT as an institution and as academics have to decide what kind of student we want to exit our university and from there review which courses should be moved to the centre of the curriculum. So although there are obvious biases in the way that people perceive Economics, there is room for change.

The discussion that followed began with a question posed to Sue Parnell about the viability of creating streams that focus on ‘poverty studies’ or ‘science for the benefit of society’. Some academics in attendance argued that importance should be placed on the context that informs the curriculum, not pushing these issues to the periphery by having them addressed in electives at third and fourth year level. An academic from the EGS also asserted that there are various forms of inequality at play, and this can be seen in terms of the way that gender and sexism within schools and universities impacts on women, housing, and city planning and resource distribution. This can be seen in the way that mathematics and science are targeted at males, resulting in fields such as engineering being male dominated. Another question was then raised about context and the teaching materials being used, as many textbooks are written in the North and come from a particular ‘western’ viewpoint. Academics therefore have to find a way of integrating local and international contexts and theory to better address problems within the South African context. It was proposed that our mandate should be to produce training and teaching materials which include local examples, such as the issue of traditional land rights and informality, but also global contexts.

At end, it was clear that this dialogue had surfaced many pressing pedagogical questions needing to be addressed within various faculties and the university as a whole. Is what we are teaching students effective in equipping them to deal with real world problems and contribute to a sustainable future?