Teaching the Politics of Representation in Development Studies

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Brittany Meché, Geography

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2017

“Introduction to Development Studies” is a lower division survey course tackling some of the world’s most pressing issues. From refugee resettlement to gender-based violence to humanitarian famine relief, the course teaches students to evaluate reports from international organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations to better understand complex global problems. An overarching conceptual theme of the course is that how international organizations and popular media frame a particular issue has profound consequences for the actions taken to address that issue. To underscore the politics of representation, students read social theorist Stuart Hall’s classic essay “The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power.” Hall’s piece takes up Michel Foucault’s theory of discourse to argue that the “developed” West and the “underdeveloped” Rest are historical constructions with attendant discourses that continue to impact the social, political, and economic trajectories of these different places. While students showed a certain comfort with policy and data-driven texts in the course, they struggled with the theoretical complexity of Hall’s argument. As a GSI, I was presented with a problem: how to teach social theory to practice-minded students?

To address this pedagogical challenge, I developed an in-class exercise with two learning objectives. First, I wanted students to be able to define four key concepts from Hall’s essay, with a particular focus on how the concepts related to each other. Second, I wanted students to be able to use these concepts to analyze a media representation of a development policy issue. I divided the class into four groups and assigned each cluster one of the following terms: discourse, discursive formation, discursive practice, and discursive strategies. I asked groups to define their concepts by referencing passages in the text. I then facilitated a larger class discussion encouraging groups to talk to each other about the relationships between the concepts. For example, I asked: “Group 1 how is your definition of discourse similar to and different from the explanation Group 2 gave about discursive formation?” These questions helped students understand the subtle shades of meaning associated with core theoretical ideas, while also highlighting how each concept furthered Hall’s central claim about the power of representation.

For the second learning objective, I had students remain in groups and discuss their terms from the Hall reading alongside an article from The Atlantic Magazine about the causes of conflict and poverty in West African countries. I prompted students to locate specific examples within the magazine article and analyze how Hall’s concepts helped explain recurring images and tropes. Ultimately, this two-pronged activity enabled students to practice defining complex theoretical ideas in their own words. In addition, students learned how to practically use social theory to critically interrogate framings of global policy challenges.

I conducted this activity two weeks before the mid-term exam. For the test, students selected ten questions from a list of twenty-three options. There were several questions on the exam specifically related to the Stuart Hall reading. I noticed that an overwhelming majority of students from my sections chose to answer these types of questions, suggesting comfort and familiarity. Moreover, when I disaggregated the scores for different categories of test questions, on average, students who answered those related to discourse and representation were more successful in providing clear definitions and detailed analysis.