by Anke Schwittay
1st October 2021

Students are (mostly) back in university classrooms, enjoying face-to-face learning and campus activities that have been absent for the last 18 months. During this time, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the urgent need to engage with global challenges, not only related to the coronavirus but also to existing deep social and economic injustices that have been highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic, all against the backdrop of the accelerating climate crisis as shown by the most recent IPCC report.

How can social science education in today’s universities help students to better understand the complexity of these challenges and to imagine alternative responses to them? In my book Creative Universities: Reimagining Education for Global Challenges and Alternative Futures, I argue that combining critical analysis with creative teaching provides one possible answer.

I draw on my own 15-year teaching experiences in International Development and Anthropology, and research with staff and students at my home university of Sussex, to propose a critical-creative pedagogy. This consists of four strands: whole-person learning, design and arts methods, praxis and critical hope.

Firstly, whole-person learning invites students to bring not only their intellects but also their bodies, feelings and senses into the classroom, recognising that their own past and present experiences are important sources of knowledge. Secondly, drawing on creative methods from the arts and design, including creative writing or other forms of artistic expression, ‘give play to our imagination’, as Maxine Greene has so beautifully shown. Design thinking and practices can help students understand global challenges as wicked problems and develop their capacity for open-ended inquiry, iterative experimentation and becoming comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. Design also draws attention to the materiality of learning and the importance of learning spaces.

Thirdly, praxis, understood in the Freirean sense of action informed by theory, reflection and dialogue, incorporates elements of problem-based and applied learning. Students engage with global challenges in a forward-looking mode that considers possible responses, especially heterodox ones, and how students could contribute to creating them individually and collectively. These three strands foster students’ critical hope, encouraging them to assume a hopeful stance in an informed and reflexive way. This does not mean hope as unrealistic optimism or naïve solutionism but as an educated engagement with contemporary challenges.

There are many examples of such critical-creative teaching already in existence and in my book, I present some of my and my colleagues’ activities addressing social, economic and ecological alternatives.

Such teaching begins with the remaking of educators and students into ‘academic subjects of possibilities’, as articulated by J. K. Gibson-Graham. This includes letting go of previous certainties, unlearning authoritative accounts and decolonising knowledge. There are few accounts of educators undergoing this journey, which show the challenges and rewards it brings. It also encompasses locating oneself. In my own teaching in a third-year class on urban issues, I ask students to engage with the city of Brighton, where most of the students live, to ground theoretical debates about urban futures and encourage learning by doing.

For example, students keep a week-long diary of their lives in Brighton to become more aware of their daily activities and interactions, on the basis of which they collectively write a Brighton Manifesto for how to make the city more equitable and sustainable. They also translate these ideas into built scenarios that engage with the materiality of teaching and urban spaces, and a field trip to Brighton takes teaching outside the classroom. Rather than learning in the abstract, students therefore think through urban challenges and possible responses to them in the context of a space they know well and care about.

Remaking economies takes inspiration from the diverse economies project of J. K. Gibson-Graham, which aims to decentre capitalist dominance by researching and nurturing examples of alter and non-capitalist practices. To learn about such alternatives experientially, students could create their own diverse economy portfolios and in the process recognise themselves as socially embedded and ethical economic subjects. In my Urban Futures class, students develop plans for an urban recycling cooperative to think through its possible challenges in practical ways.

Repairing ecologies, in the broader sense of fundamental human interrelation with ecosystems, needs to develop students’ capacities for complex systems thinking to better understand non-linear ecological impacts, interdependencies and uncertainties. One possible way of doing this is through the design and playing of serious games. Learning about non-Eurocentric alternatives such as the indigenous Andean concept of buen vivir provides a decolonial perspective that introduces students to alternative ways of thinking about the environment and humans’ entanglement with it. Teaching can also include outside activities, for example studying university campuses as ecosystems and developing ideas for how to make them more sustainable. Focus on transport and food, with which students engage their daily lives, can make such learning personally relevant and urgent.

Learning about social alternatives can be guided by the concept of prefiguration, showing students that they can enact changes they want to see in the here and now. This can be done through teaching about social movements or activism, which I do in an MA-level course for which student groups create their own activism campaigns. University life is often a time for students to become politically engaged, for example through student societies, supporting faculty strikes or participating in climate change activism. Making connections between these activities and theories about social and activist movements is another way to encourage students to imagine alternatives to current challenges.

All of these activities are informed by critical-creative pedagogy, nurturing students’ critical hope. As Paolo Freire wrote: ‘my hope is necessary but it is not enough. Alone, it does not win. But without it, my struggle will be weak and wobbly. We need critical hope the way a fish needs unpolluted water.’

Anke Schwittay is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Global Development at the University of Sussex. Further information about her work can be found at


Creative Universities cover.

Creative Universities: Reimagining Education for Global Challenges and Alternative Futures by Anke Schwittay is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £15.99.

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