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Learning needs not be fun

by Tamara Soukotta

“This will be fun.” Perhaps you have heard a similar promise made at the beginning of a course or a workshop. I certainly did hear this often in The Netherlands, both as a student taking courses and as an academic participating in various workshops. The more complicated the subject, the more emphasis on the “fun” part.

For me, a woman of color working in Dutch academia, often one of a few specks of color in an otherwise white room discussing realities of poverty, sexism, racism, colonialism, diversity, inequalities, and various other issues related to development and societies, the promise of fun ignites a range and mix of emotions, but fun is not part of them. My questions are: why must everything be fun, fun for whom, and at whose expense? In this short reflection, from where I am positioned/located geo-body-politically, I will try to elaborate on why I found it problematic to enforce fun in learning and why I do not promise fun in my classroom.

For the majority of people, our experiences of the world around us are not always fun. Most of the time, the realities we have to face and accept are intense, harsh, violent – everything but fun.

As a woman of color, sexism and racism are my everyday lived experiences, not just subjects of debate. Coming from a(n) (arguably former) Dutch colony, the violence imposed by colonialism is still very much part of my present, not mere history from a time past. Having spent about two decades working with communities whose lives, livelihoods, and territories were destroyed by projects of development, I see both the promises of progress that come with development projects, as well as stories of erasures, left untold in the mainstream narrative of development.

For people like me, what we learn in our classrooms, be it poverty, inequality, gender, conflict, and so on, are serious subjects with real implications on our lives, and discussing them – including in the context of learning — often invokes pain, anger, even trauma. Our experiences of realities do not allow us the privilege to distance ourselves from these subjects; nor do our experiences allow us to have fun in discussing these subjects. Unfortunately, more often than not, those who dare to express emotions other than fun during what was supposed to be fun discussions are shut down for being ‘too sensitive’.

When entering a learning space, the promise of fun to me usually indicates that in that particular learning space: (1) I and people like me would be the other; (2) we, our lived experiences, our realities, would be subjected to the production of knowledge about us but not necessarily with us; and (3) we would bear the expense for the fun of those who can afford to enjoy this process of producing knowledge. Having experienced being on the darker, side of fun in many a classroom, I do not promise fun in my classrooms.

My students come from very diverse backgrounds. For many of them, being in the classroom means making time and effort amidst full-time jobs and care responsibilities to come to learn something that hopefully will help them make meanings of their struggles. Being present in the classroom is a serious task to the degree that they are required to ‘validate’ the knowledge, lived experiences, and skills they already embody about the world around them. It is entering a space that was not made based on their measurements, a space where all stakes are stacked against them succeeding. For these students, being told that they should see learning as fun feels almost like an insult in front of all the sacrifices that they have to make just to enter the classroom.

In my experience, learning is often uncomfortable. As a lecturer, when we were discussing poverty and racism, for example, I could sense half of the classroom suddenly felt shame rushing down their bodies as they realized their privileges in the face of the other half of the classroom who had to work double, triple the efforts just to sit in the same university classroom. At the same time, I could also sense discomfort and restlessness from the other half of the classroom who found their often-hidden realities put out there for all to see.

Learning can also be an intense experience as we face our privileges/lack of, as we unlearn and relearn, and as we learn to recognize and understand our own emotions when discussing various subjects in our classroom.

What I promise in my classroom instead is a safe space where we – all who take part in the learning process, including myself — can be vulnerable and uncomfortable, as we learn how to be vulnerable and uncomfortable when faced with realities that might be far from pleasant.

My task here is to transform our classroom into a space for us to slowly travel from discomfort to feeling at ease with the realities of life around us. So that we can face each other, listen to each other, understand each other. So that we can use the classroom to learn how to respond when realities of life do not meet our expectations and not to run away, hide behind various excuses, or cover things up because we are conditioned to be used to fun but not discomfort.

After all, the world outside of the classroom will not always be fun. Realities of life will come crashing in front of us one way or another, eventually, and we will have to face them. The recent election result in The Netherlands, for example.

My responsibility as an educator is therefore to prepare my students so that when they find themselves in such situations, they will not try to find reasons to run away from their discomfort. Instead, they will be able to face reality and say: yes, racism and fascism have always been part of our lives here in The Netherlands, so let us work to address these problems properly.

Tamara Soukotta teaches Development and Globalization and obtained her PhD at the Institute of Social Studies (2023).

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