‘Ethnic banter’: or, when revision and critical pedagogy collide

Like many teachers, I feel I’ve achieved most in the classroom when students’ learning goes outside the classroom – when what we do in class retains some meaning even after the assessments are over and even in contexts of non-learning/non-work. Teaching across institutions and disciplines this year, I’ve been lucky to observe this happen, or help to make it happen, in several ways: seeing students who have travelled to study in London reflect on their own countries’ national identities or security narratives; hearing undergraduates shift independently from a seminar discussion on whether the public in Milosevic’s Serbia had to agree with the messages of turbo-folk lyrics to take pleasure in the music, into a discussion of whether one can appreciate Chris Brown’s songs without condoning his misogynistic and violent behaviour.

This week, I’ve been holding revision classes for the two modules I teach at Southampton (my own module on the post-Yugoslav conflicts, and a second-year module on Music and Resistance, where I’m filling in for the module designer Shirli Gilbert). In both modules, we’ve been going over past exam papers and students have been modelling potential essay plans in groups: partly to reassure them that yes, they do understand the content, and partly to share strategies through which they can show their understanding effectively in the artificial environment of an exam (before the clock stops, or their writing hands drop off). (A hat-tip goes out to my History A-level teachers here: I found their advice so useful in my own studies that, appropriately scaled up, I’ve been passing it on ever since.)

What makes me hesitate is introducing new knowledge at this point. By the last week, students have formed their interpretive frameworks; if they should already have some instinctive feeling of where they stand on the main questions that underpin a module (let’s say ‘does commercialisation destroy the ability of music to function as resistance?’ or ‘where do historians consider responsibility for the Yugoslav wars should lie?’), revision classes are about confirming their knowledge, clearing up confusion and reassuring students that if they’ve prepared properly they’re ready for the task ahead. Challenge and disruption, as important as they are in the intellectual process, might not be the most useful things to introduce.

This means there are things I’d do in a seminar that I wouldn’t do in a revision class. But am I taking the right position in doing so?

I started thinking about this after this week’s Yugoslav wars revision class. A group who were modelling essay plans for the question of (more or less) which political leader should be considered most responsible for the break-up of Yugoslavia were reporting back on arguments about Milosevic and mentioned, as one factor in favour of his responsibility, his use of ‘ethnic banter’ during his rise to power in the late 1980s.

They’re thinking here of research by people like Ivan Colovic or Christina Morus on Milosevic’s political communication. This viewpoint argues that Milosevic used ethno-historical references and deliberately folksy turns of phrase to identify himself as the only imaginable leader of the Serbs:

From his first appearance in Kosovo in 1987, Milosevic’s mythic allusions helped to animate Serbian identity in the present through a collective past, making present cultural values seem timeless and immutable. He inserted the Serb people into this historical narrative as politically charged characters fated to fulfill the predestined story of Serb history. In so doing, Milosevic situated himself within the narrative, like the hero of Kosovo who had come to redeem the Serbian people. (Morus 2007: 3 (£)).

‘Ethnic banter’ is an unusual formation, not a concept taken up from the existing literature. The term might have emerged during a Twitter feud between Wiley and Jay Sean in 2011, when Wiley excused comments about Jay Sean’s Sikh heritage as ‘ethnic banter’ and not racism. This year, ‘banter’ in general has been a controversial topic in student life: the website Unilad defended an article on rape as banter, although the feminist blogosphere was unconvinced. Of course, I can’t tell how much of this the student who spoke the words had followed or what standpoints he would take; the general laughter at the mention of ‘ethnic banter’ still suggested it resonated with some wider context of which the class, composed mainly of 18- or 19-year-old British undergraduates, was aware.

A few weeks previously, we’d had a class on gender and nationalism in the Yugoslav wars, including readings by feminist authors from the region such as Maja Korac (who has written on women’s anti-war activism) and Sasha Milicevic (who has studied draft-dodging in Milosevic’s Serbia – and some of these men, of course, would have been these undergraduates’ age when they hid from the authorities to avoid conscription). In an ordinary seminar, the ‘ethnic banter’ moment would have been my cue to embrace the tangent and invite the group to apply their existing knowledge by asking ‘What would Maja Korac (or Sasha Milicevic) say?’

I let it pass, but now I don’t think I should have. There were two reasons why: not being able to remember which text I’d assigned as key rather than recommended reading, Korac or Milicevic (this time it was the Korac – sorry, Sasha!); and the risk of sacrificing the general aim of the revision class for the sake of exploring this point.

Nonetheless, these students who are aware of the research on Milosevic’s use of language were, at some level, connecting that with the ‘banter’ controversy in British student life. If I’ve recognised that, my teaching philosophy suggests that surely I should encourage them to notice points of comparison between public discourse in the case study they’re learning about and in their own lives. If you ask students to unpick the public discourse of another society, may that give them tools to look more deeply at their own?

In my case, it did. I was studying the break-up of Yugoslavia during the first George W Bush presidency; reading Colovic’s critique of Milosevic’s discourse made me able to think more critically about the similarly folksy language used by Bush or, with less electoral success, by Sarah Palin; reading about war commemoration and national identity in south-east Europe made me able to recognise how much British public discourse relies on the same hinge. But then, I’m a professional overthinker. Maybe it’s just me.

Or maybe not? In the same class, another student referred to a module on Henry V, where they’d read a historian arguing that: who controls the memory of the battle is more important than who won the battle. That reading had been focused on Agincourt, but it applies equally to the Battle of Kosovo, where historians can’t even precisely say who won.

In one of his articles on critical pedagogy, Henry A Giroux observes:

A radical pedagogy points to the connections between conception and practice, and it honors students’ experiences by connecting what goes on in classrooms to their everyday lives. Within such an approach, theoretical rigor is connected to social relevance, knowledge is subjected to critical scrutiny and engagement, and pedagogy is seen as a moral and political practice crucial to the production of capacities and skills necessary for students to both shape and participate in public life. (Giroux 2003: 11 (£)).

And I would agree. But can I still put it into practice three weeks before the exam?

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