Making international academic spaces international

In this post on making international academics spaces truly international, Maha Bali (Egypt) teams up with Laura Czerniewicz (South Africa), Catherine Cronin (Ireland) and Tannis Morgan (Canada) to offer tips for conferences and journals.

This article was co-authored by Maha Bali (Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning & Teaching at the American University in Cairo, Egypt @bali_maha), Catherine Cronin (Strategic Education Developer at the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Ireland @catherinecronin), Laura Czerniewicz (Director of Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching, University of Cape Town, South Africa @czernie), and Tannis Morgan (Director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning, & Innovationat the Justice Institute of British Columbia, Canada @tanbob).


Is the title of this piece an oxymoron? Aren’t international academic spaces international by definition? Unfortunately not: “international” too often (one might venture, almost inevitably) means the Global North, and indeed it usually means Europe and the USA. So, for example, announcements at European conferences of international speakers more often than not means those from the US (not even Canada, sometimes). This is a problem for obvious reasons: it perpetuates the skewed geopolitics of knowledge, renders invisible voices, views, and epistemologies from the Global South or even from peripheries within the North. Everyone is the poorer for it.

Much lip service is paid to diversity and inclusion of diverse voices and knowledge, but little action is taken on the ground to truly challenge the status quo. But it is really a non-negotiable in the context of all that technology affords us today. It is unethical to claim to be international and to exclude, in practice, full participation. It is unacceptable to claim lack of awareness of international actors in all fields of knowledge when we have the resources and networks with which to find them. The reputation and credibility of such spaces (organisations, events and publications) is at stake

By academic spaces we mean conferences, workshops, summits, journals, organisations and other academic structures which claim to be international. What follows are practical suggestions for genuine inclusion practices to ensure that international really means international.

Money matters

The issues here are about acknowledging limited access to funding, recognising real costs, and being aware of punitive exchange rates. What can be done?

  • Ensure that there is funding to bring participants to events. This should be a cost built into the budget of an event, like any other cost. It should prioritize offering funding to those unlikely to be funded by their own institutions or organisations, or who are unaffiliated. Otherwise, an event will be international in theory, but much less so in practice.

  • Be creative about funding structures in order to enable more people to attend. This could include sliding scales for participation (such as different registration fees), allowing people to pay more for their ticket in order to help support someone else to attend (e.g. via a scholarship fund), funded fellowships (e.g. CC Summit and Digital Pedagogy Lab), etc. See further ideas from Ashe Dryden.

  • Where speakers are paid to speak at an event, pay real costs. This includes travel to and from airports, visas, incidental costs, etc. Otherwise participants will have to subsidise their participation, usually at their own expense.

  • When organising accommodation conference special rates, include safe low cost accommodation options.

  • Be mindful of exchange rates. For example, be considerate when eating out at conferences with colleagues from countries where the exchange rates are unfavourable. Some of us have had meals with colleagues and have been appalled by the cost.

  • Many of us don’t drink, so when splitting bills, don’t include alcohol. Some of us won’t go out for dinner because of this cost.

Genuine participation

  • Pay attention to who is invited to speak There has been, thank goodness, a great deal of attention paid to avoiding “manels” (i.e. all-male panels), although these continue. Our focus here is about including voices from the periphery. Think “outside of the box” about who is invited to speak (see point below about going beyond existing narrow networks). Think about who is invited to speak as keynotes, as well as in plenaries and on panels. Who is signalled as being the experts and who is signalled as being there to learn? In addition, make a conscious effort to make space for new voices.

  • Include a variety of epistemologies and criteria for acceptance. Ensure that criteria are explicit in welcoming and encouraging diversity. One way is to ensure that a Call for Proposals directly cites the work of a wide range of authors. We have seen journal CfPs on issues related to diversity and inclusion that cite exclusively white male authors on the topic. Mind you, any such reference list should be suspect.

  • Pay attention to roles. Think carefully about the roles. Ensure that the “experts” are not all from the Global North and “participants” from the periphery. Ensure that sessions are organized to ensure participants from the North have multiple opportunities to listen to those from the South, and those from the South can hear each other. In addition, ensure that membership of the conference committee, the core team of key conference organisers, and even the conference chairs is diverse. Diverse does not mean a token person from one or two minority groups, but a representative number of participants across relevant minority groups.

  • The shape of the programme. Ensure diversity across the programme. We can think of examples of events where all the Global South participants were in one panel or one stream. This is a form of marginalisation. Include a diversity of contributors on boards, and in leadership/facilitation positions.

  • Formats Small and poorer institutions are unlikely to fund someone to attend an event where the person is not speaking. Events where people go to learn/participate, or Unconference type events, are often unfundable internally — so funding needs to be provided. For many, funding is only available if they are making a contribution that is published in official proceedings, so try to provide them.

  • Lead times How early is the call put out? Many people in Global South people need longer times to get visas, local funds, etc. There are even instances where an invited speaker has not had sufficient time to get a visa, and thus could not travel to participate.

  • Language Consider how a variety of languages can be enabled. Some conferences put in place strategies to enable participation, through technology, buddy systems, etc.

  • Participation guidelines How are the values of the conference (re: safety, inclusion, respect) communicated to participants and others? What avenues are provided so that those who experience exclusion or marginalisation have an opportunity to communicate this to/with conference organisers — before, during, or after the event. The Mozilla Festival (#mozfest) provides one such exemplar of participation guidelines:

  • Offer onsite childcare options or make your event child-friendly. It is much more complex for parents to travel to international (or really any conference not within driving distance) conferences far from home without the option of bringing their children with them. Yes, this is complicated to arrange. But some events do it, so it is not impossible.

New networks

  • Disrupt “old boys’ networks” Ensure diverse leaders and organizers. This does not mean token diversity (as in 3-4 non-North people in a team of 20, but as international as you want your event to be), and in roles that allow taking action — not just for image. For example, some of us are on several editorial boards but are never consulted on anything related to diversity or anything else. There are cases of other editorial boards where we do have a role.

  • Enable social networking Provide opportunities for people to join up and meet one another at events. Offer a local person to host a handful of people at a local restaurant, for example.

  • Facilitate virtual participation Plan for and design that provisions exist for virtual or hybrid participants and presenters. There are several ways to do this, e.g. see for an effective way of doing this.

Above all, do not just celebrate diversity by paying lip service to it. Recognize that it takes hard work and a rethinking of the way things have been done in the past, and often some degree of discomfort. Learn from other examples. Accept that this will always be an aspiration and keep reflecting on what you do and iterate towards improving it. You are challenging hegemonic world systems of knowledge and it will take time to do it right. Keep involving diverse participants and organizers to choose the ways that they believe will help to achieve this. Useful links

[Header image from Pixabay CC0]

Teacher-Student Co-Design for Campus-wide Challenges

Maha Bali describes a student-faculty co-design at the American University in Cairo last semester

Maha co-authored this post with Ayah Elewa, Electronics Engineering graduate from the American University in Cairo (student in Maha’s class and Student Technology Assistant at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the time of the experience discussed below). She blogs at and tweets as @AyaH_Egypt.

In February 2018, the Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT) at the American University in Cairo (AUC) ran a Student-Faculty Co-Design session as part of a 15-year anniversary event for CLT. The idea for the session came from several brainstorming sessions conducted within the department and with Student Technology Assistants (STAs) who worked with us, to gauge student perspectives on how to best involve them. Particular faculty and their students were invited to participate in this two-hour facilitated session. Others led the design of the activity, but both authors were both involved in early brainstorming for it. Maha also attended as a faculty member, and invited interested students in her class to participate, which is how Ayah became involved.

The CLT website describes the activity as follows:

In many institutions of higher education, there are reports on perception and expectation gap between faculty and students that has been affecting student motivation and engagement. This co-design session brings both stakeholders to the same table, working together in small teams. Each team will be dissecting a challenge related to teaching and learning at AUC, and will work together with the facilitation of CLT to co-design creative strategies to overcome those challenges and explore opportunities and possibilities for innovation in the classroom. Outcomes of this session will be shared by CLT with the AUC Community.

Tables were set up for groups of 2-3 faculty to work with 3-4 students, such that each individual received a stack of cards with questions to fill out individually about themselves and the other stakeholder (i.e. students would answer questions about themselves and faculty, and vice versa for faculty). After the individual reflections, groups would share what they had written and discuss and probe deeper, and after this, discuss what were the most insightful and surprising findings for them, and what they might be interested in working on in future.

On her blog, Ayah reflected on this event, mentioning how challenging it was to consider the faculty member perspective:

I didn’t ever put my shoes in a professor’s shoes. In fact I’ve never given much thought to the fact that they might be motivated or not to come and teach.

Other students reflect on their blogs: Manar wrote “The Co-design Session was my first experience talking explicitly to professors about how I see the educational process and the flaws I see need to be modified,”” and Nourhal wrote “For me it was the first time that I get to sit with a professor on the same table and actually be able to talk and express my opinion to help them improve the learning experience of other students.” Nadeen found it “an interesting opportunity for me to look upon the professors’ points of view.” This indicates there is insufficient conversation on our campus about these important topics, particularly ones involving students and faculty working together.

One of the lightbulb moments that occurred in Ayah and Maha’s group was that faculty thought students were motivated by grades, but none of the students said about themselves that they were motivated by grades. Instead, students shared things like parental approval and teacher respect and appreciation – which are sometimes related to grades – but grades were not themselves a motivator. It was a reminder for all of us to dig deeper behind what seems apparent, and find the root causes. Despite the overall success and popularity of the event, one student’s blog shows that some faculty in her group responded to student comments sarcastically rather than empathetically, particularly with regards to why students show up late for 8:30am classes, or seem sleepy when they do show up.

Several students enjoyed the session and expected them to result in campus-wide change. Mirna overall felt the session “effectively broke the ice between both students and professors, bringing both of them to the same table, working together in small teams, discussing future plans and strategies that affect both” and she now expects “to see real positive outcomes and appreciated changes within classrooms…to experience a better innovated learning atmosphere within classrooms that involves a better understanding and healthier communication between students and professors”. Nourhal indicated a hope that “these insights make a difference in making students’ academic lives better”. Only Nadeen was skeptical, and asked whether “the solutions that we had figured out as a collaboration between the students and the professors are going to be applied later on in classes?”

Reflections and Improvements for Future Iterations

In hindsight, CLT should have set student expectations on what would happen to the results of the session: either a plan for disseminating findings via some written or oral form, or for example CLT workshops based on what was found, but students need to know that CLT probably has little power to change AUC policies or such.

Importantly: a few faculty seemed to not understand what empathetic interviewing entailed, and perhaps CLT facilitators should have introduced it at the beginning or had a facilitator at each table to help ensure everyone truly listened empathetically to each other, rather than getting defensive or potentially silencing each other (with faculty obviously holding more power than students in this context).

Both Maha and Ayah finished the event wishing more such sessions were conducted on a regular basis, and Ayah points out on her blog that it’s important to bring diverse students into such discussions with their own learning preferences. She also hoped more science and engineering faculty would participate.

Have you had meaningful student-faculty collaborations or events? Tell us in the comments!

Featured image from Pixabay under CC0 License