Immigration Otherwise: taking the Mapping Immigration Controversy project into schools (Part 1)

In the second of three posts updating on the afterlife of the Mapping Immigration Controversy research project, we discuss the process of exploring our research findings with school pupils through a drama project, Immigration Otherwise.

By Yasmin Gunaratnam

Over the past year Hannah Jones and I have been working with Ida Persson and Vanessa Hughes from actREAL (a company using theatre to engage publics with academic research), taking findings from the Mapping Immigration Controversy (MIC) study into two secondary schools in Oxford and Coventry.1 The new project “Immigration Otherwise”, uses creative and performance methods to further extend the MIC research, with the aim of finding out how immigration is understood and matters in the lives of young people, families and schools. We have also been interested in what methodological insights an iterative, participatory reanimating of research materials and dispersed analysis might offer.

The MIC team was already using materials from the study in our university teaching, influenced by feminist, queer and critical race methodological discussions. Feminist and queer research often exists “at the thresholds of ‘research’ ‘public pedagogy’ and ‘activism’”, Renold and Ringrose (2019) believe. It is a mixture that they think of as the “‘more-than” of research, a longstanding concern in Black, indigenous and feminist of colour research. Drawing from the work of philosopher Brian Massumi, Renold and Ringrose have worked with artistic and craft methods to produce “dar(t)a” as data informed by the arts, as “an explicit intervention to trouble what counts as social science data and to foreground not only the value of creative methodologies but also the speculative impact of art-ful practices”.

For us, there were varied layers to the “dar(t)a” created with the consent of young people, parents/carers and schools in Immigration Otherwise. The artistic elements of the project were woven into the research materials through scripting, drama workshops, set design and performance. The process of developing a generic script for the performances took place over months, with Hannah and I identifying interview and ethnographic extracts, images and social media messaging that we felt captured the many impacts of the government’s immigration 2013 campaign “Operation Vaken”. We shared these with actREAL and Ida Persson developed the materials into drafts of a script, which was revised several times, largely through email exchanges. A final script was then workshopped with the year 9 and 10 students in 10 weekly sessions, with on-going improvisation that produced two different public performances in each school.

The pedagogical facets of the project moved in varied, sometimes unanticipated directions. Practically, the project was very much reliant on the time and commitment of the schools’ drama teachers. The teachers recruited young people to the project and stayed after school with them at each of the workshops. They also accompanied young people to an exchange day at Warwick University, where the two groups met each other for the first time and watched each other’s performances (the day was also organised to provide an opportunity for students to learn more about university life).

The accompaniment of the project by the teachers—what felt akin to ethnographic observing of what the young people were doing, how their thinking developed, how the script and performances evolved—created space for reflection on how academic research might be incorporated into teaching. Teachers told us that they had thought immigration a too complex and controversial topic to be taught with this age group of students, but the project had changed their views. They had also rarely (Coventry) or never (Oxford) used academic research in the classroom.

“Watching how Year 9 have engaged with this idea of immigration could probably be a move forward for us and could be something that we implement into the curriculum”,  “I would definitely consider using academic research in my teaching in the future”, “I would really like to use research in future to challenge students and open their minds to topical issues that may affect them either directly or indirectly” were some of the comments from the teachers, gathered through an independent evaluation by Mita Pujara. Mita used a blend of arts-based and qualitative and quantitative methods to generate baseline data with students and staff, as well as in evaluations at the mid-way point of the project and at the final performances (which included audience evaluations).

An image of the back of a student's head, with the text 'Drama is a good way of getting people involved and their ideas across. Not everybody is a learner by sitting in front of the board and being told facts. A lot more people learn by physical action an discussing it with people who have a totally different opinion to you.'

Image by Mita Pujara


In observing the workshops and learning from the evaluation methods and findings, I was motivated to renew more creative approaches in my teaching. But there are differences between the vulnerabilities in participating in activities as 14-15 year olds in a school drama community and at university. There are fewer opportunities for play and reverie in university social science teaching and these types of activities are not always a positive experience for students with disabilities and/or who have anxiety. Certain university students can also be more assertive in identifying and voicing what they don’t want to do. At the same time, learning necessarily involves risking oneself and being vulnerable.

In her research on feminist classrooms, Pereira (2012) has identified the challenge for teachers of responding to the “didactic discomfort” that can be “triggered directly or indirectly by the material covered and/or methods deployed in a course, and is perceived by teachers (and often also by the students themselves) as an experience that can enable or generate learning.” (p.129). The positive potential of didactic discomfort is threatened, Pereira believes, by the neo-liberal imperatives that drive Higher Education in Europe. Recognising these dynamics, the demands on time and the emotion work that responding to didactic discomfort entails and how these demands are unevenly distributed in academia, prompted me to re-examine how I teach; an outcome of the project’s creative methods that was unanticipated.

1. Both schools are in Cities of Sanctuary and have been evaluated as “Good’ by Ofsted. The school in Oxford was almost three times the size of the Coventry school, with twice the number of students from “minority ethnic” backgrounds.

Check back for further reflections on what we learned from working with young people in this way, in tomorrow’s post.



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