Universität Bielefeld

© Universität Bielefeld

Knowledge as property, buildings as territories

By Kerstin Eckhof


Leigh Patel underlines in chapter 2 of our semester lecture "Decolonizing Educational Research" (2016) the parallels between educational research and the academia as such. She characterizes settler colonialism by competition for limited resources, a strong focus on land or territory, the ownership by few and the legitimization of this ownership of "better subjects of the state"(p.30).

Applied on the university area she contextualizes (academic) knowledge as resource and hence as property of the researcher: "Data, publications, and even reputation, are property that are then set up to be protected for some" (p.34). With Cheryl Harris' analysis of codified territoriality and stratified property rights she underlines the relationship of property between data and researcher: "Because the university-based researcher has a material status-based interest, through grants, data, and publications, the relationship to knowledge is one borne of limited resources and protectionism. Not everyone can be a settler, a landowner. Similarly, the academy and educational research has codified knowledge as ownable, but echoing Harris' central thesis, it is only property for some, namely those whose lineages are already readily visible within the culture"(p.35).

In the same time Patel does not claim to deliver a full characterization of settler colonialism nor to apply it one by one onto the academia. She rather uses the metaphor of a "springboard" (p. 31) to use the observed patterns and logics of settler colonialism as a lens to look at the practices of territoriality and ownership in educational research and academia.

My Project

I want to look at the university building as a space where the academia is situated. Here the research and also the teaching and learning take place. These academic practices are influenced by the space the university building offers but they also shape the space by constructing new buildings, repurpose older ones, tear down walls or display information on them.

Taking Patel's argument of the parallelism of settler colonialism and the academia leads to my thesis that these colonial practices materialize in the university's space. I want to observe these materializations on two levels. First, I want to see where logics like knowledge as resource and ownership by few can be seen in the university building. Second, I want to argue how space- claiming practices can be understood as competition on which knowledge earns space and which subjects are legitimate owners of it.

Faculty of Educational Science in exile

When framing knowledge as property with different parties competing on it, it follows the logic that this property is ranked after its value. "It is profoundly arguable whether knowledge is fundamentally an individual and containable entity, but the logics of settler colonialism require that some of the property be rendered more precious, with higher status, and then reserved for ownership by a few"(p.35). When I look at our faculty building the consequence of this logic becomes visible in many aspects. As a result from the reconstruction of the university's main building our faculty is placed in a provisory container building. Its location divides us from the other faculties and still it is close enough to keep the old wing in our view, empty and deserted. The reduced space changes the way we communicate and interact as a faculty. Because several teams are placed in other wings and constantly moved around it is difficult to work together. Every move also means to renegotiate our needs for sufficient space in front of the vice-chancellors office. In the same time I observe that a lot of funding goes into buildings and resources of the natural sciences areas as seen at the new CITEC building. The precarious situation of our faculty, the arguments placed in resource negotiations and the visible differences between the faculties' equipment underline the different value that is given to the knowledge we produce.

Exclusion of International Students

As Patel points out, the knowledge produced in academia is not accessible for all but possessed by few. Which subjects gain access to this knowledge is not a question of chance. "In keeping with the logics of settler colonialism, when an entity is rendered as property, people and their rights to claim the property in question are differentially organized"(p.36). In the university context we can observe how access to the academia is discussed along the factor of citizenship. The recent Landesregierung announced in 2017 plans about the introduction of study fees for so called international students, meaning students from countries outside the European Union.1 This announcement led to an outcry at some university boards, the union GEW and mainly internationalist student activists. The Landes- ASten-Treffen directed their critic in an open letter to Minister Laschet2 and a brought network was mobilized for a manifestation in Düsseldorf3 so that the law was not implemented until now. The oppositional movement remains visible though and led to a stronger organization of international students. The Café Exil is one example, located in a former copy shop that was turned into an anti-discriminatory space. It is run by international and local student-activists offering a space for leisure and discussion as well as cultural events like concerts and political lectures. Looking at the café it makes me think that the property claim Patel describes does not work in only one direction but rather can be seen as a relational interaction about who has the right on a certain territory, a certain property.

1 Vgl. Koalitionsvertrag: https://www.cdu- nrw.de/sites/default/files/media/docs/nrwkoalition_koalitionsvertrag_fuer_nordrhein-westfalen_2017_- _2022.pdf
2 http://latnrw.de/lat-blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Offener-Brief-Studiengeb%C3%BChren.pdf
3 https://www1.wdr.de/nachrichten/studiengebuehren-nicht-eu-auslaender-demo-100.html

Commercialization of Student Culture

When pointing out the parallels of settler colonialism and academia Patel makes clear that it is not about comparing a historical event with the situation today. With Martusewicz et al. (2014) she argues how the logics "echo in contemporary times with private takeover of public, potentially collective, spaces in the interest of accumulation of wealth"(p.33). As example she points out the pressure to generate external funding as researcher (vgl.p.34). From the student's perspective I want to draw attention to another dynamic that I tried to capture in the picture. In the context of the remodeling of the university building the 'Audimin' was closed, a room that was used by student clubs of all faculties to organize parties, concerts and theatre. With the university board's decision against offering a replacement these self-organized non- profit events are now shifted into commercial settings like pubs or clubs. The consequences are higher entrances to the events and a general commercialization of the events to generate the profit for paying the location. At the same time the university board implemented a commercial Campus Festival on the university area itself, which was organized by the external agency Vibra and criticized repeatedly because of the business model and the acts invited.1 This development shows how student culture on the one hand has lost territory and on the other hand was replaced by commercial events from external enterprises. As Patel argues, this dynamic is central to a settler colonial logic: "A key trope of settler colonialism is erasing to replace"(p.37).

1 Vgl. critic by the AStA Uni Bielefeld: https://www.facebook.com/asta.unibielefeld/posts/1716470345085851

Erasure of Knowledge

Concerning the dynamics of erasure that go with settler colonialist logics Patel moves the focus also on the knowledge that is taught in universities. "Projects of erasure are found throughout many of the historical manifestations of institutions of higher education's curricula" (p. 38). With the picture I want to support this thesis but also add, that the knowledge taught in universities is not only found in the official curricula. The photo shows a graffito that reads "Scheiß Kultürk" (German for "Screw Kultürk"), "Jin, Jiyan, Azadî" (Kurdish for "Women, Life, Freedom") and "Afrin". By this content it can be contextualized with the Kurdish resistance fight that is reported on internationally. In a second sense it relates to conflicts between student parties, as Kultürk openly sympathizes with the Erdogan regime. While professors and research staff create the official curriculum within their classes, the student clubs and parties also participate in teaching knowledge by inviting experts about different topics. Which knowledge is taught and which narrative dominates the discourse is a question of everlasting conflict. This conflict is also about territory as the example shows: graffiti slogans are fixed on walls, posters and announcements of the opposing side often commented or even ripped off.

Conflicts around the creation of the official curriculum on the contrary often remain invisible. Which languages are taught in courses or used in class, which perspectives are taken often seems natural and not product of dominating discourse positions. Especially with the background of the described diversity of student's positions that do not stand separated but involve in deep conflicts it becomes clear that no curriculum can be neutral but rather complicit in dominant knowledge production. Patel criticizes: "Contemporary manifestations of this logic (of erasure) include the maintained and protected use of Eurocentric curricula [...] Such pedagogy, for populations from nondominant cultures, explicitly seeks to erase existing knowledges and replace them with Eurocentric epistemologies and practices"(p. 38).


Looking at the university building through the lens of settler colonialist logics as proposed by Patel revealed many different parallels that can be drawn between the territorial fights she describes and the different dynamics that can be observed within the university's space. The idea of knowledge as property opened up different accesses to the many consequences that commercialization brings for higher education including equipment, student culture and even curriculum. Essential for my analysis was the finding or rather the verification of Patel's thought about the ongoing influence of the relation between subjects and land/territory/resources/knowledge/space. What knowledge is valued, which subjects are entitled to own it and how these relations are made visible by materializations in the existing space is therefore not a static fact. These relations are embedded in a history of colonialism but (re)negotiated throughout time. Hence as an outro I chose the example of the so called Chile-Bild: a mural on a wall right in front of the auditorium maximum, in 1976 subversively claimed by activist students, painted as an act of international solidarity. 2015 it was then protected by the German Foundation for Monument Conservation.1 Today it is invisible behind the white protection wall. To commemorate, new students are welcomed with the print on merchandise articles like bookmarks and backpacks.

1 http://ekvv.uni-bielefeld.de/blog/uniaktuell/entry/chile_bild_unter_denkmalschutz_gestellt