2019 Doctoral Thesis Winner

7 March 2019

2019 AWARD

Every year BERA recognises academic excellence and rigour in research by a Doctoral student. This underscores BERA’s commitment to developing capacity, advancing quality and methodological originality within the field of educational research.

This year we received a number of high quality applications and the judges were very impressed by the volume of exciting new researchers.

We are pleased to announce the 2019 Winner of the BERA Doctoral Thesis Award is Yasamin Alkhansa(University of Sussex) for her thesis Selective Histories: Living and Teaching in Iran under the Islamic Republic

The abstract for her thesis is below:

“Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, growing scholarly debates have criticized the theocratic State for its authoritative imposition of a singular historical narrative in education and beyond. Pointing to the way the Islamic Republic has ideologically selected and appropriated a nation’s history to sanction particular identities, these debates have overwhelmingly focused on the power of the State at the expense of marginalizing the role of social actors such as teachers as the mediator of the curriculum.

Drawing on an extensive ethnographic research study in Tehran-Iran from 2014 to 2015, this thesis brings to light teachers’ significant yet over-looked power to resist the State’s narrative at this important juncture in the country’s history. It discusses the instructional choices and discourses of history teachers and shows how they, de-facto subvert the official history. By telling their story, this thesis then demonstrates that despite real constraints, teachers do act against the imposition of official history and trivialize the State’s theocratic authority through quiet and assuming acts of everyday resistance.

The thesis examines the tension between the official account of history that is constructed in and through Iranian school textbooks and the mediated narrative that history teachers produce in their classroom pedagogies.  It critically analyses both discourses to identify their similarities and differences, unpacking the underlying reasons that contribute to their formation. In so doing, it investigates the textbook’s representation of Iran’s past – specifically, in history textbooks at grade 11 – and deconstructs the socio-political and cultural significance of its discourse in relation to education and broader social dynamics.

Against the backdrop of this official, Islamized, narrow and exclusionary account, this thesis explores how the textbook is enacted by teachers in the classroom, examining both their educational practices as well as their lived-experience in the Islamic Republic. To capture the complexities of their pedagogies, the thesis engages in the lived-world of history teachers in Tehran and contextualises their teaching as a practice of resistance, as well as submission, to the status quo.

By focusing on the content of the textbook and identifying its narrative with State-defined Islam, this research differentiates between Islamic and Islamized narratives, unpacking both to critique dominant assumptions that view Iranian textbooks simply as Islamic. It argues that the problem in Iran is Islamization; a political project that interprets and actively reconstructs the history (and religion) in narrow and exclusionary ways, at the service of the existing and differentially organized structures of power.  

Theoretically, the thesis draws on the critical theory of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to explore the way the three Iranian teachers in this study act against the hegemonic official narrative of history. To do that, it incorporates insights from Critical Pedagogy, as well as Middle East-focused resistance literature to develop a contextalized understanding of pedagogy as a critical practice in the Iranian context. Methodologically, it also merges Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) with Critical Engaged Ethnography and utilises a combination of methods of data collection over the course a year of field research in Tehran. The methods include semi-structural life story interviews, classroom observation followed by unstructured interviews, and textbook analysis.   

The thesis contributes to our understanding of education as a political enterprise in Iran. While it shows through real-life examples the complexities of critical pedagogy and its inherently contradictory nature, it also documents the realities that shape the lives and labour of teachers in the country. In addition to its contribution to Iran-specific debates (and the Middle East more broadly), the significance of this thesis lays in illuminating the limitations in our existing conceptualization of social actors’ agency in authoritarian fields. By assuming universal criteria, mediums and forms, the current frameworks neglect alternative forms of power, which take place in non-democratic contexts. This paper argues that, although small and seemingly inconsequential – teachers’ instructional practices and discourses are acts of resistance; an unconventional expression and exerices of agency that the existing conceptualization falls short to recognize.”