Are student encampments sites of pedagogy and learning?

By Jane Kenway and Katie Maher

When you enter the encampment, you see colour: the red, green, black and white of Palestinian flags and posters and the red, yellow and black of Aboriginal flags, clusters of multicoloured tents and the vibrant hues of children’s artwork. If you walk around, you pass the community library, public notice boards and tables sharing leaflets. There’s a central gathering space with circles of chairs and cushions in watermelon red and green. There may be paintbrushes scattered around from the latest banner painting session, a film screening underway. There may be a researching bee taking place, or myriad teach-ins. You’ll likely see a plurality of students of various religious, racial, gender, class and political positionings, all committed to working together. You might catch the scent of smoky fire cheese fry pans or see students cooking up some other feast from the community pantry.

If you stop and browse in the library or scan the noticeboard, chances are you’ll be greeted by students who are keen to chat about their concerns, local and global happenings and what the encampment is demanding: disclose ties to weapons companies, all funding and research deals; divest and cut ties with all weapons manufacturers; solidarity with Palestine and an end to the occupation. And chances are students will tell you it’s good that you are here. Together, we might ask the question of how can university students and staff support each other to teach and research in solidarity with Palestine? The message from students is clear: “Come down to the Gaza Solidarity Encampment. Help us build the anti-war campaign and stand in solidarity with Palestine.”

A global movement

Similar Gaza solidarity encampments have arisen on university campuses globally. Most establishment figures and institutions have insisted on crackdowns, closures and punitive measures. Encampments in the USA, Germany, the Netherlands and Greece have suffered threats and harsh physical and procedural treatment from police and universities.  Mainstream media portray the encampments as hotbeds of antisemitism and violence. Such portrayals bear little resemblance to these camps’ operations.

Through social media the students decide on their own portrayals. They also publish formal statements and have their own student news outlets. Sharing is to inform, explain, inspire, warn. Confronting images of the NYPD invading student encampments across New York City ricochet around the globe.

What encampments teach

All encampments raise awareness about the justice of the Palestinian cause and the horrors of the war in Gaza.  They demand their universities disclose and end their association with suppliers of arms to the Israeli state. Banners read ‘Disclose Divest. We will not stop. We will not rest’. ‘Stop the lies. Cut the ties’. If they meet with university leaders, if a university agrees to some demands, the students reveal it. They denounce those leaders who refuse to talk.

They post images of camps, campus marches with allies, occupations, die ins, rings of staff protecting students, of graduation ceremonies where gowned students unfurl Free Palestine banners and the Palestinian flag as they receive their awards. Through social media they hear each other’s chants and slogans, see each other’s banners and flags. ‘Stop Genocide Ceasefire Now’ ‘Jews against Genocide’ And they hear each other’s insistent voices— speaking, praying, singing, reciting poetry. Messages of support and solidarity flow out, flow in. Palestinians in Gaza send thanks. The students share lists and maps showing the latest encampments. A map of the Nordic countries is headed Students all across the Nordics are mobilising …. 13 encampments, 12 cities, 4 countries. Another map appears of Belgium’s five encampments; similarly, a map of Sweden.

They also share why, when and how some encampments end—seldom willingly. One student asks ‘What kind of system do we live in where an institution can call the police on you for opposing genocide?’

Pedagogic spaces

Moving through any encampment you might see a banner with the encampment’s ground rules, laying the foundation for a community collectively governed. We might see students reading books from the encampment library or gathering to prepare the next speech, rally, banner or chant. The air will be abuzz with the sound of community in the making. Students are becoming practiced in all manner of community actions, educating, caring and creating.

In the encampments, we see, feel, hear, envision and are invited into the cocreation of student-led pedagogies of action, protest, disruption and insurgence pedagogies of love and carepedagogies of peace and encircling pedagogies that exceed/seed/cede  We see the enactment of education as something you do with and for other people.

A different way of doing education

University encampments invite us into a different way of doing education that defies institutional control. These are spaces that nurture student-led movements which are disrupting and expanding the boundaries of education. Such student-led projects extend beyond racial, religious, national and disciplinary boundaries, and refuse to be co-opted into the institutional status quo. Attending to student-led movements such as university encampments for Palestine opens possibilities for us to revitalise universities as generative spaces of study.

These students are refusing to spend their time of higher learning being processed as obedient units of the colonial class system that sacrifices our humanity, in one way or another, to the death spiral of global capitalism. They are insisting, instead, upon their right to create home, joy, and liveable futures. Eugenia Zuroski

In the words of Eman Abdelhadi, the encampments are “gifting a new experience of wholeness”. They have “helped heal some of the wounds of the past seven months and reenergized us for the fight ahead.”  The students’ university’s connections with the world confront the public university’s silence about and repression of what is happening in the world.

Don’t ask why students are protesting. Ask what died in you that you are not

The students have highlighted scholasticide in Palestine. The destruction of universities, schools, libraries, museums. The loss of many teachers, students, academics, intellectuals, writers, artists. In contrast most university leaders have been mute — failing to mourn the loss of what they claim to value.  Failing to offer solace.  Failing linguistically too. Any encampment student could explain that From the river to the sea and Intifada are not antisemitic and have special meaning for the Palestinian people. Largely, the leadership ignores this. Neither do they want to learn from Jewish members of the encampments who insist that Jewishness must not be used to justify genocide. Like many members of the Jewish community, when they say, Never again, they mean never again for anyone.

What university leaders could learn

University leaders could learn from the students’ ethical clarity. The students are providing the moral leadership expected from sites of knowledge and learning. And many staff are fearlessly joining them, despite the silencing chill from above. In contrast university leaders talk of Jewish students’ fear of attending campus and of the inconvenience of disruption and damage. If they visited the encampments and looked at the students’ screens, they would see the everyday, every night fear, disruption and damage of the Gaza war. This might help them gain a sense of perspective.

And having witnessed the encampments’ liveliness, diversity, community engagement and transnational solidarity they might think twice about the loss of the university’s soul and conscience under their watch.  

Our job is not to protect the institution or its timelines or its profits or its myths of impartiality. Our job is to be strong for our students and to protect them every way we can so that they can realize their own visions of peace and liberation for Palestine. As you go to class today, remember, there are no universities left in Gaza. – Eugenia Zuroski

Main image: Student encampment at Adelaide University – Kaurna Yerta 5 May 2024. Photo: Jack Desbiolles

Jane Kenway is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Australia, Emeritus Professor at Monash University and Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her research expertise is in educational sociology.  

Katie Maher lectures in Education at the University of South Australia. She co-chairs the Pedagogies for Justice research group and is a Series Editor for AARE’s Local/Global Issues in Education book series.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

27 thoughts on “Are student encampments sites of pedagogy and learning?

  1. Naomi Barnes says:

    I spend a lot of time listening to students through the way I’ve set up my history courses. Many are angry about a lot of things institutionalised education has taught them. They are hungry for ways to channel their anger. I love this idea of going and finding out from those who have found a way.

  2. jane kenway says:

    Thanks Naomi. Yes, These encampments are inspirational .

  3. Rosie Joy Barron says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen such vibrant and morally courageous public education on a university campus as what I have seen in the past few weeks. I’m so grateful to the students taking these risks, putting in the work and, as we have recently seen at UniMelb, getting long overdue wins. I love how this post takes seriously the radical possibilities of education on campus demonstrated by the encampments. We can learn so much from student activists and we owe them our support. Many thanks to the authors for this contribution.

  4. Katie Maher says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts Rosie. Like you we have been really impressed with the public education and radical possibilities students are demonstrating. Agreed! We owe students our support and have much to learn from their activism.

  5. Lindsay Fitzclarence says:

    There is a question in this piece that speaks to the importance of student encampments and the need for a different type of political discourse. The question is ‘What kind of system do we live in where an institution can call the police on you for opposing genocide?’ The importance of this question is that it provokes us to critically consider the long-term impact of death and destruction that has now been broadcast since October 7, last year. The global media arm of transnational capitalism no doubt voraciously feeds off and helps perpetuate this televisual form of destructive politics. That’s part of the reason that this conflict cannot be thought of as a regional and religion-based affair. It’s much broader than that and calls forth the need for a very different type of globally integrated response. That’s also why this blog is important. The header stating A different way of doing education, also implies that the work of these encampments is about engaging in a different form of politics. Bravo to the participants and to the writers of this paper.
    Lindsay Fitzclarence
    Hon adjunct, Deakin University.

  6. William Fox says:

    What a blessed relief to hear argument for free thought on the issues that challenge morality and decency. How enlightening it is to understand that many are choosing to look through other windows to see the goings on in this world – separate to the pervading soiled and self-serving views that permeate colonial capitalism. How pleasing is it to see young people of so many different hues and persuasions coming together in solidarity to challenge the carnage in Gaza, those who perpetrate this, are complicit in this or simply look away. Great article. Thank you.

  7. jane kenway says:

    Carnage is the word Bill. The recent horrifying fire, caused by the Israeli army, in a tent camp in Rafah are a further testimony to this. The students do not mince their words. Tragically so many others do

  8. Katie Maher says:

    Many thanks for this carefully considered and insightful response. We appreciate the attention you have given to this question and your highlighting of how the work of encampments is about engaging in a different form of politics.

  9. Lew Zipin says:

    This is a brilliantly written and compellingly explanatory piece on how Uni encampments are newly educative in ways we urgently need at this time of historic crises at lived and deep-structural levels. Indeed, at campus and wider public rallies, teach-ins, and other events for Palestinian justice, I’ve seen – and been part of – how students, academics and community people are forming new solidarities across generational, cultural and social-structural diversities. Learning-and-teaching together, from social-justice impetus, we share life-storied and historical-contextual knowledges, growing our capacities to reach wider publics in ways that register ethically and emotively. Thanks, Jane and Katie, for your eloquent rendering of all this.

  10. Katie Maher says:

    Thanks for this beautifully articulated and generous response Lew.

  11. jane kenway says:

    Thanks Lew. This speaks to your recent paper in Curriculum Perspectives ; ‘present-day tipping points’ and ‘education for agentic hope’ and ‘putting diverse knowleges to work in student-educator-community collaborations’ . World wide I think the students have helped create a tipping point and have illustrated the best of what education can do

  12. Freya Higgins-Desbiolles says:

    Thank you for this great article! The idea of the student encampments as pedagogy is an important one to consider. We need a connection-making consciousness that helps us see how oppressions are interconnected and how our liberations are also tied up together. Palestine is teaching us something invaluable. We need to do everything we can to act now for Palestine but also to act into the future so the hold of settler-colonialism and imperialism are undone for all.
    I hope we take this example and move learning into the world. Engaged for a better future for all.

  13. Katie Maher says:

    Thank you Freya. I really like your point about needing a connection-making consciousness. Agreed, we have so much to learn from Palestine.

  14. jane kenway says:

    Freya, Thank you. We can also learn so much form the incredible courage of academics in Gaza.
    Have you see their open letter.

    It’s heart breakingly beautiful.

  15. Diana Langmead says:

    Thank you, Jane Kenway and Katie Maher, for this insightful view of the university encampments that takes us beyond the common simplification of sites of adversity, of radical activist youths versus imperious intellectual guardians. Your illustration of the potential for educational integrity in sharing ethics, energy, knowledge, and resources that strengthens connections across socially constructed divides towards greater humanity is an astute reminder.

  16. jane kenway says:

    Hello Diana,

    The camps made me think of your wonderful work on hospitality.

    I wonder what Derrida might have said!!

    Guest, host, stranger, threshold? How do they play out in and around the encampments?

  17. Robert Birch says:

    Well done the students! And we’ll done Katie and Jane for your incisive and sympathetic report.

  18. Katie Maher says:

    Thank you Robert!

  19. jane kenway says:

    Thanks Robert. These students ethical clarity and courage is so admirable. I have seen many commentators say ‘They don’t know what they are talking about’. So condescending and so wrong.

  20. Katie Maher says:

    Thank you Diana for drawing out this critical point of strengthening connections across divides.

  21. Leanne Higham says:

    Thank you to the authors for illuminating how the student encampments are spaces of pedagogy. Just because it doesn’t look like a more familiar version of education (or politics) doesn’t mean education isn’t happening. It is an education mobilised by what matters to the students.

  22. jane kenway says:

    Hi Leanne, I agree.
    What matters to students isn’t always what we think should matter to them. I appreciate the fact they are telling us this matters. Listen!!

  23. Thomas Viola Rieske says:

    I think it is great that students create sites of protest against war, genocide and colonial capitalism. I also think it’s great that academics defend those protests against stigmatization. However, I disagree with some of the thoughts presented here. I’m an academic in Germany (in gender and education) who has stayed in Sydney and Melbourne, so I came across this text when it was linked on facebook by a mutual friend. I posted a comment on that post and one of the authors suggested I post it here. It may seem odd to find a German commenting this – I think I am just trying to figure out what to think of all of this because I have encountered so many different views on the October 7th attack and on the Israelian counterattack. I’d be really interested to read what other people think of the following.

    I don’t know the situation in Australia but from this text and a little research in the news, I assume that there has been a rather stigmatising discourse on these camps and that this text aims at presenting a counter-narrative. However, I find the argument about pedagogy and education convincing only to a certain extend. Of course, any protest camp is a site of education in that participants explore, acquire, train a range of abilities, attitudes, relations and knowledge. In this case, it’s a learner-centred form of education, and it aims at questioning institutionalised oppression – by not following the rules of that institution, by learning and practicing to be not-colonial and not-military, by learning how to create cooperation and solidarity across culturally set boundaries and most importantly by aiming at de-marginalisation within the camp as well as globally.

    Yet, it seems to me that what is described could also be described as changing from one system of “do think this and don’t think that” to the next one. The text does not mention dispute, conflict or disagreement as an element of the camps’ discourses and thus as an element of a different kind of education to be valued. Education, it seems, is finding out about truth and learning that truth. But isn’t this exactly what the text also criticises, and doesn’t this essentially lead to a learning-to-be-dogmatic? For me as an educator, education isn’t limited to finding out something surprising or not-known-before. It also includes working oneself through controversies and participating in them without being told what to think. (and as an educator, I try to introduce learners to controversies instead of teaching my own truths only, although I don’t think I’m doing this as well as I could). Education, then, is also about acknowledging one’s own limits and one’s own possibly being wrong. In this text, it’s only the others who are wrong.

    If the camps and the authors would embrace this idea of education, there would be so much more to think about and talk about. For example the ongoing hostage situation and the ongoing rockets sent against Israel and how, after October 7th, it could be considered an act of empathy to find an alternative to “from the river to the sea” because regardless of what oneself thinks this phrase means, it’s easy to understand that it means trauma for those who lost friends and family on that day and that it is unlikely that this phrase can create the trust needed for peace. The camps would probably also discuss the antisemitic elements in the Hamas 2017 paper and how these elements hinder a peace process. Or Australia’s restriction of immigration of Jews after the holocaust, co-creating the conditions under which Jews felt their only chance is to found their own state – now being told that murderous attacks against that state’s existence are a form of justified resistance (“the attacks on October 7th were bad BUT”, as if the hamas attacks were something that has ended).

    In fact, antisemitism would be an issue to think about and to educate oneself about. I was highly disturbed how students’ and their allies’ worries of antisemitism are sidelined in this text here by pointing at the greater suffering of palestinians. Why do the authors think it is okay to construct fears of antisemitism as irrelevant? Certainly, any form of discrimination can be used strategically – it is well known that false rape accusations have been used by racists against black men. Still, when it comes to sexism or racism, I think there would be at least a disclaimer in such a case, acknowledging that it’s ambivalent to reject a discrimination claim voiced by a person in a marginalised position (or their allies). Of course I don’t know the heritage of the authors, but as this text is written for the wider public, I want to share my observation that these days, there’s a strange acceptance for Gentiles (non-Jews) lecturing Jews about what is antisemitism or not. There is talk about white privilege, male privilege and ability privilege but not about gentile privilege, as if antisemitism didn’t also create the position of a non-jew as an invisibly privileged position that needs to be reflected by educating oneself thoroughly on antisemitism and by understanding that gentile privilege may come with a lack of awareness of certain elements of antisemitism. I recently read an article about clear evidence of antisemitic views held in a protest camp in Germany (one speaker suggested that the Zionists return to Europe, obviously not knowing that around two thirds of the Israelian population were born in Israel and hence have no place to return to, and that a huge proportion of Israelians has parents or grandparents born not in Europe but in the Arab world. People love to think of Jews as white but this is just wrong). How certain are you that you have educated yourself well enough to notice antisemitism also in those moments in which it doesn’t present itself in a blatant form, but rather in implicit or tacit forms?

    I don’t want to say that Israel’s war is justified or that the attacks by Hamas on and since October 7th (and the international financial and military support they get) are only motivated by antisemitism. But I find it very troubling that engaging with this perspective in this text isn’t mentioned and implicitly presented as oppressive. Just because right wing politicians use antisemitism as a legitimation for war crimes, doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant for the attacks.

  24. jane kenway says:

    Hi Thomas. Thanks for your comments. It’s always useful to have one’s work critiqued. Of course, ours is not a solitary view and is held by many academics of all religious persuasions. See for example An Open Letter from Concerned Jewish Faculty at the University of Oxford which makes similar arguments. Australian universities usually oppose, and try to silence, those who show solidarity with Palestinian. Many have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism including its six examples which claim that criticism of the state of Israel is anti-Semitic. This definition has been widely criticised. However, some universities here are now also considering the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism which seeks to ‘protect a space for open debate about the vexed question of the future of Israel/Palestine’. Section C. called Israel and Palestine: examples that, on the face of it, are not antisemitic. Number 12 says ‘Criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism, or arguing for a variety of constitutional arrangements for Jews and Palestinians in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. It is not antisemitic to support arrangements that accord full equality to all inhabitants “between the river and the sea,” whether in two states, a binational state, unitary democratic state, federal state, or in whatever form.’

    I wonder what definition of anti-Semitism German universities have adopted and if they vary by institution. I know that two world renowned highly respected Professors, had their visiting scholar offers rescinded—Nancy Fraser by the University of Cologne and Ghassan Hage by Max Planck. This was because they speak out about the historical and current injustices metered out by the state of Israel against the Palestinian people. There is so much powerful literature on this. If you are not familiar with it, Edward Said’s work is a good place to start and you may be interested in this reading list, put out, with commentary, by leading Australian academics.–recommende

    I agree that anti-Semitism is a scourge as are all expressions of racism. Certainly, the encampments in Australia include lots of different views and involve feisty debates. But they are united in their antiracist stance and have attracted support from many progressive Jews and Indigenous Australians. They are also united in opposing the escalating horrors of the war in Gaza and those universities that underwrite them. Along with support for the Palestinian people, that is their focus. You will understand why if you consider this brief history in maps and charts.

  25. Katie Maher says:

    Thank you readers for your thought provoking comments. For further insight into Gaza solidarity encampments at universities, see Sophie Rudolph’s piece ‘working for safety collectively’ just published in Overland and available from this link:
    It traces how dwelling in discomfort can be important in deepening learning and sharing knowledge, providing brilliant insight into how we might collectively generate safety.

  26. Thomas Viola Rieske says:

    Hi Katie,

    thanks for linking this article. I agree with the author that when adhering to dominant knowledge (even when one is actually marginalised), being confronted with what has been excluded from this knowledge is discomforting. It makes one realise one’s own complicity with the oppression of others and how that oppression partly is the basis for one’s comfort, safety or prosperity. Certainly, being confronted with the tremendous suffering of Palestinians since 1948 is discomforting if one believes that the founding of Israel is merely an act of emancipation and happiness for Israelis.

    Yet, again, this contribution, like yours, seems to be based on the premise that antisemitism is not a relevant problem – it even denies the reality of antisemitism in several points:

    As Jewish students are the only group named in the article as feeling unsafe, I assume that when the author writes about “someone from the dominant culture”, they mean or include Jewish students. In the face or the reports on antisemitic incidents in Australia since October 7th (and before), I find this outrageous and I am very surprised and confused to read this written by an author who claims to take an intersectional perspective.

    I also find that the equation of Zionism and the Holocaust denies the relevance of antisemitism. Before, during and after the Holocaust, Jewish people faced rejection and discrimination. They simply were denied a basic human need – belonging, and had to continuously experience severe trauma. None of that was part of the experience of white Germans. You don’t have to agree with Zionism, of course, but leaving out the history of antisemitism as context simply does not do justice to history and brings with it the risk to repeat the oppression denied.

    Another case is comparing the situation of Jewish students with the experience of “some Australians” when the statue of Captain Cook was sawn off. Are those who felt discomfort with that action people who feel they have to hide something in order to feel safe? I very much doubt it.

    Referring to my other comment it seems to me that like in your own text, the author, when it comes to antisemitism, writes from a position of safety and denies the experience of those who do not experience that safety. I’m sure it would be quite discomforting to acknowledge that. But stopping this gesture of dominance would indeed be necessary in order to “work for safety collectively”.

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