India Trek 2018: Where did it come from, who made it, and why does it matter?

factory feature photo
Photo credit: India trek students

Dr Winston Kwon, Chancellor’s Fellow in the Business School, talks to Teaching Matters about the huge challenges we are facing in HE to help students engage with problems that are truly relevant – especially the complex issues around social inclusion and environmental sustainability. In designing a unique experience involving 24 students from multiple disciplines trekking across India, Winston describes how he is tackling this challenge…

How can we use our teaching methods to engage students so that they are motivated to affect change? There are limits to what we can do in the classroom or in a virtual environment. To some extent, we can engage students through interactive lectures that are interwoven with resonant narratives and visual media – but that isn’t always enough. It is one thing to grasp an issue from an intellectual perspective, but that usually isn’t enough to motivate someone to change. Affecting a change in practices, or compelling someone to take a stand on an issue – to be mobilised into action – requires passion that comes not just from understanding the logic of argument but also ‘feeling’ the truth of that idea at an emotional and visceral level.

From this realisation, I developed the ‘India Trek’ – a week-long programme saw 24 students from a range of subject areas – including business, fashion and geography – follow the cotton supply chain, from the villages of rural Maharashtra to the fashion houses of Mumbai. The original inspiration was to design an interdisciplinary experience that could get students to engage deeply with issues of ethics and sustainability. We recruited 3rd year undergrads because they have begun to develop a certain level of academic maturity and yet are still at a point where intervention could still influence the remaining trajectory of their time at the University. Once we started to look deeper into the subject of cotton, the Trek really started to come together, as shown in the following short video:

Cotton has such a pervasive role in our lives that we often take it completely for granted. The deeper you look into the supply chain of cotton and its history, there are ever more layers to be understood. The story of cotton is deeply implicated into creation of the British Empire, the rise of America as an economic power and in the movement for Indian independence. Cotton was one of the first commodities that was a driver for the technological and industrial development of the industrial revolution and of global trade. Through cotton and the fashion industry we can see a spectrum of issues that connect to the empowerment, objectification and repression of individuals. There are few commodities that have such an unnoticed yet profound impact on our modern world.


The itinerary of the Trek included lectures on traditional artisanal techniques, the technology of a cotton mill, approaches to empowering workers in modern garment workshops as well as an inspirational talk by Anita Dongre, one of India’s top designers, and a session with the editors of Vogue India, who featured the Trek in their July 2018 edition.

As for the students, this was a deeply intellectually and emotionally engaging experience. The students were exhausted during much of the trek, and we initially thought that it was due to too much partying. But, as it turns out, they were tired because they were processing daily experiences of the trek by engaging in really deep discussions about gender inequality, poverty, empowerment and racism deep into the early hours. I was struck by the idea that these are the types of intellectual engagement that we might imagine from books and movies, but never the typical university experience.

We were joined on the trek by a group of fashion students from a fashion college in Mumbai. At debriefing sessions, many of the students told us that this was the highlight of their time in Edinburgh.teaching1

This was a great bonding experience for these students. As each participant was chosen on the basis of their application and drawn from schools all across the university, there were no real pre-existing peer groups, so everyone spent the week getting to know each other and many friendships were developed. Numerous dissertation projects and a new hemp fashion start-up resulted directly from the Trek.

I think that the ‘secret sauce’ in all this was the really the interdisciplinarity. For many of the students, this was the first time they had met anyone outside their discipline. A few students told me that, for the first time, they really felt that they were part of the broader university that is Edinburgh. The fact that they could engage with others from different viewpoints and backgrounds made their interactions that much more interesting.

Winston Kwon

Dr Winston Kwon is a Chancellor’s Fellow in the Business School and the course organiser for Organising for Social Change. His current research interests concern hybrid organisations and how they address social and environmental challenges across a number of contexts such as social inclusion, mental health and micromobility.

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