I was fortunate to interview Kate Aughterson, the module leader for Women’s Writing and Feminist Theory on the third year English Literature BA, about the diversity of authors and texts included on the module and her activity as module leader to ensure the continuous amendments and improvement of diversity on the module. Out of the 14 indicative texts on the reading list for this academic year, there were 3 non-white authors and 1 non-white director, whilst 4 of the texts concerned themselves with issues of postcolonialism, racism or dissenting ethnic identities. However, Kate said she would like to be aiming for 50% of the authors or texts on the module to represent forms of non-white identities. She explained that usually each year there would be one new text on the module, however she did confess that this did not happen this year. Unfortunately, due to the strike action before Christmas, my particular year group lost out on the one week that centred around postcolonial feminism with White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which is probably why I was led to feel that the module was particularly lacking in diverse voices of colour.
Moreover, the one Asian text that was meant to feature on the module was removed this year was because the sole lecturer that teaches the text was ill. This highlighted that a key issue and cause of a lack of diversity within the curriculum directly reflects a lack of knowledge and representation amongst lecturers at the university. As opposed to refusing to recognise the need for decolonisation on our courses, many of our lecturers agree with the movement but are unable to teach the diverse texts that some of us are asking for. If one lecturer being off sick and one week being taken off of the module for strike action eradicates such huge elements of postcolonial theory for both black and Asian identities, it is clear that these topics need to be more central to the ongoing research and education of our professors. Although they are considered to be minority identities, Asian and black experiences in Britain are not niche and therefore should not be treated as such by having only one lecturer who is capable of teaching them. Although Kate mentioned not wanting to adhere to the white saviour complex of ‘missionary preaching’, both students and professors should be questioning whether it is fair to wait for more diverse lecturers to be employed by the university to solve this problem. Personally, although people who identify as white cannot speak for people of colour, I believe it should not be the burden of people of colour to be expected to educate students on any part of postcolonial history or theory that they think should be part of a module whilst white lecturers renounce themselves of the responsibility of educating both themselves and their students. This would also limit the variety of teaching that Black and Minority Ethnic professors are able to do, if they are expected to take on the texts that reflect parts of their own identity – whereas ‘whiteness’ is never categorised as a perspective that white lecturers are expected to teach about due to its position as the default viewpoint. Although I do agree that the teaching staff should be more diverse, I do not think that we can wait for that to happen whilst we become complacent in not representing diverse ethnic identities within our modules.
For the future of Women’s Writing and Feminist Theory, Kate suggested that the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements would influence the reading on the module. She is looking to include Trinidadian-Canadian poet M NourbeSe Philip on the module with her poem ‘Zong’ about slaves that were deliberated drowned for insurance claims, to be studied alongside Virginia Woolf, which will project a much more inclusive depiction of the module to follow, as Woolf is studied in the first week. In spite of my criticisms, I do appreciate that Kate’s development of this module alongside her colleagues is still the most diverse I am yet to come across in terms of class, gender and sexuality, in addition to race. I chose to interview about this particular module because of its already expansive and flexible curriculum, in order to understand how modules that are less typically canonical are being developed and what modern constraints might apply that do not just link back to the centuries-old establishment of the classic, white, male canon.
Attached is a Guardian article that also discusses the lack of diversity within university teaching staff and subsequently what limitations disseminate through to curriculums, students and staff members. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/jul/02/black-academics-bear-brunt-of-university-work-on-race-equality
For those who are interested, below I have included the reading list for the Women’s Writing and Feminist Theory module 2019/20:
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Margaret Atwood, ‘Hairball’
Margaret Atwood, Surfacing
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger
Timberlake Wertenberger, Ash Girl
Sarah Kane, Phaedra’s Love
Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve
Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Zadie Smith, White Teeth (this was missed due to strike action)
Eimar McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
Sebastian Lelio, A Fantastic Woman