Welcome message from Vedrana and Vy
‘Decolonisation is a process, not arrival; it involves an ongoing dialectic between hegemonic centrist systems and peripheral subversions of them; between European or British discourse and their post-colonial dis/mantling’ (Helen Tiffin, ‘Postcolonial Literatures and Counter-Discourse’, 95)
Welcome to the Decolonising the Curriculum Group in the School of Humanities. We are Dr Vy Rajapillai, Senior Lecturer in English Language and Media, and Dr Vedrana Velickovic, Principal Lecturer in Literature. We both teach at Falmer.
Why did we set up this this group? Its origins lie in our personal, pedagogical and political commitment to decolonisation in the broadest sense of the term. Vedrana and Vy have been teaching and researching various aspects of marginalised and excluded histories, ‘race’ and representation, and they also share very different experiences of ‘otherness’ outside the classroom.
Three years ago, the University went through a Curriculum Design Review and one of the key principles of this review was ‘Inclusivity’ which aimed to embed issues of equality and diversity in the curriculum, within the module content and in learning and assessment activities. Vedrana has been teaching and researching Black British and postcolonial literature for over 10 years. After seeing that our students have been offered predominantly white, heteronormative and Eurocentric reading lists year after year, she saw this as an excellent opportunity to start a long-overdue discussion about decolonising the curriculum (as well as our ‘minds’, to borrow from Ngugi here) in our academic programme in a way that would enable us to move beyond a tokenistic, or what Heidi Safia Mirza has recently described as a ‘tourist approach’ to the curriculum [https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/11/only-fifth-of-uk-universities-have-said-they-will-decolonise-curriculum]. In other words, Vedrana noticed that in cases where curriculum/modules were seen to be genuinely ‘more diverse’, it meant adding, at best, one or two Black/queer/female writers or scholars, usually at the end of a module’s reading list. What Vedrana had in mind was something more radical that would involve not only an acknowledgement that our disciplines have been grounded in colonial and heteronormative sites of knowledge, but that in order to make real change, we would also need to start chipping away at those foundational building blocks, and this would also involve an honest, critical, and possibly difficult, discussions about our own teaching practices and even our complicity in maintaining the existing structures.
Building on previous student-led campaigns [‘Why is my curriculum white?’, https://www.facebook.com/events/conference-auditorium-university-of-leeds/why-is-my-curriculum-white-leeds-launch/1519582675000328/, ‘Why isn’t my professor black?’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBqgLK9dTk4], around the same time of the Curriculum Review, Cambridge University students called for the University to include more black and ethnic minority writers in its English Literature curriculum. Lola Olufemi, women’s officer for Cambridge University’s student union students, pointed out ‘that it was “simply not enough” for the university to offer one optional course to read post-colonial BME texts at the end of a three year degree’ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-41749939]. This was also the case at Brighton and Vedrana argued that as a first step towards decolonising the curriculum, we should be granting our Postcolonial Literature module the same core status as the existing core modules on Victorian, early modern, Romantic and modernist literature, as well as continue to engage in an ongoing review of what/who counts to be taught as ‘core’ and ‘optional’ and what histories and experiences have been excluded as a result. While it has been, and it still is, not usual for universities to promote Postcolonial and/or Black British Literature into to such a canonical position, she thought that in the 21st century and after numerous reports on the lack of representation of individuals of Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds in key positions in the UK and in the school and university curricula, this would be a matter of no debate. She wasn’t prepared for the discussion that ensued and will only summarise it here by citing Sara Ahmed’s astute description of diversity work as a ‘banging your head against a brick wall job’ [https://feministkilljoys.com/2017/11/10/complaint-as-diversity-work/]. The Curriculum Review was completed, documentation was submitted, boxes were ticked and the principle of ‘inclusivity’ in the way that Vedrana understood it in relation to decolonising the curriculum turned out to be just another institutional exercise. Vedrana cannot help but wonder if this important discussion would have been given more airing, if we had been going through this review now in the wake of BLM protests and what has now been described as “a critical moment to stand against racism in Higher Education and to decolonise our academic structures” [University English, Decolonising the Discipline project, https://www.englishsharedfutures.uk/home/esf-online/discipline-2020/].
This is why the work of this group is so important and we strongly believe that by working together with our students, having their voices heard and enabling them to take ownership of these discussions that we can reshape and transform of our curriculum and structures. This also means, to cite Sara Ahmed again, having support and mechanisms in place from ‘the institution that is willing to be transformed’ [https://feministkilljoys.com/2017/11/10/complaint-as-diversity-work/]. When Vedrana saw a list of proposed dissertation topics this year and so many students wanting to do their final projects on Black British and/or postcolonial literature, her first thought was that she wanted to get the students together in one room and ask them what made them choose their topic. Powerful accounts of some their journeys through and experiences of the British curriculum are available on our blog page [see Annabelle Detain’s post https://blogs.brighton.ac.uk/decolonisingatfalmer/2020/06/03/why-do-i-want-to-decolonise-our-curriculum/]. After first couple of supervisory meetings, it was clear that we needed a common space to share ideas, books and experiences, perhaps in a form of a monthly reading group. After talking to Vy, who successfully ran a curriculum advisor project with one of her students on her World Englishes module, and after sharing their passion (as well as frustrations) about some of the challenges in trying to do decolonising work and make meaningful change, it was clear that what we wanted to do with our students was part of a wider project. This is how this group was born.
A lot of the issues that we have been describing previously have been shared by our students and they clearly indicate the need to work together in partnership to radically revise and re-design the curriculum. We share some of the questions from one of our curriculum advisers, Hannah Francis, that resulted from her ‘module reading list audit’ project:
Why is it that we have a compulsory core module that centralises its focus upon Western thought as opposed to enveloping it into the study of modernity outside of Europe?
Why is it that we only learn of white European genocidal assaults upon other white Europeans as part of British curriculums? Does this play into the traditional institutional dismissal of colonial violence?
Why are women/POC/LGBTQ+ theorists/ barely featured in the reading list?
Clearly, there is much more work to be done beyond the curriculum, and we hope that what our students will present and reflect on in this session today will instigate and inspire similar projects across other parts of the University. We invite all students and staff across the University who are committed to decolonising the curriculum to join us.