Decolonising the curriculum in the Faculty of Arts

One of the priority issues that was raised in our discussions with black students in the light of the Black Lives Matter protests was the importance of decolonising the curriculum. This matter affects our teaching in all disciplines. This week's blog describes work that is being led in the Faculty of Arts - we aim for this blog to be the first in a series that will outline work to decolonise the curriculum in all of our Faculties.

Professor Sarah Sharples, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion and People

All in! Regularising ethnic presence in the curriculum

The murder of George Floyd, the ensuing worldwide street protests, the almost universal embrace of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM) slogan, taking the knee at public events and the toppling, removal or defacing of statues in places such as Bristol, Boston, Brussels and London, symbolise anger and frustration about our collective failure to institute greater racial justice and equality.

These events also illustrate the urgency to understand and act on racism as a historical and contemporary social reality that is institutionalised, popularised and globalised. Questions remain though as to why the quest for racial justice continues to be thwarted, why racism in its different manifestations continues to thrive, and why sections of our society remain disenfranchised on the basis of skin colour.

In liberal democracies, the principle of ‘change through education’ rather than radical or revolutionary action is fundamental. Schools, colleges and universities are seen as important institutionalised avenues through which socialisation into reformist values and beliefs takes place although this is contested by people who talk about students being ‘indoctrinated’ at University by ‘leftists’.

Despite this, the blending of many BLM street protests with calls for decolonising universities and curricula suggests that despite the relative radicalness of mass street demonstrations and direct action, there remains an underlying belief that greater racial justice and equality can be achieved by reconstituting educational institutions, curricula and teaching and learning processes.

The ‘All in! Regularising ethnic presence in the curriculum’ project (All in!) shares this belief in education as a transformative principle and the transformation of education as an act of democratisation. The project (September 2018-August 2020) sought to understand and counteract the white-BAME undergraduate degree awarding gap in the disciplines of politics and philosophy at our University.

As a curriculum development project, ‘All in!’ has been examining how teaching and learning content and approaches can help mitigate the white-BAME degree awarding gap and how higher education experience can benefit all students not just the white majority. The project’s ethos is shaped by a practice-based approach whereby communities of practitioners collaborate, share knowhow, learn from each other and co-create practice. Our methodology has comprised:

  • Interviews and discussions with staff and students
  • Data collection and analysis of ‘race’ descriptors in the politics and philosophy modules offered by top UK universities
  • Internal and external networking and learning from others
  • Knowledge sharing and dissemination events
  • Developing an accessible database of ‘Diversity and Decolonisation’ resources
  • Developing and maintaining a website with a range of useful resources and an online knowledge sharing platform
  • Setting up a ‘Diversity and Decolonisation Network’ as a community of practice    

A number of key lessons have emerged from our work and we have had the chance to share and discuss these with colleagues from several disciplines including the sciences. Decolonising curricula involves:

  • Creating spaces for dialogue and collegiality (communities of practice) and not a top-down imposition
  • Managing resistance as the subject is contested, individual and collective professional interests are at stake and the process of change requires dedicated time and resources
  • Deliberate and disciplined inclusion of race, ethnicity, Diaspora and Southern voices and perspectives into curricula
  • Acknowledging and integrating the social capital of students and their lived experience into teaching and learning strategies
  • Managing classrooms (face-to-face and virtual) as diverse spaces that do not perpetuate white normativity
  • Creating teaching and learning spaces where staff and students are able to examine and express their own positionalities in relation to the subject matter
  • Creating better staff and student access to more diverse teaching and learning resources

Ultimately, decolonising the curriculum has to be approached not just as an academic or intellectual pursuit but as a form of transformative educational practice involving teachers, managers and students. Decolonising the curriculum has to be reconfigured as an integral element of an institutional EDI strategy not a parallel development. 

Vipin Chauhan, Research Fellow in School of Politics and IR
Andrew Fisher, Professor in Department of Philosophy
Helen McCabe, Assistant Professor in School of Politics and IR
Helen Williams, Associate Professor in School of Politics and IR

Work towards decolonising the English curriculum
In recent years, academic staff in the School of English have been updating programmes and creating new modules with the express intention of decolonisation. Modules such as ‘The Gothic Tradition’ have been redesigned to enable and foreground the critique of discourses surrounding gender, race, sexuality, class and culture in literature.

Our new module ‘One and Unequal’ looks at predominantly BAME authors and interrogates the legacies and ongoing dynamics of slavery, imperialism and uneven global development.

In our teaching of Viking Studies, we address abuses, both historical and contemporary, across our modules – talking through the history of ideas (such as race and empire) and looking explicitly at slavery and equity under the law of Vikings and the parts they colonized.

When teaching Shakespeare, we work on productions directed by and cast with diverse practitioners across race, gender, dis/ability and language. And in modules such as ‘Language in Society’, we analyse and problematise nationalist discourses which privilege white, English-speaking citizens.

These module developments have of course been in response to increasing awareness within our disciplines of the need to challenge the ‘male, pale and stale’ reputation that some associate with English studies. But they’ve also emerged as a result of the conversations we’ve been having with our students about what they want their degrees to represent. In 2018/19, for example, a Students as Change Agents project in the School allowed us to work with undergraduate students in identifying opportunities to develop our first-year introductory Literature module.

Students now encounter the work of more writers of colour including Pauline Melville, Salman Rushdie, Warsan Shire and Jackie Kay, as well as a number of LGBTQ authors, on this module. Our students continue to challenge us in our decolonisation work, insisting that we do more and that this change happens more quickly.

The Black Lives Matter movement has enabled us to have more conversations about this in recent weeks, leading to the creation of a new Challenge and Change Group where staff and students can collectively work on strategies to better embed diversity in all aspects of our practice.

Our participation in the All In! project last year enabled us to reflect on our progress in terms of decolonisation and identify areas where there’s still work to be done. By bringing together colleagues to have frank discussions about systemic racism as well as providing insights into successful decolonisation elsewhere in academia, the project has empowered us to do more.

Recently, insights from All In! were shared with staff in the School of English with a view to supporting colleagues in reviewing their teaching content and practice. Our resource asks how we can ensure that our students’ own experiences are valued and that minority voices are prioritised. It also foregrounds the need to do more than adding authors of colour to our reading lists, as important as this is.

The resource can be found on our EDI webpages, and gives an account of the questions we’re asking ourselves as well as examples of existing decolonisation work in the School. We look forward to continuing our work in this area, and to learning from our students as we do so.

Lucy Jones, Director of EDI, School of English
Joe Jackson, Director of Teaching, School of English

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Trent Building
University Park Campus