School of English

Decolonising the curriculum in English Studies

Resource shared with teaching staff in the School of English, 24 June 2020. This represents ongoing work in the School of English. If you have any suggestions, questions, or comments, please contact Lucy Jones.

Decolonising the curriculum is about recognising and challenging the colonial roots and Western biases of what we teach, how we teach it, and what we value in our students’ work.

It isn’t about the token inclusion of the intellectual achievements of non-white cultures, but instead involves a paradigm shift: from a culture of exclusion and denial, to the making of space for other political philosophies and knowledge systems. It’s a culture shift to think more widely about why common knowledge is what it is, and in so doing adjusting cultural perceptions and power relations in real and significant ways1.

The challenge to decolonise the curriculum emerges from critical race studies but, as we develop our teaching, we can and should also be thinking about gender, sexuality, disability, and social class. We know that some of our students feel disconnected from what we do in the School, and there’s a perception that we only value white voices and ideas. We therefore urgently need to address this - decolonising the curriculum is one approach we can all take, in combination with other measures being implemented.

1. University of Keele Decolonising the Curriculum Network [↵]

Decolonising the English curriculum

 

Questions we're asking

Are our reading lists - both core and recommended - sufficiently diverse?

An important starting point is to ask ourselves this question. If we go through the reading that we set for students, how many of the authors are people of colour (and, for that matter, women or LGBTQ people)? Could we set ourselves an immediate target of doubling that number ahead of the next academic year?

But decolonising the curriculum is about much more than just updating our reading lists. These are just some of the ways that we might think about decolonising the curriculum.

When we draw on cultural theorists or political perspectives, where do they typically come from?

Western conceptualisations of society have dominated theorisation in all areas of our teaching: to what extent are we challenging that, and encouraging our students to be critical of dominant perspectives?

For example, if we teach feminist theory as a critical approach, are we actually teaching a largely white version of feminism?

When we teach theories or perspectives which emerge from non-Western contexts or authors of colour, do we actively problematise the fact that these voices may not be as prominent as those of white authors?

For example, if we teach about a Black playwright or the language of Black communities, do we also teach students to be critical of the systemic racism which reinforces the ‘other’ status that these playwrights or communities may hold?

When we teach key authors, theories or contexts which are rooted in white colonialism, to what extent do we decentre and problematise the dominance of whiteness?

How can we take the opportunity to challenge students’ unconscious biases which may lead to them privileging white authors, glorifying Britain’s colonial history, or evaluating non-white cultures negatively?

In the assessments we set for students, how much scope is there for them to do original work which reflects their interests and experiences?

Are we enabling - and challenging - students to look beyond dominant, Western-centric perspectives when formulating their project ideas?

Do our students know that diverse voices and cultural ideas will be valued in their assessments, or do they feel it’s safest to draw on dominant theories and critical perspectives?

Do we empower our students to write assessments based on their own cultural experiences, if they wish to do so?

Where we lack expertise in a particular area, are there opportunities for us to look beyond the School to ensure that students can engage with diverse ideas?

Could we develop interdisciplinary modules or work with colleagues elsewhere in the Faculty to address gaps we’ve identified in our syllabi?

Could we bring in guest lecturers on our modules to help students to interrogate texts and ideas in a new way?

 

Changes we've made

The Gothic Tradition

The module The Gothic Tradition has been redesigned in consultation with the Student Union and with the express intention of decolonisation. The ethos underpinning the syllabus, as well as the framing of lectures and seminar discussion, emphasises the importance of critiquing discourses surrounding gender, race, sexuality, class and culture. Topics include discussions of slavery and other modes of imperialist violence, as represented in both historical and contemporary contexts. 

Psycholinguistics

In both Language Development and Language & the Mind, the assessment asks students to collect their own data to conduct a mini experiment. Students are explicitly encouraged to think about their own networks and background and what might make an interesting study. Culture, broadly defined, is a regular theme in students’ assignments, e.g. if you grow up in China, does this influence your semantic categories and how? Students are also advised that they may focus on any language(s) they like, giving multilingual speakers the opportunity to engage with research into non-English language and culture.

Shakespeare and his Contemporaries on the Stage

We have considered how our teaching of Shakespeare can move beyond his identification as the archetypal dead white male author, and consider the fact that his works have always been appropriated to speak for disenfranchised groups as well as those in power. This module decentres the author and instead privileges the diverse range of practitioners and interpreters who have re-performed Shakespeare to speak to different moments and communities. We work on productions directed by and cast with diverse practitioners across race, gender, dis/ability and language, and our secondary reading draws on a wide range of critical approaches (including Critical Race Studies, Queer/Trans Theory, Feminism and Global Shakespeare studies) to support students in continuing the work of decolonising Shakespeare.

Studying Literature

This module now includes more diverse authors, following student feedback that the syllabus was too ‘pale, male, and stale’. It is hoped that this will encourage students to look beyond the traditional canon in their independent studies and to see the study of literature at Nottingham in more diverse terms.

Viking Studies

We have explicitly addressed abuses, both historical and contemporary, across our modules. This means that we talk through the history of ideas (race, empire, Nazism), and that we have explicitly looked at slavery and equity under the law of Vikings and the parts they colonized. Viking Studies is also a part of migration history; we discuss the many people who contributed to the language and culture of English.

One and Unequal: World Literature and English

This module looks at a range of contemporary authors from around the world, who are of predominantly BAME origin. On this module, we also interrogate the legacies and ongoing dynamics of slavery, imperialism and uneven global development. This module acts as a companion to the already-existing module Island and Empire, where we look at postcolonial writers of BAME origin alongside the history of colonialism and colonial literature. Interrogating colonial discourse is seen on this module as part and parcel of decolonising the curriculum. 

Performing the Nation

At the core of this module is a concern to interrogate and critically reflect on what we mean when we talk about national identity - and our approach is to de-centre and question who frames British identities and shared histories. The module begins with the Young Vic piece by Selina Thompson, 'I feel most English when ...' which places a Black writer and Black actor centre stage; we also have a dedicated week on the history of Black British Theatres, and this year we are adding debbie tucker green's ear for eye to the curriculum; but beyond core texts our aim is for the module to use a diverse range of recent texts and performances, as well as theoretical and critical writing, to problematise the idea of nation and identity. As a teaching team we flag up that we aim to open up space for difficult conversations about whose voice gets heard, what spaces get occupied, whose needs are prioritised. Essay questions are designed to help guide students in independent research projects that allow them to explore these issues further in relation to their own interests.

Advanced Writing Practice: Poetry

In poetry the dominant voices in English-language poetry historically and culturally have been white men; their poetry has been ‘validified’ through publication in mainstream presses and prestigious prizes. When we invite poetry practitioners, we consider whether the majority of the poets we have invited are the same gender and ethnicity; whether they publish through smaller presses; whether they have an active practice. Students are given autonomy in terms of producing creative and critical assignments which are meaningful to them. This empowers the students, encourages inclusivity, and ensures diversity of materials covered.

Language in Society

Following feedback from students in 2018/19, last year we added a unit on Race and Ethnicity in the second-year module Language in Society. In this unit, we problematise nationalist discourses which privilege white, English-speaking citizens in the UK and USA. We consider the role of the law on constraining linguistic diversity (for example, in South Africa during apartheid) and we focus on the linguistic mechanisms of racist discourse. 

Speculative Fictions

Samuel Delany's Nova was added this year. This was one of the first award-winning Sci Fi novels to be written by a Black author, and it facilitates valuable discussion about privilege, colonialism, and the links between poverty and exploitation and race.

Distance Learning

On our DL programmes, we have students engaging from over 80 different countries. With the design of Applied English, we have worked to embed diversity in our online curriculum provision from the very beginning, offering two bespoke pathways in World Englishes and World Literatures, and creating new courses on such topics as Southeast Asian Literature, Indian Literature of the Twentieth Century, Culture and Communication, and Interlanguage Pragmatics to name but a few. 

Texts Across Time

Three units have been introduced over the past few years to explicitly address questions of race. This includes a unit on how schools in America have engaged with African American Vernacular English, another unit on racial medicine and eugenics (looking specifically at Toni Morrison's novel Home), and one on colonialism and (anti)colonialist discourse. 

Reformation and Revolution

Whilst most of the canonical texts from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England were written by white, male authors, the reading list for ‘Reformation and Revolution' includes an equal number of male and female writers. Each week of this module we deal with an overarching theme to encourage students to examine early modern views on race, gender, sexuality, politics, religion, and social class, among other issues. The assessment - an essay on a topic students choose and develop with their lecturers - invites students to explore these issues in greater depth, through literary analysis and historical research.

Talking Horses to Romantic Revolutionaries

We have included Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, a key British Abolitionist text; we wanted it to be read alongside traditional ‘literary’ autobiographies and prose on the course, and to widen awareness of the use of spirituality and religion in the anti-Slavery movement. In the future, we plan to widen the whole topic into a section on literature and slavery in Britain, with students encouraged to research further into online resources on British abolitionism, and its relation to the present.

Self and the World

In this module, we’ve been building in more areas of modern critiques of traditional texts: Milton and orientalism, Milton and Islam, Frankenstein and the other, and related areas.

Modern and Contemporary Literature

On this module, we aim for a broad overview of literature from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, studying authors of different races, nationalities and sexualities, as well as differing political views.  Embracing student feedback, we continue to reflect on the diversity of the module in various ways – for example, in 2019/20 we updated the module reading, including new texts for the year like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and Claudia Rankine’s powerful study of racism in contemporary America, Citizen.  We also embedded questions of identity and cultural diversity in the module’s assessment, which inspired some excellent student work.

 

 Useful resources and links

 

School of English

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The University of Nottingham
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telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 5900
email: english-enquiries@nottingham.ac.uk