what’s going on? demystifying ‘decolonising the curriculum’

By Dr Anne-Marie Evans and Dr Sarah Lawson-Welsh

With thanks to Dr Janine Bradbury, Dr Kaley Kramer and Dr Fraser Mann

This week at York St John University, around 50 staff and students attended an event entitled ‘Black History Month and the Transatlantic Imagination’. They listened to short micro-lectures by staff on the boycotting of cotton from the US confederate (pro slave-owning) states by nineteenth-century Lancashire textile workers, the music of Miles Davis and of The Belleville Three, the Black Panther Marvel comics, the role of Journées Africaines and why Black History Month does not, as yet, exist in France, and the transatlantic life and legacies of Caribbean-born writer and historian, C.L.R. James. After the session, a student commented that she was proud to be at an institution where Black History Month was given such prominence. Events like this are hugely important. We know that we are not alone in this, and that colleagues in HE institutions all over the country are involved in fantastic public engagement and widening participation initiatives in collaboration with Black History Month.

This week, it was reported in the press that some 150 English Literature students at the University of Cambridge had asked teaching staff to ‘decolonise’ the syllabus, and consider offering more exposure to black and minority ethnic writers. The open letter that was written by the students asks for a range of inclusive practices for Literature students, including the appearance of two or more postcolonial and BAME writers on every exam paper, including books on postcolonialism in the main library, and the start of a speaker series or reading group that would focus on postcolonial voices.

The press response to these perfectly reasonable requests has been sadly predictable, and the students – most noticeably CUSU Women’s Officer Lola Olufemi, who was featured on the front page of The Telegraph – has been accused of ‘forcing’ Cambridge to change the syllabus (The Telegraph has since apologised for this allegation). Olufemi responded to this report  by pointing out it was ‘riddled with factual inaccuracies’ and that it ‘attempted to misconstrue what the task of decolonising is, as well as …turn me into a ‘controversial figure’’.  For many, including Dr Priyamvada Gopal, Lecturer in Postcolonial Literatures at Cambridge, the coverage was absurd and hyperbolic. FLY, Cambridge University’s network for women and non-binary people of colour, released a statement in support of Olufemi, describing the situation as a ‘blatant instance of misogynoir’, and ‘a strategic targeting of a visible black student activist, opening her up to racial and gendered attacks, harassment as well as national scrutiny.’  Adam Lowe of the Leeds-based independent press, Peepal Tree Press,  which specializes in publishing the ‘best in Caribbean and Black British Writing’, summed up the view of many who actually teach in literature departments in Higher Education when he commented:

We welcome any attempt to put BAME experiences onto the reading list, and not just because we’ve published many excellent BAME works ourselves. University reading lists certainly have become more inclusive in many respects, and BAME literature is gaining increasing recognition at home and abroad (just look at all the writers who’ve made major poetry shortlists in recent years). But this isn’t at the expense of English literature itself. Rather it’s an enriching experience, and better reflects the reality of contemporary Britain. It’s a pity the tabloids can’t be honest about that.

At York St John, the English programme’s motto is words matter. Earlier this month, we held our inaugural Words Matter lecture. Dr Kaley Kramer, speaking on ‘Literature and Hope’ referenced primarily writers of colour as a tribute to Black History Month and as a citational practice inspired by the work of Sara Ahmed. Dr Kramer’s lecture ended in a round of applause and cheers from our student body, made up of Foundation year students and undergraduates, through to PhD candidates and staff. Moments such as this are invaluable in encouraging everyone to challenge their preconceptions about literature. Our first year syllabus includes a module called ‘Canonicity’ which focuses on breaking down the concept of the literary canon, and asking students to problematize what can be considered ‘great and good’ literature. Another introductory module, ‘Theorising Literature: Identity and Power’ works to give students the critical vocabulary to talk about race, ethnicity, colour, religion, gender, sexuality, disability, and questions of nationhood and national identity. In their second and third year, students can take modules such as ‘Writing the Caribbean’ which disrupts the idea that the Caribbean is ‘out there’ and separate to ‘Britishness’ and British literature by showing how the two have always been globally, culturally and historically connected. Students can also choose to take ‘From Harlem to Hip-Hop’, a brand new module that will debut next year, focusing on tracing the development of African American literature and culture from the Harlem Renaissance up to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Other modules that seem to follow a ‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ syllabus work to challenge and destabilize the past as a ‘safe space’ of white privilege. Britain – and British literature – was always a transnational, multicultural space and the study of the past – as well as the contemporary – is more accurate, relevant, and vital when we understand that ‘canonical’ literature does not reflect the reality of the historical world any more than it does our present world.

Our students have the opportunity to read ground-breaking work from – to name just a few –Toni Morrison, Indra Sinha, Zadie Smith, Sam Selvon, Claude McKay, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Nnedi Okorafor, bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, Jamaica Kincaid, and Andrea Levy. Jack Mapanje, the political activist and award-winning poet, works with our students on a regular basis through a series of talks and readings. We also recognise that decolonisation does not only occur in contemporary writing (we also teach Olaudah Equiano, Igantius Sancho, Phyllis Wheatley) – nor should it affect only the primary texts studied. Students also engage with scholars and critics of colour, exploring how the system that produces literary value must also change in order for those values to be properly critiqued, widened, and reconsidered. Our modules do not exclude more canonical writers, such as Dickens, Austen, or Milton. However, we ensure that our students are encouraged to read canonical works with an understanding of their literary merit and the social, cultural, and political dynamics which have safeguarded and perpetuated the dominance of these voices and the ways in which contemporary authors, critics, and our students may question and interrogate this process. It is crucial to consider how the canon is read and studied, as well as what else is read alongside ‘expected’ texts.

Should students be able to demand what is on their University reading lists? Of course not. Should we, as academics, be willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue with our students about what should and should not be included, and why? Absolutely.