Decolonising the Arts and Humanities Curriculum: Thoughts from the Faculty

During Black History Month, Cathy Shrank spoke to Rachel van Duyvenbode and Richard Steadman-Jones about their experience of decolonising the curriculum.

Students stood against street art

What was the catalyst for the 2020 publication Decolonising the Curriculum: In Conversation?

Rachel: One major catalyst was the murder of George Floyd and global responses to Black Lives Matter. Another was that I’d been thinking about the role of institutions as changemakers. Because of my Faculty role [Faculty Director for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion] I was well-positioned to think about how we might create a shared Faculty-wide response to decolonising the curriculum, which would also take account of our disciplinary differences. When the on-campus internship funding pot was announced, I applied for funding for a 100 hour student placement. Once funding was in place, the climate seemed ripe for having those discussions, and I was in a faculty position where I had time to do it.

What have been the most important changes in recent years around decolonising the curriculum, either at an institutional level, or more broadly?

Richard: Decolonising the curriculum is much more firmly on the agenda than it used to be. I don’t think we’ve got it right in all contexts and there are areas where it’s not very developed, but it’s at least something that people think about when they’re devising teaching. And there's a lot of good material out there now, such as SOAS’ handbook. One thing that’s very noticeable is the range of different approaches that publications like the SOAS handbook advocate. It’s not only about who you teach, in the sense of whose books are on the curriculum: it’s also about whether you introduce relevant critical methods and voices, whether they originate inside or outside the academy. That’s clearly a change. There was a time when all decolonising the curriculum meant was how diverse the writers we teach were, and while that’s important, there are other things to look at.

Rachel: The terminology and language of decolonising the curriculum are more widespread now. But there’s a risk that some of this stuff becomes a catch-all term that loses focus and becomes a metaphor rather than a practice. Every institution seems to be decolonising, but are they really? And what do we mean by the curriculum? It’s not just the syllabus. For me, the curriculum is much bigger than the content that’s taught in the classroom. It’s also about the operations of institutions and their relationship to the communities they serve. One of the big changes that we’re starting to see is the role of students in this process. Students of colour have to be part of the centring of this process, but there needs to be thought about how that’s done in an ethical way that allows student voices to really flourish. When we’re collaborating with students it’s important that we compensate them for their intellectual and emotional labour, for example.

What are the most significant barriers to decolonising the curriculum? 

Rachel: Often as academics we’re very invested in our subject area and the histories of our subject, and there’s worry about what decolonising might mean for our subject area in terms of resources or teaching opportunities. I also think that some people see it as a bit of a fad, and there are discourses in the wider public about so-called ‘wokeism’. That’s a real challenge because it means that we’re not all talking about the same thing. And then there’s tokenism. Decolonising the curriculum is much more than simply assigning work by a person of African descent in Week 11 of a module. Decolonising the curriculum requires institutional resources put behind it so that people have the time and capacity to look, not just at their course content and sequencing, but also at how we teach: how are classroom environments operating as spaces of inclusion (or not), who are we teaching and who’s doing the teaching? 

Richard: Students are often in a better position to say what a decolonised curriculum might look like, but that partnership isn’t totally straightforward. Universities, like many other institutions, are quite hierarchical. I agree with what Rachel said about paying students for their labour, so that’s a financial issue. Then there’s the question of how you run sessions differently. What would constitute an effective way to work collaboratively? There’s learning involved in that. 

Did Covid and the various lockdowns impact on progress in this area? 

Richard: There is evidence that it did. There were people who had projects underway or were planning things, but with the switch to online we had to focus on just getting teaching to happen at all, and there was less time to work on the curriculum itself. But online teaching also allowed people to introduce other voices into their modules. Rather than giving a 50-minute lecture, you could make a 20-minute video of yourself, and then have other recordings, and other perspectives, and other voices. So it wasn’t that the online space was the problem: it was more the firefighting that we were having to do at the time.

Rachel: By February 2020, we were developing the faculty-wide strategy for decolonising the curriculum and there was a real push towards doing the work. Then Covid hit, and a lot of people were just trying to get through the day with a new range of urgent priorities. But I do think that the pandemic showed us that it’s possible to transform and enhance teaching materials in ways that we just didn’t think about before. The pandemic legacy of digital conferencing and access to brilliant speakers from across the world means that we have an opportunity now to use these formats to accelerate the decolonising agenda. 

From your perspective, what are the most important tasks ahead of us? 

Richard: A lot of people have responded individually to the decolonising agenda and have done things to their teaching. We now need to coordinate and integrate that work, so that we know where various narratives and strands are appearing and developing over the course of a degree. 

Rachel: Having clarity of purpose and knowing what it is we’re talking about, how we’re going to do it, and what success looks like. We also need to touch back on those conversations we were having two years ago when there was a lot of energy around this, to talk about why we’re doing this: that it is both intellectually rigorous but also morally just. All of us have a role. All of us are able to make changes in incremental ways. There’s a role for leadership too: to have leadership really visibly behind this, working with staff to lead to action that is accountable and feeds positive change that students can see.

Rachel van Duyvenbode was Faculty Director for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion from 2018-2022, and – amongst other decolonising projects – oversaw the 2020 publication Decolonising the Curriculum: In Conversation.

Richard Steadman-Jones was Assistant Faculty Director of Learning and Teaching for several periods between 2015-2022, and had responsibility for leading conversations about Decolonising the Curriculum. He was also part of the Anti-Racism Working Group which co-produced a short guide ‘What might “decolonising the curriculum” mean for a module?’

Cathy Shrank is the current Faculty Director of One University Strategy Delivery, the remit of which includes Diversity and Inclusion.