To decolonise or to diversify? Untangling the terminology of emancipatory curriculum design

“You cannot take authority over things that are not named.”

Thus spoke Professor Udy Archibong, Pro-VC for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Bradford, at a conference on the ethnicity degree awarding gap that I attended earlier this year. She was responding to the idea that some universities might prefer to talk about ‘inclusion’ rather than ‘decolonising’. Her co-panellist, Kaushika Patel, from De Montford University, added that her own institution was actively choosing to use words such as ‘decolonising’ or ‘anti-racist’ in order to provoke conversations. ‘Inclusion’, she added, was far too ‘soft’, too ‘comfortable’ a word.

What is the difference between an ‘inclusive’ curriculum’ and a ‘decolonised’ one? Inclusion is sometimes defined as creating equality of opportunity for all students to achieve the learning outcomes of the programme. Those who support decolonising the curriculum, however, would like us to question those very learning outcomes in the first place. Whose worldviews are those outcomes perpetuating? Whose voices are being ignored?

Decolonising the curriculum can be seen as recognising and addressing the ways in which colonialism has affected what we view as knowledge and learning. Decolonisation was first used to describe the deconstruction of colonial rule, as colonisers withdrew from countries they’d occupied. Now, we use this term to refer to the dismantling of assumptions about the nature of knowledge and relations of power in the educational context, along with the recreation of a more representative and equitable curriculum.

Decolonising as a term provokes a range of emotions, from excitement to hostility. Here are some commonly held misconceptions about it.

Misconception 1: It’s about banning white authors.
This is an argument that was raised in a controversial 2021 report into racial and ethnic disparities in the UK. But decolonising is less about censoring and more about learning to read critically. It involves an interrogation of the current canon, working with students themselves to find out whose voices are missing and how they can access them. Indeed, some academic departments at Hallam are employing students to investigate perceptions of the cultural sensitivity of their courses or to audit reading lists.

Misconception 2: It just focuses on race. What about other types of inequality?
There are terms to describe other approaches to emancipating the curriculum, such as ‘feminising’ the curriculum or ‘queering’ the curriculum. Or, you can simply redefine ‘decolonising’ to encompass all of these processes, as shown below in this definition from Goldsmith’s College as part of their Liberate our Library campaign:
Collaborating with academic departments and students to identify marginalised groups not represented in the curriculum, and reflect those groups in the acquisition of learning and teaching resources.

Misconception 3: The students won’t be interested.
Decolonising the curriculum has sometimes been hailed as a way of enabling ethnically minoritised students to feel that they belong and thus decrease the awarding gap between these students and their white counterparts. This is not only unproven, it is over-simplistic and patronising. However, 2022 study by WONKHE and Pearson found that, while students were not particularly interested in the link between a decolonised curriculum and ‘belonging’, they were interested in diverse or representative content from the perspective of academic rigour:
When course content lacked diversity or representation, students voiced concerns that it would not adequately prepare them for an increasingly diverse workplace both in UK and in international careers, or that they were not getting a rounded picture of the discipline.

Misconception 4: It’s just about tweaking your reading list, and that’s it.

Reading lists are an obvious place to start, but they are only the first step. Decolonising involves:
• being prepared to deconstruct your own positionality and identity;
• mobilising your whole institution, at every level;
• critically reflecting on how you teach, and the ways in which your usual approaches may be affording privilege to some students while disadvantaging others;
• working with your students to teach them how to analyse texts and discourses, and
• empowering your students to recognise and challenge racism and other forms of discrimination.
Decolonising your curriculum is challenging because, as academics, we are part of the very systems that we are working on decolonising. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you call it decolonising, liberating, diversifying or practising inclusion. What matters is the journey you embark on with your students, de-centring and critically interrogating what you teach and how you teach it, so that they carry that knowledge and awareness into the rest of their lives.

Rachel Stone is a Senior Lecturer in Education in the SIoE and an Academic Developer in the Academic Development and Inclusion team in SETL.

For more on this topic, please see the Academic Development and Inclusion (AD&I) team’s online resource on decolonising the curriculum, and also this Library resource on diversifying and decolonising the reading list. AD&I are collaborating with the Library to hold two staff workshops on 18th and 19th October called Decolonising the Reading List: Where to Start. For more information (or to be added to a mailing list about future dates), please go to the Academic Essentials webpage.




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