Shaun Stanley
Shaun Stanley

Devil’s advocacy for decolonised curricula

Shouting fire in a crowded theatre may not always be accurate, but it will typically get one attention. Such is the analogue regarding those who bemoan the “whiteness” of university curricula. The terms used to diagnose the problem are frequently emotively charged and difficult to understand.

If “the curricula” shall be Africanised then, one may presume, we’ll have to find an Africanised version of Newtonian mechanics for the engineers, decolonised theorem proofs for mathematicians and the non-racist equivalent of Maxwell’s equations for physicists, among other things. This would be to take the call for decolonisation of the curricula literally, but it would be to interpret the transformers uncharitably. Sometimes people are not the best advocates for their own position. I’ll play devil’s advocate, then.

As I see it, there are three different issues the phrase “curricula transformation” may denote. One is that “the curricula”, in terms of what is taught, is “Western” and therefore inappropriate for “African” people and should be changed. Another is that “the curricula” does not include enough mention of scholars who happen to have dark skin or lack penises, or both. A third is that the way “the curricula” is taught often disadvantages students, particularly students who are the continued victims of the current leadership’s failure to correct the wrongs of apartheid.

On the first issue, I have suggested that this sort of transformation applies mainly, and maybe only, to the humanities. That suggestion requires elaboration and defence, but now is not the time for that. The second issue, although I haven’t stated it in its most appealing form, is also one to be taken seriously, but more on that another time. It is the third issue which I take to be the clearest and the most pressing, because it is the most general. That is the focus of this article.

Broadly speaking, our problems are the following. We live in a country in which a very small number of students who pass matric and qualify for university admission will, in fact, be admitted. Many of these students will come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and they will be disadvantaged along a variety of axes. Likely, they will not speak English as their primary language. They will probably be financially unstable. They may even be burdened by an expectation of their family to finish their degree and to begin working, earning, and supporting them.

University will likely be an alien place for many of these students. Some will struggle because, perhaps, they won’t be properly academically prepared or fully capable of resisting the many temptations there are which can derail their studies. For others, of course, academic preparedness or temptation isn’t the problem. Rather their problem is a lack of resources. Given our over-encumbered funding system, the shortage of residences, the expenses of renting and the general cost of living, many academically deserving students will often lack certain essentials. That, no doubt, will negatively affect their capacity to study effectively.

Oupa Nkosi, M&G

Oupa Nkosi, M&G

One of our central questions, then, is that given all of this (and much more that I’ve surely overlooked) how can we, as educators, educate these students? We have given certain, tacit, answers to this question.

We shall teach them in English or in Afrikaans, but rarely or never in any of the other nine official South African languages. We will often use examples in idioms which these students do not fully appreciate. Either, we will use examples with anglicised names for persons, or we will only discuss males, or we will make cultural references which won’t be appreciated by many, etc.

Some of us may use old textbooks, out of touch with the current climate and which may even be overtly sexist or racist. Others may use textbooks the primary context of which will be Europe, the UK, or North America (hence, their applications, examples, and even anecdotes, won’t be accessible to most). Most of these textbooks will be expensive and none of them will have translations in indigenous languages.

We will treat all students “equally” — that is, we will imagine that all students are relatively well off and that their primary concerns are our lectures. We won’t be impressed by students who miss our lectures (nor will we consider that they may miss lectures for legitimate and often tragic reasons). We won’t make much effort to familiarise our students with the relevant university structures and offices for any given emergency — the information is there, somewhere, after all. In general, we will offer an environment which is not cruel and in which one is likely to survive if one has the requisite background.

That is, of course, all very idealised. There are significant ways in which it is inaccurate, if only because not all university staff will exemplify all these qualities all the time. Moreover, my reference to “the students”, “them”, etc could afford various qualifications. Take these generalisations with the requisite dose of sodium, and don’t let their obvious flaws detract from the spirit of the point. Particularly, consider that last sentence in my previous paragraph.

Talk about statues, the names of buildings or restaurants, the architecture and engineering of our campuses, and so on, is talk with which we can do without. Cast those concerns aside. We should talk, instead, of the general environment which our students are offered. It is an environment which is not bad — it is even quite nice — given that our students have a certain background. The problem can be distilled to the fact that most students in this country lack that background and that, often enough, we don’t recognise this or act accordingly. It is that conjunction of facts which the transformers identify as “colonial”. That is, in a certain sense, what stands as a barrier to the success of quite a number of students.

The least controversial aspect of “curricula transformation”, then, is this. It is with regards to the kind of environment the students are offered. “Environment” ranges over the language of instruction, the language of our textbooks, and the style of our teaching, including the examples, anecdotes and cultural references we use. It refers, as well, to the kind of assessments students must endure, the ease with which students can access information, and the ease with which students can access help, be it academic, financial, or emotional.

These are problem areas for the majority of our students. That is one way in which — to use the vague idioms of the transformers — our universities are bastions of colonialism. Steps can and should be taken to change all of this. Not, of course, so that a minority become disadvantaged, but rather so that most, or even all, will have a fair chance at success.

“Steps can and should be taken”, of course, is a very vague injunction. It leaves unanswered the interesting questions: what steps are these, and by whom should they be taken? There is no monolithic answer to those questions. Some things are under the control of lecturers themselves, others under the control of their subordinate teaching assistants. Some are under the control of the administrative staff and university management. Some are under the control of members of orientation committees. There’s not one single body that is responsible for these problems nor will there be a single body responsible for solutions to these problems.

I’ve tried to play my (small) part in effecting such change. As a lecturer, and a teacher’s assistant before that, I’ve tried to be mindful of the examples, anecdotes and cultural references I use in my teaching. As a course designer, I’ve tried to select literature which is, if not simplistic, accessible to people (like myself) without a taste for the jargon of academia. I’ve asked some of my colleagues and friends who speak indigenous African languages about the prospects of translating certain articles (including my own). Little progress, unfortunately, has been made there. I’ve tried to be as open and accessible to students as I can. That has often meant going beyond the (contractual) call of duty in terms of answering emails, engaging in lengthy discussions (academic and emotional), facilitating long and detailed academic consultations, and so on.

We can each, in our own way, play our own small parts — even if, at times, these roles extend our call of duty. These are things we can each do as members of the academic staff at our various institutions in our various disciplines. In that, very incremental, and perhaps slow, sense, “steps can and should be taken”. None of that, I admit, sounds as bombastic and fantastic as “tearing down the structures of oppression”. But I don’t know what such action would amount to, and what I’ve proposed doesn’t sound like a bad alternative until that can be made clearer.

Now, some accuse me of pedantry, or of having my primary concern as lexicography. The second charge is gratuitous but the first charge is, in a sense, accurate. Regarding these matters, I am a pedant, because I care very much that we get the solution right, down to their smallest details. Not because the smaller details are more fascinating than the bigger picture. Rather because it is at such small, fine-grained, levels that we can each develop a practical course of action. The “structural” changes manifest from many smaller changes because there is nothing more to these “structures” than the sum or our small, sometimes unwitting, behaviours.

There is little — to my knowledge — which stands in the way of producing a better environment for students, under the descriptions I’ve given. That is one way in which “transformation” can be achieved. I hope to have contributed something toward a more practical way of viewing the problem of “transformation”, if only under one interpretation of that obscure term. If so, at least one disambiguation of the problem is clearer and soluble.

We can view the problem, in one sense, as a problem relating to the environment in which students must study. It’s an environment which, for very many students, is not always advantageous. Language, textbook selection, teaching and assessment styles, and access to information and support are the headings under which we can chart some way forward.

I should end with the following. Big, fancy, words definitely do get one attention. Shouting fire in a crowded theatre, or expounding on the evils of whiteness and structural oppression will surely get a few gawps. Such language may be emotively significant but, so I argue, such language also acts as a smokescreen obscuring any clear rendition of the issues at hand. I advocate for a simpler mode of description not to discard any emotive significance but mostly because then the problems become easier to identify and solve.

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    • ian shaw

      The author made a valiant attempt but ultimately he also had to offer only generalities and vague advice.
      “Language, textbook selection, teaching and assessment styles, and access to information and support are the headings under which we can chart some way forward.”
      The assessment style which is getting more popular is multiple choice questions,
      which can be evaluated by machines, hence it is wholly unbiased. The trouble is that it does not inculcate a deeper understanding of the subject and does not fulfil the requirement voiced by my own teachers: if you cannot explain a subject (in an essay, for example), then you don’t really know it.