Shaun Stanley
Shaun Stanley

Decolonising course content. Whatever does that mean?

Discussions around “curricula decolonisation” are notoriously unfruitful and unstructured. There are two principal reasons for this. The first is that these discussions occur in a jargon which is vague and imprecise. The second, leading on from the first, is that the subject matter under discussion inherits this vagueness and imprecision.

One is tempted, then, to dismiss much of what is said on the issue as mere noise. After all, very few reasons are given as to why we should take their claims seriously. Despite this, the heart of the issue is significant. The heart of the issue around “curricula decolonisation” is about educational justice – about how to do right by students. That discussion is an important one to have. Here I’ll present three modest and admittedly incomplete suggestions for how we might better conduct such discussions.

People are prone to say that “the curricula” or “university curricula” should be decolonised. Taken literally this is a misleading way of speaking. There is no single entity which is called “the curricula” or “university curricula”. If such phrases refer to anything then they refer to the set of individual courses offered by each department across all schools and faculties of each university. But to continually refer to such a large (and diverse) set is overly general and unhelpful. It would be wise, then, to stop speaking about “university curricula” as if it were one thing, since it isn’t. We should rather refer to individual courses or smaller sets of courses.

There are two advantages to this. The first advantage is that doing so will make one’s claims much more transparent and clear. Feverishly waving one’s hands at “university curricula” is unsatisfactory precisely because none of one’s audience will know to which part of the very large set of courses one intends to refer. Hence, discussions can easily become derailed and result in the fruitless bandying of fancy terminology. This can easily be avoided if social commenters avoid the feverish hand gestures and just say plainly which courses they wish to indict as candidates for “decolonisation”.

Clarity in any debate is important, but there is a deeper advantage to following my first suggestion. The second advantage is that doing so makes it clearer how we might practically bring about change within the academy. I’ll elaborate on that.

To be told that “university curricula” should be changed leaves one in the dark about what should change, how it should change, who should change it, and why. Yet, those are exactly the questions we need to ask, and which we need to be answered, if any meaningful changes are to occur. Consider an alternative. Suppose someone suggests that English Studies, for example (and certainly do follow the hyperlink for specific details), should change.

By simply making one’s case explicit in that way we would have answers, or potential answers, to the recent practically important questions. In being specific we have a specific target. Given the nature of the course, there is only a limited range of options for how such a course possibly could be changed. One could easily construct an argument as to why the given course should change. Importantly, such an argument could be evaluated for its cogency.

Perhaps most importantly, by being specific in this way one would indict a limited set of actual persons (specific, real, academics) and hold those persons to account. It is impossible to hold to account nebulous figures like “the university” or “management” or “western systems of power” or “western epistemologies” or whatever. And yet such are the figures we are told are responsible for the colonial nature of “the university” and “its curricula”. We can dispense with that and simply refer to actual persons (the persons responsible for constructing and teaching the indicted course) thereby deeply increasing our capacity to bring about practical changes. Moreover, being specific, as I have, is to invite real academics into the discussion so that we can hear their perspectives on the matter.

Now, I used “English Studies” only as an example. But by imaginative extension one can see how such examples could be multiplied. One need simply be specific about which course or courses one thinks needs “decolonisation”. Once one does that one has the capacity – and thereafter, the responsibility – to propose answers to the practical questions I recently presented. Doing all of that will be much more fruitful than our current state of play. Avoiding grandiose claims about “the curricula”, in favour of more specific claims about individual courses, or sets of courses, has both a conceptual and a practical advantage. Hence, my first suggestion.

My second suggestion is one I have made before. It is that we should distinguish between two different concerns. Firstly, we may be concerned with how a course is taught. Secondly, we may be concerned with what is taught in that course. Call the first concern one of “pedagogy”. Include in it the number of things I’ve highlighted elsewhere among which were the language of instruction, the cultural references made in class, what sort of purpose and value the course is alleged to have for students, etc. Call the second concern a concern with “course content”. Include in this, strictly, the content of the material about which students will be examined and over which students are expected to gain mastery.

What is the advantage of observing these distinctions? One advantage, again, is clarity. There simply is a difference between pedagogical and course content problems, and they simply do require different solutions. Failure to acknowledge that amounts to the creation of a barrier to practicable solutions. That, surely, is to be avoided, and one of the ways it can be avoided is by observing these nice distinctions.

An example will be helpful here. Sticking with English Studies we could consider the debate surrounding “trigger warnings”. Should students be told in advance whether the literature, poetry, films, or topics they will cover are such that they may cause a recollection of some traumatic experience? Some argue that the affirmative answer is correct and others disagree.

I don’t wish to evaluate that particular debate now. However, that is a paragon example of a pedagogical concern – a concern regarding how to go about teaching the material of the course, including the alleged purpose of the course. A different sort of debate would be about whether or not certain literature, poems, films, or topics should be included or excluded from the course itself – that would be a debate around course content. Note that evaluating the former debate is not equivalent to evaluating the latter debate. Practical steps, whatever they look like, will differ between the resolution to those two debates. Blurring them together is obfuscating and avoidable. Once again, my second suggestion is that we should observe this nice distinction in future discussions.

There is something else noteworthy about the specificity of the recently mentioned debates. They seem not necessarily to carry over to other courses and disciplines. While, conceivably, the “trigger warning” debate is a significant pedagogical debate for literature and English Studies, it seems to be misplaced in a rudimentary course on, for example, Symbolic Logic. Trigger warnings would be entirely pointless in a lecture concerning the equivalence of the following two formulae: “p v q“, “~(~p & ~q)”. Why mention such an obvious point? It is in order to lead me hopefully somewhat smoothly to my third suggestion which is the following.

We should acknowledge that pedagogical and course content concerns are course relative. Different courses, different disciplines, different degrees, across every school and faculty, will have different kinds of problems which will require different kinds of solutions. To refer to such a variegated set of issues simply as a problem of “decoloniality”, or of “western knowledge systems”, or whatever, is to be damagingly imprecise and, frankly, obscurantist.

I selected the previous examples purposefully. My purpose is not to say that English Studies but not Symbolic Logic may have pedagogical and course content problems. Rather, my purpose is to say that they have different kinds of problems. It is unlikely, then, that we could properly express or solve them with the simplistic idioms current social commenters are so wedded to. Likely there are similarly different kinds of problems between courses like the Anthropology of Cultural Citizenship and the courses that would be taken in a Mathematical Statistics degree. Ditto for courses like Algebra and the Sociology of Family, Gender and Work. Ditto, I conjecture, for all courses.

Issues of educational justice, as I’d like to call them, are university-wide issues. Broadly speaking, they are issues about how to do right by our students. They are issues about how to give them the best education and experience we can. But such a vague ethic must surely fall away and be replaced by more particular strategies. One of those strategies is to acknowledge that there is no universalistic diagnosis of educational problems in the higher education sector; they are radically variegated, and we would be wise to recognise that. One of the ways of recognising that is to acknowledge that pedagogical and course content problems are course relative. To do otherwise is to needlessly inhibit the search for educational justice.

My three, admittedly incomplete, revisable and tentative suggestions are as follows. Firstly, rather than burdening the nebulous notion of “the university curricula” with our concerns for justice we should refer to individual courses or smaller sets of courses. Secondly, we should observe the nice distinction between pedagogy, the way a course is taught, and course content, the actual content of the course itself. Thirdly, we should acknowledge that the nature of pedagogical and course content problems, and their solutions, is course relative.

To change our discussion along these lines will result in much greater clarity, it will avoid needless confusions, fruitless side-debates, and will open up the possibility of properly evaluating and solving particular problems. The nature of our discussions, however, currently have none of those features. They are replete with opaque jargon, barren pseudo-arguments and seem altogether incapable of generating any deeper understanding of the nature of our problems or solutions to them.

Now, I freely admit that these suggestions are incomplete. They could and should be nuanced further and expanded. I also admit that my suggestions do not amount to a solution to all of the problems in our discussion of social justice in higher education. There are significant issues I have not here mentioned, one of which is the issue of demographic representation. But those discussions must be had another time. Presently, I think that continuing our discussions along the lines I’ve suggested would, however incompletely, be helpful.

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