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A short takeaway from the Decolonizing reading group

On 10 November, a highly interdisciplinary group of lecturers, students, and BILT staff convened to discuss a recent literature review undertaken by Shahjahan and colleagues, ‘“Decolonizing” Curriculum and Pedagogy: A Comparative Review Across Disciplines and Global Higher Education Contexts’ (2021). The article is a good introduction for lecturers or students interested in the topic, and I definitely recommend reading it! The reading group I thought was successful too—it was exciting to have within this space scholars from history, economics, genetics, music, and law having a critical, research-based conversation about decolonizing curriculum and pedagogy. Questions we considered were:

  • How systematic does the process of decolonization need to be?
  • What exactly constitutes a ‘decolonial’ approach?
  • How does language (specifically English) act as a complication to decolonial research?
  • How does the meaning of decolonization change between disciplinary, geographic, and historical contexts?

Because of the specificity of engaging in decolonizing processes, our goal wasn’t necessarily to arrive at objective answers to these questions but rather to consider how the various answers can strengthen our understanding of a broader theory of decolonization.

In particular, I was struck by the contributions pertaining to STEM disciplines. As a scholar working primarily within the arts, it’s often challenging for me to understand the parameters of decolonial discourse within STEM disciplines, as these are often radically different to those in the arts. However, a clear example was presented that was enlightening for me: the subjects on whom genetic research is conducted can materially affect health outcomes for other groups based on that research. Although it is challenging to design research that can avoid overly narrow applicability, and there are various factors that predispose certain groups to be research subjects versus others, in even considering the impact and importance of these issues, we can begin to deconstruct how research design (in STEM and non-STEM disciplines alike) can reproduce coloniality. Global resources were siphoned to European metropoles over a period of centuries in order to amass great wealth which was invested into public institutions like universities, whose studies were designed to primarily benefit colonialist interests, while simultaneously justifying the extraction of resources from colonized areas. If our current research instincts still produce knowledge in this same self-serving vein (and it often is), then coloniality is easily reproduced and enshrined within the university’s repositories.

Notably, this is not a historical concern of who is taught as part of the discipline’s development, nor is it a claim that genetics itself is a wholly problematic field that should be supplanted by some ‘decolonial’ alternative discipline. It is essentially a specific criticism of the potential for broad trends in research design to produce knowledge that prioritizes specific groups to the detriment of others, because of assumptions or ignorances (biases) hidden within the research design. Issues like this are surely fundamental to the research design process and should likely be considered in a rigorous discipline, whether portrayed as a (de)colonial concern or not, so there is clearly rigorous value in a critical, decolonizing lens.

There is so much to learn about decolonization through looking at its many applications in different geographies, histories, and disciplinary contexts, and I look forward to what other insights will come to light in our decolonization reading group!

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