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Decolonising the curriculum – from theory to practice: Session abstract

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Decolonising and Diversifying (D & D): Slaying the colonisation dragon within STEMM curricula 

Decolonisation of the curriculum has received a lot of attention and interest in higher education in the past few years. Decolonisation within science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) disciplines might seem less obvious than other non-STEMM subjects. STEMM subjects are believed to be objective, factual and neutral. Academics might struggle to identify examples of how decolonisation can be applied within their practices. Some literature suggests that academics are less likely to engage with the decolonisation of the curriculum process as they, themselves, are products of a colonial education system (Joseph, 2010). A recent publication by Sibanda (2021) revealed that the perception and understanding of academics about what decolonisation is and is not, was variable and inconsistent.

The literature also outlines the role decolonising the curriculum has on addressing racial inequalities, lack of sense of belonging, awarding gap and even imposter syndrome within minoritized students in higher education (Bird and Pitman, 2019; Barron et al., 2020; Chakraverty, 2022; Dessent el al., 2022). However, students’ perspective on decolonising the curriculum is often unexplored, potentially biasing the efforts and failing to deliver real change.  

At Bristol, this is a challenge that members of the Life Sciences and Health Sciences Faculties are working on, through interdisciplinary working groups as well as School-level projects. In this multi-discipline talk, the speakers will discuss decolonisation and diversification within STEMM subjects, exploring the decolonisation journey of different Schools, reflecting on the process and discussing challenges they faced in their work. Decolonisation is not a one step process, it demands a genuine continuous reflection and honest critical thinking into our teaching materials, history of topics and knowledge production processes. It is an opportunity to create a truly inclusive and diverse curriculum that provides a space for different views, voices and communities that have been historically marginalised by the history of science but are potentially still being marginalised in the way we choose to deliver our curriculum.

Decolonial themes within the Department of Music – choice, expectation, and diversity. – Adriel Miles (BILT Student Fellow, Decolonising the curriculum)

There is a sense among some UK music academics that conversations about decolonizing music studies are largely driven by the US and the particularities of its colonial history. However, within the former metropole of Britain, different questions of historical and intellectual self-understanding are raised (Gopal, 2021). Even more importantly, questions about how to make use of this understanding in a practical, material sense are consistently raised by academics interested in decolonizing their pedagogy and diversifying their departments.

There exists a propensity for debates about decolonization to inspire sensationalist, bad faith discussions by parties of questionable motive. One can see many competing conceptions of decolonization, with many actors entrenched in dogmas of lazy conservatism or indiscriminate reform. To put dogmas aside and consider the earnest concerns of students, from whom movements to decolonize the university often arise, is of critical importance. This consideration, of course, must be informed by knowledge of an institution’s decolonial landscape and discourse, and this case study intends to clarify the landscape and discourse within Bristol’s Department of Music.

In this session, I address themes emerging from conversations with Department of Music staff about decolonization. Questions about choice (for students and staff), expectation, and diversity (of staff, students, and curricula) have come strongly to the fore in my conversations, and I consider how these themes depict a particular context for decolonial work to take place. In a reality where we cannot teach all subjects, and we cannot please all students, how do music departments make decisions that break down systemic barriers present in our institutions and present new epistemologies without excising the traditional subjects students still want to learn?

Decolonising the medical school – Dr Jo Hartland (They/Them, Lecturer in Teaching and Learning for Health Professionals in the Bristol Medical School) and Dr Gibran Hemani (He/Him, Associate Professor in Statistical Genetics, I in the Bristol Medical School)

It is well understood that colonised curriculums represent a narrow field of human experience and knowledge, and the colonisation of this knowledge has real world impacts. At Bristol Medical School (BMS) we argue that the colonial lens through which teaching is filtered not only impacts the experiences of our students but has significant implications for public health and patient safety. When unpicking the colonisation of medicine we must ask ourselves; who is medicine is for? Thus, decolonisation in the medical school requires us to not only consider who the curriculum is designed by, but who the curriculum is designed to serve. 

Starting as a grassroot collaboration between students and staff the formal recognition of this work began with the formation of the Medical Anti-Racism Taskforce (MART). The formation of the Decolonisation Special Interest Group (SIG) led to a subsequent audit of attitudes, progress, and knowledge towards decolonisation in BMS.  

Consequent analysis demonstrated a clear enthusiasm amongst educators for decolonisation. However, there was also clear requests for education on the topic and recognition that this adds an additional pressure to staff already struggling with a worryingly high workload. 

Further complicating the pedagogic principles of this process for undergraduates is the move to a national licencing exam, and anxieties about how varied local decolonisation efforts can be mapped against high stakes assessments.  

In this presentation we will present an overview of the next steps the BMS Decolonisation SIG will take, along with anticipated barriers to implementation. We hope that this will stimulate reflection on supportive approaches to the decolonisation of medical sciences, and the need to robustly support staff with investment and workload modelling.

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