In the first Decolonising the Curriculum Interview Series BILT Student Fellow Rhona Wilkinson talks with with Lauren Hutfield, a final year Politics and International Relations student.
Lauren worked with others within the University of Bristol’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS) to initiate the decolonial processes within the school. She published the preliminary report, Decolonising the SPAIS Curriculum: Evaluating Mandatory Units, in which she assessed SPAIS’ mandatory undergraduate and postgraduate modules based on reading list diversity and decolonial content. The report sought to ignite debates between students and staff on the decolonising process and how it can be achieved.
Here, we discuss what is meant by decolonising the curriculum, the motivations behind the report, the methodology and methods adopted and the findings of the report. We then discuss the response to the report and how its findings can be translated into classroom practice across the university.
See Lauren’s report here – Decolonising the SPAIS Curriculum: New Prelim Report Released – SPIN (secrecyresearch.com)
Rhona: What do you define as decolonising the curriculum and what does it mean to University students?
Lauren: That is a great question. I’d say for me, the definition I work by, is acknowledging how colonialism has become embedded within social structures and institutions. The curriculum side of that is dismantling these colonial legacies by prompting students to engage and challenge the Eurocentric Western knowledge that is often prioritized and also, it’s the inclusive aspect of that. So, previously silenced and erased voices become empowered and incorporated into reading lists in order to achieve epistemic justice. What does it mean to University students? I think that, first of all a decolonialized curriculum is essential for an inclusive, fair and comfortable University experience for all students – white students and non-white students. I think partly that ties into the mental health of BME individuals. Research has shown that a curriculum that hasn’t been decolonialized actually impacts the mental health of BME students by constantly being underrepresented and feeling that their voices aren’t heard. I think it’s important for the wider dismantling of systemic unjust structures.
Rhona: BILT was excited to see that you wrote the preliminary report ‘Decolonising the SPAIS Curriculum: Evaluating Mandatory Units’, it’s a challenging time to approach this type of subject matter. What was your motivation for writing the report?
Lauren: I’m so glad that like BILT were excited by the report. It was a very exciting report, nothing has ever really been done about that in that way before. So, it’s great that it has been received like that.
Regarding my motivations and it being like a challenging time… obviously, with coronavirus there’s lots of stresses, lots of things going on. But I relate back to the summer and the Black Lives Matter movement. Obviously, it’s been going on for years, but it was propelled forwards because of the George Floyd protests and it really exposed that there are still so many institutional and curriculum injustices within our University. It really encouraged me to think about how to bring racial injustice to light and I was like, well, how about the institutions that I’m in right now, how are they perpetrating [racial injustice]? That’s when I got involved in the decolonizing the curriculum [movement]. That ignited the advocate in me because I think it’s just such an important issue that just shouldn’t be sidelined anymore.
I think universities in general can sort of be seen as colonial legacies in some respects. They were built upon perpetuating an imbalance of knowledge, prioritizing Western, Eurocentric knowledge. More specifically for Bristol, there are still links to the slave trade – like Wills, Colston and Goldney. Again, relating to Bristol, there is a considerably low intake of BME students and there have been dissatisfaction reports from students such as the SU BME attainment gap report. There are lots of students in Bristol who see this as an issue. What is better than just taking time to actually listen to these students, really put them on a platform and create pressure so the University sees this as an issue and initiates the process.
Rhona: How did you approach the creation of this report, what methods did you use? And what were your key findings?
Lauren: The report’s goal was to highlight the problem areas within SPAIS, (School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies) and their undergraduate and postgraduate mandatory modules t to provide feedback, recommendations and initiate discussion around decolonisation within the school. I think prior to that, there really had been very little discussion that I knew of. Regarding the methods, we took a mixed method approach – quantitative and qualitative analysis.
The quantitative analysis part involved assessing and going through the essential readings of each unit for each week. The volunteers would read the readings and then we had an Excel spreadsheet where we’d fill in the data. There was essentially two parts to this data. The diversity aspect of it was when we were assessing the authors of the reading list, looking at their gender, their ethnicity and the location of the institution that they’re working at (whether that was in the Global North or the Global South). The second part was the decolonial content of actual readings, assessing for decolonial engagement. For example, within a unit we calculated the percentage of readings that were engaging with decolonial content or critiquing mainstream theories and authors. We also assessed for race engagement. We thought that was an important factor to assess and there was a clear yes or no answer of did they engage in race at all throughout the unit.
We also looked at the decolonial week placement, so whether there would be a week (usually at the end of the unit) on gender or on race. The SU report [see the report here] found that students do find that a week on gender or a week on race at the at the end of the unit is not helpful but instead, it should be either prioritized within the first few weeks or it should be like integrated throughout. [The report found that] if you do just leave it for the end, students felt it insinuates it is like an afterthought.
We also had a ‘Golden score’, an overall score from 1 to 10 assessing the overall, broadness of the unit: was it very Eurocentric, Western centric? Are only certain voices speaking? Or was it incorporating more broad authors or broad content?
The qualitative side of the report focused on a short review, a comment section for the reviewer to like flag up specific ethnicities. In the quantitative section, it was either BME or white authors, so we wanted to find out whether there were black authors or mixed authors – so the actual heritage or ethnicity was the author. [This section was also used to] flag up controversial readings or authors that wouldn’t necessary have been addressed from the quantitative analysis.
We had a stop light approach and that was when we color coded each unit. [When coded] red, this meant the unit required urgent attention and the reviewer rated the unit between 1 – 4 on the Broaden score. Yellow was dissatisfactory and that was a Broaden score of 5 – 7 and then Green was satisfactory and that was scored 8 – 10.
That was the methods aspect of it. Out of all the units, we found that 18 modules were coded red, 8 modules were coded yellow, and then three modules were coded green on their decolonial content. An overwhelming majority of [units and modules were] red. I think that this is where the focus should be – why are these key modules that are really important to our degree exclusive in content and voices? That’s the sort of the discussion that we wanted to raise.
Rhona: What has been the response to the report – from those within SPAIS and within the university more generally?
Lauren: I’d say generally from what I’ve seen, there has been a good response. Initially we held a round table discussion after the launch of the report and we invited all SPAIS students and SPAIS staff to come and discuss the findings of the report. There were staff that came, but there was [a degree of] minimal engagement from staff.
However, then we found out that there were discussions being made specifically on the report and it was being discussed within departments, it was being discussed within the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and also in the School of Senior management team. So it did reach large audiences and important people within the whole University itself. So that was great.
We’ve also been featured in the University of Bristol’s Decolonizing Education Future Learning course, which was set up last year. So, we were interviewed for that and we gave our tips and ideas and how we went about [the report]. A decolonising the curriculum SPAIS Facebook group got set up by one of the staff members and that is just to initiate discussion between students and staff.
I think most importantly, we got a promise and a commitment that staff [within SPAIS] were going to review their units on the staff away day in April or May. That was great because they committed to talking about decolonisation and listening to student feedback on how they can actually update their units.
Student volunteer wise, we actually have over 40 volunteers, both undergraduate and postgraduate students within SPAIS. The student engagement has been great. As you can see, people are really passionate and that comes from experiencing certain biases within their units. These volunteers reached out and said that they want to be part of the group.
I also had a talk with the Inclusive Research Collective [within the Faculty of Life Sciences, see more information about the Collective here]. They invited me to talk there about the report and they said that they are discussing how they can implement it in their Department. Also, within the Medical School is the other decolonising group that are really making headway. I had a talk with Doctor Joseph Heartland which was great, and I think again I’m going to have another meeting with him to talk about how we can move forward and learn from each other’s various reports.
The Student Union as well [has been responsive to the report]. I actually just had a meeting with them about our work on decolonization and how they can help us. There have been really good responses.
However, I want to say there hasn’t been as much staff support as I think they should be. I think regarding the report, some lecturers took a more of a defensive approach, which could have stagnated process progress. But I think within this work you’ve have to realise that there are going to be people out there aren’t going to see the importance of the process. So, I think that is something I’ve definitely learned to deal with and just focus more on the people who are positive and actually do want to help and make a difference.
Rhona: How can we translate the findings of your report into classroom practice? How can we support staff in decolonising activity?
Lauren: That’s a good question but also a hard question. This particular report and the way we’ve done it [the methods of analysis], really highlights how the red modules are the majority. Within the reviewer comments section, we have given reasons for why we’ve rated it red with as much detail as we can. I think it is important for staff to take that on board and understand ‘why do they think that?’. I think that’s something that should be just translated into classroom practice – for example, integrating it into updates to their modules.
[The findings of the report] shouldn’t be seen as an attack but be thought of as igniting collaboration with students to make units better and highlight why key modules are proritising Western and Eurocentric knowledge. I think that needs to be a discussion within the unit so it can be translated into classroom practice. Ultimately, if you are still learning about one sided knowledge all the time, you can take these views into later life – continuing to perpetrate colonial legacies. I think it’s really important that staff engage with this within their unit discussions and take on our feedback.
I think regarding how we can support staff in this decolonising activity, I think a lot of the responses have been that staff don’t have a lot of time to update their units and that is a very fair point. We understand that lecturers are under increased pressure and already overworked.
I would like to see the senior management of the university and schools set a specific time for staff to review their units without them trying to fit it all within the time that they have. It is a stressful time, so I think a top-down approach for staff to actually really have the time to take decolonising seriously is needed. From the top level, I think there is the need to highlight the importance of decolonising. I think the University are starting to do quite well on that – for example running anti-racism seminars. I think more things like that are needed and more initiatives from the top to ensure that units cannot be exclusive. I think that’s something that should be talked about within Management.
There needs to be more encouragement and understanding – more talks on what decolonising is and speaking to staff one on one to understand what [decolonising] means to them. [It is important to establish an understanding that decolonializing] is not excluding all these voices that we’ve learned about – obviously there are very important theories to be learnt from Western voices, and decolonising is not saying we need to scrap them. It’s about including other voices and understanding how we’ve come to hold [Western] voices above other voices.
I would say encouragement and understanding from a higher level as well as the bottom level would be helpful.
Rhona: How do you think the current socio-political climate affected your thinking while writing the report and how it’s being received by others?
Lauren: I think the momentum from the Black Lives Matter movement was very useful because people were more alert to the injustices within the institutions themselves. Obviously, decolonisation isn’t a new thing, but people seem to be more understanding or more willing to educate themselves on like how injustices are still being perpetuated. So, I think momentum for Black Lives Matter movement was really important in writing the report and how urgent it was seen as an issue as the report was written in summer and then distributed in October. So, it was still in that sort of momentous era of the Black Lives Matter movement.
I think regarding coronavirus, it is a very difficult time for University staff and students. I think something that needs to be talked about is that it is students who are predominantly doing the work and although I get paid as an intern, all the student volunteers don’t get paid for their time and work. Obviously, we have our own studies and people are putting a lot of effort into this movement to really try move the SPAIS school forward.
It is understandable that there are other priorities. However, I just think it’s so important to also see decolonizing conversations as a priority. It is time to make that commitment to [decolonising]. It’s going to be a very long process and I think that is why some people can’t engage with it because they think that it’s impossible and never going to happen. However, it will happen, it’s just going to be a very slow process with lots of people who are passionate about making this change. Hopefully we can come to the end and live in a world where these injustices aren’t being perpetrated, specially through something as important as education. Education really shouldn’t have colonial legacies tied to it anymore.
Rhona: Honestly, the work you did was amazing, the report and everything it so important. I would encourage everyone to have a look at it because it’s so interesting. Thank you so much for answering the questions.
The work of Lauren and her colleagues is vitally important. The report is an exciting example of interrogating our curriculums to challenge entrenched colonial, unequal epistemology and ontology.
I hope you enjoyed listening to our first decolonising the curriculum interview. If you have any questions, then please get in touch!
Rhona Wilkinson BILT Student Fellow 20/21 working on the projects – Creating online communities – Assessment and feedback – Students as researchers -Decolonisation.