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Decolonising the Curriculum Interview Series – Madhu Krishnan, podcast & transcript

The Decolonising the Curriculum Interview Series sees its next instalment. Student Fellow Rhona speaks to Madhu Krishnan, Professor of African, World and Comparative Literatures in the Department of English.

Professor Krishnan’s extensive research, activism and projects are not only impressive but incredibly important and something that we need to learn from. This interview was so interesting, really drawing on the importance of co-production and collaborative discussions, the importance of going outside of the university for knowledge production and how even small changes and self-reflection can make such a difference.

Here are some key extracts from our conversation.

Rhona: I wanted to get what your definition of decolonising, how you understand it.

Madhu: That’s such an important question because it’s not a term with a single definition and I think it’s increasingly a contested term. I think especially, when we think about the way in which the concept of decolonising the curriculum is getting more and more assimilated into institutional structures, institutional strategies [and] metrics, targets. A lot of tensions arise from that. Decolonising is a very tricky concept to pin down.

For me, I think one of the key things to think of is how we distinguish it from diversification right? It is really important to distinguish decolonisation from EDI, even though they’re often conflated. Of course they’re related in various ways, but I think that there’s often this idea that decolonisation is like a tick box activity where you just change up your reading list. I think that’s really problematic because for me it’s actually an approach to knowledge and an approach to knowledge production.

For me, it’s really thinking about decoloniality and coloniality, thinking about what we admit into our practices as researchers and teachers as knowledge production, what is excluded from knowledge production, where we see knowledge as being reduced. It’s about decentering the false universalisation of one type of knowledge to the detriment of others. One thing that I always think about… is there is no such thing as neutral knowledge as all knowledge is situated and all knowledge comes from a specific time and place. There are certain types of knowledge that have managed to present themselves as being universal to the detriment of other modes of thinking.

Decolonisation… is thinking about the kind of radical multiplicity and difference between different epistemological and ontological systems and how we can integrate [that] into our own conceptions and teaching around knowledge and knowledge production.

Rhona:  I think you kind of mentioned it, but you know, there is a lot of misconceptions of what decolonising means. How do you think we can address these sorts of misconceptions? I don’t know how to name them!  

Madhu: Misconceptions isn’t quite the word but I know exactly what you mean. I think it has to be addressed at different levels. I mean there’s so many myths around [decolonising], so much discourse around [decolonising]. For example, there’s this idea that decolonisation is about cancel culture, which I think is fundamentally flawed. First of all, I don’t think we have a cancel culture. If you look at these kinds of accusations around who [is being] silenced… It’s actually by and large people who are working on decolonial projects, [they are the ones] who become victims of censorship. For instance, projects like Professor Corrine Fowler’s Colonial Countryside Project that is located at the University of Leicester and she’s been the subject of hate mail because of this. She’s had articles written about her in The Telegraph and in various places, attacking her character, she’s had death threats sent to her. She’s had a government minister say we won’t fund projects like this anymore. Like that’s the real cancel culture right? It’s not the other thing. I think that’s one really big misconception.

I think it’s hard because there are these strong narratives around freedom of speech. I think the only way to combat them is just to try to use facts as much as possible. [This includes the fact that] deplatforming never actually happens and when it does, it tends to be people from the left who are working on anti-racist or decolonial projects. That’s the silencing that’s happening.

[Another misconception] is the idea that [decolonising] is as simple as just achieving say a percentage of BAME authors on your reading list. Of course, that’s not true. That its something we could have said it’s done, we have decolonised. When of course, decolonisation is not an endpoint, it’s an ongoing process. It’s an ongoing, often difficult process of self-reflection. It’s a process that’s going to be fraught with mistakes and correction and thinking and talking.

I think there’s also misconceptions around who or what is leading on [decolonising]. I think a lot of the really foundational work that’s driven decolonization has actually been erased, or is in the process of being erased because of the way it’s become part of the prestige industry. [For example] professors in the Global North might be taking credit now for their book on decolonistion, erasing the work of say black queer trans women who did a lot of work in places like South Africa. I think if we look at where things are being published, that’s another thing that needs to be considered.

I think there are a lot of issues, bit I think the only way to address them is by keeping open spaces for discussion and debate amongst staff and amongst students and amongst communities and amongst different kinds of people and reminding ourselves that it’s not about us, it’s about learning and it’s a process. We will make mistakes, but we need to have that openness to learn from each other and care for each other as we continue down our journeys.

Rhona: I wanted to ask a little more about your work and about the importance of having discussions. I think a lot of the work that you’re doing at the minute really allows that to happen, so I thought maybe we could talk a little bit about that.  

Madhu: I’m involved in quite a few projects at the moment at the university, or should I say quite a few collective endeavors. I think that’s important. We can’t do this work as individuals and we can’t centre our own selves as individuals. It has to be collective.

I am the director of the Centre for Black Humanities – the third director and this is our fourth year of existence. Previous directors include Professor Dorothy Price and Doctor Jose Gil. Deliberately when we set up the centre, we wanted to have a kind of collective organisational structure. We didn’t want it to be like ‘I’m the director and I make the rules’. So…from the beginning [we] had a kind of management team we call it which is just anyone who wants to be on it, willing to participate and actually share in running the centre. Then we have a kind of rotating directorship that’s drawn from people in that particular group. We’re at [the] Faculty of Arts Research Centre. So our specific purpose is to be kind of home at the university, but also nationally and internationally, to bring together work on the cultural and intellectual histories of people of African descent of lack individuals.

So we have a number of different objectives, but one of the things that’s maybe most relevant for this discussion is we’ve always been an outward facing research centre. We don’t consider ourselves to be kind of hermetically sealed within the university. Instead, we work through a range of collaborations and partnerships which a range [of] different communities [from] Bristol to internationally across different continents. Our interest is to recognise that a lot of the important work, intellectual work in black humanities, occurs outside of the university, and so we have a lot to learn from that work. Equally, we can bring resources and our own perspectives as academics to that work. It is not something [like] where we go into communities and give them things or take away things [knowledge, resources] but rather [building up] relationships based on exchange and collaboration. A lot of our members are heavily involved in various initiatives in the city, including ‘We are Bristol’ the History commission, Africa Rights Bristol. Various members are on the kind of boards of different local organisations and civic groups. So we try to not be stuck up at the university but part of the community. I think that’s one big way in which the work of the centre relation to decolonisation – trying to centre knowledge production outside of the university as essential to the field of black humanities.

I am also a member of the university’s Anti-Racism Steering Group which was formed in mid-2020 around the time at which the movement for Black Lives Matter had a global resurgence after the murder of George Floyd. So the Anti-Racism Steering group is an executive level group, so it’s quite high up in the university [which] I think is important. I am a big believer in the importance of grassroots and horizontal activism but I think if you’re located in an institution, you need to have an institutional buy in. So it’s important to have things like the Decolonising Teaching and learning working group [which is more grassroots] and to have things like the anti-racism steering group which show that the university is kind of putting its money where its mouth is and taking it really seriously. We have seven work streams that we focus on and I am one of the co-leads for [a] work stream on anti-racist research and engagement and it’s been interesting because it is a learning process for me and for my colleagues as much as anything else to learn about what we mean when we talk about anti-racism research, what kinds of resources and support can we give to people. We’re not just talking about the subject of people research but about methods and designs or what practices are out there, what are people already doing. We can learn from our case studies, we can think about how we can make sure that when we talk about research we don’t just mean the university, we mean the broader research community inside and outside. I think that there is definitely an important relationship between anti-racist work and decolonising work. I don’t think it’s 100% congruent, like they are not 100% the same thing but I think any genuine decolonisation has to be anti-racist. I would say that it has to be anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist, it has to be all of these things. But [the steering group also seeks to] come up with a more positive way to talk about what we do, so it’s not just anti, anti, anti. A scholar who I have been influenced by in my own work is an anthropologist of southern Africa, James Ferguson who is at Stanford University. He wrote a book called ‘The Anti-Politics Machine’ where he writes about the ‘antis’ and that there needs to be a way to present what you’re doing not just as against a dominant paradigm but actually as generative in itself.

I’ve been part of the decolonising teaching and learning working group that professors Leon Tikly and Alvin lead for some time now. So last year, we put together a FutureLearn course on Decolonising Education: from theory to practice. That was a really intense experience, but there was a kind of group of us, a core group from different parts of the university who worked with a broader network of colleagues and students to put all of this together. That is something that’s still available. I think it’s had quite a few people engaged, I was staying in the comments but I don’t now because it would just take over my whole life.

Rhona: We have been saying how decolonising is this collaborative process about co-production, working together to keep going with this ongoing process. How do you think we can engage a wide range of stakeholders, including students and academics?  

Madhu: I think students are actually relatively easy to engage because…. for most students it is something that’s on their radar. It’s something that people have heard of. At Bristol, the Student Union’s been really active in promoting stuff. There have been different things like Decolonise SPAIS, who have been really active in looking at the curriculum in that part of the university. The Medical school has done an amazing amount of student led work. So, I think with students, it’s about making sure that the conversations are just ongoing with staff in a very equal way. I think again, hierarchies need to be dismantled, we need to be working with each other as opposed to an opposition with each other. I think making sure that students aren’t overburdened with feeling like they have to be responsible for [decolonising], especially BAME students. I don’t think it should be the imperative or responsibility of student to have to take the burden on, making sure that students’ knowledge production and student research is valued. I think that’s all really important.

I think more widely, it’s also… keeping that kind of idea in your mind that the university is not the sole locus of knowledge production in the city. First of all, there is another university in the city, so that’s one place which in many ways is doing things much better than us because of the historic history of the different universities. Secondly, there’s a lot that goes on intellectually and culturally in terms of innovation, in terms of science in the city. So, it’s kind of listening to those groups and hearing what they’re doing, not just we can reap the benefits but so we can think, if we’re all members of a civic community, we should all be working together towards mutual aims.

I think with academics and members of staff, there’s two really big issues. One is the issue of causalisation, which is so many staff [being] on fixed term contracts or fractional contracts where they might be very ken to do some of this work [decolonisation] but they themselves are actually in precarious positions and have to think about what they are going to do for their next job I think particularly for people on precarious contracts, there can be an element of fear, in terms of needing to make sure you stay within certain perceived norms because you are at the mercy of somebody wanting to renew your contract. The second issue is workload and time, particularly this year with the pandemic, with people having to, at very short notice, switch to online teaching. I think a lot of people do feel extremely overworked and the thing with decolonising the curriculum or decolonising research is it does take work. You have to educate yourself, you have to learn new things, you have to be able to talk to people, you have to think about things and all that takes time and that’s really hard because time is not something that anybody has in abundance. I think those are barriers which are there. But I think there are that can be surmountable in the long term with a joined-up approach.

Rhona: We sort of touched on it before but what do you think are some practical approaches or actions that can be adopted within the ongoing process?

Madhu: I think the first thing I’d say is that you know you don’t have to start huge. You can start by doing something really small actually, whether it’s taking the time to read an article or a book or have a reading group with other people in your part of the university that might be interested. Or maybe make some changes to one thing you’re teaching to see what happens. Maybe have conversations with students who are interested to hear about [decolonising]. I don’t think everybody needs to start with thinking ‘I am going to radically change everything all at once’. If that’s what you want to do, that’s great. But small changes can be actually really impactful in different ways. To give one example, one thing I often think about in my discipline in literary studies, is we’re actually relatively good at keeping quite diverse reading lists, particularly on an African literary study you’d be hard pressed to meet someone teaching an African literature course that doesn’t have a lot of primary novels and stories and things by black or other historically racialised minority group authors. That’s something we’re really good. Where people are less good is secondary sources. If you look at the literary theory that people are teaching, that is often written by white or at least Global North based thinkers and critics. One thing you can do it is think about what lessons is that sending to students what message is that transmitting? It is kind of tacitly supporting this idea that knowledge is in the North and creativity is in the South. So, one thing you can do is try and have a more balanced secondary reading list.

You can start in a very practical way with your own practice and self-reflection or thinking about why I make the choices that I make when setting up a particular unit? Why do I make the assumptions I make about what is valid knowledge or valid writing?

Another thing we can look at is our assessment practices. In my subject, we tend to be very essay heavy. That’s problematic because the essay is one type of knowledge production and there’s all these kinds of presumptions and assumptions around what is a good essay… around what constitutes analysis. What about hiving students a creative option or give students presentation option to see if that changes things.

We can start small but I think what’s important is that we keep talking to each other because if everyone is making localised changes to their practice, it can really add up and we can share knowledge and we can discuss readings and the intellectual underpinnings. It’s hard to find the time but it is important work to do. I think where an institution is willing to put the resources behind people and give time and space, you can do things quite immediately.

Rhona: I wanted to see if you had any last thoughts or points about the process that you think we haven’t covered yet?  

Madhu: [Decolonising] is not going to be easy and it shouldn’t be. If it was easy, it would probably already be done. I think there’s always going to be barriers and those barriers may not be in our own university, it might be the government, we have larger things at play. We’re all always going to make mistakes, we’re always in a process of learning. I feel like the real danger is when you hit a stage where you think well I know it all, now I’ve absolutely fixed myself 100% because what you’re actually saying is I’m no longer willing to learn. For me, what it boils down to is just being able to listen, being able to challenge, being able to accept being challenged and being able to care.

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