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Decolonising the Curriculum: Interview with Lauren Hutfield

Alvin Birdi, one of the University leads in this area, interviews Lauren Hutfield, a student in SPAIS and a key player in the Decolonising the Curriculum movement in SPAIS. Transcript is below audio file.

Alvin Birdi  00:00

Hello, thanks, Lauren for, for doing this brief interview about decolonisation with us. Can I just first of all, ask you to introduce yourself?

Lauren  Hutfield 00:10

Yes of course. So my name is Lauren. I am currently doing a master’s in international development and security within the SPAIS department. So Sociology, Politics, and International Studies. And I also finished my undergraduate degree in politics and international relations within the same school last year. So yeah, I’ve been part of Bristol for nearly four years now.

Alvin Birdi  00:37

That’s great. And I know, you’ve been doing lots of work in your own school with decolonisation, which we’re going to talk about in a short while. But perhaps let me just start by asking you a very broad question about what decolonisation means to you.

Lauren Hutfield 00:52

Yeah. I mean, like you said, it is a very broad question. And I think I like what you said, what it means to me, because I think it does mean slightly different things to different people. But for me, I see it as a really positive term, a very empowering term. It really means inclusivity. And empowerment of previously erased voices. So people from underrepresented backgrounds. I guess, like in its simplest form, it means, you know, the dismantling of colonial legacies within present day institutions, so like the university. And so it really refers to a process, which looks to eradicate deep rooted power imbalances and structural inequalities. So whether that’s through the student and staff body or the curriculum. So yeah, I was really looking to redress those power imbalances.

Alvin Birdi  01:53

That’s great. Actually. Just follow on from that a little bit. You’ve been here for four years. And I want to ask you, actually, just what, what keeps you motivated in doing something in your school around this area? So what did it mean to you as a student in SPAIS? And therefore, how did you start on this journey of decolonising SPAIS?

Lauren Hutfield 02:19

Yeah, so it really started in my second year, there was an internship with the widening participation department on decolonising, the curriculum, and I think before, before that internship, it was particularly the Black Lives Matter movement. So people were really submerged in activism. I was prior, I hadn’t really been involved in activism before that. But I think that really, I was really awoken, I guess, through the Black Lives Matter movement. And, and I think I just noticed, things within my department. So the department reading list being quite white, Eurocentric, male. And I really didn’t see anyone, you know, that represented me in knowledge making. And so I think, yeah, that into when I saw that internship, it was something that I’d already been thinking about. And I thought that internship was just amazing. And it really motivated me to do more. Because, yeah, I think yeah, like I said, the Black Lives Matters movement really did enlighten people on the colonial legacies that are still here today. Yeah, yeah, had a big impact on many of us, I think, around the world, in fact, and so SPAIS is one of those schools in the university that has done quite a lot. And I guess you’ve been sort of instrumental in that. I know you’ve worked with other people and some staff members as well. So I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit about the work that you did in SPAIS in this area? Yeah, of course. So it all began with a report. So that was part of my internship that I was just talking about. So the report was assessing SPAIS’s, undergraduate and postgraduate mandatory modules. And there are two parts to the analysis. So one part was assessing the diversity of the reading list. So the number of BAME authors, women authors and then the second part was the decolonial content. So what was it actually talking about within those readings? And yeah, it was it was a really great project, really fun project to do. We had about 15 volunteers take part in the first report. And at the end of it there was we decided to take a stoplight approach so we rated the modules, red, yellow, or green, accordingly, according to a satisfaction with the decolonial content. Then yeah, summarise that in a report. And that really drew a lot of attention, which is what we wanted to do. So we just wanted to sort of initiate the discussion within SPAIS. And, we launched a roundtable event for that report. And that was really helpful to hear feedback from staff as well, about what they can do with their units, things that were challenges for them, just to really also demystify, what decolinisation means and what it how why is it important students? And from there, it’s, it’s been really good. We’ve just come out with a second report. So that was assessing last year’s modules. And it’s been really great to see the improvement in modules. So there’s been a significant improvement in certain modules regarding diversity. But also, we chose to include lecture content and assessment styles and questions. And the assessments were great. There are actual questions directly prompting students to engage in decolonising the curriculum. So I remember there was a question like, What is decolonising the curriculum? What does that mean to you? And that’s never been a question before. So it was really great to see the progress there. And I guess other things we’ve done, working with the student union to do a decolonising the curriculum week, which Alvin you’re a part of, which was great. And again, that was initiating it across schools, we had the opportunity to collaborate with other universities like LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science) & KCL (King’s College London). So yeah, and I think I guess, the most important thing that came away from the reports was the away day that we held last year at the end of term. And that was where lots of, so All staff were invited, SPAIS staff were invited to come and attend this away day, to really think about their units ways to move forward. And out of that SPAIS hired now a decol SPAIS staff lead. And we’ve had meetings with head of school. So yeah, it’s been really great. And also just to plug in the last report, which I forgot is Nicole’s report. So she also did an internship last year, she’s from education, and she’s done a report on actually envisioning an ideal SPAIS curriculum. So yeah, that was really great to talk about in the second round table event as well.

Alvin Birdi  07:36

That sounds great. And I’m going to ask you, in a short, while, just about what, you know, what other departments and schools there might be, interested in kind of working in this space might do, and the away day and the round table sound like really interesting events. But before we get there, yeah. Let me just ask you to just tell us a little bit about the team that you had. I mean, did you have like a team of students working with you? What did it involve? Did you interview students? Would you look at the course, you know, the data in the documents on the courses? Was there interviews with staff or what? Who was involved? And in what?

Lauren  08:11

Yeah, yeah, of course. Um, so decolonising SPAIS is mostly, I guess, with the help of Elsbeth, who’s been great, as well, and Thomas Seeley, who’s the Decol SPAIS lead, but it is student volunteers. So a mixture of undergraduate volunteers and postgraduate volunteers across SPAIS. So sociology and politics. So that is our team. I at the beginning of the year, we send out like recruitment within, like recruitment advertising within the newsletters for our department. So it’s not, anyone who wants to be involved basically can be involved. So they just send an email saying that they’re interested. And we add them to the group chat and thereby have meetings together. And currently, the group is split into two. So we’ve got around, I’d say like, 30 active volunteers 20 to 30 active volunteers, but I guess over 50 that have accumulated over the years. And one of them is the Ideal SPAIS group. So that’s looking at more tangible ways to move forward. So they were the ones who organise the decolonising event week last year. And then we’ve also got the social media team, which is more, they’re looking to create a website now. And also to push forward I guess, like decolonisation on social media, so more to detangle what decolonisation actually means. So yeah, I guess that’s the team at the moment.

Alvin Birdi  09:54

That’s great. That’s quite big actually is bigger than I thought. So 30 to 50 students is pretty, pretty impressive, I think. I was interested in also in the fact that you mentioned assessment. I mean, assessment is so important in motivating students, but also in kind of motivating what we put in the curriculum so on and it’s something that would be really interesting to explore more fully, what does what does decolonisation mean in the context of assessment? So it’s interesting that you, you started on that, that thinking already. But so let me then ask you about this question that I referred to earlier, which is, you know. What advice would you give to, you know, other schools around the university who want to do something in this space of decolonisation? What would you like to see in other schools, for example?

Lauren  10:45

Yeah, I guess, yeah, like you said, decolonisation is such a collaborative process, it needs different departments to look within their own curriculum. So I would say to staff and, and students to look within their own department. So whether that’s students coming together to form a group, or whether that’s staff looking within their own units, I think there does tend to be thinking, for example, that maybe like the sciences, what does decolonisation mean within that? So I think maybe like researching more what it actually means within your department. And I, I really think listen to student voices from a staff perspective, and just being open minded to learn from them. Learn from other research. Because yeah, like this university is a student experience, as well as the staff experience. So I think, definitely, if staff hear from students that there’s something in the curriculum that you know, they feel uncomfortable with, or they’d like to improve, I think it’d be really great to just be open minded to listen to that. And I think, also, for us all to support each other. So support initiatives by sharing reports that, you know, Decol SPAIS have done, but you know, other departments have done as well reading that come into reading groups. So, Decol SPAIS, have got their own reading group, I know, BILT have got their reading group as well, we did a collaboration. So yeah, coming to them learning more, and doing, attending talks as well. So yeah, and also just, I guess, get in touch, if anyone wants to get in touch with me or anyone from the Decol SPAIS group, or Decolonise UoB, just, I guess, like talking to people about, you know, how can we actually get started? And there’ll be like, a lot of support, especially from within our group as well. Yeah.

Alvin Birdi  12:44

Yeah, that’s quite an offer, Lauren, you’re gonna get lots of emails. You mentioned education. Did you work with any of the others? Because there’s a lot there was a lot of work going on in the Medical school, I think, as well and in, you know, in parts of Humanities, and you have other places around the university.

Lauren Hutfield 13:02

Yeah. So we, I spoke at the inclusive research forum last year, so that was held by Life Sciences. And I did that alongside the Medical schools. So I’ve been in touch with people, especially within the Medical school and Life Sciences. And we did have students, so last year, the decolonising the curriculum, we did have students from Humanities as well. So yeah, we have been collaborative with them, but I’d love to be more collaborative with them. So if you’re listening, get in touch!

Alvin Birdi  13:40

And I know the Life Sciences, people that you mentioned, are currently involved in a BILT project, to think about how to evaluate what they’ve been doing in Life Sciences. Which is also again, a really important, important area. And actually, so finally, then, just thinking about this whole area of evaluating, obviously, you know, decolonisation is difficult area, we’re not sure exactly, necessarily how to proceed and whether we’re necessarily getting it right. And, you know, there are no kind of blueprints for for this kind of work. So, so, finally, just to get you to reflect on what you think the sort of the main opportunities and the challenges are to progressing decolonisation in a university like Bristol?

Lauren Hutfield 14:22

Yeah, I think definitely an opportunity is, more people are understanding the term across departments or was particularly I confess, I can speak for SPAIS, people are more open minded and don’t see it as much as an attack anymore. I think that’s been a lot because we have been so open in explaining it as students and why it’s important, and it’s not, you know, erasing the voices that are already on the curriculum. It’s more about, you know, adding more and understanding history. So yeah, I think that people are more open to it, especially within our department. And that gives us an opportunity to actually move forward and keep up the pressure.  I think there’s also opportunities to collaborate with other universities. So I know that on behalf of our group, we’ve got a talk next week in Bath Spa University. So they reached out. So I guess there is an opportunity to collaborate with other universities to keep up the pressure. I think challenges though, I, I think there is a lack of understanding as well as people are understanding there is also a lack of understanding of what it is and an urgency as well. And staff, I know that COVID has been obviously a massive factor in disruption within the past few years. So again, that reduces I guess, like the urgency of decolonisation. So especially after the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s lots of momentum, and then COVID hit so it’s hard keeping up momentum and motivation. I think I guess, difficult bureaucratic structures within the university. So I think there needs to be a lot more communication. And I think, I guess the biggest obstacle that I’ve heard from staff and as well as students, is time. I think, for example, I guess for our group, our volunteers don’t get paid. So it’s time for us to you know, like, meet up and assess units and things like that, while people have also got their studies. But also staff, it’s time to act for them to actually sit down and reflect on their units. Because a lot of units do need a lot of big changes, some don’t. And the staff need time to actually reassess their units and think about what they’re putting out as well. So yeah, I’d say those things.

Alvin Birdi  16:52

That’s great. Yeah, no, thanks very much for this, one very final thing is just what’s, uh, what’s your next move?

Lauren Hutfield 17:02

So I guess, as a group, we are planning, volunteers do really want to do another report. So another assessing report. So that’s going to happen. They also want to do a website where people can put up their thoughts on decolonisation, so that’d be really great as well. And yeah, we’ve got some talks, I guess, like talks coming up next week. Hopefully some more talks as well. And yeah, I’m really open to collaborate as well with other groups in the department and across the university.

Alvin Birdi  17:39

That’s great. It’s a great place to finish. And I’m also pleased that you mentioned both your reading group in SPAIS and also the one we have in BILT so hopefully, more people will get involved in those sorts of activities. So great to speak to you Lauren, as always, and so thank you again very much.

Lauren Hutfield 17:55

Great. Thanks, Alvin.

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