Bristol English Staff and Students Discuss Decolonising Bristol's Curriculum

Disclaimer: All views are taken from the discussion between staff and students at the departmental meeting - minutes to be found on Blackboard.

Despite being one of the most competitive English courses in the UK, Bristol has one of the lowest rates of student satisfaction; see our score of only 3.91 in the league tables just this year, falling from rank 5 to 10. It is clear that Bristol has a problem and that students are vocalising this problem.

In case you missed it (and you probably did), last week the university’s English department held a consultation open to all students of English about future changes to the course. Being one of only two first year students at the meeting, the environment felt somewhat daunting considering the heavy staff:student ratio. Based on Bristol’s low student satisfaction rates, it was surprising to see such a low student turnout, especially considering how opinionated so many of the students are behind closed doors, in seminars and tutorials etc. Given a chance to speak out about problems with the course, it was ironically these students who opted not to show up.

The Rig Veda and Mahabharata are one of the oldest collection of myths in the world, dating back to before Ovid's metamorphoses, and they contain some of the most outstanding religious verse in existence. There is evidence of the influence of the original Sanskrit Hundu myths on the myths of classical Greece and Rome which pervade many aspects of our understanding of English Literature. However, there is no nod to the origin of these myths or attention to non Judeo-Christian religious texts and verse and even older traditions in the curriculum.

(Image Credit: PD-US/Wikipedia)

The meeting minutes (available to everyone on Blackboard) made it clear that students of colour were amongst the most dissatisfied with the course, which was widely seen as “Not for them” due to the overwhelming whiteness of the curriculum on offer. This disparity is visible in almost every aspect of the course. The core compulsory modules, Literatue 1-4, focus on the established Eurocentric literary canon (also very male-dominated). A similar issue was found in Approaches to Poetry. By contrast, Shakespeare has an entire compulsory module to himself – and though many might argue that Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language, due to his services to literature and our culture as a whole, it’s difficult to see how it can be possible to devote an entire teaching block to Shakespeare alone when prolific writers of African and Asian origin are excluded. To the confusion of many in attendance, at one point Shakespeare was defended as more of a concept than an individual, considering the way in which he revolutionised theatre and many aspects of culture and literature. An argument was even raised that Shakespeare becomes “Less white” the more he is studied, along with the the issue of the exclusion of white working class men from both the cohort and the curriculum. However, when used as a means to derail the discussion of the inclusion of minority groups in the curriculum, this argument falls slightly flat, particularly since most white males do find their likeness in the curriculum and issues of class have already been in discussion and much more present in national curricula.

In fairness, Shakespeare was a gamechanger, but that's not to say other progressive writers don't exist and shouldn't be included.

(Image Credit: englishmemes.com)

Critical Issues was also exposed as a particularly problematic module. Despite being well constructed to include a broad range of literature, with a variety of themes such as race, gender and culture, it was pointed out that study is mainly focused on the presentation of race and gender in literature rather than the presence of minority groups as critics or writers in the canon. However, for those interested in these apparently niche topics of queer writing, gender, and black literature, it is possible to tailor your course in later years by choosing the appropriate optional units. Whether or not this is a tokenistic approach to the inclusion of these topics in the curriculum was also discussed, with staff in attendance expressing a fear of being perfunctory in their inclusion of minority groups. However, it was the majority opinion that this was something which could be solved in the further discussion of changes to the course. Ultimately, the inclusion of a more diverse range of writers would put Bristol in a better position nationally in comparison to other universities following equally Eurocentric curricula.

For race week in Critical Issues we studied a second Joseph Conrad novel... Personally I found this a waste of an opportunity to explore minority novelists rather than the presentation of minority groups in the white canon. (We studied the other Conrad novel in culture week).

(Image Credits: Amazon, Wikipedia)

The term “Diversify” itself was exposed as fundamentally tokenistic as it implies that the presence of women, queer writers and people of colour in literature is not the norm, hence the use of “De-colonise” in the title of this article, since it is certainly as a result of European colonisation that the literatures of oppressed groups have been widely omitted from the canon.

The issue of “Diversity” and the decolonisation of the curriculum (and hopefully in time the canon) could be discussed for hours and already “Why is my Curriculum White?” is gaining a high profile in the national student body. WIMCW is a campaign which encourages critical thought about the mechanisms which allow such a Eurocentric bias to persist in our curricula, not just in English but across all courses. Session 1 is being held next week and focuses on the basic concept of race and “Whiteness”.

What do you think about what changes should be made to the course? Show your face at the next course or “Why is my Curriculum White?” meeting or let us know in the comments below.

Here's a link to the first session of "Why is My Curriculm White?":

https://www.facebook.com/events/922338081149493/

 

(Featured Image Credit: Abbey Maclure/SpiceUK)