National Student Stories: Cambridge takes steps to ‘decolonise the curriculum’

The University of Cambridge’s English faculty has started discussions to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ following an open letter which called for a reform of the current teaching which: “Elevates white male authors at the expense of all others” and “implicitly reminds black and minority ethnic (BME) students that their stories, indeed the stories of anyone who is not a white man, are not valued”.

The letter received around 150 student signatures and suggested several steps to improve the curriculum, such as ensuring that all exam papers include: “Two or more postcolonial and BME authors”.

Under the current curriculum, English undergraduates typically study a range of ‘period papers’ during their first and second years, which focus on four blocks approximately two-hundred-years-long each and range from 1350 to the present day, as well as a separate paper on Shakespeare. Critics have claimed that this curriculum focuses too heavily on authors who are white and male, and thus excludes authors who are from black or ethnic minority backgrounds or female.

The letter was discussed at the Teaching Forum on October 5. The group, which was led by Faculty Chairman Professor Peter De Bolla, stated: “We should be mindful of the ‘afterlife’ of exam papers in influencing future teaching practice, and in sending a signal to students about what they are invited to write.”

De Bolla added: “Nonetheless, we should be wary of assuming that the job of promoting equality and diversity would be done simply by including authors on exam papers; rather, the process should be a matter of opening all of what we define as ‘English’ literature out to critical thinking that recognises the global and interconnected nature of literary study.”

The group also provided suggestions to combat the issue, such as holding introductory lectures during Michaelmas to: “Offer perspectives on the global contexts and history of English literature”.

Lola Olufemi, the author of the letter and the current Women’s Officer at the Cambridge University Students’ Union, stated in an interview with Varsity, Cambridge’s independent student newspaper, that it is a: “Promising step forward that the letter is being taken seriously by the faculty.”

She added: “There needs to be a complete shift in the way the department treats western literature in comparison to that of the global south and non-white authors must be centred in the same way Shakespeare, Eliot, Swift and Pope are; their stories, thoughts and accounts should be given serious intellectual and moral weight,” she said.

Following Varsity’s article on the letter and subsequent discussion, Olufemi featured on the front page of the Telegraph on October 25, alongside the headline: “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors”, leaving her to become the victim of much online abuse.

The Telegraph article stated that: “Cambridge University’s English Literature professors will be forced to replace white authors with black writers”. It added that: “adding new BME texts and topics is likely to lead to authors being downgraded or dropped altogether, since there are no plans to lengthen courses to accommodate an expansion of reading materials.”

In response, Olufemi stated: “The article is riddled with factual inaccuracies and attempts to misconstrue what the task of decolonising is and delegitimise me as a co-author of the open letter by using out of context quotes in an attempt to turn me into a ‘controversial figure’.”

The University of Cambridge also released a statement in response to the article, correcting various inaccuracies: “Academic discussions are at a very early stage to look at how postcolonial literature is taught”.

It added: “Changes will not lead to any one author being dropped in favour of others – that is not the way the system works at Cambridge. There is no set curriculum as tutors individually lead the studies of their group of students and recommend their reading lists – those reading lists can include any author.”

The ‘Decolonising the Curriculum Faculty Research Initiative’ is set to hold a meeting on November 1 to discuss the letter further and devise campaign plans.

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