At the beginning of term, you may have heard about the push at Cambridge University to “decolonise” their literature reading lists and include more BAME writers. This effort was led partly by Lola Olufemi, Women’s Officer at Cambridge SU, who was then targeted by The Telegraph’s headline “Student forces Cambridge to dump white authors” printed alongside Olufemi’s picture. Such condemnation of efforts to help university courses become more diverse is deeply troubling and should make each of us as students re-examine our own courses from this perspective.
Modern-day academics are deeply concerned with issues of race, post-colonialism, gender and queerness
With this new interest in texts studied at university, particularly for the English Literature degree, I of course found myself comparing Cambridge’s course with our own here at Warwick. Cambridge’s English course is unusual in that it does not have many set-texts; instead, the way the course is structured does not allow for a great deal of choice for its modules. The first two years are devoted to period-based modules, as well as the compulsory Shakespeare module and an optional practical criticism module. It appears to be mostly focused on English-language texts written before the 19th century, which greatly limits the amount of non-white or female writers which can be covered. Warwick, by comparison, only has compulsory modules in Year 1. Of those, only one is period-based and it is the only one to not incorporate a single female or non-white writer.
One of the things I liked most when I started at Warwick was that, in comparison to A-Levels, awareness of colonial and post-colonial literature was a key component of the course. The “Epic Tradition” module ended with Walcott’s Omeros, a West Indian reimagining of Homer which uses The Odyssey to trace the trauma of a Caribbean population cut off from its ancestry. “Modern World Literatures” began with Oloudah Equiano, a slave narrative – putting colonialism at the centre of the module’s theme: ‘modernity’. Finally, “Modes of Reading” puts post-colonialism at the very centre of its explanation of literary theories (so much so that I wondered why it wasn’t just re-imagined as a module on post-colonialism). We read Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia and Morrison’s A Mercy, authors that were often suggested as compulsory reading in articles addressing the Cambridge reading list backlash. “Modes of Reading” reflects how modern-day academics are deeply concerned with issues of race, post-colonialism, gender and queerness. I do not understand why Cambridge’s course does not seem to reflect the current research coming out in our field.
We cannot complacently imagine that just because our reading lists may be more diverse than Cambridge’s, that nothing is rotten in the state of Denmark
Warwick also has a department of English and Comparative Literature – we read translated texts and texts from all over the globe. I am proud to study within such a globalised department which seeks to reflect a diverse range of literary material. All that being said, we cannot complacently imagine, just because our reading lists may be more diverse than Cambridge’s, that nothing is rotten in the state of Denmark. This system depends on academics being consistently aware of issues of diversity and decolonisation. One of my modules this term has reached its eighth week without a single protagonist that is not white and male, even though the concern of the module is Britishness.
However, Warwick, like Cambridge, is taking steps to reassess its modules. The SU has recently taken a greater interest in ‘liberated’ modules. Liam Jackson, the SU’s Education Officer, said, “here at the SU, we believe that the curriculum should be as inclusive and accessible as possible… we are campaigning for the departments and the University to do a better job on this, but also shine a light on the good work that some already do. The best way to achieve a better curriculum for all is empowering students to work alongside staff, as partners in education.” He also highlighted the online tool “Liberate My Module” which students can use to share their experiences. Its results can be found here.