• Sun. Sep 24th, 2023

Has the English Literature curriculum been decolonised?

ByNaomi Wallace

Apr 24, 2023
Image of library

The start of my English Literature degree at Edinburgh in September 2021 coincided with introducing new core literary studies courses, redesigned from the previous curriculum to diversify and decolonise literature study at the university. As my time as a pre-honours student draws to a close, this article contains my reflections on the progress achieved by the development of new courses and how we can move forward. I ask, “has the English curriculum been decolonised?”, but I hope to make the case for viewing decolonisation as a continual, fluid process rather than an end goal to be reached. 

As a white British student, I am acutely aware of my privilege and the fact that I am overrepresented within academia. Though I am keen to offer my perspective, I would never want to speak over those whose place it is to talk about it, and to whom we, as white people, should be actively listening. 

Perhaps the most discernible difference between the old courses (English Literature 1 and Literature 2), and the new (Literary Studies 1A, 1B, 2A and 2B) is in the reading lists. To put it into perspective, I perused the reading lists of the old courses and only found one author that was not white. Staggeringly, these courses are not actually “old”; the cohort just one year ahead of me studied them. A current third year said that:

“…my experience in honours so far has been better than pre-honours, which for me just focused on the canon and left little room for people of colour and women.”

I am glad improvements have been made, though I feel they should have come about sooner.  Challenging the archaic notion of a fixed canon is important in decolonising the English Literature curriculum and deconstructing the hierarchy between literary texts.

Diversifying reading lists is a simple and logical first step in achieving a more inclusive curriculum that platforms a wider range of literary voices. I have studied multiple authors from BME backgrounds, such as Toni Morrison, Octavia E. Butler, and Akwaeke Emezi. It is more difficult in the courses that focus on early English Literature, but we were encouraged to engage with themes of colonialism even where the texts did not address this.  For example, we studied Shakespeare’s The Tempest through a postcolonial lens and interrogated the racialised subtext in the portrayal of Caliban. Not only is this highly interesting, but it also allows for reflection on themes of colonialism within the canon.

My one qualm with the reading lists is that the course structures sometimes do not allow for optimal opportunities to engage with the texts written by BME authors. For example, Literary Studies 2B had two primary texts written by Black men. They came in the first and last week of the course. Considering the final essay deadline fell within the last week of teaching, this made it almost impossible to select the final text for the assessment. I appreciate that the course was structured chronologically, but it is still a little disappointing. I think a greater effort could be made to situate better representation within the fabric of courses themselves to avoid the sense that it is an afterthought.

Some have suggested that the inclusion of authors from minority backgrounds comes at the cost of “ditching” traditionally canonised writers. Stirling University was accused of abandoning Jane Austen for Toni Morrison in their “Special Authors” module. This was categorically untrue: as the university pointed out, the course routinely changed the author it spotlighted every year. As for my experience at Edinburgh, I can vouch for the fact that the likes of Chaucer and Wordsworth are still covered thoroughly and in no way has my study of these authors been compromised by the opportunity to read a broader range of perspectives. 

But it is vital to remember that diversification is not decolonisation. As Professor Rowena Arshad of the University of Edinburgh states:

 “Decolonising the curriculum is about being prepared to reconnect, reorder and reclaim knowledge and teaching methodologies that have been submerged, hidden or marginalised.”

I spoke to Professor David Farrier, Director of Learning and Teaching, about how the new literature courses aim to do this:

“…in my Literary Studies 1B lecture on ‘Nature Writing’ (which includes work by Potawatomi author Robin Wall Kimmerer) students are encouraged to reflect on how to read indigenous scholarship as Western readers, and to avoid an ‘extractive’ reading model that would implicitly favour a Western worldview and replicate a colonial approach.”

Similarly, essay questions ought to encourage these kinds of discussions. For example, in my recent assessment for Literary Studies 2B, I answered a question that asked to what extent the course texts offer platforms to those whose voices are conventionally suppressed. This allowed me to discuss two poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Felicia Hemans and interrogate the implications of two white women writing from the perspective of Black and indigenous women. I appreciate that not only did this essay question encourage active discussion of Western appropriation of marginalised voices, but it also called for criticisms of the course reading list. This is the level of critical engagement we should strive towards.

One of the biggest problems for decolonisation is the lack of representation among staff. The Guardian reported that in 2016-17, there were 14,000 white men professors in the UK, compared to just 25 black women, a shocking and disturbing figure. Decolonising the curriculum is impossible if efforts are not made to diversify staff bodies at universities across the country. The Edinburgh English department has created new lectureships in Global Anglophone Literatures. Dr Terri Ochiagha holds one of these positions and has delivered fascinating lectures on the core literature courses about postcolonial literature. There is still a great deal to be done in achieving better staff representation, but it does seem that here at Edinburgh, we are beginning to work towards this. 

Everyone with whom I have spoken from the English department has expressed enthusiasm for developing and improving the curriculum, and there is a general sense that this is an ongoing, continual process. It is far from perfect, but the commitment to embracing a decolonised approach makes me optimistic about the future of English Literature at Edinburgh. The curriculum may never fully be decolonised, but we can integrate decolonisation into how we view the study of literature. This is sure to foster progress.

Image “Children’s books ‘to go’ in our Curriculum Library circulating collection on the Upper Mezzaine.” by Barbara L. Slavin is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

By Naomi Wallace

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