Engaging critically with power and hierarchies in our curricula

Decolonising curricula is part of our active promotion of an inclusive curriculum and supporting the needs of all learners, especially through the cultural inclusion lens. It links to our empowerment of students in their role as global citizens and is a vital part of our Equality Objectives and the commitment to fostering a culture of inclusion and belonging.

To decolonise means looking at what we teach, how we position what we teach in its context, and how we are positioned as teachers and learners, especially in relation to others who may not share this position and privilege. It considers how we challenge perspectives through critical engagement and challenges power and hierarchies in our learning and teaching. It involves addressing the legacy of empire and the history of disciplines, how knowledge was created and by whom.

It is not therefore something that can be ‘done’ in one unit or in one lecture, but is an ongoing process and, ideally, one that will be adopted across a course, and in meaningful partnership with students.

Decolonising the curriculum involves reflecting on our assumptions about how the world is, and the legacies of Western colonialism and empire on knowledge, education and professions, especially around race. […] It is a profoundly reflective process that is never really completed, as new people and knowledge shape the learning community.

from Centre for Learning and Teaching, University of Brighton

Starting points

Starting points might include:
  • What would you like to focus on with this approach? e.g. attainment differentials of particular students, exploring help-seeking behaviour, academic-student interactions? Is there one cohort or aspect of student identity that is affected the most?
  • Define who the excluded voices are in your curriculum; who/what is positioned as core and authoritative in your discipline and in your course?
  • Look at the impact of this on your students. You should consider your student engagement (including issues and any hotspots identified in NSS) to better understand the issues and lived experience of students who feel excluded.
  • Reflecting on our positions as teachers and learners.
Within your curriculum, this means:
  • Reflecting on your own standpoint and your identity in relation to privilege.
  • Diversity of content and opportunities to broaden perspectives.
  • Positioning of content and encouraging safe spaces for critical debate.
  • Challenging power relationships and ensuring space is provided to perspectives which may otherwise be underrepresented.
  • Considering learning outcomes and aligned assessment strategies which will allow students to reflect on and demonstrate their engagement with diverse perspectives.
  • Resource content and framing, e.g. diversifying reading lists.
What might help?
  • Staff and student confidence and capability in engaging e.g. scaffolding of students’ skills development to engage with more diverse content; subject Library sessions on using information and finding sources could help.
  • Joining up decolonising curricula with your departmental approach to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and to the #NeverOk campaign.
Where can you do this to start with?
  • Year 1: when and how is critical debate introduced, e.g. data bias, research methods; when and how are the pillars or fundamental principles of your subject introduced? In a first assignment on a bibliography or literature review, can you build in the assessment of diversity of perspectives, or a reflection from students on the breadth or narrowness of the sources found?
  • Core units in Year 1 or optional final year units.

Examples from Bath

In our current core first year unit in the Politics degrees, I give a lecture in the first semester focusing in part on privilege, what it means to those who have it and those who don't and what it means in HE. PL30880: The rise of the far right and PL30873: LibertéEgalitéFraternité: perceptions and reality in French society are two large final year optional units (between 60 and 90 students take them every year). These units are both based largely on my research and centred around a conceptual understanding of where reactionary ideas come from and what gives them strength at particular times. In these units, I encourage students to develop a critical outlook about their own positionality through the use of critical sources and work on challenging invisible norms such as whiteness.

Dr Aurelien Mondon, Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies

Two examples from my teaching practice: I teach Political Sociology (SP20244, year 2 and 3 Sociology students and students from other Departments in the Faculty). This year we will explore the question:  Is Political Sociology Eurocentric? Why? In what Ways?  What can be done about it?; (ii) I teach Sociological Theory (SP10044, SM 1), a Year 1 core unit. When I introduce the unit and the three Classical Sociologists Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, we explore and discuss in class why these three classical sociologists are white and male. We talk about Eurocentrism and gender oppression.

Dr Ana Cecilia Dinerstein, Department of Social & Policy Sciences

Further resources and support

Our Curriculum Development Officer (Inclusion) can offer specialist support to departments on decolonising curricula: 

  • making and displaying commitments to show join up between key areas for change, assessment, learning and teaching, departmental Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategies etc.
  • working through resources with course development teams.
  • signposting to internal and external resources in this area, including practical strategies for learning and teaching.
  • discussing how to incorporate the lived experience of your students in decolonising work, being mindful of the burden that can be placed on our underrepresented groups.

Please contact us if you have expertise in this area or if you have research or practical solutions you would like to share.

Dr Eleanor Parker

Eleanor is part of the Curriculum Development team addressing a wide range of teaching and learning issues across the institution, focusing on inclusion.

Contact Eleanor

Practical resources to decolonise curricula:
  • The prompts on the Decolonising SOAS toolkit are helpful as a practical way of working through your teaching material and in your design: see pp.9-10 and pp. 15-17. Both sections include practical suggested adaptations. 
  • Building the Anti-Racist Classroom Collective have some excellent suggested readings and a ‘student journey game’ resource to scaffold discussions with staff. The game provides staff with an interactive format to engage with the issues, centering the voices and knowledge of students of colour.
General reading on decolonising curricula and decolonising knowledge: 

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