Only one month into my final year, thoughts of What’s Next have begun to creep upon me. I have found myself in an increasingly confused and contradictory mind-set. A part of me wants to consider further-study – perhaps a year of Gender Studies or maybe even more History – but another part of me wants out of here; out of institutions and academia into real life. At this point the first part of me sarcastically quips, “what is real life though?” knowing that I have romanticised whatever that could mean. I narrow my eyes at myself. The debate has become stagnant.
In some ways, the events I have attended in the past few weeks have given voice to both parts of the argument within me. An incredible discussion about “Why is my Curriculum White?” articulated all my frustrations about academia, all my worries about staying within it and my cynicism about how much can really be changed. Only a few days later I found myself at a talk by a black academic, a talk where the tears I tried to blink back made me realise how important it was for me to see and hear someone in the institution, who truly understood how painful a place it was to be. In amidst these talks and conversations, I have been [barely] working on my dissertation, stumbling confusedly around what and where exactly the line between History and Sociology is. In many ways then, I begin this post without a knowledge of its conclusion, I write, as always, in a self-indulgent capacity, I write to understand.
The prospect of spending longer at Cambridge, spending more time in the History faculty, does not entirely thrill me. To know that I would have to carve out my own space, that there probably wouldn’t be a supervisor to help with the topics, the people, the stories I want to recover from the past – is disillusioning. But on the other hand, I ask myself, if I don’t carve out my space, who will? An institution is surely shaped by those who build it. If by carving out that space I could help to change it, help recover knowledge that new generations could be taught – if I could do that would it not make it worthwhile?
I don’t know. If it has already been Being Built for centuries, what will my little contribution do? True, the knowledge I crave is unlikely to be provided for unless those who crave it, seek it and teach it. But I question how important this really is. How much impact can the recovery of such stories and histories have in an institution which has already placed boundaries and definitions on what is and what isn’t “knowledge”? How significant can it be to recover histories on their terms? How true to myself would that really be?
I suppose it comes back to what we mean when we say we must decolonise our curriculums. This isn’t just about adding a handful of harder-to-pronounce names to the reading lists. It isn’t about recovering the fact that “non-Europe” has resources and writings and knowledge which is “as worthy” as reading as what is already read. In fact, producing a decolonised curriculum is about decolonising full-stop. It has to take into account the colonial nature of an institution like Cambridge. Has to take into account that these walls and halls are not only physically and economically built on the back of Empire and Slavery, but that they are intellectually built on it too. That the growth of the modes of thinking we so cherish in our present time are those intertwined with, born from and produced by colonialism and racism.
How then do you decolonise a place like this? How do you add new “areas of study” to the curriculum without them becoming separate areas, and by separation able to be subordinated in a hierarchy? How do you combat the “inequality of ignorance” (Dipesh Chakrabarty) taught to us? The inequality being that one can study Europe without ever having to think about the rest of the world and its people, but if you ever consider studying other parts of the world, knowledge of Europe is essential to understanding. The fact remains that even if you try to take papers about “The World” or “Political Thought”, Europe remains the standard bearer. To know the rest of the world you must first know Europe; to understand non-European thought you must compare it to Europe. To be outside of Europe is to be non-European, is to be ex-colonial, postcolonial, decolonised, or independent. “The world” does not exist without its relationship to Europe. Knowledge does not exist without Europe, theory does not exist without Europe. Outside of Europe you can only have specificities – “African philosophy”, “Oriental theology”, “South Asian modernity” – whereas in Europe you simply have “philosophy”, “theology” and “modernity”.
I mull over these things as I consider what impact I could really have in researching more and thinking more about the world in an institution like this. To research here is to try to justify, to prove and to validate erased stories on the grounds that you are able to construct them in the ways stories must be constructed here – proven in ways elevated and evidenced in ways glorified. To tell real-life stories here feels impossible because everything must be intellectualised. Every aspect of lived experience must be theorised, corroborated, tested. I fall into it myself, constantly. I want names for things and I give names to things, but in doing so I detach them from reality, in doing so I reduce them and abstract them, and when you abstract people’s stories you abstract them themselves and it is through the abstraction and reduction of people that we are able to rid them of their humanity and justify their continued subordination… But on the other hand, how can we recover and give significance to our stories if not in the institution? How can we ensure they are taught and learnt if not through the structures already in place?
I struggle. I truly do.
My younger sister is in high school. She told me recently about how there has been a strict lock-down on pupils speaking “their own languages” in school. She glanced at me to make sure I understood. I didn’t. I said I suppose it makes sense, I suppose its rude to exclude people linguistically. She shook her head and asked me if I think two pupils chatting in Spanish, or French, or Latin, or German would be treated as part of this category? It dawned on me. “Their own languages” were languages spoken by the brown children. Policing them was a way to police these children. I remember feeling horrified by my response, ashamed by my attempt to justify and to affirm. There are many ways of knowing, and, as my sister’s question reminded me – sometimes you Just Know despite the fact no one will back you up, no piece of paper will ever mention it and no authority will ever voice it. These forms of knowing must be maintained, they must not be erased.
Whilst I continue to ponder on what is next for me then, I also refuse to waste time doing so. Whilst I am in this institution and I do study here I must contribute to what little changes I can make – what slight surface-scratches I can help to etch. People have talked about being a “nuisance”, about being “disruptive” and making people “uncomfortable”. I like these words. They are things I can do. Perhaps I can’t single-handedly (or even with others’ hands) take down an institution like this – or even cause it to reconsider – but I can be a nuisance.
From small things like actually using feedback forms (as was recommended to me), to bigger things like controlling my own teaching and learning. I can make space outside the classrooms for teaching and learning. I can teach to others and I can learn from them. From discussions and workshops, to sincere conversations in the early AM. I can ask uncomfortable questions, I can point out unquestioned assumptions. Sometimes even just being present in spaces you’re not expected to exist in, is incredibly disruptive.
It is also important to ask questions – as someone who rarely has answers, this is something I relish. Why has the curriculum not been updated for fourty years? Why are there so few academics who aren’t white? What really is the point of “access”? We can ask questions to everybody, not only those with institutional power now, but those who will also go on to have it. Too often people go from these institutions to “saving the world” – too often they work to reproduce colonial relationships with “the rest of the world”. Ask people why they want to help? Who they want to help? What do they mean by “helping”? Ask people about their curriculums, about their subjects about their lecturers. Why are things the way they are? Why are we here? What do we intend to learn? On whose terms do we intend to succeed?
More than anyone else, I ask myself these questions. Should I leave the institution? Should I continue? How do I continue and make it worthwhile? What would be worthwhile? I ask myself despite not having the answers. I ask myself despite not knowing. When the world around you is structured in such a way that these questions are deemed irrelevant to start with, then sometimes there isn’t really anyone else you can ask.