The lessons I learnt from writing my own “Decolonised” syllabus

Earlier this year I got bored of the course I was studying as the core part of my degree.  “Postcolonial Theory and Practice” – it was a name that was exciting and yet which failed to fulfill its promise and potential. It was outdated, it was canonical and it didn’t quite unsettle us enough.

Three of my course-mates and myself discussed this regularly. We were dismayed by the irony that a course with perhaps the most potential to work from – or attempt to work from – a “decolonised” viewpoint, failed to do so. One day we jotted some ideas down for what we would like to see, and a few days into our Easter break I found myself at the bottom of a 20+ page document outlining a revamped version of our course; I got carried away.

The potential was huge. What if more than updating the course we fully restructured it? What if more than adding lesser-known authors with longer names but still palatably well-written English, we questioned the idea of authorship and “sources” themselves? What if we removed the course assessment methods and encouraged students to combine memory, poetry, visual art and creativity to make a comment about the postcolonial city they were studying in? What if rather than having a week on “East Asia” and a week on “Palestine” we reframed the course so that it wasn’t premised on the subjectivity of Europe? What if we validated forms of knowledge which fell outside of traditional archives and weren’t textual? What if we gave credence to rumour in the barbershop as much as we do to information found in libraries that require identity cards? What if we sat in the classroom but fundamentally asked ourselves to distrust it, and ourselves? I could hardly stop typing.

The document we produced is something I am very proud of. And yet, it is deeply unsatisfying. On the one hand it is practical – it could be taught, and that is exciting. That was a deliberate attempt to harness the fact curriculum reviews were being undertaken. Nonetheless, that fact is also limiting. As much as I wanted to push the boundaries of knowledge and teaching, I found myself conditioned to believe in the hierarchy of the canon. I found myself frustrated by the obvious limitations of decolonising a course which is taught in the English language. How do you center colonial subjects in a language their memories can’t be spoken in? Moreover, I found myself embarrassingly realise that I did not know the knowledge that I yearned to include in the course. This was a problem of “double erasure”. Not only was I hindered by the fact that knowledge produced outside of the academy, by colonial subjects, according to alternative systems, has often been erased, lost, violently destroyed, hidden or co-opted and credited to others. I was also hindered by the fact that that erasure has itself often been conveniently forgotten, written over, or consistently denied. I knew I wanted to access something, but I did not remotely have the tools or language to know what it was.

I believe this predicament and this hole I found myself in was both painful but also important. It threw up a lot of questions regarding the project of “decolonising”. It made me understand how truly complex and out-of-reach decolonising is, but also, that to some extent it should remain. Decolonising will first and foremostly not be straightforward. In my opinion it will not ever really “be” – but that is central to it being a subversive rallying cry. It is a motivation and provocation. It is a word that doesn’t quite feel right the first time you say it, a word that should probably never sit right no matter how many times you say it… Decolonising should unsettle, provoke, stimulate and dismantle.

And that is my concern.

As much as it is exciting to see “decolonising” a topic of headline news, and as much as it gets people talking – this is now a pivotal moment. This is the moment that we must not allow “decolonising” to become stringently defined. As many others have already discussed, the project of “decolonising” must be expansive. It is beyond the curriculum, it is about accessibility, knowledge production, economics, unsettling the academy, redistribution of knowledge, safety to learn, alternative methods of learning and consideration of unequal relationships within the institution. As “decolonising” becomes a word recognised more widely I worry – perhaps selfishly – that it will be co-opted and palatably absorbed into the very institutions we are trying to challenge with it.

This has already happened in some spaces (SOAS) where the University reaps the monetary reward of the new “radical” capital that comes with a “decolonising” label. That raises the ever-burning question of how we decolonise the neoliberal University at all? How do we prevent “decolonising” from becoming just another tick-box criterion to be checked in order for “progressives” to feel they are Doing The Right thing, or in order for our cries to be placated? How soon until H&M starts selling “Decolonise Your Mind” t-shirts manufactured in neo-colonial sweatshops where brown and black bodies are subjected to the violence of capitalist procedures?

The idea of “decolonising” the university is not new at all. The labour of many people for many years, internationally, has underpinned it – and yet, this feels like a fragile moment where the term risks being stabilised. It risks becoming synonymous with “add Fanon to the recommended readings section”, because the nuance is stripped from the demands of those asking when they are heard. Whilst some may argue that limited change is still beneficial in the short-term – that even if institutions only change in minute ways, they are changing… I remain uncertain.

I write this not to be cynical or to prevent the breadth and spread of decolonisation efforts. Instead, it is a warning and a momentary doubt… just as decolonising was co-opted the first time into the very nation-states that the colonised were attempting to throw-off; this time let us not allow it to be co-opted by the very neoliberal, Eurocentric Universities it is trying to challenge and change.

***

This is a link to the revamped Postcolonial Studies syllabus myself and my course-mates drafted. We welcome suggestions, comments and recommendations so that our labours may at least be fruitful as an online resource or a provocation.

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