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Decolonising the Curriculum- Cara Chittenden in Conversation with Fatuma Mohamud.

Cara Chittenden, SU President Exeter, sat down with Fatuma Mohamud, student trustee for Falmouth and Exeter Students’ Union, undergraduate student studying Politics and International Relations here at the Penryn Campus and collaborator of the Penryn Politics Decolonising the Curriculum Review, to talk about Decolonising the Curriculum. The talk covered current opportunities and how to get involved, what decolonising the curriculum actually means, what it entails and why it is important.

decolonising the curriculum Decolonising the Curriculum Campaign Graphic

Cara Chittenden, SU President Exeter, sat down with Fatuma Mohamud, student trustee for Falmouth and Exeter Students’ Union, undergraduate student studying Politics and International Relations here at the Penryn Campus and collaborator of the Penryn Politics Decolonising the Curriculum Review, to talk about Decolonising the Curriculum. The talk covered current opportunities and how to get involved, what decolonising the curriculum actually means, what it entails and why it is important.

You can watch this talk on our IGTV, and we have also transcribed the conversation so you can read it in full below. 

 

Cara:

“We’re here to talk about Decolonising the Curriculum today. We currently have a survey live on the Students’ Union website, which is closing at the end of this week (it has been open for the duration of this term). The survey is a chance for students to provide their feedback on Decolonising the Curriculum if they are an Exeter University student studying in Cornwall. We are going to use this feedback to generate and drive change and progress on this issue. For those who don’t know, Fatuma, could you explain a bit about what Decolonising the Curriculum actually means and what it entails?”

 

Fatuma: 

“Of course. Decolonising the Curriculum is essentially a reorientation of Pedagogy*- it entails really understanding the Colonial hierarchies that persist within our Western forms of knowledge, and critically reflecting on where knowledge comes from. It asks “who produces knowledge?” and  “whose knowledge do we value the most in academia?” and means really thinking about and interrogating that. 

So, ultimately, it’s a way of transforming our thinking about what we’re taught within the University.”

 

Cara:

“Absolutely. I think that a large part of what I’ve learned in the past year or two is about how Decolonising the Curriculum is much more than just about diversifying reading lists, which I think is what a lot of people think that it means. A lot of people, including myself around a year ago, don’t understand how this could necessarily be applied to STEM subjects, and other subjects that aren’t based so much around books and theory. So, how can those subjects decolonise? And how does decolonisation spread beyond relating to that expanded reading list? 

 

Fatuma: 

“Essentially decolonisation- as I mentioned before- we’re all touched by. This is in terms of colonialism, the British Empire, and its manifestations, which really does enter within Academia, particularly when it comes down to knowledge production. Whose knowledge do we value the most when we’re talking about decolonisation? In terms of reading lists, for example, it's much more of a soft approach to understanding what decolonisation actually is… 

To diversify your reading list is great, but it’s much more than that. It’s addressing the structural issues that persist within our society and academia, and really really challenging and dismantling that. And that goes across from every discipline. You really have to take that step in understanding and engaging with decolonial work. 

Decolonisation is also very intersectional. It isn’t just about race, it’s about disability, it’s about sexual orientation, and how that’s reflected within our knowledge production. It’s asking and who is missed out from those dominant conversations and isn’t being really necessarily valued.” 

 

Cara: 

“I think, as well, we know that, at Exeter, as at many other universities across the country, there’s various attainment gaps between, for example; students with disabilities, Black students and white students. I think that Decolonising the Curriculum is one way that we can help to tackle that, because it is looking at those practices of learning, as well as the content of learning. 

So asking “how are things taught in the classroom?”, “Who are the people teaching it?”, “What voices are in that space?”,  “What are the methods of assessment?”, “do those methods of assessment benefit particular students more than others?”

It’s asking how those factors are contributing to the fact that some of the members of our student community are getting better academic outcomes than other students because of these structural issues, rather than any sort of individual intelligence issues.”

 

Fatuma:

“I think we can all benefit from Decolonising the curriculum. It really does bring critical thinking to our approach to knowledge production and what we are taught in our university classroom setting. So, as you said, it’s about inclusive teaching, it’s about understanding that power dynamic that does exist and really interrogating that.” 

 

Cara:

“I think that’s really interesting, what you just said: that we can all benefit from decolonising the curriculum, because I know there have been comments recently from the Universities Minister Michelle Donelan about how decolonising the curriculum is an attempt to censor history. But that’s not what you’re trying to achieve, that’s not what I’m trying to achieve, that’s not what anyone within the Decolonising the Curriculum movement is trying to achieve. I think that it touches on a common misconception that decolonising the curriculum is about taking particular authors out, or taking certain books away from the curriculum, when really it’s about trying to add to the knowledge that students have access to, and trying to make sure that we’re including analysing, assessing and critiquing as many different forms of knowledge, as many different authors, etc. rather than trying to take away from that.” 

 

Fatuma:

“That’s definitely a common misconception- around this idea that we’re erasing history, that it’s about freedom of speech, that we should all be teaching what we think is right. But at the same time, we have to come back to ask “what is knowledge, really?” And if we’re thinking about knowledge as being not necessarily owned by one specific group or one specific region, we arrive at the idea that western forms of knowledge are just one lineage of a plethora of knowledge forms that exist out there. 

Clearly, we are favouring, historically, one particular form of knowledge, and that is what we teach. So if we are moving away from that we are becoming much more inclusive in our understanding about our teaching and what is taught, and really being critical thinkers. And that is really what university is about. We’re really trying to create well-rounded individuals that are going to go out there and face the world, so I think it’s important to think about what we’re being taught, as well.” 

 

Cara:

“You’ve done quite a lot of work over the past year on Decolonising the Curriculum. Do you want to talk a bit about the work you did, what the recommendations that came out of that were, and also the work you’ve been doing recently on Decolonising the Curriculum? 

 

Fatuma:

“So, over the summer of 2020, myself, Asha Abdi, Akira Allman and Christian Carungcong worked on a Decolonising the Curriculum departmental review for the politics department here at Penryn. We conducted a thorough analysis of data on the modules that were being taught, reading lists, and some in-depth interviews of staff, students, and focus groups of BAME students particularly; as we wanted to really centre their lived experiences and really understand what they thought about the current perception of decolonising the curriculum, but also about how knowledge is taught. 

Through that, we found a clear appetite to decolonise from both staff and students. Staff were much more concerned with the barriers and the challenges that they face in terms of time, capacity and resources, but the students were more worried about what’s being actually taught in the classrooms, how the reading list is really Euro-centric, that the method of assessment being similar in that sense. BAME students were expressing for the first time “my experience at University here”, speaking about their struggles, about exclusion, about marginalisation, about the way that students often make really insensitive remarks in class and not really thinking about where those comments come from.

It was a labour of love in being a part of that journey and thinking about how to actually decolonise the politics department, and we were able to come together as students and staff to become the co-producers of knowledge. This is something at the time that I hadn’t necessarily experienced in academia, and it links right back to what decolonising the curriculum actually is. It’s about co-creation, collaboration, co-designing and seeing knowledge as a very collective thing rather than a single person or certain group owning that knowledge. 

The current initiative- the Penryn Politics Department is continuing work currently. They’re working with other members of staff across the university and co-creating new modules, continuing the work of decolonisation. There are other groups, including the Decolonising the Curriculum initiative which is led by students at the Streatham Campus. That was an anti-racist incubator project outcome. There's also an education and research centre, who also run a series of talks and seminars on decolonising the curriculum, and research as well. There’s a lot of work going on within the institution. “

 

Cara:

“And how can students get involved with that?

So I mentioned at the beginning that there’s a survey at the moment on the students’ union website- and we had help creating this survey from Asha Abdi, Akira Allman and Christian Carungcong and Fatuma Mohamud. It was really after seeing the great work that had been done on this penryn politics decolonising the curriculum politics review- we wanted to extend this out to all departments at the Penryn Campuses. With their help, and with students and staff members with particular expertise in this area, we created this survey. This can be accessed until the end of the week, and it’s a chance to really reflect on all different parts of the university experience. One of them is the curriculum in the sense of the content that students are studying and those traditional sense of reading lists and so forth, and then there’s also the stuff about assessments and modes of learning, questioning how the students’ union can do better in terms of supporting this work and itself becoming more representative of all students. 

This survey really is intended to be the first step of a conversation across the university. We want to make sure that student feedback is informing all of the decolonising the curriculum work that’s going on. The survey is a good place to start, but, as myself and Fatuma have discussed at various points, a survey is not necessarily always the best kind of place for students to feed-back, so we are going to be hopefully extending the opportunity to have that conversation through more focus groups and other appropriate spaces and feedback mechanisms. 

You can find it on the SU website. There’s also an introduction to decolonisation as a whole and some great starting point resources that you can access if you want to find out a bit more about what decolonisation really is before getting involved in this work.

Fatuma, are there any other ways that you can recommend for where or how students can get, or if they aren’t sure about how best to approach this subject?”

 

Fatuma:

“Definitely. There are a lot of incredible initiatives currently happening within our campuses, so I would really recommend getting involved. It takes a journey, and takes everyone getting involved to really decolonise the curriculum. There are plenty of opportunities that are going to arise to get involved in a university-wide way-like the survey, or focus groups, or other initiatives. For anyone watching (/reading) this, I would encourage you to complete the survey, and when you are doing this to remember and think about the origins of this movement. It began as a student movement,with the #RhodesMustFall movement in Capetown and initiatives launched at SOAS and in other Universities across the globe, and it is definitely, now, a student-led movement so if you have any ideas or suggestions or just want to get involved, get in touch with us and we will point you in the right direction. We need to continue that, and we need to centre students in that conversation, so take the opportunity to be a part of this!”

 

Cara: 

“I think it is worth noting that looking into this, delving deeper into decolonisation work and getting involved is going to be an uncomfortable process sometimes, because the whole point of this movement is that we have been very much made comfortable within a very particular knowledge system and learning in a particular way, reading particular Euro-centric ideas from Euro-centric authors… 

It's a challenging and difficult topic but it is also really rewarding for everyone that’s involved. It will be even more rewarding for everyone in an ideal scenario where we get to a stage where all knowledge systems, forms of knowledge and producers of knowledge are valued equally within our curriculum. I hope that we do get to that stage at some point, and I hope that Exeter can be at the forefront of that over the coming years." 

 

Fatuma:

“I couldn’t have said that better myself. It really is important but it really is uncomfortable, and it requires a lot of emotional burden to be involved in this process. But I also think that we all have a duty to be a part of that process; to unlearn, to critically reflect and engage with this topic, because it is going to be something that will take everyone’s involvement to be a success. 

So I would say continue the conversation and be a part of groups that are working on decolonising the curriculum. I’m currently collaborating on a decolonising toolkit, as well, for the institutions. So if you want to be a part of these conversations do definitely get in touch with us. There will also be an opportunity for all of the initiatives working on this in our institution to really be at the forefront and to be visible.” 

 

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