Decolonising the curriculum: A conversation

Nandini Chatterjee and Richard Toye
University of Exeter

Nandini Chatterjee (NC): Is there a necessary connection between trying to make the university an inclusive place, and decolonising the curriculum?

Richard Toye (RT): Yes, I think there is, but at the same time they are not one and the same thing. That is to say, you could, in theory, have a wonderful, fully decolonised curriculum and at the same time fail to eradicate the various forms of discrimination that staff and students face. On the other hand, you could perhaps do a fair bit to removing those inequalities without having succeeded in adjusting the curriculum. But I do think that the two things go hand in hand, insofar as the messages that we give in the classroom are obviously a very important part of the university experience. If we set the right tone there, both in terms of inclusiveness and intellectual content, that really ought to have some wider benefit. I think there is a dilemma, though. Some people may well have an interest in a particular type of history because of their own ethnic and family history, and why not? But I think that we have to be careful not to assume that because somebody comes from a particular background they will be interested in a particular type or part of history and that ‘inclusiveness’ is achieved by laying on that variety of history. Black people may be especially interested in black history, for all sorts of good reasons, but nobody should expect them to be, or assume that they will be uninterested in other kinds of history. We wouldn’t expect white people only to be interested in white history, in fact I think we would look upon that as positively dangerous. What is your view?

NC: I have been unsure about the ethical and cultural connection between the anti-racism agenda and the push to decolonising the curriculum, and you have articulated why. At this moment, we do not see a necessary connection, perhaps because the movement (to decolonise the curriculum) is too recent for us to observe and systematically study its effects on campus culture. It is highly plausible that such a connection exists, because among other things, decolonising the curriculum entails re-evaluating what counts as canonical knowledge and sound methodology, and simply also recognising all the other cultures, civilisations and knowledges that exist. Surely that should make it harder for casual denigration of non-European people to be normalised.

But you also raise the question of whom decolonising the curriculum is intended to benefit and in what way. Here, I would guard very carefully against the idea that adding Black and non-European history is merely for the purpose of allowing BAME students (and staff) to feel better about themselves and their heritage. In fact, the treating of history as heritage – and therefore divisible, liable to exclusive ownership – undermines the professionalism that our discipline is based on; we need to up our game, not lower it. I think the much more important goal should be, given the predominantly white History department here in Exeter (both in terms of student and staff), should be to convince everybody about the possibility and value of learning about non-Euro-American human experience and achievement, and the impossibility of studying European (including British) episodes, personalities and ideas in splendid isolation from the rest of the world.

How would do you feel about such an agenda when teaching in your area of expertise? Could you perhaps discuss some specific examples, such as Churchill?

RT: Here I can only agree with what you say, not least about the question of ‘ownership’. Putting such an agenda into practice may be quite difficult though –  I don’t think we should underestimate that. That is for a number of reasons. (1) Some push-back comes from scholars who argue, in a way that is slightly more subtle than just rejecting the whole idea, that ‘other perspectives are valuable’ but this has now ‘gone too far’ and we should go back to studying the really important things –  military history, diplomatic history, white men basically. (2) There may be more resistance, opposition, or resentment from white students than we actually recognise –  because they are reluctant to express it openly. (3) Inertia, which is probably our biggest problem – we may know in theory that we should expand our own knowledge by pushing into different areas but lack the time, and it is easier to revert to what we know.

You mention Churchill – I think in my old Special Subject, on Churchill and the Empire, I did a reasonable job of challenging the standard view of him. But actually I would argue that, in terms of notorious episodes such as the Bengal famine, though he deserves much criticism, he probably just wasn’t as important to outcomes on the ground as his most severe critics suggest. I would point here to Abhijit Sarkar’s work, which examines how the famine was made use of in political terms by local Indian politicians. Churchill’s actions, or lack of them, may well have exacerbated the crisis but giving him too much centrality paradoxically risks reinforcing his own Great White Man view of history. So I guess the challenge in teaching students – whether about Churchill or anything else – is actually to put things in their correct overall perspective.

I would like to ask you about what challenges you face in your own teaching, and what ideas you have that can help us overcome the scepticism of students and some colleagues. I might throw in here that of course I write from a position of white male privilege, which is not difficult for me to do as it seems like such an obvious fact. Yet it is clear that there are a lot of people who have a hard time admitting such privilege and unless we address this we are not going to get very far.

NC: The anticipation of pushback is an important one, and no doubt stems from your longer and deeper experience in researching and writing public-facing history, as well as the practical pressures of heading a university department (you were the History HoD at Exeter 2017-2019). In your discussion of Churchill’s historical legacy, you have also pointed to one of the ways in which such concerns can be honestly engaged with: you are not side lining, or denying the importance of figures such as Churchill, nor are you rushing to condemn them. In fact, by pointing to their complex legacies, and indeed the limits of their historical agency, you are bringing in the stories of people from other parts of the world. I am not an expert on the Bengal famine, but I do know that the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, and several other scholars, have taken the view that while Churchill’s actions (and attitudes) did not help, they were far from being the only reasons behind the deaths of 3 million people in Bengal in 1943.

Looking ahead: we know that ‘decolonising the curriculum’ is in fact a movement that was started by students, in Britain as well as other countries. Is there a way in which we can ally with students in creating new ways of learning about our past, rather than think of students as passive recipients of knowledge alone? As for ourselves, and our colleagues, it is really delightful to see the intense enthusiasm in the department right now to see how the usual chronological and geographical boundaries that constrain our research and teaching can be broken down and rebuilt for the better. As you know, twenty or more of us, including yourself, are working in the ‘Decolonising’ group of the History department, beginning with re-framing the two first-year survey modules of world history. I think the answer must lie in such teamwork.

Which brings me to answering your question about challenges I face in my own research and teaching. With research, it is sometimes difficult to communicate to funding bodies and to colleagues alike, exactly how time intensive it is to work in non-European languages, with manuscript materials, using institutional and private archives that have rules of use, conditions of work and restrictions on copying that are widely different from standard western libraries. They also tend to be located in places that are expensive, and sometimes, dangerous to get to. And yet, one remains under pressure to publish at the same rate as others, which leads to one of two things: a compulsion to overwork and to hide the effort, or to retreat to safe topics that restrict which parts of the world we can know about and what we can know about them.

In teaching, I grapple less with overt resistance (students are generally too well-mannered and conscious of my ethnic difference) and more with students’ unfamiliarity with the material. I teach about the British empire and also about the Indo-Islamic Mughal empire. Students are, shockingly, as unfamiliar with the first as the second, although they do have certain assumptions about the British Empire! That unfamiliarity sometimes translates into complaints about ‘difficulty’, so I find myself working harder, for example, to help students grapple with essential non-European person-names, which, as a medievalist colleagues commented on observation, were no more difficult than any medieval European name after all! There are also some assumptions that are very firmly held, and very difficult to dislodge, such as the essential difference between European and non-European cultures, the necessarily worse situation of women in non-European societies, and the ‘intolerance’ of Muslims. Most concerning, and contrary to what you might expect, is that BAME students at Exeter are very reluctant to take up modules that can be seen as associated with ‘their’ heritage, choosing instead to perhaps disguise or suppress their own keenly-felt difference under a series of very middle of the field choices – the history of witchcraft being a favourite. I know this annoys early modernist colleagues as much is does me! There is also the matter of language – and the difficulty of many white students in understanding why, for example, referring to a person from Asia, Africa or indeed, the Caribbean, as ‘native’, as their sources do, consists of repeating historical slurs, and is even inaccurate in many cases. In some cases, I am hard pressed to negotiate my position of authority as a teacher, and a woman of colour, while keeping the learning process ongoing.

You mentioned privilege. How does this translate into your research and teaching experience? Do you really think you have any advantages when researching and teaching in your area of expertise? If  you do, how can you help share that privilege around?

RT: Your comment about negotiating your position of authority sets me up perfectly to answer your question about privilege: I don’t have to do that. I don’t think this manifests itself in terms of my research, particularly: I don’t have access to archives that other people don’t have. But I imagine if I was subject to persistent racism/questioning of my authority I would get demoralised and my efficiency would suffer. In teaching terms, I think it is well established that white men are perceived as more authoritative than other people and that this manifests itself in student evaluations etc. If you are used to being treated as an authority, it becomes easier to perform authoritativeness. There is also the dimension of public speech. You mentioned my recent comments on Churchill. That brought me two or three pieces of hate-mail. I reckon, if I was black, and had said the same thing, I would have been told to go back where I came from and might even have got death threats.

What can I do to spread the privilege around? Well, I have recently written a short book which is aimed at helping students in essay-writing disciplines who are struggling at university. (God knows if anyone will publish it.) People from all backgrounds struggle. But those who are from the first generation in their families to go to college struggle more, as do BAME students. Lots of self-help books for students basically say: here are some good study habits – do this. I point out that some groups have it harder than others and that one mustn’t be taken in by the apparent confidence of some types of student … I think it must be easier to deal with a very difficult situation if you understand that it’s not your own personal weaknesses that are to blame for your problems. Of course, responsibility for reform lies with university leadership and academics, but I’d like to think that comprehending the system would make it easier for disadvantaged groups to navigate.

Also, I think it is easy for white academics to assume that their BAME colleagues are fine, because they appear to be coping – we (and here I mean I) need to make more efforts to reach out and listen to the people we work with. I imagine that the hardest thing must be to be told that it’s all in your mind. This brings me back to Churchill, oddly, because practically everyone can agree that there’s something at least mildly problematic about some of the explicitly racist things he said – but there were also lots of apparently innocuous things he said which actually reinforced his overall white supremacist world view. Try and explain this to people and they may well conclude that you’re quite mad!

NC: Thank you so much for having this conversation with me, Richard. I am inspired by your honesty, generosity, and ethical approach, and glad that I can work with such colleagues.