Wider means bet­ter

De­colonise cur­ric­ula to democra­tise

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Gur­min­der K. Bham­bra is pro­fes­sor of post­colo­nial and de­colo­nial stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Sus­sex. Her lat­est book, De­colonis­ing the Univer­sity, co-edited with Dalia Ge­brial and Kerem Nişancıoğlu, is pub­lished by Pluto Press.

The back­lash against the Univer­sity of Manch­ester stu­dents who re­cently over­wrote a mu­ral of Kipling’s If, once voted the UK’s favourite poem, with the civil rights ac­tivist Maya An­gelou’s Still I Rise was pre­dictably fierce. “Lib­eral fas­cism” and “ou­tra­geous cul­tural van­dal­ism” were some of the more pointed at­tacks on this lat­est in­car­na­tion of the drive to “de­colonise the univer­sity”.

While crit­ics slammed the June episode at Manch­ester’s stu­dents’ union as trou­ble­mak­ing by ex­ces­sively po­lit­i­cally cor­rect stu­dents, academia has a fine his­tory of re­spond­ing to the chang­ing so­ci­ety around it, re­con­fig­ur­ing both ad­mis­sions and cur­ric­ula in light of evolv­ing con­cerns about equal­ity.

This year, for in­stance, marks the 150th an­niver­sary of the first ex­ams sat by fe­male un­der­grad­u­ates at the Univer­sity of Lon­don, in­tro­duced af­ter much op­po­si­tion. And uni­ver­si­ties in the post-war pe­riod were trans­formed by open­ing them­selves up to more fe­male and work­ing-class stu­dents and staff – in the face of crit­ics who in­sisted that more would mean worse.

But the voices call­ing for the de­coloni­sa­tion of uni­ver­si­ties – and, in par­tic­u­lar, their cur­ric­ula – seem to have un­set­tled op­po­nents at a deeper level than these pre­vi­ous up­heavals did. From calls for an ad­e­quate con­sid­er­a­tion of the lega­cies of bru­tal colo­nial­ist-turned-Univer­sity of Ox­ford bene­fac­tor Ce­cil Rhodes to re­quests to broaden the read­ing list of the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge’s English lit­er­a­ture de­gree, there has

been a sys­tem­atic push­back by those who pur­port to be con­cerned about a de­cline in stan­dards but who, in re­al­ity, seem mostly to be wor­ried about their loss of priv­i­lege.

Sim­i­lar con­cerns are ex­pressed in the US – although Yale Univer­sity did re­spond pos­i­tively to a pe­ti­tion last year call­ing on it to “de­colonise” its English depart­ment by di­ver­si­fy­ing its cur­ricu­lum.

Canons and canon­i­cal un­der­stand­ings have never been im­per­me­able or im­mune to change. This is per­haps more eas­ily ac­cepted in the sci­ences, where it would be ab­surd to sug­gest that we should con­tinue to utilise the­o­ret­i­cal con­cepts just be­cause they had pre­vi­ously been the stan­dard way of un­der­stand­ing things. The dif­fer­ence with the hu­man­i­ties and so­cial sci­ences is that in these dis­ci­plines the pro­cesses of canon for­ma­tion should be un­der­stood more ex­plic­itly as be­ing the out­come of col­lec­tive cul­tural pro­cesses, which take place in the con­text of par­tic­u­lar so­cial and po­lit­i­cal claims.

For ex­am­ple, when schol­ars of Bri­tish his­tory nat­u­ralise its vi­o­lent im­pe­rial past, over­look­ing atroc­i­ties or cold-cal­cu­lated vi­o­lence meted out ev­ery­where from Kenya to Kilkenny, Rhode­sia to Ra­jasthan, it be­comes plau­si­ble to un­der­stand that his­tory as one of mu­nif­i­cence, and to cel­e­brate fig­ures such as Rhodes, or Bris­tol slave trade mag­nate Ed­ward Col­ston. Those who were sub­ject to the vi­o­lence of the im­pe­rial state, how­ever, can less eas­ily air­brush those as­pects from their un­der­stand­ings.

De­coloni­sa­tion pro­cesses in the mid-20th cen­tury, to­gether with the move­ment of darker Bri­tish cit­i­zens to the for­mer im­pe­rial metropole, have in­creas­ingly re­quired con­ver­sa­tions be­tween pro­po­nents of both po­si­tions. How­ever, calls for the par­tial rep­re­sen­ta­tion of his­tory to be ad­dressed and for there to be a proper ac­count­ing of its vi­o­lence have more usu­ally been met with out­right hos­til­ity than en­gage­ment with the ac­tual ar­gu­ments be­ing made.

But those whose schol­arly po­si­tions are based upon the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of his­tor­i­cal gov­er­nance by dom­i­na­tion and ex­clu­sion can­not ex­pect their as­sumed man­tle of ob­jec­tiv­ity and uni­ver­sal­ism to go un­chal­lenged. As the US ed­u­ca­tion re­former John Dewey ar­gued, uni­ver­si­ties are vi­tal repos­i­to­ries of the com­mon learn­ing of com­mu­ni­ties. As those com­mu­ni­ties change, our un­der­stand­ings are also trans­formed. No one is nec­es­sar­ily cast out of a canon by those seek­ing to in­clude oth­ers, but a deeper ac­quain­tance with those oth­ers of­ten leads to a re­bal­anc­ing, such that some who were pre­vi­ously taught cede their space to dif­fer­ent voices. Who now reads the po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist Her­bert Spencer, asked so­ci­ol­o­gist Tal­cott Par­sons in the 1930s; the ques­tion posed in the 1980s, in turn, was: “Who now reads Par­sons?” Pro­cesses of canon for­ma­tion and re-for­ma­tion were ever thus.

The furore around ef­forts to de­colonise the univer­sity should, how­ever, give us pause for thought. Does the con­cern re­late to the pro­posed changes to the canon or to the chang­ing com­mu­ni­ties that make up uni­ver­si­ties? Are op­po­nents un­aware of the ear­lier strug­gles and anal­o­gous ar­gu­ments made in re­la­tion to women, work­ing­class peo­ple, sex­ual mi­nori­ties and oth­ers? Would they en­dorse the ar­gu­ments in favour of ex­clud­ing these groups, whether as stu­dents, aca­demics, or sub­jects within cur­ric­ula? And if not, why not?

At a time when right-wing forces across Europe are con­test­ing the rights of sex­ual and reli­gious mi­nori­ties and mo­bil­is­ing against the teach­ing of gen­der stud­ies, uni­ver­si­ties must re­in­force their pub­lic func­tion to pro­vide a space for crit­i­cal en­gage­ment. To de­colonise the univer­sity is to con­tribute to its abil­ity to per­form that role by fur­ther democratis­ing it as an in­sti­tu­tion. To fail to do so is to en­sure that cer­tain sec­tions of so­ci­ety con­tinue to have their views ig­nored as we ap­proach what could be a tipping point in his­tory.

Voices call­ing for the de­coloni­sa­tion of uni­ver­si­ties seem to have un­set­tled op­po­nents at a deeper level than these pre­vi­ous up­heavals did

My friend Tim’s PhD had been four years in the mak­ing when he fi­nally dropped out. His de­ci­sion fol­lowed a meet­ing with his su­per­vi­sor: the cul­mi­na­tion of al­most six months of work pre­par­ing a fur­ther draft chap­ter of his the­sis. Only at this point did he learn that his su­per­vi­sor did not ap­prove of the gen­eral di­rec­tion of his work.

“He com­pletely trashed what I had pro­duced. I could not use any of it for my PhD,” Tim told me.

Many agree that our PhD sys­tem is fun­da­men­tally bro­ken. About onethird of doc­toral stu­dents are at risk of hav­ing or de­vel­op­ing a psy­chi­atric dis­or­der, such as de­pres­sion, ac­cord­ing to one re­cent Bel­gian study. In the US, 50 per cent of PhD stu­dents leave grad­u­ate school with­out fin­ish- ing. Those who do com­plete their de­grees usu­ally take much longer than orig­i­nally planned. For in­stance, a PhD in Ger­many is sup­posed to last three years, but the av­er­age stu­dent takes al­most five.

The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, is the anachro­nis­tic and in­ef­fi­cient way we ap­proach work in academia. The av­er­age PhD su­per­vi­sor de­mands the most pol­ished work pos­si­ble from day one while pro­vid­ing the most min­i­mal guid­ance. Mean­while, your man­ager at Google re­quires a dirty draft from you as quickly as pos­si­ble and will then in­vest sig­nif­i­cant re­sources to help you shape it.

Many buzz­words have arisen around this re­cently de­vel­oped ap­proach, of which “lean” may be the most pop­u­lar. Its ad­her­ents be­lieve that qual­ity and im­pact are best gen­er­ated by it­er­a­tion, and that the ear­lier you start it­er­at­ing, the more time there is to im­prove your work and spread your mes­sage.

Some of the most high pro­file com­pa­nies have en­joyed in­stant suc­cess by adopt­ing this ap­proach. Drop­box, for in­stance, took just seven months to at­tract its first 1 mil­lion users. Spo­tify hit this land­mark only five months af­ter its launch; In­sta­gram needed only two and half months.

It can work in academia, too. I was only four months into my PhD when I shared the first full draft of what I en­vis­aged to be my first aca­demic pa­per with my su­per­vi­sor. It was what I call a “min­i­mum vi­able pa­per” (MVP) – sim­i­lar to the cor­po­rate world’s min­i­mum vi­able prod­uct. The core idea was there, but not much more, and my su­per­vi­sor told me it was “not even a draft”. Ad­mit­tedly, I was some­what em­bar­rassed by that ver­dict, but I col­lected plenty of help­ful com­ments from her, which helped me to in­tro­duce tar­geted im­prove­ments to my work. And the pa­per that we later jointly au­thored was pub­lished in a re­spected aca­demic jour­nal 14 months into my PhD; it has been cited more than 20 times in the in­ter­ven­ing two years.

I now su­per­vise PhD stu­dents, and I for­bid my can­di­dates from shar­ing any­thing with me on which they have spent more than two weeks. I want half-baked manuscripts. I want para­graphs that are still stubs rid­dled with spell­ing er­rors. But the per­fec­tion­ism that is rife in academia means that most strug­gle to com­ply.

Ad­mit­tedly, pro­vid­ing feed­back on early thoughts is time­con­sum­ing for su­per­vi­sors, so if all PhD stu­dents sub­mit­ted only MVPs, su­per­vi­sors would end up do­ing noth­ing but read­ing and pro­vid­ing com­ments. Yet stu­dents can di­ver­sify their sources of feed­back. Adding a sec­ond su­per­vi­sor is one op­tion. Con­fer­ences pro­vide an­other ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­nity to bounce ideas off col­leagues. Peer re­view­ers of­fer a fur­ther op­tion for it­er­a­tion.

Adopt­ing this ap­proach changes doc­toral study from a lonely labour of love into a team sport, with the stu­dent as the cap­tain, call­ing on team mem­bers as re­quired.

At the start of their PhDs, stu­dents are usu­ally pas­sion­ate about their re­search field, and a re­cent US study sug­gests that 80 per cent in­tend to pur­sue a ca­reer in it. Wouldn’t they re­sist hav­ing their re­search di­rec­tion con­stantly al­tered by so many po­ten­tially com­pet­ing voices?

Per­haps. Yet their en­thu­si­asm wanes, such that only 55 per cent are still in­ter­ested in their re­search ar­eas as they near com­ple­tion. A PhD that em­braces early and con­tin­u­ous it­er­a­tion in­volv­ing all rel­e­vant stake­hold­ers (both aca­demics and prac­ti­tion­ers) could am­plify stu­dents’ pas­sion for their work.

Ei­ther way, it would cer­tainly im­prove the qual­ity and im­pact of their re­search in a more ef­fi­cient man­ner.

Ju­lian Kirch­herr is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in sus­tain­able busi­ness and in­no­va­tion stud­ies at Utrecht Univer­sity. He

is au­thor of The Lean PhD: Rad­i­cally Im­prove the Ef­fi­ciency, Qual­ity and Im­pact of Your Re­search.

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