Wider means better
Decolonise curricula to democratise
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.