Where should we start in de­colonis­ing the univer­sity?

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

Edited by Gur­min­der K. Bham­bra, Kerem Nis¸an­cıog˘lu and Dalia Ge­brial Pluto, 272pp, £75.00 and £16.99 ISBN 9780745338217 and 8200 Pub­lished 20 Au­gust 2018

Racism is en­demic in uni­ver­si­ties – a re­sult of on­go­ing colo­nial pro­cesses. It per­me­ates from his­tor­i­cal lega­cies into con­tem­po­rary cur­ric­ula and out into the world. Poli­cies for in­clu­sion and de­mo­graphic di­ver­sity are in­ad­e­quate and in­ef­fec­tive. In­stead, whole­sale de­coloni­sa­tion of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion, teach­ing and ad­min­is­tra­tion are nec­es­sary if uni­ver­si­ties are to re­main use­ful in un­der­stand­ing the com­plex­i­ties and in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of the world.

Such de­coloni­sa­tion rests on a be­lief that fos­ter­ing dif­fer­ence im­proves schol­ar­ship and teach­ing. If you dis­agree, you are un­likely to ap­prove of Ros­alba Icaza and Rolando Vázquez here call­ing the ex­ist­ing ap­proach to knowl­edge an “ar­ro­gant ig­no­rance” – a claim to uni­ver­sal­ity that re­mains wil­fully blind to di­verse knowl­edges and per­spec­tives.

While the call to de­colonise ed­u­ca­tion may be fa­mil­iar, this book pushes the de­bate fur­ther in dis­sect­ing the loud me­dia and aca­demic re­sis­tance to the project and in of­fer­ing prac­ti­cal strate­gies for staff to adopt. Crit­ics dis­miss de­coloni­sa­tion as an ide­o­log­i­cal project, or as overly sen­si­tive cul­tural iden­tity pol­i­tics, but Rob­bie Shilliam sit­u­ates such re­sis­tance as pre­cisely an out­come of the way that uni­ver­si­ties are cru­cial sites where colo­nial­ism (and there­fore racism) is nat­u­ralised, val­i­dated and spread. Re­sis­tance sig­ni­fies a white fragility.

While the book’s call for a rad­i­cal struc­tural trans­for­ma­tion of all el­e­ments of higher ed­u­ca­tion is laud­able, more dis­cus­sion of who, how and where to start mak­ing these changes is needed. Given that de­coloni­sa­tion “will cost us all some­thing”, Shauneen Pete pushes white aca­demics to take more re­spon­si­bil­ity to do the work of de­colonis­ing and self­e­d­u­cat­ing. Yet the work still gets left to those al­ready marginalised, just as gen­der di­ver­sity is del­e­gated to young fe­male early ca­reer aca­demics. Se­nior staff must step in. How to in­sti­gate change is ex­plored con­cep­tu­ally (by de­vel­op­ing ap­pro­pri­ate the­o­ret­i­cal frame­works) and prac­ti­cally. The start­ing points ad­vo­cated here in­clude lis­ten­ing to marginalised voices on cam­pus, mov­ing be­yond Euro­cen­trism in sources used, be­ing po­lit­i­cal, and en­sur­ing stu­dents have to ap­ply what they learn out­side the academy.

The prob­lem, for those of us want­ing to de­colonise, is where we should start. There is a dan­ger that this book speaks to the con­verted and to those in so­cial sci­ences and hu­man­i­ties where in­cor­po­rat­ing lin­guis­tic and cul­tural di­ver­sity (in mul­ti­lin­gual jour­nals or ac­tive work with schol­ars in the Global South) has al­ready be­gun. But how do we speed up this cur­rently slow process? Should we be seek­ing change at the in­sti­tu­tional heart or con­tinue to chip away at the mar­gins? Should we take de­colo­nial ini­tia­tives into phys­i­cal sci­ences or wait un­til there are more solid foun­da­tions else­where in the univer­sity? There re­mains a ten­sion be­tween the call for aca­demics to take in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity for change (and there are plenty of ex­cel­lent ex­am­ples of how to start in this book) and the scale of in­sti­tu­tional and so­ci­etal re­sis­tance. While it is im­por­tant to un­pack why such re­sis­tance ex­ists, there is lit­tle here on how to tackle it. More dis­cus­sion is nec­es­sary on how aca­demics can col­lec­tivise the de­coloni­sa­tion task with­out, as An­gela Last’s con­tri­bu­tion ex­plores, it be­com­ing co-opted as a ne­olib­eral in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion or di­ver­sity agenda.

Jenny Pick­er­ill is pro­fes­sor of en­vi­ron­men­tal ge­og­ra­phy at the Univer­sity of Sh­effield.

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