What is taught cannot truly be diversified or decolonised if those teaching are not diversified
To begin, I must emphasise the difference between diversity and decolonisation. That diversity without decolonisation cannot bring about real equality and inclusion in a university.
Diversifying the English Literature course would mean having a range of texts on reading lists, from writers of various cultures, religions, genders, sexualities, socio-economic backgrounds and having a range of academic teaching staff.
The decolonisation of English Literature has many meanings:
- Firstly, it means to understand, as Edward Said highlights, that literature is intertwined with politics and culture, even actively pursuing inherent political ideologies and policies within its works.
- It means to interrogate the relationship between the location and identity of the writer, what they write and how they write about it.
- It means to unmask the colonial context and influence of many canonical works and literary theories.
- Once acknowledging this relationship between the identity and location of a writer and their work, it means then to engage with more perspectives of that work, not just taking sources from the West and establishing a Eurocentric view of that work but diversifying the sources we engage with in our scholarship i.e. listening to marginalised voices.
- It also demands that texts written by and about minorities should not be treated as peripheral, as an aside.
As is demonstrated in the definition of decolonising, diversity is essential to decolonise the curriculum in English Literature. However, the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures (SALC) in the University of Manchester holds a dominantly white body of academic staff. As a student of English Literature with Creative Writing, I am yet to be taught by someone of colour. Many students go through the total three years of their degree in SALC without encountering an academic staff of colour. What this means is that, when Course Directors are putting courses together, comprising modules and reading lists, they are doing so without the voices of Black and Minority Ethnic scholars.
A common defence against decolonising and diversifying English Literature is that it is supposed to be “English” Literature i.e. it is supposedto be the works of white and English writers and theorists. However, as Priyamvada Gopal, a Professor in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, points out, ‘Black and Asian people have a history in Britain that stretches back nearly 500 years, and these communities contributed significantly to its wealth and heritage.’ She goes on to say, ‘the very idea of what it meant to be “white” or “English” relied on the presence of those… who could be marked as neither.’ So, by not decolonising the curriculum, and by not heeding Black and Asian voices, students do not receive a holistic understanding of English Literature and how it came to be; decolonising the curriculum is simply ‘to expand the imagination of students of literature’ as Arundhati Roy writes.
But what exactly is “English” Literature? As the British Empire expanded and its syllabus was implemented in countries across the world, many formally colonised countries became dominantly English-speaking. Toni Morrison writes that in the literature produced in the colonising country, ‘one could write about them [minority, African, ‘Other’ cultures] but there was never any danger of their “writing back”. Just as one could speak to them without fear of their “talking back”. One could even observe them, hold them in prolonged gaze, without encountering the risk of being observed, viewed or judged in return.’ However, the Empire started writing back. The colonised and enslaved wrote back, revealing truths of Empire and imperialism that cannot be accessed in European works. And so, to not listen to these voices is to ‘lobotomise’ literature, to ‘put it under house arrest’ as Morrison argues.
If English as a subject has any value, it is because it puts into question the very notion of “English” itself. Is it really possible, in this post-colonial era to say who and what is or is not English? There is no one, clear standard definition of what English Literature is.
If it is too difficult, too broad to capture what English Literature is in a single definition, because its value transcends the borders of a single country and a single people, how is it then that in universities and institutions it is boxed up, its wealth and richness tightly sealed and limited to the works of a few?
How is it that defenders of this Euro-centric boxed-up version of English Literature are given the weapons they need to subdue its true richness, mask its shortcomings?
Everything comes back to the people at heart of it, to the fact that a dominantly white body of academic staff co-ordinate the English Literature course without the voices of black and brown scholars. The fundamental action that must take place to both decolonise and diversify English Literature is to eradicate the unjustified and baseless resistance towards allowing black and brown scholars to participate in the decisions of delivering an English Literature course and to teach it.
The only way to move forward, to diversify and decolonise the curriculum, is to open the door for black and brown writers and scholars to sit in the judging panels, in the meetings where the canon is quickly defended, in the meetings where reading lists and English Literature courses are construed, in positions and posts where black and brown scholars are able to pursue research.
And this is not to be done out of pity, or to be politically correct, but to acknowledge that it is necessary to do so to gain a greater, fuller and broader understanding of English Literature. To accept that the voices and works of formally colonised cultures are necessary to understand how English Literature has developed and evolved. To understand that ‘assumptions regarding racial and civilizational hierarchy informed a lot of thinking of how the world worked, what was worth studying and how it should be studied’ – that these same assumptions informed and justified the expansion of colonial rule in Asia, Africa and the Middle East were also advocated quietly over hundreds of years of literature, were responded to by the colonised through literature.
By not decolonising the curriculum, the university is perpetuating a culture of ignorance and ensuring the next academics inherit this ignorance.
Only recently have black and brown and minority ethnic writers begun to receive prestigious writing awards and this is because judging panels are largely white; the canon is comprised of the works of white men; notions of quality by which a written piece of work is criticised are the Euro-centric notions of quality of critics who crown these canonical white works; this notion of quality seeps into universities, into lectures and seminars, maintaining the high pedestal upon which this canon is revered.
How then, can we expect such literary scholars who hold the works of minority cultures and marginalised voices with such little regard to diversify and decolonise literature, to strip down the reverence of “traditional” texts?
Actions for SALC
- End the ethnicity pay gap.
- Create and establish programmes and initiatives to encourage and employ more academic staff that are Black, Asian, from ethnic minorities.
- Diversify reading lists – diversify the texts that are studied on a module and diversify the secondary critical material that is used in teaching to ensure a complete perspective on a course – not just a Euro-centric perspective.
- In lectures, seminars and tutorials, academic staff must unmask any colonial context and influence on what is being studied.
- Establish training programmes to train academic staff on how to approach and teach colonial contexts in a way that does not lead to further exclusion or alienation of black and brown students and students from minority ethnic backgrounds.
Written by Saaleha Iqbal