Introduction to Decolonisation

Decolonisation in Different Disciplines

Decolonisation in Different Disciplines

Partha Chatterjee: 

There are differences in the way in which different disciplines actually share a certain globally universal content and others which have more specific content in relation to particular regions and nations and their specific historical and cultural situations. So, for instance, if one looks at the social sciences in India, for instance, and one takes the major disciplines, one would find that the discipline of economics, at least the way it’s taught, in most recent times, very largely follows, one might say, almost the pattern of the natural sciences, in that there are the same canonical texts and the same history of the discipline as followed everywhere else in the world. On the other hand, if one takes the example of sociology and anthropology in India, it’s very interesting to note that there is a very, very lively and well-developed field called ‘Indian sociology’, which has developed — and that is largely because of the existence in India of the institution of caste, which does not exist, in quite this form, anywhere else in the world. And because of the study of caste, which has become almost the basic staple of Indian sociology and anthropology, caste, and as well as the various indigenous communities of India — which under colonial times, they were referred to as tribes — now, this has produced, you might say its own disciplinary form, with its own textual studies, its own ethnographic methods. This is a content which does not exist anywhere else in the world, or, if caste is taught elsewhere in the world, it would be taught with reference to the discipline as it prevails in India. So, this is a very distinct feature. 


Maisha Reza: 

While the principles of decolonization and the potential outcome is consistent, how it can be done, and the actions that need to be employed can look quite different in various disciplines. So I think how to get there might differ, but we all could ask ourselves several questions. And we have to continue asking these questions throughout our practice. 

… I have in the past had discussions with colleagues who believe that decolonization is more relevant to the arts, to history to literature, mass media fashion, but not in science, because after all, DNA is DNA. How do you actually decolonize DNA if it is a fact? So I would say that it has taken a longer time for colleagues in the STEM disciplines to get on board the movement because they took some time to understand its relevance, though they might have agreed with decolonization in principle. So it comes back down to the application and understanding how to take action within specific disciplines. 


Samir Saha: 

What we teach is knowledge derived from books written by either American experts or British experts. So, this thinking is more or less…springs out of colonialism. To have a decolonized outlook, it is better to have authors, competent authors, from this country writing textbooks of engineering and technology — which is not there. We can see even in 1930s, eminent scientists wrote books on thermodynamics, but this did not continue. So, when we are developing technology, technology development means solution of the problems of the country inherent locally. So, we should apply the global/Western/colonial knowledge to solve the local problems, but this is not happening, because the teachers are not comfortable with local problems — because, see the comfort is not there, because they are not acquainted with the local problems. There should be more local visits, local problem solutions, whatever it be – sanitation, pumping, rainwater harvesting, beat, solution of using energy…We must know the data, even raw data. See, utilizing wind energy, utilizing solar energy, which are really absolutely free sources of energy — is much more important than learning nowadays, because of the climate change thing and other things that these fossil burning technologies that we still go on teaching. So, I think those who will go for decolonization of curriculum, should think in this context also: that climate change mitigation is possible only if the technologies which are renewable, which are locally available, which are available in distant places, they should be utilized, the teacher should be acquainted with utilization of those things. And of course, ultimately the student should be brought into data with the teachers in solving because these are not difficult things the these localities can be visited. It is visited in some of the disciplines, and I think in those disciplines, it will be easier to give a decolonized perspective to those disciplines like zoology or geology, etc. 


Aveen Hameed: 

We are really lucky because geology is a global science. So we study geology all over the world, we work with a range of partners in different universities, and different research institutions all over the world. And that’s great because it means we work with a diverse range of people. And we study a diverse range of things. I think the really interesting thing about geology and mining is the mining industry itself. The mining industry has an interesting history because of its links to the imperial power and former colonies. But I think the way that the mining industry is moving forward, is changing. And it’s addressing a lot of those legacy issues. In many cases, you had expat workers, or British workers or white workers, running mines in producer countries, that’s changing dramatically. Producer countries are upskilling their own people, they’re sending them all over the world to study, they’re also setting up their own education provision, to train people locally or in country. And this is all wonderful news. This is exactly what should be happening. This is enabling producer countries to take control over their resources take control of the decision making. It’s also allowing staff from producer countries to actually participate in the international mining industry, you know, they’re taking on positions and senior positions and international mining companies, and getting the experience of working in a range of a range of countries. Doing so allowing local people to manage their own resources is key to reversing some of the colonial legacy, particularly when it comes to environmental and social impact. 


Tom Currie: 

When we’re thinking about the decolonization, I think for every different discipline, you have to think about how does decolonization affect what it is that we do in our own discipline. So something like biology, for example, we can think about issues such as the the history of race, science, or eugenics, or what we used to be known as kind of social Darwinism, and how that was an important aspect of the history of the development of evolutionary thinking. Although now we kind of understand that the kind of the basis for those ideas is both kind of scientifically wrong, but also kind of ethically wrong as well. Some of those ideas that were that were kind of being first kind of began being explored and proposed in kind of the kind of the 1800s still have a legacy in how science is still in our discipline, conducts itself today, but also sometimes in the, in the public understanding of science, on the ways that science can be misused by certain groups. So we need to have an awareness of that history, when we’re thinking about what it is that we teach, and how we go about doing biology. 


Layal Hakim: 

Decolonizing maths doesn’t only lie in how we can learn more about the historical points of view, but also in terms of looking at those currently less represented and see and how they understand and that how they learn mathematics, how do they associate as mathematicians? Nowadays, we have a lot of students coming from various educational backgrounds. And the way they learn and the way they were exposed to new mathematical mathematical theories could be very different to those in European countries. And it’s very important for us as educators to understand how they were taught how and how they personally learn and associated with mathematics and its theories. Having this understanding really helps us understand how there are different approaches to learning and understanding mathematics. 

‘While studying biology as an undergraduate, I took a history course called “Introduction to Non-Western History”, which decentred Western beliefs, attitudes, and practices. What I learned there changed the way I saw the world — not just when I was thinking about history, but also in my “home” discipline, and in general. This demonstrates the power of decolonising the curriculum — and it shows how important it is to decolonise all fields of study.’

Dr Caitlin Kight, University of Exeter


Perspective on decolonisation in biology

Caitlin Kight 

I currently work in the field of education, but I originally trained as a biologist, and that’s the field that I would like to focus on now, because there were many symptoms of coloniality that I struggled with while I was active as a biologist. For example, biology is extremely positivistic. But that doesn’t really reflect my own worldview. The sciences tend to favour quantitative data collection methods, but I see many circumstances in which qualitative, or even other techniques like post-qualitative methods are valid and interesting. So many scientists feel that biological research can be completely objective. But I disagree with this. At the end of the day, we are still using devices and analyses that are designed by people to collect and explore data that people then interpret and act on. And every step of the way, the process is influenced by our subjectivity, whether people want to admit that or not. To give a final practical example, I conducted fieldwork around Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg, Virginia, the very first sites where British colonists established themselves in the US, I was very aware of the fact that I was working on stolen land with a tragic history, and that I was benefiting from my access to that land and its resources. Separately, I was also aware that I had a different relationship to my study organism than my labmates did. And that this influenced how I perceived and undertook my own research. I studied birds, and to me, they, like other organisms, or just little people; I value and respect them as fellow living creatures. And this influenced which methods I felt comfortable deploying, and how I perceived their behaviours, which is what I was studying. I felt uncomfortable discussing this with colleagues and in fact, still feel uncomfortable today, because I knew that these were not common views in my field. But I also felt uncomfortable having to hide this part of myself and these beliefs. And I wondered whether and how my unique views might actually be a benefit rather than a hindrance. But this was nothing I could ever officially explore. 

Perspective on decolonisation in drama

Jerri Daboo 

So, in thinking about my own discipline, I’m in a department of drama, we look across theatre performance, dance, music, visual culture, popular culture. So for us, I think we have a very particular issue when we talk about decolonization, because this isn’t just about sitting down, thinking about it reading texts, having discussions. What we and our students have to do is to make active choices about embodiment, in performance, onstage about representation. We can’t just sit and think about these things and then leave it, we have to make active choices about saying we’re looking at this play text; how are we going to make decisions about casting, about themes, about how do we approach maybe difficult issues in this? Those are then embodied and enacted physically on the stage. So for us, it’s a very positive active engagement with these issues, which brings up a lot more areas that might be problematic or for discussion. So, if our students will be given a play with a Black character in, but there are no Black actors, then how do we approach that? But then if we say, well, we can only have plays that have white characters in them that’s also problematic in terms of excluding those other plays. And there’s other ways of thinking. So for us, it’s always a negotiation of how do we balance out our ideology, our thinking against, then, what do we actually do in practice? And then what can that practice also teach us and reflect back on these issues and on our ways of thinking on what we look at? So we’re really as always trying to challenge the canon. And again, interesting for us that if we think in terms of theatre, the canon is seen essentially starting with Shakespeare; of course, Shakespeare is the main person. But you know, Shakespeare, in terms of questions of empire, becomes very interesting, because, of course, Shakespeare is also taught very widely in former colonial countries, as well. So, if we’re thinking of UK and India, this becomes quite interesting: How can we look at Shakespeare and if we’re producing a play by Shakespeare, how can we think about decolonizing that play decolonizing that production within a postcolonial framework. Sometimes we use the term ‘canonical counter-discourse’. So we’re looking at something that is part of the canon, but how can we turn the kind of thematics and the politics in it around to make a different kind of comment that’s coming more from that lens of decolonization? So I think that’s why in our discipline, we have particular challenges that are also opportunities for thinking about these kinds of issues. 

Perspective on decolonisation in English

Nilanjana Gupta 

I think English is one of the most difficult to decolonize because we’re teaching English literature. And I think it was only probably around the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, that this whole issue of ‘what do we teach when we’re teaching English literature?’ Because, traditionally, when we were students, for example, we had in our syllabus, only the British Brits, not even American. So English literature was literature produced in Britain. We had Joyce, of course, a little bit of Joyce and things like that, but otherwise, it was only that. And then, today, if you look at the syllabus, in various English departments across the world, and in India, you will find the syllabus has opened up a lot. So one thing is that when we talk about the canon, which we do so, you know, what is it that is worth teaching? And what are the criteria for choosing something and not choosing something? Do we have one criterion for choice? Do we look at something which is very elusive, which we can call ‘literary word’? But is literary was only about the text only about telling a story? Or is literary word also connected with social consciousness, with social work, with social ideas? Why do we teach literature? Is it only we want to look at them? And you look at the students to look at the way in which you know, sentences are written? Or do we want to also ask them to look at the conditions within which a certain story is written? Do we also want to them to look at the history behind that author — why that author told the story? And what are we actually doing? We had to face these questions for ourselves in the department. 

Maroona Murmu: 

See, what I have tried to do is to somehow relate things which are more close to my heart, because I think a teacher needs to be passionate about what they are teaching. So it’s true that we need to have certain larger frameworks. While teaching undergraduate students who have basically survey courses, we have larger freedom when we teach master courses, but even then, when you’re teaching social history, it’s important that you take up those areas which have been neglected, or areas where you have, you can contribute your own ways of looking at things like I make it a point to teach. When I talk about prevalence. I look at indigenous librarians, not just as peasant movements as has been seen over the years in history books, but there are other lenses. I call it a ‘celebration of resistance’, the sort of movements that have been taken up by the indigenous population, be it Santal Rebellion, be it Munda Rebellion. So it’s just not ‘peasant in arms’. So I think I’ve tried to even in case of, as I said, in case of caste, so I teach a paper history of political ideas in modern India, and I’ve been doing it for quite a long time. So make it a point to make caste reservation, an important aspect of the curriculum because anyway, we are very proud of the heritage that we had in Bengal renaissance, starting with Ram Mohon Roy so like, but these are the people who had inconsistencies like all of us ambiguities. So it’s like to look into the…despite the liberal stances, the sort of ambiguities they that they had, the sort of prejudices they carried within themselves. So that’s the way I’ve tried to implement things in the curriculum. 


Frances Martin and Fatima Pirbhai-Illich: 

As a scholar, not indigenous of this land, I would like to be considered an ally in this work. However, I’m not a holder of Indigenous Knowledges, Canadian Indigenous Knowledges nor do I have the right to speak for indigenous peoples. What I can do is to work in an area that I feel I can make a difference in the field of education, while also ensuring that other racialized and minoritized populations are not marginalized or made invisible during the process. And then, in our own work in the context of education, we focus on decolonizing educational relationships. And we write decolonizing with a forward slash between the D and colonizing using better chariot idea that there is no utopian decolonizing space that is separate from colonizing spaces, because we are all always already in relationship with colonizing discourses and materiality. And this signals to us that it’s imperative to understand what those colonizing discourses and materialities are before we can begin to find ways of deep linking. 


Jerri Daboo: 

…within my own practice, what I’ve been trying to do is to introduce students to a range of different writers and practitioners and approaches and forms and theories from different parts of the world. So we’re trying to decentre the West, not to make it invisible or to lose that, but just to place other writers and thinkers from different parts of the world, in conversation in dialogue with those. So that has meant on one level, just looking at what I teach, and who I teach, and trying to expand that, again, to help students think differently about it. But also, as part of that we’ve been having conversations within my department within the faculty to think about what can we do it again, it’s a deeper level that goes more than just introducing writers. So we’ve had a lot of discussions about antiracism, how we as a department can address these kinds of issues at a structural level, in terms of not just what we teach, but how we teach how we engage with students, as well. 


Maisha Reza: 

I think the most important step to getting on this journey is learning about decolonization and understanding what it means to you as an individual. I would say that I am still in the process of actively reflecting, unlearning, and learning what it means to decolonize on a personal level. I cannot try to decolonize my curriculum or my practice before I try to decolonize myself and my own mind. 

‘Now we’ve written our own textbooks. Our students love this kind of literature, where they’re learning about their own cultures, not about something else. It’s made such a difference.’

Professor Nilanjana Gupta, Retired, Department of English, Jadavpur University


Blue plaques: an innovative research project and assessment in Geography

Nicola Thomas and Ian Cook: 

One of the ways in which we like to work is through kind of creative assessments and enabling us to kind of let our imaginations unroll, and to use a research-informed way of doing that. And we’ve created an assessment which reinvents the blue plaque, which is quite a kind of activist gorilla memorialization approach, which others have done (like David Olusoga) to kind of reveal hidden histories and challenge what we see as the authorized heritage discourse, which kind of tends to glamorize the white men in society who do ‘great good things’. So in Exeter, we set the challenge of asking our students to uncover hidden histories which reveal these colonial relationships, and then playfully work with the idea of a building plan, which is there to commemorate someone, placed on the side of a building, and we asked them to reimagine the blue plaques. And the idea of that blue plaque is it says that this person lived here, or they visited here at this particular time as famous person. So it’s really important for again, for us his job for is that the plaques are actually in the place where things happen. So it’s making a very…so the idea is you might walk through a city like Exeter, and you might every now and again, spot blue plaque here, another one over here, you know, that kind of thing. And you think, okay, this is taking me back in time in this place to something where somebody made some kind of meaningful contribution to the city. So the question that we kind of are asking is like, okay, the authorized heritage, discourses, is prioritizing through whoever chooses these blue plaques, this kind of meaning, whereas for us, a lot of the wealth that created parts of the city, for example, came out of colonialism, these big kind of built these big houses, all kinds of university parts of the university and the land and these names that are on street names, or the names of prominent buildings, these are often the names of people who made a fortune out of colonialism and then brought the money back and invested it here. 

… So just down the road from the university, there is a small grocery co-op shop and superstore, mini superstore. And the house next to this is Rose Cottage [from Ian: Rose cottage]. Thank you, Ian! And Dahlia Graham was a formerly enslaved woman who worked at Rose Cottage as a house servant. She came to Exeter from we think, southern United States and arrived just after UK abolition and  slavery, and she, you know, lived in Exeter for decades and eventually she died in the work house – which meant that she didn’t have great resources at the time. But you know, she had this long life and we love the fact that one of our students decided that Dahlia Graham deserved a plaque; you know, what an amazing woman’s life to celebrate in Exeter on a street where people just walk past all the time — but wouldn’t think twice that there’s a really important kind of hidden history. And this is really key for the kind of the kind of Black histories of Exeter. But also to enable this kind of challenge about Exeter being quite a white space to be challenged. Exeter has had a long Black history over hundreds of years. So but it’s not visible. So having Dahlia on the street is really key. 

Dyslexia-friendly notes: a learning support technique in Maths

Layal Hakim

It’s really important that we reach out and try to understand what does it mean to decolonize our subjects? Are we doing enough? What more can we do, and hearing from the students is the best way to do that. We could also look down at our lecture notes and our lecture presentations, and see in what small ways we can do that would make a big difference to the learners. For example, recently, in the mathematics department, we had a set of lecture notes that we took, and we made it into a dyslexic-friendly mode. And we asked lecturers that whoever wants to use it, they can use it, and giving the students the option to use the normal set of lecture notes, or the dyslexic-friendly one. And that set of lecture notes is not only useful for dyslexic students, but also other neurodiverse students, and other students who might find it useful to have to have a dyslexic-friendly set of lecture notes too. And also, in terms of delivering our lectures, it could be that students don’t like having a lot of information deposited at them, but also having it more active. And trying to understand from the various types of students in the lecture room, how they understand this theorem, how they would do this proof differently, how they understand the proof of mathematics. And so just hearing the different perceptions and the different ways of learning can really help us decolonize mathematics. 


Representation: giving a platform to those who have been silenced

Maroona Murmu

I can talk of the subaltern school, they were talking about the diversity, they were talking about the caste question, they were talking about gender, women, but the language that they were speaking, was actually a language that could not have accommodated the people themselves if their voice was not coming up. They were questioning representation, but they were trying to represent people, often mainly milieu, that they themselves never came from. So if decolonization has to happen, it has to happen from the people themselves, whose life are taken into consideration. So they should speak for themselves. Nobody can take my voice and represent me. If that happens, there’s a chance of being appropriated because what I speak from a certain locale, certain context, cannot be seen by somebody who doesn’t come from the same social location, same ethnic background, or economic background — so nobody that we can put oneself in the shoes of another person. So I think one has to be very careful because there’s a huge chance of appropriating the voice of the indigenous people and trying to represent them. And since I said, it’s all about the mind, you cannot get into the mind of another person. So let the person speak in whatever way; it might not become very coherent to you, but it is your fault, it’s your ignorance that you are not being able to reach to that person. Trying to create, or have the audacity to claim that you’re creating, knowledge out of these people…I believe this is a very dangerous terrain as well, if you do not know where you’re putting your foot into.