DIY decolonisation: Durham students take charge

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Durham University, home to over 20,000 students from across the globe, inevitably becomes a hub for people of all different backgrounds. In an increasingly globalised world, The University proudly presents its purpose to be ‘enrich[ing] lives and chang[ing] the world through the advancement of learning’. As such, it is unsurprising that one of its ‘Core Lived Values’ is found as being citizenship, where Durham University strives to ‘develop well-rounded people who make a positive difference to local, national, and international communities and change the world’. Nonetheless, with efforts towards championing globalisation, institutions such as Durham University, founded on a history of temporal longevity, may find a need for addressing injustices of the past.

Decolonising the curriculum forms an integral part of how the University may remain accountable to addressing the impact that colonialism has had on the world around us, and what we are taught. I had the opportunity to speak to some of the faculty interns across Durham University who are working on the Decolonising The Curriculum scheme. Claire de Korte, faculty intern for Science; Daniel Caves-San José, faculty intern for the Arts and Humanities; Hoh Shan Poh, faculty intern for the Business School, and Naomi Lawal, faculty intern for the Social Sciences and Health, all sat down to share their thoughts on what decolonising the curriculum indeed means, and how they are spearheading the achievement of those aims. 

Firstly, a fundamental concept to wrap our heads around is what is decolonisation, and what does it mean to decolonise a curriculum? A definition that Claire developed a few years ago was “the restructuring of beliefs and institutions with the goal of renouncing eurocentricity while adopting and performing inclusive, open minded and conscientious ideals and actions”. In this sense, we can understand that decolonisation is about “decentering the West.” Naomi echoes this sentiment as she puts forth that “decolonising is to centre non-Western experiences and knowledge systems into the curriculum”. As to how decolonisation is done within university curricula, Daniel succinctly sums the notion that it is “a form of external accountability for critical module development…something that gives agency to students.” Applying this to Durham University, Hoh Shan notes that “It helps to make sure that what Durham is teaching its students is actually representative of the world around it”. Therefore, if Durham University is able to conduct the work of “explicitly naming and challenging the colonial legacies and ways of thinking […] so that [they] can be beyond […] political and legal structures, but also just general hierarchies of knowledge”, as Daniel puts it, then they are one step closer to decolonising the curriculum. 

Decolonising is to centre non-Western experiences and knowledge systems into the curriculum

As Decolonising The Curriculum has run for yet another successful year, when talking to the faculty interns it was important for me to understand what role they have taken on in the process. Naomi explained that “my role was primarily project management essentially, but I did also have the opportunity to step out of that and take on my own project.” Claire emphasised how the jobs they take on as faculty interns differs from those of department interns. She explains that “the department level roles are more to do with individual projects of students […] whereas for the faculty level roles, it’s kind of like a managerial position.” Indeed Daniel echoes the sentiment that their roles are slightly more administrative, emphasising that they act more as “communications liaison[s]”. 

In understanding their roles better, it was clear that these multitalented and immensely capable students bare quite a bit of responsibility. Naturally, it leaves one thinking about the benefits and possible setbacks of having Durham’s decolonisation efforts spearheaded by a student-run scheme. Hoh Shan asserts that “it’s not very often that students have any sort of role to play in curriculum development and informing how what they’re eventually going to be taught should be taught.” Daniel adds his thoughts on the matter, believing that “it’s about building dialogue between students and staff” where the faculty interns act as “facilitators” for such discourse. However, Daniel heeds that an “implicit obstacle you have with students at the centre of decolonising the curriculum” is it can be difficult for their developments and conversations to travel up the chain. Daniel asks the all-important question of “How does it become tangible?”  i.e. the students’ proposed changes. 

Nonetheless, Durham University does seem to have a good grasp on a student-run decolonisation programme. Hoh Shan rightfully points out that “a lot of movements aimed at decolonising, or aimed at you know addressing potential issues with the curriculum, and led by students have often been unpaid.” Hoh Shan describes the need for the work to be paid since “It does feel strange if you’re asking, potentially historically marginalised groups to do the hard work of trying to right the wrongs that they suffer from”, praising Durham University’s scheme which sets a precedent for decolonisation work to be paid for and valued. 

It helps to make sure that what Durham is teaching its students is actually representative of the world around it

It is at this point where it’s necessary to zoom into The University’s specific case, and see what historical imbalances might need to be addressed. Naomi aptly pointed out that “Durham is seen as a place where students pass through, so [they] aren’t really involved in these types of things[ …] advocating for change”. With a potential lack of connection to the city of Durham, Naomi believes that students may unknowingly uphold harmful legacies. Indeed, Naomi undertook a personal project in which she looked at the historical influences behind Durham University’s logo, and its link to the Christian Union. She notes that historical imbalances which prioritise a Western-centric perspective on authority can still be unconsciously reinforced. Claire notes how The University’s aims to “internationalise the curricula of Durham University degrees with a view to increasing the employability of Durham students around the world” is wonderful, but must be actualised through The University’s efforts; putting schemes in place such as Decolonising The Curriculum helps to do just that.

During the course of the interview Hoh Shan offered that “I am a product of colonialism”. He shared his experience living in Malaysia “with a British colonial economy” where the achievements and prosperity of the UK was pedestaled. Indeed Claire shares that “I am also a product of colonialism”. She describes being born in Botswana and moving to South Africa for many years, later seeing her mother’s side of the family settling in Australia, and having her father’s side of the family be Dutch. Claire shares that “I acknowledge that I definitely benefited from it [colonialism] and I’m aware I have a lot of privilege now as a consequence of it”. 

The impacts of colonialism are around us in more ways than one. Although colonisation has historically taken on the form of powerful Western empires making their way through the world to exploit different nations of its people and resources, the impact which that leaves behind in the 21st century can look vastly different. If we ask ourselves key questions such as why are certain modules compulsory? Why do we have to study specific thought leaders? And more generally where does our curriculum come from? The answers we find may not be as straightforward, fair or balanced as one might initially think. These are facets to be learned from, and it is admirable to see how Durham University paves the way for such work. The faculty interns wanted to share their thoughts on Decolonising The Curriculum and demystify the process, which I’d hope has been achieved. 

More resources can be found on the Student Union’s Decolonisation Hub

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