Three-D Issue 34: Decolonising the curriculum is not enough

Lindiwe Dovey
SOAS University of London

In a recent article for the online creative research journal PARSE, called “On Teaching and Being Taught: Reflections on Decolonising Pedagogy”, I describe at length my own journey towards decolonising one of my courses. This course focuses on African filmmaking, and so one might say already represents a rare, diverse offering within a global Film and Screen Studies landscape that overwhelmingly gives priority to Euro-American films, filmmakers, scholars, and contexts (see the Open Syllabus galaxy for the most commonly assigned texts in our fields). Indeed, team members of our ERC-funded project Screen Worlds: Decolonising Film and Screen Studies – which began in June 2019 – have already responded to this landscape by creating a set of free, online toolkits which we hope will aid teachers in starting the process of developing more globally inclusive curricula and syllabi. Many of these toolkits foreground films and scholarship from different African contexts given that Africa continues to be the most marginalised region within many academic disciplines – including Film and Screen Studies, Media Studies, and Creative and Cultural Industries Studies. For example, our team member Dr Añulika Agina has created a toolkit on Southern Nigerian Cinema that should help anyone trying to incorporate a focus on “Nollywood” – the world’s second largest film industry in terms of annual film output – into their curriculum.

Decolonising our curricula is vitally important, and this can be done not only by including previously marginalised regions and voices, but also by thinking of ourselves more as curators and not as experts. This means that we need to give the utmost care to how we design our courses and programmes, with particular attention to how we frame them. As I have learned the hard way (see my PARSE article), opening points are especially crucial. Positioning ourselves as teachers with respect to the material we teach, and how it relates (or not) to our lived experiences, is imperative as we all try to make our curricula more globally representative. As we diversify our primary and secondary sources, we have an attendant responsibility to do this in a thoughtful and not tokenistic way. There are great opportunities here to decolonise our practices in other, deeper ways – for example, through embracing a more interdisciplinary approach if we cannot find diverse source material within our own disciplines, and through paying guest lecturers to contribute their perspectives on material from contexts in which we do not have lived experience.

This last point brings me to the main argument I want to make here: as important as it is that we decolonise our curricula and our pedagogy, this is not enough to address the most significant problem in relation to the ongoing, colonial legacies in higher education. This problem is our lack of diversity in staffing – particularly when it comes to permanent positions. As Baroness Valerie Amos notes in a 2019 UK universities report on the racialised student attainment gap, only 400 of the UK’s 19,000 professors are Black, Asian and minority ethic women. And as a recent Times Higher Education article about the financial impact of Covid-19 on universities argues, it is largely the same marginalised demographic who will pay the price of job losses since many of these people are on casual contracts.

If we truly want to decolonise our programmes and curricula, then we all need to contribute to the long-term project of trying to transform our permanent work force so that our teachers embody a rich diversity of cultural and intellectual backgrounds, experiences, and ideas. Again, meaningful rather than tokenistic work is required here – no one wants to be accepted as a PhD student or hired for a job simply because they are a woman and/or Black. No one wants to be the ‘diversity hire’ and to feel the isolation and burden that may come from being in such a position. Creating communities of scholars who are invested in similar goals is crucial, as is evident in Kehinde Andrews’ moving account of how he and others created the first Black Studies undergraduate degree in Europe at Birmingham City University in 2016 (“The Challenge for Black Studies in the Neoliberal University,” in De-colonising the university, ed. by Bhambra et al, London: Pluto Press, 2018, 129-144).

As we work on developing more inclusive recruitment practices within our own institutions, there is a great deal we can also do cross-institutionally, particularly since the challenges of Covid-19 have also reminded us that we do not need to wait to attend expensive, in-person conferences to start collaborating with one another. I have learned a great deal about how to decolonise my teaching practices through two workshops I have co-convened with colleagues from other parts of the world: the ‘Decolonising Pedagogy: Exploring Processes in Image-Making’ workshop that I organised with Professor Jyoti Mistry and Dr Nina Mangalanayagam at the Valand Academy, University of Gothenburg, from 23-25 May 2019; and the ‘Decolonising Film and Screen Studies in Nigeria’ workshop organised by Dr Añulika Agina and Dr Patrick Oloko at the University of Lagos, from 16-18 March 2020, as part of the Screen Worlds project. Both of these workshops had practical elements in which we either made or watched and discussed films together, or where ideas were documented visually rather than simply verbally, as we creatively explored how to decolonise not only the teaching of film theory, but also the teaching of filmmaking. The workshops also highlighted the need for us to respect the intersectionality of identities as we decolonise, taking care to think about how, for example, women, people working in the Global South, early career researchers, and/or people with disabilities and different learning styles are impacted by inequalities within higher education institutions. By developing networks of care across institutions, and not remaining siloed within our own institutions, we can all help to create a more inclusive and globally representative teaching environment.

Lindiwe Dovey is Principal Investigator, Screen Worlds: Decolonising Film and Screen Studies (2019-2024).

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