Wednesday 23 January 2019

Cambridge to 'decolonise' English literature course

King’s College in Cambridge
King’s College in Cambridge

Camilla Turner

Cambridge University's English literature professors could replace white authors with black writers, following proposals put forward by academic staff in response to student demands to "decolonise" the curriculum.

For the first time, lecturers and tutors will have to "ensure the presence" of black and minority ethnic (BME) writers on their course, under plans discussed by the English faculty's teaching forum.

The university denies there are plans to replace white authors with black ones.

The move follows an open letter, penned by Lola Olufemi, Cambridge University Student Union's women's officer, and signed by more than 100 students, titled "Decolonising the English Faculty".

"For too long, teaching English at Cambridge has encouraged a 'traditional' and 'canonical' approach that elevates white male authors at the expense of all others," the letter said.

"What we can no longer ignore, however, is the fact the curriculum, taken as a whole, risks perpetuating institutional racism."

They said they were not seeking to exclude white men from reading lists. However, adding new BME texts and topics could lead to existing authors being downgraded or dropped, since there are no plans to lengthen courses to accommodate an expansion of reading materials.

One proposal discussed by academics to address the students' concerns is for subject group committees (SGCs) - made up of academic staff - to "actively seek to ensure the presence of BME texts and topics on lecture lists".

It was also suggested SGCs take editorial control of reading list folders and "actively encourage sharing of reading suggestions" of BME writers and topics. There are also plans for an introductory course of lectures in the first week of the academic year to "offer perspectives on the global contexts and history of English literature".

The details were sent to students on behalf of English faculty chairman Professor Peter De Bolla, who heads the teaching forum, an institution set up for academic staff to discuss the curriculum and teaching issues.

Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge University, said there were some "major problems" with this approach. "It goes with the calls to stop teaching predominantly Western or European history as well as literature. If you distort the content of history and literature syllabuses to insert a statistically diverse or equal proportion of material from cultures taken globally you surely lose sight of the historical truth that the West explored the world from the 16th century and took control - colonially or otherwise - of a very large part of it."

Irish Independent

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