As the first instalment in a new mini- series on “decolonising” the curriculum, Online Features Editor speaks to Professor Nandini Chatterjee of the History department to find out what they have been doing to change the curriculum.
Last week I had the pleasure of speaking to Professor Nandini Chatterjee of the University of Exeter’s history department, director of the Exeter Centre for South Asia and Chair of the Decolonising the Curriculum working group for History. My intention was to go through three reasonably short questions I had prepared which I was going to use as a starting point for an investigation into what the History department at the University have been doing to “decolonise” the curriculum, however we ended up lost in conversation for close to an hour.
Chatterjee described how the Royal Historical Society (RHS) had been urging Universities across the country to take steps towards “decolonising” their curricula, and in 2017 had established a Race, Ethnicity and Equality (REE) working group which has since twice updated their mission statements and commitments since then. However, it was not that institutional pressure, but solidarity with an Exeter student who faced appalling racist and misogynist attacks which prompted the department to begin making changes. A passionate letter written by student Neha Shaji addressing the real need for the University to consider a re-representation across academic curricula led Chatterjee and her colleagues to spearhead the beginnings of a shift towards a consciously “decolonised” syllabus.
The University of Exeter’s History Department’s report on their decolonising work has been featured on the aforementioned RHS’ roadmap for change II (2020), and is available under the Decolonising tag on the University website. It expresses how the study of History allows us to “promote empathy and respect for everyone” and provides “the ability to recognise and challenge injustice where it exists”.
When I asked Chatterjee about the tangible changes that the department has been making, I was pleasantly surprised that there have been some serious actions taken towards an impressive journey to “decolonisation”. For example, Chatterjee mentioned that since they began their work in June this year, the department has placed two, incredibly large First Year core modules under scrutiny. The modules in question make up 60 credits worth of work, and therefore an entire half of a First Year’s University Education. Chatterjee described how there have been revisions within certain weeks’ content, emphasising the importance of a broader, less Eurocentric and thus, skewed yet disproportionately taught concepts and stories. There has also been a conscious shift away from a predominant focus on white actors, and an effort to correct the under-representation of BME scholars on the reading lists. The working group is also supported by Hanife Hursit, student and Education Incubator fellow in history, and has been in conversation with members of the History SSLC, the editor of Ex Historia and the Students’ Guild.
I asked Chatterjee whether there has been any anxieties amongst the department throughout these revisions. Answering the affirmative, she went on to express that there are a few colleagues who “feel they will be attacked for getting it wrong”.
This is a valid feeling. Especially since the publication of one damning article written as a backlash against the department’s decolonising mission, which was written by an ex-member of the History department. This article argues that after a module makes adaptations to its content, students are often “denied what they might find most interesting. ‘Decolonising’ the syllabus fits in very well here as a means of delegitimating both student and staff choice”.
It isn’t a “debate” for those individuals, a term which has been mainstreamed within white discourse. It is their reality.
This article upset a huge amount of the History Department, because in addition to direct named attacks on two female members of staff, including Chatterjee, it attacked the department as a whole. The article taps into a well- worn rhetoric that the issue of racism should be understood, but shouldn’t be spoken about, if members within the discussion do not hold a specific interest in being anti- racist individuals within society. However, it is exactly these people who do voluntarily come to events such as those run by the Exeter Decolonising Network. Anti- racist discourse stands no chance of becoming mainstream if the otherwise disengaged members of society aren’t overtly made to consider and take part in these conversations. “Delegitimating student choice” becomes a flimsy argument when the very concept of core, mandatory modules exist in the first place.
Chatterjee rightfully and passionately asked me “how can you claim the right to not think” about these issues. The issue of racism is not one which can be left to the BIPOC and BME communities to sort out themselves. It isn’t a “debate” for those individuals, a term which has been mainstreamed within white discourse. It is their reality.
By the same token, Chatterjee was aware that neither she alone, nor the History Department in general, can possibly hope to do everything, or reach a completely “decolonised” curriculum. She emphasises the fact that the road to “decolonisation” is such a journey, with an endpoint so far off, that the best a singular body of actors or an individual organisation can do is to “struggle”. When I asked about the possibility of reaching this endpoint in the future she replied saying “I don’t think there will ever be a stage where it’s completely decolonised”, and this is largely due to the fact that anti- racist rhetoric has to be mainstreamed and normalised on a systemic level, something which a post- Imperial Britain is arguably not ready to internalise.
Chatterjee put out a plea and an invitation to students at the University, asking for student input, expertise and requests. What sorts of lectures they’d be interested in hearing on the topic and which books and resources should be made readily available at the library. There has also been the effort to set up a Microsoft Teams group with both students and staff to bounce ideas back and forth. At the time of interview, the Teams group had 45 members, but it is growing everyday, and anyone is welcome to join. Student engagement so far has been promising, but Chatterjee said that “what we need to do is to turn open invites into structured processes” with the students. She said that whilst they had a few student recommendations, when she followed up with said students, there was a significant lack of communication. She says that her and the departments’ efforts are “clearly not going out loudly enough”, and asked me to try and disseminate this information over my platform, Exeposé, something which I am more than happy to do.
Chatterjee concluded with an evocative statement. “Nothing shows from the outside”, she lamented. “But hand on heart, I can’t say how hard some of us have been working over the past months.”
If there are any History students reading here, please do consider contacting Chatterjee, her colleagues, and any staff who you know who can make these changes more mainstream. Her contact details can be found here.