More than 150 students signed an open letter calling for the English Tripos to be decolonisedLola Olufemi (Facebook)

Efforts to ‘decolonise’ the Cambridge English Tripos have taken a step forward, with the Faculty beginning discussions after an open letter which called for an end to teaching which “elevates white male authors at the expense of all others”.

The letter, which has received around 150 student signatures, said that a focus on white authors in the undergraduate course “implicitly reminded [BME students] that their stories, indeed the stories of anyone who is not a white man, are not valued”. The letter suggested a number of changes, such as ensuring that all exam papers included “two or more postcolonial and BME authors”.

English undergraduates typically study a range of ‘period papers’ in their first two years, focusing on four roughly two-hundred-year-long blocks from 1350 to the present day. There is also a separate paper on Shakespeare. Campaigners have claimed that the current course focuses too much on ‘canonical’ authors – typically white men – to the exclusion of female authors and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and that it offers a perspective too shaped by colonial ideas.

Minutes of the Teaching Forum, circulated to students earlier this week, noted a discussion on 5 October about the letter. The group, which is headed by Faculty chairman Professor Peter De Bolla, noted: “we should be mindful of the ‘afterlife’ of exam papers in influencing future teaching practice, and in sending a signal to students about what they are invited to write.”

It added: “nonetheless, we should be wary of assuming that the job of promoting equality and diversity would be done simply by including authors on exam papers; rather, the process should be a matter of opening all of what we define as ‘English’ literature out to critical thinking that recognises the global and interconnected nature of literary study.”

The discussion notes carry a number of practical suggestions, including that there could be an introductory lecture course in Michaelmas to “offer perspectives on the global contexts and history of English literature”.

The letter’s author Lola Olufemi, a Selwyn English graduate and current women’s officer of CUSU, told Varsity she thought the discussion was “a promising step forward that the letter is being taken seriously by the faculty.”

“There needs to be a complete shift in the way the department treats western literature in comparison to that of the global south and non-white authors must be centred in the same way Shakespeare, Eliot, Swift and Pope are; their stories, thoughts and accounts should be given serious intellectual and moral weight,” she said.

Dr Priyamvada Gopal, who is one of the supervisors of the Part II Postcolonial Literature course, also welcomed the suggestions.

“They are a good start and I’m glad to see the Faculty responding with attention and interest to a student-driven demand for change,” Gopal said via email. “I think it is important, however, to view the ‘inclusion’ of postcolonial and BME texts not as an endpoint but the beginning of a discussion about what ‘English literature’ is and what exclusions it has always relied on.”

“The curriculum first needs to make empire, race, identity more central than it has been – something students HAVE to engage with rather than are ‘allowed’ to engage with,” she added.

“Given British history, empire is central to understanding both texts and contexts. It’s a ‘white’ issue as much as it is a ‘BME’ issue. That understanding must drive changes.”

The English Faculty would not comment further on the discussion notes in the email.

A meeting will be held on the 1 November to discuss the letter and campaign plans, hosted by the Decolonising the Curriculum Faculty Research Initiative

Sponsored links