The working group meeting follows a rally on TuesdayLouis Ashworth

The movements towards the decolonisation of the Cambridge English Tripos continues to make progress, following a working group meeting on Wednesday 1st November.

The ‘Decolonising the Curriculum Faculty Research Initiative’, a group established with the intention of catalysing the decolonisation of curricula across the university, met to discuss ideas to pitch to the English Faculty. The panel featured Lola Olufemi, CUSU women’s officer, Dr Chana Morgenstern and Dr Priyamvada Gopal as members of the faculty responsible for the elective paper in postcolonial literature, and Dr Adam Branch from the Department of Politics and International Studies, who focused on how the initiative could affect other curricula. 

The final paragraph of the open letter to the Faculty, which obtained over 100 signatories and was circulated earlier this year, was read to the group. While reactions to the letter have been largely positive, Dr Gopal expressed concern that the positive engagement may “stop at token inclusion”. There may become a point, she warned, at which the Faculty deem the changes to be “enough”.

Dr Gopal emphasised that, currently, formal exposure to postcolonial and BME writing exists only in the form of an elective paper within Part II: “The English course is not ‘prescriptive’ in the sense that there is no formal reading list, but tends to be very canonical in actuality. The issue is that there is no culture of questioning why that is.” She stated the necessity to “initiate a culture shift, and to think more widely about why common knowledge is what it is”.

The meeting raised issues inherent to the current status quo, and several members expressed an interest in focusing on Part I of the Tripos; one audience member suggested reading lists could allow a range of critical literary perspectives to reach a wider audience from the very outset of the degree. Dr Gopal argued the English Faculty uses Part I as a means to define what English literature is, and therefore that English literature is already defined astutely “as English, as White, as Anglophone”.  This means students actively have to seek out postcolonial literature, and can still graduate without engagement in broader critical debate.

Examples were cited from Stanford and Harvard Universities, as the former made Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing prescribed preparatory reading for all freshers, while the latter has recently embedded ‘diversity courses’ into its compulsory curriculum. Although Harvard does allow students to graduate having participated in only one course featuring authors marginalised for historical reasons, Dr Gopal insisted their “minimal start is better than our pretence of openness”. 

Dr Morgenstern praised students who studied the postcolonial paper last academic year and subsequently composed an open letter to Peter de Bolla, published in June. Morgenstern recognised their action as a demonstration of “how real change can come out of educational efforts.” Her focus was directed at imparting a foundational knowledge of literary history to students of English: “It is not an option to discard half of the world's history and literature of the last 500 years from our curriculum. We have a responsibility to provide students a rigorous and comprehensive understanding of all of world history, and it is one of which we are all a part.”

Gabrielle McGuinness, a member of the original group who formulated the open letter, told Varsity: “The group founded a unique sense of solidarity and validity. We recognised that diversification of the curriculum would only enrich literary criticism and offer a beneficial opportunity for another permutation of the degree”.

Following Dr Morgenstern’s assertion that there had been “no concrete action as yet,” the open floor discussion cultivated some interesting and exciting ideas for advancement of the campaign. Attendees discussed the possibility of establishing a new working group comprising of current undergraduates, which could ensure the continuation of pressure on the administration. It was suggested that first year undergraduates especially should become engaged in the campaign and help inspire change. Other suggestions included finding ways to connect papers from other faculties, extending the Practical Criticism and Critical Practice course beyond the British Isles, Ireland and America, and training supervisors to promote a variety of postcolonial or BME perspectives using a “unifying vocabulary”.

Dr Gopal argued that the responsibility for creating new posts in this area should be passed on to the faculty, yet stated there is an enduring and inherent problem of “inevitability”; as long as the canon remains prioritised around the Greeks, Shakespeare and Chaucer, the posts are allocated to necessarily meet such demands. Until the canonical definition changes, she added, “circular reasoning” will continue. She stated, “We need a shift in ideas about what we value.” 

An English finalist concluded the session with the suggestion that students establish reading groups, and reiterated the importance of a new network to initiate concrete action and propel the movement forwards. She summarised the positive outlook and motivations of the group, exerting a hopefulness shared by others: “If the faculty do give us an inch, we might at least try to take a metre”.  

The working group now turn their focus to the History Faculty, and will meet again on 28th November


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