Whilst efforts to decolonise the reading lists are important, this alone cannot resolve the issue of teaching disparities amongst colleges; a problem heightened by the fact that the English curriculum is decentralised. Flickr

In the summer of 2017, an open letter calling for the decolonisation of the English Tripos was published. The letter advocated for a fundamental transformation in the way that English at Cambridge is planned and taught, with suggestions including: having two or more postcolonial or BME authors on every exam paper; requiring at least one essay during Shakespeare term about Shakespeare in a postcolonial context; initiating diversity training for supervisors; and introducing a short seminar series that looks at postcolonial texts and thought. The letter was subject to willful misprision and misrepresentation in the British media; Lola Olufemi, one of the most prominent figures in the Decolonise English movement, was slandered across the country.

In the years since, an entire cohort of English students at Cambridge has come and gone. Having submitted our final Tripos essays in the past two weeks, we have seen no substantive changes to the way in which the curriculum is taught. For those of us active in the Decolonise English Reading and Working groups, we have been disheartened by the glacial pace at which the English Faculty has responded. Most of the demands from the original letter have gone unheeded. The urgency of our task remains: we have seen the hardening of imperial nostalgia and xenophobia in the aftermath of Brexit and witnessed the systemic and continuous dehumanisation of people of colour across Britain. Recently, the killing of George Floyd has demonstrated the anti-black racism that continues to infect the Western world: a structure that cannot be divorced from its historic roots in slavery and European imperialism. The English Tripos cannot remain ensconced in pretensions of apoliticism, not least when an insistence on Eurocentric pedagogy privileges whiteness as the universal arbiter of humanity and rationality. It does no favours to Cambridge University, itself a colonial institution par excellence, to strive to widen access for BME students and to recruit international students on the strength of its global reputation when it refuses to reckon with its legacy and take the work of decolonisation seriously.

"[...] we continue to hear about students being maligned, dismissed, and demeaned for their interests in critical approaches that take race and empire as investigatory anchors."

Our disappointment over the English Faculty’s lip service to decolonisation has been made clear over and over again, and yet there seems to have been little done to expand supervision reading lists, reappraise critical approaches, or introduce lecture series across periods that deal directly with the question of colonisation and its ideological and literary past and present. While some faculty reading lists have been updated and there has been a general increase in discussion about decolonisation, progress has stagnated. A recent faculty statement, made in response to Georgia Ziebart’s criticism, claimed that 'it is hard to find a Part II paper in which one cannot write or study from beyond the ‘Eurocentric’/‘white male’ view'. This self-congratulatory sentiment elides the explicit and implicit pressures on many of us to avoid questions of race and empire within these temporally and topically demarcated papers. Never mind the fact that Part I papers do not yet prioritise the teaching of non-Eurocentric texts or writers from the Global South. Through feedback in the Working Group, we continue to hear about students being maligned, dismissed, and demeaned for their interests in critical approaches that take race and empire as investigatory anchors. For BME and non-white international students in particular, it is inevitable that this is couched in condescension and microaggression.

The Decolonise English Reading Group has strived to provide opportunities to open up discussion and push back against Britain’s self-legitimising narratives, such as through seminars on race and somatic difference in Medieval literature, or by taking Edward Said’s contrapuntal reading and bringing it to bear on eighteenth-century novels. Each seminar has provided opportunities for people to identify the gaps in their knowledge – gaps that exist because of a lack of pedagogical attention or a lack of expertise on the part of their supervisors. It should not be incumbent upon the student body to educate their educators, not least when the work of decolonisation is sustained almost entirely by non-white students. The paucity of non-white academics in the English Faculty has also made it difficult to find adequate institutional support and push for more substantive change. At present, the English Faculty does not have a single Black academic.

The biggest challenge faced by those of us pushing for the reform of the English Tripos is its decentralisation. While this is meant to accord flexibility to supervisors, what it often results in is an uneven experience across colleges. While some DoSes and supervisors are far more enthused by the possibility of offering their students a revised curriculum, others remain beholden to the fact that the Fellows in their colleges have no expertise beyond the eighteenth-century, and even then, remain blithe to postcolonial approaches to their periods. The incredible weight of responsibility that each supervisor bears in shaping teaching and learning is something that we raised as a Working Group at a meeting with DoSes from across colleges, receiving mixed responses and attempts to deflect responsibility. Efforts to introduce more lectures and seminars on a faculty level relating to race, empire, and colonialism cannot resolve these huge disparities in teaching across colleges.

"The fact that the Postcolonial paper is oversubscribed every year in Cambridge is evidence enough that there is a growing hunger for change."

What remains to be done? The most meaningful work so far has been performed by the English Faculty Library team, who have facilitated social media discussions about what a Decolonised English curriculum could look like and have moved postcolonial books out of the basement up to the first floor of the library. Save for that, every suggestion on the original open letter remains to be taken seriously. This demands an imaginative reformation of the syllabus, one that expands the bounds of inquiry for each paper and recognises that the construction of British literary identity emerged from the very fabrication of ‘others’ against which it could define itself. Novels such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are predicated on this, locating the submerged presence of colonialism beneath the veneer of wealth and adventure. This also requires that we make diversity and anti-racist training compulsory for every supervisor.

These are not new demands, but the patience of the student body is wearing thin. Cambridge is being left behind by institutions that have made postcolonial and global Anglophone literatures compulsory within their English syllabi – institutions such as, Harvard University, Trinity College, Dublin, University of St. Andrews, University College London, and Anglia Ruskin University. The fact that the Postcolonial paper is oversubscribed every year in Cambridge is evidence enough that there is a growing hunger for change. Yet, there were only two academics to shoulder its load this past year, making it painfully clear where more needs to be done.


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When Cambridge University moves, the world responds. News of its lectures going online for the academic year of 2020-2021 rocketed across the internet. Will it take heed of the responsibility that comes with its global reputation and engage in fruitful and reflexive inquiry, or will it disappoint its student body yet again?

This piece was written with inputs from Shameera Lin, English Faculty Undergraduate Representative from 2018 to 2020, Zachary Myers, co-leader of the Decolonise English Reading Group, and Sarah Jilani, PhD candidate and supervisor for the Postcolonial and Related Literatures paper.