Sunday 15 July 2018

Breathing life into the curriculum - an evaluation of Why is My Curriculum White? in a university school

When you crush hierarchy, and replace it with network, then the cultures held in the different languages generate oxygen. They cross-fertilize. Cultures are able to breathe life into each other. Every culture should be taught with a nod to other cultures. 

(Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, 2017).

A few months ago I started a small-scale research project looking at the impact of a Why is My Curriculum White? campaign within a university school.  I have published my ongoing audio reflections here - these mainly focus on my problematic position as a white researcher of privilege. The paradoxical nature of attempting to do 'white work' that enables the voices of those marginalised in academic space, whilst managing my own conflicts and ethical considerations, has been an ongoing concern. Barbara Applebaum's book 'Being White, Being Good' has been instrumental in helping me to get over myself and focus on the dismantling of whiteness. I would highly recommend it to other white researchers in a similar position.

In my study I invited staff to participate in an anonymous on-line survey and carried out interviews with key participants (academics, support staff and students) within the School. The decision was taken to include staff in the project who do not teach directly, but are involved in wider curriculum delivery through activities such as Advice and Guidance, Student Experience, Admissions, Academic Support, Induction and general administration.  I also undertook detailed analysis of one curriculum area (Learning and Teaching) as part of an ongoing concern with the biases within teacher education.

As a posthuman thinker my focus was particularly on the material nature of the campaign and the embodied nature of reactions to change and barriers to decolonisation. This ontology also encouraged me to act in a spirit of affirmation, and a belief in the power of small changes to enact bigger transformations. In the words of Maldonado-Torres, ‘…the decolonization project needs to be a collective one where subjects give themselves to each other and are receptive to each other in love, understanding, and their shared rage against modernity/coloniality.’ (Maldonado-Torres, 2016, p.279). 

My methodology, ethics, findings and discussion are only briefly summarised here but I am happy to share the details of the study with anyone interested - please contact me via Twitter @KaySocLearn for the full paper and references.  

Curriculum decolonisation - setting the context

‘Decolonisation, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a programme of complete disorder…It never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally. If we wish to describe it precisely, we might find it in the well-known words: ‘The last shall be first and the first last.’ (Fanon, 1961, pp.27-28). 

It is firstly important to examine ‘colonialism’ within the academy before considering what it might mean to ‘decolonise’; as Patel states (2016, p.7) ‘…to decolonize requires the apprehension and unsettling of coloniality.’ A colonised curriculum can be seen to be one that upholds traditions of white imperialism and makes assumptions of value based on white priority and domination. Colonialism can play out through not only the materials selected that form part of a syllabus, but the wider influence of a university’s pedagogical methods, admissions criteria, commemorative statues and building names, policies and procedures, stipulations for academic writing, and so on. Whilst not colonising in the settler sense, Bhopal (2018) suggests that English universities in their nature continue to play out the values of imperialism through Eurocentric degree content, the privileging of formal English as a communication mechanism, and entrenched racism and discriminatory practices (for students and staff). In this sense, colonialism is ‘on-going colonisation by capital’ (Hall and Smyth, 2016, p.2), and very much situated within the wider political and social context; a ‘pedagogical project at the level of society’ (ibid, p.22). 

For the purposes of this evaluation, curriculum was therefore defined in its widest sense; as Kelly (1999, p.3) states: 

‘Any definition of curriculum…must offer much more than a statement about the knowledge-content or merely the subjects which schooling is to ‘teach’ or transmit. It must go far beyond this, to an explanation and indeed a justification, of the purposes of such transmission and an exploration of the effects that exposure to such knowledge and such subjects is likely to have on its recipients’. 

Further to this, it is recognised that curriculum is, in itself, always political and entangled with wider social and cultural factors. As Apple states ….’The curriculum is never simply a neutral assemblage of knowledge, somehow appearing in the texts and classrooms of a nation. It is always part of a selective tradition, someone’s selection, some group’s vision of legitimate knowledge. It is produced out of the cultural, political, and economic conflicts, tensions, and compromises that organize and disorganize a people. (Apple, 1993, p.222). 

Given the systemic and material nature of decolonising work I came from the standpoint that interventions such as academic support, Information and Guidance, Induction activities and ‘student experience’ comprise elements of teaching and thus form part of the centre’s wider curriculum (albeit informal, or even part of a ‘hidden’ curriculum (Kelly, 1999, p.4)). 

To decolonise the curriculum would mean firstly to problematize all aspects of a student’s university experience, inferring that issues are systemic and go wider than an individual tutor’s influence over their programme of teaching and learning. Given that the academy can be seen in itself as a perpetual colonising force (Patel, 2016) the question is raised as to whether decolonising is actually possible, or whether in fact an entirely new system needs to be created. Certainly, as Tuck and Yang (2012, p. 36) stipulate, it needs a different perspective to traditional social justice approaches: ‘Decolonisation is not an ‘and’ – it is an elsewhere.’ 

Maldonado-Torres (2016, p.243) also draws an important distinction between ‘coloniality’ and ‘colonialism’: 

'Coloniality is different from colonialism. Colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation, which makes such nation an empire. Coloniality, instead, refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labor, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus, coloniality survives colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of peoples, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. In a way, as modern subjects we breath coloniality all the time and everyday. '

In doing this Maldonado-Torres encourages a shift to a ‘decolonial turn’ which is ‘pragmatic’ in nature – focused on action as well as the recognition and problematisation of colonialism. These important linguistic differences will be returned to in relation to understandings and actions concerned with this evaluation.

Why is my curriculum white? 

This project began in the UK in 2015, with the NUS Black Students work at University College London (UCL). Drawing on international campaigns, such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ in South Africa, students challenged the lack of diverse voices within university curricula and argued that ‘…education at universities is shaped by acts of colonialism and imperialism in which the experiences and contributions of non-white groups are ignored.’ (Bhopal, 2018, p.98). 

Locally, the NUS of the university in question took up the campaign, identifying it as a movement that ‘…aims to decolonise and critically challenge course content and perspectives offered through the accepted Western white canon of knowledge.’ The transcript from the launch event highlights a fear the ‘dismantling the structures’ is not being done (University Union, 2016) suggesting that the institution is paying lip service through piecemeal interventions such as mentoring schemes. Student campaigners called for a focus on dismantling barriers; on confronting the systemic challenges rather than diversifying individual programmes per se. The campaign ran from October 2015 to January 2017, and was led by the then NUS Education Officer. It comprised the following events: 

· a panel debate on the topic ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ 

· a library campaign in which students suggested new textbooks which were then purchased by the university 

· a university-wide survey which led to the development of a report containing recommendations which were passed by the university in June 2016 

· other activities and events including a TED talk, further panel debate, and dissemination of publicity materials such as mugs, posters and badges 

· presentation of 13 Recommendations to the Taught Students Education Committee (TSEC). 

However, since the conclusion of the campaign in January 2017, and as key campaign leaders have moved on, it is unclear what the longer-term impact has been.

Analysis of Findings 

Twenty five per cent of staff within the Centre completed a questionnaire; of the respondents two thirds were teaching staff and one third non-teaching. Eighty per cent had worked for the organisation for longer than two years, so had been present during the WIMCW campaign. Although participants were asked to identify their ethnicity, no pre-selection criteria were established. As stated previously, this meant that analysis of responses could be problematic – however, 23 respondents chose to self-identify as white, and either English or British; of the remaining three, one identified as Asian, another as Pakistani, and the final respondent responded ‘N/A’. 

Four interviews were undertaken; two of the participants were members of staff and two were Student Representatives. 

Data was analysed manually through subsequent examination of both interview transcriptions and questionnaires. It was then tagged for keywords with the aim of constructing a thematic framework. The ensuing themes were: 

- Understandings of curriculum decolonisation 

- Impact of the Why is My Curriculum White? campaign 

- Material nature of the campaign 

- Barriers to decolonisation. 

Understandings of curriculum decolonisation 

The question ‘What do you understand by the term ‘decolonising the curriculum’?’ elicited a variety of responses and definitions. Diversity was a key theme, recurring in phrases such as ‘diversifying content and pedagogy’, ‘bringing in diverse perspectives’, ‘including diverse voices’ and so on. ‘Decolonising’ was also identified most commonly as a positive action; participants used words such as, ‘changing’, ‘acting’ ‘reflecting’, ‘enriching’ ‘appreciating’ and ‘rebalancing’. 

Two of the respondents stated that they didn’t understand the term; one stating that they wished ‘these terms were rendered in plain English’. 

In interviews, participants stated that:

'There needs firstly to be an understanding of how the curriculum is colonised – and what is meant by that term'. 

'Not everyone understands what it means to be colonised…how can you begin to decolonise without this basic understanding?'

Impact of the Campaign 

Despite evidence of a good understanding of decolonisation, awareness of the local WIMCW campaign was not as high as anticipated. Seven respondents were not aware of it all – of those who were familiar with it, most (24%) had learnt about it through the debate held on campus for Black History Month. A larger number (38%) were aware of the national campaign by NUS Black Students and accompanying film. 

In terms of change to the curriculum, 26% of respondents said that their curriculum had changed as a result of the local WIMCW action. The most significant changes made were amendments to reading lists and other resources (23% of participants reporting change had altered these). Other key changes involved instigating discussions with students (18%) and adding new topics to the syllabus (18%). Interestingly, no participant reported making any changes to teaching methods. 

The two students who were interviewed were not present at the instigation of the campaign. However one noted that:

' My tutor mentioned Why is My Curriculum White? when we talked in class about the current curriculum in schools. Some of us watched the film… but it was a bit awkward to discuss in depth in class, as some of us were a bit defensive. I’m not sure we all understood what it was saying, if I’m honest.' 

The desktop analysis of the ‘Learning and Teaching’ degree programme curriculum revealed that books and other recommended materials were drawn almost entirely from white, European, North American and Australian theorists. Figures for the three modules analysed for this evaluation showed an alarmingly low percentage of writers of colour across over fifty sources (even allowing for the eventuality that authors were writers of colour (where their ethnicity could not be identified), the figure for white theorists held at a minimum of 97%). Although some new texts had been added between 2015 and 2018, and others removed, there was also no indication that WIMCW had influenced change in terms of the diversification of reading lists on the programme. 

Material nature of the Campaign 

Interestingly a key factor in awareness-raising came through the material objects used to promote the local campaign – ironically, tea as one decolonising force - as one tutor stated in the survey comments: 

'…it was the Why is My Curriculum White mug which I discovered 6 months ago in the staff room which captured my imagination. My induction certainly did not flag up the campaign and there is nothing on the notice board in the staff room to flag it. Thank goodness for cups of tea!' 

In an interview two participants mentioned the posters that were displayed around campus as being key to their awareness of the campaign. The centre's Equality Lead stated that: 

I remember seeing the [WIMCW] posters…that’s the first thing I saw about it, and I thought ‘this is brilliant’ and it connects to the other campaigns, I think at Oxford...and then the other way I connected with it was when they [NUS] came into the office with the mugs and the badges…’ 

Barriers to decolonisation 

Where changes hadn’t been made, in a number of cases respondents felt that this was because change was either out of their control or not relevant due to their role. A number of support staff stated that they do not have influence over course content. Certain curriculum areas also were identified as problematic; one respondent stated that: 

' Science definitely has issues with barriers to who can contribute to the body of knowledge and as such a fraction of the material I teach had definitely been discovered and refined by over-represented people… I can’t present science that has not been peer reviewed. The peer-review process is supposedly blind, and so has made steps to ensure meritocracy, however if you do not write in English then the scientific community in Britain/US and parts of Europe will probably not hear what you have to say… I can see that there is a real issue here. I would really welcome further discussion about this because I have no idea what it means for us and I haven’t immediately put my hands on resources which are trying to apply this to scientific disciplines… '

The interviews provided further context to the notion of barriers to organisational and curriculum change. One interviewee felt strongly that it was connected to individual responsibility: 

'If you’re teaching at university level you have a responsibility to understand it [decolonisation] and also to understand the ways in which you have internalised bias – it’s not just about what your teaching them [students].'

For one student, the variation between approaches in different academic schools and inconsistencies across the organisation were significant barriers: 

'I’d got used to bringing in different voices and perspectives on the [Interdisciplinary degree] here. But when I studied a module in another School I felt like… I had to go back to the old theorists. Kant and people like that…I wasn’t confident enough to bring the writers who had spoken to me back into what I was writing.' 

The findings here suggest uneven practice across disciplines and School, alongside practical gaps in both time and knowledge required to elicit meaningful change.


The evidence provided in this evaluation suggests that, whilst the initial impact of the local Why is My Curriculum White? project was limited, there is a good understanding of decolonisation issues within the centre. However, despite respondents generally feeling they have a good understanding, this has not been translated into significant action. As four of the original NUS recommendations (NUS, 2016) relate to curriculum design and content, and only one quarter of respondents reported curriculum change, it could be argued the campaign’s success was limited in terms of effect on the curriculum within the Centre. It is therefore worth examining more closely the way in which decolonisation is generally framed in the language used by respondents. The term ‘diversity’ recurs frequently and this term is, in itself problematic. Ahmed (2017) suggests that it reflects a process of ‘institutionalised polishing’; whereby it ‘replaces other more unacceptable terms that make people feel threatened.’ (2017, p.101). The positivity of the term is ‘shiny’ and prevents the necessity for actual work to be done. Further to this, Patel (2016) suggests that diversity as a ‘binaristic statement or goal’ is ‘woefully inadequate for a project of decolonization (p.93). Decolonisation must instead attend to the dismantling of material structures and practices; and action must be meaningful. The centre's Equality Lead drew a distinction between ‘decolonialising’ and ‘decolonising’ which is helpful here:

'…to be decolonial or post-colonial, is to problematize… but decolonialise is the new term. Being able to actively [my emphasis] find new forms of knowledge.'

It could be suggested that future activity is centred around action as well as reflection and examination of the colonised nature of our work. Taking this further, I want to introduce Applebaum’s (2016) concept of ‘response-ability.’ This idea takes us forward as agents for change who are able to enact transformation within their own embodied and embedded entities. A significant proportion of respondents in support (rather than direct teaching) roles felt that they unable to instigate change due to their lack of influence over the curriculum. A wider understanding of curriculum being more than just the syllabus may help staff to recognise the impact of their practice in terms of other activities such as induction, advice and guidance, admissions and academic support.

Participants also mentioned the significance of material influences, such as posters, mugs and badges in terms of awareness raising and sustainability. Where campaigns are student-led, it is difficult to have one figurehead as campaign leaders will necessarily move on (through graduation); the nature of the NUS as a campaigning organisation also suggests that different issues will be prioritised according to the nature of its leadership and student voice at a particular point in time. 

What is heartening is the desire for more knowledge and understanding of the decolonisation agenda; there is a sense of a conversation beginning and an appetite to continue the work through further discussion and action. However, in discussing the findings of this evaluation it is important to note the absence of a number of voices; what were the thoughts and experiences of those who did not respond?


Despite the limitations in scope of this evaluation, the ‘reterratorialising’ nature of colonialism within the academy, and my own complex position as a researcher, this study has revealed a number of interesting findings in relation to the success and sustainability of Why is my Curriculum White? as a campaign. It is clear that, despite good understandings of decolonialisation issues, curriculum change in relation to WIMCW has been inconsistent within the university school at the centre of this study. Where change did occur, it was largely framed around the diversification of reading lists and materials. However, there is will and enthusiasm to learn and reflect across the Centre. I have been asked to make recommendations to the Centre in the spirit of affirmatory praxis, and these will focus on the following issues: 

- How to make a shift from ‘decolonising’ to ‘decolonialising’; and thus build emphasis on action in addition to doing the important work of problematizing curriculum issues 

- The importance of investing in sustainable, material reminders of the campaign messages 

- Allocation of meaningful time for reflection and discussion, particularly of areas in which colonisation is present but less debated, such as the science disciplines 

- A wider understanding of ‘curriculum’ and who is able to influence its development. 

In doing this work we need to also be wary of conflating this project with other social justice interventions. As Tuck and Yang (2012) suggest, we should not ‘domesticate’ decolonisation, nor use it as a metaphor. The term itself and the associating work can be subsumed into the system (‘reterratorialised’ in Deleuzian terms) so problematization of the concept should be an ongoing project. 

This study has also called into question the sustainability of campaigns led by students who are not permanently represented in the workings of an organisation. It is therefore heartening to see the university in question establishing a working group comprised of academic leads, tutors and student representatives. As the group held its first meeting mid-way through this evaluation project it is too early to tell whether its work will relate in any way to the recommendations in this study but its progress will be followed closely. 

Patel (2016, p.95) states that ‘While we cannot map the future, we can map possible futurities and do so with a reckoning of the past trajectories that give shape to the present realities.’ We must continue to ‘breath life’ into the curriculum for fairness, parity and the joy of re-imagining what it means to be human in the world today; and this is our responsibility of academics in positions of privilege. To close with the words of the centre's Equality Lead: 

'We need to keep talking about it, so it doesn’t go away. From the students’ point of view, we need to consider…what’s the impact on them, of not continuing to ask these questions?'


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