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3
Nov
2023

Decolonizing the Literary Curriculum

Ankhi Mukherjee, Ato Quayson

The word curriculum is derived from the Latin verb “currere,” meaning run, trot, gallop, hasten, speed, travel, or rapidly flow. The concept of the curriculum is a unique, almost self-cancelling aggregate of dynamism and stasis in that the running, trotting, galloping, speeding, and flowing of its root word happen along fixed pathways or ruts. The curriculum is a course to be adhered to, just as race-chariots would be disqualified from the competition if they went off beaten tracks. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 1633 as the year in which the Latinate term appears in the context of the university, a word associated since then with the processes of qualification and classification of a sequential education. In our collaborative endeavor titled Decolonizing the English Literary Curriculum, we have evoked at every stage the relevant history of the section of the literary curriculum we were addressing, including the allowable innovation built into its prescriptions, innovative possibilities that would be disciplined and policed before the new became credentialized as the normative.

Demands for reform of the English literature curriculum are often made from equity-seeking groups either for overhauling of the curriculum or for its complete replacement with something that appears more equitable to such equity-seeking groups. Harold Bloom’s dismissive term for the same was the “school of resentment,” an undifferentiated group of aggrieved parties clamoring against historical justice and for social change.  The term “decolonizing” has historically specific as well as metaphorical implications. Thus, the term “equity-seeking groups” would minimally include at least the following: people of color and racial minorities, persons with disabilities, persons with non-heteronormative sexual orientations, formerly colonized people, Native peoples (pertaining specifically to the settler communities of Australia, Canada, and the United States), women, Jews, and Muslims, among others.

Despite the salience of perspectives from different equity-seeking groups, one of the more sticky considerations to decolonizing the literary curriculum is what distinction we might draw between the proper domain of literature and that of politics, with literature not being seen as subservient or merely reflective of the political.  This also means that what literature “does” in highlighting injustice is not readily discerned except through careful attention to the literary text at multiple levels of significance.  Furthermore, a preliminary distinction must be drawn between decolonizing the curriculum and decolonizing our reading of individual texts.  The first is much more elusive and difficult than the other, especially as it touches on what is typically conceived of as the breadth requirements for claiming to have completed a degree in English literary studies.  After all, a study of English language and literature is also a whistlestop tour through literary and cultural history. Steady criticisms of the literary curriculum from different interest groups since the late 1960s and rising in intensity in the 1980s has led to progressive changes to the curriculum in many parts of the world, most critically, in Europe and America.  The changes have taken place on two fronts: first on that of adding writers to the curriculum from different cultural traditions – Achebe or Morrison or Head or Rushdie or Coetzee.  But these additive changes often do not alter the way in which the literary texts themselves are taught.  For while work by Shakespeare and Milton are often taught as literary texts, with all the rigorous apparatus of discursive proof that this requires, Achebe and others from the postcolonial and non-white world are merely viewed as ethnic sociologists and native informants.  The problem then is not that students in most Euro-American university programs are required to study large period papers, but that when they are exposed to literatures from outside of mainstream white Euro-America, that those are treated in a sub-literary way, such that there is an implicit structural bias in how they are embedded into the curriculum in the first place.  What is even more worrying is that in most English departments, breadth requirements are structured such that areas such as postcolonial or world literature are tagged on as electives rather than as core requirements, so that it is perfectly possible for a student to complete an entire English literature degree without having even the faintest acquaintance with anything beyond the Euro-American hegemonic white canon itself.  And yet the corrective to this often-undisguised bias is not just to make acquaintance with writers from other traditions a core requirement of the degree, important though this is, but also to assess whether professors have made a commitment to evolving beyond their original areas of expertise to encompass and incorporate insights from other literary and cultural traditions. For most other literary specialists, there is no incentive to know anything beyond one’s immediate area, the perfectly defensible position being that those things are best left to the specialists in those other areas.  This, we think, is a serious mistake both in the ways in which we train our students and in our pedagogical dispositions. For the English literary curriculum ought to be thought of holistically and interconnected in all its parts, with each part able to speak to all the others.

John Guillory points out in his Cultural Capital that canonicity implies not merely a transmission of value but a transmission of social relations. The canonical text, Guillory suggests, seems inexhaustible precisely because it is reproduced and distributed in a manner that it seems to be reproducing and distributing itself. In that relay of canonicity at the site of production that is the school, social relations are simultaneously systematized, the relative autonomy of the institution allowing it to function remotely. The curriculum is a veritable form and practice of the canon. Decolonizing the curriculum entails not only generating lists of non-canonical works that can be gobbled up by (and as) the canon but challenging and rearranging educational institution, that apparatus of the transmission of legacies of domination and exploitation. Imperialism is embedded in universities, its foundations built into language and literary studies: these institutions were set up in the colonies to produce yes-men, mimic men, and the “cool, level-headed servant of the Empire celebrated in Kipling’s poem ‘If’,” as Ngũgĩ scathingly comments in Decolonizing the Mind. This agenda continues to manifest in the way in which English (language and literature) is taught at university across the globe, in the institutional imbalance in the teaching of indigenous versus imported languages and literatures, and in the lack of contextualizing of imported languages, intellectual traditions, theory and philosophy. For the postcolonial or metropolitan university to not become neo-imperial, for it to proclaim “liberty from theft,” as Ngũgĩ puts it, it must unflinchingly confront colonial legacies through an ongoing scrutiny of unexamined course content and curricula as well as teaching, learning, and assessment methods.

Decolonizing the English Literary Curriculum will, we hope, swell the bibliographies and expand the critical horizons of teaching English literature. More significantly, the lasting impact of the work will be related to the fact that this common cause has succeeded in rallying perspectives from Africa, Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Europe, the Indian subcontinent, North America, Singapore, and the United Kingdom, and across generations of scholars at different career stages in a wide variety of higher education institutions. We are an allied but non-identical group. Through the lens of decolonization, we look transversally at issues of human rights, disability and mental health discourse, the unfreedoms of gender and sexuality, the relationship between the classic and the vernacular languages, or major and minor literatures. This volume represents the process of going off-track and becoming un-systematic as we articulate what is crucial in the English literary curriculum criteria. The game has just begun.

Decolonizing the English
Literary Curriculum
by Ato Quayson and
Ankhi Mukherjee

About The Authors

Ankhi Mukherjee

Ankhi Mukherjee is Professor of English and World Literatures at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Wadham College. Her books include Unseen City: The Psychic Lives of the Ur...

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Ato Quayson

Ato Quayson is the Jean G. and Morris M. Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Chair of the Department of English at Stanford University. His books include the 2-volume Cambri...

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