Decolonising the Medieval Curriculum: Critical Questions

This post comes out of a roundtable discussion held at the 2019 Gender and Medieval Studies Conference.

 

The teacher as problem

Like all white men and women, I have benefitted throughout my education from a system which has privileged me and valued my work over others.  Any authority I have standing in front of my class comes from this privilege afforded me by the British education system.

I was educated at Cambridge and Manchester in English Literature faculties predominantly composed of white staff.  These Universities shaped and informed my idea of what the medieval canon is, what a ‘good’ curriculum looks like and what ‘good’ teaching is.  At Wolverhampton, I am a white academic at an institution with one of the most diverse student populations in the UK.  I teach with all-white English Literature colleagues, despite the fact this make-up does not represent the diversity of the students we teach.

I specialise in medieval plays written by white people, in which racism, antisemitism and misogyny inform most of the characters, drive a lot of the plots, and form the chief fodder for what passes as ‘humour’ in the plays.

As a consequence of all of this, my own racism and privilege therefore informs my curriculum choices at every level.  White people don’t like being told they are racist, even by other white people, but I can’t hope to help overcome the systemic white-centric bias in University module building and teaching practice if I don’t start by identifying my own.

This post looks at how we might use sets of critical questions to interrogate and challenge the choices involved in constructing new modules and in our teaching practices.

 

The challenges

While most Universities claim they champion diversity, their institutions, curriculums and staffing frequently do not reflect these aims.[1]  Once at university, BME students are likely to encounter various areas of exclusion:

  1. Curriculums containing few or no resources by or about people of colour and teaching methods which exclude, limit or silence their participation.
  2. Lack of representation among academic staff, administration and the student body (so a lack of role models, mentors and friends with common experiences). A lack of diversity at the lecturer level perpetuates the whiteness of the curriculum.[2]  This is self-perpetuating, while a lack of identification with the curriculum can prevent students from being encouraged to go on to postgraduate study, and hence become teachers.
  3. Institutional-level power-structures leading to invisibility, erasure, stereotyping, disenfranchisement and other forms of racism and oppression.[3]

 

A Racist TEF?

These problems are also being perpetuated in the metrics being used to evaluate ‘successful’ teaching and learning in Universities.  The TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) metrics use the following statistics to measure the effectiveness of our teaching:

LEO (Longitudinal Education Outcome) statistics are used to measure student employability after graduation. While data is split by sex, subject studied and institution, race (proven to play a factor in both employment and pay scales) is not included, nor are the employment statistics for an institution’s local regions.[4]

NSS (National Student Survey) scores to evaluate teaching standards, assessment and feedback and academic support. As the national press have widely reported, a major problem with student evaluations of their teachers is that they are heavily influenced by race and gender.[5]

How can we realistically promote access and participation when the metrics being used to evaluate our success are racist, sexist, ableist and regionalist?

 

De-centring the curriculum

‘Students who feel validated by the teacher or the curriculum talk, and students who feel neglected or ignored…remain silent’ (Juanita Johnson-Bailey)[6]

Like gender, race shapes all our lives, yet it is often overlooked in humanities courses or relegated to specialist or marginal modules.  This creates the idea that the ‘centre’ of academic study is white, male, able-bodied and straight

The need for change is clear:

  • Students have called for a greater diversity in the curriculum, evidenced by high profile cases such as ‘why is my curriculum so white?’ and, ‘why isn’t my professor black?’
  • The lack of diversity in the text we study is directly related to the lack of BME researchers and lecturers. Students never have the chance to ‘see themselves’ in at least some of the texts we study, let alone see themselves as teachers.
  • A non-representative curriculum has social and political implications. We all aware that, in our own discipline, the fiction of a middle ages that was white, male and heterosexual has been appropriated by white supremacist groups.

Sara Ahmed (2012) has argued than an active de-centring of whiteness in the curriculum has the potential to challenge its centrality in institutional and external evaluative structures.

As an educator writing new modules for a department that has not before taught medieval literature, this means I need to make deliberate choices to include texts which represent medieval writers from a variety of ethnicities, sexualities, abilities and genders.

This means de-centring several white, male writers who have long been part of the accepted canon, or reading them through a culturally critical lens.

 

Questions aimed at decentring module content

I am a white European, so all my choices will be informed by my own privilege, experiences and world-views.

One way to mitigate this is to run modules through a series of questions before they go for validation.

The following have been constructed drawing on the arguments of practitioners and theorists including Ahmed (2012), Duncan (2002) and Johnson-Bailey (2002), as well as from contributors including Dorothy Kim (question 10) and contributors at the 2019 GMS conference.

  1. How many texts are written by writers who are not white, male heterosexuals?
  2. How many of the module’s central themes are represented by writers who do not present whiteness/straightness as though it is ‘centre’?
  3. Are all authors presented as thinkers in their own right (rather than as offering a response to ‘mainstream’ – i.e. white – thought)?
  4. Is whiteness/straightness theorised and critiqued as much as other race/gender identities?
  5. Does it contain texts I have not taught before / whose worldview and experience is different to my own? How will I find these?
  6. When I have chosen to look at explicitly racist / sexist texts which theorists and historians will I use to support the reading?
  7. Does my reading list represent a broad spectrum of research, including early career as well as ‘established’ researchers?
  8. How will I deal with institutionalised resistance to what I am teaching?
  9. How does the module work within the curriculum? Does my emphasis on intersectionality imply that all the other English literature modules are about white, middle-class heterosexual people?
  10.  What am I doing to overtly signal my medieval studies class is not going to implicitly or explicitly uphold the tenets of white supremacist ideology?

 

Questions aimed at decentering teaching methods

‘Coeducation is a misnomer because students and faculty of color do not have the privilege of ever forgetting that we live in a racist society’ (Duncan, 2002).

However, a well-designed module still doesn’t mean all learners are equal in a classroom.

Race is underrepresented in literature on andragogy. Theorists such as Knowles (1984) and other major higher education teaching handbooks draw on the small-group work and dialogics which were key components of Freire’s (1970) attempt to redress power balances in the classroom. [7]    However, even teaching methods which aim to decentre the teacher don’t lead to positive learning for all students:[8]

  1. Power structures outside the classroom influence relationships inside.
  2. Dialogue is not of equal cost to all, nor is the classroom a ‘safe space’ for everyone.
  3. Some students may have to expend more emotional labour than others to speak in class (e.g. in discussions of race or sexual identity).
  4. Student dialogue can simply reproduce cultural assumptions, especially in groups containing a majority of students from similar backgrounds.
  5. Freedman (1994), ‘unbalanced groups place the burden of education on the single minority student’ – rather than allowing them to explore ideas in their own right.[9]
  6. White students feeling threatened by realising they are accountable for privilege and racism may divert the discussion or try to re-centre it on them (Duncan, 2002).

 

‘An interesting thing often happens when people of color or queers speak up in class: everyone else feels silenced.  I am tempted to define “silence” as most straight white people’ (Ettinger, 1994).[10]

 

We therefore need to broaden our focus beyond curriculum and look at how we practice teaching.  Here’s another set of questions to be asked of teaching methods:

  1. How will I identify the socio-political forces influencing the learning environment in my classroom?
  2. How will I facilitate the discussion of these texts within these existing classroom power dynamics?
  3. How will I acknowledge that debating certain texts will involve more emotional labour for some students than others?
  4. How can I communicate this to my students from the very beginning of the course?
  5. Do BME and LGBTQ* students regularly talk in my classes?
  6. How will I use a range of communication and participation methods aside from class discussion? Can I use digital technology? Short, unassessed written reflections?
  7. How will this environment be reflected in my module assignments?
  8. What use can we make of silence, and how can we analyse it?
  9. Will being willing to theorise my own identities (as white, bisexual, European woman) help students interrogate how their approaches to texts and each other are informed by their identities?
  10. Will identifying the ways I benefit from my own privilege encourage students to see whiteness as something to be analysed and decentred, not as normative?
  11. Will identifying the layers of white privilege that undergird the British Higher Education System help my students to challenge and change it?

…and, most crucially:

How will I evaluate whether my teaching is part of the solution or problem?

 

Good practice

The roundtable discussion generated a few examples of good practice and ideas for future work.  These included:

  • Challenging the texts that are part of the ‘canon’. In noting that ‘teaching is a political act’, Adam Talib raised the question in his GMS keynote: ‘Why do we teach Chaucer?’  One early career teacher said she brought up Chaucer’s rape of Cecily Champagne in her seminars, as it was not mentioned at all by the main lecturers.
  • Challenging the critical and secondary materials we use: for example, the use of orientalist studies rather than more recent, up to date work.
  • Recognising that referencing is a political act, and making a reading list is a racial, gendered act. Include materials by BME and LGBTQ* scholars, as well as newer and early career researchers on course reading lists.
  • Pushing to get the kinds of questions asked above into University course validation assessments.
  • Including statements at the beginning of class handbooks and seminars about the course content, acknowledging where the medieval materials we use are problematic.
  • Challenging departments over geographical gaps in their history and literature teaching. Where specialisms are absent, push departments to employ scholars.  Set up collaborations with other departments, but make sure they are fairly paid for their specialist labour.
  • A University’s outreach could focus on race and gender. Teachers in secondary education are often ill-equipped to do this as they have less control over their own curriculums, but Universities could be actively filling this gap in any outreach work they do.
  • Harnessing the student body to help improve the curriculum through the use of student course committees and feedback systems.
  • Using pictures of the academics you quote from in your lectures to dispel the students’ assumption that research is white and male.

 

Sample class discussion:

How does your personal experience of race, class and ethnicity affect your response to learning?

 

References

[1]  Runnymede Trust (2010), ‘Aiming Higher: Race, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy’. Available at: < https://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/Aiming%20Higher.pdf> [Accessed 20 June 2018].

[2]  Ahmed, Sara. (2012), On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 172-87.

[3] Duncan, Patti. (2002), ‘Decentering Whiteness: Resisting Racism in the Women’s Studies Classroom’. In: Bonnie RuSmith and Maureen T. Reddy, ed., Race in the College Classroom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, pp. 40-50.

[4] Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) and National Student Survey (NSS).  Runnymede Trust (2010), ‘Ethnicity and participation in higher education’. Parliamentary Briefing. Available at: <http://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/Parliamentary%20briefings/HigherEducationNoveHigh2010.pdf> [Accessed 20 June 2018].

[5] Loke, Gary, (2010) ‘Breaking the Race Inequality Cycle in Higher Education:  A Change of Focus is Needed to Break the Statistical Groundhog Day’ in Runnymede Trust (2010), ‘Aiming Higher: Race, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy’. Available at: < https://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/Aiming%20Higher.pdf> [Accessed 20 June 2018].

[6] Johnson-Bailey, Juanita. (2002) ‘Race Matters: The Unspoken Variable in the Teaching-Learning Transaction’, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 93, pp. 39-49.

[7] Knowles, M. (1984) Andragogy in Action: Applying Modern Principles of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; Jacques, D. and Salmon, G. (2000) Learning in Groups: A handbook for improving group work. London: Kogan Page and Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury.

[8]  Powers, Peter Kerry. (2002), ‘A Ghost in the Collaborative Machine: The White Male Teacher in the Multicultural Classroom’ In: Bonnie RuSmith and Maureen T. Reddy, ed., Race in the College Classroom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, pp. 28-39.

[9] Friedman, Estelle B. (1994), ‘Small-Group Pedagogy: Consciousness Raising in Conservative Times’ In: Linda Garber, ed., Tilting the Tower. New York: Routledge.

[10] Ettinger, Maia. (1994), ‘The Pocahontas Paradigm, or Will the Subaltern Please Shut Up?’ In: Linda Garber, ed., Tilting the Tower. New York: Routledge, pp. 51-55 (p. 51).

 

 

Short Bibliography

Ahmed, Sara. (2012), On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Duncan, Patti. (2002), ‘Decentering Whiteness: Resisting Racism in the Women’s Studies Classroom’. In: Bonnie RuSmith and Maureen T. Reddy, ed., Race in the College Classroom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, pp. 40-50.

Ettinger, Maia. (1994), ‘The Pocahontas Paradigm, or Will the Subaltern Please Shut Up?’ In: Linda Garber, ed., Tilting the Tower. New York: Routledge, pp. 51-55 (p. 51).

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury.

Friedman, Estelle B. (1994), ‘Small-Group Pedagogy: Consciousness Raising in Conservative Times’ In: Linda Garber, ed., Tilting the Tower. New York: Routledge.

hooks, bell. (1994), Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Johnson-Bailey, Juanita. (2002) ‘Race Matters: The Unspoken Variable in the Teaching-Learning Transaction’, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 93, pp. 39-49.

Powers, Peter Kerry. (2002), ‘A Ghost in the Collaborative Machine: The White Male Teacher in the Multicultural Classroom’ In: Bonnie RuSmith and Maureen T. Reddy, ed., Race in the College Classroom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, pp. 28-39.

Sterling Brown, David. (2016) ‘(Early) Modern Literature: Crossing the Color-Line’, Radical Teacher 105, pp. 69-77.

 

Useful websites and articles

Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography: <https://docs.google.com/document/d/18JClsma1BMKYCxvgeWqwPej3ZSCrQXlAlXbL0CdqWmE/edit>

Loke, Gary, (2010) ‘Breaking the Race Inequality Cycle in Higher Education’ in Runnymede Trust (2010), ‘Aiming Higher: Race, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy’. Available at: < https://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/Aiming%20Higher.pdf> [Accessed 20 Dec 2018].

Medievalists of Color, (2017), ‘On Race and Medieval Studies’, <http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2017/08/on-race-and-medieval-studies.html>

Hsy, Jonathan, (2017), ‘#MoreVoices: Citation, Inclusion, and Working Together’, <http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2017/06/morevoices-citation-inclusion-and.html>

Kim, Dorothy, (2017), ‘Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy <http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2017/08/teaching-medieval-studies-in-time-of.html>

—————-(2017), ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies’, <http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2016/11/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-medieval.html>

Rajabzadeh, Shokoofeh (2017), ‘Whiteness in Medieval Studies Workshop: A Reflection on Emotional Labor’, <http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2017/06/whiteness-in-medieval-studies-workshop.html>

Young, Hene, (2017), ‘Where do we go from here?’, <http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2017/09/where-do-we-go-from-here.html>