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Campus wokery as academic rigour

Sunday Blake considers the recent attacks on attempts to diversify and decolonise curriculums against new research findings from Wonkhe and Pearson
This article is more than 1 year old

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

Every day in the media, commentators are ranting about how decolonising and diversifying efforts around curricula in universities are somehow watering down the quality of degrees.

I like to think of myself as a straight-talking pragmatist. Diversity is good, yes, but I roll my eyes at representation for the sake of representation. And as a student, I was a huge fan of thinkers and writers like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. So I often approach representation within current political and cultural systems with cynicism – deeming it largely empty anyway.

When I started looking at inclusive content as part of Wonkhe and Pearson’s belonging research, I had similar reservations. Does it really matter if learning resources have representative examples? And some disciplines aren’t very representative due to exclusion in the wider subject area, so can this even be rectified?

Critical fear-y

There are many politicians and journalists who take a harder-line approach than this – such as claiming that the “woke brigade” have hijacked academia and turned them into “ugly factories of ideological conformism” that degrade the academic quality of degrees. Former education secretary Nadhim Zahawi argued that we can’t just shoehorn in diversity “at the cost of the core content” so some students feel “included”.

And the Civitas report on free speech and decolonisation, published yesterday, questioned whether students from marginalised identities really do respond better to text written by authors of the same background – the motive they assigned to decolonising movements on campus.

But here’s the thing. Diversity and decolonisation – while aiding feelings of belonging – aren’t generally requested by students because they want to feel included. We know that students like to see themselves in the staff that teach and support them. But a desire for curriculum change appears to be about students taking their studies seriously, wanting value for money from their learning, and needing to be ready and prepared for the contemporary graduate workplace.

Throughout our research – conducted with over 5.2k staff and students – there were rarely comments from students about diverse content related to “seeing themselves” in the course material or being “included”. There weren’t any comments on ideological standings, either. Instead, students described diverse content as an opportunity to receive a better learning experience, with a more rounded perspective of the discipline, not a reduced one.

Reading work by indigenous authors and minorities is really important from an inclusion perspective, but I also think it is more enriching for my course as well.

One student reported that their art history tutor also spoke about the theft and appropriation of the cultural artefacts they were studying in a museum, rather than looking at objects in isolation. They believe that this deepened their learning experience because it gave them insight into the cultural and socio-political realities surrounding the art – which is what art history is about! Do also note that no course content was “replaced” here.

Students weren’t outraged when a course lacked inclusivity or diversity. Instead, they reported being curious as to why a certain subject was relatively homogenous. They saw it as an opportunity to learn.

[T]his problem [a lack of diversity in the broader discipline] is definitely acknowledged by the lecturers […] which definitely helps because I know they’re still considering it even if there isn’t the material available in the area.

Facts don’t care about your feelings

But what about In STEM degrees, or business? A fact is a fact, right? You can sprinkle in texts from diverse authors into a literature module, but surely some degrees are just straightforwardly technical? The Daily Mail – which frequently laments a diversifying curriculum – wondered this week how a business course could possibly be decolonised.

And yet a business student described to us that their “case studies and handouts in [their] course have been very international in nature, reflecting the increasingly globalised world and can be applied by students in their global careers.”

So when the esteemed skills minister Andrea Jenkyns recently warned against diversifying and decolonising curriculums, arguing that:

Universities should be focused on delivering high-quality face-to-face teaching which offers students value for money and sets them up for future success – not wasting time on initiatives that distract from these ambitions.

…she was unaware that in many subjects, a decolonised and diverse curriculum is setting up students for future success. As our student participants explained, they see value in a business studies curriculum that is not solely rooted in western markets (crucial post-Brexit), and that takes into account the impact of colonisation on global trading routes, as it gives them a better understanding of the working world that they will graduate into.

Good medicine

Over in the STEM world, a medical module at the University of Exeter – which includes addressing racism within the medical field – has been dragged this week as “toxic” and “insidious” “knee-jerk self-flagellation”.

And yet far from being “academically ludicrous”, our medical student participants actually saw such academic content as a way to improve their performance in a clinical setting. One student praised their lecturer for challenging racism within the field and teaching students to take note of how certain groups can be pathologised or misdiagnosed with certain psychological conditions due to racial stereotypes. The student believed that such awareness and instruction meant that they would be able to more accurately diagnose their patients in a clinical setting when they graduated.

Medical students also reported being concerned that the lack of diversity would impact their workplace performance.

I know for certain that I [a medical student] will meet and look after people from all walks of life, varying in skin colour, gender orientation, and social circumstance, and so I am not fully comfortable that my learning resources do not fully address this.

I would not know how to identify or diagnose certain skin conditions on people of colour because I do not know how their symptoms would present

… none of use left the lecture feeling comfortable and confident to treat people of any ethnicity.

We spoke to a lot of students, and we rarely came across a student asking for diverse content without a strong pedagogical underpinning to their request. And there is not only a quality concern here, but an academic satisfaction angle, too. A lack of diversity (or a lack of any acknowledgement of, or any didactic explanation for, its absence) led students to question the academic credibility of the course and the academic credibility of the teaching staff.

As demonstrated by a student who took a module on world cinema that ignored several large industries:

There’s Japanese cinema. How are you going to ignore Bollywood? How are you going to ignore Nollywood? [The teaching staff] would be like, ‘well, that’s not our expertise, so we can’t talk about that’…

For all of the work and commitment over the years to student engagement in academic quality, we all know that the input allowed to be offered by course representatives is rarely about curriculum or quality per se – more often it’s about “problems” or organisation and management issues. And underpinning much of the critique of curriculum change is a disdain for the idea that students should have any agency at all over what they’re taught.

But our research suggests students have plenty to say that we should listen to carefully. Initiatives surrounding decolonisation and enhancing diversity within subject matter are repeatedly labelled “woke nonsense” seeping into academia from social movements. But it turns out that in our research, there was very little comment from students on social equality – and a lot of emphasis on academic quality.

You can hear more about the Belonging and Inclusion research from Wonkhe and Pearson at Belong from the beginning: Building connections, confidence and inclusion at university on Wednesday 19 October 2022.

3 responses to “Campus wokery as academic rigour

  1. This is such an important message: that diversification and decolonising adds to, and doesn’t subtract from, education. The reason it isn’t easy for us to do as academics is because we’re also having to learn more so that we can teach our subjects in more sophisticated ways.

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