This article is more than 1 year old

Can we decolonise our doctoral training?

When we train doctoral researchers, we may be reinforcing harmful stereotypes. Neelam Wright asks whether we can decolonise doctoral training.
This article is more than 1 year old

Neelam Wright is a senior teaching fellow and cross-disciplinary academic developer at the University of Southampton

Inclusive curriculum and decolonisation practices are progressively uncovering how institutional structures, teaching practices and course content design can exclude ethnic minority undergraduate students.

But have we thought enough about this in the context of teaching and learning in the doctoral and early career researcher context?

As a researcher training officer engaged in equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives, I have reflected on the role that those in my profession may play in both reinforcing and dismantling stereotypes, institutional biases and inequalities.

Doctoral training and the myth of neutrality

Researcher training is not explored in any depth in doctoral education reports or resources concerning BAME researchers. It doesn’t feature in the UKCGE’s 2019 published BAME participation in Postgraduate Education Thematic Bibliography. It is rarely discussed in pedagogical journals and is only briefly mentioned in The Concordat to support the Career Development of Researchers. Doctoral training programmes are our curriculum-equivalent at postgraduate level, yet they are not rigorously scrutinised like other formal teaching practices in HE. Although fundamental to the research ecosystem, researcher training somehow escapes our critical eye and occupies a relatively neutral space.

There is a workforce of development professionals who facilitate researcher training and help to define and shape researcher identities. In our workshops, we teach doctoral students what ‘good’ research involves. We demonstrate and model established standards of best practice. We paint a picture of what a successful researcher looks like. But we rarely design this learning content through a conscious process of inclusive practice, or through an anti-racist or EDI lens.

Researcher development from an ethnic minority perspective

As a British Asian woman entering a career in researcher development, I recall attending my first annual researcher developer conference and being taken aback by the sea of faces of almost exclusively white middle-aged women. When I queried this with my peers, there was an acceptance that the sector was dominated by a particular demographic but a feeling that this was not especially problematic.

I questioned my sense of place and began to notice how my own professional identity and the training I delivered was being shaped by the perspectives and voices of a potentially homogenised group. I found it tricky to assimilate in this space, finding my understanding of researcher identities quite different to others in the room. I noticed my ideas being deprioritised or even actively silenced in group consultations when I suggested considering BAME experiences.

I noticed that cultural competencies and race literacy featured rarely in the core training targeted to those in my profession. These skills were not important during recruitment and absent in our staff professional development frameworks. I began to wonder how the limited representation in my profession, combined with the scarcity of cultural and EDI literacy opportunities might impact on the training we were delivering to our diverse researchers.

I raised these issues at various courageous conversation events, one of which was attended by over thirty (almost exclusively White) researcher developers based in the South-East. My topics and questions were initially met with a mixture of silence, “whataboutism” and requests for “more data” before a conversation could be had. Some responded with feelings of persecution (“this feels like a trap”) or expressed feelings of disempowerment (“we don’t have positions of influence within the University”). Others were simply unsettled by being invited to contemplate their privilege and homogeneity.

The majority were quick to advocate for the need for greater gender representation but were comparatively quiet in equivalent discussions about race representation. Most interestingly, many asserted that research support professionals were by nature “nice people”, implying that we automatically inhabited an inclusive attitude and were therefore not as implicated as others in the problem of race inequalities. However, few felt able to readily share examples of good anti-racist or EDI practice in their own training and facilitation. This led to an admission that there was a need for more conscious reflection on training practice and examples of how we support BAME individuals in the training room.

Despite their early hesitance, all agreed that we needed more safe spaces within research environments where people of different backgrounds could have more meaningful conversations. Some suggested that they could be more involved in pipeline work and committed to making a more conscious effort to diversify their networks. Some showed a willingness to proactively join EDI working groups and vowed to instigate race related conversations within their institutions. Others felt that more could be done to identify race issues emerging from researcher surveys (CROS, PIRLS, PRES, CEDARS). Finally, many agreed that trainers needed be more mindful of their own positionality and monitor tokenism, language and terminology, speaking to deficit models and microaggressions in the training room.

Decolonising researcher training

As I have continued to engage in decolonisation pedagogy, I have noticed how many researcher workshops are dominated by the voices and perspectives of white academics. I notice when our anecdotes, quotations, reading lists, video links, images, case studies, interpersonal quips and models draw on predominantly white-British examples. As a trainer, I feel implicit in reinforcing the myth that research must be communicated through a white-central vernacular.

We routinely train our researchers on how to present at an academic conference, but the models of behaviour and communication we advocate could be broadened. When we teach mentoring and coaching skills, we may tell participants to adopt a paused speech pattern for effective listening. However, for some cultural backgrounds and ethnicities, reflective pauses in conversation can be perceived as uncertainty, hostility or even rudeness. I have had researchers identifying with Chinese, Greek, Pakistani, Middle-Eastern and Nigerian cultures who have challenged this standard of good practice in the training room, explaining how their own natural overlapping or cued speech patterns may arguably build better rapport and trust. Even in our training, we must be careful to not push our minority ethnic or international researchers into masquerading as a white British academic to the extent of betraying their own cultural identities.

By listening to the experiences of Black researchers and actively participating in EDI and Race Equality initiatives, I have found more inclusive ways to design and deliver my researcher training for researchers from minority ethnic backgrounds. This year I initiated the Decolonising Training Project, an initiative which paired up BAME postgraduate researchers with training staff, using a student-staff partnership model.

This is enabling us to critique, co-create and redesign our researcher training through an anti-racist and inclusivity lens. The project is ongoing, but staff are already reporting a better understanding of BAME experiences and student belonging in the development space. However, to achieve this across the sector we must all proactively share our good practice, increase white allyship within researcher development and make a sector-wide commitment to further diversify the researcher support workforce.

3 responses to “Can we decolonise our doctoral training?

  1. An interesting piece Neelam. Got me thinking of some work I’m doing here. Be good to hear more.
    Patrick Callaghan, LSBU

  2. As an older mixed race, though apparently white, dalit I find much of this decolonisation activity very colonising, especially with the divisive effects of CRT within the academe being imported from the USA, the effects of high caste Indian origin academics on the academe. The push for equity, of outcome, rather the equality of opportunity is also very damaging, though for many Universities it does appear to be the hill on which they are prepared to DIE on. Many of our overseas students find the whole thing very confusing, they come for an English (where I am) educational experience, not an extension of their home countries education.

    In discussion with a PhD holder out in the community last night I heard about his daughters problems with one University that rescinded their offer after the acceptance date and taking accommodation deposit monies from her, apparently higher income from the surge in overseas students able to attend was more important than taking a second generation British citizen, addressing the issues around that needs addressing far more urgently.

Leave a Reply