Decolonising the Curriculum: A GTA’s Perspective

This guest post is part of our continuous GTA series, where current and former graduate teaching assistants across Scottish HEIs discuss their experiences, thoughts and/or concerns about GTA practice. Here, University of Glasgow PhD researcher Kevin Leomo discusses his experiences with decolonising curriculums as a Graduate Teaching Assistant and explains how we can all make the same effort.

What is decolonisation of the curriculum?

Decolonisation is a buzzword within higher education. Most people will agree that it’s a positive thing. But discussing it can be difficult, especially within the context of higher education – people have various views and opinions on decolonisation, and even agreeing on what decolonisation is can be challenging. However, this challenge is something that must be undertaken by universities, with all members of staff engaging with it. There exists a wealth of literature on the subject, often by scholars and activists of colour, so ignorance on the issue is unacceptable.

Mia Liyanage’s substantial Higher Education Policy Institute report states that decolonisation is vital for the improvement of course curricula, pedagogical practice, staff wellbeing, and the student experience.

Within the field of music, music theorist Philip Ewell built upon Joe Feagin’s concept of the “white racial frame” in his 2020 article ‘Music Theory and the White Racial Frame’. Ewell highlights the whiteness of the field of music theory, with the white racial frame maintaining the status quo of existing power structures which centres and institutionalises whiteness. Ewell calls for the deframing and reframing of the white racial frame; not for ‘diversity’ efforts, but in the name of restructuring and dismantling institutionalised racism. ‘Diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ efforts can actually reinforce the white racial frame. These efforts can be relatively easy to make – adding scholars of colour to reading lists, creating a working group to discuss diversity – but making institutional, anti-racist changes are extremely difficult, especially within the setting of higher education.

Various cardboard signs from a student protest, some calling for decolonisation.
Photo from CAMRI Seminars

Navigating decolonisation work can be difficult as a graduate teaching assistant. GTAs already face poor conditions, despite being relied upon by our institutions to provide front line teaching for undergraduates. I had the opportunity to deliver weekly seminars for first year students in music – a position of privilege, albeit a precarious one. This past year, I made a conscious effort to decolonise my teaching approach, with the feeling that it was my responsibility to revise the syllabus, even if I wasn’t being paid to do so. I initially undertook research to find information on composers of colour in order to add them to the syllabus. I could increase ‘diversity’ and be more ‘inclusive’ with my curriculum, but I realised that merely adding people of colour actually contributed to strengthening the pre-existing white racial frame. In order to decolonise, I had to reframe this position. I spent time contextualising my choices – explicitly stating why I was including non-white figures and why white narratives are usually the dominant ones, leading to the basis of much of the curricula within higher education, no matter what subject. It’s important to note that these issues are further exacerbated for GTAs of colour, who may have no choice but to work within a white racial frame, without the option to make changes to materials.

However, there have been some developments occurring in this area. Recently, the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow overhauled GTA preparation rates following several years of GTAs expressing their concerns over exploitative preparation times, as well as the UCU branch campaigning for fair pay. After inquiring about decolonisation work, I was informed by the Dean of Learning and Teaching that some of the improvements to pay are actually meant to account for decolonising curricula. These are small but important changes, with the hope that decolonisation work will be acknowledged as essential – with GTAs eventually being encouraged to undertake this work in the future for fair pay.

What Can GTAs Do?

Educate yourself on decolonisation and critically evaluate your learning and teaching practice. It’s vital to make the distinction between decolonisation and EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity) efforts. Do not allow your university to conflate surface-level equality, diversity, and inclusivity with deeper decolonisation and anti-racism efforts.

Students at a protest in Glasgow holding a large banner that says 'Decolonise'.
Photo from Decolonise Sociology

Help to institutionalise decolonisation by highlighting these issues with your students, some of whom may be unfamiliar with these approaches. Encourage them to be activists and be engaged in their own education; empower them to be critical thinkers. This can certainly be a challenge for young students or those not yet used to the context of higher education; it can be even more difficult for students of colour to question white lecturers and existing power structures. However, if students see GTAs setting these examples and making these changes, this can encourage them to do the same in their other courses and classes.

An important consideration in GTA work is representative teaching. Apart from students having role models and teachers that look like them, it is important for students to learn about scholars, writers, and practitioners in their field that may have come from similar backgrounds. This demonstrates that the field of study is in fact viable and accessible, and deconstructs the idea that it ‘isn’t for people who look like me’.

Students at a protest at the University of Glasgow holding signs that say 'Will you listen when we speak?' and 'Don't Diversify, Decolonise'.
Photo from the Telegraph. Credit: RMFO

Learn about your institution’s policies regarding decolonisation. Has your institution created a statement on decolonising the curriculum; is there a working group or action plan for decolonisation? Are the voices of GTAs represented? Who will be carrying out decolonisation work within your HEI? Will it trickle down from senior management as a tick-box exercise? Will staff workload models be adapted to account for decolonisation work and will there be a member of staff appointed within a subject area who will be responsible for overseeing this?

Hold your organisation accountable. This can occur at various levels: with your supervisors or course convener, with your UCU branch representatives, with your student union, or at staff-student meetings. Ensure that anti-racism and decolonisation action plans are carried out and are done so appropriately – not in a tokenistic way. Acknowledge existing power structures and the white racial frame and how approaches to both curricula and pedagogy within higher education can be reframed or dismantled to actually be anti-racist. Be critical of whatever materials you are provided to teach; be critical of the wider course and programme. This can be difficult due to precarious nature of GTA work, but it’s essential to raise concerns with course conveners or those in higher positions if necessary. As more institutions become invested in decolonisation, you can use this to your advantage – cite their anti-racism reports, decolonisation action plans, or learning and teaching strategies for your work in this area.

Moving Forward

Decolonisation is a difficult task with no simple solution, but one that desperately needs to be addressed. Undertaking this work in my own teaching has taken up much of my time, but my attempts to decolonise have been met very positively by students. They’ve really appreciated the work put into creating a syllabus that raises issues around race while providing them with more diverse examples in a critical way. As GTAs, we have a unique position to help contribute to decolonisation of the curricula within higher education while calling for our institutions to support us and undertake this work in an appropriate way.

Headshot of the author of this post, Kevin Leomo.

Kevin Leomo is a practice researcher and composer of experimental music undertaking a PhD in Music at the University of Glasgow, where he is exploring liminality as sonic fragility, silence, and cross-cultural practice. Kevin is committee chair for Sound Thought, a student-run series promoting the practice and research of postgraduates working in sound and music. He is interested in education engagement, having completed outreach projects with the Scottish Young Composers Project, Sound Festival, and Chamber Music Scotland. He works as a graduate teaching assistant, having recently been awarded ‘Best GTA’ in the SRC Student Teaching Awards. Kevin is interested in decolonising the curriculum and embedding anti-racism within his teaching practice and wider HE settings. Kevin sits on the Students’ Representative Council as the Postgraduate Convenor for the College of Arts as well as the steering group of the Decolonising the Curriculum in the Time of Pandemic Collaborative Cluster. You can find Kevin on Twitter at @composer_kev.

Links / Further Reading

  • Ewell, Philip (2020) ‘Music Theory and the White Racial Frame’
  • Liyanage, Mia (2020) ‘Miseducation: decolonising curricula, culture, and pedagogy in UK universities’
  • SOAS (2018) ‘Decolonising SOAS Learning and Teaching Toolkit’
  • University of Glasgow (2021) ‘Understanding Racism Report’

If you’d like to write a guest post for the SGSAH blog, email Danielle.Schwertner@glasgow.ac.uk.

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