Tackling Inequalities: Building a ‘Healthier’ Literature Curriculum through Feminist Reflexivity

Case study author: Aimee Merrydew

School of English, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

CDF Framework: Inclusive Learning

Project Summary

As part of the KIITE Student Education Conference 2020, I gave a presentation on tackling inequalities in education through feminist reflexivity in teaching and learning, with an emphasis on identifying and challenging whiteness and racism in society and the Western literary canon. In the presentation, I reflected on my experiences of teaching literature to undergraduate students as a white, cisgender, non-disabled, and feminist teaching assistant in a UK university and the actions I have taken to decolonise my pedagogical practice, including the ways that I teach the canon. The presentation was influenced by anti-racist activists groups at and beyond Keele including, but not limited to, Women of Keele Educate and Decolonise Keele Network, who have encouraged me to reflect on my whiteness and how it structures my experiences as a teacher and as a white person in the UK.

As I explain in the presentation (see the video below), I have taken these important lessons into my teaching practice by encouraging students, particularly those who are white, to reflect not only on the whiteness of the canon, but also on their own positions and how they impact their readings of literary texts and broader social experiences. The presentation relates to the inclusive learning strand of the Curriculum Design Framework because it focused on the work that is being conducted at Keele and globally - by staff and students - to embed inclusivity and anti-racist principles into university curricula.

The presentation aimed to engage in conversations and address concerns surrounding the colonial influences on the Western literary canon and, by extension, the Literature curriculum.

It focused on some of the actions I have taken, following from the aforementioned anti-racist activist groups, to tackle these issues, including: attempts to make reading lists more diverse and inclusive and encouraging students to read all texts, especially those by white authors, through a decolonial lens (which includes a critical examination of how canonical white authors often write from an unacknowledged dominant white perspective).

More specifically, the presentation reflects on a key example of how I have used canonical literature and anti-racist scholarship to encourage students to identify and challenge the ways that whiteness – in the context of historically colonialist countries such as the US and UK – is taken to be the unmarked norm from which all other races and ethnicities are seen to deviate. Many students went on to explore these issues of whiteness and racism in assessed work, thus helping them to develop critical thinking skills surrounding whiteness and white supremacy in the literary canon and in wider society.

My presentation on feminism and whiteness benefits the student experience in multiple ways. Firstly, it helps (white) staff and students to identify and challenge oppressive hierarchies that uphold whiteness as the norm, not only in literature but also in society (which these literary texts often reflect).

Secondly, it encourages students to develop critical thinking skills surrounding whiteness and colonialism, in the process helping them to become lifelong learners through reflective and anti-racist practice.

Thirdly, it seeks to create a more inclusive and socially engaged curriculum that reflects and respects diverse learning communities, with the hope of contributing to efforts in tackling BAME student attainment gaps. Taken together, these actions benefit the student experience because they equip students with the resources and critical thinking skills through which to address and resist the pernicious legacies of colonialism inside and outside the classroom.

Following my presentation, multiple colleagues at and beyond Keele informed me that they have been inspired to reflect on how they can decolonise their reading lists and teaching practice. We had one-to-one and small-group conversations about what a decolonised curriculum might look like, with an emphasis on reflecting on the ways that racism and white supremacy are built into the fabric of traditionally white reading lists and society more broadly. It is my hope that the open access presentation will continue to impact internal and external colleagues by encouraging them, in the words of Robin DiAngelo and Darlene Flynn, 'to identify, name, and challenge the norms, patterns, traditions, structures, and institutions that keep racism and white supremacy in place' (2010, 1), which includes a critical examination of the ways we build and teach our curricula.

This case study is transferable across disciplines and contexts because it encourages educators, regardless of discipline, to reflect on issues surrounding white supremacy and provides one example of what a decolonised curriculum might look like. The case study draws upon scholarship by anti-racist academics and activists of colour, particularly Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial, Kerem Nişancıoğlu's book Decolonising the University, in order to promote practical methods for decolonising our disciplines, pedagogies, and institutions. Other important texts that informed the case study and my teaching more generally are Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Lola Olufemi's Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power. These texts identify and discuss whiteness and racism as embedded within the fabric of Western societies. By identifying and acknowledging these issues we can then work to address them in our personal and professional lives, in this case through inclusive and anti-racist teaching practice.

Reference List and Some Suggested Readings:

Ahmed, S. (2007). A phenomenology of whiteness. Feminist Theory 8(2): 149–168.

Arday, J. (2018). Dismantling power and privilege through reflexivity: Negotiating normative Whiteness, the Eurocentric curriculum and racial micro-aggressions within the Academy. Whiteness and Education 3(2): 141-161.

Arday, J. and Mirza, H. S. (2018). Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy (London: Palgrave Macmillan).

Bhambra, G. K. Gebrial, D. and Nişancıoğlu, K. (2018). Decolonising the University (London, UK: Pluto Press).

Borsheim-Black, C. and Sarigianides, S. T. (2019). Letting Go of Literary Whiteness: Antiracist Literature Instruction for White Students (New York, NY: Teachers College Press).

Bhopal, K. (2018). White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press).

DiAngelo, R. and Flynn, D. (2010). Showing What We Tell: Facilitating Antiracist Education in Cross-Racial Teams. Understanding and Dismantling Privilege 1(1): 1–24.

DiAngelo, R. (2018). White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (London, UK: Penguin).

Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (London, UK: Bloomsbury).

Evaristo, B. (2019). Girl, Woman, Other (London, UK: Penguin).

Hirsch, A. (2018). Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging (London, UK: Jonathan Cape).

Morrison, T. (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Olufemi, L. (2020). Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power (London, UK: Pluto Press).

Rankine, C. (2014). Citizen: An American Lyric (London, UK: Penguin).

Saad, L. F. (2020). Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World (London, UK: Quercus).

Van Thompson, C. (2004). The Tragic Black Buck: Racial Masquerading in the American Literary Imagination (New York, NY: Peter Lang).

Watson, V. T. (2013). The Souls of White Folks: African American Writers Theorize Whiteness (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi).

'Tackling inequalities: Building a ‘healthier’ Literature curriculum through feminist reflexivity'

Aimee Merrydew presents at the KIITE Student Education Conference 2020