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Interview with Dr Josie Gill on the Interdisciplinary Decolonial Approaches to Challenging the Scientific Canon

Here Dr Josie Gill outlines how interdisciplinary approaches can be used to challenge the scientific canon.
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So perhaps we can start with first question. What does it mean to you to decolonize the curriculum? For me, decolonisation in higher education simply means thinking about what we’re learning, how we’re learning it, and why we’re learning it in that way. So decolonizing the curriculum means thinking about the structure of the curriculum. So for example, in my discipline, which is English studies, the structure of the curriculum is frequently historical. It’s focus on historical periods. So you might study Renaissance literature, and then later on, you might study Victorian literature. Another way it’s structured is that my specialism, which is Black British Writing, is taught as a separate unit or module from other topics, rather than being integrated.
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So a decolonisation process means thinking about why that structure is the way that it is. And in order to do that, you need to go back and think about the history of the discipline, and think about when the discipline first came into being, what the historical, political, and the social conditions were at the time, which meant that it came to be structured and shaped in the way that it was. And once you start understanding that, then you can understand why we are in the position that we are today, and maybe some of the blind spots and the gaps that there are in the current curriculum. OK. Thank you very much.
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How can or could interdisciplinary approaches be used to decolonized science? So I think that interdisciplinary approaches and decolonial projects have quite a lot in common, in the sense that they are both interested in how knowledge is structured, and in the kind of categorizations that are used to structure knowledge within the Academy. So if you think about, for example, the field of Black Studies, which arose in the 1960s in the US. From the beginning, it was an interdisciplinary project. So it was drawing on science, social science, the humanities, and the arts, to think about the lives and experiences of Black people. It was done in a reaction to the kind of very hierarchical and rigid disciplinary structures within the mainstream Academy.
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So I think that interdisciplinary approaches could be really useful when thinking about decolonizing science, if you were to think about the ways and the reasons why, specifically, you’d want to take the approach. But I think the most important thing is to think about the history and the history of why certain objects of study or certain ideas have come to be seen as the domain of a particular discipline and maybe not another one. What are the challenges, do you think, to decolonizing science subjects? So I’m not a scientist, but I think, from speaking to scientists, and my sense of what’s going on, the main challenge to decolonizing science subjects is time.
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And what I mean by that is, I think that many scientists don’t consider decolonial work to be part of their main day to day work. You know, most scientists are interested in kind of getting on with their projects in the lab and maybe they’ve got funders and institutions who want results and they’re kind of working to deadlines. And so what that means, is that issues around decolonization, a bit like issues of public engagement, are quite often on the periphery. And I think the challenge is to bring those decolonial issues much closer to the centre of what’s going on.
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And when you do that, I think that scientists might start to see that the very questions that they’re asking in their research, and even the ways in which they’re going about the research, might start to change, even if it’s done in very subtle or small ways. But there is a real impact that decolonial thinking can have on the very methodologies of science. But obviously, that needs a lot of support and it needs a lot of education and embedding. And that requires a level of institutional commitment, as well as the commitment of individual scientists. So that’s the challenge. Who else is working in this area and what are you engaged in right now?
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So I think there’s a lot of people working in this area. I think that decolonisation in higher education, there are student movements across the country. There are decolonial approaches in pretty much every discipline that you can imagine, that are being thought about, and conversations that are happening. So whatever your discipline, I think if you’re interested in this, you could type in the name of your discipline and decolonization, and something would probably come up. What I am working on at the moment is a project called Black Health and Humanities. And that project is looking at the ways in which artists, writers, activists, theorists, and intellectuals have thought about Black health.
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And the context to this is that we know that there are these inequalities in health, and they’ve been made really clear by the COVID-19 situation, particularly in the UK. But there’s really a massive lack of research into Black people’s experiences of health and medicine, and lack of research into why those inequalities exist. So the project that I’m working on is looking at how we might think about the arts and humanities and maybe novels or poetry or theatre or performances, as part of a kind of alternative evidence base for thinking about Black people’s experiences of health and well being, and looking at how the humanities can intervene in the racialized landscape of medicine and health that we’re currently experiencing.
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So does that look historically, then, at how humanities have depicted Black health, as well as the present day? Yes. How humanities might intervene? Yeah, it’s looking at both. So it’s looking– we’re mainly looking at 20th and 21st century cultural production, although obviously, there are early examples. There are people like Mary Seacole, who is the Jamaican nurse who wrote a narrative about her life. But we’re mainly, we’re focusing a lot, actually, on some of the activism that was happening in the ’70s and ’80s in Britain, because the other thing is that when it comes to focusing on Black people’s health and health inequalities, loads of the research is US focused.
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Lots of the epidemiological and medical research is all focused on the experience of African-Americans. And there just isn’t an equivalent in the UK. And so what we’re trying to do, is we’re trying to recover texts and artworks that have maybe are less well known about, but which have dealt with, maybe issues of mental health, ageing, the health price of activism, maternal health, all kinds of different health related subjects. So obviously, in UK academia, there’s a big problem, particularly with Black mental health. So how do you think this might help? So what we’re actually doing on the project, is we’re setting up a network. And that’s aimed at PhD and very early career researchers.
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And so while we’re going to have workshops that are focused around these topics, we’re also creating a kind of supportive network where we can support the professional and personal development of students and early career researchers who are working in these fields, but also might be affected by the very topics that we’re talking about. And we’re particularly conscious that in the wake of COVID, the number of academic opportunities have shrunk and there’s a real problem around early career researchers, so we want to create this network for people who don’t have to have an institutional location. You just need a commitment, demonstrate a commitment to the topic.
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And so we hope to create a cohort of people who can support each other and who we can support to kind of navigate academia and academic structures and the whole system, as well as while we also think about this topic of Black health.

Decolonisation in Higher Education involves thinking about what we are learning and why we are learning it. Decolonising the curriculum requires looking at the structure of curricula and disciplines and how they were formed throughout history. These historical processes shape the structure of the disciplines we have come to know and work in today.

Decolonising curricula in different disciplines presents different challenges. In science and medicine decolonisation work can be seen to be located outside of scientists’ focus. Decolonial issues, then, need to be brought from the periphery to the fore of the research processes in science.

Reflecting on her work with Black Health in the Humanities, Dr Josie Gill focuses on how the project is helping to uncover Black individuals’ experiences of health and wellbeing through the use of a range of sources.

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