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Case study: Decolonising Sociology, Politics and International Studies

Case study of a cross-curricula approach to decolonising the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS).
So I’m Elspeth. I’m a senior lecturer in the school sociology and politics and international studies. I’m Lauren, and I’m in third year doing politics and international relations. I’m Evelyn and I’m in second year doing sociology with quantitative research methods.
Because the sociology curriculum and the politics in IR curriculum has what we feel are a number of shortfalls in terms of the diversity of the curriculum, and in terms of who’s centred as an authority. And with politics and sociology in particular both, or IR being rooted in colonial history, so the origins of those disciplines, it could be said, are emerged to facilitate colonialism, it just feels like that side of the story has been left out. And so when students like Evelyn and Lauren kept coming first year, and then I experience a kind of a curriculum that not only leaves more diverse voices off, but also erases that history, and they know that.
How frustrating to come to Bristol and have that experience. I think definitely just the shared sense of frustration. It wasn’t until coming to like University that I sort of saw the institutional aspect of it. So in like curriculum. So high they can sort of perpetuate these hierarchies. And I think particularly with like the Black Lives Matter upsurge in the movement, and like the George Floyd protest sort of, I don’t know, pushed me forward to sort of look more within like our own institutions that we’re in and how that sort of affects these hierarchies.
So I’ll take up the story, I guess again. Although I should say that Evelyn came on to my–
she reached out through the sociology side of things, because I’m on the politics and IR side of things. I think early, very early on because of frustrations in first year that I think– A lot of angry emails in first year, yeah. We decided I think quite early on some PhD students and I, that what we needed to do was to metricize things. I think we were really frustrated with the slow pace of change, and with the emphasis on– so addressing things like the gender gap but not the racial gap when it comes to attainment and addressing students complaints. We decided, well, we need to do something more, because student testimonials like Evelyn’s are not getting anywhere.
These protests are not generating any kind of change. So I don’t know where this comes from, but it just felt very strongly with these PhD students that we needed to put some numbers on it. We needed to be able to tell a story that people would pay more attention to. And so we kept the testimonials, we kept– but we tried to keep those in, but we decided to go about doing a kind of a numbers game, and looking at the– just looking at the ratings from a numerical standpoint in terms of whose voices are being centred. And that’s where Lauren came in, and then Evelyn came in.
Because to start to assess our curriculum in terms of the data is just– it was just a massive– it was going to be a massive challenge. So we needed some bodies. We needed some minds to do the analysis. And that’s where Lauren came in as a paid internship, through the Winding Participation Internship scheme. And we mobilised I think was it about 15? Was it Lauren? I can’t remember how many summer volunteers there were, but Evelyn came in through that as well. So anyway, I’ll turn it over to Lauren who was really the leader. And Evelyn and a couple of others were really the leaders of this. Yeah. So yeah, I think the report idea, and metricizing it was really important.
Again, like it hadn’t been done before. So that’s why sort of when you see the report it’s like a preliminary report, and we do want to build upon it. But we thought a report initially was the best way to go about it, to sort of clearly identify the problem areas. And also to just sort of initiate that discussion between lecturers and students and staff within the school. And it definitely did just that, which is what we set out to do. So it was quantitative and qualitative analysis of the SPAIS departments of sociology, politics, and international studies departments mandatory units for both undergraduates and postgraduates.
And we had like this Excel spreadsheet, and it was basically assessing the essential readings, so typically like three to five essential readings per week in the specific units. And there were essentially two parts to it. So the first part was assessing the diversity. So that was where gender came in, ethnicities, and also we were looking at how many readings or like authors were coming from institutions in the global South as well. So we thought that was important to put in. And then the second part was, which is always hard.
It was harder to do, I guess like assess the decolonial content in a way that’s sort of numerical, but then we quickly realised that there did need to be that qualitative aspect to it as well, if we wanted to get everything out of these readings. And in that it was– so we went through the readings and highlighted and commented on the ones that we thought were talking about like decolonial topics, and were decolonized, and then we put that into a percentage, worked out a broadened score of the whole unit as a whole. And then we also added the qualitative aspects.
So that was when reviewers like myself and like Evelyn and the volunteers, the ones who are assessing the units, could highlight anything that the numbers wouldn’t show. So controversial readings, problematic readings. Also we realised that BAME, that does sort of– well, it does group all ethnicities together. So in that we sort of highlighted what ethnicities the authors were to get more of like a better and holistic analysis. And then the final aspect was the stop light approach. So we clearly coded the units either red, yellow, or green. And that was so deeply desatisfactory, yellow was desatisfactory, and then green was satisfactory.
Starting on this journey of thinking about the curriculum as a whole as a programme, so the future iterations of this is to sort of think about, what does it mean if your learning journey through a particular degree doesn’t force you to come into contact with a diverse authors, or more importantly in some ways the concepts that are about addressing racism and colonialism, what kind of politics or sociology degree is that, if you can graduate without having encountered those key ideas?
I think as well in doing that, like the report starts to think about what it means to have a white reading list, and to be taught just by white lecturers and staff, and to show going through almost an entire degree without critically engaging with forces of colour or from the global south, without even many female authors regardless of ethnicity. This was just crazy to me. And also acknowledging that because of all the knock on effects of these hierarchies of knowledge which are presented to us in our degrees, how that will impact people’s widened University experience. So the curriculum isn’t isolated.
It feeds into what students are going to say to one another into the experiences and the attainment of students of colour, how isolated you feel. I don’t know how I would have come to this project if I wasn’t really angry at people in first year, and disappointed by what the curriculum was, and what I expected it to be from a subject like sociology, and likewise with politics, which can be tools and social excellence and for change. But also I think it was important to see– to engage the majority of staff in discussions, and students as well, so they can think about their units more specifically, and how they sort of maybe obviously unintentionally reproduce in these hierarchies.
So it’s not just one particular unit. It needs to be seen as a process throughout. So I think it’s essential for students to see that colonisation on the hierarchies of knowledge is something that affects all areas of politics and sociology. And so it may sort of hinder progress if students and staff see it as something completely separate. So therefore trying to introduce one discrete unit on decolonization. And I personally would not be against a unit on decolonization, I think that’s a great idea. But as long as it doesn’t take away from the decolonizing of other units as well.
So yeah, I think that’s what we were trying to put across, so we were engaging as much staff as we can in sort of reflecting and evaluating on their units, and their sort of biases maybe unintentionally.
We definitely experienced some resistance, and I think that was a lot of maybes then collective frustration among some of the staff, especially at the traffic light system of the report. Because they felt like it sort of oversimplified the details of the module. But ultimately that traffic light system was just an end point for us. We wouldn’t expect anyone to ignore all the complexity that it tries to take into account. But I think the sort of angry reaction we got from some staff is a sign that the report did highlight some stuff that needed to be highlighted.
You’re always going to have people that are against change, and I think those people either don’t see decolonization as a priority, or they don’t maybe realise the impact, the hurtful impact it has on students of colour. Going back to this question about resistance and what we’re encountering, as well as why do the whole approach of the whole school, is because what we’re fundamentally looking for is a kind of cultural change. Right? We’re looking for a change in the organisational culture of our school. So that it becomes almost impossible– maybe not impossible, but it becomes really hard to ignore this stuff. And it becomes a default for people to consider this as their teaching.

The video is an interview with Dr Elspeth van Veeren, Lauren Hutfield and Evelyn Miller from the School of Sociology, Politics and International Relations (SPAIS) at the University of Bristol. The interview presents a case study of a cross-curricula approach to decolonising involving the whole school. Some of the key learning points arising from this interview are discussed further in the next step.

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Decolonising Education: From Theory to Practice

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