Tuesday, 1 March 2016

First Seminar at UJ: Decolonizing the Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at UJ

UJ kicked off its seminar series on decolonizing the curriculum in the library today. It was well attended, with a fabulous panel, and Cheryl Hendricks in the chair. Desiree Lewis from the University of the Western Cape began by saying that it is important how we define hegemonic knowledges. By way of example,  decolonization does not mean replacing all existing canons with new Afrocentric canons, if these should be equally exclusive, elitist or authoritarian. Similarly, replacing (all) knowledge from the North with knowledge from the South ignores the fact that knowledge can be hybridised and intermingled. Also problematic, according to Desiree, is to pepper the existing canon with new names, thus keeping the existing canon, which just looks a little more 'quirky'. What is more important is to get students to think critically about epistemology, where the knowledges come from, what the implications of the epistemologies are, and to think through the relationship of knowledge and power. Students need to explore knowledges, not just rote learn what is 'politically correct'. 
An interesting perspective from Alina Segobye, who trained first in the study of African languages, then in archeology, was how scientists can be so positivist. She illustrated her point with reference to the astrophysicists in South Africa, who attract large sums of money and occlude the work of afrocentric physicists. Indigenous Knowledge System (IKS) projects do not receive the kind of money other projects do. She said poignantly, it is not just about the present, but the pasts and the knowledges lost that one wants to reclaim.  (One would really like to have had more time to listen to these speakers, and I am sure I can't do them justice either in this potted summary.)  Tshepo Moloi from the UJ SRC acknowledged how the students have pushed the agenda to make us/the audience confront the violent practices in every lecture hall they go to. Further, he felt that the students' struggle at least got the topic of decolonizing the curriculum, to the point of today's session. He said there is nothing wrong with the current discourses, but "please let us see ourselves within the degrees that are taught - otherwise UJ - how is it an African university?"

Nelson Maldonado-Torres is another speaker whom I would not be able to do justice to, by summarizing his words. He introduced his own views by sharing with us, that he is from Puerto Rico, one of the oldest colonies in the world. And yet in South Africa many, white and black, view him as white, and reveal things they might not otherwise do, which gives him an unusual perspective on the local situation. He maintains that decolonializing generates anxiety because it unsettles one's sense of wellbeing and belonging, and in this way generates forms of bad faith. It is brutal because it calls identities into question, it calls the enlightenment into question. He made a distinction between colonialism over the past 500 years and the period before that. Colonialism over the recent past celebrates newness and secularism, over colonized and condemned subjects. He argued for the need to decriminalize student activism, and to see students as epistemological agents of change. Structural changes need to happen to empower students, as they are not unified and lack resources. Empower them and they will become sources of knowledge.

The time for panelists was running out so Nyasha Mboti made a dramatic input about the fact that the colony is a fiction, a lie, but one that remains extremely destructive. Related to this, given the myths that are perpetuated by colonialists, "knowledge is an active production of ignorance". Vineet Thakur spoke last, with some sobering realities from the Indian context where the romanticisation of the precolonial past (despite patriarchy and the caste system) has prompted the nationalist government to exercise oppressive actions agains those who criticize it, charging one student with sedition. For him, "decolonialisation involves continuous critique, a dialectical engagement".

Student contributions were lively and rambunctious, including comments that white intellectuals can learn from black thinkers; intellectuals should be more practical and side with the workers (rather than pontificate?); 'if you are choking me you are too close and are suffocating me, you feel the violence of my decolonization'. 'Africanity can be pretentious' And many more. During the wrap up, Nelson shared the importance of being able to learn from others, from many knowledges. Tshepo reminded that we should not be too polarizing, and should listen to each other. Cheryl, from the chair, emphasized that we can talk, but we need to go forward. This was the first of a five panel series. It was very lively and thoughtful, one just hopes that the series maintains a momentum, and that all colleagues and students who attend, get to express themselves, so that at UJ we can have a
 genuine engagement - especially if we really do want to decolonize the curriculum, as this requires much sharing, much collaboration, and hopefully some risk taking.


  1. While such dialogues are critical and arguably long overdue, it must be said that academics in attendance usually disengage and thus leaving fellow participants to feel that they are caught up in a guilt trip or refuse to deal with such overwhelming articulation of what is expected of them. As we proceed forward, it is hoped that they could be encouraged to learn to transcend their guarded positions and feel free to open up.

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  3. Perhaps we should think carefully about how to structure such engagement. But because people don't speak, it does not mean (at all) that they are not engaging. Do others have any suggestions about how the actual oral dialogue could be more effective?