On Saturday 16th January, postgraduate researchers across the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures met to discuss, debate and deliberate/assess the relevance/significance of postcolonial theory to their approaches to cultural texts, their research projects and its position within the academy. The study day was the first in a series entitled ‘Theories and Textual Practices’ that aims to provide postgraduates with a more discerning grasp of key theoretical approaches in cultural studies. Organised by PhD students Muireann Crowley and Yanbing Er and with support from Robert Irvine in English Literature, the programme focuses on four critical areas: Postcolonial and Diaspora Studies, Feminist and Gender Studies, Marxist Criticism and the Frankfurt School, and Digital Methods and Cultures, reflecting on the broad spectrum of postgraduate research.
The project was envisaged as being a paid professional development opportunity for PhD students (as opposed to the infinite varieties of unpaid ‘CV improvement’ opportunities offered to us), being student-designed and student-led, and offering open-access online resources via the project’s website. A ‘bottom-up’ approach based on sharing knowledge and experiences among peers while not expecting those, who invest time and intellectual labour, to work for free; one that takes the inherently political fields of theory it discusses seriously. Moreover, the project aims to help to induct new arrivals to the School into the postgraduate community. Bringing MSc and PhD students (across all years) together enables ‘intergenerational’ links and exchange between cohorts.
The Postcolonial and Diaspora Studies workshop kicked off with aplomb: Sibyl Adam (NPN member and second-year doctoral candidate in English Literature) led through the day by introducing key concepts and critiques and was complemented by contributions on ‘new directions’ in the field from PhD candidates Peter Cherry (Comparative Literature), Justine Seran (English Literature) and myself (Sarah Arens, French).
The informal, friendly atmosphere of the workshop generated plenty of productive and provocative discussions about key texts and assumptions of postcolonial discourses as well as the suitability of postcolonial frameworks in a variety of different locations such as Scandinavia, Cyprus, Kurdish areas of Turkey and the Middle East, Israel/Palestine, Australia and New Zealand. In this context, we also considered possibilities of how to engage with heavily Anglocentric Postcolonial Studies (or not) in non-Anglophone contexts: for example, how to analyse literary representations of the aftermath of French or Belgian colonialism without falsely universalising different developments within the unfinished process of decolonisation?
Since several participants of the study day also work as postgraduate tutors, we vividly discussed questions surrounding teaching postcolonial writing in the Western academy. Dr Michelle Keown, who had previously published on the topic, pointed to the pedagogical challenges of teaching postcolonial literature and theory in an elite and overwhelmingly white university: for instance, how to make undergraduate students from predominantly privileged backgrounds engage meaningfully with such texts and intersectional approaches more broadly? The ‘new directions’ we addressed were not only directed towards problematic issues surrounding research and teaching in postcolonial studies, but also tapped into a much the much broader discussion on how to create learning environments that benefit everyone, regardless of their ethnic and/or socio-economic background. Student-led initiatives, such as the ‘Theories and Textual Practice’ workshop series, play a crucial role in forging a space that allows for a critical engagement with Postcolonial Studies on all levels – intellectually, pedagogically and institutionally.
By Sarah Arens, PhD Candidate, University of Edinburgh