Fourth Biannual NPN Symposium on Postcolonial Education: Event Report

by Shelley Angelie Saggar (MA student in Postcolonial Literature & Culture, University of Leeds, Twitter: @jaleb_i)

The Fourth Biannual Northern Postcolonial Network Symposium, ‘Postcolonial Education: Teaching, Learning and Schooling in and After Empire’, was held at the Rose Bowl in Leeds. Co-organised by staff from Leeds Beckett University and the University of Leeds, Dr Matthew Whittle, Dr Rachel Bower, Dr Jonathan Saha and Dr Emily Zobel Marshall, the day was structured around various research presentations in the morning and an academic roundtable which followed. The symposium offered critical insights into the practice of teaching theory, history and activism in Higher Education and the particular challenges faced in different contexts. These were offered alongside discussions relating to engaging with educational programmes taking place outside of the academy and facilitating a network for dialogue between the two.

The symposium opened with a poetry reading from Malika Booker, a Douglas Caster Fellow at the University of Leeds. Malika began by dedicating her reading to Jo Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen who was murdered in June 2016. This placed the conversations that followed firmly within the context of the current debates on immigration, identity, security and hospitality and provided a space to reflect on the continued importance of countering xenophobic narratives through education in the face of uncertainty and intolerance.

The first panel was organised around traditional research presentations from early-career academics and postgraduates, offering insights into colonial schooling apparatus across the globe, the often traumatic memory of this imposition that appears in accounts from the postcolony, and strategies for resilience as explored through cultural escape and critical interventions both in and outside the academy.



Rachel Bower, Danielle Hall and Shambhavi Priyam

Danielle Hall opened the proceedings by venturing outside of the framework of arts and humanities that tends to play host to most of these discussions.  The D.R.E.A.M project, (‘Diversity and Resiliance: Evoking Autobiography through Music’) was piloted by Dr Viv Caruana, at Leeds Beckett University, with the intention of utilising autobiography as a means of engaging students in discussions about decolonisation.  The project also sought to equip students with the tools to participate in discursive approaches to integration and cultural exchange.  The research posited the D.R.E.A.M project as a possible model for approaching the task of decolonising both the curriculum and the academy, through the promotion of identification through cultural difference and shared understanding.

Shambhavi Priyam echoed some of the questions raised in the opening paper in a report on how educational policies in postcolonial India mirror colonial practice, marginalising indigenous languages in favour of curricula focusing on Hindi and English.  The paper mapped three regional languages: Khasi, Santhali and Gondi, and the specificities concerning standardisation, orality and status that are associated with each.  This approach to the question of ‘Postcolonial Education’ opened out some of the issues raised in the first paper, and applied them to a postcolonial regional and historical context as found in the Indian subcontinent and how policy comes to influence practice whilst simultaneously facing grassroots distinctions from indigenous language preservation activists.

Helen Garnett traced the transitional period from colonial possession to independence in the context of the continued requirements for British accredited training and certification in the Zambian Higher Education system.  The research suggested that the perception of the British model as carrying more academic value is informed in part by the way in which knowledge production and technical education continues to be led by Western schools and funding.  In following the epistemology of Western teaching practice used by the British to train the Zambian elite, the paper suggested that the rhetoric of ‘training future leaders’ that is still invoked in British institutions amounts to a form of soft power that ultimately designs to further a colonial project.

John Cocking mapped a similar pattern in British Malaya during the first half of the twentieth century.  Cataloguing the shift from trading relations based on the model of the East India Company to a more directly interventionist colonial management scheme, the paper explained the manner in which British control in Malaya was solidified through the implementation of a residential ‘advisory’ system, attached to regional principalities.  Further to this, the opening of prestigious tertiary educational establishments ultimately led to the development of a society organised along racial lines, dividing immigrant Chinese and South Indian communities from the majority Malay group, thus resulting in the tensions that have lingered in Malaysia to this day, which surfaced in August 2015 in the mass demonstrations led by the ‘Bersih 4’ party, which are popularly understood to represent the interests of the Chinese.

Kate Highman brought the question of colonial and postcolonial schooling back to the present moment by examining current questions of ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?‘ and calls to decolonise both curriculum and university spaces in a South African context.  In an analysis of Zoe Wicomb’s short story ‘A Clearing in the Bush’ Kate explored the experience of (mis)reading classically ‘English’ literary texts.  The paper argued that the institutionalised teaching of literature in historically ‘Black’ Universities in South Africa is confined to a colonial standard of ‘improvement’, and does not encourage critical perspectives.  In this sense, the question of decolonising the curriculum should be less concerned with the abolishment of the classical canon from taught courses, and more engaged with the politics of teaching and learning imperial history through sensitive and nuanced readings.

Frances Hemsley rounded off the first panel in an exploration of colonial education as primary trauma in the work of Dambudzo Marachera.  Connecting the proximity of the imperial project with the intersection of the life and the literary, the paper then linked the dispute over readings of ‘seduction’ in Kate Highman’s discussion of ‘A Clearing in the Bush’ to Marachera’s toxic love-affair with the English language.  The paper closed by initiating a discussion of the materiality of postcolonial environments and their proximity to sites of disposal.  In reading Marachera’s autobiographical narrative of picking up his first book from a white community’s rubbish heap, the paper suggested a link between the project of imperial educational disenfranchisement and cultures of waste that continue to mark postcolonial collectives.

The morning concluded with a Q&A session that examined current calls from students around the globe to ‘decolonise the university’.  Beginning with the defacement of the Rhodes statue in South Africa, to Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias highlighting of the underrepresentation of Black and Minority Ethnic academic staff and the launch of the #WhyIsMyCurriculumWhite campaign, the session critically interrogated what the ‘canon’ called out as unrepresentative actually consisted of and suggested the need for intervention in a number of ‘alternative’ canons that have sprung up in the teaching of postcolonial studies.  Questions were also raised about the assumed neutrality of science-based subjects, with delegates suggesting that this popular understanding needs to be re-examined and critiqued by those with an investment in projects of postcolonial education.  This is perhaps particularly relevant in light of continuing struggles over the appropriation and privatisation of indigenous knowledges, a developing pattern in a history of colonial piracy that leads some to label the phenomenon ‘biocolonialism’.


Emily Zobel Marshall, Claire Chambers, Sarah Lawson Welsh and Kate Houlden

The second session offered perspectives on the particular challenges of teaching postcolonialism in varying institutions of Higher Education.  Delegates were provided with a catalogue of modules taught by members of the panel, so as to better understand the teaching framework and, as all the modules were literature-based, the question of how best to keep the humanities invested within an ethical project.  Dr Kate Houlden spoke of the resistance faced by white students in critically examining ‘whiteness’, whereby students often feel ill-equipped to weigh-in on discussions of race and ethnicity, instead unwittingly leaving the ‘definitive perspective’ to those of their classmates faced with the burden of representation by virtue of their skin colour.  The panel heard from Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh on the necessity of integrating ‘postcolonial’ themes into wider-reaching courses, rather than closeting these fundamental discussions and debates into optional modules.  Dr Clare Chambers spoke of the lessons that we can take from conversations in Critical Race Theory that are happening across the pond which place racism not as historical aberration, but as part of the continuing legitimation of white supremacy in mainstream media narratives.  Dr Emily Zobel Marshall concluded the panel by touching on the imminent turn to ‘world literature’, arguing that it reinscribed the sense of a separation between the European/Western canon and ‘Others’, positioned once again as exotic outsiders.

We were then treated to a talk by local Leeds poet Khadijah Ibrahiim, who explained the inception of her community youth project, Leeds Young Authors, which was founded in 2003, and a performance from two of its members.  The spoken word piece countered the insistent measurement of ‘British-ness’ that is continually put to people of different shades, names and heritages, and instead firmly placed these two young women poets as very much belonging to a postcolonial Britain, here as testament to fraught histories of Commonwealth migration and conviviality.  Finally, Dr Emily Zobel Marshall and her mother, Jenny Zobel, introduced a screening of Sugar Cane Alley, which was shown last year at the 29th Leeds International Film Festival which was enjoyed as part of the evening reception.

Some of us left the Rose Bowl slightly early to attend a vigil called by the Leeds Labour Party in memory of Jo Cox MP.  The death of Jo Cox and the recent victory for the ‘Leave’ campaign in the EU referendum have arguably created a climate of often violent xenophobia and preyed on working people’s anxieties in a period of austerity that has sacrificed their interests before anyone else’s. The vigil seemed a fitting reminder of the kinds of divisions that academics, and the wider British public, are faced with in 2016.  The lessons learnt at the symposium reminded us of the living memory of the British Empire.  Empire was first implemented through trading networks (e.g. the British East India Company) and then later sustained through colonial schooling and continued via a revisionist history of Empire masquerading in the disguise of teaching ‘British values’.  The focus on the humanities within Universities, and the teaching of colonial pasts to those in school and Further Education, emphasised the important but varied role of education today to dispel narratives based on prejudice and fear in post-imperial Britain and around the globe.


Delegates listen to postgraduates and early career researchers discuss their work

The organisers would like to thank all of the contributors and delegates for taking part in the day. For their advice and support, additional thanks goes to the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies (University of Leeds), the Centre for Culture and the Arts (Leeds Beckett University), the Postcolonial Studies Association for providing travel bursaries to our international PG/ECR speakers, the School of English at the University of Leeds and the Journal of Postcolonial Writing (Taylor & Francis).

The event also staged the launch of two new special issues: ‘Postcolonial Environments: Animals, Ecologies, Localities’ in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature and ‘Trans/forming Literature: Graphic Novels, Migration, and Postcolonial Identity’ in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing. The former features contributions from a number of NPN members and represents the first collaborative research output of the network.

You can also read Jonathan Saha’s reflections of the symposium via his blog-post ‘Decolonizing the Classroom’.