Decolonisation and Decentring in Liberal Arts

Gavin Schwartz Leper & Bryan Brazeau

Liberal Arts Department, Warwick University;


Within the Liberal Arts department, internationalisation involves actively decentring the default British, anglophone experience with the goal of creating a space that acknowledges our existence within an international context made up of multiple languages, approaches and even differing traditions of scholarship.

“I want my students, wherever they come from, to be able to recognise and experience a diversity of opinions and cultural perspectives that case studies and knowledge they encounter should represent. We want to facilitate points of connection and positive comparison rather than just difference but also a fundamental recognition that whatever their local experience is – they have global connections... This may sometimes be labelled as an anti-racist pedagogy, but if I’m talking about internationalisation – that is something to me that is ideally, fundamentally – that considers class, gender, race, religion, disability.” (Gavin Schwartz Leper)

Bryan Brazeau suggests that internationalisation in the Higher Education context can be broken down into the following categories:

1) curriculum - what happens outside the classroom, in the way we design our modules, the way we design our courses, the way we design student activity

2) pedagogy - what we do in the classroom; and

3) an approach to the world within which we are teaching and learning, for example the way we approach the organisation that is the University and the way we approach administrative tasks.

Within the classroom, by making a conscious effort to acknowledge students’ identities, and address students’ attitudes towards curriculum content and assessment tasks, staff members can create a sense of belonging within an inclusive environment and facilitate student contribution and discussion. By building their confidence and fostering a learning community in this way, staff members also dismantle the deficit model that is sometimes applied to international students by academics and fellow students and by international students themselves. 

“So one thing that I always try and do, especially with my first year students and this applies to all students, it isn't just a linguistic thing, it's relevant to students from all kinds of backgrounds, is to say to students what I am looking for in their written work. I know that all too often students come in and they feel that they can't write an essay. My approach to it is always to value the students’ existing knowledge so wherever they come from to say ‘you understand how to write, you're not coming to this as a blank slate, but the way you've been taught to think and to write is not one that's the default within the British University experience’ . But doing it in a way that is generous, that’s welcoming, that helps bring people to the table. It’s about making explicit those things that so many of us assume to be default; making it really clear what is required of students in this learning context, rather than wondering why students can’t do it” (Bryan Brazeau).  

Bryan also argues that successful internationalisation would include greater explicitness by universities, not only in relation to student expectations in the classroom, but also in relation to key administration and academic regulations. When we open up those processes, we make the university a more welcoming space and we help all of our students to navigate those processes so that they can really understand and benefit from them.

The classroom is a multilingual space, within a multilingual institution, which again is a decentring of the British Anglophone experience as default, which is something that Bryan is an ardent advocate for. With a background in Italian languages and literature, Bryan explained that he is aware that Renaissance Italy was really a space where the prevailing culture was multilingual. People were speaking vernacular Italian and they had proficiency in Latin and quite often in many other languages, and there was an understanding that when you moved across these linguistic and cultural gaps, you also had to adapt the way that you thought.

“One thing you note is that research is not, at least in the humanities, something that's just universal, it's not all done the same way. I really believe that we think through language we cannot separate language. When we're thinking in different languages, we're actually operating in different ways of thinking, different lines of thought. I really think that we do ourselves and our students a disservice when we don't bring that into our classrooms, or into our course design and when we don't make that available by not granting access or building in the opportunity to look at materials written in different languages and to think about the different types of essays, for example, that might be written in these languages”.

Thinking about decentring the classroom through pedagogy, by incorporating case studies from the Global South, for example, studying Zombies, Voodoo, and Slavery in Haiti within a module on Apocalyptic Imaginary, students acquire an understanding of how social concerns shape both scientific inquiry and political activity. Likewise, by incorporating rich case studies from the Arab Spring, the Haitian revolution and the Chinese cultural revolution, students are given the opportunity to examine the impact of political and social contexts on art and revolution.

As well as drawing upon global case studies, efforts are made to draw upon the cultural and linguistic capital within the classroom. In the Science Society module, students will be tasked with looking at media from around the world and the way that it reports science and scientific findings. Linguistic knowledge becomes an asset rather than a liability in the classroom, creating an interesting space in which all kinds of fascinating conversations can take place. Students who have access to languages other than English are asked to look at articles in their own language and to bring that into class. This has worked well, and has been empowering, especially for students who have had difficulty speaking in class or some difficulties with English. Sometimes parallels can be seen in very, very different cultures in the way the media reports certain things and discourses within society. At other times, students will observe differences, or will notice certain words that they might not have thought about, which leads into productive discussions about why these differences exist.

In terms of decentring the power dynamic between tutor and student, on the Liberal Arts programme, Bryan and Gavin speak about the role of the academic in creating a space for students to engage with the material on their own terms, allowing meaning to emerge without prescribing it:

“It's amazing what can happen when you create this space for students to engage with the text and the material on their own terms, in their own ways and you don't try to shape that interaction or put any kind of prescriptions on it. When you let students know you know you can love this, you can. hate this, you can be angry about it - all  I want you to do is to engage with it. I always try to have a final research paper where I don't give essay questions.  I don't like giving essay questions as I think they shape the way students think far too much. What I like to do is have the students come up with their own research question. What's amazing about that is that the students write all kinds of wonderful papers all about something that really means something to them, and they leave the module, not just having done original research, but also having done original research that is incredibly meaningful and which they carry into other modules and other aspects of their life”

Bryan sums up the role of internationalisation and the role it plays in decentring the classroom from a Liberal Arts perspective: 

"Liberal education has always emphasised the idea of creating active critical citizens, so it's been an education that's interdisciplinary. That means that we want students to understand things from a wide variety of disciplines. We want them to put things together, in a way that's meaningful for them, but not just simply to study things for the sake of studying them, but to study so that they can then go out and be engaged citizens in the community that make a difference. They can be active citizens in the full sense of the word citizen."

"I really think that today, if we apply what we're trying to do in Liberal Arts, and what we're trying to do it all across Warwick really, is to create these global citizens, who aren't just going to belong to a global world but are going to advocate for positive change. Whether that change is at a large level, or whether that's just in their workplace, in their homes and their community. You know you can't think about making a change in a community you know nothing about, or that you feel you don't belong to, so I think that we have a responsibility to make our classrooms into these global spaces, to internationalise our curriculum, to internationalise our pedagogy and to really try and present to students this idea of a global world, because if we can do that in our classrooms, then when students go out their approach will be global. Their approach will be one that welcomes the outsider and that tries to listen to different voices."

Last modified: Tuesday, 17 May 2022, 4:15 PM