The passing of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation has awakened a renewed drive to reflect, address and account for the legacy of colonial violence particularly as it pertains to the Indigenous people of Turtle Island in what is now partially known as Canada. Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour have long called for critical reflection on our societies and institutions and the insidious nature of the colonial project. Academia and the university experience are not divorced from this call to critical reflection and desire for radical change. I decided to interview Dr. David Jefferess, a UBCO associate professor in the department of English and Cultural Studies in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies. Dr. Jefferess has done his PhD in postcolonial studies and currently offers the course CULT 340/ENGL 379: Colonialism and Decolonization, which centres the Global South and racialized groups in the global north. I have decided to ask Dr. Jefferess about the inclusion of Global South and racialized groups in Arts programs at UBCO, his experiences in his strives to include these people in his courses, and advice for those who wish to also be inclusive and supportive. This is an excerpt from a longer conversation we had in which we built off of each other’s ideas to further the discussion. The following was shortened for the sake of brevity.
Luz-Marina Roberts: Do you think that Arts courses should meaningfully include the Global South and racialized groups in the global north in the syllabi?
Dr. David Jefferess: Of course. In most of my courses, the majority of texts are by artists, scholars, and activists from the Global South, who have ties to the Global South, or who are Indigenous to Turtle Island. A few years ago, students in one of my courses conducted a study on “Internationalization” at UBCO, including looking at program requirements and course offerings. Not surprisingly, they found that there were not a lot of offerings that focused on Africa, the Caribbean, or regions of Asia, and in most programs students could graduate without ever taking a course focused on knowledge produced outside the so-called West. It would be interesting to do a more comprehensive study, to investigate to what extent students in different programs are able to engage with knowledge produced in Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean, etc.
But certainly, to my mind, we can’t really have an Arts education without foregrounding experiences and perspectives from the Global South. Historically, Euro-American academia may have “studied” the peoples and regions of the Global South but it has not engaged with knowledge from these regions effectively. This erasure tells us a lot about the ongoing colonial system that BA programs are a part of. People from the Global South are often called on to provide testimony and examples while scholars from the Global North analyze and theorize. This is a deeply exploitative system.
L.R.: What effect do you think this inclusion would have on international students, particularly those with ties to the Global South?
DJ: First, I think it is crucial to have a diversity of voices and methodologies in the university. As a white, settler-situated professor, I’m not the best person to answer this question, but from experience teaching courses that centre knowledge from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, I know that it is important for students to see themselves represented, producing diverse, legitimate, and important forms of knowledge, as well as having their voices validated. One of the things I do in all my courses is highlight the demographics of the authors and creators we study. In CULT 340, where you and I met, the vast majority of people we read would be classified in a Canadian context as Indigenous, Black, or People of Colour, and the significant majority were women and had ties to the Global South.
As a white student, during my university education, white male voices were normative, which validated me and gave me the sense that I could do these things—be an academic—and that I am entitled to do so. Is this still the case? What does it mean if a student majors in a program and most of the knowledge comes from white folks from North America or Europe? How much more enriching an experience would it be for Indigenous students, students from the Global South, Black students and Students of Colour to see their histories, knowledges, and experiences represented and to see themselves as knowledge producers? Of course, there are more and more courses that do this work, and the composition of faculty is much more diverse than when I started here. For instance, there is a new Assistant Professor in English who will be developing courses on Black Anglophone literatures and Black intellectual traditions.
LR: Do these inclusions have a benefit for Canadian, and particularly white Canadian, students at UBC?
DJ: As a white person in Canada who had limited engagement with the Global South in high school and university, the “third world,” as this vast and diverse area was known then, was synonymous with poverty and need. The myth that people in these regions require our help and that we have to educate them is dangerous, I think. It has meant that vast bodies of knowledge have been marginalized or ignored. For white Canadian students it is critical that they engage with people from marginalized communities and those with ties to the Global South, for this reason. In the responses to an introductory survey in my course on colonialism and decolonization this year, many more students than in the past are coming with knowledge of the residential school system, as well as recognition that they are treaty-subjects or live on unceded, stolen lands. But many admit to being completely ignorant about Africa, for instance. Students are surprised about how brutal the British colonial project was, or even that Belgium or Holland were colonial powers.
Focusing on colonialism and decolonization, that course necessarily focuses on colonial culture and history, but the danger of that is that it can end up reinforcing Euro-American stereotypes of Africans as victims. So, I have learned to foreground writers and scholars from Africa who do not just testify to the experience of colonialism but articulate alternative possibilities. Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, a Nigerian scholar, traces the colonial imposition of European patriarchal norms in Yorubaland but she also challenges Western constructions of gender by explaining how identities or social roles in pre-contact Yoruba culture were not informed by a bio-logic, or gender, as they are in European cultures. Interestingly, when we talk about diversity, we often talk about different worldviews. Oyěwùmí highlights how the very term, worldview, is Eurocentric, as Yoruba culture, and many others, do not privilege the visual. Her work has profoundly shaken so much that I had come to understand as universal or normal. And as you and I have talked about, work such as this provides all sorts of possibilities for thinking, and being in relation, otherwise than Western colonial history has allowed.
LR: Your course CULT 340/ENGL 379 Colonialism and Decolonization has completely centred the Global South and racialized groups in the global north. When you developed this course, what was your intention and what did you learn from carrying it out?
DJ: This course, like all my courses, is always changing. When I started teaching the course, I was coming out of a PhD on postcolonialism, so I drew from anthologies, and focused on postcolonial theorists such as Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said. These theorists were all schooled in French theory and philosophy and were indebted to that intellectual history. While these readings are important and hold a lot of value, they can be very hard to interpret. This led to us spending too much time trying to make sense of the readings and me, the white dude, ‘explaining’ them, which made me very uncomfortable. This led to a shift in the types of readings I compiled to provide more diversity in form and methodology. In my studies, I had learned to analyze novels and poetry by writers from the Caribbean, India, or Africa, using theories very often produced in and for a white/Western literary tradition. I now recognize that a variety of modes of expression can be understood as “theorizing,” and so I have come to design the course in a way to bring different kinds of knowledges and expression into dialogue with one another. So, for one class we read a self-reflexive essay by Lee Maracle (Sto:lo) along with scholarly essays on literary history and the psychology of colonialism by Gauri Viswanathan and Ashis Nandy, both from India, along with a work of fiction by Tsitsi Dangarembga from Zimbabwe. My role becomes facilitating student engagement with these work. I realized I needed to have this diversity in types of writing to reflect a diversity of ways of producing knowledge. It’s not just about wanting voices from the Global South, but wanting to engage with research methodologies and ways of knowing from these regions. The course is a work in progress.
LR: Are there any challenges that came about in the execution of or response to the course?
DJ: For many years there was always some resistance to the content and approach, particularly from white students. Sometimes they would be vocal in class but more often the negative reactions would come in course evaluations. For instance, quite often I would get the criticism that the course didn’t provide a “balanced representation of colonialism,” meaning that the course didn’t highlight the positive impacts of colonialism. But from whose perspective was it positive, and can anything that might be understood as positive justify centuries of genocide, dispossession, and exploitation? My sense is that now most students come in wanting the material, and people are eager to learn and open to having assumptions challenged. The last number of years, the discussions and community have been really special.
A big change in my course format has been how I choose to assess the students. For many years, until about a decade ago, all of my assignments were essay-based, but I have now shifted to allow students to have the option of written or oral expression for some assignments. That’s part of recognizing the need to value diverse methodologies and ways of communicating knowledge. There are also more creative assignments where students can choose to articulate their research and analysis in the form of a spoken word poem, a workshop, a zine or a podcast, among others. That may be perceived as less scholarly, but these assignments are just as rigorous, and, importantly, they require students to carefully consider audience. Rather than just writing for me, and for a grade, they need to consider who they are seeking to communicate with and how best to do this. That has been a big shift over my career, troubling the Western notion of what is scholarly, and trying to understand that decolonization, in the academy, is as much about pedagogical and methodological approaches as it is about content and examples. Kincaid, Senior, Mercedes Eng and others who work in self-reflexive and creative ways provide profound learning experiences through their work. In the academy, I think decolonization involves undermining the dichotomy between creative and critical, scholarly and personal. If you are going to engage in the ongoing history of colonialism, those silos are part of colonialism, and they limit how you can understand it.
LR: What advice would you give to students and professors alike who desire to expand their world sense to become genuinely inclusive and supportive of people who have been affected by colonialism?
DJ: The important thing is to realize that everyone is affected by colonialism, albeit differently. I begin the Colonialism and Decolonization course with a poem by Olive Senior that is written in the second person. The speaker of the poem is, initially, a person who is indigenous to the island that would become Jamaica, and then the speaker becomes a worker at a tourist resort. Typically, we would read to empathize with the speaker – to see the world from their eyes, which allows some readers to side-step recognizing their own positions. Senior undermines this by addressing the poem to a “you” – the reader is placed in the position of the Spanish colonists and then the tourist. While the poem provides us a perspective of history and power from the vantage point of the oppressed, it also invites us to recognize how we are positioned through the narrative. For me, I recognize that I am the “you” of the poem, that I am a beneficiary of exploitation, that I am complicit in this system. I seek to understand the perspective of the speakers of the poem in terms of the relations I have to them. Because the poem is written this way, and because it doesn’t just narrate the suffering of the colonized, but interprets the colonial system, asserting and affirming Indigenous and Black understandings of relation and value, the poem, I think, enables students whose experience, knowledge, and ways of knowing are typically not recognized or valued in the university to find commonalities with the speaker, and to feel more comfortable sharing their insights and their learnings in response to the poem, and then throughout the course. So, we don’t seek to “interpret” this but to engage with it in ways that require us to self-reflect on our own positions and histories.
This article is just a small snippet of a long, meaningful, and necessary conversation focused on decolonizing the syllabus and the ways in which academia and scholarship can exist. Universities are historically places with foundations in white supremacy and racist exclusion of everyone and everything that does not fit those standards. If UBC advertises and claims to thrive on its diversity, it can’t stop at including different faces on posters or campaigns.
Including the Global South and racialized groups in the global north in the syllabi becomes necessary to fulfil this ongoing project of diversity and inclusion. And including these voices and methodologies involves inherently changing the ways we perceive and engage with academia. In an age where institutions evade accountability and try to pacify us with performative activism, it is imperative that we remain focused on demanding effective and thorough plans for decolonizing course content and changing the way we perceive quality education. Only in this way, we can truly create an environment that actually celebrates and respects a diversity of perspectives.