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A student's guide to decolonising linguistics: Enabling teaching staff to empower students

Ace-Acquah, Emerald, Ogundamisi, Mary-Tumi, Bailey, Laura R. (2021) A student's guide to decolonising linguistics: Enabling teaching staff to empower students. In: Linguistics Association of Great Britain 2021 Annual Meeting, 6-9 Sep 2021, Online. (Unpublished) (KAR id:93552)

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The student voice has been at the forefront of decolonisation campaigns such as ‘Why is my curriculum white’ (UCL) and the ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign that originated in Cape Town. This reflects a strong desire – and recognition of the need – for change from the people at the receiving end of higher education. Students typically comprise a more diverse population than those teaching them and producing the research they learn about, and they enter the system and see it with fresh eyes. These students have looked at our current way of doing things, and found it wanting. Much has been said and written about the decolonisation and diversification of HE curricula (e.g. Arday & Mirza 2019). Much good work has begun, attitudes are beginning to change, and awareness is high (Author 3, 2020). However, systemic issues (precarity, workload, inertia) combine with a lack of expertise and confidence among teaching staff regarding race and equality, meaning that change is slow to come (Author 3, 2020). In particular, the ‘broken pipeline’ (Leading Routes) means that precisely those who should be involved with decolonisation work are often not the ones with the power to effect it. This paper, from the undergraduate student perspective, raises several important questions and opens a conversation about how students can be agents of change in a meaningful, ongoing process. We distinguish between the processes of diversification and decolonisation. The former is an absolute requirement for all universities right now, and is the locus of much of the excellent work that has been done so far. We have to acknowledge that decolonisation, a far deeper process, may not be truly possible without a fundamental uprooting of our discipline, given its roots within whiteness and in a Western, Global North-centred academia. This is often especially true of ‘formal’ linguistic modules such as those teaching syntactic, semantic or phonological theory. There, a position of supposed neutrality and level of abstraction masks the same eurocentrism that may be more evident in a module on sociolinguistics that explicitly discusses specific language communities. Furthermore, while many teaching staff themselves research languages other than English and incorporate this into their teaching, a lack of available resources means that it may be much more labour-intensive and perhaps not even possible to avoid also having a textbook that undermines this work. However, this problematisation is rooted in the assumption that the institution or teaching staff are the primary agents of change. Work done by Author 3 and others (e.g. Thomas & Jivraj 2020) highlights the positive experience of students who can engage on an equal footing with diversification work. As students approaching the end of our first year of undergraduate study in linguistics, we have regularly sought a deeper or more global perspective than our course was able to provide. For example, topics covering language relatedness and language contact did not go beyond Indo-European languages, creole languages were not incorporated, and the morphology or syntax of signed languages was not part of the syllabus. We recognise, of course, that not all topics can be covered in first year modules, but we argue that this is symptomatic of a more general problem: ‘introductory’ topics are the last (and least likely) to be diversified. This is partly due to the systemic pressures already mentioned (for example, ‘Intro Syntax’ is more likely to be team taught, or taught by different people from year to year, making it harder to make changes or plan for the future), and partly the idea that the theory, at least, is neutral. As students from an African background where 3 or 4 languages are regularly spoken at home, our interest going into linguistics naturally included the sociolinguistics of African languages, colonialism and marginalised countries. Typically, however, any mention of languages beyond Europe or of varieties like AAL is relegated to optional extra reading, and African languages were even discussed in derogatory terms because the texts were rather old (but still used because they are ‘classic’ texts). This can be especially damaging in first year modules, where a feeling of alienation or, conversely, involvement from the start can set the tone for future study. This is the basis of our call to action. Where the progress made from the institution or the lecturer is just at the start of the journey to equality, and other pressures mean that change is necessarily slow, students can and should be able to contribute. This is especially true where students may have some level of cultural expertise (e.g. a non-Indo-European home language or a home country different from the others in the group). The power dynamic in a classroom is clearly unequal, and furthermore an awareness from the lecturer of their own position as white, able-bodied, European, etc can produce a defensiveness or lack of confidence in guiding fruitful conversations. However, if the space is opened up to formally encourage students to share their experiences without putting the burden of change on them, a collaborative approach can lead to genuine change. Two examples of introductory linguistics modules are presented. One was designed to be inclusive from the bottom up, and the other is a long-standing introductory generative syntax module. Lessons learnt from the differences between student reactions to the measures proposed by the lecturer are discussed, along with the marked difference in engagement with social justice issues. We relate these examples to the 3D Pedagogy model developed by Gabriel (2019) which emphasises democratisation of the classroom and ask how teaching staff can empower students. We consider the type of training that would be beneficial for enabling potentially difficult conversations; assessment types that allow students to contribute to the curriculum; and what kind of support students would need in order to feel safe yet empowered.

Item Type: Conference or workshop item (Speech)
Uncontrolled keywords: linguistics, decolonising, curriculum
Subjects: L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2300 Higher Education
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2361 Curriculum
P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of Culture and Languages
Depositing User: Laura Bailey
Date Deposited: 11 Mar 2022 10:17 UTC
Last Modified: 14 Mar 2022 11:41 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
Bailey, Laura R.:
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