The following letter is the result of a meeting that took place amongst students about the need for the faculty to decolonize its reading lists and incorporate postcolonial thought alongside its existing curriculum:

Dear Peter De Bolla,

For too long, teaching English at Cambridge has encouraged a ‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ approach that elevates white male authors at the expense of all others. Whilst some have argued that this approach has its merits and there have been welcome attempts to address the absence of women writers, there is more that can be done. What we can no longer ignore, however, is the fact that the curriculum, taken as a whole, risks perpetuating institutional racism. The history of the canon is a history that has wilfully ignored, misrepresented and sidelined authors from the global south. Sadly, the current syllabus is a result of this history; it is far too easy to complete an English degree without noticing the absence of authors who are not white. Indeed, this absence is widely accepted, rarely challenged, and frequently justified in order that teaching is ‘focused’ and ‘as comprehensive as possible.’ When the few chances do present themselves, students with an interest in race, race politics and any literature from outside the UK are seen as a nuisance, encouraged to fall in line or suffer because they cannot find supervisors with the expertise to provide the academic guidance they need. Edward Said teaches us that our histories are interconnected and intertwined. The legacy of colonialism means that British literature is the literature of the global south, the two are mutually constituted. It is crucial that we include the work of postcolonial writers into the ‘Introduction to the Canon’ that takes place in Part I.

We believe that for the English department to truly boast academically rigorous thought and practice, non-white authors and postcolonial thought must be incorporated meaningfully into the curriculum. Meaningful incorporation is not merely the option to take the Postcolonial Paper or the inclusion of a single ‘all-encompassing’ individual at the bottom of a reading list. Meaningful incorporation is not the act of putting quotes about diversity on the walls of the English Faculty. Meaningful incorporation requires thought, consultation with students and an overview of the course in its entirety. It means taking into account the constitutive role of colonial and postcolonial literatures and cultures as well as British imperial history; requiring students to read Victorian texts in their colonial contexts, ensuring that is impossible for students to graduate without at least a minimal engagement with colonial, postcolonial and ethnic minority authors. It means challenging the pervasive notion that reading texts in the light of gender, race, ability, class and so on is to crush them under the weight of subjectivity, dismantling the idea that white and male is the norm, unmarked by identity. It means ensuring that Edward Said’s Orientalism is as essential in preparation for the course as Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text. Having studied in this department for three years and been supervised by a wide range of individuals, we know first hand how often postcolonial thought and issues of race are dismissed. We have been prompted to write this letter because there must be a point at which the faculty acknowledges its responsibility to students by requiring them to think outside of the bounds of eurocentricity.

We believe that literature and the act of studying literature is not apolitical. The writers deemed essential to the canon are a reflection of the eurocentric thought that is the legacy of Britain’s long imperial history and any refusal to challenge this means that BME students are implicitly reminded that their stories, indeed the stories of anyone who is not a white man, are not valued. The department cannot claim to provide students with the ‘foundational knowledge of the canon’ whilst it refuses to decolonise the curriculum. This is not a call for the exclusion of white men from reading lists, needless to say: it is a call to re-centre the lives of other marginalized writers who have been silenced by the canon. It is a call to not be so arrogant so as to assume civilization began with the writing of white men and so this should be the basis of our learning.

Our suggestions include:

– The inclusion of two or more postcolonial and BME authors on every exam paper.

– For the department to arrange a speaker series or university wide reading group that centres the voices of postcolonial authors

– The requirement to spend at least a week of Shakespeare term on an essay that looks at Shakespeare in a postcolonial context

– The introduction of a short seminar series in first year looking at postcolonial texts and thought

– A consultation between course conveners and groups of students about how the faculty can be more inclusive

– Diversity training for supervisors

– Moving postcolonial books out of the basement in the English Faculty and integrating them in the library cataloguing order

– Greater investment in the Postcolonial Paper by making it a mandatory requirement of Part I and widening teaching and hiring more staff to bring in West/East African and Caribbean materials

– A zero-tolerance policy on the dismissal of race as a subject worthy of discussion/enquiry in essays

Sign the open letter here:

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