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Decolonizing the Classroom: What Can You Do?

Rahul Patel (he/him), Sarah Cho (she/her), Joseph Oladimeji (he/him), and Grace Okusanya (she/her)

Hello everyone; Rahul here! Since my last blog post on delivering a stellar presentation, I reconnected with my group members from a course where we delivered a presentation on decolonizing the classroom.

It should be no surprise that there is a growing need for instructors and students alike to facilitate building inclusive spaces at Queen’s. The QTBIPOC (Queer/Trans/Black/Indigenous/People of Colour) student community has faced ongoing discrimination. Since our first day at Queen’s, my group members and have experienced this discrimination. In our presentation, our aim was to bring awareness to our experience of discrimination in the classroom, and to explain what we think instructors and students can do to build a more inclusive educational community at Queen’s and beyond.

Now we want to share some of these ideas on this blog.

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Have you ever felt that the methods an instructor used for assessing your learning didn’t fit who you were and the way you experience the world? Was the assessment style an inaccurate way to test your knowledge? Did your instructor give you another chance to show them that you “know”? 

That feeling of injustice is a common experience for many QTBIPOC students. Many of us have been forced throughout our education in Canada to follow a Eurocentric culture of learning. Some of us are lucky enough to learn the system before enrolling at Queen’s, but others have to learn the “rules” as they go. We shouldn’t have to do this, and institutions and community members should recognize the emotional and scholarly labour that goes into the process.

Here are three ways that, whether you’re a student or an instructor, you can engage in a process of decolonizing the classroom.

1. Belongingness

Courses at Queen’s that actively embrace other ways of knowing are few and far between (Indigenous ways of knowing, for example, are often based on oral expression of knowledge). Eurocentric assessments and class discussions can reproduce gender, socioeconomic, ethnic, or other cultural stereotypes.

You, as students, have a unique opportunity to find ways to bring misrepresented/neglected peoples and ways of knowing to the surface; by doing so you will bring forth justice for those whom western institutions typically marginalize. Ask yourself: can you include other ways of knowing in your assignments, presentations, and contributions to class? Can you draw attention to a positive example of knowledge from a non-European culture in your work?

By doing so, you will be showing that white, western people and knowledge should not be the norm. This might not work for every course or in every assignment, but where the opportunity exists, seize it—and if you’re not sure where to start, why not broach the conversation with your professor at office hours.

2. Engagement.

Even the experience of being in class can be a shock to some students. For example, learning the western scientific method asks some students to adapt their approach to the world to the demands of a different culture. Western students, however, are rarely asked to cross such cultural boundaries in return, leaving the marginalized feeling like their traditions, views, and approaches are irrelevant. We need to make it clear that such differences are natural and are valued, that students can be themselves, and that diverse students allow us to integrate unique knowledge, understandings, and perspectives that only they share.

We—students and instructors alike—can help this process of engagement by paying attention to our interactions with QTBIPOC classmates. Are we welcoming? Are we respectful of all opinions? Do we encourage connection and participation? Most importantly, do we value the contributions of QTBIPOC students? Next time you’re writing a discussion board response, speaking in class, or giving a presentation, ask yourself if you can express yourself in ways that recognize diversity of thought and behaviour—and prompt others to do the same. If you’re looking for a way to start, try working towards the intercultural awareness certificate jointly offered by QUIC and the Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre.

3. Self-awareness

You might be privileged enough to have role models—people who look, feel, and think like you—in your faculty or discipline. Remind yourself that not everyone looks or thinks like you, and that not everyone may have a role model in your textbook or reading list. If you do feel represented, you can still ask, “What has been misrepresented and neglected in the past? Who has been relegated to the sidelines?”

Reflect on your current and past experiences: how can you facilitate an inclusive climate that increases self-awareness? Are people like you and ideas similar to your forms of knowing dominant in the classroom? If so, can you add to class discussions by sharing materials from beyond the traditional canon? Or showing how people from your background might perceive materials? You might start to think more deeply about your background and about representation in the university by taking some training in awareness, EDII, anti-oppression, and anti-racism.

In conclusion

We all have a role to play in decolonizing the classroom. Instructors, and institutions, have the weight of responsibility, but everybody can help seek epistemological justice for those who were voiceless in the past. Highlighting the invisible work that QTBIPOC communities have done and continue to do is essential. Remember that the goal is not to know everything. What’s more important is making sure that education is a system that encompasses and welcomes students’ lived experiences and ways of encountering the world.

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