24 May 2018

Interview with Meera Sabaratnam, SOAS University of London

In this interview, we talk to Dr Meera Sabaratnam, lecturer and BA Programme Convenor in International Relations at SOAS University of London. She has a strong research interest in colonial and post-colonial relations, statebuilding and development, and has been undertaking work at SOAS on engaging students in decolonising the curriculum. In February of this year she was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 about student engagement in curriculum design. We spoke to her to talk more about this.

1. We were first aware of your work on engaging students in curriculum design when we heard you on Radio 4 talking about how students were contributing ideas about what the syllabus should include in terms of perspectives on decolonisation. As a student engagement agency we obviously don’t think listening to students’ views should be remotely controversial or radical, so how do you end up talking about this on the radio?

There’d been a lot of stories over the last year and a half about this whole campaign to decolonise the curriculum, and most stories seemed to come about because of a moral panic about how challenging the fundamentals of the curriculum shouldn’t be done by students, or that it represents a downgrade of knowledge and critical enquiry in the university. It’s not a surprise that most of the attention has come from what you might call the traditional right wing media and was part of wider conversations in which students are being portrayed as less open-minded, more snowflake-like and intolerant to ideas of critical enquiry.

2. And yet it would seem to us that it’s actually the other way round – engaging students in shaping their curriculum is precisely about critical enquiry and being open minded!

To me too! Inside universities it’s received with more optimism and as much more of a sense that it’s a positive step.

3. What creates that culturally within universities?

 A combination of things. Students are more assertive than when I was studying as an undergraduate. Some might say that’s down to the idea of consumer ownership of one’s studies, but I don’t think it’s about that. Maybe partly – but also partly about them being politicised about the control they have over their lives generally. So we see it as empowering, and SOAS has a strong political activist culture among its students.

4. To play devil’s advocate slightly, with your academic background you presumably already believe that your subject should be “decolonised”, so what have you learned from this process that you didn’t already know or believe?

We’re not just teaching a canon – education is for the students. You need to ask students about what they want to know, and what puzzles they face in their engagement with a subject. At SOAS the profile of our subjects and our students means that students are interested and will often bring different angles. For instance someone emailed me in the light of the work we’ve been doing from the Netherlands where a minority language has been suppressed and speakers have been treated as backwards and uneducated. He said that there is lots to compare in this sort of instance with conventional understandings of colonialism.

5. You have a diverse student profile, with a lot of international students and ethnic minorities. Does that bring a similarly diverse and potentially even occasionally contradictory range of views on the curriculum?

 We’re just at the start of these conversations, but yes – and one of the things we want to look at is how to explore differences of approach. We’ve been engaging people who are already interested, and wider conversations with those that are more sceptical will take place in the next year or so in subject groups. We’ve been developing a toolkit for programme and module conveners to spark conversations, asking them to collectively reflect on the problems we raise. There are also diversities among the staff who have learned in different backgrounds.

6. Tell us more about that toolkit.

It divides issues into curriculum and pedagogy. On the curriculum side it asks about what kinds of profile of student is assumed by the way in which the syllabus is set up, what kinds of knowledge are represented and what are left out in terms of perspectives from the areas that we’re talking about. Also it’s worth noting that there are questions in the general diversity of scholars in the reading lists that needs considering. On the pedagogy side, we want colleagues to put themselves into the shoes of students who have not felt historically ‘at home’ in the university and the kinds of things they need to know.

7. Does the background of textbook authors come up a lot, for instance if they’re all American?

It does, for example if they’re all from the USA or western generally, or at least at institutions based in the west. Now why does that matter? It’s not that if you’re from a particular region or a person of colour you automatically know it, so I also raise what I call the “Condoleezza Rice question”, after the former US Secretary of State – you can be a person of colour but still be aligned with a certain political project. it is important for students who are interested in this that they have a variety of role models, and it’s the same reason we have women reading the news on television: men can read the news perfectly well but we want to show you as students and society generally that you can achieve whatever you want.

8. What does this tell us about the skills students need to engage with these sorts of conversations?

I think there are general points, not just for students but for all in society, about appreciating where work has come from and the work already taking place. I do try to remind students that these issues have been raised by campaigners from across the years and in different places, and there have been different attempts to bring these issues up. That’s not to say you don’t need to raise them again but we aim to explore the structural reasons as to why they’ve not previously led to change, and to reassure those who might feel vulnerable in terms of the staff-student power relationship. We need to educate them, talk to them, and make space for dialogue.

9. Is that a real issue you’ve come across, that students might feel vulnerable or worried that they are undermining or insulting staff in commenting on their curriculum?

Students are unlikely to say explicitly that they’re worried about insulting staff, but in my role as programme leader they’ve often reported fears about commenting to other staff, so we’ve talked about those fears and how to frame questions to get to the issue.

10. That brings to mind elements of our course rep training materials, where we stress the need to work with staff in a way that is realistic and constructive, and focussed not on the individual staff member but on the learning and teaching, working with staff in partnership. Do you feel you’re working with your students in a partnership environment?

Yes. In practice, engagement with the student depends a lot on what time of year it is and what other pressures exist. For instance if there are meetings close to deadlines or exam season, then they’ll be busy and it’s hard to engage them, so you have to plan engagement in a practical way that makes it viable for them.

I think it’s also important to focus the engagement on a particular thing, for example where you’ve got a text or issue in front of you rather than leaving it generally open, because otherwise you get the confident ones talking about what they want. That’s empowering too – if you say you’re talking about this specific document or course then students will turn up with some authority or knowledge, as opposed to a topic that is broad like simply “decolonisation”.

11. So what’s next for you in this work? The continuing development of the toolkit?

The toolkit is near its final draft, and will be approved by our academic board in a few weeks. Then there’ll be dissemination and it will be sent out to teaching staff over summer, with more conversations with students and staff in term one in subject and department groups.

12. Finally, especially given the time and energy you have clearly invested in this work, what advice would you give to other teaching staff to persuade them of the value of engaging students in curriculum design?

In terms of internal motivations, hopefully pride in the quality of the syllabus and keeping up to date should be a major reason for doing it. But also I think some small changes can be made that actually make quite a big difference. Things like contextualising your discipline, and being able to present discipline questions through debate and dialogues rather than single points of view can be effective in giving students that platform to engage critically with the materials.


Thanks to Meera for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.

This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.

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