Creating/Curating the Decolonial Classroom

A collage of images including a globe, an untidy row of bookshelves, a candle, an excerpt of a map and roof of a building


Events in this series

Series lead: Fozia Bora (School of Languages, Cultures and Societies)

Series organisers:

Research context

Within communities of research at a number of universities in both the global North and South, a significant and growing number of academics, mindful of the university’s habitual investment in hierarchies of knowledge (‘canon’, ‘periodisation’, ‘discipline’), are keen to develop decolonial approaches to research. These approaches entail a movement away from research about marginalised and silenced knowledge systems (or subalternised epistemologies) towards research from these perspectives. Decolonial research addresses the situatedness of our knowledges (Donna Haraway 1988), in particular the long-standing universalisation of subjective European systems of knowing, conducting research and teaching. We will address two principal themes: periodisation, in which conventional chronologies (ancient, medieval, modern and postmodern) naturalise particular value-laden views of history while constraining critical views of their genealogy and agendas (Ludmilla Jordanova 2006); and the orthodoxy of disciplines, often rooted in colonial-era classifications but with little or no methodology for dealing with other knowledge systems (Linda Tuhiwai Smith 2012).

The decolonial imperative manifests itself in two key directions. The first is a broad, multifaceted demand for decolonial research opportunities from academics and students grappling with the challenges of the postcolonial university in the global South, for example in South Africa, expressed in the Rhodes Must Fall movement. Another concurrent demand arises in both the South African and British university system in which students are asking: Why is my curriculum white? At this juncture, when Rhodes has effectively fallen from grace (Mahmood Mamdani 2017) but university research and teaching continue to carry colonial legacies that, often unwittingly, perpetuate class, sexual, racial, religious, linguistic and geographical hierarchies, the moment is ripe for a multivalent push towards decolonial research that addresses epistemological inequalities. The University of Leeds, with its breadth of research expertise, is an ideal locus for facilitating and expediting this agenda, where a critical mass of scholars has turned its research gaze towards decolonial models. A key exigency of the moment is supporting decolonial researchers to come together to form a community of scholars drawing strength and critical feedback from each other. 

This seminars will map, coordinate and further develop the decolonial research agendas of twenty or so Leeds academics working in a range of subject areas, including history, religious studies and the social sciences, who will work together, along with our collaborative partners in Special Collections at the Brotherton Library and in two West Yorkshire museums (Leeds City Museum and National Science and Media Museum), in areas including oral history and material culture, for example in a proposed decolonial curation of Islamic world coins, which would eventually be exhibited locally. The seminars will take the shape of workships, museum visits and one session of 'research as performance', in keeping with the meta-epistemic nature of the project, and will allow this group of researchers to clarify (1) decolonial research already taking place at Leeds, and (2) how we can coordinate and, where appropriate, integrate our research methodologies in the longer term. 

The seminars have direct continuity with the 2017-18 Sadler Seminar series ‘Utopian Visions of the Global South’ (Bobby Sayyid and William Gould), which squarely addresses a decolonial political vision. While research-oriented, the seminars dovetail with ‘decolonising the curriculum’ pedagogic activities undertaken by Leeds University Union, by the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence, by the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ cross-Faculty working group and by colleagues in the Schools of History, Languages, Cultures and Societies and Sociology and Social Policy, for example in the proposal of new modules in Black British History and Black Europe.

Research questions

A core working group of six participants (the main organiser and co-organisers), with additional invited speakers at each monthly seminar (October 2018 to June 2019), will investigate and formulate responses to the following key question in order to create and curate the decolonial classroom:

How can we centre subalternised and silenced knowledge systems in our research, and facilitate broader engagement with these alternative epistemologies within and outside the university setting?

The pursuit of this question within this seminar series engenders a clarification of:

1. What ‘decoloniality’ means and entails in research within the university and in related contexts.

2. How the key knowledge frameworks of ‘periodisation’ and ‘discipline’, fundamental to our research but also limiting it to predetermined structures, can be effectively unpacked, de-centred and opened up to alternative coherent and contextually-relevant temporal and thematic frameworks.

3. How to identify and nurture non-Western intellectual and other epistemological traditions, including the production of material objects/artefacts, oral discourse and performance.

4. How to reach beyond our immediate research community to engage both our students and non-university communities in potentially beneficial decolonial bodies and modes of knowledge production.

5. In the longer term, how to ensure that the research-led material we present to students better represents the diversity of the student body itself, better facilitates student engagement by addressing students’ educational ambitions, and ultimately draws them into research pathways that meet their need for inclusive epistemologies.


Preliminary workshop: 'what counts as ‘research’ and what counts as ‘knowledge' (31 October 2018)

Dating the Decolonial’ (14 December 2018)

Roundtable Discussion (17 January 2019)

Half Day Theatrical Workshop & Performance (18 January 2019)

Panel discussion on decolonising historical research  (18 March 2019)

Series Outcomes

Arising from the discussions and new networks created during this series, a new module called ‘Decolonial Approaches’ was established in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies.

A number of grant applications have also followed on from this project. These include:

  • Being Human Festival
  • AHRC EDI Fellowship, Towards a National Collection
  • AHRC-funded project The Other from Within: Indian Anthropologists and the Birth of a Nation.