Higher Education Reform

Decisnormaitizing and Decolonizing the University Experience and Curriculum

July 19, 2021 2042
Shuri and Everett Ross in Wakanda lab
A scene from the movie Black Panther has the character Shuri, right, tell an intrusive guest, “Don’t scare me like that, Colonizer.” (Photo: Marvel Studios)

One line in the popular Marvel movie Black Panther (2018) that never fails to draw a laugh is when government operative Everett Ross wakes up from a near-death experience and approaches technological genius Shuri from behind and barks, “All right, where am I?” Shuri, startled, replies, “Don’t scare me like that, Colonizer.” The humor comes, in part, because the actor playing Ross is Martin Freeman, who is British. When I teach early American history and ask my students about 18th century geopolitical dynamics, many young people marvel at the reach of imperial rule over millions in China, India, and Africa.

The legacy of the colonized mind lives today. My Black colleagues and I recently traded stories of the insidious fight against the teaching of American slavery, the legacy of Jim Crow in media that associates everything bad with everything dark, and our own enculturation that ‘White is Right.’ The latter engulfs us, to cite another Marvel movie, like Eddie Brock in Spiderman 3, who in becoming the character Venom is trapped in sticky black goo. Similarly, the twin cage of the colonized mind is the heteronormative mind. Look around institutions of power and the role models are often cis (born that way) identified men and women with little to none diversity of gender expression and gender identity.

What can we as university professors and administrators do to decisnormatize and decolonize our institutions?

My first piece of advice is to spend quiet time gaining clarity on how you feel about upholding and dismantling societal norms. How you feel about your respective community’s power structure, deference to authority, the classics as the basis of western civilization, laws regulating the competitive landscape for trans athletes and, yes, critical race theory, may crystalize what tactics will work for you as you engage in social equity work. For example, I do not place pronouns under my email signature line because my pronouns change daily depending on how I feel. In person I do voice my fluctuating pronouns to indicate that I am an ally that acknowledges the practice, but I do what makes me comfortable in keeping with my authentic self, and authenticity is the precursor to empathy.

University personnel do not personally have to be invested in the struggle for equity and social justice to make an impact: Caring about the cultural competency of students is enough. For those colleagues for whom this work is too much of a challenge, I suggest not forcing the issue. As long as employees are not actively perpetuating harm upon others, you can defer to the personal choices people make. Students are paying, in part, for us to teach them to have potentially difficult conversations in professional settings about race, ethnicity, gender expression, gender identity, religion, and the history of oppression that often historically binds each identity. Education in 2021 is incomplete if, upon graduation, students run away from diversity and inclusion conversations. To model how conversations can be broached, deconstructed, and used to build bridges in the global economy, we professors and administrators must first show the way.

One way to decisnormatize the academic space in the classroom is by not taking attendance by handing out or calling names from an official class roster that may contain names not used, but rather hand out a blank piece of paper and ask students to write their names and pronouns. Use current events to help shape a de-cis lens. For example, American celebrity Caitlyn Jenner was at a political event where attendees embraced “deadnaming,” refusing to recognize her true identity; this event offers a forum to ask students to examine motives and outcomes.

Lastly, incorporating an array of identities in classroom examples when discussing content-specific material is another way to instill an appreciation of just how often we expect the cis norm to be society’s default.

To decolonize the curriculum, one suggestion is to have the students do the work. Productive rather than performative activities around cultural sensitivities is to have students examine your syllabi through the lens of society’s racial power dynamics. Allow students to decolonize your readings and assignments. When students wish to add contemporary material or watch certain videos in class, incorporate their suggestions. Scour the Internet for social commentary addressing shifting cultural norms and assign attendant research projects. Let students create their own universe of knowledge (many are experienced Tik Tok creators!) and you can then write assessments based on the students’ work so that everyone participates in the knowledge-creation process.

And do not forget to find new friends. Make a mind map along your university’s organizational chart and you will find at least one ally who will join you in glee in creating new competencies and a sense of belonging across campus. An inclusive campus climate begins with the person smiling back at you in the mirror. While we may not always get it right, we are making a difference in the lives of our students and colleagues and beyond.

Should you want to discuss different inclusive practices that may work in your unique space, feel free to reach out to me at sajira@ship.edu.

Stephanie A Jirard is a professor of criminal justice at Shippensburg University. Her teaching interests include criminal law and procedure and mock trial, and her research interests cover constitutional law, capital punishment, and race and gender in popular culture. She has written two books including Criminal Law and Procedure published in 2018. She also appears in the webinar, Having Conversations About Race In The Classroom.

View all posts by Stephanie A. Jirard

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