The UEA community have responded in outrage to a Daily Mail article which saw critics label the School of Literature, Drama, and Creative Writing’s decolonisation initiatives as “anti-academic” and “corrosive”. Published on 18 July, the article was written by Freelance Education Journalist Julie Henry.
In June 2020, a letter of complaint was sent by 100 current UEA students and alumni analysing the diversity of texts studied in Literature, Drama, and Creative Writing (LDC) courses. They claimed the curriculum was “almost entirely limited to white, heterosexual, male narratives”, adding their letter was intended to bring “UEA’s claim of commitment to decolonising the curriculum” to account.
Choosing to focus upon the ‘Writing Across Borders’ module, which was introduced as a compulsory first-year module in September 2020, the article claims: “the change was sparked by a letter from students last year”. However, a Facebook post from current Head of LDC Professor Alison Donnell accuses the story of being “factually incorrect”. Concrete has gathered evidence that the ‘Writing Across Borders’ module was formally proposed in December 2018, a full 18 months before the letter was sent.
According to Dr Jeremy Noel-Tod, Head of Literature from September 2017 – December 2019 and Head of School in 2020, a working party for the reconsideration of all first-year modules had been in action since the Autumn semester of 2018. This was also accompanied by a Widening Participation project called ‘Inclusive learning towards a decolonised curriculum’. Dr Noel-Tod commented: “administratively, Autumn 2020/21 was the earliest the university… would allow a major change of a core module from a proposal in Autumn 2018”.
Thus, the claims made by the Daily Mail that the introduction of the module was “sparked” by the student letter are false. Evidence proves the changes to the first-year curriculum were already at an advanced stage of development. According to the UEA FOI Disclosure Log, this information was also provided to the Daily Mail.
Among 1800 reader comments left on the article webpage, one suggests students campaigning for change should be euthanised: “can we just line the woke up and jab them with something to put them out of their misery please?”, while others call for public funding to be withdrawn from the university.
In an exclusive interview for Concrete, the LDC Course Director from September 2019 – June 2021, Dr David Nowell Smith, emphasised the preparations LDC had already made in terms of decolonising the curriculum meant they could respond quickly to the student letter with a positive outcome. He also stated this meant students could help with the “finishing touches” when populating the course, as “it’s far better for modules to be devised in dialogue with students than in isolation from them”.
Dr Nowell Smith also detailed a conversation which occurred in December 2019 with Dr Tom Boll who originally proposed the ‘Writing Across Borders’ module. He said he had a “vision of the module being a history of English as a literary language, going from the colonisation of the British Isles through to the English language being shaped by colonial expansion”.
Setting out the original intentions of the new modules, which also include ‘Slow Reading’ and ‘Reading Now’, Dr Nowell Smith places heavy emphasis upon the need for students to “encounter multiple perspectives … which allow them to reflect critically on how literary history is told”. He also notes that since being introduced for the first time in the 2020/21 academic year, the student response has been “overwhelmingly positive”.
Commenting directly on the possible impact of the article, Dr Nowell Smith added: “If the Daily Mail article means that lots of prospective students think UEA looks like the place they want to go because we are on the right side of history then I’d be delighted”.
The Daily Mail article also included a quote from Frank Furedi, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Kent University, who said: “None of this is about English Literature. It is using English Literature as a medium to make a statement about how morally superior these students are”. Disagreeing with this assertion, Dr Nowell Smith commends the energy shown by the students who organised the letter of complaint, saying: “they are people who care about the department extraordinarily… They believe in the power of education and they believe that the stories that get told matter”.
One of the first students to sign the June 2020 letter, rejected the labelling of the initiatives as “anti-academic”, saying: “it is curious to me that the introduction of new ideas and perspectives should be seen as ‘anti-academic’; academia is about exploring, theorising, scrutinising, and discovering, not simply repeating the past”.
Vice Chancellor Professor David Richardson gave the following statement in response to the article: “I am immensely proud of the work LDC and other schools across UEA are doing to review curricula with a view to making them more inclusive and representative. This is an important part of the ‘whole institution’ approach recommended in the guidance that the UUK advisory group I chaired produced for the sector… Work on decolonising curricula is an important action-based approach that contributes to dismantling structural racism to benefit not just those who directly experience racism but the whole UEA community”.
Concrete have reported the factual inaccuracies of Julie Henry’s article to the Daily Mail and have also requested a statement.