Student panelists spoke passionately about their experiences of colonialism in the curriculum and classrooms of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs during a packed Wednesday teach-in.
The Watson and the Africana Studies department sponsored the student-run event, titled “Colonialism in the Curriculum.” The event was organized and moderated by Junaid Malik ’20, whose article and petition asking the Institute to reevaluate the framework of its pedagogy circulated at the end of last semester.
Malik began his opening remarks by citing the University’s 2016 Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, which committed to increasing the presence of historically underrepresented groups, improving campus life and strengthening research on diversity and inclusion issues.
“It is in pursuit of that goal … that we ask ourselves and our professors to critically examine how 400 years of colonialism has shaped and continues to shape what and who we teach in our classrooms, curricula and concentrations,” he said.
The panel included the prepared reflections and remarks of four students from various geographic and academic backgrounds: Iryumugaba Biko ’21, an economics concentrator from Rwanda; Faith Blalock ’22, a native Hawaiian from Kaui studying environmental engineering; Luqmaan Bokhary ’21, a South Asian studies and public policy concentrator who grew up in San Diego; and Sharon Kioko ’20, a developmental studies concentrator from Kenya.
All panelists said they were frustrated with their experiences of US-centrism and lack of non-Western perspectives and paradigms in the Watson’s curriculum. In the subsequent discussion, their concerns sparked conversation, questions and an exchange of ideas among professors, undergrads and grad students.
Bokhary said that the exclusion of non-Western scholarship in education contributes to a “broader colonial mindset” that has real-world consequences. He recounted a discussion about the use of drones in one of his classes — the discussion reached a consensus that while drones were not the perfect solution, they were the best solution available. Bokhary still remembered what the last student said: “Drones maybe are inaccurate and aren’t able to just exactly target the terrorist in question, but at the end of the day, they are much better than risking American lives on the ground.”
The comment weighed on Bokhary, who is from a province in Pakistan regularly targeted by drone strikes. “The fact that students sitting in a classroom here at Brown can reduce the sanctity, or the value, of a non-American life to nothing — that, right there, is colonialism,” he said. When Bokhary asked the audience if they have had similar experiences, multiple hands in each row went up in the air.
Blalock said that the far-reaching and enduring impact of colonialism means that it cannot be confined to only a few disciplines. “Colonialism is not only for the humanities or parts of STEM,” she said. “We are not individuals studying particular fields for our chosen career path — we are part of a community that exists from a local to a global scale, all connected by an institution shaped by colonialism.”
Edward Steinfeld P'20, director of the Watson Institute, wrote in an email to The Herald that he was “deeply moved” by the comments and discussion of the teach-in. Steinfeld wrote that the Watson Institute has been supporting these efforts in curricular reform in order to address “how power, hierarchy and histories of subordination affect how topics are studied and what kinds of materials are assigned.” Looking to the future, Steinfeld said that the Watson Institute is eager to include students in the development of curricula that address these questions.
Malik told The Herald after the event that he was happy with the number of people that attended and that it signaled student interest and a willingness of faculty to listen to the concerns of students. But there are still more actions that can be taken toward change, he said.
“The biggest change that I feel like students would want is just recognition of the gaps in the curriculum in terms of the non-Western narratives that aren’t mandated within our disciplines,” he said. In the long run, Malik hopes for more academically rigorous disciplines that include meaningful engagement with non-Western perspectives alongside Western ones.
Malik also told The Herald that the Watson Institute’s articulated values of peace and justice are key to thinking about colonialism when proceeding with the reforms. As he told the audience in his opening remarks at the teach-in, “Colonialism is not simply an intervention upon land and bodies, it is a contemporary process that seeks to shape knowledge and minds. In that broader lens, a critical examination of our education at Watson and Brown is critical to imagining a more peaceful and just world.”