To crash or not to crash the canon? Seeking to address coloniality in a one-year social science programme in Norway

by Maren Seehawer

The decolonising academia movement came to Norway not in form of student protests, but as a – pretty heated – feuilleton debate between academics. During summer 2018, there was strong disagreement between those for whom the inclusion of multiple voices violates the principle of professionalism and is contrary to the whole idea of ​​academia and those who argue that decolonisation, will bring about more complex and nuanced perspectives about the world and thereby, in fact, lead to more robust knowledge generation. Last year, I was asked by a colleague to teach two classes on this debate in one of my institution’s social science bachelor programmes. As part of my classes, the students discussed whether and, if so, how, coloniality found expression in the courses they attended. From this exercise, it was a short way to reflecting on, and introducing some first tentative changes to, the courses which I am responsible for myself.

My understanding of epistemic (de-)colonisation and coloniality is informed by thinkers such as Achille Mbembe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Walter Mignolo. If colonisation does not only mean conquering physical territories and political systems, but also epistemological and ontological assumptions, then decolonisation implies resisting or trying to address these colonisation processes.

Stein, Andreotti, Ahenakew & Hunt observe four – not mutually exclusive – interpretations of how decolonising the university is approached: firstly and most commonly, decolonisation is interpreted as an optional add-on to university efforts within the realm of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Secondly, decolonisation can be understood either as a complete transformation of existing institutions or as creating alternative institutions that replace existing ones. Thirdly, decolonisation may be understood as “hacking”, by mobilising the resources of existing institutions to establish small decolonial “cracks”. Finally, based on a notion that present institutions as inherently unsustainable, decolonisation can be understood as hospicing, while envisioning entirely new universities in the future. Stein et al. focus on indigenous peoples’ participation in academia in the Americas and South Africa, hence on a context that differs much from the Norwegian one. Yet, I found their four categories useful to situate my own efforts. Most of these efforts belong doubtlessly to the first interpretation of decolonisation, which can be critiqued as tokenistic. Certainly, access of marginalised groups to academia as well as small corrections of the status quo are not enough to drive comprehensive decolonial transformations. Yet, I think addressing coloniality in whatever small way we can, might be of greater benefit for today’s students than waiting for the current system to die. Rather, my hope would be that such small alterations in, for example, who succeeds within Norwegian academia, what is taught, how it is taught and who teaches it, might eventually contribute to more holistic transformation.

In the following, I raise three points of colonial concern in my first-year social science courses. The tentative changes I introduced to these courses were not only informed by comments from the students’ in the initially mentioned classes on decolonising academia, but also by a very helpful toolkit called avkolonisering av academia (“decolonising academia”) issued by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH). The toolkit situates the decolonisation debate within the Norwegian context. A context that includes addressing both Denmark-Norway as a colonial power and Norway’s Norwegianisation politics concerning the country’s indigenous population, the Sami. Moreover, it very centrally recognises and addresses Norway’s institutions of Higher Education as Westernised Universities that reproduce conditions of coloniality and systemic power imbalances. In addition, my practical attempts to address coloniality in my classroom are informed by much appreciated discussions with colleagues, which I hereby acknowledge. My reason for using the first-person singular in this text nevertheless, is that the questions raised as well as any shortcomings in thinking, are mine.

1) Why is my curriculum white?

Which knowledges are relevant for 21st century multicultural Norway? The students in my decolonising academia lectures criticised that the main textbook in our introductory course presents the typical white heterosexual middleclass male Euro/Amero-centric sociology canon. Given that Norway is situated in Europe, a certain Eurocentrism in the syllabus seems plausible. But is that canon suited to understand contemporary Norway’s highly multicultural society and acknowledge voices that are silenced? Having in mind the Norwegian colonial context as outlined above, I introduced the following changes to the course:

In the course’s theory lecture series:

change the order of lectures to start (instead of to end) with a problematisation of so-called “Western” knowledge; introduce the concepts of epistemology and positionality to establish that all theory is formulated and constructed from a social location and to contextualise “Western” social science knowledge within a landscape of multiple ways of knowing;

include a lecture and texts on the coloniality of knowledge production (in addition to lectures on power, orientalism and feminism which were part of the course already), addressing both the reproduction of coloniality in Norwegian institutions and Denmark-Norway as colonial power;

include texts by Sami authors and lecture on Sami philosophy as one very relevant “non-Western”/indigenous part of Norwegian knowledge tradition.

In the course’s methodology lecture series:

include a lecture on positionality, the relationship between research and colonialism and indigenous/Sami research methodologies.

In future semesters, I would like to disrupt the existing social science canon by introducing a much more diversified and decentralised syllabus.

However, here are two challenges:

Norwegian is a small language with around 5,2 million native speakers. Therefore, texts outside the typical canon are rarely translated to Norwegian. Adding English texts to the syllabus presents a challenge to my students. There are no entry requirements to the first-year social science programme, which I am responsible for. As result, we have a very diverse student group in terms of (what traditionally counts as) academic ability and motivation. Most of our students have no previous University experience and many find reading Norwegian academic texts challenging enough. Chances are high that English texts on the syllabus will remain unread. Hence, while the intention is good, it might have the opposite effect: making access to academia for our particular student group even harder.

A compromise solution might be viable here: Rather than having no English texts on the syllabus, I could make sure that these texts are thoroughly discussed in class. Some improvement is also in sight, as a first volume of Achille Mbembe’s and of Stuart Hall’s thinking have recently been translated to Norwegian for the first time – and the publisher has signalled interest for further suggestions.

What should remain on the syllabus and what shouldn’t? To counter the arguments of decolonisation critics, it is often argued that decolonisation does not mean discarding the white men’s knowledge, but adding multiple perspectives. However, in practice, there are only a certain number of pages that students can be expected to read. If new texts are introduced, others have to go. Could it be a solution to

a) restructure some of the lectures to provide an overview over different landscapes of thinking rather than presenting a few thinkers in greater depth (I have not yet found alternatives to the above critiqued textbook, but hoping to find suitable texts)?; and

b) have an extensive and decentralised syllabus that consists of a number of mandatory texts and then presents students with options to study thinkers and theories across different social and geographical locations according to their interests?

On the one hand, the idea of a ‘canon’ that everyone must have read is already problematic. On the other hand, there is benefit in collaborative readings that are discussed in class to support students in their learning.

2) Why is my Teacher white?

My first-year social science classroom is representative of the multicultural Norway. The teachers who enter this classroom are not. I am originally from Germany – and that is as multicultural as it gets for the study programme in question. I am sceptic to the idea that white teachers cannot facilitate meaningful lectures on racism or coloniality, provided they are reflexive and explicit about their positionality. I do think, however, that it is problematic that many of our students cannot recognise themselves in the teaching body; that there are no role models who show that refugees from Somalia or children from Pakistani immigrants born in Norway indeed have a place in Norwegian academia. It is not co-incidental who succeeds in academia and who doesn’t. The systemic asymmetries that advance or disadvantage certain groups go beyond the university itself; but is there something we can do from within academia to address these imbalances?

In my courses, we traditionally invite a number of guest lecturers to teach on the subject of their expertise. If my colleagues and I are not representative of the multicultural Norway, should I seek to ensure that the guest lecturers are? I am so uncertain about this thought that I am hesitant to share it. Would approaching potential guest lecturers based on their skin colour or cultural background not imply devaluing their professional expertise and be utterly patronising? Or would it add to addressing imbalances in my classroom that could be related to coloniality?

3) Pre-assumptions and “taken-for-grantedness”

As teachers, we have implicit assumptions about our students’ prior experience, skills and knowledge. Moreover, as SAIH points out in the abovementioned tool on decolonising academia, both the Eurocentric curriculum content and certain ways of academic working, exam formats or lecturing styles may privilege students who at an early age have been socialised into Norwegian or global North education systems over those who have come to Norway recently. Such assumptions condition, to some extent, students’ academic success in the courses and programmes they take. For me as a white European academic, becoming aware of what I take for granted is presumably the trickiest point of concern on this list.

Some preliminary thoughts: until recently, you could have heard me praising pre-bologna-process times, when most elements of studying were voluntary rather than based on course requirements, attendance lists and other mandatory obligations that we find in our Bachelor and Master’s programmes. My ideal was engaged students who read and learn voluntarily, based on their own motivation – until I realised that this was an elitist ideal. While the neoliberal idea of producing highly specialised experts is not necessarily a better option, it was probably not so coincidental who succeeded in those voluntary study programmes. Above, I stated that my classroom represents the multicultural Norway. However, based on who is registered for my courses, disproportionally more white students actually attend my classes. There can be many reasons for that. However, one reason could be that more of my non-white students have to work to sustain themselves or can’t afford living in Oslo and face a long commute which often prevents them from coming to campus – unless attendance is mandatory.

To end on a final self-critical note on taken-for-grantedness: when I first submitted an abstract for the 2022 VAD conference on “Africa and Europe: Reciprocal Perspectives”, I called it “To crash or not to crash the canon”. Only when I prepared the conference presentation, on which also the present text is based, I realised that I could not expect everyone in the room to understand my allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

I would like to thank Julia Schöneberg and my colleague Marielle Stigum Gleiss for their helpful comments!

Maren Seehawer works at MF Norwegian School of Theology Religion and Society. Her research usually focuses on (addressing coloniality in) education and (so-called) development in Southern Africa, as well as on locally grounded research methodologies. The two lectures on decolonising academia in Norway were a welcome incentive to turn some attention to the country which has been her home for more than a decade. The present rai captures a certain moment in an ongoing (un-)learning journey and Maren would be happy to be contacted for exchanges about the issues raised here.