Cambridge condemns abuse of student following literature curriculum coverage

Cambridge condemns abuse of student following literature curriculum coverage

Cambridge University has confirmed it is reviewing how it teaches postcolonial literature following a petition from one of its students calling for the curriculum to include “post-colonial” or “BME authors”, to avoid “perpetuating institutional racism”.

However, the institution said any "changes will not lead to any one author being dropped in favour of other", after the Telegraph ran a story claiming the university was going to “replace white authors with black writers”. It also condemned the social media "harassment" of the student who created the petition, union women's officer Lola Olufemi, whom the newspaper printed a photo of alongside the story on its front page.

Olufemi's letter, signed by 150 people, called for Cambridge's English Literature curriculum to include “post-colonial” or “BME authors”, to avoid “perpetuating institutional racism”, as part of the university’s ongoing discussion about how it teaches postcolonial literature, reported the New Statesman.

“For too long, teaching English at Cambridge has encouraged a ‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ approach that elevates white male authors at the expense of all others,” the letter reportedly said. “What we can no longer ignore, however, is the fact that the curriculum, taken as a whole, risks perpetuating institutional racism.”

The Telegraph said it had seen minutes from the English Faculty’s Teaching Forum which said it was “actively seeking to ensure the presence of BME texts and topics on lecture lists” and suggested that Subject Group Committees should take editorial control of reading list folders and “actively encourage sharing of reading suggestions” of BME writers and topics. 

However, Cambridge University said the teaching forum had no decision-making powers and that any “changes will not lead to any one author being dropped in favour of other - that is not the way the system works at Cambridge”.

“While we can confirm a letter was received from a group of students taking the postcolonial paper, academic discussions are at a very early stage to look at how postcolonial literature is taught" a spokesperson said. "Changes will not lead to any one author being dropped in favour of other - that is not the way the system works at Cambridge. There is no set curriculum as tutors individually lead the studies of their group of students and recommend their reading lists - those reading lists can include any author.

“The Teaching Forum is a body which has no decision-making powers and its decision points are questions to be discussed by the faculty. The Education Committee in the faculty will look at those points in a robust academic debate. Postcolonialism is taught at the moment in a non-compulsory paper - the faculty constantly looks at what papers will be compulsory.

“We condemn the related harassment directed towards out students on social media as a result of the coverage.”

Rival media have also waded in to condemn The Telegraph’s coverage of the story. The New Statesmen said the article was “vicious and misleading” and said that the newspaper had “lied through its ink-stained teeth”.

Meanwhile others have poured scorn on it on social media. Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a teaching fellow at Churchill College and member of the Teaching Forum, tweeted: “**BREAKING NEWS* brought to you from @Telegraph. Women of colour have taken over Cambridge University, I am now Supreme Vice Chancellor, @CUSUWO Student Dictator, all white men have been locked up pending execution, and students will ONLY STUDY BLACK WRITERS. Resistance is futile.”

While Sharmaine Lovegrove, publisher at Little, Brown imprint Dialogue Books, meanwhile tweeted: “FYI @DailyMailUK & @Telegraph brilliant #LolaOlufemi asked for INCLUSION of writers at @Cambridge_Uni not eradication of white canons #Facts.”

Lovegrove told The Bookseller: "The fact is that to have a global education you need a global outlook, and as an empire, to erase the voices who help build this empire, who come from former colonies and the Caribbean it is insulting that their works are not included in the cannon of rich literature. It’s astounding, the way that the newspapers have covered it, as if everyone is missing from the conversation. The word ‘diversity’ is not coming from us, we talk about it being ‘inclusive’, we’re not saying we don’t want to hear about white writing, we are saying we also want to be included. We need to focus on inclusivity rather than exclusion."

Author and academic Sunny Singh said: “If they don’t have these writers on the syllabus then they are doing something wrong and they not providing a syllabus that is fit for purpose. I know what I teach and I teach contemporary writing and I teach widely across the globe because I think representing English Literature is not only having books from English or the British Isles and this means we look across the board.”

A notice was printed in the Telegraph on Thursday (26th October) under the ‘Corrections and Clarifications’ column. It said: “An Oct 25 article incorrectly stated that under proposals by academic staff in response to an open letter from students on “decolonising” its English Faculty, Cambridge University will be forced to replace white authors with black writers. The proposals were in fact recommendations. Neither they nor the open letter called for the University to replace white authors with black ones and there are no plans to do so.”